NYT: wine consumers “brainwashed” into thinking they need education

Writing in yesterday’s NYT, Eric Asimov delivered wine education a puzzling broadside in the last paragraph of a story about beer:

Beer consumers are a far more confident lot than wine consumers. They’re at ease with beer, mostly because they’ve had a solid grounding in their subject, unlike wine consumers who’ve been brainwashed into believing they must be educated or taught how to “appreciate” wine before they can enjoy it.

Who are these “beer consumers” and “wine consumers”? Are they the average consumer, who drinks mostly Bud and Yellow Tail or are they the dedicated hop heads and wine geeks? Some specificity would help the discussion.

Further, how did “beer consumers” gain such confidence–through Super Bowl ads? Doing keg stands in college? I assume through tasting, talking, reading and perhaps taking a class; I doubt they were born with a knowledge of the effects of dry-hopping and decotion on the finished beer or knowing differences between a saison, a pils, a kölsch, and a Berliner Weisse. As exciting as the craft beer revolution is, it takes some education to successfully navigate increasingly complex beer menus or beer selections at specialty stores. And, fortunately, it’s the kind of research that a lot of people can take pleasure in.

Finally, which “wine consumers” feel “brainwashed” into thinking that they have to have studied wine to enjoy a wine? (And who is doing the brainwashing–the wine education/book publishing/bulletin board industrial complex?) This sounds like a straw man to me as I have never met a wine consumer who couldn’t simply pull a cork, pour, and enjoy a wine without having a categorical knowledge of its production. And I’m not really sure where his advancing the brainwashing position takes the discussion. Surely Asimov is not arguing that tasting, talking, reading and perhaps taking a class about wine is a waste of every one’s time–how did he gain his knowledge, after all?

The comparative question of how craft beer enthusiasts and wine geeks, the most die-hard of the two constituencies, achieved their knowledge is interesting and worth pursuing. If I were to look into it it variables I would examine include: the role of critics in each beverage; the role of online discussion boards and user-generated reviews/ratings; the extent of home wine making or beer making; the availability of formal classes or training; and the geographic proximity of an enthusiast to a microbrewery or winery. Hmm, thinking about this makes me want to go crack open a nice cold wine and enjoy it without angst.

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33 Responses to “NYT: wine consumers “brainwashed” into thinking they need education”

  1. To me wine is like classical music: I generally like it (the music a lot more than the drink) but can’t distinguish one merlot (etc) from another or one symphony (etc) from another enough to talk about any of it with confidence. Beer styles vary so greatly, and for me in more concrete ways, that it just sorts itself out. For more, see the newly released Drinkology Beer: A Book About the Brew, a book to which I contributed. (How’s that for a 100% shameless plug?) There’s also Drinkology: Wine, for those who do need a little education on the grape.

  2. I didn’t find Asimov’s paragraph controversial. I think it’s pretty common for wine consumers to feel like they don’t know enough to confidently pick a wine.

  3. I don’t know anyone who reads Eric Asimov anymore. If he isn’t stretching ideas he’s just plain dull. Sam Sifton he is not.

  4. Thank God Asimov isn’t Sifton, whose stilted, affected writing style is utterly cringe-inducing. That said, this article isn’t one of Asimov’s finer moments. Who, indeed, is he talking about, beer-wise? And the truly average wine drinker, the Yellowtail guy, couldn’t care less about being educated about wine any more than a Bud guy gives a flip about a beer education. It looks like he threw this thing together in three minutes.

  5. Also? ‘Beer education’ could be covered in a couple hours. Top-fermenting yeast = Ale, bottom-fermenting yeast = Lager.

    Okay maybe just a sentence.

  6. If it comes to that, wine education could be “There’s red wine and there’s white wine”!

  7. Some other important variables that should be mentioned concerning drink ‘education’ are price and access.

    Price: even an expensive beer is usually under $8, while most wine starts getting ‘interesting’ above $12. So for the price of one bottle of wine, you could try several different types of beer.

    Access: In New York, and many other states, beer can be sold in supermarkets or conerstores, while wine is limited to liquor stores or wine shops. This makes it so you have to go out of your way to find a bottle of wine to bring to an event, while you can always count on finding a decent beer selection close to your destination.
    This is also evident in bars as well, with beer offerings dwarfing those of wine.

  8. Great critique of Eric’s silly straw man argument Tyler. Eric made the same argument in his keynote speech at the Winebloggers Conference this past July, and I found it equally unconvincing and pointless then. Cheers!

  9. Certain generalities so validly synthesize commonly observable and felt experience that they command immediate assent. Eric Asimov’s statement is one of them.

    If Eric had put that distinction between beer and wine consumers in the mouth of a character in a novel, I doubt that Dr. Vino or anyone would pounce on it with a Serious Imperative that it be further elaborated.

    In Americans’ DNA, wine has always been swollen with status issues and tinged by elusiveness; a basic thrust of wine propaganda is — a famously overused word — demystification.

    Beer, by contrast, is in the American grain. It has never has been a Big Deal (although craft beer is likely to promote winelike neuroses involving feelings of personal insufficiency and half the analysts on Central Park West).

