Why Wine?


For at least five years, various students at King’s have talked about launching a wine club.  Several students have approached me and asked for my opinion, which has always been favorable. But this initiative has had to contend with an inconvenient fact: persons in this country cannot lawfully buy wine before the age of twenty-one. So nothing seems to have come of this initiative. By the time most King's students reach the age of twenty-one, they are close to graduating (and a few have already graduated). Is there a solution? One possibility would be to launch a club with the involvement of alumni who stay in the city after graduation. This might further strengthen ties between current students and alumni, and it might mean more places for club members to meet.

It’s worth noting that some members of university wine clubs in Great Britain used their experience to create impressive careers. Hugh Johnson, a student member of the Wine & Food Society at Cambridge University, is a prolific writer and in 2007 was designated OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for his “services to wine-making and horticulture.”

King’s students interested in forming a wine club must decide whether they are willing to reach out to alumni in New York City to get it started.  They should also reflect on their reasons for wanting to have a wine club.  Among educated professionals, knowledge of wine has a certain cachet. But there are also long-standing prejudices against wine and wine drinkers in this country, and it is worth considering them.

Despite the growth in popularity in the last twenty years, wine may always remain “countercultural” in the United States. A nation that had the folly to introduce—and to ratify—the Eighteenth Amendment might have to pay for that assault on common sense for a long time. Yet the prejudices against wine go beyond our nation’s broader (and legitimate) worries about the abuse of alcohol.

Putting aside the reasons linked to temperance movements and Prohibition, we can identify two recurring prejudices against wine.  First, wine is allegedly unmanly or “effeminate.” Second, wine connoisseurship is said to be pretentious and perhaps even a masquerade. Let us consider each charge in turn.

It’s hard to know whether any American man living today would criticize a woman for drinking wine.  But some men look down on other men for doing just that. In other words, real men drink beer. Or they drink scotch. Or they drink martinis. But they don’t drink wine.

In this little narrative, the problem with wine is that it is either too expensive or too “feeble.”  Some male beer drinkers resent anything more than casual wine drinking among men because regular wine drinking supposedly requires a high salary.  That’s plainly false, but it is true that the distance separating the least expensive wines from the most expensive wines is vast and much greater than the distance separating the least expensive and most expensive beers.  So we may have a class-based resentment here.  A related notion seems to be that when a guy wants to splurge and drink something other than beer, he should drink something more “manly” or stronger than wine.

These criticisms are hard to take seriously.  I occasionally enjoy a glass of scotch or a shot of Russian or Polish vodka, but faulting wine for not being beer or not being bourbon is like faulting Jefferson for not being Madison.  One of the first principles of effective criticism is to strive, as far as possible, to take things on their own terms. Disparaging wine because it is not another beverage is ludicrous.

What about the alleged pretentiousness of wine connoisseurship?  To be sure, the way that certain people speak and write about wine can sound terribly affected.  Everyone who enjoys wine concedes this, and an amusing little book called The Wine Snob’s Dictionary (2008) captured some of these tendencies. But wine connoisseurship is real, not imaginary.  It ultimately rests on knowledge of certain properties or attributes of different grapes, climates, and soils. It also rests on real differences in wine-making techniques and what the French call terroir.  In the end, all of these differences have consequences: there is a great hierarchy of wines, and the judgments behind the hierarchy are not wholly subjective.

From my perspective, some of the attacks on wine connoisseurship are akin to attacks on certain schools of art and poetry in the twentieth century. (Think of common reactions to Abstract Expressionist paintings.) In the realms of culture and leisure-time pursuits, most Americans don’t like the idea of having to acquire specialized knowledge to appreciate something.  And being highly practical in most matters of life, we tend to be suspicious of specialized knowledge that doesn’t directly relate to the needs of daily living or contribute to economic growth or innovation.

So why drink wine? Apart from the gustatory delight that it often brings, I offer three other reasons below.  I grant that wine is indeed “countercultural,” but in the positive sense of that word.  For that reason, I expect that most students at King’s—a countercultural institution for our time—might be receptive to the myriad charms of wine.

Drinking good or decent wine forces us to slow down. Wine is typically more expensive than tap water or soda, and someone drinking wine has a reason to ask why he or she chose it in the first place. The answer must have something to do with the distinctive qualities of wine, especially its aromas and tastes.  To appreciate those qualities--sometimes unmistakable, sometimes subtle --one must be willing to spend time with a wine. Given the frenetic pace of so many American lives today, this should be regarded as a welcome development.  Furthermore, it is only by slowing down and consuming a wine deliberately that one can achieve the “aesthetic education” described next.

Drinking wine can provide both an aesthetic and a sensory education. I agree with the distinguished wine writer Matt Kramer, who asserts that wine is not art, because wine derives from something we find in nature (namely, grapes). At the same time, I believe that wine can educate our senses and thereby provide a kind of aesthetic education.  The three principal elements of wine evaluation are looking at the wine, smelling it, and tasting it (corresponding to the terms “appearance,” “nose,” and “palate”). These three steps should be taken every time someone drinks a wine, and in a future submission to the EST, I shall describe each step more fully.

The world of wine is in some ways irreducibly and unabashedly inegalitarian. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the nineteenth century, Americans seem to be more passionate about equality than about liberty.  We see evidence of this in many places: grade inflation at many colleges and universities, the movement for “marriage equality,” the widespread suspicion of all kinds of hierarchy in American life (even in churches).  But as noted above, the world of wine is hierarchical. To citizens in a democracy, this could prove exhilarating. Great differences in the quality of wines are reflected in both blind tastings and differences in price, though there is a satisfactory range of wines for nearly every budget.

To conclude, let me offer a few final comments, even at the risk of stating the obvious. By itself, drinking wine does not make anyone a better person (or a better Christian), and no wine drinker should criticize someone who categorically abstains from alcohol. There may be good reasons for this abstinence, such as a history of alcoholism in one’s family. Nonetheless, wine is a fascinating part of Western civilization, and it has marvelously retained its capacity to enhance our lives and contribute to a more civilized existence.