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Are wine writers psychopaths?

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We have this free newsweekly in the Bay Area, SF Weekly, which has a columnist, Katy St. Clair, who writes a feature called Bouncer. It’s about the bar scene and is always a fun read I look forward to. This week’s headline is “Why Psychopaths Make Good Bartenders,” and with an intro like that, I just had to read. Katy’s theory is that bartenders possess outsized personality traits such as grandiosity, a magnetic, charming personality, an inability to feel empathy or remorse, “and what can be described as ‘play-acting’ when it comes to emotions.” By this, Katy means that bartenders have a pre-rehearsed grab bag of emotional reactions, any one of which they can pull out at will to fit the circumstance. Of all the personality traits Katy sees in bartenders, the most powerful is “always needing to win.” Collectively, these traits constitute a certain clinical psychopathy. By way of name dropping, Katy uses such charmers as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer to make her case.

Anyway, I don’t know that much about bar culture; it’s been a good many years since I spent my nights getting loaded looking for someone to go home with (although it does seem to me that most young bartenders are still quite good looking). But I take Katy at her word, and it made me think: If there’s a bartender “type” with specific personality traits, is there a wine writer type?

In order to answer that question, I first had to go through the rolodex in my mind that consists of all the wine writers I’ve known. (Does the word “rolodex” date me? It’s my handwritten card file, if you don’t know, and it works faster and more accurately for me than anything computerized.) And rest assured, I’ve known a lot of wine writers. In California–which is the only state that really matters when it comes to wine, right?–I’ve known them all. Like God watching sparrows fall to earth, there hasn’t been a wine writer in my generation who’s operated beneath my radar. So my rolodex is full.

I’ve also met quite a few out-of-state wine writers, and actually found them to be quite decent, despite not coming from California, although the New Yawkahs can have attitude problems. And since I started blogging, I’ve met scads of wine bloggers, if you can call them “wine writers” which I think you can. So I figure over the years I’ve known at least 400 wine writers, enough of a sample to come to some reasonable conclusions.

First off, wine writers aren’t like bartenders. Most of them aren’t good looking (I exclude our beautiful woman wine writers, such as Leslie Sbrocco and Karen NacNeil), a pity, since I spend so much time looking at them. In fact, most wine writers are the opposite of good looking. I don’t mean that insultingly, it just puts things in perspective: most people aren’t good looking, so wine writers are about as homely as everybody else.

The “grandiosity” of bartenders of which Katy speaks is a function of how good looking they are. So is that magnetic, charming personality. Good looking guys know they’re good looking, they’ve known from an early age that others gaze upon them with desire and love, and that idealization swells their egos and makes them feel charismatic and deserving. Wine writers, by contrast, have egos that have been thwarted. Nobody ever gazed upon them with desire; they did not grow up in that charmed spotlight. Hence, you’ll more often than not find in wine writers a sense of having been deprived. Those who feel that life has been less than fair often have rich inner lives; they have to rationalize a lot in order to stay sane. Wine writers are, in other words, intellectuals. No matter what else you can say about bartenders, I don’t think most people would describe them as intellectual. This intellectualism also tags wine writers with geekiness, which comes in handy when you’re obsessed with rainfall patterns in the Vacas. The captain of the football team never would have ended up as a wine writer. But the vice president of the chess club probably is.

Do wine writers have prefabricated emotions the way bartenders do? Bartenders can’t afford to be empathetic because of the nature of their jobs. They spend all night hearing out moaners, whiners, drunks, cruisers, con men, liars, losers, loud mouths, suicidals, poseurs, wackos. How could anyone be real in that zoo? Bartenders use whatever emotional response will get them through the situation.

Wine writers are similar to bartenders in this respect. They meet a wide range of people, and they have to be polite and responsive to everyone. This can be quite exhausting, so wine writers develop certain habits and traits to cope. (Hopefully, this doesn’t involve drinking too much, but I’ve known some wine writers who were serious alcoholics.) Like bartenders, they have to have a certain amount of charm; but behind the charm lies an impenetrable mystery. Who the wine writer really is, is something most people he meets will never know. I don’t believe wine writers try “to manipulate others,” as Katy says bartenders do. But they are skilled at creating comfort zones that allow both sides to escape from what can be a sticky situation.

Do wine writers “always need to win”? Of course. Duh. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be telling everyone what to like.

None of this, of course, makes wine writers psychopaths. But I do think wine writers tread the line. There are classic signs. They’re not real good at parties. They don’t mix well, the solitary nature of their jobs making them loners. They’re also somewhat “on stage” in public, which makes them queasy. Bartenders are constantly on stage, but they like it and thrive center-stage. The public persona of the wine writer must be something he’s never entirely comfortable with. He or she puts on a costume with every public appearance. The wine writer who is least psycopathic learns to make this costume as transparent as possible, so there’s they least distinction between the “real self” and the “perceived persona.” The most psychopathic wine writers are those whose actual personalities are impossible to discern from their public presentation–even to themselves, which is the essence of their psychopathy. If you run into a wine writer, how do you know the difference? Trust your intuition.

  1. What about those of us that are wine writers (bloggers) that used to be bartenders? Does that make us double-psychopaths? Does my being from Virginia add a third layer of mental instability? Questions within questions. Quid pro quo.

  2. George Perry, try not to think too much. Cheers!

  3. What about those of us who may just be insane? :)

  4. This doctor says: “Not psychopaths. Just varying degrees of severity of Asperger’s Syndrome”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome

  5. What about those of us who are behind bars tending to the writing of our insanity plea?

  6. So what you are trying to say is that my insanely good looks and overwhelming charm means I should not be a wine writer? Oh wait, that’s not true, I’m not a wine writer.

    I think you left out an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to critical wine writing. Intellectual yes, the ability to get a long with many personalities, also a yes, but a good wine writer also has to be gutsy enough to call it like it is and then stand their ground.

    In that way, they aren’t like the loaner on the outside looking in, but more like the quiet smart kid who one day beats the hell out of the jock/cheer-leader to protect some girl/guy he/she has secretly liked all year.

    I see that last quality missing in some “wine writers.” They want to be liked by everyone, so they always seem on the fence about EVERYTHING, unable to fully call it like they see it. “I don’t like this! Well, maybe I do. Hey, this is great stuff!”

    If you can’t stand up for your lady/guy from time to time, what’s the point of it all? Oh yeah, free wine and invites to posh events…

  7. Steve,

    I want to respond to this and the previous post in one comment, so here it goes:

    Lack of insanity is the reason I fear of going to heaven – the place reserved for wine lovers who do not put a well-made sparkler at the top of their favorite wine list.

  8. Great post! There’s a little bit of crazy in everyone!

  9. Hey, I’m very attractive.

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