On Resisting The Cult of Wine “Experts”

When I was a student at Yale, I had a professor of French history who once said, when the class turned to the subject of Bordeaux, “If it isn’t red, it isn’t wine.” I though then, and still think now, that this was one of those affected pronouncements that only “wine experts” make. It certainly bore all the qualities of “expertise”: it was an absolute statement, allowing for no possibility of compromise or disagreement; it was made ex cathedra, with no accompanying evidence or logic; and its contrarian nature was clearly intended to provoke and titillate rather than to educate.

Wine is, unfortunately, one of many pleasures that have been corrupted by “experts.” Many people do not trust their own taste; they must defer to that of a (usually self-proclaimed) “connoisseur.” These are the unbearable cork-sniffing lot. They speak a strange, slippery language of vagueness. Is there anyone on Earth, outside of this self-worshiping coterie, who really knows what a “floral” or “fleshy” wine tastes like? Come to think of it, they don’t know either. When I am shown a wine list at a restaurant, I neither know nor care what the copywriter meant by these meaningless adjectives. I ask the waiter what, to the best of his knowledge, is the driest red or white on the list, and then I pick one and order it based purely on whim and prejudice.

The late Simon Hoggart, who wrote about wine for The Spectator, once offered a useful corrective to silly wine punditry. “A good wine,” he wrote, “is a wine you like drinking. Which sounds obvious, but isn’t; a lot of people seem to suspect that there are objectively ‘good’ wines, and if they haven’t been inducted into that mystery, it demonstrates their ignorance.”

Reading this made me think of those oenophiles who, having been given a two-bit swill and told it was the finest claret, judged it with high marks. Given an expensive wine and told it was of the cheap jug variety, these same people dismissed it as unworthy of their palates. Does anyone doubt that this whole business is anything more than a status game?

If there is any aspect of life in which outside expertise is least needed, it is in knowing what one likes to get drunk with. All personal preferences are tautological: you like what you like because you like it. Who needs an expert? If someone told you that your favorite movie was too “floral” or “oaky,” would you stop watching it? The heart knows what it wants, as does the tongue.

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