Wine snobbery

I am not a wine drinker so cannot speak from personal experience but know that suggesting to people who consider themselves connoisseurs of wine that some tests have shown that there isn’t that much difference between expensive and cheap wines (and that some tests found that experts cannot distinguish even between red and white wines) is sure to arouse indignation. I know personally someone who when he visits his parents’ home, takes some of their wine and pours it down the sink because he thinks it is inferior. My own attitude to any matters of taste is to follow Duke Ellington’s advice in music that “If it sounds good, it is good.” If you like the taste of something, you should ignore other factors like its cheap price or the attitude of experts.

But I have always found amusing the rituals and language used to describe wines and the January 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine reproduced an October 2020 Instagram post by the owner of a fancy New York City French restaurant that recounted a story about two sets of diners at his restaurant. One set consisted of four Wall Street businessmen and the other was a young couple. The four businessmen ordered the most expensive wine that sells for $2,000 a bottle while the young couple ordered the cheapest wine which cost $18 per bottle. Apparently, the custom in this restaurant is to pour the wine from the bottle into decanters and then take the decanters to the table. This seems a bit silly to me but then in addition to not drinking wine, I never eat at fancy restaurants either so maybe this is standard practice at high-end eateries.

You can guess what happened. The restaurant managers accidentally switched the decanters. The owner recounts what happened.

The young couple, who ordered the $18 pinot noir, were then inadvertently served the $2,000 Rothschild. On taking their first sips of what they believed was cheap wine, they jokingly pretended to be drinking an expensive wine and parodied all the mannerisms of a wine snob.

Five minutes later, the two managers discovered their error and, horrified, phoned me at home. I rushed to Balthazar. The businessmen’s celebratory mood was clearly enhanced by the wine they had mistakenly thought was the restaurant’s most expensive. This put me in a dilemma: whether to come clean and admit the manager’s mistake, or allow them to continue drinking the cheap wine in blissful ignorance. It was unthinkable at this point to pull the real Bordeaux from the young couple’s table. Besides, they were having too much fun pretending to be drinking a $2,000 bottle of wine. I decided to tell both parties the truth. The businessman responded by saying, “I thought that wasn’t a Mouton Rothschild!” The others at the table nodded their heads in servile agreement.

I recently watched the 2008 film Bottle Shock that dealt with an earlier form of wine snobbery that existed in the 1970s when it was believed by wine connoisseurs that California wines could never compete in quality with French wines. The film is loosely based on the events that led up to the famous 1976 blind taste test between French and Californian wines. It is an amusing (but not great) film. It stars Alan Rickman (who is always watchable) as a British expatriate in France who sets up the test and comes to California in search of wines for the competition.

Of course, now there are wines being produced on every continent that are widely appreciated by wine lovers.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. billseymour says

    Back in my wires-and-pliers days in the early ’70s, I was doing some volunteer work at KRAB (FM), Seattle.

    There was a call-in wine appreciation show hosted by Emmett Watson.  I remember one caller who admitted that he didn’t know anything about wine, and didn’t really care, but wanted a recommendation of a wine that would impress his girl friend.  Watson suggested that he get a bottle of Thunderbird and put it in a decanter. 😎

  2. Canadian Steve says

    I enjoy wine as much as anything and I think you have to take wines like everything else in life -- any generalization you can make is going to have many exceptions. That said, it is true that generally there is an improvement in taste with an increase in price- up to a point. (This price point is probably lower than most people would guess.) It also follows branding rules where label recognition has as much to do with price as the contents. That said, I think the best advice is to drink what you like!

  3. Callinectes says

    I’ve always regarded wine as perfectly good grape juice gone bad. I have yet to encounter a beverage that could not be made distressingly unpleasant with the addition of alcohol.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    Arbor Mist is dirt cheap and tastes like slightly alcoholic fruit juice. I love it, and I’m not ashamed.

