Joel Stein and The Childish Approach To Knowledge

Joel Stein reminds us just how important a statement Richard Hofstadter made in his seminal 1963 work, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." This reoccurring theme we see throughout American history of folks aiming their disdain at intellectuals, "elites", and deep thinkers is at the core of Stein’s recent LA Times Column entitled, "The Language of Snobbery".

Wrote Stein, "When wine drinkers tell me they taste notes of cherries, tobacco and
rose petals, usually all I can detect is a whole lot of jackass. The
language of sommeliers, winemakers, sellers and writers has devolved
into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me

Well, I’ll tell you what I smell: An insecure jackass who can’t stand the idea that others are more capable than he and interested enough in a topic to actually deploy the English language to dig deeper into their area of interest.

I wonder if Stein likes to mock physicists or archaeologists that use a language he doesn’t quite understand?

Steve Heimoff took Stein to school in a very nicely done scolding over at his new blog. It’s worth a thorough read.

I’ve never really understood why certain folks feel a need to denigrate those whose interests seem just a bit too obscure for their tastes. Again, I think the best explanation is found in Hofstadter’s critique of social institutions and the impact that urbanization had on our once-rural people.

There still exists among some in America a bias against intellect, the unfamiliar, the life of the mind and cosmopolitan impulses. This bias has a distinct evangelical protestant underpinning and usually takes the shape of morality lectures and the advancement, as we seen in Stein’s work, of a "Cult of Practicality".

Stein wants wine writers and reviewers to let him "know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft,
hot with alcohol, mineraly, watery or has a long finish."

But once a writer gets beyond these practical aspects of a wine, according to Stein, it’s nothing more than a "devolution into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me nothing."

What Stein fails to recognize is that this criticism of his is improperly aimed at the folks who offer a list of obscure smells and tastes to describe a wine. In fact, it’s a criticism of his own inferior abilities. And this goes back to the Cult of Anti-Intellectualism. Rather than appreciate what he does not know and understand, Stein is more content to label that body of unaccumulated knowledge no more than another group’s vice.

It’s a childish and very American approach to knowledge.

A very nice response to Stein’s column by Arthur Przebinda and printed in the LA Times can be found HERE

32 Responses

  1. Greg - June 16, 2008

    A reason why Dr. Noble invented the wheel and why it is useful is that it gives people a common language to speak. When Gary V. says people are poor communicators in the article for using this language, I think it misses the point of language – it is a common platform for which ideas can be communicated.
    More or less, we all have a similar idea of what a strawberry smells like – when I smell it in a wine, I can be quite certain that you know what I am talking about. When I say that the wine is balanced and muscular, it basically means nothing. What is a muscular wine?
    Without a means to associated the word “muscular” with a style of wine, we are left as or more confused by this type of term. That is why food descriptors are useful – I lot of people have previous experience with the and probably have a common understanding of what they mean.
    I certainly think that other types of descriptions of a wine can be used – comparisons to music, sports, etc. I use them sometimes, myself. I do think, however, in terms of a COMMON language, we will be using traditional descriptors for some time to come.

  2. Tish - June 16, 2008

    I have note read the Joel Stein piece, but the viewpoint he seems to espouse is not that crazy. The average person — even the average wine-loving person — does not relate well to the language of “the critic.” Why not? Two reasons: 1) Critic language does often seem flowery/obtuse/over-the-top or just plain odd. 2) Precision in taste is incredibly hard to translate (your cherries, tobacco and rose petals are another person’s berries, dirt and Right Guard).
    This is not the first time a mainstream writer has bashed wine writing. And it won’t be the last. Sadder for me was that Gary V. is apparently given free rein to join in the bashing, where we all know full well that his voice is practically impotent without RP and WS and their magic numbers.
    Maybe Stein will write about ratings next time.

  3. Seth Neal - June 16, 2008

    I’m not sure, Tom. Not that I at all agree with Mr Stein. I don’t. But, that the reason he said such a thing boils down to an American anti-intellectualism doesn’t totally pan out for me.
    For me, I think the missing piece is “superfluous” knowledge versus “practical” knowledge. America has always embraced, and even excelled at, the later (telephone, lightbulb, sewing machine, artificial heart, etc). But America has always looked upon the former with some distain (namely, the arts), which is probably why people like Stein look upon wine tasting as a useless endeavor unless it is given a much more practical set of rules.
    Just my two cents, one History major to another!

