On “Wine Socialism”: Snobs versus Idiots, and striving toward the middle
Wine should be by the people, for the people, etc. etc.
As a sommelier, I’m often caught between two extremes: the “wine snobs”, often self-described, who demand that their wine hold extra values that validate their action, and the “know-nothings”, always self-described, who shrug and bleach out any value their action might have outside of the most basic.
In other words…
The Wine Snob expects wine to do something it can’t, and the Wine Idiot denies wine the ability to do what it can.
The Sweetest Figueres
Wine Snobs recognize that on a social, political, and economic level, wine has value - which is inherently true, whether we like it or not. Serving wine has always been a mark of hospitality, and serving good wine or bad wine a signal of either your social/financial standing, your attitude toward your guests, or both. While this has been the case for millenia, the Wine Snob embraces it to the point of toxicity - because drinking, serving, or buying “good” wine can demonstrate some level of socio-political value, the Wine Snob attempts to “influence the market” and inflate the value of his/her decision to hopefully incur more socio-political value.
While the implications of this are deeply rooted in social psychology, the effects are simply that it makes you sound like a dick to most people.
Wine Snobs ruin wine lists through expectations. If “WINE X” isn’t on your menu, what kind of restaurant do you think you are? Essentially, they are telegraphing that “WINE X” is a safe, high-value wine that they are comfortable with, and by ordering it they know the value their order adds to other people’s opinions of them, and by disparaging a business or a sommelier by not being able to fulfill their “clearly valuable expectations” they can garner yet more social clout, and so we, the sommeliers, are forced to either disappoint a big-spender-asshole, or forced to bump a fabulous wine from our list to make room for an expensive and often mediocre wine.
Marion Cotillard gets replaced with Pamela Anderson so we can sell more tickets.
To make matters worse, Wine Snobs are very often validated by the very sommeliers they annoy - plenty of sommeliers are just as Wine-Snobby as the next person. Sure, maybe they’re conflating the value of a particular vintage of Gevry-Chambertain as opposed to some celebrity-approved Napa “Red Blend”, but at the end of the day the concept is the same: are you inventing value for a wine in the hopes of feeling more important?
The Wine Idiot isn’t much better though. While the Wine Snob can ruin friendships, opinions, and dinner parties, the Wine Idiot can ruin businesses.
I use the term “Idiot” here in the mid-century sense: not necessarily someone who is “stupid,” but someone who disconnects themselves from community or excludes themselves from participation through a lack of understanding or willingness to value interaction.
Wine Idiots, therefore, don’t “not know” anything about wine, rather they refuse to know anything about wine - in fact refuse to care about wine, and either stubbornly cling to whatever preconceived notion they read on the back of a bottle in college once, or decide that “nothing matters and everything is fine,” and yet are constantly dissatisfied with their wines because they don’t take any initiative to actually find what they like.
How many times has a guest asked for a glass of “white wine - something cheap, doesn’t matter what,” and then sent it back because they hate it? Well if it didn’t matter, how can you hate it???
Because it does matter.
Unfortunately, the Idiot is the one who prevents restaurants and bottle-shops from selling more interesting wines because a sommelier like me things “gosh, this is delicious, but it will be too hard to sell.” So we order in another case of bullshit pinot grigio and pine for better days.
The division between the two extremes becomes clear. The Wine Snob wants to feel or seem more important by choosing something with inherently increased value. The Wine Idiot is afraid that by choosing the wrong thing, they’ll be seen as less worthy, less “classy,” or worse yet, they’ll be made to feel foolish - therefore they’ll refuse to choose anything to avoid that possibility, including devaluing the inherent value of the wine itself.
The ultimate question: is it worse to base your social worth on artificially inflated valuation of your choices? Or worse to, in the fear of losing social worth, refuse to make a choice?
The Middle Ground
I’ve always referred to myself half-jokingly as a “Wine Socialist” - mostly because the casual tone tends to break the ice with a prospective guest/client of mine. But there is deep truth to that statement.
Wine Proletarianism: I believe that everyone deserves to drink good - even great - wine, regardless of how much they know or what they hope to spend - A wine’s value is not directly tied to its expense.
Wine Anti-capitalism: I believe that good - even great - wine exists thanks to the places it comes from and the work of the people who make it; not the branding team or the market-share - I don’t care if it’s famous, it still could be garbage.
