Saturday, April 3, 2010

Wine Snobs

I must start off my saying I am (re)reading this hilarious book. Though it is tiny, it is mighty. Mighty odd. It was given to me by a friend as a joke a few years ago. (I didn't know anything about wine when I started working at Blackberry Farm at the beginning of my college years.) It's titled "The Wine Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Oenological Knowledge." I'm not kidding. 

I enjoy reading it. I laugh (out loud, of course) quite a bit. David Kamp and David Lynch were the authors of this delight. The information in it (so far) is spot on correct. And I am dying to know if they are honestly as stuck up and sarcastically hilarious as they come off, or are they just a couple of goofballs who appreciate wine for it's greatness. Maybe one in the same? I don't know, but I like it.

If you enjoy wine or are interested in learning more about it, this book is an entertaining way to learn more about wine. The introduction alone explains a lot of things about wine--both facts and cultural stigmas. I am going to share the introduction from the authors in full with you, so you can laugh and learn as well: 

"Wine Snob. Isn't that a redundancy, like saying wet rain or nuisance telemarketer?
     Well, yes--there's no getting around it. Central to the very premise of wine appreciation is the notion that is requires an advanced skill set; that, in order to most fully understand and enjoy the experience of sniffing and sipping fermented grape juice, one must have a cache of special knowledge to which mere ordinary people do not have access
    Wine Snobbery is, therefore, the default state of the wine enthusiast. In this regard, it is unique among Cultural Snobberies. In other realms, such as music, film, and food, the Snobs are the hard cases, the ones who have taken their passions to irrational extremes--devoting their lives to, say, the post-Mokees work of Michael Nesmith, or frame-by-frame dissections of Peter Jackson's early splatter pics, or the pursuit of the perfect round of Portuguese semisoft sheep's milk cheese made with thistle rennet. We recognize such figures as grotesques, at best euphemizing them as "intense," at worst calling them out as scary nutjobs.
     The Wine Snob, on the other hand, can sit judgmentally as a bottle is presented to him, watch intently as its contents are decanted and poured, swirl the liquid centrifugally in his glass, hold teh glass up to the light, lower it under his nose, close his eyes, take a sup, pause in contemplation, open his eyes, and declare what he has just drunk to be 'Complex, cola and pencil-lead on the nose, with leather, dust, barnyard, and raspberry on the mid-palate, and a medium-long, tannic finish'--and not only will this man not be led away in restraints to the sanitorium, he will find himself actually being admired for his taste and acumen.
     Far from existing on the freaky margins of society, like the ever-resentful Rock Snob or the madly dogmatic Food Snob, the Wine Snob commands center stage in his chosen area of cultural fanaticism. So why, then, should a book such as this one exist? Aren't there already plenty of wine references out there that are defacto guides to Wine Snobbery? In a world where library shelves groan with multiple titles by the likes of Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke, Hugh Johnson, and Andrea Robinson, is a Wine Snob's Dictionary really necessary? 
     As much as the Wine Snob is widely and correctly perceived to be the archetypal wine connoisseur, his profile and tendencies--precisely who he is--are only dimly understood. There persists an outmoded notion that the Wine Snob is necessarily wealthy, wellborn, and Francophilic, when, in fact, Wine Snobbery has many faces, some of them surprisingly homely. Indeed, one of the reasons the 2004 film Sideways proved so jarring was that it revealed a breed of Wine Snob that, while eminently recognizable to other Snobs, was unfamiliar to the public: a drab schlub who knows his stuff and commands the respect of winemakers and pourers, but who is also professionally unsuccessful and abjectly unglamorous. (Indeed, the film's surprise-hite status sent Snobs into defense mode, railing against purported slights and inaccuracies: C'mon, the Central Coast isn't even representative of the rest of California! He's totally wrong about Merlot--it only happens to underpin some of the greatest Bordeaux of all time! Well, let me tell you that I've never stolen money from my mother!)
     There are Wine Snobs all around us, and they range widely in age, income bracket, and hair length. There's the standard-issue hedonist-aesthete, for whom Wine Snobbery is another trait in the portfolio, along with the vintage-car fetish and the permanent tan. There's the hippie-ish evangelist who wears muddied boots and baggy shorts, and likes to remind you that viticulture is a kind of farming, man, and that the juice you're diggin' tells a magical story about the special chunk of earth from which its grapes came. There's the NFL offensive lineman who's spent his signing bonus on an insta-cellar and learned about wine from the top down, evolving from label whore ('Petrus! Awesome!') into shrewd collector ('An Araujo vertical! Awesome!') 
     Put simply, you never know when or where you're going to encounter a Wine Snob. And then, before you know it, you're weathering a storm of terms like malo, extracted, and Cab Franc leafiness that leaves you feeling bewildered, humiliated, and inclined to drink nothing by beer (which will expose you to Microbrew Snobs, who speak a still-more-incomprehensible language of 'porters,' 'doppelbocks,' and 'dunkel weiss,' but never mind). 
     The Wine Snobs Dictionary equips its reader with the tools and survival skills to endure a Wine Snob encounter, and possibly even disarm the Snob with a casual reference that he doesn't see coming--to, say, 'the '78 La Tache I was fortunate enough to share with Aubert,' or 'damnable, spoofalated swill that the McMansioners drink.' The book further serves as a helpful cheat sheet for those who simply wish to understand advanced-placement wine chat without actually getting caught up in tastings and spit buckets, and as a legitimate study guide or trainee Snobs who aspire to be wine professionals. Would-be sommeliers are warned, however, that even a book such as this is no substitute for experience, runty stature a persecution complex, and a tightly cinched dark suit offset by an assaultively loud necktie. 
