While Mother Jones certainly has the right to get out from under their image as the resting place of old potatoes on your weirdest uncle’s kitchen table, it is interesting to see that one of the ways they’re moving toward A New Tomorrow is by aggregating a video called EXPENSIVE WINE IS FOR SUCKERS put together by the visionaries at Vox.
Mother Jones’ populist headline for their “take” is Your snobby wine friends are full of shit. Because I myself am snobby wine friend to many, I was utterly unsurprised when both the Mother Jones article and its oddly youthful parent—a video in which 19 Vox staffers try an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, a mid-priced Cabernet Sauvignon and a cheap Cabernet Savignon, and prefer the cheap wine by about half—piled up in my inbox over the weekend.
In case you were worried that the Vox video’s just about what 19 people who don’t know anything about wine think about wine, let me assure you that there’s also some science in it. (God knows that, in a world dying by larger and larger increments because no one seems to care about relevant science about catastrophic human behavior, we can’t get enough of these quirky, amusing, incredibly flawed analyses of fairly innocuous human behavior.)
I’d be remiss if before proceeding I didn’t first apologize profusely for having taking an interest in and in having actual opinions of wine. It is, after all, only a $300 billion dollar a year industry which also happens to be an integral part of the cultural, social and religious traditions of at least half the nations on earth.
Also, before really getting underway here in our project of unpacking complicated statements like “unless they’d undergone wine training, people didn’t actually prefer the taste of the expensive wine,” “professional wine judges are really inconsistent,” and “a wine that got the highest score in one competition also got the lowest score in another”—allow me to present the results of several of my own studies.
Sixty percent of college students think Kraft macaroni and cheese is more delicious that the macaroni and cheese at Los Angeles’ Bottega Louie, even thought they could tell that Bottega Louie’s was $14 a serving and Kraft’s was $.14.
Seventy-five percent of American 50-year-olds think that the Hootie and the Blowfish song “I Only Want to Be with You” is better than Mahler’s Third Symphony, even when they were allowed to chug a Mike’s Hard Lemonade while listening to Mahler.
My most recent study probably yielded the most startling results: 76 percent of Americans said they “strongly agreed” with the following statement: “It is more important that I could jerk off thinking about someone than that he or she knows that Sri Lanka used to be called Ceylon.”
The Vox video begins with a series of individuals taking a much-needed break from producing content to try an $8, a $13, and a $42 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Several of these individuals comment that the expensive one was “kinda sour” or “acidy,” and, “yeah, that’s really not very pleasant!” One guy, who is wearing a tie (why would you wear a tie at the Vox offices? Are you interviewing? Are you “the fashionable one?” Were you planning to hang yourself until you found out it was “Wine Day”?) tells us that the expensive wine is “very nuanced, complex, didn’t enjoy it” with so much smug, iconoclastic self-satisfaction you’d think he were telling his childhood babysitter that he actually never liked the Pixies.
Then the video quotes a 2008 study which found that, “unless they’d actually undergone wine training, people didn’t really prefer the taste of expensive wines.”
Now, I am not going to say that the findings of that 2008 study or of the Vox “study” where 19 random people who work at a company that makes videos called “Pigeons are Gross. They’re Also Wildly Underrated” and “What I Learned by Befriending Iranians on Facebook” drink some wine and say some shit about it are lying. But I wouldn’t say their opinions tell us anything about preference for inexpensive or good wine being just a bunch of bullshit. (Also, of course, throwing up the idea that everyone who loves wine or works in the wine industry thinks that every expensive wine is better than every cheap one is some shameless straw man stuff.)
Anyway. People from a 2008 study of people who don’t know anything about wine, and now also this small part of the staff of Vox, like cheaper wine. That’s fine. Cheaper wine is generally sweeter and people in general, especially Americans, like sweet things. In particular, that $8 Santa Rita Cabernet is from a huge producer, and those huge producers notoriously deploy additives—things like oak chips and weird grapey flavors—so their wines are universally appealing. Imagine a study where you asked 19 people to try Honey Nut Cheerios alongside some more expensive and less adulterated cereal, except the Honey Nut Cheerios were liquid and red and after two bowls of them you wanted a cigarette, and afterwards most of the people in the study were like “Honey Nut Cheerios rule.” That’s pretty much what happened here.
But then, there’s this statement from the 2008 study, about tasters “preferring the cheaper wine unless [they’d] undergone wine training.” Uhhh, I’m sorry, maybe I was like bizzy reading a book—but is there something wrong with appreciating an object or an experience more because you have a better understanding of it? How many of us grew up eating way shittier vegetables than we eat now? Have we been “trained” to like organic tomatoes, and does that make us full of shit? Does the fact that it’s way more fun to watch football if you understand what the fuck a first down is make football the wine of sports?
I’d also wager if you spotted any of these “Expensive wine is for suckers!!!” people on the subway they’d be reading Franzen or Didion or Neale Hurston rather than Steel or Hilderbrand, and also, that they all watch a lot more HBO than network television. Hey! Wine-lover-haters! Guess what! You were also TRAINED to like The Wire better than The Big Bang Theory, but whereas learning about wine is a training you’d have to seek out and actively experience, the training you’ve gotten to prefer complicated prose and resonant social themes over slapstick or simple romance is just part of a liberal arts-educated culture that I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’re either in or at least familiar with, so you don’t recognize it as so. What would you do if someone said, “You only like well-reviewed books because someone told you to?” Would you cry like little bitches, like I’m crying now? I hope you would!
Also, can I just say, Honig Cab is a funny choice as their example of an “expensive wine.” It’s just so unbelievably basic, the Lincoln Continental of wines—no, sorry, not just the Lincoln Continental by itself, but with that Matthew McConaughey Lincoln ad narration always running in the background, every time you drive it. It’s not a wine snob wine at all. In fact, there is an entire fight going on inside the wine world right now where one side loves those kind of big-tasting, high alcohol wines and the other side doesn’t, and to use that wine as “Here’s what those jerks all drink and it’s not that good anyway” when there are people within the extremely divided wine “community” that want to kill each other over whether this type of wine is good or not, well—I guess I’ve already been snide so much that I might as well just say the choice of Honig 2011 Cab for this experiment is adorable.
That pretty much covers that part of the study, although I would like to mention that I can’t get that image of that woman saying “I’m glad I’ve got such cheap taste. That’s going to make my life a lot easier” out of my head. (If you would like to have some sense of how I experience this woman, imagine that she just said, “I like this Whisper Tree Art from Pier 1 better than this original Picasso because when it gets dirty I can wipe it off with a sponge.”)
I wish that were the end here, but unfortunately for all of us, there is more ridiculousness here that must be handled. So. Having proved that people who don’t know anything about wine don’t know anything about wine and don’t care that they don’t know anything, the Vox video goes on to score its next massive anti-wine suckers victory informing us indignantly that “a wine that got the highest score in one competition also got the lowest score in another.” A 2004 incident is cited, in which American wine critic Robert Parker called a 2003 Chateau Pavie “a wine of sublime richness” and British wine writer/educator Jancis Robinson called the same wine “overripe and ridiculous.”
The idea here is that wine criticism is useless because wine critics can’t agree. Oh, well, I guess you can stop researching how to make your baby fall asleep because the Ferber method people and the attachment parent people don’t agree with each other. By the way, did you know that some rock critics and important musicians think Oasis is a great fucking band and some rock critics and musicians think Oasis sucks? Rock criticism is bullshit, and so is music. (Except for Oasis.) Did you know 56 percent of English professors think Billy Budd is about gay sex and 44 percent think it’s about boating? Literary criticism is bullshit, and so is literature, and that’s why I am so proud of myself that I never read books because they are for people who can all agree about what Billy Budd does with his butt.
That general idea brings us to the part of the video that is the most “damning”: wine judges not being able to tell wine apart and at one point saying they love a certain wine and at another point saying they don’t like it. I knew intuitively that this argument was crap, but I had to get some expert input on how to refute it. So I called on Elizabeth Schneider, Certified Sommelier, wine educator and host of the podcast, Wine for Normal People.
“There are so many things wrong with this argument I am not even sure where to begin,” Schneider said. “First of all, people aren’t robots. I dare anyone to try something in the morning and have the same experience with it at the end of the day.” She then went on to talk about what happens when you taste a lot of wines in a day, and how, even in one sitting, your mouth gets a little confused. “The tannins build up,” she said. I told her that no one really knows what tannins are, even people who are probably in 1,000 book clubs and know exactly what subplots are, and that even though tannins are about as hard as subplots to understand, no one cared to understand them. She said, “OK, well, I bet a piece of gum wouldn’t taste the same to you if you tried it and then, three or four hours later, tried the exact same gum.”
We ultimately ended up having a conversation about what is really the stupidest part of these “no one can tell wine apart, what a bunch of pretentious assholes” articles, which are in frequent rotation among publications like Slate, Forbes, and the Guardian. “There’s like, one every six months,” Schneider said. The stupidest part, we agreed, is the way they rely on attacking objective, often numerical ratings of wine in order to discredit the idea of wine knowledge in general.
The truth is, many people that love wine and drink wine and work in wine disagree with objective rating systems for wine. The (Robert) Parker model, which rates bottles on a 100 point scale where 80 is somehow considered awful, is considered especially problematic. When these “wine people are all poseurs” people rag on objective wine ratings and think they are somehow skewering people who spend portions of their hard-earned income on WINE—and not all of these people are rich, I assure you—they are misunderstanding the fact that “the wine world” not only can’t agree on whether or not one wine is awful or amazing, it can’t agree on much of anything. The wine business is currently in the midst of a massive fight concerning questions about whether it’s more important for wine to just taste super delicious or to reflect the place it came from and how ripe grapes should get and how much human intervention should go into their creation. (It is a fight that shares some philosophical attributes with, though of course is not exactly parallel to, fights betweens proponents of Eastern and Western Medicine and pro-GMO versus anti-GMO factions.) There’s a fairly comprehensive article about this in this week’s New York Times Magazine, which you could go read, or alternately you go watch the Vox video “Here’s What Happens to Our Knuckles When We Crack Them.”
Back to the whole cheap wine versus expensive wine thing. Cheap wine is awful. It used to taste like vinegar, and now, more often than not, it tastes like pancake syrup. It is made quickly and with little care. The grapes in it are often too ripe or not ripe enough. Good wine tastes like violets and flowers and fruit and spices and being blown away by it is an experience you are not required to have—but you should believe that it exists, because it does. Yes, of course, there are good wine values and bad ones. There is no one in the wine industry with a brain who thinks that every single bottle of $40 wine is universally better than every single bottle of $18 wine, or that every single person will like a $40 bottle better than a $8 one. As Schneider pointed out, we aren’t robots. Although they might make a robot that tastes wine, and I wouldn’t mind having his job, although, one day, I am sure he’ll have mine, and that Vox guy with the tie will be our boss.
The best wine I tasted this month was $25. So was the worst one. What does that mean? It means I’ll be buying the first one again, but not the second.
There’s no separating the anti-intellectualism about wine knowledge from other kinds of anti-intellectualism. The idea that knowing about wine is stupid and you can prove it is exactly the kind of thinking that is gutting our universities of their humanities programs. “Oh, this doesn’t do anything for anyone, Oh, this is just for snobs, Oh, you can’t get a job or produce revenue doing this, so screw knowing about it, what you need to learn is how to count how many people engage or create new ways of counting how many people engage or new ways to count counting engagement counters! That’s what matters!”
Wine is a vast subject. It attracts exacting and compulsive and weird people. It combines rote memorization and geography and geology with totally biased human opinions, and then, it is also something that actually touches your body and affects your senses. It also costs money, and, incidentally, the more that people drink awful wine from big companies (companies that many of them would condemn in almost any other situation) rather than supporting companies that make delicious high-quality wine, the more high-quality wine costs will rise. It is very easy to look at the people who make and drink and shop for wine and say, “I don’t understand this so it must all be a huge elaborate lie and all these people are the worst.” And sure, some of them are. But most of them are just curious people trying to put words to something that is huge and complicated and so fascinating that actually, as much as I might sound snide or dismissive, I promise that the subtext is only a heartfelt desire to share the magic.
Sarah Miller writes for theawl.com, newyorker.com, time.com, thecut.com and others. Find her @sarahlovescali.