  4. Fredric Koeppel - June 16, 2008

    back when i was writing a weekly newspaper wine column, one of my editors took me into an office and told me that my writing was too “up there” and “elitist.” When I asked for an example of my elitist writing, he pulled out “rubber eraser” (for a riesling) and “wet dog” (for a Rhone syrah). I asked him if he had ever had a pencil with a rubber eraser or had a dog that came in wet from the rain. He had to say yes. So, I said, “Not very elitist, right?” which won me points only for being a smart-ass.

  5. Heloisa Fialho - June 16, 2008

    Having a medically proved weak sense of smell myself, I kind of sympathize with Stein’s words. If people tell me that this wine is balanced with a smooth, long, fruity finish, I know I’ll like it. If they tell me they taste notes of cherry or tobaco or green leaves, I can only wonder. However, I don’t agree with the statement that this kind of language tells me nothing. It’s more or less like the story of the fox and the green grapes…
    Maybe Stein’s position is a reaction to the language of a specific kind of people: the ones we in Brazil call the eno-bores

  6. Philip James - June 16, 2008

    Tom – well said. Glad to hear people call that article out for what it was.

  7. Jeremy - June 16, 2008

    Well then, perhaps Mr. Stein should stick to good old fashioned beer. I mean beer is beer right? Oh, wait, I forgot, beer lovers have their own wheel!!

  8. Thomas Pellechia - June 16, 2008

    For once, I disagree with Tish. Call out the guards!!!
    While I don’t usually write tasting notes that i consider flowery or elitists, I also understand that other people haven’t been trained to smell and taste wine–or any food, for that matter.
    It’s in this quote that Tom hist the nail: “Rather than appreciate what he does not know and understand, Stein is more content to label that body of unaccumulated knowledge no more than another group’s vice.”
    When I teach wine classes, one of the things I ask students to do is whenever they go shopping at the supermarket, put their heads into the produce bins and take deep breaths. Think about what they smell–discover that smell is the key to enjoying food and wine, and also for sustaining our survival. And without focusing on that sense of smell, we generally can’t taste as much as our palates are capable of tasting.
    In other words: a little learning never hurt anybody.
    I have to also say that one of the things that truly was discouraging to me, when I operated my winery and tasting room, were the scores of people who visited the winery that seemed to revel in their lack of knowledge–they started a conversation by saying that they know very little about such and such. It never seemed to dawn on them that they could take the time to explore and learn.

  9. Tish - June 16, 2008

    None of this is new. It’s just an old debate stirred up by a new mainstream essay. Nobody is wrong here, really (especially you, TP); it boils down to semantics. Stein doesn’t like the semantics of prosaic wine writing. Most of the people who visit this blog GET and appreciate that style. Problem is, more people don’t get it than do. And we ignore them at our own peril. What Stein is really hoping for is descriptioins that fit the way we think and talk in modern American culture. And when Gary is not just flogging ratings, that is indeed the way he talks and writes…. wines are AWESOME in ALL CAPS, for just a few “bones,” etc. It’s about the style of communication, pure and simple, more than the conceteness or abstractness of the concepts being relayed.

  10. Morton Leslie - June 16, 2008

    I a couple years ago in the St. Helena post office, I ran into one of our earlier and better wine writers, author of several (and at the time important) wine books. I asked him what he was doing, what he was writing about? He told me he quit writing about wine. “I was sitting at the computer one day trying to write another description of a Cabernet, and I found I just couldn’t do it anymore. Haven’t written about wine since.”
    Personally, after reading hundreds of wine descriptions by writers and also making or tasting the same wines, I think the process of describing a wine by the wine critic is more an act of fiction than non-fiction.

