What Makes Wine Great — Reason #2: Symbolism

There are those that decry the “elitism” in wine. The ceremony long associated with so many aspects of wine is labeled snobbery. I want to suggest that these kinds of derogatory labels have emerged and been promoted more heavily of late out of laziness and misunderstanding. But more importantly, these actions and things surrounding wine that are misrepresented as elitism and snobbery are instead reflections of one of the ways wine is great.

Those who claim wine is too elitist and too snobby don’t understand that the special storage chambers, special language, special vessels, special tools and the special place that this beverage claims in so many cultures are a direct result of wine being the one product best-symbolizing humankind’s intimate relationship with the environment.

That relationship between man and the environment, cultivated over millennia, has always been the foundation of human civilization and its evolution. With the production of wine, we create something representing the terroir of our homes and lives and peoples that can be kept and consumed, year after year and season after season. That ceremony and symbolism and language and implements would evolve around this uniquely symbolic and human product should be no surprise, but instead should be celebrated and not derided.

Preservation of the ceremony surrounding wine as well as the symbolic and metaphoric language that has long been used to describe how humans experience wine should at all costs be preserved, not demoted, not replaced with something common or base. The insistence by some that snobbery and elitism need to be discarded so more people can feel comfortable with wine don’t understand we aren’t talking about snobbery and elitism, but rather a millennia-long history and a communal celebration of civilization.

There is no human civilization without dominion over the earth, represented by not just the purposeful sowing of crops, but transforming their yield into life-sustaining food and drink. Without this kind of dominion, we don’t have a stable community, without which we do not have homes and towns and cities and self-government and arts and science. No single consumable product better represents this momentous evolution than wine. If we cannot sustain the ceremony and symbols that celebrate this product, we may as well devolve.

Among the things that makes wine great is its unique symbolic importance for humankind. 

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  1. Jim Ruxin - January 6, 2021

    All good thought, Tom. But much of what is considered “snobbery” or even “ritual” is actually centuries of experience making, storing, pouring, and consuming wine that has shown the best way to appreciate the inherent pleasure in a bottle.

    One does not have to go as far as terroir or agricultural history to know that storing a bottle in a cool damp environment and then allowing it to breathe a bit is the best way to enjoy what is in the glass, without any elitist knowledge, culinary superiority or connoisseurship.

    The best bottle of wine is one you like on its own. Hopefully it is the one open in front of you.

  2. Tom Wark - January 6, 2021

    Jim,

    True. However, Humans have been drinking the juice of oranges and eatng the flesh of tomatoes for centuries without adding anything close to the same kind of ceremony, ritual and language. Something special is going on here.

  3. acv - January 6, 2021

    The economic and cultural importance of wine (The World in a Glass: Six Drinks That Changed History)…especially in the economies during the global expansion from the 16th – 19th Centuries can not be understated.on how this time in history is intertwined with this specific product. And, that’s the rub in a general skimming of the linked articles. George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”. Welcome to 2021.

  4. Tom Elliot - January 6, 2021

    “On this mountain the LORD All-Powerful will prepare for all nations a feast of the finest foods. Choice wines and the best meats will be served” Isaiah 25:6. Snobby food and wine pairing somms way back then too.

  5. Jim Macias - January 6, 2021

    Hi Tom,

    Fully with you regarding wine’s special place in history, culture, nature, etc., and hopefully there is no need for anyone to apologize for this.The articles to which you provided a link (Wine Wankers and the imbedded James Sligh column in Punch) are interesting and worth reading, though I found them perhaps a bit too caught up in current social politics to relate very convincingly too your main premise.

    From my humble place as an amateur yet enthusiastic admirer of wine for many years I have not seen its special place in history being the main issue associating it with elitism and snobbery. Having been involved in countless business, family and other such gatherings around food and drink since the 80s I have been quite pleased to see folks, especially younger ones, getting interested in wine and open to learning more about it. It has been refreshing to see folks poring over a wine list and sometimes asking for help because it seems they are giving the evening’s drink a bit more thought than is needed for ordering an ale, lager or cider. Or perhaps my lenses are rose colored on this point.

    In my experience the potential for snobbery sits more with (some) wine professionals and highly experienced and often pedantic individuals. A few examples include obsessing about the perfect food-wine pairing (sort of where Tom Eliot was, comically, heading), drinking age-worthy wines on the optimum arc (“but that Barolo is just a baby!”), and over-the-top wine tasting notes that seem to be written for poetry and entertainment rather than actually informing the consumer.

    I don’t think anything is yet lost or broken in the wine world, but perhaps giving the consumer a bit more credit is not a bad thing toward broadening wine’s appeal?

  6. Elizabeth Schneider - January 6, 2021

    Speaking for the anti-snob contingent, the issue, IMO, is not about the pageantry or customs around wine — every industry has jargon and things that you need to learn to be part of it. When I worked for Reebok, I had to learn the importance of lasts and the difference between different injection molds for sneaker soles. When I was in tech, it was about bandwidth, CDMA, PPP, and VLAN. When I was in business school, it was LITERALLY every bullshit business term on earth. The language, customs and history are part of every industry — you have to learn something to be part of most things that require thought.

