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04.13.2010

Knowing Something About Wine Doesn't Make You Special. Or Studly.

Fellow wine writer Eric Asimov thinks that we have a big problem in this country. His argument is somewhat more subtle, but hopefully he'll forgive me for boiling it down to the fact that it's a damn shame that people think they need to know something about wine in order to enjoy it. He posits that we have a culture that has turned wine into an intellectual object, imbued with status and special qualities that can only be perceived and appreciated by the knowledgeable.

While Eric and I might disagree about the causes of and contributors to this malaise, I completely agree that it's a problem. I wrote my thoughts about it in a post a couple of years ago entitled The Travesty of Wine and Social Class in America.

One of the byproducts of this class driven, intellectualization of wine is something that I like to call the Wine Asshole. In 2007 a study showed that 22% of men in the UK embellished their wine knowledge to impress their dates. And worse, 35% refused to let their dates choose a wine at dinner.

Well a new study has recently come out showing that 62% of self described "wine lovers" in the UK think they know "a lot about wine" but when tested got many basic facts wrong. Much more egregiously, however, 66% said they "bluffed their way through" interactions with sommeliers at restaurants, and 30% said they do not trust a sommelier's opinion while at the same time 84% feel "they are being ripped off" in restaurants.

So let's just get this straight once and for all, guys (yes, it is mostly men that have issues here). Knowing something about wine doesn't mean shit. It doesn't make you special, sophisticated, cultured, or classy. Like any knowledge it's all in how you use it. And when you're over your head, its much sexier to ask for help than it is to bluff your way through. There's nothing shameful in seeking the help of a professional. Spend your time paying attention to your date instead of in a pissing contest with a sommelier.


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Comments (22)

04.13.10 at 11:15 PM

One of my pet peeves in this City by The Bay thay you and I share is wine lists on which I don't recognize half the wines. It seems to me that those kinds of lists are meant to impress the sommeliers at other restaurants and to intimidate the cash customers into either bluffing or admitting that they don't know as much about wine as the person who chose the list.

But, even in restaurants with more accessible list, it does help to know a little bit about wine. Still, restaurants can choose to make wine more accessible and easy to choose or more difficult and abstruse.

Sometimes it is not the poor buyer who is being the asshole here. Sometimes it is the restaurant. I often will ask the sommelier for a recommendation when the restaurant is not so busy posturing that I refuse to play into its game.

04.14.10 at 12:06 AM

I take that all of those "M.W."s after a British wine writer's name means "Master Winebluffer". Whew! They must be so Proud that all they've taught their readers is to Bluff and BS.

And, to Charlie, above, who says, "One of my pet peeves in this City by The Bay thay(sic) you and I share is wine lists on which I don't recognize half the wines." 1) You're off topic. 2) Those are the good wine lists! Why must you know all of the names? Eat at a chain restaurant if that's what you Need. 3) He further says, ,"It seems to me that those kinds of lists are meant to impress the sommeliers at other restaurants" - yeah, it's an Evil Sommelier Plot to intimidate their customers! 4) Are you sure you don't live in the UK? 5) The wine lists ARE accessible. They're in English and in your hand. If you have a question, you ask someone. How is that not accessible? Whip out your iPhone and Google the winery name or check Cellar Tracker, if you Must-Know-More. 6) Again, why must the names be familiar for you to drink it? I bet you don't know the names of the makers/growers of most of the food you eat...but you, Charlie, you have to know about the wine?!

Heike wrote:
04.14.10 at 1:05 AM

Hi.
I agree and appreciate every rebel that is coming up, to help make wine more normal.

Wine is meant to be for everybody (who wants to) to enjoy. Everyone in their own way. Like your wine? Fine! Understand your wine? Fine! But not a must.

Greetings from Sweden

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
04.14.10 at 4:28 AM

I disagree with the premise, or at least the first part. I don't know about studly, but knowing about wine does make you special -- just like knowing about anything else. But it only works if you actually know, not if you're just pretending that you know. It's like pretending to be able to play the piano, sitting down at a party, and pounding out random notes. If you really could play, that'd be cool. But you can't. So it isn't.

I encounter people all the time who try to pretend that they know much more than they do about sports -- and nothing is less mysterious than sports. So it's the bluffing that's at issue here, not wine. And that's stupid in any context.

1WineDude wrote:
04.14.10 at 5:34 AM

Hey Alder - while I agree with the egregiousness of the wine a-hole, and certainly am in the same camp as you and Eric on trying to help people enjoy wine without having to become a wine a-hole, I disagree that wine knowledge doesn't make you studly.

Actually, there are stats that I've linked to in my Valentine's Day posts that strongly suggest just the opposite - wine knowledge makes you appear sexier.

How you use that knowledge, of course, determines whether or not you're studly or just another wine a-hole.

Cheers!

04.14.10 at 5:47 AM

The world needs more geldings, and I know exactly where to begin...

Alder Yarrow wrote:
04.14.10 at 9:46 AM

Bruce,

Fair enough. But perhaps you and I differ about whether knowledge makes you special in general. I don't accord people who happen to know something about a subject I am unfamiliar with any particular social status. Why should wine be any different than say, particle physics? Sure, that knowledge is useful in certain situations, but I don't think people should have the expectation of being treated differently because they have it, which is where the bluffing comes in. Wine needs to be less special to the everyday person, in my opinion, which doesn't mean it can't be a rich magical domain to those who know a lot about it.

04.14.10 at 9:55 AM

Dear Krak--

I can read those lists. The average punter cannot. And arguing that one has to go armed to restaurants with an IPhone and Cellar Tracker in order to decipher a wine list is not my idea of good fun.

It is one thing to write a wine list that can be understood by the readers of my newsletter. It is very different when you are talking about the wider audience of wine drinkers. Going to a restaurant is meant to be relaxing, and it does not mean that you have to eat in chain restaurant.

More than a bit condescending on your part--and very surprising given the rather accessible and straightforward nature of your website.

04.14.10 at 10:12 AM

There is an underlying current here about how a wine list ought to be constructed. I like wine lists that are adventuresome. I often ask sommeliers to choose wines that are beyond my ken just for the fun of expanding my horizons.

But, when a list is made up almost entirely of such wines that take me beyond my decades of wine writing experience, it makes wine that much harder to enjoy for the average punter.

Almost everyone reading this blog has fairly broad wine knowledge. We are not, however, the average wine drinker in good restaurants.

We not only know about wine broadly but have travelled to the Sicilies and Argentinas and Maclaren Vales of this world. But my neighbors, relatively affluent, wine drinking but not students and not cognizant of Cellar Tracker, still make up the bulk of the folks who dine at places like Chez Panisse Cafe, Boulevard and their ilk.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
04.14.10 at 10:36 AM

Charlie, while I don't disagree with anything you say on its face, I think you quickly get into slippery territory. Your comments can easily be read as a suggestion that wine lists be limited to selections that the "average punter" recognizes. If you're NOT advocating that lists be limited to the wines that my friends would recognize: Rombauer Chardonnay, Silver Oak, etc. Then it seems hard to draw a line between what is simply a good wine list that focuses on wines that may be off the beaten path and a wine list that is the equivalent of an inside sommelier joke.

Harry wrote:
04.14.10 at 11:23 AM

Great article Alder, while I don't typically run into the issues mentioned by Charlie (personally the weirder or more diverse the list the more fun it is to try things I don't see very often). I do frequently see people in our tasting room who are intimidated simply by wine descriptors. Those descriptors are meant only as a guideline and whether or not you smell or taste them is totally up to you and your nose/palette. I never read the descriptors as I'd rather find out for myself. The point is to talk to those people, explain that if they don't smell the "melon" in the Chardonnay that doesn't mean there is something wrong with them...we need to remove the intimidation factor to wine drinking and that can really only be done one person at a time. When it comes down to it if you like it then it's good, it doesn't matter what some critic said, what awards a wine did or did not win, if you like it then it's good!

04.14.10 at 11:32 AM

I think punting in restaurants is inconsiderate!

04.14.10 at 2:11 PM

Hi Steve,

it all depends on how deep the punt goes, doesnt it?

04.14.10 at 2:48 PM

Alder--

A list containing only ordinary, long-production wines from large wineries in a good restaurant would be a travesty.

A list that the average upscale diner cannot begin to comprehend in the same good restaurant is also a travesty.

A good list does not ignore quality wines from places like Cuvaison, Trefethen, Rombauer, Beaulieu, Ravenswood, Ridge, D'Arenberg, Jadot,
Trimbach, Loosen when there are wines from those wineries that are very good and are likely to be recognized by a wide variety of interested wine drinkers who do not happen to frequent Cellar Tracker.

It is not either/or in my view. The notion that a wine list can have quality wines from recognizable names is not mutually exclusive with having interesting discoveries.

I don't see the slippery slope unless someone tries to read my words as suggesting that it has to only one way and the best solution is the lowest common denominator. I have not said that to my knowledge.

Not if you look at my several decades of writings--or what I have written here. But, wine is not just for the cogniscenti, and that is where I take great exception to the comments by King Krak.

To suggest that wine drinkers who do not read Vinography or Connoisseurs' Guide can solve wine lists by searching Cellar Tracker while they sit at their tables at Jardiniere or Slanted Door is just arrant, condescending, elitist nonsense.

Have we not learned anything yet about opening up wine for the less-than-wine-student class of interested wine drinkers?

04.14.10 at 3:28 PM

Charlie:

First, I apologize for being a bit snarky in my first post.

