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Wine Snobbery Explained

Read a selection of entries from the Wine Snob’s Dictionary

Wine snob. Isn’t that a redundancy, like saying wet rain or nuisance telemarketer?

Well, yes—there’s no getting around it. Central to the very premise of wine appreciation is the notion that it requires an advanced skill set; that, in order to most fully understand and enjoy the experience of sniffing and sipping fermented grape juice, one must have a cache of special knowledge to which mere ordinary people do not have access.

Wine Snobbery is, therefore, the default state of the wine enthusiast. In this regard, it is unique among Cultural Snobberies. In other realms, such as music, film, and food, the Snobs are the hard cases, the ones who have taken their passions to irrational extremes—devoting their lives to, say, the post-Monkees work of Michael Nesmith, or frame-by-frame dissections of Peter Jackson’s early splatter pics, or the pursuit of the perfect round of Portuguese semisoft sheep’s-milk cheese made with thistle rennet. We recognize such figures as grotesques, at best euphemizing them as “intense,” at worst calling them out as scary nutjobs.

The Wine Snob, on the other hand, can sit judgmentally as a bottle is presented to him, watch intently as its contents are decanted and poured, swirl the liquid centrifugally in his glass, hold the glass up to the light, lower it under his nose, close his eyes, take a sip, pause in contemplation, open his eyes, and declare what he has just drunk to be “Complex, cola and pencil-lead on the nose, with leather, dust, barnyard, and raspberry on the mid-palate, and a medium-long, tannic finish”—and not only will this man not be led away in restraints to the sanitarium; he will find himself actually being admired for his taste and acumen.

Far from existing on the freaky margins of society, like the ever-resentful Rock Snob or the madly dogmatic Food Snob, the Wine Snob commands center stage in his chosen area of cultural fanaticism. Still, as much as the Wine Snob is widely and correctly perceived to be the archetypal wine connoisseur, his profile and tendencies—precisely who he is—are only dimly understood.

There persists an outmoded notion that the Wine Snob is necessarily wealthy, well-born, and Francophilic, when, in fact, Wine Snobbery has many faces, some of them surprisingly homely. Indeed, one of the reasons the 2004 film Sideways proved so jarring was that it revealed a breed of Wine Snob that, while eminently recognizable to other Snobs, was unfamiliar to the public: a drab schlub who knows his stuff and commands the respect of winemakers and pourers, but who is also professionally unsuccessful and abjectly unglamorous. (Indeed, the film’s surprise-hit status sent Snobs into defense mode, railing against purported slights and inaccuracies: C’mon, the Central Coast isn’t even representative of the rest of California! He’s totally wrong about Merlot—it only happens to underpin some of the greatest Bordeaux of all time! Well, let me tell you that I’ve never stolen money from my mother!)

There are Wine Snobs all around us, and they range widely in age, income bracket, and hair length. There’s the standard-issue hedonist-aesthete, for whom Wine Snobbery is another trait in the portfolio, along with the vintage-car fetish and the permanent tan. There’s the hippie-ish evangelist who wears muddied boots and baggy shorts, and likes to remind you that viticulture is a kind of farming, man, and that the juice you’re diggin’ tells a magical story about the special chunk of earth from which its grapes came. There’s the NFL offensive lineman who’s spent his signing bonus on an insta-cellar and learned about wine from the top down, evolving from label whore (“Pétrus! Awesome!") into shrewd collector (“An Araujo vertical! Awesome!”).

Put simply, you never know when or where you’re going to encounter a Wine Snob. And then, before you know it, you’re weathering a storm of terms like malo, extracted, and Cab Franc leafiness that leaves you feeling bewildered, humiliated, excluded, and inclined to drink nothing but beer. (Which will expose you to Microbrew Snobs, who speak a still-more-incomprehensible language of “porters,” “doppelbocks,” and “dunkel weiss,” but never mind.)

The Wine Snob’s Dictionary equips its reader with the tools and survival skills to endure a Wine Snob encounter, and possibly even disarm the Snob with a casual reference that he doesn’t see coming—to, say, “the ’82 Cheval Blanc I was fortunate enough to share with Kermit,” or “the damnable, spoofalated swill that the McMansioners drink.” The book further serves as a helpful cheat sheet for those who simply wish to understand advanced-placement wine chat without actually getting caught up in tastings and spit buckets, and as a legitimate study guide for trainee Snobs who aspire to be wine professionals. Would-be sommeliers are warned, however, that even a book such as this is no substitute for experience, runty stature, a persecution complex, and a tightly cinched dark suit offset by an assaultively loud necktie.

