Editor's note: We're pleased to bring you a new voice here on Serious Eats—Deb Harkness. You might already be familiar with Deb's work on Good Wine Under $20. If not, now's a great time to clink glasses with her and get to know her. She'll be joining us every other week with some insight on the vino in a column we call Serious Grape. Welcome to Serious Eats, Deb. Cheers! —Adam
My dad is an unlikely candidate for the label “wine snob.”
He has never taken a single wine course, reads no wine books and only occasionally purchases a wine magazine, keeps no more than a handful of bottles in the house for immediate drinking, and never spends more than $25 on a bottle of wine. He does not wear a cravat, smoke a pipe, or eschew the simple pleasure of a hot dog and a beer at a Dodgers game. Yet he loves sticking his nose into a glass of wine and calling out what he smells at the dinner table. “I smell blackberry!” he cries triumphantly. “And cloves, cinnamon, and chocolate, too!” The enthusiastic descriptions keep flowing after he’s sipped, and continue into the second glass and beyond.
Today, such enthusiasm for what's in the glass is enough for you to be branded a wine snob. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, columnist Joel Stein mocked the pretentiousness of people like my dad. Stein wrote that all he detected was “a whole lot of jackass” when reading wine critics who use fruity and flowery descriptors to tell you about a wine. After the disarming confession that he actually has a weak sense of smell, Stein went on to explain what he wants in a wine review instead: “Personally, I want to know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft, hot with alcohol, mineraly, watery or has a long finish. I want to know that a Zinfandel, our greatest native grape, tastes like America: big, bold, unsubtle and ready to fight.”
If we put aside the fact that Zinfandel is not a native grape at all, my dad (wine snob that he apparently is) would not intuitively understand what “balanced” was in a wine, even if he is amazingly quick to isolate the flavor of rhubarb. And “ready for a fight”? Yes, I’m sure that means something to Stein but what that is has remained a mystery to me for nearly a week.
Nobody Likes To Be Called a Snob
Nobody likes to be called a snob. The alternative that Stein sketches out for those of us who like to talk or write about wine is to remain mute out of fear that our friends will think we’re jackasses, or to let them think we’re insane instead by shouting “Woohoo! Awesome wine! Grapey! Comes out fighting!” when we sip our Shiraz.
For the rest of the wine drinking world, who simply wants to buy something in their local shop that they have an odds-on chance of enjoying, the prospect is even bleaker. Can you imagine going in and asking the owner to give you bottle of wine that is spoiling to go nine rounds? I think you would have more success asking for something in the raspberry family.
Taste Is Subjective
I don’t always smell what my dad detects in a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, nor do I taste what my fellow critics do when sipping the same glass of Pinot Noir. The human senses are highly personal and gloriously subjective. But I seldom feel that organoleptic descriptors—the technical, winegeek term for adjectives such as those appearing on Ann C. Noble’s famous Wine Aroma Wheel—are far off the mark. Over time I’ve discovered that I prefer wines that are described as tangy rather than tart, and that of all the citrus in the world I like wines that earn the label “grapefruity.”
I see nothing snobbish, strange, or off-putting when a wine writer makes an analogy between something I already put in my mouth or smell with my nose and a flavor or aroma I detect in a glass of wine. But from now on the enthusiastic wine drinker needs to beware. If you’ve ever told a friend that your chardonnay tasted of apples, you are a wine snob. But don’t worry. Some of your closest friends are probably wine snobs, too—at least by Stein's standards. If they are as unpretentious as my dad, you are in excellent company.