The changing face of the wine snob

I have an article in editorial limbo with the Spectator Life magazine – should be out in September – called ‘Death of the Wine Snob.’ You can probably guess my argument but you’ll have to wait until September to appreciate its full vision. I wrote most of it from LA earlier this year. There I visited a wine merchant with my wife and father-in-law, Jonathan. I asked the woman behind the counter to recommend a few not too expensive Rhoney Californian wines. In an off-hand way she turned three bottles upright and then rattled off technical details about them. One of them was from a producer, Wind Gap, who I’ve had before. I mentioned that I liked it but preferred a blend they did called Orra, did they have that one? Then something odd happened, the woman got a bit flustered, and then a bit cross and said something along the lines of I’ve never heard of it. I seem to have upset her by mentioning a wine that she didn’t know.

I wanted to talk about wine, she wanted to get competitive. She then mentioned a red from Arianna Occhipinti, I said I liked that red but preferred her whites. ‘Whites? She only makes one white.’ 15 love! Things really deteriorated when Jonathan told her that I write a wine column in England, her response was to tell me about a wine podcast that she made. Had I heard of it? Sadly I hadn’t. She looked furious.

It was a very odd experience exacerbated by being heavily jet-lagged (so jet-lagged that I thought I might have imagined the whole thing). It took me a while to realise why it seemed so familiar. Of course! Record shops in my teens and early 20s. This woman would have gone down a storm at Rough Trade in Notting Hill. I suppose it is inevitable that as wine becomes cool, it is going to attract record shop types. Whereas once they would have obsessed over white label imports from Chicago, now it’s the Cote du Py from Marcel Lapierre. Either way the result is the same, these people want to use their knowledge to make you feel small. Makes me long for a good old-fashioned wine snob. At least I knew where I was with him.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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12 Responses to The changing face of the wine snob

  1. What a terrible c***! Dreadful behaviour.

  2. Henry says:

    Steady on there!

  3. Sorry to have lowered the tone. Fifty lashes!

  4. Fab post Henry. You’re so right about the record shop bores – but I’d argue there’s a lot of snobbery to this, too!

  5. Yes, sorry to say the competitive thing’s still there for some wine people. Think you were unlucky though. I’d have said “oh right, don’t know that one, what’s it like?” (Have you read this Matt Walls post?

    • Henry says:

      Yes I did see that. Annoyingly similar to my argument though he does get to the point rather quicker. Will put up my article when it appears.

  6. Paul Dowling says:

    I don’t think you need to go to LA to get treatment like that. There are a few wine merchants in London who treat their customers about the same…!!!

  7. Pingback: Death of the Wine Snob | Henry's World of Booze

  8. jamiegoode says:

    In some ways, I’m glad she cares. The competitiveness comes because people feel insecure in the face of wine. I know how much I don’t know. And I’m supposed to be a pro. We need to keep the enthusiasm, the love of discovery, but embed it in the context of a mutual journey where we are all learning together.

  9. zeldasydney says:

    I found your ‘Spectator’ piece through Twitter and then followed that link here. Read both with great interest (since I have sardonically articulated-illustrated my own hiccups of wine buying AND selling in my wine illustrations).

    But irony and eye rolling aside, it’s truly satisfying and fun to buy from OR sell to genuinely nice and curious people. At that point, wine-awareness is just icing! A friendly, sincere learning exchange with someone – as a buyer or seller – beats everything! Love coming away with a new bottle I’ve never heard of; or sending someone away with something new, and hearing afterward how much they enjoyed it and that it opened them to a new grape or region. This is a great moment to be a wine drinker!

  10. Take a look at arvidrosengren’s excellent column – – and you’ll see similar comments about Scandinavian, “natural”-wine-loving sommeliers, some of whom also seem to take pride in setting themselves above their customers. It’s a lot more common than some people suppose and it contributes to the them-and-us problem that I think confronts wine. Non wine-enthusiasts (90+% of the population) are frightened of wine and daunted by people who know about it. This may help to explain why they are so happy to buy their wine in the UK from supermarkets and online where they know they won’t have to talk to an “expert”.

    Anyone who disagrees with this view, should consider how ready the media is to run stories that undermine the experts – and the almost unanimous support those articles tend to get from online respondents.

    Like Jamie, I’m glad she cares, but she has a rotten way of showing it. If she feels insecure when confronted by Henry, just imagine how insecure her customers feel when confronted by her knowledge.

  11. Henry says:

    I read this previously and thought it was really interesting. Nice to see a sommelier prick the pomposity of (some of) his profession. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that certain professions attract the know-it-all types and wine is one of them, people who work in bicycle shops can be pretty bad too.

    Jamie, I think you’re partly right about her. Maybe she was uncertain in her wine knowledge and then made her flustered but there was also more than a little of one of Rosengren’s sommeliers about her.

    thanks for commenting!

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