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Matt Kramer got it right about bullies who put wine down

12 comments

 

This think piece by Matt Kramer is a little opaque.(I hope you can open the Wine Spectator link.)  I had to read it twice to understand it—and I’m not sure I do even now—but it seems to be a rebuttal to the notion, widespread in America and somewhat anti-intellectual, that expertise is a form of pretentious bull. With specific regard to wine, Matt asserts that “what we [tasters] taste is real,” his J’accuse! to the doubters who, reading things about Rudi Kuriawan, or how even “experts” can be fooled, think that wine expertise is just so much hooey.

If that was Matt’s point, he’s got it right: great numbers of Americans don’t take wine seriously, even if they drink it, and some of them think that those of us who do take wine seriously are somehow illegitimate—less than true, red-blooded Americans. How and why this notion go so widespread is not hard to understand. It’s not that people think any form of expertise is bunk. Baseball fans respect the serious fact-collector who can cite ERAs going back fifty years. Nobody disrespects an epidemiologist who can cite instances of out-of-control diseases going back to the plague. We listen to movie reviewers thoroughly familiar with the genre.

But when it comes to expertise in wine, people tend to raise their eyebrows. I’ve encountered such skeptical behavior my whole career. It’s like when I meet someone and I tell then what I do for a living, their reaction is a mixture of disbelief, amusement and pity. “Really?” They seem to say. “You get paid for that?” If I was getting paid to be a CIA analyst tracking the worldwide movement of terrorists (another form of expertise) I’d get some respect. Even a restaurant reviewer would be seen in some sort of positive light. For that matter, if I was a whiskey expert, I think people would be respectful.

But wine? Something about it still weirds people out. This is related to what Matt calls “a bullying anti-intellectualism with a long history in America.” It’s the same kind of anti-intellectualsm that still manifests itself as a suspicion of science in this country. When I was a little boy, people called Adlai Stevenson, who ran for President twice as a Democrat (and lost to Eisenhower) “an egghead,” a disparaging word for someone who was educated and tended to think in complex, analytical ways, rather than with emotional gut reactions.

Why should wine, of all foods and beverages, be consigned to the egghead bin of history? It’s not really clear to me, except that, as an historian of wine, I understand its centrality to Western civilization and culture. Our greatest minds didn’t necessarily drink wine (and with most of them, we don’t know if they did or didn’t, for history didn’t record it. Did Aristotle drink wine? Did Thomas Aquinas? Did Shakespeare, Pascal, Gutenburg?) But there is something about wine that is unlike beer or spirits. I can’t pinpoint it, except to say it is a thinking person’s alcoholic beverage. It’s a drink that smart men and women enjoy. I’m not dissing beer and spirits drinkers;; I happen to like both myself. I’m suggesting that wine somehow appeals to a very high level of consciousness in our brains. It awakens something cerebral and thoughtful, but not everybody enjoys being thoughtful. For some people, thoughtfulness is a distraction, or worse, an indulgence in something they don’t even believe in. These are the sorts of people Matt writes about: “skeptics of sensory value, who fancy themselves penetrating thinkers,” when they’re really not.

The history of Prohibitionism in this country is rife with such figures. Whenever they rise up and have power, our country takes a step backwards in its inevitable progress toward the future. So next time you’re enjoying a nice glass of wine, smile at yourself inwardly, and know that you’re helping our country become a better place, for in a very real sense—in carrying the wine flag high—you are.

  1. Kurt Burris says:

    Unfortunately there is a strong streak of anti intellectualism in this country. I have heard more than one pundit debunk a position by shrugging their shoulders and say, “Well, I’m not a scientist (or economist, or doctor, or wine expert(with a sneer)).

  2. Steve, have you read the article to which Kramer refers at the beginning of his article? If not, I highly recommend you do. I actually think Matt did not understand Adam’s original article (which by the way, was published 10 years ago). Gropnik’s point with that get drunk statement was that without people thinking and talking (and writing) about wine all that is left is getting drunk. Gropnik’s article does a better job at making Kramer’s point than Kramer attempts himself. That it appears in the likes of the Wine Spectator is rich indeed. Gropnik argues that the points and the hierarchical categorization of wine devalues wine and is in essence a form of bullying. While I agree with your’s and Kramer’s assertions that bullying in the wine world is bad, I think both you and he misunderstood the subjects of your respective articles.

