The Wiki Man

Why does anyone drink wine?

6 June 2013

1:00 PM

6 June 2013

1:00 PM

You will be scandalised by the suggestion, of course, especially those of you who spend several hours every week drinking it, reading about it or discussing it. But most wine is actually rubbish.

I’ll let you off the hook if you drink wine only with food. But wine drunk on its own is often a terrible drink, usually consumed for appearances’ sake, or because the drinker lacks the confidence to complain, or for want of any alternative source of alcohol. Our judgment of wine is also notoriously flaky — influenced as much by the appearance and weight of the bottle as by its contents. One winemaker sent the same wine to a competition under three different labels. One was rejected by the judges as ‘undrinkable’; another won a double gold medal.

Why do we happily risk buying such an unpredictable alcoholic drink? Any pub selling beer where there was a one in three chance your pint would be disgusting would go bankrupt in a week. Shouldn’t more of us follow the example of the late gastronome Julia Child, who when asked to name her -favourite wine replied ‘gin’?

Yet surely the popularity of wine means it must be good? Well, that depends how much you believe in individual preference and rational choice.

Drinking wine is a social norm in certain circles. To request anything else marks you out as a deviant. And the fact that wine comes in two colours makes it possible for hosts to offer their guests the illusion of choice without really offering any choice at all. These bifurcated choices (‘red or white’, ‘still or sparkling’, ‘tea or coffee’, ‘Labour or Conservative’) typically give the illusion of autonomy while actually inhibiting it. Kingsley Amis thought ‘Red or white?’ the three most depressing words in the English language.

But the other reason for wine’s popularity may be Freudian. Not in the sexual sense, but in the sense of what he called der Narzißmus der kleinen Differenzen, ‘the narcissism of small differences’. Modern consumer culture is often criticised for exploiting this bias: to provide customers with a superficial sense of uniqueness endless trivial product variations are created to provide ‘an ersatz sense of otherness which is only a mask for an underlying uniformity and sameness’.

In other words, the absurd complexity of wine may be essential to its popularity. For the drinker to demonstrate status and connoisseurship, it is necessary for the category to be absurdly hard to navigate, so providing opportunities for contrived, hair-splitting distinctions that let the buyer advertise his own discernment.

This is the same peculiar narcissistic urge which leads to the factionalism of religious sects or political movements — the People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front. It’s why we get more irritated when Americans say ‘fawcet’ than when Spaniards don’t speak English at all. It’s why people despise those just beneath them socially far more intensely than anyone else.

But understanding this bias may be rather valuable in the social sciences. For instance, quite a lot of what is assumed to be racism may not be racism at all. In experiments among young children, there seems to be a very mild preference for playing with other children of the same skin colour — but a far stronger preference for playing with children who speak the same way as you. A white child would much rather play with a black child who speaks British English than with a caucasian child with a French accent.

Or, to put it another way, I would have put Barack Obama’s chances of election to office, had he not spoken standard American English, somewhere between nil and zero. The shibboleth is still very much with us.

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