  11. Dr. Debs - June 16, 2008

    OK, 3rd History major to weigh in on this subject:
    I don’t know how we’re supposed to write about wine without using words. I really don’t. (This is not to suggest in any way that you HAVE to use words–ChateauP and others prove that’s not the case. I just want to point out that if you WANT to write about wine, you have to use words.) Words have meanings that some people understand and some people don’t. When I find a word I don’t understand I look it up. In the case of flavor descriptors, I do what Thomas suggests and get myself into a supermarket and buy lychees or red currant jam.
    One of the most enchanting parts of the article (to me) was the contradiction between Gary V’s reported belief that all wine writers were unimaginative lemmings following mindlessly in the footsteps of Noble, Robinson, et al–and Stein’s belief that we should all write like GaryV.
    That will help, right? Because everyone here understands exactly what AWESOME (tip of the hat to Tish) means and understands the sports metaphors?
    It’s back to the wine wheel for me, friends. I applaud Gary for bringing more people into the wine conversation, I really do. But I reject any suggestion that we all should start imitating him and his style of communication. Because, let’s face it, Gary V relies on a set vocabulary that is no more or less obscure than any other set of words Jancis Robinson relies on when she writes about wine.
    And for all you Americans out there: many British people do actually know what currants, Elderflower, and gooseberries taste like because they eat that kind of stuff. So, just because Joel doesn’t understand what some writers are talking about doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re elitist–it means they eat and drink different kinds of food.

  12. Ken Bernsohn - June 16, 2008

    You’re following rules in our society, that no one talks about:
    You’re allowed to scream foul words and insult any one you want as long as what you’re excited about isn’t important to most people. The nastiest letters I’ve ever read were between stamp collectors. Film buffs make flames on the net sound like love letters. For proof, read Moviemaker magazine for the regular redefinition of what is an independent film. If you don’t scream at some sporting events, you’re considered a smeg head. Language use in general is right up in the most people don’t care, won’t care, list.
    Whether you think wine tastes like Copenhagen tobacco, Bing cherries, or the leather in a handbag or running shoe is within the rules for you to fume about.
    In contrast, try saying these simple words to anyone, “Gee, you’ve got a dumb job.” Follow that up with “My, you’re vastly overpaid.” These comments are against the rules,
    If this doesn’t get you pain, you can always go to a rural bar in Texas and say, “The only thing dumber than a cow is a cowboy. Can you imagine following the wrong end of a pot roast as a career?” No I won’t pay part of your medical bills.

  13. Scott Tracy - June 16, 2008

    People who taste wine have a different approach compared to those who drink wine. Most Americans are gourmands, they eat food and drink wine. The language of the gourmet, those who taste and dine, is not appealing to the gourmand, and It is easy for them to condemn good taste as elitist. It is the unspoken dark side of the concept that wine is bottled poetry, is that not everyone understands poetry. Alcohol, yes, wine, not so much. Sadly, I understand bottled poetry, but I can’t always afford it.

  14. el jefe - June 17, 2008

    hi Tom – I think almost everyone is missing the point of Mr. Stein’s article (though I think Tish got it). It’s not about gooseberries and wet dogs, it’s about expanding the dimensions of how we talk about things beyond the basic adjectives. Here’s what I posted about it:
    The ironic thing is that most of the commentors posting here do a pretty good job of it, yet they still missed the point!

  15. Thomas Pellechia - June 17, 2008

    I don’t miss the point. I simply don’t think language needs to be bastardized in order for it to be understood.
    Stein complains about the use of descriptors that even the most brazen gang-banger would know: the smell and taste of fruits and vegetables.
    I don’t see their use as an assault on everyday language use, and I also don’t read them as adjectives but as descriptive nouns.

