by Peter Pharos

Insider Talk

“When art critics get together,” Picasso is meant to have said, “they talk about form and structure and meaning. When artists get together, they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.” It’s a much loved, if semi-apocryphal, quote. One attraction is the jibe against critics (who doesn’t love bashing those?) But the main driver, I think, is the presumption that a curtain is lifted. This is, Picasso tells us, how professionals really do it.

I, instead, find the quip devoid of charm, and not only because art critics rarely talk about form and structure when they meet. (The discourse is more about which publication pays on time, and who slept with whom to get that curating gig.) The unmistakable stench of populism emanates from it, the perennial cliché that theory is for pseudointellectuals. Practice, whatever that might be, does otherwise. Like many maladies of this sort, this one is also ubiquitous in the wine world.

Hardly a day passes by that I don’t see a professional shouting that everything convention knows to be true, is actually false, or corrupt, or fake. I am not talking about those that are simply marketing their wares (hey, if you have lots of California Chardonnay to sell, of course, of course, it’s every bit as good as Burgundy). Nor about the honestly fundamentalist (the world does work differently if you know the mg/L of sulfites in your wine by hard). I am thinking about the type of oh-so-revolutionary statement, accompanied by some marker of credibility, to let us know that the claimant is not a conspiracy theorist, but an insider.

You know the type. I am a wine merchant, and I don’t own any posh glasses (sure, who needs Zalto when there is an IKEA flower vase). I am an importer, and I don’t read any wine critics, or care about their scores (Diogenes, you are alive!).  I am a sommelier and I just eat and drink whatever I feel like at the time (a Che Guevara of restauration – can I buy a T-shirt with your face on it?).

One wonders what the intention of such broadcasts is. It can’t be an act of generous education of the hoi polloi. In most professions, people are aware that their need for information is rather different to laypeople’s. If you ask a doctor what you should do when you are not feeling well, she doesn’t go “oh, don’t go for that mass market GP crap. Just diagnose yourself, then get a friend of yours from Med School to prescribe something. That’s how pros do it baby, boom”. They also understand your experience is different from theirs, since you don’t do it day in, day out for work. If you tell a pilot you’re excited to be flying to Spain for a holiday, she is unlikely to respond “I can’t believe you are so happy about boarding a plane. I can’t stand being on the bloody things on a weekend”.

The defence would argue that it is intended as a form of mild whistleblowing, lifting the lid on an industry that thrives on smoke and mirrors. But this argument appears suspect. It is just too difficult to shake the feeling that it is at best about identity and camaraderie (we, professionals with our guild codes that separate us from the world) and at worst about misplaced smugness (here is how we relieve you of your hard-earned cash).

This latter confidence rests on a lot of false assumptions. The main one is that people share, or even care about, professionals’ views on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – and also, that they are similarly jaded. Yes, it is not easy to enjoy a 15% Châteauneuf-du-Pape if that’s the fortieth bottle you opened this week, on your fourth day dining out. It is much easier if that’s only the third glass of wine you have had this month. It is also mistaken to think that people love the idea of trying Château Latour out of some belief that it will “taste best” whatever that might mean. Sure, they expect it to taste nice. But mostly, they want to get a small taste of how the rich and famous live. Indeed, for many the experience will be all the sweeter if it ends up not being exceptional. (As for the actually rich and famous, well, they rarely care about the wine. It is just another expensive thing they buy.)

It is also naïve to think that people are oblivious to the fact that hospitality, food, and wine entail a degree of deception. Of course everyone knows that. But…what doesn’t? If anything, wine is checked for hypocrisy so often, that it probably has more substance in it than most things. Wine people, you think you are such great bullshitters? Have you ever met any lawyers? Actually, forget lawyers. Have you ever hired a builder?

The fact of the matter is that any good or service that is freely bought and sold will inevitably come with at least some wool pulled over the buyer’s eyes. Professions are a conspiracy against the laity, as the great man put it. Or, as they call it these days in polite company, marketing. That’s fine. Customers can enjoy the sausage exactly because they don’t quite know how it is made.

And on the rare occasion that someone does come to you wide-eyed and willing to learn, is it such a big macho win to tell them everything they think they know is wrong? After all, Picasso was famous for two things. Being one of the 20th century’s greatest painters, and being a grade A jerk. Liking the things he said doesn’t mark you as a connoisseur of the fine arts.

 Photo by Laura Adai and Unsplash

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