Anti-intellectualism and Wine

Ageofunreason There are many reasons why America is not the kind of nation and Americans not the kind of people that can be singled out as a "Wine Drinking Culture". You can look at our country's early religious experience or our proximity to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the subsequent cheap rum it provided early on or the inability of traditional wine grapes to do well in the Colonies in the 18th Century or numerous other reasons.

But I was reminded recently that an important reason for America not developing any significant culture of wine drinking is the prominent streak of Anti-rationalism and Anti-intellectualism that has and continues to run through our culture.

I recall early in my intellectual education of appreciating historian Richard Hofstadter for providing me with a brilliant explanation for what I saw around me in his "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life". This book, published in 1963 but that I first read in 1986, was extraordinarily influential in my education. It explained me—a child of the progressive Northern California culture that had travelled and adopted an appreciation for "culture"—why most folks I met outside my native California had a particular disdain for the things I thought worthy of reverence, or at least interest.

Recently, I had a chance to read Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason", a 45-year hence ideological follow up to Hofstadter and a current look at Americans' tendency to express disdain for "elites" and higher education, express distaste for any form of materialism, look suspiciously at those capable of uttering a well-formed sentence—particularly one after the other, become suspicious of items or ideas embraced by the "Old World" and, lean toward an appreciation of the simplest, loudest and least nuanced explanations of world events.

It struck me that there is much about wine and the culture of wine drinking that has and does put its appreciation well beyond the capability (or desires) of the classic American Philistine. More importantly, there is something about wine and the culture of wine drinking that operates for the American Philistine as an important symbol of all that is wrong with America: Elitist Americans of a secular and european bent.

Jacoby's current explanation of the American Anti-Intellectual is an important read for committed wine lovers, if only for the committed wine lover to locate a clear rendering of those people likely to have no use for them or to discover what the purest anti-intellectual thinks of their likeliest political ally—the well to-do, well-educated economic conservative with a moderate view of social policy. Those of you wine lovers that fall into this political category should be aware of what your non-wine loving political brethren bring with them to the table and to their view of you.

America ranks somewhere around 50th in the list of wine consuming countries per capita. If we are moving up this list, it's a pretty slow jog. America drinks more wine than most other countries, but only because we have a lot of people over here. And the real heavy lifting is done by the "core" and "super core" wine drinkers that drink the vast majority of wine.

This is all to note that we may APPEAR to be a wine drinking country, but we really aren't quite so good at it. And this is just fine with most Americans, who appear to be, in general, a decently enlightened lot who would probably listen to just about anyone who wants to be President of the United State, with the exception of any candidate who 1) professes Atheism or its milquetoast cousin Agnosticism or 2) admits to being a wine geek.

10 Responses

  1. Frank Haddad - January 10, 2011

    We north of the border seem to have the same issues relating to wine as well. Not quite sure if it is anti intellectualism or just a beer drinking culture. The government monopoly on distribution does not help either.

  2. Marcia - January 10, 2011

    Trying not to be too broad in comparisons…but I have many (non-local) friends, most of whom are beer drinkers and definitely not wine drinkers. Their intellectualism varies from considerable to non-existent.
    Local friends, who rarely drink wine, drink a variety of stimulating mixed drinks. Many are quite intellectual.
    Many seem to prefer beer simply due to accessibility and lower price. Wine ‘requires’ more decision-making, more knowledge, from their perspectives. Hmmmmmmmmmmm.

  3. tlhwg - January 10, 2011

    “Intellectualism” is a term that can apply to many phenomena–some appealing things and some things that strike me as obnoxious; and there are many kinds of wine–not all wines are equal. The clearest connection, however, between wine and intellectual activity is that *good* wine can offer intellectual pleasures… I’ll give you that.

  4. Arthur - January 10, 2011

    Words out of my own mouth, Tom.
    In a “higher-end” supermarket last night, I was was thinking similar things as I walked through an unimaginative sea of Chardonnay, some Pinot Grigio, a smattering or Riesling, a wall of Merlot and Cab and a few Chiantis, and fewer Syrahs.
    America ranks around 25th in the world as far as Math and Science education go.
    Apparently that is the status quo. Further evidence to support your thesis.

  5. Zelda Sydney - January 10, 2011

    Thanks for touching on a wonderful and rich topic that invites endless exploration.
    Now excuse me while I sit down to my Proust and can of Coke…or is it my reality TV show and a Bordeaux Grand Cru…or my online daily and a green tea…
    I say raise a beverage to living in the most culturally and intellectually diverse continent of them all.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - January 10, 2011

    Tom, you may have to give those anti-intellectuals an etymology/history lesson if you intend on using such words as Philistine.
    Oh, wait: that would be an intellectual endeavor and probably won’t work.

  7. Sediment Blog - January 11, 2011

    I believe you may have inherited this from we English.
    After all, we are the nation who came up with the extraordinary criticism, “He’s too clever by half”. Which other nation (apart from you, our offspring) would criticise someone for being too clever?

  8. Wink Lorch - January 11, 2011

    Yes, I do agree with Sediment Blog’s clever comment! I would also add that historically in Britain it was the British Aristocracy who drank wine and perhaps the intellectuals aspired to it and would drink it if they could afford it. But since the dramatic rise of wine drinking starting in the 1970s those demographics have changed greatly and the picture is indeed not so different on our side of the pond.
    Perhaps the reality is that we could extend this theory across the English-speaking worlds.

  9. Erica "Barolo/Brunello" Brown - January 15, 2011

    such interesting food or rather, wine for thought, . . . hmm, now am just wondering what the current travails of a long-standing prime minister representing a certain long-standing wine-making country a.k.a. as oenotria means? methinks i’ll have to ponder this further while reading susan jacoby’s book perhaps over a glass of barolo, brunello, . . . ?

  10. Jonathan Fellows - January 19, 2011

    You’re too clever by half: kindly review the objective case pronouns, if only for sedimental reasons.

Leave a Reply