Wines of the Year: Pathological Conspicuity?
You can tell when December has arrived; tell-tale signs exist, there for our interpretation. It is not the dismally dark mornings or depressingly darker evenings (depending on your hemisphere of residence, of course – but that’s the situation in Scotland) to which I refer. Nor is it the sub-zero overnight temperatures, each day the sun’s rays (once it has eventually risen) revealing to us all a world coated with a white, glistening, frosty glaze. Nor am I referring to anything more clichéd; not the appearance of the red-breasted bird on the feeding table, nor the jingle of sleigh bells overhead. No, there is a more sure sign that December has arrived. All over the world, wine anoraks of the world unite as one, staring zombie-like at their computer screens, hitting return, return, return, scrolling through their electronic store of wine notes as if in a note-reading trance. The luddites, meanwhile, can be seen thumbing through the dog-eared pages of their latest tasting notebook, their eyes deep and soulless, their mouths lightly foaming. It is, of course, time for them to construct their Wines of the Year list, a process that begins in December as surely as the month follows November.
One thing that has not escaped my notice over the years is that the construction of a Wines of the Year list is an almost exclusively male activity. Why is this? It can not be said that other online wine activity is entirely male. Women have a high quality presence in online wine writing (Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding, for example) and there are plenty of female wine professionals writing blogs, or communicating through social media platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter. At the consumer level, however, the picture is somewhat different. Take a look at the most popular online wine forums, where wine geeks congregate to post tasting notes and generally chew the wine-related cud, and it soon becomes apparent that these forums are populated almost entirely by the male of the species. Women are to be found here, but they are rarely sighted, an inexplicably small minority.
This gender imbalance is further exacerbated when it comes to the annual Wines of the Year list. This is, in my opinion, perhaps more easily understood than the dearth of female participation elsewhere online. An obsession with collecting and cataloguing is a very male pattern of behaviour. This is why ‘collectors’ – whether we are talking coins, stamps, wine, butterflies, rare books, old toys or a dozen other fields of interest – are nearly always male. When was the last time, as an extreme example, you saw a woman among the gaggle of anorak-clad obsessives huddled together with camera, notebook and pen at the end of platform 9 in the railway station at Crewe? Train-spotting is an extreme example of collecting with no real purpose. Go beyond this example and the obsession can become pathological. Obsessive behaviour is, of course, a feature of autism. And kids and adults on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder are nearly always male. These facts are surely not unrelated.
Writing a Wines of the Year list is also, I feel, an offshoot of conspicuous consumption. You buy and drink expensive, aged and fine wines. These wines become Veblen goods, a mark of your wealth and success, as written about earlier this year by Jamie Goode in his blog post Cost, Quality and Conspicuous Consumption. Buy a 1990 Petrus off a restaurant list for an exorbitant sum of money only to thoughtlessly knock it back with your burger and chips and you display your wealth to only a few fellow customers. Write about it online and you share your success more conspicuously, with many more readers. Include it in a list of your favourite wines of the year, along with all your other grand old bottles, featuring great wine after great wine from the most desirable vintages and châteaux, and your success is multiplied exponentially.
This is why I never refer to the wines in my cellar as a ‘collection’. Meh. They are not a collection to be catalogued and obsessed over. Each one is a discrete unit of joy, there to be opened, consumed, shared and talked about, at home with real people (shock!) and online as well.
And this is also why I gave up writing a Wines of the Year list about four years ago. Wine should not be a Veblen Good. Wine is about life, pleasure, experiences, wonder and sometimes comedy. Regular long-term readers will know to what I refer: coming next week, my fourth annual Wines in Context report, involving mid-air emergencies, mystical philosphies and probably the odd malapropism. Will I be writing about 1947 Cheval Blanc and 1921 Yquem? No. Will I come out of it looking like the epitome of the suave and sophisticated writer? No. Will it be worth reading? Hopefully. Tune in next Tuesday.