Perversion, Corruption and Wine Appreciation

11/15/2010 02:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tim Hanni Master of Wine, chef and wine consumer advocate

The intention of this article is to explore one of the commonly held conventions about wine enjoyment and the notion of "sophisticated" wine consumers. The exploratory aspect of this piece includes looking at the meaning of the term "sophisticated" and then asking the question, "Is this the direction the wine industry really wants to go?" There seems to be a line drawn in the sand as to what is "good" wine versus "bad" wine and that this demarcation also carries over to defining what we consider "sophisticated" consumers versus "unsophisticated" consumers.

I love to look up words and drill down into their origins and deeper meaning. One word that I find particularly fascinating is the word "sophisticate." In common usage, and especially when used in relation with wine, the word sophisticated is associated with a worldly understanding or attainment of a superior status of knowledge.

A number of years ago I decided to look up the word and turned to my trusty American Heritage Dictionary and here is what I found:

Sophisticated - adj.

1. Having acquired worldly knowledge or refinement; lacking natural simplicity.

The first part of this definition seemed to align with my understanding of the word. But it was the second part that caught my attention, "lacking in natural simplicity." It occurred to me that in the wine community there is an inherent discord between the promotion of wine as a simplistic, communal beverage and the expectation that people should become more sophisticated and drink "better" wine. The definition gave me cause to wonder if you can have natural simplicity and sophistication simultaneously?

Of course one can argue there is the option that being naturally simplistic or sophisticated is a matter of choice. Some occasions call for natural simplicity while other occasions call for a greater degree of sophistication. I would not necessarily disagree with this argument but I do wonder if a person becomes truly sophisticated, can they revert back to a natural simplicity, or is the worldly knowledge or refinement become neurologically hard-wired making it impossible to revert back to the naturally simplistic way of being?

This loss of natural simplicity also make me wonder if one of the reasons many people feel uncomfortable around formal wine events or in the presence of wine sophisticates. Is it due to this lack of natural simplicity and dare I say pretense? I can see how the worldly, knowing air of sophistication might be construed as self-righteousness and this in turn becomes an intimidating factor for the uninitiated. I can also see how much I contribute to this air of worldly knowing and faux refinement whenever I am around wine people. And pity the poor "unsophisticated" individuals that happen to stumble into this milieu.

Which brings me to the second definition in the dictionary, which I found even more interesting than the first:

Sophisticate - v.

1. To cause to become less natural, esp. to make less naïve and cause to be worldly-wise. 2. To corrupt or pervert; adulterate.

Less natural? Corrupt, perverted; adulterated? Apparently when sophistry was being bandied about as a pre-Socratic school of philosophy in ancient Greece someone who set out to become worldly-wise long ago they came back with new ideas on religion, societal mores and sexual alternatives, thus becoming perverted and corrupted to the values and practices of their own culture. Sophists then used subtle, misleading and fallacious arguments to prove their points of view. The word "adulterate" means "to make impure, spurious or inferior by adding extraneous or improper ingredients" and I guess this applies to learning new values and ideas as filling our heads with extraneous or improper ingredients as well.

It finally struck me how this applies to the subject of expanding wine enjoyment and improving the dynamics of the wine community as a whole. Along with sophistication there is a loss of naturalness and simplicity, combined with an inherent self-righteousness and the use of misleading arguments to prove an opinion or point of view. This progression, gained by learning and exploring, is completely natural, nearly unavoidable and may provide insights into the loss of simplicity and understanding about wine and for other people's points of view. The sophist is inclined to convince everyone else that their new-found knowledge and opinions is something that everyone should behold and adopt. Learning that this is how we learn can give us the ability to accept and understand the points of view of others rather than feeling the need to impose our will and values on others.

That gets us to the next two definitions:

Sophist - n.

2. A scholar or thinker, esp. one skillful in devious argumentation.

Sophistry - n.

1. A plausible but misleading or fallacious argument.

These definitions see to imply that being a sophisticated wine drinker being devious, misleading and fallacious. How the heck does that fit in? My take on this is that it is not necessarily by intention but rather the completely human capacity to believe that what we know and things we experience are more real for ourselves than for others. It provides us with a sense of superiority and being in the know, wanting to share our experiences with others and a genuine feeling that others will benefit from seeing things our way. People also tend to gravitate to others who seem to share a common perspective and points of view. The point of view might be inclusive and people are bound by shared agreement or the connection may be made by an exclusive agreement such as the anything-but-chardonnay crowd and the feeling of strength in numbers that comes from collective agreement that this is the way it is and should be.

In my mind the devious, misleading or fallacious arguments are intentional. They are points of view that come from an individual rationale for value and preferences held to be inherently better than another's, either as an individual or collective. Then arguments ensue that one way is right, or better in some way, than another's is where the fallacy lies. This behavior can be seen in how people connect and congregate around wine, food, politics, religion, fashion, cars -- you name it. It is completely human. Whether it is the 100-point rating system, groups formed around an agreement for the superiority of wines from certain locales or the antithesis of inclusive agreement; the shared opinion for the exclusion of wine types or styles. It is misleading to think that one way is superior to another. Self-righteousness is part of being human, can take many forms and is widely practiced -- even in the devious guise of the anti-geek.

Consider the possibility that sophistication is inevitable and it is a natural human progression as we seek to learn about and understanding our universe. The new discoveries we make can excite us and bring more enjoyment to our lives and it is also only natural to want to share these discoveries with others. It is when we try to convince others that this new-found knowledge is some how superior or are compelled to attack others for not agreeing with our philosophies or values that they their lives would be improved if only they would adopt another set of values, opinions or points of view. Yes -- natural simplicity can co-exist with sophistication. It requires us to be sophisticated enough to understand the difference, and the differences in our individual opinions, perspectives and points of view.

Hmmmm. Perverted and corrupt. Anyone besides me feeling a little more like a "sophisticate" today?