How to transform an exclusive wine society into an inclusive wine society
There is no other fermented ingredient in the world that causes as much fear and intimidation as the fermented grape.
As a consistently practicing sommelier, I often see people who are afraid to ask questions about wine and/or show any opinion whatsoever because they are afraid to appear unsophisticated or of the lower class.
In the book Distinction, Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu talks about the role wine plays in the creation and maintaining of a hierarchical society. Bordieu mentions that wine itself has become a marker of class and classism, as it is used to maintain the separation of the classes. When a specific class teaches a certain approach to their young, it undoubtedly ensures the continuance of this classism over time.
Examples of wine classism in literature stretch back as far as ancient Greece, wherein The Iliad those who ranked higher in society drank better wines. Today we find these same displays of classism in wine tastings as well as within high-end restaurants, where name dropping of specific (albeit expensive) wines and a tendency for pompous, vague wine vocabularies is practiced.
It is time to call it as it is:
We - sommeliers and wine-enthusiasts alike - naturally enjoy the privilege that comes with wine knowledge in our society, and in this way, maintain the chain of classism for our own profit at the end of the day. But if we really want to abolish classism and create an inclusive environment instead of nursing an exclusive environment, we have to give up on some of these self-interests. And I believe that there are no better people to begin this conversation of dropping privilege for inclusivity than the people of influence within our industry, like wine experts and wine enthusiasts in positions of power.
I personally am genuinely present for inclusive change in the wine industry and have begun to incorporate the following practices into my profession as a sommelier. I share today in hopes that others will gain inspiration from even one or more of these practices, so that together we may begin taking the steps necessary to permanently abolish classism within wine.
Aim for a “Wine Collection,” not a “Money Collection”
An expensive wine cellar does not necessarily equal a great wine cellar unless you are a money-hoarding dragon - then goal achieved!
But it is important to understand and discuss why we collect certain wines:
Is it because these wines show how much wealth we have? Do these wines make us feel “classy” or “high end” or “better than others” for having them? Are these wines a way to pass wealth along to our children?
Or do we actually collect bottles of fermented grape juice because we enjoy drinking it and supporting what the winemaker stands behind in this world? Do you enjoy a less expensive bottle of wine equivalently less?
Choosing and “liking” certain wines just because they have a higher price point is an example of something we do in the wine industry that contributes to exclusivity and classist society. Choosing and “liking” a certain wine just because we're “expected” to in order to “fit in" and not because of its flavours is also something we do that contributes to exclusivity and classist society.
And on a lighter note, this sort of behaviour also makes us miss out on some really great wines with a lower price point (and thereby less social prestige)! Choosing to spend your dollars based on talent instead of price point will not only open more doors for all people within the wine industry, but it will also ensure the continuance of the wine industry in general - an industry already faltering with younger generations; those who demand more inclusivity in the world.
Every time you buy wine now, ask yourself why you are choosing that specific bottle. Is it because you actually enjoy drinking it, or because of another (more classist) reason like above?
Abolish the snobby language within wine discussions
Often when a sommelier performs their “wine-talk" in a high-end restaurant, I am tempted to look them dead in the eye and say “Now please do the same for my food.” Wine and food are both taste sensations experienced using our palate, but things we eat are rarely described with the same pretentious, unapproachable words that wine tends to be. Linear Fries. Foxy Beans. Flabby Lettuce. It seems odd, right? So why is there this difference in speech between wine and food?
A certain language was created for wine in order to divide the classes as opposed to the inclusive language created for the discussion of food. Wine language is often unclear, where people utilize uncommonly-known terms like closed, tannic, bottle stink etc. in whatever ways they want. On the other hand, the discussion of food has remained simple and approachable with words like delicious, savoury, hot, and cold.
This wine vocabulary was invented to create an exclusive, club-like culture surrounding wine - a club you are either a part of, or not. And yet, sommeliers still often use these outdated wine terms that essentially mean nothing to the average drinker.
So my question to you is this:
In the same way that you wouldn't want your doctor to describe your state of health with complex medical terms that you have never studied, why would you want to hear about wine in a language you also haven’t studied?
There is no reason for sommeliers to use outdated language and worse, have an attitude when met with blank stares from clients! Somm's who are not willing to practice simple (but also not dumbed-down) communication with people seeking to learn about and enjoy wine is continually feeding into this sense of classism every day and have become part of the greater problem of division.
Listen to science – do not blindly follow tradition!
It doesn't matter how high up the ladder of appreciation a certain brand or person is within the wine industry, you cannot deny science!
For instance, many wine professionals still follow “The Tongue Wine Map,” a theory written in 1901 by German scientist Dirk P. Hanig. P. He suggests that each part of the tongue is responsible for a separate taste sensation (ex. sweetness is at the front of the tongue and acidity is on the sides, etc.). In 1974, Psychologist Virginia Collings debunked this theory and proved the map to be wrong, confirming that all taste sensations exist on all parts of the tongue.
And yet, 35 years later, I attended sommelier school and learned all about The Tongue Wine Map. Interestingly enough, a well-known and appreciated wine glass producer also still bases their glass designs on this old theory today - it is 2021 and I still hear about this theory way too often considering it was debunked 47 years ago!
Why is it that the wine industry has taken this long to catch up with science? If the wine industry wants to stay relevant and accurate, listening to the development of science is absolutely necessary.
Encourage and endorse more diversity within the wine industry
Most sommeliers and wine experts are predominantly born wealthy, cis, heterosexual, white people with families (please let me know if I neglected to mention any oppressions). Yes, even today after movements and demonstrations like #metoo and Black Lives Matter. Fun fact: White people are not the majority in this world!
If we want wine to be a less-classist commodity, we need a more diverse array of educators and leaders in terms of race, gender, and socioeconomic rank to be present. This is something that would make the wine industry more approachable to more people. In my industry, I have often seen that race and gender do dictate why certain professionals are or are not hired for specific roles. Instead, wine directors should aim to create a more diverse environment by hiring whoever is the best fit for the role, regardless of who they are. Again, a focus on talent.
Overall, it can be argued that we have a long way to go when it comes to abolishing classism within the wine industry. And further, I'm completely aware of the resentment that certain “wine aficionados” have about this subject.
But remember: wine doesn't physically belong to a certain group of people over another. Wine is for everyone and deserves to be enjoyed, celebrated and appreciated by all people no matter their race, gender, or identity.
The journey to abolish classism in wine will be a winding and tedious one, but if those who believe in this crusade begin to practice these changes within their daily habits, we will get there sooner than you think!
Sommelier//Co-Owner Chef & Somm