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On wine snobs

Image: Caricature of a Snob in The Book of Snobs by William Makepeace Thackeray

Excerpted from:

 Drinking with Proust

Snobbishness is like Death in a quotation from Horace, which I hope you never have heard, ‘beating with equal foot at poor men’s doors, and kicking at
the gates of Emperors.63

Who or what is a wine-snob?

I imagine a smug-looking man, a Silicon Valley hotshot, twirling his glass of Napa Cabernet, pausing to harvest its aromas into a hawkish sense organ before pronouncing upon the wine’s provenance and quality. “It’s a bargain at 220$!” he murmurs indistinctly and twitches disdainfully as we venture to give our opinion to the contrary.

The word snob became popular in the nineteenth century when William Makepeace Thackeray published a series of articles in Punch magazine, the so-called snob papers. These papers read like tasting notes, not on wine, but on Victorian society. In one of these papers, Thackeray provides the first authoritative account of the wine snob. He introduces us to a snob called Waggle and describes the activities and attitudes that are a snob’s defining characteristics.

Bacchus is the divinity to whom Waggle devotes his especial worship. ‘Give me wine, my boy,’ says he to his friend Wiggle, who is prating about lovely woman; and holds up his glass full of the rosy fluid, and winks at it portentously, and sips it, and smacks his lips after it, and meditates on it, as if he were the greatest of connoisseurs.64

Thackeray goes on to reveal the sources of wine-snobbishness categorized into three distinct flavours of Victorian young man: snobling, fledgling and gosling.

I have remarked this excessive wine-amateurship especially in youth. Snoblings from college, Fledglings from the army, Goslings from the public schools, who ornament our Clubs, are frequently to be heard in great force upon wine questions. ‘This bottle’s corked,’ says Snobling; and Mr. Sly, the butler, taking it away, returns presently with the same wine in another jug, which the young amateur pronounces excellent. ‘Hang champagne!’ says Fledgling, ‘it’s only fit for gals and children. Give me pale sherry at dinner, and my twenty-three claret afterwards.’ ‘What’s port now?’ says Gosling; ‘disgusting thick sweet stuff—where’s the old dry wine one USED to get?’

The descent into snobbishness happens quite suddenly. Thakeray observes: “until the last twelvemonth, Fledgling drank small-beer at Doctor Swishtail’s; and Gosling used to get his dry old port at a gin-shop in Westminster—till he quitted that seminary, in 1844.”

Once sensitised to pollen, a hay-fever sufferer learns to regard nature with suspicion. Similarly, once sensitised to wine-snobbery, we are likely to detect it in every innocent swirl of a wine glass. When snob-sensitivity reaches elevated levels, wine itself becomes suspicious.

Is there a cure for snob-allergy?

Let’s bring the philosophy of wine-tasting to the snob, instead of letting the snob in on our wine tasting. There are grades of snobbery just like there are grades of bitterness in a wine.65 Proust furnishes us with material for a comparative snob-tasting.

Given the right surroundings, a snob may be charming. Imagine a quaint country-side farm serving refreshments the traditional way. Life moves at its own pace and its customers are “compelled to wait uncomplainingly for the cup of milk or mug of cider” they have ordered.

And as at certain parties one knows that one will get only tea and biscuits, and that one would be looked at very much askance if one asked for chocolate, so if a newcomer happened to order beer – “We don’t serve beer,” Madame Laudet would haughtily reply, and look with such disdain at the wretched man who did not know how to behave, that all those present would study him for a moment or two with ill-disguised curiosity and a deal of unpleasant sniggering. Loyal to her ancient ways, Madame Laudet refused to enter into competition with many of the farms on the outskirts of holiday resorts, which followed in the steps of the local wine shops and offered for sale absinthe, vermouth and cherry-brandy…. “If they don’t like it here, they can go somewhere else,” said Madame Laudet, who was never one to entice new clients, but preferred to make access to her farm difficult, and was at pains to keep away customers whose insistence on absinthe – perhaps her dislike of it was due to the difficulty of serving it – inspired her with a feeling of mistrust, about which she would expatiate to her old regulars who had never in their lives asked for such a thing… 66

I think Madame Laudet is a good sort of snob. Her farm business thrives around her sense of right and wrong. She has no time for you if you do not understand what she and her farm are about. Too sensitive to swallow your pride? Then try the next farm down the road, no harm done. Madame Laudet is solid.

Her customers reveal a different flavour of snob. The snobbery implicit in their superior sniggering is based on nothing more than the ability to fit into Madame Laudet’s farm-shop world. Madame Laudet’s snobbery supports a business. The snobbery of her sniggering customers supports nothing but self-satisfaction: “we found this special farm first. You’re a newcomer. You don’t belong here yet!”

Let’s turn the question around: what is a snob not? A snob does not, as a rule, expose vulnerability, for that would undermine her sense of superiority. A snob is not jolly (try a web-search for “jolly snob”).

In Jean Santeuil, Proust describes a drinking man who is quintessentially “not a snob.”

Then he would go downstairs to have a drink with the landlord, with the fishermen, to take his relaxation… And so it was that Felicité and the landlord liked most to remember how this man of thought could laugh as loudly as another, how he was a jolly fellow, speaking of him as they might speak of a reverend priest, saying that he had no objection to good living, and knew a sound bottle of wine when it came his way.