  16. Francisco - June 17, 2008

    Well put Tom. In a sick sort of way though, Stein’s attitude makes perfectly sound sense to me…I would probably spend exorbitant amounts of time ruminating over and sharing his concerns, having meetings, even spending time to quit my job and co-author articles for big papers with him IF the notion of people out there who knew, wanted to know and effectively understood more than myself made me feel flustered and very tiny.
    The possibility that someone out there enjoys foods and beverages far more ingenious or complex than my sad, limited neurology and intellect allow, well, that would just call for some kind of sanction or ridiculization. What other recourse would I have? If I don’t know how to read, and the notion of learning is too damn painstaking or time consuming, I’d also think it much easier to form a propaganda ring to decry this horrible, elitist “reading” issue. Gee, I wonder if this type of thing has had a role in elections in the past, hm. The examples could go on ad infinitum, though…

  17. Tish - June 17, 2008

    There is another distinction here to put Joel Stein in perspective. The language he assails is really just the language that has come to typify American tasting notes. Tasting notes are not wine writing. Unfortunatley, because (ratings-driven) buying guides have grown to forest-threatening proportions, that is what most of the outside world thinks of as wine writing. And if you climb down from the Ivory Tower and think about it, the majority of published tasting notes sound obtuse, unappealing and elitist.

  18. Thomas Pellechia - June 17, 2008

    What Ivory Tower am I on, Tish?
    If I wanted to start ridiculing the use of language to convey a message, I’d probably find no better place to start than with the adjective “awesome.” WTF does awesome mean?
    Are wine writers supposed to dumb down the language in order to appeal to the dumb?
    What the hell is obtuse about referring to other fruits and plants as a descriptor for how wine smells and tastes, which often is like other fruits and plants, especially since the phenolic compounds of wine mimic none other than other fruits and plants. Or should we give the definition of phenolic instead?
    I don’t understand your point.
    In my writing, I more often go with describing the acidity, pH feel, alcohol, etc. but I also find that much of that stuff goes over people’s head as well, unless they are taught what acidity and pH in wine means.
    I suppose I could write that I like a wine because it’s good, but then I might as well call it awesome and be done with it.

  19. Eric H - June 17, 2008

    If I look beyond the hyperbole in Joels column, I agree with his point that in general the least important aspect of a wine in a review is the description of the specific flavors the reviewer finds in it. I think balance, mouthfeel, and finish are more useful in judging if the wine will be one that will likely fit my palate preferences. The perception of flavors to me is more personal – my “raspberry” is your “cherry”, and what you might think is “chocolate”, I might get as “coffee”.
    But that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful, and it certainly doesn’t mean that those who use them are snobs or jackasses. Let’s face it – most people who are interested in reading wine reviews are wine lovers. They will probably know what to expect if a reviewer describes a Chardonnay with flavors like pears, tropical fruits and vanilla. That’s useful info for understanding the style of the wine. I don’t see how using those terms makes you a snob while using terms like “rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft, hot with alcohol, mineraly” (from Joels column) does not.
    I really like Gary V., but would question whether a description like “This is like if you took a bunch of fresh raspberries and threw them on a hot asphalt road and ate ‘em” is any less obscure than “raspberries with a hint of tar”. But I DO know it’s less boring and a hell of a lot more fun to read.
    In “The Taste of Wine” Emile Peynaud describes nine word, forty-seven word and three-hundred word wine notes. To effectively describe a wine to others in nine words you really need to focus on what’s important in that wine. It’s a fun exercise, and the results will probably be concise…and boring. Unless you go the Gary V. route (“This tastes like dipping a frog in pink lemonade!”).

  20. Tish - June 17, 2008

    Sorry, TP. Perhaps I chose the wrong metaphor in trying to get my point across. WIth “Ivory Tower” I didn’t mean to invoke snobbery, but more so the academic mindset… the treating of wines as something worth breaking down into tasting notes at all. The communication involved in describing wines as organoleptic notes is lost on masses of people. And yet, those people can and do respond to AWESOME. Again, nothing really new about that…

  21. Joseph Thompson - June 17, 2008

    Great post, not just because of your defense of wine, but a challenge for unpretentious intellectual living. If you’re talking about knowledgeable folks, they have appraised the circumstance and the sphere of their learning and their practice and worked their particular genius into that sphere. This means adopting significant terms for the sake of communicating with precision. You just can’t get around that fact. It’s all plain English, but to deny the use of it is to deny the fact that there are specialists and specialties. It’s a poor attempt to gain an equality that doesn’t necessarily exist between individuals of American culture.
    Again, thanks.

