My wine blogger friend Jon Thorsen has written a book. I’ll be reviewing Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine without Breaking the Bank in a couple of weeks. Spoiler alert, I enjoyed it. But the book dropped on June 16, and it happened to come right in the middle of a huge online debate about cheap and expensive wines (well, huge for online wine debates, anyway), and also what constitutes wine snobbery.
So I thought I’d use part of Jon’s introduction to get us into the topic:
“UrbanDictionary.com defines a wine snob as ‘a wine enthusiast, particularly one who is pretentious, or self-important because of their “immense wine knowledge.” ‘
“We all know the type. Perhaps it’s your uncle or a friend who once vacationed in Bordeaux and has now become the overbearing know-it-all who can’t open a bottle without first giving a lecture. The bane of average wine consumers everywhere, wine snobs love to point out just how superior their $75 bottle of wine is to your $10 one.”
I’ve definitely been exposed to this type. Occasionally when I gave tastings at Alliance Française, the French Cultural Institute, I’d get approached by someone who had to show me how much more he knew about French wine than I did. It was sometimes annoying. As a wine merchant, though, I’d engage politely because, well, maybe I’d learn something, and perhaps the person would become a customer.
But the fact is that these people are few and far between, at least in my experience. Being in the wine business has exposed me to probably a thousand people who love wine, here in the U.S. and abroad. Of those, maybe a handful would fit the definition of a wine snob.
Honestly, I’m not sure where this is coming from. Every wine lover I know wants to pay less for excellent wine. Every wine lover I know is also willing to taste pretty much anything that comes along, no matter the price. Most people know it’s just plain rude to disparage other people’s taste, regardless of what you might think about it. In my experience this display of snobbery rarely happens.
People who are enthusiastic about nearly anything have a tinge of fanaticism about them that’s off-putting to the uninitiated. Let’s face it, when you get two or more enthusiasts in a room together, the conversation is going to turn to each person’s most memorable experiences with the subject at hand, challenging the others to defend their positions, and general one-upmanship.
This is true even of sports. Here in DC, I recently overheard two Washington Nationals fans getting into an arcane discussion/debate about the relative merits of the team’s pitching staff. And when I occasionally hear bits of sports radio programs, I’m always amazed at how much knowledge people have accumulated and how willing they are to share it.
The most recent debate over wine snobbery was sparked by a video posted on Vox.com. Nineteen different Vox staffers tried three wines, all Cabernet Sauvignons, varying widely in price. The video is straightforward, and the results not particularly surprising. The Vox staffers liked the most and least expensive wine equally well, slightly less than they liked the medium-priced wine. All three wines were rated around 5 out of a possible 10 points, and given the small number of tasters and the likelihood that everyone tasted the wines in the same order, the results actually say that the wines fared equally well on average – although hardly a rave. With a rating of 5 out of 10, I probably wouldn’t buy any of them.
Yet the write-up accompanying the video is titled “Expensive wine is for suckers. This video shows why.” And to bolster this contention, the article and video cite studies showing how all over the place wine ratings can be, how wine judges vary widely in their opinions at competitions, and how most of the time people prefer less expensive wine unless they’ve had some training. Jon Thorsen cites some of these in his book as well.
In a post on Jezabel, Sarah Miller takes these on, and you should read it and the comments it generated. Here’s my two cents on the issue of taste.
As some of you know, I spent my early working life in food product development. Part of everyone’s job was to taste our product – spaghetti sauce – two or three times a week, comparing it to our competitors’ sauces. We usually tasted at around 8:30 am, and my perception changed depending on what I had eaten for breakfast, how much coffee I’d had, how much alcohol I’d had to drink the night before, what else I was thinking about that I had to do later, etc. For validation, two of the samples we had to try were always the same, and some days I couldn’t tell which ones were identical even though I knew two of them would be. (And yes, these were blind tastings, done in isolation booths under red lights so we couldn’t tell which was our product by its looks. Under red lights, spaghetti sauce looks clear and kind of gelatinous and all the spices look like black specks, so it’s a shock when it tastes like tomatoes. Not exactly what you want to see first thing in the morning, is it?)
I suspect this goes on for all kinds of foods for everyone, all the time. Hasn’t it happened that you went to a restaurant and ordered something you’d liked there before but decided it wasn’t as tasty this time? Maybe you had something different for lunch or as a snack, or had a hard day at work, or have something on your mind. You probably don’t think that your taste is the thing that has changed, though. You’re more likely to think that the restaurant is inconsistent – which could be the case, but isn’t automatically true.
When I started in the wine business, I found the same issues, only amplified probably a dozen-fold. At a wine show, there are plenty of things to taste. I would make my choices of what I thought I’d like to add to the First Vine portfolio. Then I’d go back and try some of these choices later and think I’d made a terrible mistake. They tasted completely different. If I managed to get a sample bottle here and there from the producers and try them later, I’d have a third opinion. When Cy tastes with me at wineries, we don’t always have the same opinions about what we like and don’t like. And I’ve made selections based on what regular customers have liked in the past, only to find they don’t like the new wines quite as much.