The jovial man described by Proust involves others in his joys and pleasures. He may know as much about wine as anyone, but he is not precious about his knowledge. He puts on no airs while finding pleasure in a sound bottle of wine. He does not snigger at the dinner companion to whom all wines are equal. Inclusiveness and friendliness disqualify you as a snob.

It’s easy to call someone a snob. But before we do so, we need to develop our taste for this character trait. We need specific examples of the behaviour. Suppose we’re in a restaurant and we observe a gentleman complaining to the waiter:

“But I ordered champagne?” he said to the head waiter who had supposed he was obeying the order by placing by the diners two glasses of foaming liquid. “Yes, Sir.” “Take away that filth, which has no connexion with the worst champagne in the world. It is the emetic known as cup, which consists, as a rule, of three rotten strawberries swimming in a mixture of vinegar and soda-water.67

Is this snobbish behaviour? I think it’s certainly close. The desire to elevate yourself by pushing others down is a classic symptom of snobbishness.

We must distinguish between good and absurd snobs. The haughtiness and self-satisfaction of a good snob is excusable, it serves a purpose. The good snob builds fellowship. Madame Laudet is an excellent example. In contrast, an absurd snob aims at building an exclusive fellowship at the expense of others.

There are few absolutes in wine or snob appreciation. There is no hard boundary between the good and the absurd snob. Take Proust’s Mme. Verdurin, the organiser of a little salon “clique,” blissfully unaware of the world outside her inner circle of acolytes,

…stupefied with the gaiety of the ‘faithful,’ drunken with comradeship, scandal and asseveration, Mme. Verdurin, perched on her high seat like a cage-bird
whose biscuit has been steeped in mulled wine, would sit aloft and sob with fellow-feeling.68

Is this kind of exclusiveness good or absurd? A degree of snobbishness is necessary to organise a fellowship of like-minded individuals—a fellowship must guard against the influence of those who have not grasped its essence. In this regard Mme. Verdurin can be compared directly to Madame Laudet. Indeed the general atmosphere of the Verdurin salon is akin to that of the Laudet farm.

But it is not quite the same. The sense of melodrama and intense fellow-feeling also has a fanatic, cultish flair. Exclusiveness is absurd as soon as it becomes inflexible.

Proust paints a full picture of absurd wine snobbery in a scene involving his narrator, the narrator’s friend Bloch and Bloch’s father. Bloch senior hopes to impress his guests by serving a sparkling wine. The scene is a case-study for the full range of behaviours that I
associate with absurd snobbery:

Bloch senior, to shew that he could be regal to the last in his entertainment of his son’s two ‘chums,’ gave the order for champagne to be served, and announced casually that, as a treat for us, he had taken three stalls for the performance which a company from the Opéra-Comique was giving that evening at the Casino. He was sorry that he had not been able to get a box. They had all been taken. However, he had often been in the boxes, and really one saw and heard better down by the orchestra. All very well, only, if the defect of his son, that is to say the defect which his son believed to be invisible to other people, was coarseness, the father’s was avarice. And so it was in a decanter that we were served with, under the name of champagne, a light sparkling wine, while under that of orchestra stalls he had taken three in the pit, which cost half as much, miraculously persuaded by the divine intervention of his defect that neither at table nor in the theatre (where the boxes were all empty) would the defect be noticed.

When M. Bloch had let us moisten our lips in the flat glasses which his son dignified with the style and title of ‘craters with deeply hollowed flanks,’ he made us admire a picture to which he was so much attached that he had brought it with him to Balbec. He told us that it was a Rubens. Saint-Loup asked innocently if it was signed. M. Bloch replied, blushing, that he had had the signature cut off to make it fit the frame, but that it made no difference, as he had no intention of selling.69

You may or may not agree that this passage provides a benchmark example of snobbery. It’s a matter of taste. You may be more or less sensitive than I am. The most important thing is not to be put off by the snob. Develop a taste for the full range of his fascinating behaviours.

Snobs congregate around the wine bottle. Don’t let that worry you. Wine brings out the best and the worst in human nature.

Take a leaf out of Proust’s book and focus on description and dissection rather than judgement. It takes a character snob to condemn a wine snob.


58 Proust, M., and C. K. S. Moncrieff, 1941, Cities on the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe): London, Chatto & Windus.

59 Proust, M., and C. K. S. Moncrieff, 1941, Within a Budding Grove: London, Chatto & Windus.

60 Proust, M., and C. K. S. Moncrieff, 1941, The Guermantes Way: London, Chatto & Windus.

61 Wallop, Harry, Ortolans: could France’s cruellest food be back on the menu?, The Telegraph, 17. Sept, 2014.

62 Proust, M., and C. K. S. Moncrieff, 1941, The Guermantes Way: London, Chatto & Windus.

63 Proust, M., and C. K. S. Moncrieff, 1941, Cities on the Plain (Sodome et Gomorrhe): London, Chatto & Windus.

64 Proust, M., and C. K. S. Moncrieff, 1941, The Guermantes Way: London, Chatto & Windus.

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