    I like more traditional wines, too. IMO, the price point mentioned by Canadian Steve in @2 is $20. Anybody who pays more than that for a bottle of wine is paying for snobbery.

  5. mnb0 says

    “the cheapest wine which cost $18 per bottle”
    I never bougth such a “cheap” wine, because I never could afford it ….
    One of the best wines I ever drank was a Maltese one, bought on Malta, for less than half a Maltese dollar.

  6. says

    A friend of my father’s had an amazing wine cellar, obtained the traditional way: he inherited it. But sometimes he’d pull something legendary from the basement and everyone would be amazed. One guest asked him “what is your favorite wine of all that you have had?” and he replied, “whatever is in front of me.”

    We have a tradition in my family of finding the best cheap wine we can -- under $10/bottle. My dad once found a really bitter plonk that miraculously became quite drinkable if you left the bottle open overnight. He bought cases of the stuff and served the aerated version to wine snobs who pronounced it magnificent.

  7. billseymour says

    Back in the late ’60s when I was stationed at March Air Force Base, CA (yes, Vietnam era; but I was never in ’Nam and make no claim to being a hero), we used to drink Red Mountain Burgundy:  $1.59/gallon plus deposit on the jug. 😎

    (I just Googled Red Mountain Burgundy and discovered that that’s the title of a Janis Joplin song.  It was a real thing, I promise.)

  8. garnetstar says

    My family is Italian, so we drink wine like water. I’ve never had dinner with my family (four generations now) without wine, even if the dinner is just delivered pizza. The children start drinking wine at five years old.

    So, here is the wine-connoisseur knowledge of four generations of lifelong wine drinkers: some people like some wines better and they like to drink them more. Other people like other wines better, so they drink those more.


  9. flex says

    I don’t pretend to be a wine expert, or a snob, but I can usually tell the difference between some varieties of grapes used. There is a difference between a pinot noir and a merlot, but I don’t think I could tell the difference between two pinot noirs in a taste test. I mean I could probably tell that there was a difference, but there would be no relationship between my preferences and the price of the bottle. Considering that many wines these days are a blend of several grape varieties, it is harder to tell them apart. We usually stick to the $10-$12 range these days, but that’s because that what’s in the local supermarket.

    When stationed in Turkey we used to drink the local wines. It was always a crapshoot because there was a single state-owned vintner and all the growers would take their grapes to that vintner. The vintner didn’t mix or blend the grapes, so what came out each barrel could be wildly different, but the same label was on every bottle. We had some great wines, and we had some which were close to vinegar. All at a reasonable price, about $2 a bottle.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    My non-connoisseur experience with wine tells me that the difference between cheaper and more expensive wines is not so much quality per se, but variation in quality of cheaper wines. I’ve had $15 bottles that were as good as any $100+ bottle. In my student days, I was quite fond of a $5 Hungarian red called Egri Bikaver (Eger Bull’s Blood).

  11. chigau (違う) says

    I haven’t spent a lot of time in really posh restaurants but I doubt anyone would buy a $2000 bottle of wine without seeing the bottle.

  12. garnetstar says

    Rob @11, I love Egri Bikaver! It’s kind of famous, actually.

    And chigau @12, you have a point. In all the (few) posh places I’ve ever been, they bring you the bottle to examine, even if it’s cheap, so you can see what it is and the year, etc., and wine snobs love the bottles and take them home with them.
    Also, the snobbier the place, the more they do the ceremony of uncorking the bottle in front of you and pouring a sip so that you can pretend to know by the taste if the wine’s gone bad or not.
    Then there’s leaving the cork by your plate for you to smell, I guess to show that you know the difference between the cork-smell of wine that’s gone bad or not.

  13. Katydid says

    I’ve never gotten wine at a restaurant--the markup is ridiculous. I also live now in a state where you can’t get wine at the supermarket, so a couple of times a year I might go into a liquor store and buy a couple of bottles of wine. Usually it’s less than $10 -- $12 bottle…in other words, on the cheap end. As Flex said, I can tell the difference between kinds of wine, but not between two bottles of the same kind. I see $7.50 bottles from places like Australia but I’ve never tried any of those.