    The issues in wine have to do with the people in modern history who have used it as a status play. Yes there has always been more expensive wine and people who knew more about it, but the elitism isn’t about the things you mention in the article — customs, traditions, symbols aren’t the issues in the world of snobbery. Rather, the problem has to do with critics and writers using terms to describe wine that are not accessible to most people and to “connoisseurs” or snobs looking for a way to edge people out by participating in one-ups-manship about who or what they know. THIS is what turns people off of wine.

    For most of human history, wine was an enjoyable, local beverage — needed and often elevated and revered, when it was at its best. It was not a “lifestyle” product, encumbered by false stories and marketing nonsense or the idea that knowledge is power you can use to make others look foolish and yourself look better/richer/fancier.

    It’s the money and attitude and use of descriptors, language, and catchphrases of some producers, collectors and drinkers in the 20th century and now the 21st century that have led to elitism, not the actual symbols, customs, or traditions of wine. Producers are still farmers, wine is still agriculture, and the best people in it still have dirt under their nails.

    I agree with Jim — it’s not the customs, symbols, or language of wine that’s broken. It’s the people who have used this historic, beautiful centerpiece of culture to make them part of a club that has turned so many people off the topic.

  7. acv - January 6, 2021

    Elitism – a system led by elite vs snobbery – a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people – while related are a bit different in the context of perhaps what we are discussing. Wine has clearly been a beverage for the Elites (Elizabeth is wrong in that historical fact) …. but at other times in history, the beverage has become accessible to the masses to drink depending on the economics of the era. When wages rose (following the Bubonic plague to name but one event – there are others) …. wine became a product drunk by the rich and poor alike. Wine has fluctuated between a beverage for the rich and a beverage for the masses repeatedly over the centuries. Two-Buck Chuck was the last time we might say wine became a beverage for the masses. That is a price point for the masses not $8 dollars. So, yes wine and the knowledge surrounding viticulture was a topic found mostly in the religious abbeys an institution where you were most likely to find folks who could read and write…. but that slowly that knowledge spread, and when it did the serfs began tending their own vines and trading up from beer to homemade wine. I agree with Jim that the linked articles are caught up in social politics and are more interested in pulling at the edges of white supremacy than they honestly care about the snobbery surrounding the drinking arc of a Barolo. As far as snobs go – if I am being kind, I would say it all depends on one’s definition of the context of the remark. If someone orders a bottle of Alsatian Pinot Gris only to be told by the waiter or waitress that it is sold out and then orders beer instead. Their friend may say “what Italian Pinot Grigio is not good enough for you? And here is where I would draw a connection to the linked articles. Having knowledge about what you want is some form of oppression. Understanding a modicum of history about wine and the countries they originate from somehow connects you to the colonialism of the 18th century. The authors clearly seek to conflate knowledge with the exertion of power and prestige in life. See gaining any understanding and knowledge of a topic is too high of a bar to set and anyone who does have this knowledge is only doing it to feel superior. Utter hogwash. While a collective “we” may be seeking to understand the place, this beverage has occupied for humans and its good and bad contributions (Drunkenness) …. the writer’s only aim in the linked articles is to show that any reverence to this beverage is obviously an example of the patriarchy at work.

  8. Jim Ruxin - January 7, 2021

    ACV–

    You are so right to condemn the cited articles.

    “…the writer’s only aim in the linked articles is to show that any reverence to this beverage is obviously an example of the patriarchy at work.”

    I did not waste my time on such knee-jerk, stupid, political correctness This pseudo-intellectual pose has been destroying progressive change and attitudes since the 1990s, and has been used by revanchists like Trump to condemn anything that might benefit the under-privileged.

    It is precisely because we have forgotten history that the insurrection yesterday, incited by Trump himself, was allowed to occur after decades of post-Regan, increasing nastiness and middle class complacency.

    We are all to blame for the election of 2016, and the Trumpists are to blame for their rabid turnout in 2020 and the onslaught on the Capitol.

    Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

  9. Jim Ruxin - January 7, 2021

    Tom–

    I agree that wine is a special category of foodstuff…beyond mere fruits like tomatoes and vegetables. But moist are grown to be eaten fresh, while wine is an agricultural product that is also manufactured, like cheese.

    Youi are right to say that the history of wine or a winery is an important bit of cultural knowledge that can increase ones pleasure and appreciation of a given wine. Empty rituals are mere poses. Processes and actions with purposes and having effective results have meaning.

  10. Bill St. Croix - January 11, 2021

    Speaking from a novice enthusiast standpoint, when I’m having wine with friends/family/colleagues, the first comment I usually hear is ‘what should I taste or smell.’

    I try to explain it’s different to different people and that’s what makes it interesting to me (and hopefully to them.)

    When I read reviews from the ‘pros’ the fact that I might have to break out a dictionary (ok, ask Siri, Alexa or Google) what does a ‘insert your favorite bizarro wine descriptor here’ smell like or taste like is frustrating and I think that seems to be the theme in the comments here.

    I understand the reviewers desire for the nuisances of words, but it reeks of ‘snobbery’ and ‘elitism’ if you have to have a dictionary and thesaurus handy to determine if you might like the taste of a wine. Just my 375ml’s worth!


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