In Wine and Critics, Populists Find an Easy Target

Every few years an article bubbles up with claims that expensive wines are really no better than cheap ones. The findings come with an inevitable corollary: essentially, that you are better off seeking advice from random strangers in a bar than from wine experts.

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RESTRICTED -- In Wine and Critics, Populists Find an Easy Target
Eric Asimov
, New York Times

Every few years an article bubbles up with claims that expensive wines are really no better than cheap ones. The findings come with an inevitable corollary: essentially, that you are better off seeking advice from random strangers in a bar than from wine experts.

The latest, a 2016 study reposted recently by Vox, examined the correlation between professional assessments and crowdsourced reviews. But that dense, statistics-heavy work was overshadowed by its accompanying video smackdown of wine expertise, in which a panel of Vox employees blind-tasted wines. While they were able to identify the most expensive bottles with some consistency, they far preferred the cheaper ones. The conclusion: “Expensive wine is for suckers.”

I guess it does not much matter that Vox resurrected a video made in 2015. The overall argument is merely a repetition of one made back in 2010 by Freakonomics, which itself was largely a rehash of another study published in 2008.

It is not surprising to see this again, at a time when knowledge and expertise have been dismissed at the highest levels, and when culture and the arts seem to have lost some value in America.

The bigger question is: Why is wine so regularly singled out in the United States to be assailed as something of a con game? And what is it about wine critics that invites such gleeful dismissals of their knowledge and judgment?

One reason these populist studies resonate is that they all contain elements of truth. While it may be ridiculous to assert generally that expensive wines are no better than cheap wines, it is absolutely true that many expensive wines are not as good as many cheaper wines.

And the notion that expensive wines are for suckers is just as inarguable as asserting that expensive clothes are for suckers, or expensive cars, or expensive tickets to “Springsteen on Broadway.” To each his own.

The essential point the wine populists, and many of these studies, make is that ordinary people with little knowledge of wine prefer cheap wines to expensive ones, even if wine critics prefer more expensive bottles. Therefore, people should not listen to know-it-all wine critics because they will lead them to spend more for wines that are not to their tastes.

The studies concede that the more people knew about wine, the more their tastes aligned with the critics’. So it might have been reasonable for the studies to conclude instead that people’s tastes evolve as they learn more about wine. But that would not have offered the same satisfying punch line.

In any case, what is it about wine that permits it to be subjected to the indignity of a popularity contest? J.K. Rowling has sold a lot more books than Saul Bellow, and given the choice, most people would probably prefer to read Rowling. But does that lead to the conclusion that Nobel-winning authors like Bellow are for suckers?

Authors of these gotcha wine exposés may know better, but they publish them anyway because they understand that an American audience will find them particularly gratifying.

Wine in U.S. culture has long been a synonym for snobbery. I am sorry to say that wine culture has partly brought this on itself with its history of pretension, its equating of wine with connoisseurship, and the absurd vocabulary and rituals that many people assume must be mastered simply to enjoy wine.

No politicians, no matter how much they enjoy wine in private, would dare be seen campaigning with a stemmed glass in hand — not when a can of Bud could be brandished instead. As much as people love wine and as important as it is to the economy of several U.S. states, it is still viewed by U.S. society as somehow foreign, un-American, effete, prissy and intellectual.

In the public imagination, wine writers embody these characteristics. They represent a subject that is Old World in origin. Wine is anti-democratic in the sense that, all other things being equal, aristocratic terroirs will win out, even if, like the wayward child of a billionaire, bad farming and winemaking squander this built-in advantage. The wine writer often seems to speak a foreign language (and often does, with words like “terroir”).

In the populist vision, the critic is simultaneously fastidious and intimidating, comic and sinister. Wine is the official beverage of the sneering elites, who think they are smarter and better than everybody else, and thus is a natural target for fear and resentment.

If “Hamilton’s” King George III came to modern-day life, it would be as a wine writer. Conversely, the foppish image of the wine connoisseur as suggested in the old sitcom “Frasier” is simply a device for banishing a deeply seated fear of the unknown and the intellectual.

Wine is a convenient subject for bashing because, let’s face it, it is intimidating and anxiety-producing no matter what silly steps the wine business takes to simplify or demystify it.

It is a little late for that, anyway. For far too long, the industry has been complicit in equating wine with stuffy connoisseurship. Before one could simply enjoy wine, one had to take “wine appreciation” classes, read textbooks and learn the esoteric vocabulary of tasting notes in which, simply to enjoy a glass of wine, one had to break down the constituent elements of a swallow into a grocery list of aromas and flavors.

The height of understanding wine nowadays seems, in popular culture at least, to be the ability to guess the identity of a wine served blind. It is essentially a useless skill, a parlor game in the wine trade, yet it contributes to the notion that to understand and enjoy wine requires special powers.

Left out of the equation are the emotions that wine provokes, the companionship it brings and its place on the table (except in the sense of the so-called art of food-and-wine pairing, which, with its own formulas and rules can be as intimidating as wine itself).

The efforts to demystify and simplify never ring true because they ignore the fact that wine by its nature is mystifying and complicated. These qualities can be embraced and celebrated without suggesting that they require mastering, but that would force us to think and talk about wine in a different sort of way, as a food staple to be enjoyed rather than as a symbol of status or as a “lifestyle.”

I think we have made a start in that direction, but the regular reappearance of articles like Vox’s demonstrate that the old way of looking at wine still has a firm hold. — Many $20 bottles are better than a lot of $50 bottles.

For the record, no wine critic has ever offered the blanket argument that expensive wines are better than cheaper bottles. But I have, many times, argued that $15-$20 bottles are often better values than $10 bottles.

It is a complicated equation, but the essential basis is that, in general, wines from small family estates in distinctive terroirs, farmed and produced conscientiously, are better and more satisfying than mass-produced wines that are fabricated to match preconceived taste profiles. (Left unsaid is the fact that many $20 bottles are better than a lot of $50 bottles.)

I do not mean to suggest that many people will not enjoy the mass-produced bottles, nor do I fault anybody who is satisfied with those wines. But if you are curious and want to drink better, more distinctive wines, the slightly higher price is money well spent.

It is a matter of choosing craft over commerce, the difference between a fast-food burger and one from a cook who grinds the beef, cooks it to order and sees that the roll and condiments are of similar high quality. It will cost more, but for some people the expense will be worth it.

Good wine critics present arguments and offer as evidence the bottles themselves. They make their cases with love and hope. The goal is to inspire curiosity, to promote ease and comfort with wine, to enlighten, to entertain and, occasionally, to offer vicarious pleasure.

For those who believe they are demeaned by wine or wine writers, I would suggest it is the wine populists who are doing the demeaning, by pandering to inchoate feelings of fear and resentment. These feelings may well be real. But they are not caused by wine.

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