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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
01/26/2016
The Dumbing Down of Wine

By Stephen Eliot

Long ago, I grew impatient and tired with and then simply ignored those endless bleatings that wine should be demystified and made simple, that average folks were intimidated by it and that not only is knowledge not needed to enjoy it but that knowledge is the fast track to wine-snob purgatory. That said, I still occasionally find my blood pressure rising when I read one more salvo against wine expertise and the misguided fools who believe that expensive wines might actually be better than cheap ones. There are endless “scientific studies,” we are told, that prove that so-called experts cannot tell the difference, and that real authority is a fantasy propagated by “old white guys looking to keep their snobby wine jobs.” Well, I am an “old white guy” and, yes, I would like to keep my job, but the only way I can do that is by providing information and advice that has real worth to my readers, not by selling the myth that quality is illusory and lies solely in the eye of the beholder.

The questioning of authority and expertise has become a mainstay of the internet age, and fine wine and its advocates are regularly in the crosshairs as if they were enemies of the truth. Laments that expertise has been devalued to the point of near-irrelevance are regularly heard from experienced professionals with years and years of experience, while the battle cry of budding, would-be experts is “out with the old and in with the new.” The real message of the latter, of course, is more often than not “do not listen to them listen to me.”

Some years back, Karen MacNeil mused that “when everyone is an expert, there are no experts”, and, more recently, Jancis Robinson penned a lengthy piece wherein she wondered about the future of wine expertise. Yesterday, Ron Washam, aka the Hosemaster of Wine TM, followed up a fine and biting piece of satire on a best-selling new book that proposes to make wine simple with the comment “I have a simple question. Does expertise count for anything?” It is a question that most everyone who has devoted years to learning about wine asks on a too-regular basis. And, it is one that has me thinking over my morning cup of coffee. I understand the Hosemaster’s frustration.

Now, I do not intend on defending or damning the book in question as, while I am familiar with the author’s overly simplistic on-line ramblings, I have not read it and do not have the Hosemaster’s prescient gift for reviewing books without reading them first. But, I am far from comfortable with silly pronouncements from said author that expensive wine doesn’t taste as good to non-enthusiasts as cheap wine and that they are thus “better off remaining ignorant about the nuances of taste and wine.”

Is wine writing really headed in that direction? Is ignorance bliss? It is certainly less expensive, but has the steady rise in wine prices created a backlash in the market and spawned a new, sour-grapes mentality that what has become unattainable is not really that good anyway. Now, I do not think for a minute that the writer in question really meant that the occasional, “non-enthusiast” wine drinker should not try to learn more. All “enthusiasts” start out as tyros and are slowly drawn into what is for most of us a thoroughly fascinating and satisfying embrace of fine wine, but, if a few simple guidelines will suffice for most, it is important that they are valid.

First steps matter. Fundamentals and foundations matter, and starting out with the assumption that all one needs to know about wine can be learned in a few hours or that wine is necessarily too complex to ever really understand is wrong-headed at best. It is no different than building a house on sand. Even those for whom a smattering of knowledge is enough need to think about what they are told. It is a good thing that there are writers who aim to make wine accessible to all, but it strikes me that there is real danger in dumbing things down to the point that there seems little reason to spend any effort in learning. There is far more to wine than can be explained in pictures and pie charts.

I have been accused of taking wine too seriously. I do not know what that means. It has been a passion and a genuine joy for more years than I can recall, and its many mysteries are still compelling. I do not begrudge anyone who thinks otherwise, and I am not in least bothered by those who believe that I live my life on some vinous fringe. But, please, do not tell me that connoisseurship is a sham. I know differently. And, I know that there is still a great deal to learn.


 

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Comments

Wine Folly
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:1/26/2016 5:43:08 PM

Stephen,

Wonderful essay. And thanks for the mention.

The classic example of a satirist is the boy who shouts at the naked monarch, "The emperor has no clothes!" Here's the

Wine Folly
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:1/26/2016 5:43:50 PM

Stephen,

Wonderful essay. And thanks for the mention.

The classic example of a satirist is the boy who shouts at the naked monarch, "The emperor has no clothes!" Here's the

Wine Folly
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:1/26/2016 5:45:10 PM

Not sure why my comments were cut short. Probably for the best...

Wine Folly
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:1/26/2016 7:16:03 PM

The classic example of a satirist is the boy who shouts at the naked monarch, "The emperor has no clothes!" Here's the bestselling wine book on Amazon, outselling new books by Jancis Robinson and Karen MacNeil, it's filled with silly generalizations and many outright mistakes, and I'm the one who has to point out the Puckette is nakedly a fool? Worse than that, it's gathered endorsements from many people who should know better. Frankly, it's depressing.

 

But wine will endure. The internet does, indeed, dumb down just about everything it touches. Yet it also has the redeeming quality of moving on very quickly. Wine Folly will be a victim of unplanned obsolescence, and good riddance. I'm optimistic enough to believe that quality eventually rises to the top. But, sadly, so do turds now and then.

Is wine folly or serious?
by Kurt Burris
Posted on:1/27/2016 12:21:16 PM

Stephen:  There are people (and I am not using the term connisseur on purpose) who take wine too seriously.  They are usually the ones who, no matter what you put in front of them, tell you how it isn't as good as (fill in the blank) they had last night or have a case of in thier cellar.  At the other exteme, there are those who like cartoons.  I try to avoid them both, but at least with the too serious set they might bring something good.  Usually not though.  It might break up thier vertical.

Ron:  Love your stuff, but since I'm not on facebook, I can't tell you directly

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