    It’s clear as a bell what Eric means. There aren’t any “variables” that require an extended explication de texte.

    Lighten up.

  10. As an avid “consumer” of both beer and wine, I think there are several reasons for the need to understand a wine more than beer:

    First, price. Akiva is right, a decent bottle of wine at a restaurant is usually around 40-50 bucks while 10 will normally get you the best beer in the house.

    Second, labelling. In the world of craft brewing labelling is usually pretty straight-forward, wine can be a little enigmatic (especially old world).

    Third, the way we consume these beverages. A beer is usually just for the person ordering it. When ordering wine however we are making a decision for the whole table so there is a lot more pressure to make the right choice.

    I love both of these drinks but I certainly think that wine is a little more intimidating to newbies.

  11. Tyler, I couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure where Asimov is coming from here, delusional ghost writer? The only way anything is “appreciated” is with education. A watch is a watch, but a Panerai? Cars? Don’t even start there.

    I love beer, but couldn’t tell you first thing about house styles, ingredients, or production techniques. While, vineyard sites in Burgundy, Sonoma Coast or the Barossa come easier. Only because I’ve read about them, traveled there or consumed the fruits of the land.

  12. I totally agree that nobody should be made to feel like they have to be trained to appreciate wine, but I have three other blogs on my feed right before yours that advocate taking classes. Or going to specific workshops. Or even going through sommelier training. Which is a lot like saying you can’t appreciate football until you’ve taken a class in it.

  13. I think (I’m a non-beer drinker) that veteran beer drinkers are more accepting of novice beer drinkers, and novice beer drinkers are not intimidated by trying different beers. Is this self-confidence or simply familiarity with the brand? Or does familiarity with the brand produce self-confidence? Anyway, I don’t think that the learning curve for beer is as steep as it is for wine.

    I need only to mention a couple of wines to demonstrate the fact that wines can be anxiety producing:

    Trockenbeerenauslese Neusiedlersee

    Domaine Jacques Prieur Beaune Champs Pimont Rouge

    I have been taking French lessons for the last three years because I couldn’t pronounce “bourgogne”.

    But I wouldn’t say that I was brainwashed.

  14. Dear Doc V.
    I must strongly agree with Asimov’s assertion that, “Beer consumers are a far more confident lot than wine consumers”. Ergo, when was the last time you were at a wine party and witnessed someone with a stem in hand shouting….WOOOOO WHOOOO LOOOK HERE AHT MEEE …….WATCH ME DO THIS. The beer sipping individual would then perhaps offer to the interested group a confident demonstration of climbing the tallest tree with a running chain saw in tote, displaying the power of a new jeep with V-8 engine or riding someone’s athletic horse bareback. I could expand the confident beer consumer list ad infinitum.
    Some may mistake my honest defense of Asimov’s commentary as divisive, but to the contrary I would like to nominate Tequilla and Grenache drinkers to the list of confident consumers.

  15. A lot of the country is on this uptick with the increase in popularity of craft bees. People are enjoying the renaissance and are involved in the process. The wine industry has a lot more secluded circles. Not to mention the choices are immense for a novice. Great article.

  16. […] most visionary beer fanatic ever imagined.” So argues Eric Asimov in his latest column. Over at Dr. Vino, Tyler Colman comments on Asimov’s […]

  17. It’s a generational thing. People in their 20s these days blithely order wines they’ve never heard of, which is the way to be. Baby boomers are the cautious brand-loyal ones. America’s wine self-education is going to increase dramatically as older drinkers die off and the younger generation — less worried about their image — becomes the majority.

  18. It´s a major problem, in Argentina wine consuming has drecresed from the late 70s and beer has risen exponentialy. Winemakers are to blame, at least over here, for not making the product accesible to everyone. Trying to be elitists to difference from beer, it backfired on us. Plus a label that says “you will find blackberries in your nose” and “drink with roasted deer” don´t help either, consumers can´t find either of those and get frustated.

  19. […] the NYT, are wine consumers being brainwashed into needing wine education? Interesting thoughts laid out here by […]

  20. About 15 years ago I began being suspicious that for all except super tasters (of whom I have no reason or way to judge)that there is little real difference between better than good wine wine and very good wine. In numerical terms I think I can tell the difference between an 82 wine and an 89 wine. But once I get there further pts higher are not perceived. Then again I may be paying too much attention to the other person, the meal, or the book.

  21. Hi all-

    Thanks for the comments. If anything, I think it shows that the topics here are rich and worthy of further exploration.

    Just to clear up any confusion, wine can definitely be intimidating–nobody is arguing otherwise. But Asimov delivered his broadside against wine education, which is something very different and something I find puzzling.

  22. Everything is taught through some educational experience which is what allows us to know what an IPA or a stout or a merlot or pinot taste like. Wine enthusiasts feel a need to formalize their knowledge with classes. Simply there are many more wine appreciation courses than beer or liquor appreciation, but why? In America we grow up with a knowledge for beer. It’s cheap. It’s widely available. Most of American’s heritage come from beer drinking cultures (they were slow recovering from phylloxera like Germany or lost all their vines in the Ice Age like England). We grow up with beer, but we don’t with wine. Grains can be grown anywhere, but vines are geo specific. And there is more to know about wine. Most American’s don’t what makes a Burgundy a Burgundy, but they know what a Bud tastes like and knowledge is confidence.