  14. John Morales says

    Wine-making is more of a science than an art, these days.

    The result is that the overall quality of all wines, even the cheap ones, has increased significantly over the last couple of decades.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    I know personally someone who when he visits his parents’ home, takes some of their wine and pours it down the sink because he thinks it is inferior.

    What a horrible waste of ethanol. Distill, baby, distill.

  16. flex says

    Oddly enough, I agree with John Morales @15. It seems like even the cheapest wines can be consistent, so if you really like the taste of Boones Farm, you can get that taste every time. I understand that some of the dregs of wine are looked on these days as “flavor crystals”, but when I first started drinking on occasion you would get undrinkable, gritty, sediment on the cheapest reds. You don’t seem to get that sediment anymore. W. Edwards Deming for the win.

    On a somewhat related topic, I’ve recently re-read some of my favorite SF short story collections from the 1950’s. I pulled from my library an excellent collection of Lester Dey Rey stories called Robots and Changlings published in 1957, but including stories from the pulps in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In one story titled, The Coppersmith, about an elf/dwarf awakening in modern times (1939) from a 120 year sleep for pranking someone, the elf/dwarf purchases 5 cents worth of tobacco and was astounded at how mild the leaf was. Incremental improvements over time in quality and consistency, even in the early 20th century, helped remove some of the unwanted variability in life. At the same time, other improvements in transportation have enabled variety which was never available prior to now.

    Truly, for an epicure, there has been no better time than the present. Even for a gourmand like myself there has never been a time where the variety of food is more plentiful. In Michigan, In the middle of the US, I can get Pacific sablefish (cod) or Gulf Shrimp no more than 2 days after it left the sea (and often more rapidly). The breadbasket of America is apparently Chile, as a lot of the fruit and vegetables I get comes from another hemisphere. I can get wines from anyplace in the world. My wife is a fan of tea, and she can get first flush Darjeeling from Northern India almost as soon as it is finished processing. As a Christmas gift I got my wife a package of tea from Turkey and a case of a mild Hungarian red table wine which she has grown fond of. All at a reasonable cost. The only reason for spending exorbitant amounts of money on food is vanity, potlatch, or conspicuous consumption. Three names for the same idea that status is gained by the amount of resources wasted.

    My wife and I are not food snobs, the idea of pouring a bottle of perfectly good wine down the drain is anathema to us. If we don’t like the taste we can always cook with it. The scraps go to the chickens and return as eggs. But where Lucullus had to spend a fortune to dine on luxury viands largely found in the Italian peninsula, I can enjoy the variety the world offers at reasonable cost. Mind you, I am very privileged to be able to do so.

    I wish everyone had the privileges I have.

  17. says

    I guess to show that you know the difference between the cork-smell of wine that’s gone bad or not.

    It’s so you can look at the cork and see if there’s signs of cracking or rot. Also, if whoever uncorked the wine broke the bottom of the cork off in the neck of the bottle, which means there will be cork in the vino.

    If you smell the cork, you’ve just signaled that you’re a poseur. I think the whole “smell the cork” thing was conceived as a cruel joke.

  18. Dunc says

    Of course, now there are wines being produced on every continent that are widely appreciated by wine lovers.

    I must have missed the news of the planting of vineyards in Antarctica… I didn’t think global warming had gotten that bad yet.

  19. garnetstar says

    flex @17, i agree, the options of foods and quality has expanded so much. I was in college before I ever saw, or even heard of, yogurt. Now, of course, it’s a staple where I grew up.

    And, my grandfather used to make his own wine, and he’d give some of it to my mother. She thanked him politiely, then let it ferment, or whatever that is, and it made excellent vinegar! So, no pouring away bad-tasting wine, it can always be used for something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *