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Are you a wine wanker?


I am.

Wanker [from Wiktionary}:  (UK, Australia, New Zealand, slang, pejorative) An idiot, a stupid, annoying or ineffectual person who shows off too much, a poser or poseur; someone who is overly self-satisfied.

The Brits and their island relatives south of the equator love the word “wank” which in addition to the above meaning has so many other colorful implications. In the context of wine, it shows up in this article, in yesterday’s Sydney [Australian] Morning Herald, in which the writer, Nick Bhasin, was swirling and sniffing wine at an office party when one of his co-workers said to him, “It’s hard to do that and not look like a wanker.”

I never had any preconceptions about wine wankiness when I was coming up. When I moved to San Francisco and fell into the wine culture, we all swirled and sniffed, held the wine against a white tablecloth to see how clear it was, “chewed” it as if it were meat, thoughtfully appreciated its finish, and then, afterward, talked about it with the excited animation of a cadre of Giants fans debating Tim Lincecum’s abilities as a pitcher. (If you live here and hang out in sports bars, you know what I mean.)

In other words, I’ve always been comfortable being a wine wanker and being in the presence of wine wankers, although, even for me, there’s a limit. You can be wanky (or wonky) about wine without losing common sense and normal ways of talking.

But nobody should be embarrassed about their wine wankiness, as Nick Bhasin apparently was. He asked a “wine educator” for advice on how not to appear wanky, and she told him, “The glass doesn’t have to be raised to the sky in conductor-like fashion. And swirling can be done subtly, it doesn’t require much effort to swirl a glass properly at all – and it doesn’t require exaggerated facial expressions either.”

She’s surely right; one can easily imagine Fred Armisen, on Saturday Night Live, doing his Guy Fieri sthick as an out-of-control wank, gargling the Lafite, and sniffing it so hard it comes snorting out through his nose.

There are such people; we all have seen them, at tastings and such. Usually they’re amateurs. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. I often wonder, though, how we got to this position, where the merest, sincerest interest in wine is perceived by others as pretentious and fatuous. People don’t think that baseball or wrestling fans are pretentious. Personal aircraft owners talk about their planes all the time (try hanging out in Napa Valley) and, while it’s annoying to those of us who do not own such boy toys, I don’t think it’s pretentious. (Well, maybe a little.)

Yet wine talk and behavior has earned its own place of infamy. I guess partly it’s due to our American disdain for high culture. Wine is associated with the wealthy (although that’s a stupid attitude, because wine is really the beverage of the masses), and Americans have always had suspicions of the rich. Particularly suspect are people who aren’t rich but take on rich “airs”; and could any “air” be more offensive than swirling and sipping? Hence “wanker.”

I’ll just conclude by saying that I never exhibit my wankitude in public unless it’s in an appropriate setting. If I’m at a party where nobody cares about what they’re drinking, then neither do I. In my family, we do have certain members who seek me out at Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings to ask me to pronounce on various wines. I’m happy to oblige, but not at length, and not because I don’t want to offend anyone else, but because that’s not why I go to parties. I do my analysis thing when I review and I do my drinking thing when I drink, and I keep the two things separate. Still, after all these years, I never fail to be amused when someone who knows me well introduces me to someone who doesn’t with the words, “Steve’s a wine expert.” The other person’s eyes open wide and, while they search for something to say, I can almost hear them thinking, “He’s a wank [or wonk].”

  1. The English have a better word for the sort you describe. It’s pronounced: tw@

  2. I love this humorous and relevant article. I have to say that I have a hard time finding blog articles that are informative and fun to read about wine. You seem to have a splattering of professional industry specific articles that require intermediate to advanced knowledge of the industry all the way down to the newest wine drinker out there. Bravo Heimoff, my readership was already won over but I’m sure to recommend you to friends now.

    You could have easily made this another article about “How to not be a wine snob” and instead you repackaged it, put it on a unique platter and then used yourself as a prime example. Sorry the student in me just jumped out there with a bit of reading comprehension.

    Being 25 I try not to push wine onto my friends so as not to scare them off, or at work with new wine drinkers. I am always aware of not coming off as the “Wine Wanker” you’ve described. Instead I find myself describing the whimsical interest and romance that wine has to offer us. They always come around if you can paint a portrait of the things they can feel when they immerse themselves in wine.(figuratively) I guess I don’t have a point to make after all.

  3. Let’s get something straight (not meant to be a bad pun) about wank. Whether you mean it in the “idiot” sense or in its more colorful, and original, scatalogical sense, wank and wonk are totally different things.

    You perhaps are unaware but wonk is know spelled backwards and wonks are usually pretty prouds of being wonks. I don’t know anyone who is proud of being a wanker–at least not publicly.

  4. Charlie, I meant “wonk” in the sense that, sometimes, when cultural critics refer to “policy wonks” they mean people who have such a narrow point of view that they can’t see the forest for the trees. This often occurs in government bureaucracies where entrenched tradition outweighs innovation and fresh approaches to problems.

  5. Take a look at the Whitehaven Logo ( That is the Definition of wanker.

  6. i usually just call myself a wine snob, but i am sure that any derogatory term would work. while i am happy to drink a $5 trader joe’s wine out of a mason jar, i honestly couldn’t enjoy a really nice wine without swirling, sniffing, and thinking about it.

    on a (somewhat) related note, i have recently signed up for a class on tasting wine “components”, where we taste for things like VA and Brett. The first class was a general tasting, and it was interesting trying to figure out who really does have a sharp palate, and who is full of shit. After the second class, it starts to become more obvious. people talk about guava paste and meyer lemon but can’t identify basic wine components are what i think of as “wine wankers”.

  7. gabe, great observations. You are a wine writer manqué.

  8. Keasling says:

    Love the comment Gabe. Reminds me of a Ron Burgundy quote from Anchorman. And speaking of being allowed to be a wine wanker in certain circles, can’t wait to play the roll this weekend at the Williams Selyem release party. Cheers to being a Yankee wanker!

  9. Spent a bit of time down under and have been called a wanker a few times by my mates. Never occurred to me there was the definition of wanker milder than the literal one. Don’t think it ever occurred to them either.

  10. thanks steve! my wine writing is actually incredibly boring. its mostly about pH and so2. i much prefer to read what interesting writers have to say and add my two cents…think of me as a wine critic critic 🙂

  11. “imagine Fred Armisen, on Saturday Night Live, doing his Guy Fieri sthick…”

    I like the blog! Just to clarify, Bobby Moynihan is the SNL cast member who impersonates Fieri, not Fred Armisen.

  12. Jon: I stand corrected. Thanks.

  13. so, Charlie, if you’re a wank, walk the plank? and if you’re a wonk, grab some plonk?

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