Taking exception to wine exceptionalism

How exceptional a product is wine? And if it is exceptional, what are the market implications? Robert Joseph weighs in.

Photo by Billy Huynh on Unsplash
Photo by Billy Huynh on Unsplash

Sometimes a word creeps into one’s mind and vocabulary and refuses to leave. For me, over the last few years, it’s ‘exceptionalism’. It was a term I used to use occasionally in the past when talking about France, a country where ‘I did it my way’ has often seemed to sum up the national character. In many ways, this stubborn resistance to embrace globalisation is a reason lots of us love that country. Of course there are inevitably times – often involving Gallic bureaucracy - when it can be frankly exasperating. 

Wine people can be exceptionalists too. We often believe our favoured beverage to be superior, and frankly more civilised, than spirits or beer. How often have I heard wine enthusiasts imply that gin, which can be a highly sophisticated product, is unworthy of their interest? Within wine itself, some will place their own region or style above the rest. One of my favourite wine book titles was Le Vin, et les Vins des Autres Pays – Wine and the Wines of Other Countries. Similarly, the late Aimé Guibert, founder of Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc, for example, did not hesitate to dismiss all New World wines as ‘industrial’- an  attitude that’s now perpetuated by natural wine folk who aren’t ashamed to imply that all makers of conventional wines routinely dose them with a long list of worrying-sounding additives. 

Vinous exceptionalism extends to other areas. A recent online discussion centred around whether wine critics should or should not write negatively about wines they disliked. A surprising number of individuals joined in, including winemakers and critics, and the general consensus seemed to be that if one had nothing good to say, one should keep quiet. At the very least, critical comments should be limited to definable faults rather than personal taste and preference. Which, of course, opened the discussion to where the line should be drawn between what might be considered a flaw by one person and a characterful trait by another.

Reading these exchanges, I wondered whether the people behind them ever read reviews of books, movies, plays, concerts, art exhibitions and restaurants. When you pause to think of the hundreds – possibly thousands – of individuals and the equivalent amount of time and passion involved in making a film, it seems extraordinary that its fate may depend on a few hundred words penned by someone who watched it in a screening room with a hangover on a wet Wednesday morning. Novels and biographies that have taken years to write are slaughtered in a couple of paragraphs. 

Perhaps in a kinder, more perfect world, the reviewers in all these sectors would sheath their pens and focus on what was praiseworthy. The movie of Cats was great – if you closed your eyes and just listened to the music. The brevity of Van Morrison’s concert made it easier for everyone to catch their trains home. 

We would have Guardian critic Jonathan Jones’s five-star 2019 review of a Damien Hirst butterfly-painting exhibition in which he compares the artist to Matisse and Turner. We would not, however, have the review he wrote seven years earlier in which he said that “Hirst has absolutely zero ability as a representational painter. For him to exhibit his would-be realistic paintings for people to see, buy and review was the equivalent of me inviting people to come and hear me give a piano recital of Bach's Goldberg Variations. I cannot play the piano.”

If a new restaurant or film, or perfume for that matter, is fair game for a warts-and-all review, so is a new wine. And if critics prefer not to talk about the ones they don’t like, there will be plenty of users of platforms like Tripadvisor, Amazon and Vivino who’ll be very happy to do so. 

Another form of exceptionalism to which wine people are prone is the idea that wine is ‘not like’ other the other things on which we spend our money. This may well be true for enthusiasts who will readily cut back on other spending in order to maintain their wine habit. But most people weigh the $10 bottle of red against the cost of streaming a movie or buying a book or possibly even food for the evening meal. 

Those same casual wine drinkers don’t usually research the cheese or coffee they plan to buy in a supermarket or scan the labels of those items for information once they’ve got there. And they’re not going to make an exception by doing so in the wine aisle.

If Covid-19 should have taught us anything, it’s that as far as a virus is concerned, no-one, none of our villages, towns or countries, is truly special or exceptional. And when all of this is over, as wine professionals we need to remember that, and to understand that we’re playing on the same pitch and competing for the same money and attention as every other luxury ranging from fashion and cosmetics to books, chocolates and concert tickets. 

Robert Joseph

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