Looking for Answers in the “New” Wine Culture

By Stephen Eliot

It is said that the new era of wine appreciation is one of freedom, of being able to make your own choices finally freed of the critics and so-called gatekeepers who have for years capitalized on so-called consumer insecurity. Wine is at last being demystified, we are told, yet ironically there has never been a time when the conversation about fine wine is subject to so much vehement opinion about what is right and what is wrong. Philosophical extreme seems the norm, and, if some have found confidence that comes with new vinous religion, I suspect that far more would-be wine lovers are left more “insecure” than ever.

Now, I have never understood how wanting to know was the sign of insecurity. When new to wine, I listened and asked questions and read what those in the wine business have to say. I continue to do so today, but I hear far too little commentary lately that essentially says I like this or that wine for these reasons and you should give it a try. Rather, we are bombarded with absolute statements about what is proper and right from folks who are looking to assume the very positions of those-called gatekeepers whom they rejoice in having overthrown.

I often wonder what I would call the “average” wine consumer thinks of the ongoing battle for hearts and minds that pits advocates of ripeness and richness against champions of restraint and low alcohol. It is a battle that has insidiously worked its way into a good many aspects of contemporary wine culture. It would be easy enough for the interested, but inexperienced, wine drinker to conclude that there are essentially two models for wine and that they are as bipolar as bipolar can get. The rhetoric gets downright caustic at times, and friendly discussion has given way to monologues of extremes wherein the vast middle ground is ignored. If the novice was made to feel insecure by “educated” wine snobs of old, does the new politics of wine offer more secure footing? I cannot see how it does.

The truth is that there are tens of thousands of new wines available to the wine lover today and tens of thousands more waiting with each new vintage. They will, as they always have, run the gamut in style from big, bold and dramatic to subtle and nuanced. Some will be over the top and some will be anemic and thin. They will all find their fans, or the label will cease to exist. It is not at all unreasonable that when confronting such a bewildering range of choices, the consumer might seek advice from a voice that makes sense to them. That is hardly admitting to insecurity. But, to be of real value, that voice must be inclusive. It needs to be one grounded in experience with wines of all sorts, and it should not be one that drips with disdain for wines other than those made in one narrow style. The wine world is too big and too interesting to be left in the care of those who will not see. One thing I have learned over the years is that there are wines of great beauty to be had in an extraordinary range of styles; beauty easily missed when dogma and polemic rear their heads.

In the end, it is not the writers, the critics, the sommeliers, the retailers nor the peripatetic tweeters and bloggers that will decide what is worth drinking; it is the people who actually buy and enjoy wine and whose curiosity is not co-opted by rigid philosophy.


 

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