  22. Thomas Pellechia - June 17, 2008

    Tish, I fully understand that things need to be brought into perspective, and of course I know Josh’s “Juicy, etc.” method of description, which is fine.
    Right above your last post, Eric posted, “I think balance, mouthfeel, and finish are more useful in judging if the wine will be one that will likely fit my palate preferences.”
    I’d love to agree with him, and I do, but I think it applies only to the already initiated into the make up of wine. The rest of the consuming public, the mass that needs better communication from the wine industry, may respond only to the “awesome” adjectives of the world, and they also may buy only the heavily marketed, pumped out, manufactured wines.
    As Eric also points out, the people who read wine reviews likely understand the descriptions of the better wine writers. I say “better” because I’m also no fan of phrases like “gobs of fruit” or “concentrated nectar.” Such descriptions are as subjective as awesome and as useful, too.
    As to Eric;s point someone’s raspberry is another person’s cherry: that’s where I converge greatly. To the trained palate, cherry is different from raspberry in that it indicates a difference in phenolic compounds. Someone with training is telling you something important when talking about those compound flavors. That’s where the consumer has to get off his or her ass and learn something.

  23. Morton Leslie - June 17, 2008

    “They will probably know what to expect if a reviewer describes a Chardonnay with flavors like pears, tropical fruits and vanilla.”
    No they won’t. While there are tropical fruits like papaya, pineapple, banana, passion fruit there is no “tropical fruit” aroma. This is a literary device to add meaningless words to a wine description to fulfill the requirement that you have to say something. And if the wine does smell like banana or pineapple or passion fruit you can bet that there is no way you are smelling pears as well.
    If you know how Ann Noble went about the process of identifying wine aromas with a trained panel you will know it is significant that they did not find a “pear” aroma in wine. And it should also be apparent that in order to truly identify these aromas you need to be trained. This is a step most journalists and critics skip.
    Descriptions like the above are a good indication that the person who wrote it:
    1) has Ann’s aroma wheel and is picking off a few adjectives (and adding a few of their own.)
    2) knows or can sense the chardonnay was aged in oak so why not throw in a vanilla descriptor (because he’s heard oak has vanilin)
    3) is not familiar with the actual Chardonnay varietal aroma
    4) is exhibiting a bit of the jackass
    I did an interesting thing a couple years ago. There is are several sites on the internet where you can paste in a document and it will sort and report on word useage. (the number of times a word was used.) If you subscribe to either Parker or W.S. go in, pick a variety and/or a vintage or region and search. Cut and paste the descriptions from those search results into a document and then paste that document at one of these web sites. It is particularly interesting to sort descriptions by score and study the changes in vocabulary. I did this for Cabernet, Pinot, and Chardonnay. You will see that it is quite easy to describe 95 point wines like the best of ’em. It only requires an imagination and a wide range of words that suggest “power.”
    Of course, the wine drinker who is trying to learn about wine will read your description and either:
    1) completely lose confidence in their own abilities and become a lifelong wine snob who uses your made up wine descriptions as their own much to the boredom of their acquaintances.
    2) become a mixed drink or beer drinker where they just enjoy the stuff and don’t find it necessary describe what they enjoy.

  24. Tom Wark - June 17, 2008

    “No they won’t. While there are tropical fruits like papaya, pineapple, banana, passion fruit there is no “tropical fruit” aroma. This is a literary device to add meaningless words to a wine description to fulfill the requirement that you have to say something.”
    This is not altogether true. I’ve written descriptions of wines and used the term “Tropical Aromas”. In doing so I meant to describe that set of aromas that one often finds in a particular style of usually Californian Sauvignon blanc. (Rochioli is a good example). This particular style of SB is often loaded with those distinctive combination of Pineapple, mango, citrus. The problem here however is if the reader does not recognize what “Tropical Aromas/flavors” refers to in a CA SB.

