snob hunting

Thursday, November 12, 2009

This is the wine book season, when publishers release the latest updates, revisions, exposés and guides in hopes of landing under someone’s holiday tree. It is the rare wine book – new or old – that does not immediately promise to take the “snobbery” out of wine. To make wine more “accessible.” To (finally!) relieve readers of the burden of plowing through dull wonkery, and instead, help them find the shortcut to wine pleasure.

I have dozens and dozens of wine books in my library, most of them now out of print. Amazingly, they all carry this same promise. I search in vain for one that says it will “enhance your appreciation of wine snobbery” or perhaps “put the snobbery back into wine – where it belongs.”

No less an authority than the late Alexis Lichine – an erudite man, a patron of the arts, a vineyard and chateau owner (Ch. Prieuré-Lichine), possessor of a most exquisitely educated palate – weighed in on the subject in his “Wines of France.” First published in 1951, the book went through at least five editions and numerous printings (my copy dates from 1973) – an extraordinary run for any book, let alone one devoted to wine.

The table of contents gives you a pretty good sense of Lichine’s sensibility. It begins with “Bordeaux – The Greatest Wine District”; moves on through a commune-by-commune examination of Burgundy, then tacks on “The Rhône Valley and Its Sturdy Wines”; “Provence and the Sunny Wines of the Riviera”; “The Charming Wines of the Loire”; and finally (last and most definitely least) “The White Wine of Alsace.”

Surely this must be the bastion of entrenched snobbery that every wine writer of the past four decades has been assaulting. Confident that I would find the holy grail of snoot that I’d been searching for in vain, I turned to a chapter entitled “Serving and Drinking Wine.” Aha! Here is the opening paragraph – tellingly headlined “Wine Rules”. Here for certain would be the very foundation of Lichine’s rarified approach to wine tasting. He writes:

“Drinking wine is one of life’s great pleasures. Through the centuries certain ideas about wine drinking have been formulated, as guides to help you get the most from a bottle. Personal preferences are more important than any rules. The rules themselves are little more than tested preferences… if rules inhibit your enjoyment of wines, there should be no rules. As you learn about wines by tasting them with your own palate, you will invent your own guides… what tastes right to your palate is likely to please another’s.”

Words written almost 60 years ago. Essentially, Lichine is saying toss out the rules. Trust your own palate. Maybe it’s time at last to retire the idea that the world is full of wine snobs who need to be fended off with more books. If there once was a surplus of snobs, there is no more. In fact, as far as I can tell, they are an extinct species.


Wawineman said...

Everyone who drinks wine has at least a "touch" of wine snobbery, and that's not always a bad trait.
-Chose a wine rated "90" over one rated "89"? Snob.
-Got all jacked up waiting for some organization's 'top 100' list? Snob.
-Only drink wine from a Riedel glass? Snob.
-Into pairing wines with specific foods? Snob.
-Thinking that a wine's "terroir" makes for great wine? Snob.
-Belong to an "cult" winery's wine club? Double Snob!
-"Reds for the autumn/winter, whites for spring/summer." Snob.
-Got more Twitter followers than me? Oh, you snob! j/k

I think wine "snobbery" is part of the winescape and I certainly enjoy poking fun at such qualities in others as well as myself. It's kinda like the floating cork bits in your glass of wine...mildly irritating at first sight, but harmless if accidentally ingested.

Andy Plymale said...

Paul, unrelatedly, do you consider price in your Wine Enthusiast ratings? I got to thinking about this when I saw the small point difference in relation to the price difference in your reviews of the Hedges CMS and Three Vineyards (old reviews, I think, on the web). Just curious, and sorry if this is posted on the web site already. -Andy

DrinkNectar said...

Paul - this is great information. I love the Lichine quote. My goal is to help people see that wine is meant for enjoying. Taste buds are unique, they should develop their own preference. Scoring systems and 'expert analysis' are great reference points but not the bible on wines.

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