  3. Kyle may have a valid point: Javier, a reader from NY mentioned that Matt’s response was out of proportion. According to Javier, Adam Gotcha describes the crucial role that the “ideology” of wine plays in making wine more than just fermented grape juice, but into a dynamic, malleable, and fascinatingly cultural process. “Wine isn’t (or ought not be)something dead that we labor to taxonomize and thus use as a yardstick to measure our own proficiency and expertise, but rather an ongoing interaction between vintners, patrons, connoisseurs, industry, and consumers.”

    Here is another line of direct quote from Adam: “…without the elaborate language-without the idea of wine, help up and regularly polished-it would all be about the same, or taste that way. Wine talk and wine ceremony are not simply snobbish distractions that lead us away from the real experience; they are part of what lets the experience happen.”

    I’m going to have glasses of wine tonight and smile at myself OUTWARDLY – our team, the SF Giants won and is going to NLCS. Hooray!

  4. Mike Mora says:

    Let’s face it many of these “experts” are pretentious and heavy handed in their behavior.
    In addition the fact that most of the “experts” have had and/or have conflicts of interest as well in some cases being outright unethical, there’s good reason to be skeptical.
    That’s of course is a good part of critical thinking, figuring out why a particular opinion is being expressed and whether or not there’s more than meets the eye in its expression.
    Beyond that critical drinking is really the best solution to “expert” opining.

  5. MORTON HOCHSTEIN says:

    If I was getting paid to be a CIA analyst tracking the worldwide movement of terrorists (another form of expertise) I’d get some respect. Even a restaurant reviewer would be seen in some sort of positive light. For that matter, if I was a whiskey expert, I think people would be respectful – See more at: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2014/10/08/matt-kramer-got-it-right-about-bullies-who-put-wine-down/#sthash.ohKfD34F.dpuf

    I agree wholeheartedly steve, but I have to question your grammar . .If I were not if I was would be less abusive of the English language. mort

  6. MORTON HOCHSTEIN says:

    I object to the use of If I was, which really should read if I were…situation contrary to fact. you know that, seve.

  7. Dan Fishman says:

    It seems like not only did Kramer misinterpret (or misrepresent) the original article, Steve then went onto misunderstand Kramer:

    Steve says:
    “It’s the same kind of anti-intellectualsm that still manifests itself as a suspicion of science in this country.”

    Yet I’d say the one paragraph that best sums up Kramer’s point is:
    “I mention this because we wine lovers are subject to a larger trend in modern American life, namely, an openly voiced doubt about the veracity of the senses. Our culture today finds questionable anything that can’t be “scientifically proved”—which is another way of saying “quantified.””

    Seems like Kramer is suspicious of science’s ability to describe everything.

  8. Yes, bravo Dan!

  9. Bob Henry says:

    If readers clicking on Steve’s proffered link to Matt Kramer’s column get this message . . .

    “page not found

    “We’re Sorry…

    “The page you’re looking for could not be found. Our team has been notified of this problem.

    “You can try searching for content by using our General Site Search tool or one of our specialized search tools:

    “Tasting Notes Database
    “Hotels Search
    “Retailers Search
    “Winery Search
    “Restaurant Search

    “If you’d like more information, please contact us.”

    . . . here’s an alternate link to Matt’s column:

    http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/50654

    [As for Matt Kramer citing the Adam Gopnik 2004 “A Critic At Large” column in the New Yorker, the first five paragraphs are obscured by a floating advertisement . . .]

    Excerpt from The New Yorker
    (September 26, 2004):

    “Through A Glass Darkly;
    What do we talk about when we talk about wine?”

    By Adam Gopnik
    “A Critic At Large” Column

    Somewhere in the middle pages of “1984,” Winston Smith is being inducted into the shadowy and, as it turns out, nonexistent “Brotherhood” of resistance to Big Brother, and, to celebrate, the Inner Party member O’Brien pours him a glass of wine. Winston has never had wine before, but he has read about it, and he is desperately excited to try it, since he expects it to taste like blackberry jam and to be instantly intoxicating. Instead, of course, the wine tastes the way wine tastes the first time you taste it — a bit acidic and bitter — and a single sip, or glass, isn’t intoxicating at all. The intensity of this experience as a model of disappointment was significant enough for Orwell so that he inserted it in his dystopia right there among all the greater horrors — as though the future weren’t bad enough, that whole wine thing will go on, too.

