Red-faced, plummy-voiced, with a big nose, the wine snob is a familiar social stereotype. He might laugh at you at a dinner party for mispronouncing Montrachet or be the face sneering at you from behind the counter of a stuffy wine merchant when you ask for a bottle of cava. Oddly enough, in all my years of buying wine and working in the wine trade, I very rarely came across this figure. People like this may have once been ubiquitous but nowadays the legend of the wine snob is kept alive by the wine trade as a way of proclaiming their egalitarian principles: haven’t we come far, they say, we’re not like those terrible blazer-wearing toffs.
However, what most British people mean or meant by a wine snob was not this possibly mythological creature — it just meant that you spent more than £5 a bottle. When friends at university realised that I was interested in wine, they would open bottles with much facetious ceremony and pour a tiny glass for me with a smile that said. ‘I hope this is good enough for the wine snob.’ If I tried to initiate a conversation about wine, even ask if people liked it, I would be shouted down. My flatmate even bought me a heavy glass ashtray for my birthday with the promise that she would brain me with it if I talked about wine. At the first hint of wine speak, the cry would go up ‘snob’, they would point and I would be shunned. Ten years ago being interested in wine was something furtive, like being an early Christian or a 1950s homosexual.
Things seem to be changing. Last month I had lunch at a friend’s house. Everyone arrived bearing a bottle and then something strange happened. Rather than just sitting down and drinking, they unself-consciously, and without any prompting from me, started talking about wine. Nothing fancy, just, ‘This one smells of this,’ ‘this one goes with that’ or ‘I didn’t know white Rioja could be so good.’ Initially I put this down to my friends having grown up, but then I noticed that the youngsters at work were not embarrassed by wine talk. Some of them were extremely knowledgeable.
So why is this? I can answer that in two words: Jamie Oliver. We take him for granted now but he was a revelation when he came along. Here was an unpretentious and, it has to be said, rather inarticulate young man, talking about food. Before Jamie (the Before Christ of food circles), ordinary people didn’t talk about food. That was something best left to the French or personalities such as Keith Floyd. Now when I go to my local market stall, the cockneys tell me how their lovely tomatoes should be eaten with a little salt and olive oil. They’re channelling Jamie. A friend told me about the working-class men at QPR who, during quiet moments in the match, discuss elaborate meals that they’ve had using terms like ‘sous vide’ and ‘menu dégustation’.
It’s taken a while to catch up but something similar has happened with wine. There is, however, no Jamie Oliver of wine. The last time wine was big on television was in the 1990s, when Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke amused us with their outlandish descriptions. All great fun, but they actually made wine conversation less possible because they made it camp, outlandish and therefore something to be mocked.
Instead, this new enthusiasm comes from street level. Since the large off-licence chains — Threshers, Oddbins, Wine Rack, Victoria Wine — fell on hard times, their places have been taken by a new wave of independent wine merchants. Where I live in east London, three wine merchants have opened since the financial crisis in 2008. Along with these new shops, dozens of blogs have been started by ordinary people eager to share their enjoyment.
One of these local wine merchants is tiny and only sells wine from obscure French producers. It’s run by a couple of French hipsters, she with dreadlocks, him sporting a homeless beard. They sell nothing for less than £10 a bottle. In the evenings they play records (vinyl naturally) in the basement of the shop while the trendy folk of Hackney drink vin jaune at £30 a pop. It’s almost impossible to believe but wine has become cool. Youngsters in London, Brooklyn and LA swap stories about cult Beaujolais producers such as Marcel Lapierre, just as they would have done with obscure Detroit techno records in the 1990s.
Along with Beaujolais the other drink that has become cool is sherry. Sherry! There is a small chain of wine bars in New York called Terroir that offers free sherry during their happy hour. They put on music nights, including Heavy Metal Mondays. You can’t imagine big-nosed wine bores attending that.
This interest young people have in wine goes hand in hand with something called the ‘natural wine’ movement. You don’t need to worry too much about a definition, only that it tends to be wine produced by irreverent, unconventional small producers mainly in France and Italy but now also around the world. You wouldn’t catch these people dead in the suits and ties favoured by Bordeaux producers. They have beards and smoke roll-up cigarettes. They look and smell a bit like east London trendies. Until recently young people in the old wine-producing world were turning to beer and whisky; now there is a shift back to wine.
Across the world, the world of wine is becoming egalitarian, fun and exciting. That’s not to say, of course, that all wine is created equal. On the one hand we are discovering our instinctive love of wine but on the other we are embracing the complexity and elitism (in the best sense of the word) that makes it so endlessly fascinating. The wine snob is dead and there’s a party happening on his grave.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 30 November 2013