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Connoisseurship and snobbery

Felix Salmon linked to this article about the fraud of wine connoisseurship.

In 1976, an esteemed all-French jury gathered in Paris for a blind tasting to compare eight of France's greatest wines against a dozen upstarts from California. In an upset worthy of Hollywood, the United States trounced France, winning top honours in both the red and white categories.

Now, Hollywood has finally found its way to the story. Not one but two films based on the so-called Judgment of Paris will duke it out for attention this year....

The event's significance has predictably been interpreted the same way ever since: California had vaulted its way into the wine stratosphere. True. But if there's justice, the films will also be a reminder – in these boom times for wine snobbery – of a message far more overdue.... Without the benefit of a glance at the label, wine connoisseurship is so much hot air and bluster.

Perhaps in the past, wine tasters could pretend to a comprehensive expertise, but with the globalization of the wine trade, that kind of mastery has become impossible.

There is no myth about wine more enduring than that of the Olympian taster, the man or woman who can, with one sip, instantly peg a wine down to the vineyard, harvest year and grape blend. Such legendary stunts, when not actually apocryphal, almost always sound more impressive than they are.

Scratch the surface and you'll usually find the field of potential wines was implicitly very limited. Until about 40 years ago, when Bordeaux and Burgundy were the be-all and end-all, the “blind wine” was virtually always pulled from a tiny list of well-known estates in the hearts of those regions – the Moutons, the Cheval Blancs and the Romanée-Contis. If you had tasted enough of those wines from a bunch of recent vintages (not difficult and not a financial hardship in those pre-hyperinflation days), you could acquit yourself pretty well. There was no fear, say, of somebody slipping in a Chilean cabernet (a style of wine, incidentally, that defeated Bordeaux once again in a repeat of the Paris tasting a few years ago using an all-European jury).

This is suggestive of what Morgan Meis argues in the essay I linked to yesterday: "It is difficult simply to keep up with the vast global cultural output, let alone to make determinations and judgments."

I always have the impulse to link to these sorts of essays, which expose connoisseurship as essentially phony, without any basis in some kind of objective form of discrimination. Maybe I've read too much postmodernist theory, or suffer from living in postmodern times, but it's hard to recognize an objective basis for critical authority: the credibility of the critic always seems to be more at stake than the nature of the work being evaluated. (Apparently I have become a pretty committed relativist, or rather, I've become infected with anti-elitist tendencies which find expression in an urge to want to democratize aesthetic judgment.) Would anonymous reviewing ameliorate this? Without a particular critic's established ethos to supply credibility, the question of why one should take any particular opinion seriously would be inescapable. We don't have time to give every piece of anonymous criticism the same shot -- when we have the urge to consult a critic, we need criteria for selecting which ones to pay attention to. These criteria will inevitably take the form of branding, capitalism's preferred solution for helping customers sort through a surfeit of information.

When I indulge the urge to denounce connoisseurship, I usually focus on the critics who seem preoccupied with their own egos, with monetizing their personal brand and masking their commercial motives with bogus paeans to art's objective purity or beauty. But perhaps I shouldn't blame these connoisseurs who are merely meeting a demand for their style of opinionmaking. When connoisseurship springs up in regard to a particular type of experience, it indicates an influx of gullibility, and a sudden social need for authoritative voices. This happens when the experience in question ceases to be undertaken for its own sake and becomes enlisted in status-driven posturing. Yes, the connoisseurs exploit and exacerbate the insecurity which generate the initial demand for their dubious services, but ultimately, no consumers are required to take critics seriously. But we always choose to, because critics help police class boundaries, and give us parameters with which to locate ourselves in the social hierarchy, which on an official level supposedly does not exist. It's important not to lose sight of the fact that taste never transcends politics to achieve some sort of objectivity, nor is it a totally subjective matter of merely personal import; it draws up class boundaries while preserving the illusion of self-determination that's central to capitalist ideology, since social mobility as a motive requires ambiguous class boundaries. Critics and connoisseurs dispense sumptuary laws, because the state, under capitalism, cannot.

It follows that critics and connoisseurs are only as credible and convincing as their class allegiances are obvious. Connoisseurs have no choice but to be snobs.

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