  23. beer people talk to each other about beer; wine people talk to each other about voodoo, status, possession, stars, glitz, velvet ropes and foods only wine people eat; wine education isn’t for wine people; it’s for beer people who want to drink wine the way they drank/drink beer

  24. It would seem that the reaction to Asimov’s generic “beer consumers” and “wine consumers” (obviously not your dedicated hop heads and wine geeks) is taken somewhat defensively by some that don’t see any reason to apply goodwill and identify. From a retail perspective, the real people that put faces to such stereotypes certainly do exist –to such a degree that I don’t have the slightest problem with Asimov’s generalized contention. That there exists an industry of wine education that enjoys the fruits of “wine inadequacy” there isn’t any reason to deny either. That’s not to say there is a speculative wine education industry that is responsible for imprinting such brainwashing, and I really can’t see that is Asimov’s meaning. To contrive this interpretation is, to me, unreasonable. Not a broadside.

  25. […] (and intentionally created to boost prices) with drinking wine. Because, as Dr. Vino mentioned in a recent article, why is that beer drinkers drink with ease while wine drinkers are generally a terrified lot, […]

  26. Matt Kramer seems to have grabbed what he thinks is the ball, and to have run with it — in the wrong direction.

    That is, I think he has misread and over-extrapolated a simple, fundamental point that Eric made.

    I don’t take Eric Asimov’s remark that “beer consumers . . . have “had a solid grounding in their subject” to mean anything more than they are comfortable with beer, because in American life it has been around forever. Americans are to beer as Italians are to wine.

    In Italy, and among Italian emigrants to the United States, grapes, wine — homemade or bought — has been on the table daily, often in tumblers, and is as natural as breathing out and breathing in. Not only is it routinely in their homes, it is in their Roman Catholic Church, in the liturgy, hence in their souls. By contrast, it is not even in Americans’ bones.

    I believe that when Eric writes about Americans being “brainwashed,” the word is a shorthand allusion to our society’s historic uneasiness with wine. In America the word wine, the very idea of wine, is fraught, loaded, encumbered — indeed, virtually crippled by associations, most of them negative, few of them related to pleasure. In this way, it has “brainwashed” us.

    To counter that societal situation, American wine educators and their wine-writing cohorts have been — it’s their word — “demystifying” wine. That is, have been striving to normalize it. To transform it from being a Big Deal to no deal whatsoever.

    So, yes, we have been brainwashed, by our inheritance at birth, which not so long ago, during Prohibition, depicted wine, like booze, as the work of Satan.

  27. Hi Howard,

    Thank you for stopping by again to share your thoughts.

    (For those who didn’t see Matt Kramer’s article from this week, here is the link.)

    While I appreciate your comments and understand where you’re coming from, I think that the paragraph at the end of the story didn’t really fit. I also think that using the term “brainwashing” was regrettable. But I do think the topics are very much worthy of exploration; it would be great if Asimov will take them up again in a blog post or future column so that he could elaborate on something that appears to be on his mind.

  28. […] brainwashing As we did here recently, Matt Kramer also expresses distaste with the idea of “brainwashing” among wine […]

  29. Reading Mr. Goldberg’s comments reminded me of a piece written back in 2004 for the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik, called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Wine.” I think it might be relevant to the discussion:

    Being an expert on wine and writing about it is what the English call “naff,” embarrassing and uncool, while being a non-expert on wine and writing about it anyway sounds merely boozy. No subject produces a literature so anxious, expressed not so much in its grandiosity as in its defensive jokiness and regular-guydom.

  30. Don’t want to make a pest of myself, but I found another quote from Gopnik that makes the point directly:

    …[I]t is not wine that makes us happy for no reason; it is alcohol that makes us happy for no reason. Wine is what gives us a reason to let alcohol make us happy without one. Without wine lore, and wine tasting, and wine talk, and wine labels, and, yes, wine writing and rating–the whole elaborate idea of wine–we would still get drunk, but we would be merely drunk. The language of wine appreciation is there not because wine is such a special subtle challenge to our discernment but because without the elaborate language–without the idea of wine, held up and regularly polished–it would all be about the same, or taste that way. Wine talk and wine ceremony are not simply snobbish distractions that lead us away from the real experience; they are part of what lets the experience happen. To turn wine away from happiness is the drinker’s sin. A good fruity bottle of a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, with a pretty label and a decent story, makes us happy, and happier than that we don’t really deserve to be.

  31. […] Dr. Vino blog post caught my attention recently,  as I came across it right on the tails of my earlier post about […]

  32. […] (and intentionally created to boost prices) with drinking wine. Because, as Dr. Vino mentioned in a recent article, why is that beer drinkers drink with ease while wine drinkers are generally a terrified lot, […]

  33. […] on the growing beer culture, also Garret Oliver. Read the last paragraph. Responses from blogger Dr Vino and Wine Spector’s Matt Kramer. Binny’s is excited for Garret […]


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