For centuries, wine and those who make or sell it have cultivated an image as a beverage for the upper classes, to be appreciated by those with breeding, money and superior knowledge. It's an image the wine industry is now struggling to overcome as it attempts to broaden markets. One of its worst obstacles is its own greed in pushing the price of a bottle for First Growths or cult Cabernets into the stratosphere.
Another major obstacle, not wholly unrelated, is the existence of wine writers.
Think about it: Without the intimidation factor, without the complexity and amazing variety of wines now available to us from around the world, no one would need wine writers to point the way. We can demystify the fruit of the vine for people who don't have the time or money to waste trying all the Merlots or whose eyes glaze over when they try to read a German label.
Or we can reinforce the fear of the grape and emphasize the intimidation, secure in the knowledge that we know better. It's a style I call, "Writing for Terrified Idiots." After all, if we were too successful and everyone became a wine expert, no one would need us anymore.
It is difficult to write intelligently about wine without sounding snobbish. And it is just as hard to write un-snobbishly about wine without sounding stupid.
After all, Jesus' first miracle was to make wine more accessible to people. If it had been easy, it wouldn't have made the Bible.
The typical wine writer may not have a messianic complex, but the typical column often is a pedantic screed designed to demonstrate the writer's knowledge, not impart it. Or it resembles a draft chapter for a Parker-wannabe's magnum opus.
A recent example of a wine column that does the reverse of its intention can be found in the March 31 Wall Street Journal. The Journal's columnists, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, are anything but pedantic and normally do a great job of not sounding snobby about wine even though they write for the snobbiest of newspapers. They are so successful at this that people in the wine trade enjoy deriding their lack of sophistication or knowledge even as customers come flocking into the stores with Journal in hand asking for the recommended wines.
"Wine strikes fear in the heart of many otherwise-fearless people, and rarely more so than in business settings," Gaiter and Brecher begin, combining two stressful situations with an alacrity that could make Stephen King jealous. "No matter how much you know about wine, these situations - already fraught with all sorts of spoken and unspoken significance - are ready-made for wine faux pas."
Here the wine geeks are chuckling at the plight of a rube trying to impress a client, but Gaiter and Brecher ratchet up the dramatic tension.
"This isn't one of those things that gets better with knowledge," they continue. "Quite the opposite. The more you know about wine, the more you're expected to be the one who orders wine with your colleagues or, worse, your boss. What if they hate it?"
(The wine geek's answer: If they hate it, they must be idiots, and at least I can get away with cheap plonk if I ever have to invite them to my house.)
Some of the advice in the Journal column was good: Ask the sommelier and don't immediately go for the big-ticket label. Some of the anecdotes were funny. But the overall effect, in my humble opinion, was to reinforce the fear rather than ease it. This week, some poor schmuck will be having lunch with his boss and quaking in his boots trying to remember the Journal column and probably end up saying something stupid about the Anderson Project.
Two days before the Journal column appeared, The Washington Post Food section discovered wine. Now, an entire Food section devoted to making wine more understandable and accessible is to be applauded. But guess what? They were terrified! Or at least they thought we were.
The section was devoted to pairing wine and food and ordering wine in restaurants, remarkable coverage given the Food section's usual temerity to mention wine outside the regular column on page 7. The lead article was penned by food writer Judith Weinraub - who, to be fair, is not a regular wine writer but who did, if memory serves, earn a James Beard Award a few years back for a feature about pairing wines with Asian foods. She began by summarizing factors she said have produced "a culture in which wine drinking was commonplace". (Where? I want to live there!) These included the availability of foods and wines from across the globe, the booming economy, the growth of wine classes and a glut of wine books.
Then came the kicker:
"For those of you who've been confined to a diet of bread and water - bottled or not - for the last decade" - I'm sorry, does she mean the Food section's readers, or its writers? - "the goal of food and wine pairing is matching the food and wine so that they complement each other, with neither one overwhelming the other. And it's nowhere near as simple as we once thought it was."
"Somehow," the article continued, "even with all the guidance available, some people are thrown into a state of panic at the thought of ordering a bottle of wine."
It's called "sticker shock."
Weinraub interviewed several experts for food-wine pairing advice and came up with the inevitable unhelpful tautologies ("similar tastes and flavors … generally work best, though sometimes contrasts work equally well"). There was also plenty of wine terminology (tannin, oak, etc.) scattered in without definition for the terrified idiots in the target audience.
Are novices who "panic at the thought of ordering a bottle of wine" going to be enlightened by "drink light wines with light foods, heavier wines with more robust foods"? Here's Joe Schmoe at the kitchen scale: "Hey, Marge, this bottle of Pinot Noir weighs the same as the Cabernet - but the guy at the wine store said it was lighter!"
Weinraub had the toughest assignment. The rest of the section gave advice on ordering wine at restaurants (don't smell the cork) and presented a test menu to several retailers to compare their suggested wines. (DC trend alert: Syrah is king with lamb.) Out-of-town Master Sommeliers were recruited to critique 20 restaurant wine lists. But the section did an inadvertent disservice to its wine columnist, who was not consulted or informed about the week's special theme. In a section devoted entirely to making wine more accessible, the box confined to page 7 contained a discourse on rare Hungarian Tokaji priced as high as $150 a bottle. A contradictory message if ever there was one.
For those of you who missed it, The Washington Post series can be found at the newspaper's website.