Have you heard the one about the businessman who asks a sommelier for a bottle of 1982 Pétrus (a great vintage from a top Pomerol estate which can retail for up to £3,000) and a coke? After receiving his drinks, the businessman promptly pours a slug of the coke into his glass of Pétrus, much to the bemusement and horror of his dining companion. He then ostentatiously displays the bottle in full view of other diners in the restaurant. On being questioned about his actions, the businessman replies, with a shrug, "I just don't like the taste of red wine."
Wine snobbery! That's how bad it can be. Where buying values are distorted and based on pretension, not appreciation. Where cash counts, and limited knowledge reigns supreme over diffidence. The above story was loosely taken from an account in Malcolm Gluck's book 'Wine Matters'. But how is it that wine can create such snobbery? After all, growing grapes is just farming. Making wine is simply the fermentation of grape juice. Why can alcoholic grape juice take on cult status; become the elixir of the rich and command such unbelievable sums of money?
Wine writers, critics, Parker. They would have us believe that wine is a tricky subject only to be tackled by the elite. Rot. Robert Parker, former US lawyer turned number one wine critic, created the points system for judging wines. He gives all wines that he tastes a score out of 100. On the face of it, 'wine by numbers' is a handy benchmarking tool. It allows comparisons. However, it has also spawned a generation of winemakers tripping over themselves to make wines worthy of the almost elusive 100, which would guarantee them a very comfortable retirement. It has also played into the hands of the wine snob. It makes buying wines easy. Get on the 'phone and order a few cases of everything produced last year with a rating of 96 and above. Simple. Don't care whether it is to one's taste. Haven't got any, but Parker says it is good. Wine taste is subjective, though, and personal. But one has to experiment to find out what one likes. Wine snobs don't experiment!
Some would say the French are to blame for wine snobbery. They are the past masters at getting one over the English. I mean, who invented sparkling wine? The English of course, in 1662. Tom Stevenson, in his Encyclopaedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, tells us that according to a paper presented to The Royal Society that year by Thomas Merrett, the English wine makers were "....adding sugar and molasses to all sorts of wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling." The English were ahead of the game because at the beginning of the century they had replaced wood-fired furnaces with those fuelled by coal, and coal's higher burning temperature created glass bottles tough enough to withstand the internal pressure created by sparkling wine. The French, on the other hand, were trying to eradicate bubbles from their wine at the time, had much weaker glass, and were using wooden stoppers, not cork, which had no hope of sealing bottles effectively. But who is it, today, that makes and sells the world's most famous, the most expensive, the most sought after and arduously protected sparkling wine, and has done since about 1692? Yes, the Champenoise of France.
The French must have created this mystique about wine. And not only have they got it cracked at the production end, what about when the wine reaches the restaurant? What nationality is the sommelier? Who is it that responds with a snarl to any suggestion of a cheaper wine and a Gallic shrug if one musters the courage to complain of cork taint? Com çi, Com ça! Little wonder we assume the role of ignorant philistine. Snobbery does that to its victims.
Still, there's been a lot to knock the French off their perch. The 1976 'Judgement of Paris' is one painful period in history which went a long way to stop snobbery about French wines. This episode brought together eleven distinguished wine tasters (nine of whom were French) to blind taste the best French white Burgundies and red Bordeaux wines against up-and-coming Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. It was set up by Steven Spurrier (then a wine merchant in Paris) who wanted to draw attention to California as a new and interesting wine-growing region. Nobody could have predicted the outcome. The tasters unanimously favoured the Californian wines above the French, and propelled this new world region and some of the wineries into stardom.
Much has been done to remove snobbery elsewhere too. Take the supermarkets, for example. Everyone damns them. They are responsible for everything from screwing the farmers, monopolising high streets and ruining town planning, adding to pollution with all that packaging and extra food miles, to bullying the wine producers. That may be true but what they have done, which is positive for the wine consumer, is make wine more accessible. More information is available, labelling is customer-friendly and most people in the country can afford to drink wine. Wine doesn't have to be a mystery anymore. Knowledge is power, but the knowledge is being democratised through the media and other channels too. A little bit of know-how can go a long way. Recognising a few grape varieties, for example, makes choosing a bottle of wine a more pleasurable act than a frenzied random clutch at the prettiest-labelled mid-shelf offering. Dissemination of information equals death to the wine snob.
Corks are on their way out. Discuss.
Endless articles have been written on the merits of various closures, so no need to do that here. The point is aesthetics. How can a wine snob open a bottle of wine that does not require a corkscrew? Surely the very presence of a screwcap damns a bottle of wine to the (now mythical) £3.99 price point. It could not possibly be good enough to pour on one's chips, let alone imbibe for the purpose of vinous pleasure. Take away the wine snobs' props and watch them falter.
Supermarkets have been given an airing, but it is not just supermarkets that have changed the world of wine. Traditional channels of selling wine have been augmented with new ones. The availability of excellent quality wines from all over the world has given rise to a broader spectrum of independent wine merchants who can sell their wares via the ether, through the post and (oh how pedestrian) face to face in a shop. Those wine lovers that like what they drink and drink what they like now have an even wider base from which to explore the world of wine. Wine snobs, however, don't go beyond their comfort zone. They buy from where they are 'meant' to buy from: 'proper' traditional wine merchants; traditional auction houses; at the vineyard.
So how is it that there is still mystery and romance which nourishes the wine snob, despite all this effort to make wine comprehensible to the masses?
Some wines are iconic, and many wineries strive to create new ones, craving that gravy train of eager punters willing to part with obscene amounts of cash. Wine is a legitimate investment vehicle and a collector's prized possession in much the same way as are original paintings, classic cars and antiques. The most expensive treasures rarely see daylight. Too valuable to be handled. But wine also brings immense pleasure of a different kind to those who appreciate its taste. Whether it is a recognised name or the modest result of a family's lifetime of achievement somewhere in the world, it can be magical.
The wine snob looks set to stay. Perhaps, after all, there is more to wine than mere farming and the fermentation of grape juice.....