Every now and again as a wine person, it’s salutary to be reminded of the limits of the British public’s knowledge of wine and the dense knot of anxieties surrounding it.
Recently a national newspaper was running a short, light piece I’d written on the challenges of big tastings, a cri de coeur brought on by Burgundy en primeur week. At the last minute, I received an email from them: “The deputy editor wonders if you might do a little work on it? Could you reveal a few tips and myths about wine-tasting for the average punter? Should you sniff and taste, or just sniff? Which wines should you look out for or avoid on a restaurant list? Is a supermarket wine under eight quid ever worth it? Is Pinot Noir worth it/should it be chilled? That kind of thing.”
I told them that was a different piece to the one I’d written. But while there’s nothing wrong with beginner’s guides to anything, it seems to me that no matter how much wine is democratised, we will always face fresh pressure to dumb down how we talk about it.
Worse: always concomitant with those demands are accusations of being “elitist” and “pretentious” – whether, in fact, we dumb down or not. And “pretentious” is surely one of the most dreaded accusations that can be levelled in modern Britain.
Andrew Jefford reminded me of this in a recent Decanter column on why he prefers drinking from naff wine glasses. He recounts his joy in using silly glasses like his green goblets decorated with grapes and vine leaves: “Serious wine glasses are intimidating… they’re a prelude to silence and endeavour. A silly glass begins to set you free.”
I do not use expensive glasses at home, as they always get broken. Nevertheless, our go-to £4 John Lewis ones are conventional wine glasses. In other words, I’m not drinking out of something that doesn’t do the job properly just because of what someone else might think.
“It’s important, you see, to be the kind of drinker you want to be,” muses Jefford. I’m with wine educator Fintan Kerr, who commented on Twitter/X: “I agree. It just happens that I want to be the sort of drinker that isn’t intimidated by fine glassware to the point where I convince myself that Henry VIII’s wedding gifts are a better alternative.”
So why does even a prominent wine professional like Jefford feel the need to distance himself from looking “elitist” in this way?
To a degree, anyone with specialist knowledge risks being a victim of the British cult of amateurism: a suspicion of expertise and, worse, intellectualism first propagated by the gentleman-amateurs sent forth from the nation’s public schools to run the empire. It would be nice to think that this self-serving ethos of ruling-class generalists will not survive its apotheosis in Boris Johnson, after he led the nation to Brexit and Covid-19 disaster.
Alas that’s probably wishful thinking – but especially in the context of wine. For somehow, sometime in the twentieth century, terrible psychic damage was inflicted on middle-class Brits by that archetypal gastronomic bogie man, the snooty French wine waiter. It’s hard to pinpoint a root cultural example: the nearest is perhaps HM Bateman’s “the man who” Tatler cartoons from the 1920s, though only some of those are set in restaurants and they play on wider fears of social faux pas (“The man who lit his cigar before the royal toast”.)
It’s silly: why should it be any more embarrassing to ask for wine advice than to ask a doctor’s opinion on an ailment? Specialists can help you. But the panic induced in many by a long wine list seems real.
The charge of “pretentiousness” is a defence mechanism against that insecurity. And there’s no getting away from it: in this country, caring what’s in your glass at all is always going to be regarded as “pretentious” or “elitist” by a large slice of the public and press. Never mind that most of the right-leaning media patronise the nation’s elite private schools and lap up the Latin quotes deployed by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The ultimate proof that we can’t escape this? It’s a source of wonder to me the number of people I meet who still reference Jilly Goolden’s gushing over a fruity Sauvignon Blanc or “trainers on hot tarmac” Gamay on BBC2’s Food and Drink show in the 1980s and 90s as the archetypal pretentious “wine talk”. Yet Goolden and her co-presenter Oz Clarke were arguably the most successful ever mass-media explainers of wine, and certainly among the first.
If she’s pretentious, where does that leave, say, the Justerini & Brooks Burgundy en primeur tasting, or the River Café’s wine list? (To be clear: I like both.)
We need to draw a line against the anti-elitists. Sure, when we communicate about wine we need to be lucid and speak to our audience – as any good journalist should. Much as I was amused by commentator Joe Fattorini’s recent call to “make wine mysterious again”, we still have to be able to explain what’s in a glass. But that doesn’t mean pretending that it’s simple – or that what we do doesn’t demand knowledge and skill.
Jancis Robinson MW’s BBC Maestro series, and her recent FT column answering readers’ questions, are an object lesson in how to do this. She doesn’t pretend that she isn’t an expert, or that tasting isn’t a serious business – she’s being touted as a “maestro”, after all. But she explains clearly and engagingly, in a way that is in no sense “pretentious”.
And for those who still find any such celebration of wine knowledge “elitist”, I must simply plead guilty. Some people are just better at some things than other people. You know more about football than me; I know more about wine than you. Just deal with it.
Andy Neather blogs about food and wine at https://aviewfrommytable.substack.com/
Photo by Teemu Laukkarinen on Unsplash