    Fifty years later, we live in a wine world where, for the first time, there are wines that do taste like blackberry jam and are instantly intoxicating, or nearly so, and how these wines came into being is the subject of a new book, “Noble Rot” (Norton; $24.95), by William Echikson. The book tells the story of the wine life of the Bordeaux region of France over the past twenty years, and, though Echikson does not quite have the narrative skills to assemble it, he lays out all the pieces of a first-class Henry James comedy about the brutality of American innocence, the helplessness of French sophistication, and the need for intoxicants that are always called by some other name and claimed for some other purpose.

    “Wine,” Saul Steinberg once said, “is the only thing that makes us happy as adults for no reason.” Wine books, on the other hand, find a hundred ways of making us unhappy for lots of reasons. The space between what the wine writers say and what the wine novice tastes is a standard subject of satire. (The best was written, exactly contemporary with Orwell, by Stephen Potter in the “Winemanship” section of his peerless “Lifemanship” books.) But some of the wine-writing weakness is more complex. Being an expert on wine and writing about it is what the English call “naff,” embarrassing and uncool, while being a non-expert on wine and writing about it anyway sounds merely boozy. No subject produces a literature so anxious, expressed not so much in its grandiosity as in its defensive jokiness and regular-guydom. A book on wine will always begin with the assurance that it is not like all those other books on wine, even though all those other books on wine begin by saying that they’re not like those other books on wine, either.

    Echikson is no exception, and includes a lot of normal-person-like-you, let’s-demystify-this-stuff talk. But he also embarks on some absorbing storytelling, in a form now familiar from ten years of the little-thing/big-thing books: take a micro-history of something or other (cod, salt, the color mauve) and turn it into a macro-history of something else that provides, in parable, a mega-history of some larger third thing. Echikson’s micro-history is that of Château d’Yquem, the Bordeaux château that makes the greatest sweet white wine in the world and that, in the past decade, passed from private hands into those of a conglomerate. (“Noble rot” is the term of art for the mold that settles occasionally on some Sémillon grapes and makes them sweeter.) His macro-history is that of the wine region of Bordeaux generally, which also got transformed, though for different reasons, and ended up making bigger, stronger, fatter blackberry-jammish wines. His mega-story is the canonical one of backward France and forward America.

    Echikson’s approach lands him with a problem that he never really solves: he is telling a big story about dry red wine through the vehicle of the small story of a sweet white wine. While, as a writer, Echikson is not a man who, seeing a cliché go winking by, can easily resist its charms — Gallic tempers rise, tensions flare at the top end of the market, and a golden world of the past seems lost, and that’s all one page of the preface — he has the crucial journalist’s knack for getting the confidence of people who ought to be wary of talking to him. (And who now are sorry they did: he is being sued for defamation in France.)

    . . .

    BOB’s INTERJECTION: Now click on this link to the magazine’s website and continue reading the balance of Gopnik’S column:

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/09/06/through-a-glass-darkly-4

  10. Bob Henry says:

    While my comment is awaiting moderation, this excerpt from a Mike Steinberger “Potables” column at Slate:

    From Slate
    (posted June 15, 2007):

    “Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam.
    Why wine writers talk that way.”

    Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/cherries_berries_asphalt_and_jam.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

    . . .

    One of the more famous assaults on the new language of wine came from novelist and children’s writer Roald Dahl, a renowned oenophile himself. In 1988, he wrote a letter to Britain’s Decanter magazine in which he lambasted as “tommyrot” the “extravagant, meaningless similes” that were suddenly being used to describe wines. “Wine … tastes primarily of wine — grape-juice, tannin, and so on,” Dahl wrote. “If I am wrong about this, and the great wine-writers are right, then there is only one conclusion. The chateaux in Bordeaux have begun to lace their grape-juice with all manner of other exotic fruit juices, as well as slinging in a bale or two of straw and a few packets of ginger biscuits for extra flavouring. Someone had better look into this.” He went on, “I wonder, by the way, if these distinguished persons know that their language has become a source of ridicule in many sensible wine-drinking households. We sit around reading them aloud and shrieking with laughter.”

    Actually, many wine writers, distinguished and otherwise, are acutely aware of the mockery their fanciful jargon attracts. Why cling to it, then? One reason is because it seems to have some basis in reality. . . .

  11. Bob Henry says:

    A footnote to my 3:10 am comment awaiting moderation:

    Pursuing Adam Gopnik’s praise of Stephen Potter . . .

    “The space between what the wine writers say and what the wine novice tastes is a standard subject of satire. (The best was written, exactly contemporary with Orwell, by Stephen Potter in the ‘Winemanship’ section of his peerless ‘Lifemanship’ books.)”

    . . . I found this excerpt online:

    http://www.heretical.com/potter/winesman.html

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