In Defense of Connoisseurship: Is Populist Wine Writing Dumbing Things Down?

By Stephen Eliot

I have spent the larger part of my professional life writing and teaching about wine. Neither pursuit has been about simplifying or dumbing down what is a rich and wonderfully fascinating field of interest, but rather they have been about education and understanding both for myself and, I hope, for those who came to me with questions. I have been called a wine geek but never, at least to my face, a wine snob, and I admit to growing annoyance at the regularity these days of populist commentary that is quick to dismiss studied wine appreciation as snobbish, silly and vain.

I question the endless and oh-so-monotonous claims that so many people are intimated and confused about wine that it needs to be demystified. And, while it may be heresy to the populists that rule the blogosphere, I would offer the thought that plumbing its mysteries is precisely part of what makes fine wine so endlessly appealing. Fine wine, I would argue, wants contemplation and thought.

We talk about complexity, terroir, a sense of place and authenticity, but these are properties the recognition and appreciation of which owe to an experienced and educated palate. There are no short cuts, no six-easy-rules that will make for overnight mastery despite what internet chatter might claim.

Admittedly, not everyone seeks mastery, and I suspect that the majority of wine drinkers do not, but as far back as I can recall, to my days selling wine while in graduate school, most everyone looking to buy something for more than a quick buzz seemed to have questions and wanted to know more. My job both then and now, and that of every conscientious writer, retailer and sommelier who genuinely loves their craft is to open new doors rather than dazzling from on high with our far-reaching knowledge.

Sad to say, fine wine does not come cheap. There are no great wines priced at five dollars and there have not been for decades. We in the wine business who have devoted our careers to getting the word out are at least in part to blame. It may be, as it has been rightly stated, that there is more good wine to be had than ever before, but there are also a great many more interested consumers chasing them down, and I would argue most are not stymied by insecurity and confusion. The world’s thirst for good wine has not been driven by budding wine lovers paralyzed by fear.

There are many levels and no absolutes to connoisseurship. It is a personal and infinite process without check points leading to a fixed end. I take issue, however, with the notion that you can instantly know all you will ever need to know thanks to social media and quick-clicking on a couple of blogs, and the hapless denigration of those who hold otherwise strikes me as nothing more than reverse snobbism. It insults all of us who believe that anything worth knowing is worth knowing well.


 

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