When egalitarianism becomes elitist: In defense of purple prose
I’ve been noting a curious phenomenon lately: wine writers who complain that certain other wine writers are elitist. Their criticism is that some wine writers engage in purple prose, hifalutin descriptions and arcane references that turn off the Average guy and gal, which is bad, because we want Average Joe and Average Jane to drink wine, not just rich snobs.
Well, who could be against that? Along with motherhood and apple pie, appealing to the Averages is one of the saintly credos of our market-oriented democracy. We come from a long line of Puritans who viewed the upper classes with suspicion, and despised their tendency to speak in codes that excluded what H.L. Mencken called the boobocracy from knowing what was going on.
The latest example of this wine writer-bashing comes from the Sacramento Bee newspaper’s food and wine writer, Chris Macias, who in this column referred to a talk Eric Asimov gave last week at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, in Napa Valley (which I did not attend). Chris says Eric’s “main point [was] Too much wine writing, especially through overwritten tasting notes, creates a sense of elitism that’s contrary to wine’s everyday pleasures.”
Chris goes on to write:
…wine writers need to pull back from prose that’s more purple than petite sirah. We’ve all seen tasting notes that sound close to this:
The wine opens with a windsong of spice and freshly foraged truffle on the nose, with a final whisper of red fruit that coos in the glass; the taste is a ponderous expression of currants, Godiva milk chocolate, Tasmanian honey and a soupçon of gooseberry that pirouettes on the back end of the palate.
Now doesn’t that tickle your gag reflex?
Even my rock-and-rolling fellow wine blogger Joe Roberts today engaged in a little everyman rationale over at 1WineDude. “Why wine appreciation has been put on a pedestal is beyond me,” he writes, suggesting that understanding what you’re drinking is some kind of cult.
I don’t like this tendency to charge the more, uhh, serious of us writers with being elitists, or putting things on pedestals than don’t belong there.
Look, it’s easy to poke fun at anything, and wine writing is especially vulnerable to ridicule. I suppose you could dig up a wine review or two I’ve penned over the years that might make me blush. But this carping about over-wrought writing puts me in a bad mood and moreover does wine writing a disservice, IMHO. Macias writes: “Don’t know about you, but the last people I want to share a bottle with are a bunch of humorless eggheads who want to dissect a wine to death. Wine can certainly be the center of discussion over dinner, but it should be done with laughs, a sense of fun and sharing.” Hey, when I’m dining with wine-minded friends, we often talk about wine quite seriously, swirling and sniffing and tasting and analyzing. We also liberally laugh. If Macias left us in a snit, it would be his loss.
Wine criticism can be geeky stuff, in the best sense of the word, and nobody should be ashamed of thinking deeply about this historic beverage, around which western civilization has arisen. Wine writers of the world, stop apologizing for being smart and writing smart. You don’t have to pretend to be Joe Average when you’re really feeling like the love child of Professor Saintsbury and Jancis Robinson. You want to be scholarly? Go for it. Don’t dumb stuff down. Free your inner geek. You have my permission to write as purple as you please.
Image courtesy epicurious.com