Mullings Over Wine Pretentiousness in the Digital World

Here is what I hear when I read reviews or listen to someone criticize wine shops, wine shop staff, or even sommeliers as being “pretentious”. I hear this:

“Everything I need to know, I already know. Anything that someone tells me that may differ from that is wrong, must be false, and is therefore completely fabricated just so that they can appear smarter than I am. They are just being pretentious.”

It’s like a delusion of intellectual grandeur, perhaps driven by the internet age’s self-serving gathering of “information” – “facts” that conveniently suit the searchers’ beliefs rather than challenging something that they think that they already know. The digital age doesn’t allow us to experience anything that hasn’t been added to our factual playlist. It’s very easy to say, when hearing something new or that conflicts with your previous knowledge or experience, that someone just made something up. It’s an easy defense against something that may differ from your own intellect or perceptions by belittling it or turning it into a joke and laughing at it. And of course, if it’s easy to do, it must be on the internet (or some news channels). Travel websites with reviews (hint: rhymes with “Mip Advisor”) are loaded with these kinds of reviews and, while I admit it’s kind of entertaining to read in a Jerry Springer-kind of way, it can get downright mean and needlessly offensive when the focus of the criticism is directed to your own work place. I’ve seen more than a few co-workers get angry and stressed over some of those more hurtful and ignorant reviews.

Here’s why I think it’s a little unfair to criticize wine professionals in that way, or to belittle them as “pretentious”. People who have spent years studying, learning about, and working with wine will very likely know more about it than you do. They have spent a good part of their lives and a large amount of money studying wine on a level that goes beyond the average consumer or enthusiast. Not everyone that you meet in a wine shop has that training but some of them do. Shockingly, they are not out to make you look like stupid or knock you off your pedestal in front of your friends even though that’s how some people react to it. They are sharing something with you that they love and find interesting and because you are standing in their wine shop or store, they assume that you want to know about those same things.

Mechanics are not criticized for being pretentious. Neither are medical doctors. Both are prized (and well paid) for their knowledge base and skills and we depend on both of them to get things fixed when things need fixing. They have both gone through lots of training and apprenticeships to get where they are and love what they do and do it because they love it. I want the pilot on my next flight to be the one who had pictures of aeroplanes all over his or her room as a kid, dreamt about being a pilot all day as a teenager, and loves every second of their time in the pilot’s seat. I don’t want the pilot who became a pilot because, it’s a job. Thankfully, becoming a pilot is harder than just playing Flight Simulator for weeks at a time and reading wiki articles. Just because you bought a big Nikon SLR and outboard lighting gear at London Drugs doesn’t mean that you are suddenly now a professional photographer. Those “filters” on Instagroan don’t make your photos look professional either – they stand out like a glass of grape Kool-Aid at a wine tasting. Simply knowing facts about something does not compare to years of dedicated training and experience.

I believe that both of those issues – false intellectual delusions of grandeur and de-professionalism – are internet-age personality disorders and are somehow related. Sometimes I think that my awareness of these disorders is part of what has held me back from writing in-depth articles. I know it taints some of the early podcasts when I consciously held back information because I didn’t want to come across potentially as a wine snob or elitist when really I am neither. Perhaps I was tentative to start blogging at all for the same reason. I never read blogs before and still don’t read them that often as part of my daily media diet. Who is this blogger to be so bloody all-knowing? Why do I think my comments are worth anyone’s time to read? What gives me the right?

Truthfully, I don’t know. I’ve been in the industry now for 10 years and have been lucky to have worked in almost all aspects of wine production – vineyard work, cellar work, u-brew, wine sales, wine shop management, and marketing. Maybe that gives me some experience that’s worth something to somebody? After 6 years of blogging, I’ve really enjoyed the interactions I’ve had online, meeting people IRL, travelling to new places, and learning about new things. I think most wine bloggers are similar in this regard. You would think that getting a lot of wine bloggers together would result in massive arguments and heated discussions about wine and technology as they all try to intellectually one-up each other. But after attending 3 Wine Bloggers’ Conferences over the years, the fact is that you’ll never get that many genuinely knowledge-hungry people that love to express their passion for their trade together in a single place without giving them an Ivy-league degree at the end. If anything those conferences are a respite from having to defend your obsessions with wine and wine knowledge against the spectre of being labelled as “pretentious”. Most attendees of the conferences that I’ve been to are nowhere near the classic wine-snob or the knowledge-insecure customer. They are eager to challenge themselves, to be proven right or wrong, and learn from any new experience being offered.

To be fair, the wine world has changed significantly over the past 4 decades, evolving from a formalized Hugh Johnson “Wine Atlas” terroir-based, European-centred approach on one side to meritorious “democratizing” criticism of Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator on the other. The problem with the former is that is has a high resistance to change and has taken years to respect much of the industry outside of Europe. (The Oxford Companion to Wine, which I long ago nicknamed the “Condescendium”, being a prime example and really, who still publishes huge encyclopaedias anymore?) The latter can change direction on a whim and seem needlessly spastic in its focus on the current trends. Supertuscans may have been all the rage one year but almost invisible on the review pages next.

While we currently seem to believe that all knowledge that is knowable is somewhere online the fact is that the digital world is not the “all knowing”. If all you’ve got is “a thousand songs in your pocket” (from Apple’s early promotions of the first iPod), you’re missing out on all of the other music that isn’t in your playlist. There is nothing on your list that you didn’t put there yourself so there is no way that you ever hear anything that will challenge your listening abilities. Of course there is also the argument that mp3’s are only able to reproduce a very small amount of the frequencies of live sound, leaving all kinds of subtle overtones out. Zooming in on the pixels of a JPEG of Tom Thomson’s April in Algonquin Park online are nothing compared to what it’s like to stand in front of the same painting and see the the brush strokes, dead colouring, or craquelure up close. The digital domain can only really hope to reproduce a small portion of the world as it exists in real life. The digital world is not the real world. Information on the internet is not knowledge. Wine can only be experienced IRL, not on a blog, which is the main reason that I don’t do wine reviews here.

Outside of that digital world, there are people who actually have knowledge that can extend beyond the confines of a search engine. Humans have the ability to think beyond the threshold limits of what our little electronic devices are capable of. Let’s not belittle them by calling them pretentious.