Wine Rationalism: I believe that wine is an agricultural product, and, like any other, truly does exhibit wild differences from place-to-place, season-to-season, and farmer-to-farmer - no it does not all pretty much taste the same.
Wine Realism: Most of all, I believe that, at the end of the day, it’s just wine - drink it, enjoy it, get over it.
Those are my four tenets of Wine Socialism, and the goals I hope wine-drinkers work toward.
When we talk about wine, it’s important to keep tenets like these in mind and recognize how we’re steering the conversation. While few people are purely categorized by either extreme of the Snob-Idiot spectrum, people often find themselves hovering toward one-or-the-other.
A clue-phrase is “The only thing I drink is ‘X’”: either from the Snob, who says it to over-value the X-wine as above all others, or the Idiot who doesn’t dare pick something other than X-wine for fear of being looked-down-upon. It’s a difficult conversation to navigate, as those of us in the profession are then saddled with a realization: this person is asking me to reflect/preserve their social standing - do I have any right to deny that? From a hospitality-perspective, absolutely not. But from a wine-educated perspective, the craving to “help” is real and pure.
For me as a professional, I will occasionally navigate the situation somewhat privately. In a public, group setting, in front of a person’s guests, to essentially deny their request for social-validation would be a cardinal sin. However, if given an opportunity one-on-one to say “hey, I’d love you to taste this; I think you’d really enjoy it,” you offer them a chance to relax and open the conversation, slowly revealing the true value of the wines on your list or in your shop, and helping them let go of the buoy X-wine to which they desperately cling to keep afloat.
It essentially is just the extension of a hand to say “if you’d like to learn more, I’m happy to guide” - which is, in most things, all it takes. Some people say, in effect, “nope, I don’t want to learn more,” which is fine. But the ones who see it as an opportunity often become great long-term clients.
Advice for the Non-Professional
I just want to encourage people to understand a) if you like it, drink it with confidence, but b) know why you like it, and be willing to expand beyond that.
From a customer-perspective, this also highlights my rule-number-one of “exploring wine.” I teach wine classes regularly, for both professionals and amateurs, and to the amateurs I always end class reminding them that, despite all the place-names, grape-varieties, etc. I mentioned during class, they’re required to memorize approximately zero percent of them. Why? Because that’s my job.
It’s not the patient’s job to memorize all the possible things that could be wrong with them - they find a doctor whom they trust and feel comfortable, and let the doctor do his/her job.
It’s not the homebuyer’s job to memorize architectural standards and cross-reference the measurements - they find someone they want to work with that they respect.
Therefore it’s not the customer’s job to memorize wine-facts and buzzwords.
The expanse of knowledge required by professionals in the wine-world tends to be what baits people into “Wine Idiocy”, because there are so many words to use, and so many of them are likely wrong, so it’s much easier to just play ignorant and refuse to describe or communicate anything - which doesn’t help anyone.
Someone hears the term “dry” and decides that it must describe their favorite wine - but that term is so broad it’s borderline meaningless (it just means the wine isn’t perceptibly sweet). But guests will use “dry” to also mean high-acid, or high-tannin, or lean, or light, or savory, or earthy, or non-fruit-driven, or...or...or… So when a guest says “I want a glass of something dry,” it tells me absolutely nothing about what you actually want, so it sets us both up for failure - you’ll likely get something you won’t like (fail), and you’ll assume it’s my fault for bringing you something you don’t like (fail).
So your job is to relax, open up, and work to understand that there are easy ways to communicate what you like/want.
First and most importantly, find a sommelier, wine bar, wine shop, etc. that you enjoy and feel comfortable talking to. Hint: if they make you feel stupid or undervalued, they’re bad at their job - find someone else. But ultimately, when you find someone whom you feel you can trust, then you let them use their expertise to accomplish what you like. It’s what we do.
Through them, you can help to understand what you like (and dislike) in a wine using terms that will make sense to other sommeliers, so you’re not required to only visit that one place. Not just dry, but spicy, or lean, or fresh, or earthy, or grippy, or whatever.
Once you have a basic vocabulary of terms describing your perfect wine, then you can wander off and explore, using various professionals to either guide you down off the highest mountain of self-important snobbery, or up from the basest plains of know-nothing avoidance.
You’ll enjoy wine for what it is, you’ll enjoy exploring new wines and finding the best price-to-quality ratios, and you’ll truly join me and my comrades in our new Wine-Socialist revolution.