  25. Eric H - June 17, 2008

    Thomas – To set the record straight, I don’t write wine reviews – I’m not a critic or journalist. You’re quite right that I should have been more careful about my example of Chardonnay having “pear, tropical fruits and vanilla” – it should have been “pear, tropical fruits OR vanilla”. My point was that to me those terms are useful for conveying the style of wine to enthusiasts who are not experts – but not as useful as descriptions of structure and texture. I disagree with you on “pear” in chardonnay, though. I’ve had several where I believe aroma is accurate – both domestics and white burgundies. No, it’s not on Nobles Aroma Wheel, but either is lime or “passion fruit” (your example), and those are both fairly common descriptors that can effectively communicate what’s in a wine. Simply because the wheel was put together using trained experts doesn’t mean it’s the last word. I think your overall response to my comments kind of supports Joels point.
    Joseph – you’re right that to a trained palate, the difference between cherry and raspberry would be fairly easy to identify. Again, I apologize for a poor example. My point was that flavors/aromas are a spectrum, and in my opinion aroma recognition is more dependent on the individual than, say, whether a wine is acidic, tannic or thin. Most wine drinkers wouldn’t have the level of palate training to nail a common descriptor based on actual phenolic content of the wine. They just want to drink something they like. Besides, if I think your “blackberry” is more “cherry” to me, I’m probably not going to care as long as the wine is balanced and has a nice finish…unless I really hate cherries and love blackberries.

  26. Thomas Pellechia - June 17, 2008

    You are misreading the author signatures on this blog. Your response to me was in reality a response to Joseph, and you response to him was in reality to me. Don’t feel bad, though: it’s the quirky way that this blog format is designed. The signatures are in the wrong place.
    I agree, mostly, with your analysis, but I don’t agree that the wine writer needs to surrender to the vagaries of individual experience, especially when it is not that difficult for the consumer to understand the experiences.
    In fact, to bypass the phenolics that cause the aromas and flavors is to remove the reasons behind what we smell and taste. I prefer that writers find ways to explain rather than find ways to circumvent what is going on.
    I’ve spent many years developing and teaching wine classes. In my experience, it isn’t all that difficult to bring people to make the connections, provided you–the teacher (or writer)–are trained.
    From my perspective, the problem in wine communication is that a multitude of wine writers and critics are not trained; they are self appointed, and of course, that makes me agree that a multitude of communicators don’t do a good job at communicating. Still, I don’t believe the problem has much to do with so-called elitism, as the Stein diatribe suggests.
    I fully understand Tish’s position. He spends a great deal of time bringing wine down to earth, and I applaud his effort. But I still believe that there’s room for sensory descriptions based on the science rather than the whims of marketers and bloviators. It’s just a matter of how one communicates and how one teaches.

  27. Eric H - June 17, 2008

    My humblest apologies, Thomas! Actually the comments I directed to you should have been directed to Morton Leslie, not Joseph -and those I directed to Joseph should have been directed to you, as you say. Sorry to you as well, Joseph… I’m apologizing a lot today.

  28. Arthur Przebinda - June 17, 2008

    Stein’s piece was as anti-intellectualist/xenophobic as it was ignorant. I have submitted a response to the LA Times and it should be in their Opinion section in the Blowback category (on line) starting at midnight PST.

  29. Thomas Pellechia - June 18, 2008

    No need to apologize. It’s the blog’s fault that the previous poster’s signature appears inside the box of the present poster. 😉

  30. Arthur Przebinda - June 18, 2008

    Thanks for pointing out my response, Tom.
    Frankly, I’m surprised no other writer beat me to it.

  31. KenPayton - June 18, 2008

    I do not believe Mr. Stein’s article was built to be a critique. It is far too general, too off-hand. No offending authors are mentioned (apart from Mr. Vaynerchuk’s ‘I’m here, too!’ utterance, listing the usual suspects.) He provides just enough detail to generate anxiety among the cognoscenti.
    Oddly, Stein’s opening line about “cherries, tobacco, and rose petals” as a “whole lot of jackass”, it turns out they are among the most common descriptors used by Mr. Vaynerchuk. (See Gary’s Scores at WLTV)
    Much ado about nothing.

  32. Craig Camp - June 18, 2008

    A “wine writer” that thinks zinfandel is a native grape variety is not worth paying attention to. No wonder he doesn’t get the lingo. I bet he’s never read Michael Broadbent’s notes much less heard of him.

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