Is wine the last bastion of the snob?

wine snob

“Trust me. I’m not dead.”

Periodically, one of my colleagues will lament that the U.S. isn’t more of a wine drinking country, and wonder what can be done to change that. I mention this not because I have the answer — I’m usually shouted down when I offer one — but because it ties into two recent items. First, the annual list of “Blue Chip” wine brands chosen by the company that publishes the Wine Spectator and that ranks wine by sales growth and profit margin. Second, an essay by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, bemoaning what he calls the death of the film snob and how the movies are poorer for it.

Scott argues that the Internet and post-modern democracy have transformed film criticism, and that “the world of the Yelp score, the Amazon algorithm and the Facebook thumb is a place of liking and like-mindedness, of niches and coteries and shared enthusiasms, a Utopian zone in which everyone is a critic and nobody is a snob because nobody ?s taste can be better than anyone else ?s.” Who needs critics when we can decide what to watch based on the wisdom of the crowd, and even feel more confident about our choice?

Which, of course, is not how we do things in wine. Scott writes that: ” ‘Snob’ is a category in which nobody would willingly, or at least unironically, claim membership,” so I must assume he has never read wine criticism or discussed wine with the too many people who are too proudly snotty about what they drink. What else is brose but an attempt to turn $10 pink wine that anyone can drink — that anyone should drink — into something that only the most entitled among us can appreciate?

I’m not sure, after writing about cheap wine all these years, that the laments about the U.S. and wine aren’t about wine as much as they’re about the wine that the wine snobs think we should drink. After all, we’ve made tremendous strides as a wine drinking country, with per capita consumption higher than it has been since the 1970s and wine sales up even through the recession. But is that progress enough? Or do we have to progress as a wine drinking nation in the direction the snobs think best?

What if American wine drinking rates were the same as France’s, where the typical adult drinks a bottle a week, four times what we drink here? Because, to get to that point, more of us would have buy the wines on the Blue Chip list, like Barefoot, Sutter Home, Yellow Tail, and Cavit. Would that make the wine snob happy? I doubt it. They’d argue that it wouldn’t be enough that most of us were drinking wine with dinner, but that we weren’t drinking the right wine.

The irony, of course, is that all those everyday wine drinkers in France, as well as Spain and Italy, are drinking the local equivalent of Barefoot, Sutter Home, Woodbridge, Yellow Tail, and Cavit — or something even cheaper or more poorly made or both. The next time you’re in a European grocery store, check out the amazing numbers of wine brands that cost just a couple of euros. Hard to believe if you’re raised on wine in the U.S., where no one is supposed to drink that stuff.

The other irony? That there is a difference between snobbishness and criticism, and I’m surprised Scott didn’t make that point more strongly. A snob rejects anything he or she confiders inferior, even if there isn’t a good reason to do so. The best critics, and Scott is certainly one, detail the whys and wherefores, allowing us to make up our own minds. Good or bad isn’t even the point, which is why wine scores are so useless and why something as stupid as “Animal House” can be so much fun to watch. Rather, did that wine or that film or that restaurant do what it set out to do, and did it do so honestly and with respect for both the form and the consumer?

Otherwise, we might as well buy what the Wine Spectator tells us to buy, make fun of people who don’t drink “good” wine, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much better than everyone else.

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