Why Do We Argue About Wine?

argumentsWhy do we argue about anything? The obvious answer is we want to influence someone to change their mind. That’s a good explanation in some cases. But especially in matters of taste we argue even though we have nothing to gain with someone else changing their mind. Why should I care whether someone else prefers a wine I don’t like? Sometimes we disagree because there is some dispute about facts or disagreement about policies but these aren’t matters of taste so much as disagreements over business or politics.

Some of our disagreement about taste can be quite hostile. Hostility over disagreements over natural wine seemed to have calmed down a bit but for years comments on both sides were quite vicious. Yet, some disagreements we accept with equanimity. Some people prefer Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon but such disagreements seldom produce hostility. What is the difference?

My guess is that some judgments about taste are not mere preferences but are entangled with our self conception so we think we have a personal stake in the matter.  And so we tend to affiliate with other like-minded people with whom we feel a sense of community. Because this almost always requires a contrast with others on the outside who haven’t seen the light, the ingredients for a hostile dispute are in place. This has certainly been true from time to time in the music  and the art worlds where fans of competing genres are organized into bellicose tribes.

But why are some judgements about taste bound up with our self-conception? I suspect it has to do with whether the judgment is foundational or not. A foundational judgment is one that, once made, ramifies throughout one’s life and entails a variety of other commitments.

The desire to make or drink natural wine involved a new way of looking at wine, a new set of practices, and a commitment to morally charged beliefs about conventional wine making. It wasn’t just a disagreement about a particular style of wine but a disagreement about competing ways of conceptualizing what wine is about and how one should live a life devoted to wine. Disagreements about alcohol levels in wine are also disagreements about the relationship between food and wine or about the relative virtues of power vs. finesse, both of which can be morally-charged concepts. Today we might not care whether someone prefers Cabernet Sauvignon to Sangiovese but I imagine in Tuscany in 1973 there were heated debates about their relative virtues because, with the emergence of Super Tuscans, a way of life was at stake. A dedication to natural wine is in part about a moral commitment to give chance and non-human processes freer reign. A commitment to grow Cabernet Sauvignon in Tuscany was about leaving traditions behind and striking out in new unfamiliar directions. In both cases, a stance toward life was revealed which means the disagreements are in part ethical.

My current preference for Syrah over Pinot Noir is not like that. It’s not foundational—nothing else changes should I continue or abandon the preference.

Are such disagreements good or bad for the wine world? I suspect on balance they’re good. But I’m still collecting my thoughts on that.

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