The question I have is why this normal variation in taste and opinion is much more important for wine in people’s minds than for other things. And why it’s considered to be a valid excuse for thinking that people who like more expensive wines are wrong, or snobs, or “suckers,” as Vox put it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you should lord your taste (good or bad) or expertise over anyone. At the same time, though, why is it OK to disparage people who happen to enjoy more expensive wines or who bother to learn more about a subject they enjoy? I don’t get it.
Sarah Miller chalks it up to a general anti-intellectualism. And when I wrote about wine “jargon” last year, I got comments indicating that wine has esoteric connotations and was the beverage of the rich for centuries, so that’s why winespeak is more pretentious than jargon about other subjects like sports.
Well, I don’t buy either one as an excuse. The world is full of wine and people who drink it. In cultures where people drink wine every day, the vast majority of wine is inexpensive. People drink it happily. And they enjoy a splurge, too – maybe regularly or just occasionally. Would they drink more expensive wine all the time if they could afford it? Maybe, maybe not. Everyone has a point at which the marginal gain isn’t worth the cost. If you decide it’s worth it, though, then it’s no different than a baseball fan buying box seats at a game instead of cheaper seats.
Cy and I were away last weekend and had some excellent food, much of it featuring lobster. Last Monday was National Lobster Day after all, and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. So we had to celebrate. It would have seemed wrong not to.
One of the dishes I had was Linguine alla Carbonara with lobster. Pasta with bacon, eggs, onions, cheese, and lobster on top of that. It was delicious. Normally when I make Carbonara I leave the bacon fat in to cook the onions. But lobster has a more delicate flavor and bacon fat could obscure it, so I figured the chef had drained off the bacon fat and replaced it with olive oil. I’ve done the same thing here. Also, instead of the cream that you sometimes find in Carbonara recipes, I like to use chicken or vegetable stock, depending on what I have on hand. I saw Lidia Bastianich make Carbonara that way and I’ve done it that way since. It makes the dish a little leaner and doesn’t take away from the richness of the lobster meat.
The Carbonara I had was served with an egg yolk that I stirred into the dish. To my taste, that’s a little much. In general, I like egg yolks better than whole eggs for Carbonara because they give it a creamier texture. But you only need three of them for a pound of linguine. While it’s pretty to put an egg yolk in each serving, it also looks good to pile the finished pasta in a large serving bowl.
Long pasta is traditional for Carbonara, so you can use either spaghetti or linguine. I think the flatter linguine soaks up more sauce. Either way, though, don’t over-boil it, since you’ll finish cooking it in the sauce. I like America’s Test Kitchen’s trick for heating up the serving bowl: put the bowl in the sink and set the colander in it. The hot pasta water will heat the bowl up in a couple of minutes. This keeps the pasta fresher-looking longer. Warm serving plates or bowls also help, but it’s summer so you may not want to heat those up too.
You can go for either a lighter red or a more substantial white with the wine for the dish. I recommend Domaine de Mairan Chardonnay, and at $12 you’ll appreciate the price (especially after you’ve splurged for lobster). It’s crisp and not aged in oak, but still has more body than lighter whites. There’s a little bit of malolactic fermentation here, so there’s just a hint of buttery flavor that makes lobster taste sweeter. I think that an inexpensive wine that makes expensive lobster taste even better is worth a try, no matter how much you like to spend.
1 pound linguine or spaghetti
6 slices thick-cut smoked bacon, about 5 or 6 ounces, cut crosswise into thin strips
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, ends cut off, peeled, sliced in half through the poles, then each half cut crosswise into slices
2 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock (I like Kitchen Basics low-sodium versions)
2 large, uncooked lobster tails, shelled, and cut into ½-inch pieces.
3 large egg yolks
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and add the bacon. Cook it over low heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s browning on the edges but isn’t completely browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and let it drain on a plate covered with a paper towel. Pour out all the fat from the pan and add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Heat until shimmering, then add the onion, a little salt, and the bacon. Cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until the onions start to brown on the edges.
At this point, you can cook the pasta. Take the package directions and subtract a minute or so. When it’s nearly done, remove 1 cup of the pasta water and set it aside.
Add the hot stock to the pan with the onion and bacon. Bring it up to the boil on high, then lower it to medium-low and let it cook to reduce by half. In the meantime, dry off the lobster pieces and sprinkle them with a little salt. By the time the liquid reduces, the pasta should be ready.
Put a large serving bowl in the sink and set the colander in it. Drain the pasta, then lift the colander and shake it a couple of times. Add the pasta right into the bacon/onion/stock mixture. Add a good ½ teaspoon of coarsely-ground black pepper and the lobster pieces and stir everything together. Let it cook for a minute or so, adding a little pasta water if it seems completely dry. Then turn off the heat, and stir in the cheese and egg yolks, mixing well but carefully, adding more pasta water if it’s dry (it’s better for the mixture to be a little wet because the pasta keeps absorbing liquid). Empty out the warm pasta bowl and dry the outside, then pour the pasta into the bowl. Serve immediately, with extra cheese and more pepper.