Second, you say, "when a list is made up almost entirely of such wines that take me beyond my decades of wine writing experience" are you just complaining that this list isn't mostly California wine (and/or mega foreign wineries)? The Slanted Door's cuisine certainly doesn't match up well with Napa wines...are you saying they should have them anyway so that diners like you would be more comfortable? The Slanted Door list is really great; it's focused on the right things, has some great values and some wine geek wines...what more could you ask for?

04.14.10 at 6:26 PM

All right, I can't resist...

Third, you say, "when a list is made up almost entirely of such wines that take me beyond my decades of wine writing experience" ... doesn't this imply you've been Very Narrow in your wine writing experiences? Very. Narrow. And this was Your Choice!!?! Your self-imposed choice! How again is it now okay for you to whine about this?

04.14.10 at 6:28 PM

Thanks for the added note.

I think it is worth pointing out that not all CA wines come from Napa. You know this, I am guessing, but you did suggest that Napa wines, over half of which are Cab, Merlot and friends, probably do not fit the Slanted Door profile. You will get no argument on that topic, but it is far too limited a view.

CA, OR and WA Rieslings and Gewurz do fit the profile. So do some of the lighter Chardonnays. And the last time I looked, the list had ten sparkling wines from France, only two of which were from Champagne.

There is a raft of good, showy, balanced bubblies in CA with structures and taste profiles that would meet any requirement for the genre that the restaurant could have.

I don't object to what is on the list at Slanted Door. I just do not understand the argument that there is nothing local that fits the bill. It is a weak argument and easily disproved so I don't get why the winechooser makes that argument.

04.14.10 at 6:32 PM

Oops, and here I thought you had given up your snarky ways.

Narrow? Nah, and happy to keep extending my reach, but the lists that bug me are filled with stuff that is way out of the mainstream. I don't object to having wines like that on a list. But a list that is substantially filled with unknown is not geared to the experience of the patrons.

List like that make wine less accessible.

Mark wrote:
04.14.10 at 8:29 PM

Alder, I think that's one of the major points that the industry needs to work on, making people who only drink a glass of wine occasionally feel more comfortable choosing their own wine. Much of the problem comes from all of us in the industry and how we choose to describe the wines, often making it more complicated then it needs to be. It also is the real reason (in my mind at least) that a guy like Gary V is so wildly successful, he's able to make wine fun.

Mark Zappala wrote:
04.19.10 at 6:48 AM

Breaking down the barriers to making a personal and relevant wine-buying decision is key for both the consumer and retailer alike. And, that decision needs to be contextual, addressing issues like where you are and what you're having. A wine list need not be dumbed down, but it should be tailored to the tastes of the consumers that frequent it. Likewise, consumers should be willing to expand their horizons but without the fear of making a very expensive mistake.

Blind consumer reliance on expert ratings and gold medals awarded has stifled the wine-making efforts of many as well as limiting the depth of offerings presented. And, the wine industry's shameless self-promotion of same exacerbates the problem.

A good wine, by definition, is a wine I like, regardless of the accolades showered upon it. Find a way to bring that awareness to the consumer and, like the proverbial better mousetrap, they will beat a path to your door.

04.20.10 at 8:21 AM

Alder, I truly appreciate this post and I have to agree with you that it is mostly men with this issue. However it goes far beyond just men on dates. There are men all over who love to try to “impress” (although I see it more as “intimidate”) others with their so-called wine knowledge. As a woman in the industry I, sadly, used to let those guys intimidate me… until I realized I actually knew more than they did and started calling their bluff. Years ago when I got my start managing a tasting room at a winery I saw this all the time, guys trying to impress their friends (not just girls) by trying to stump my employees who thought they knew more. It drove me insane! It was one of the many reasons I continued with my own education because I saw the need for more people in the industry who truly want to teach others about wine and not intimidate.

?In regards to your post last year, I am also passionate about making wine less intimidating, less elite, and consumed daily with friends and family regardless of price or status. A favorite moment of mine came after teaching a class on sparkling wine and a student came up to me with her head tilted down and said “I know this is a stupid question but have you ever had Cristalino?” and I said loud and proud “First of all that is not a stupid question. Second, yes I have, I drink sparkling wine all the time and there’s no way I can afford to drink Champagne everyday. That stuff is $7 and you hard pressed to find a better bubbly for that price”. She grinned and asked if she could give me a hug. No more intimidation people! Wine should be fun.

Brian Campbell wrote:
04.22.10 at 9:57 PM

I can't believe Charlie Olken is still talking about the list at the Slanted Door.... Still.

Once and for all, there is no reason any restaurateur shouldn't offer whatever they like and think goes well with their cuisine. Nobody has any obligation to put what YOU think they should be offering in their cellar. A restaurant is a creative endeavor, someones vision for a space to enjoy food and drink and company. Its their call. I don't go into restaurants demanding that they serve food thats not on their menu. Given the success they've seen, I think they're wine program is working just fine, thanks.

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