A Brief History of Wine Snobbery

Though references to wine abound in the Bible and in ancient classical literature (the word symposium is a corruption of a Greek term meaning “drinking party”), Wine Snobbery as we know it dates back only to the middle of the nineteenth century. It was in 1855, on the occasion of that year’s Exposition Universelle de Paris, that Napoleon III enlisted his country’s wine merchants to put together a system of ranking and categorization for its finest Bordeaux wines. The result, the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855—or, in Snob shorthand, the 1855 Classification—was at once baldly hierarchical and utterly idiosyncratic: ideal breeding conditions for Snobbery.

There were already plenty of wine shops in the Anglophone world—such as London’s Berry Bros. & Rudd, founded in 1698, and New York’s Acker, Merrall & Condit, founded in 1820—but the advent of classification system, with its Premier Crus (first growths) and exalted Châteaux, equipped wine-lovers with a common set of standards to be upheld, absorbed, dissected, and showboated. In Britain especially, it became the mark of a true oenophile to drink one’s way through all the classified Bordeaux and jot down tasting notes about one’s impressions, as much for purposes of social one-upmanship as for one’s own edification.

The image of the Wine Snob as a fancy English or Anglophile toff remains powerful in the public imagination, as antiquated as it now is; only the white-haired wine sage Michael Broadbent has legitimately played such a role in contemporary Snob discourse. But not for nothing has the image persisted in America. The period of Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, was such a profound setback to winemaking in the United States that it really wasn’t until the 1970s that there was enough indigenous wine of high quality to get Snobby about. Prior to the Nixon presidency, American Wine Snobs, their ranks thin and suspiciously emigré-heavy, looked invariably to Europe.

But in the ’70s, events conspired to legitimize both American wine and American oenophilia, opening entirely new frontiers for Wine Snobbery. In the so-called Judgment of Paris, a collection of condescending French judges, presumably on loan from central casting, convened for a blind tasting of French and American wines, and, to their utter consternation, reserved their highest praise for a Chardonnay crafted by Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich and a Cabernet Sauvignon crafted by Napa Valley winemaker Warren Winiarski. Near the end of the decade, a thirtysomething Maryland lawyer named Robert Parker gave flight to his latent Wine Snob urges and came out with a newsletter called the Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate (its name later shortened) that connected with a like-minded audience of young adults who pleasured in tilting balloon glasses into their faces for extended periods of time.

Parker instituted a practice of rating wines on a 100-point scale, which, while much more user-friendly and easier to comprehend than the Bordeaux classifications, essentially opened up all wines to scrutiny and discussion. Suddenly, there was much more wine out there to be knowing about, and much more knowingness to be achieved through borrowed opinion. The Wine Advocate became, and remains, a Snob juggernaut.

As is so often the case in Snob discourse, where yesterday’s indie band/film/coffeehouse becomes today’s corporate sellout, the upstart Parker soon enough morphed into the Establishment, bemoaned for his outsize influence and alleged preference for “international-style” wines whose makers have crafted their products just to please him. Yet this has hardly sounded the death knell for Wine Snobbery; rather, it has created a powerful new strain of Reverse Snobbery in which wines and winemakers are esteemed for existing off the Parker grid. As with Food Snobbery, which has taken on a locavorist, sustainable-ista, sociopolitical dimension in recent years, Wine Snobbery is now sometimes informed by a crunchy consciousness that finds its adherents proclaiming their fealty to the purity of terroir and “zero-manipulation” wines.

Meanwhile, Parker’s Establishment Snobbery trundles ever onward, turning small-batch favorites like Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvingnon and Mollydooker Velvet Glove Shiraz into feverishly pursued cult wines. And somewhere, heard faintly from old drawing rooms with faded wallpaper and Noël Coward playing on the Victrola, there still persist a few members of the old Brit-Snob school who insist on calling an aroma a “bouquet” and a red Bordeaux a “claret.” Wine Snobbery is, like the wines it inordinately celebrates, a living thing that changes over time.

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