     A Brief History of Wine Snobbery
     Though the references to wine abound in the Bible and in ancient classical literature (the word symposium is a corruption of a Greek term meaning 'drinking party'), Wine Snobbery as we know it dates back only to the middle of the  nineteenth century. It was in 1855, on the occasion of that year's Exposition Universelle de Paris, that Napoleon III enlisted his country's wine merchants to put together a system of ranking and categorization for its finest Bordeaux wines. The result, the Bordeaux Wine Official Classication of 1855--or, in Snob shorthand, the 1855 Classification--was at once baldly hierarchical and utterly idiosyncratic: ideal breeding conditions for Snobbery. 
     There were already plenty of wineshops in the Anglophone world--such as London's Berry Bros. & Rudd, founded in 1698, and New York's Acker, Merrall & Condit, founded in 1820--but the advent of a classification system, with its Premier Crus (first growths) and exalted chateaux, equipped wine-lovers with a common set of standards to be upheld, absorbed, dissected, and showboated. In Britain especially, it became the mark of a true oenophile to drink one's way through all the classified Bordeaux and jot down tasting notes about one's impressions, as much for purposes of social one-upmanship as for one's on edification. 
     The image of the Wine Snob as a fancy English or Anglophile toff remains powerful in the public imagination, as antiquated as it now is; only the white-haired wine sage Michael Broadbent has legitimately played such a role in contemporary Snob discourse. But not for nothing has the image persisted in America. The period of Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, was such a profound setback to winemaking in the United States that it really wasn't until the 1970s that there was enough indigenous wine of high quality to get Snobby about. Prior to the Nixon presidency, American Wine Snobs, their ranks thin and suspiciously emigre-heavy, looked invariably to Europe. 
     But in the '70s, events conspired to legitimize both American wine and American oenophilia, opening entirely new frontiers for Wine Snobbery. In the so-called Judgment of Paris, a collection of condescending French judges, presumably on loan from central casting, convened for a blind tasting of French and American wines, and, to their utter consternation, reserved their highest praise for a Chardonnay crafted by Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich and Cabernet Sauvignon crafted by Napa Valley winemaker Warren Winiarski. Near the end of the decade, a thirtysomething Maryland lawyer named Robert Parker gave flight to his latent Wine Snob urges and came out with a newsletter called the Baltimore-Washington Wine Advocate (its name later shortened) that connected with a like-minded audience of young adults who pleasured in tilting balloon glasses into their faces for extended periods of time. 
     Parker instituted a practice of rating wines on a 100-point scale, which while more user-friendly and easier to comprehend than the Bordeaux classifications, essentially opened up all wines to scrutiny and discussion. Suddenly, there was much more wine out there to be knowing about, and much more knowing-ness to be achieved through borrowed opinion. The Wine Advocate became, and remains, a Snob juggernaut. 
     As is so often the case in Snob discourse, where yesterday's indie band/film/coffeehouse becomes today's corporate sellout, the upstart Parker soon enough morphed into the Establishment, bemoaned for his outsize influence and alleged preference for 'international-style' wines whose makers have crafted their products just to please him. Yet this has hardly sounded the death knell for Wine Snobbery; rather, it has created a powerful new strain of Reverse Snobbery in which wines and winemakers are esteemed for existing off the Parker grid. As with Food Snobbery, which as taken on a locavorist, sustainableista, sociopolitical dimension in recent years, Wine Snobbery is now sometimes informed by a crunchy consciousness that finds its adherents proclaiming their fealty to the purity of terrior and zero-manipulation wines. 
     Meanwhile, Parker's Establishment Snobbery trundles ever onward, turning small-batch favorites like Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvingnon and Mollydooker Velvet Glove Shiraz into feverishly pursued cult wines. And somewhere, heard faintly from old drawing rooms with faded wallpaper and Noel Coward playing on the Victrola, there still persist a few members of the old Brit-Snob school who insist on calling an aroma a 'bouquet' and a red Bordeaux a claret. Wine Snobbery is, like the wines it inordinately celebrates, a living thing that changes over time.  
Helpful Hints 
Given the complexities and interconnections of the Snob universe, cross-references between entries are common and are spelled out in CAPITAL LETTERS for easy identification. The editors have also seen fit to identify certain entries with the Wine Snob Vanguard icon, which depicts the black or shaded blind-tasting glass used by experts and sommeliers when stunt-tasting for public approbation. The blind-tasting glass keeps out light and lends no visual clue to what its contents might be. And yet it's said that the dean of American sommeliers, Larry Stone, is capable, on days when his palate has brought its A-game to a blind tasting, to divine not only the vintage and grape variety of what he's sampled, but the specific producer. It is only fitting, then, that the presence of the blind-tasting glass icon should indicate, in this book, an entry that is held in especially high regard by Wine Snobs--for example, the intimidatingly esteemed Burgundy estate Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, or the Grand Award, the prestigious distinction bestowed by the Wine Spectator upon the Snobworthiest, most extensive wine lists in the world.  
     Finally, let us express our sincere hope that the knowledge collected herein serves you well on the path to Snob enlightenment and to a more mannered, ridiculous approach to wine-drinking. And if that doesn't work, at least this book makes a good coaster.
So that's the it; the introduction. Does it make you want to read more? Get the book here: 
Can't get enough Snobbery? Check out Snob Site.

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