Wednesday, August 13, 2008

But What's Wrong With Wine Snobbery?

I'll tell you. But first let's pretend you and I are out on a deck on a summer night somewhere in the vast sections of North America where you can still see stars and you ask me "is it wrong to wish on space hardware?" What the hell are you talking about? Except I know what you're talking about, we have a shared cultural experience and are connecting through it. In a limited sense we are spending Cultural Capital. This is a theory, or rather set of theories used in Sociology to explain how people use knowledge and life experience much like currency to advance themselves. Pierre Bourdieu is credited w/ introducing this concept (which was introduced to me by a sociologist friend, Sam) and you can do your own research if you want to learn more, I don't have the time or space to do so here. But it is an interesting framework for discussing many current cultural topics. It could help explain, for instance, why Barack Obama has been easily portrayed as elitist, effete and out-of-touch with the average American by the McCain Campaign. This seems counter intuitive since Obama grew up w/ a solidly middle class, single mother who was a student and academic and he only began to make serious money in the last decade after his books were published. McCain is the son of an Admiral and his second marriage to the heiress of the 3rd largest beer distribution company in the U.S. puts him squarely in the domain of the super-wealthy. But although Obama's education and life experience have worked like currency to help him advance to a Presidential nominee, they don't count when dealing with the working class of much of the middle U.S. But enough politics, cultural capital also applies to wine.

A cursory knowledge of wine has long been considered a sign of culture and class among the members of the Landed Gentry or social elite. In hoping to become accepted by these small social circles the wealthy along with the literati or intelligentsia (academics) have long sought to increase their cultural capital by learning as much as possible about fine dining and beverages. Often they over-compensate for humble backgrounds by knowing more than there noble hosts about said dish or wine or brandy etc. I know this description seems anachronistic, like a period film set in a 1930's British Estate or something, but the basic premise remains intact. In some places and cultural settings knowing something about wine is valued while in many others it is not. So what's the problem? A few people learn a lot about wine and are passionate about it, while most others not only don't understand wine, they don't understand why anyone should want to: they don't care. Except there are lots of people these days who do care, who are interested but are intimidated by the levels of specialization and sophistication that are often displayed by the "wine elites". This is where snobbery hurts.

A snob is not, as some have suggested, simply a person who cares about what they eat, drink, watch etc. I think most people have opinions about what they eat and drink and how the spend their free time. Their likes may be different than yours, but not worse. So a snob is, to borrow from the online dictionary, "a person who believes himself or herself an expert or connoisseur in a given field and is condescending toward or disdainful of those who hold other opinions or have different tastes regarding this field: a musical snob. " I think most of us can immediately sense when some feels superior to us because of their knowledge in a particular field and it is, quite simply, off-putting. When dealing with wine this leads many who would otherwise be willing and interested participants to become defensive and engage in so called "reverse snobbery". It's a vicious cycle and it does no one any good. If your whole sense of self-worth is based on knowing more about something (wine) than others that's fine, enjoy your life of constant doubt. But for the rest of us we should attempt to share our knowledge with others in a friendly, non-hierarchical manner realizing that everyone knows more about something than we do. We all have acquired some cultural capital that's worth sharing rather than spending.


Mike Drapkin said...

Agree with you on all points. A mentor of mine in the wine biz told me to shut my mouth and listen. You learn more that way than being the loud,intolerant, opinionated dude muscle flexing his knowledge for all to see. Nobody likes that person. Thanks for the insightful post.

Beau Rapier said...

Thanks Mike, and sorry to here about the Cousin wine, that's a bummer I'm familiar with.