In his introduction to Kingsley Amis’s “Everyday Drinking,” Christopher Hitchens (may he live to down another thousand martinis) notes that while alcohol itself does a good job of making life less boring, alcohol enthusiasts are always at risk of becoming bores on the subject of their enthusiasm. The tequila enthusiast, for example, may unwittingly one day find that he is a man with twelve unique hand-blown glass bottles of craft-brewed tequila on his mantle, each with a thirty-minute story behind it that he is eager to share, and every one of those stories deadly—because the alcohol bore (of course) fails to note that his enthusiasms aren’t necessarily the stuff of deep interest to others. That’s what makes them enthusiasms.

Among the long list of alcohol enthusiasts whose obsessions lead them to become bores, wine bores stand out as truly exceptional cases. Beer bores, in comparison, tend to be good-naturedly so, deeply interested in the science of the thing, which is so obscure as to be both infectiously sweet and beyond reproach; and cocktails bores can only go on for so long before they pass out, thanks to the strength of their poison of choice, which is helpful; neither, in any case, can hold a candle to the truly astonishing anesthetizing effects of a wine bore, who harbors, within his psyche, a desire to both possess and talk away all that is good and magical about the thing itself. (Wine, like sex and pizza, is one of the few things in the universe that requires no discussion; everybody just naturally knows it’s great, or ought to.) What’s more, it’s been my experience that the wine bore will ask deep and solemn respect for producing (that’s the word they use, wine bores: producing) a bottle of Chateau Petrus ‘89 purchased, with great outlay, at auction—never mind that he didn’t actually make the wine. He only bought it. This is, if you think about it, the equivalent of a person asking attendants to revere him as a Shakespeare for having produced a set of the bard’s volumes purchased at a yard sale, or a friend giving you a lavish gift and then asking, “You’re really grateful, aren’t you?”

I’m reminded here of a quote by Camus that good intentions may do as much harm as bad, if they lack understanding. The wine bore, I think, does have good intentions in mind—he wants you to enjoy something as much as he does, and he feels that educating you on the subject is the surest way to do this. What he fails to understand is that for many people understanding why you enjoy something is the surest way to stop enjoying it.

I know wine bores well for two reasons: first, because I have been acquainted with more than a few in my time, some of them merely garden-variety, some impressively devoted, and one of them a truly astonishing, world-class wine bore of the highest order, whose drinking rituals and lengthy homilies on subjects like chaptalization and terroir still cause me to shake my head and deliver a low whistle of amazement (if someone in attendance ate a bite of something that contained vinegar, he’d berate him for ruining his wine and sometimes even refuse to serve him); and second, because I myself am a recovering wine bore.

This is no easy thing to admit—that a decade ago I was the guy holding forth about what sort of late summer St. Émilion had had, while the person I happened to be drinking with probably sighed, and looked away, and wished I’d just pour a little faster. I have attempted to purchase futures. I have closely followed evening temperatures in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I have openly debated which of two Burgundies had more or less manure aroma. Unquestionably, the wines I drank during these years were the best wines I’ve had in my life (and I still wish I could drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape every day). But when I think back on those wines, I’m often reminded of the discussions and rituals that surrounded the drinking, rather than the experience of the wine itself. This is what talking too earnestly about wine (as well as other basic pleasures) does: it intellectualizes—and therefore sanitizes—what was meant to be experienced purely through the prism of the senses.

What caused me to reform my ways was a lack of funds, which is the quickest cure for any wine bore known to man. My daughters, who have robbed me of my last dime in their hunt for things like new shoes and education and ice cream, have effectively saved me from myself. Here I am, with far less scratch than I would prefer, forced to walk the shelves stroking my chin as I search for that $9.99 wonder.

The wine isn’t as good as some I’ve had. That’s for sure. There are some good wines out there to be had for $9.99—though even the best ones at that price tend toward the familiar, the less challenging. (These days, the best bargains with the most oomph seem to come from the Rhone—the Spanish wines at this price are still a little rough around the edges, but are getting there.) These wines are simpler, less fanciful, less arresting, than those I used to drink—yet I find myself enjoying wine more than ever these days. Perhaps that’s because the simplicity of these wines means they almost never require the sort of lengthy and priggish and coded dialogue that must accompany a bottle one bought for an amount that might otherwise have purchased a used car. Instead I find myself sending off a quiet note of appreciation with the first sip—nice Juliénas, good black cherry aroma—and leaving it at that.

Happily, it turns out that good $9.99 bottles are every bit as effective as a thousand-dollar Petrus. The warm glow of the second glass is just as heady, with no lecture involved to tamp down the pleasure. Plus you still have the money left over to buy that used car, afterward—which is pretty exciting indeed.

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KEITH DIXON is the author of two novels, Ghostfires and The Art of Losing. In May 2011, Crown will publish his memoir-cookbook Cooking for Gracie, based on food-writing first published in The New York Times. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica, and his daughters Grace and Margot, and spends much of his free time wishing he had more free time.

You can learn more about Keith's books, and read excerpts of his writing, at readkeithdixon.com.

14 responses to “Confessions of a Reformed Wine Bore”

  1. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    This is a great, clearheaded read on the subject. I’ve been living in Burgundy for the past few years, a place where everyone is more or less born a wine bore. What’s interesting though is that the region’s chief export has been raised to such a sacred level that even attempting to describe what keeps getting refilled in your glass is something that should only be left to dukes and men with flaming red noses who’ve spent their lives in a cellar with a pipette. I come in to all this knowing next to rien. Still, I give it the old college try, I recently had an evening with friends and a bottle of Bonnes Mares that was enough to make me sign up for a lifetime of wine bore lessons.

  2. I agree with this sentiment completely Keith, although while reading it occurred to me how easily it would be to replace the word “wine” with “music” throughout and not upset the essay one iota. We all have our obsessions, especially the obsessive wish to make it clear to the uninitiated what they’re missing. This neglects the inconvenient notion that the uninitiated are that way because they choose to be.

    My understanding is that Kingsley Amis was a proponent of the cheapest possible liquor, especially vodka, in any drink, but was a profound Jazz bore. If you’ve read The King’s English, he wasn’t much fun on the subject of grammar/etymology either.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    We all have our obsessions, especially the obsessive wish to make it clear to the uninitiated what they’re missing. This neglects the inconvenient notion that the uninitiated are that way because they choose to be.

    Sorry, but how in the world could this ever apply to music? Geez, some people just don’t get it…

  4. Dana says:

    “What caused me to reform my ways was a lack of funds, which is the quickest cure for any wine bore known to man. My daughters, who have robbed me of my last dime in their hunt for things like new shoes and education and ice cream, have effectively saved me from myself. ”

    Ha! So true. I’m always in search of decent bottles for less than $10, (mostly because I’m cheap and drink a lot) so since you’re reformed I’d love some recommendations!

  5. Dana says:

    Thanks so much Keith! I will definitely check them out. It’s kind of funny that I know next to nothing about wine and yet have fairly sophisticated tastebuds. And somehow whenever I’m perusing the wines, someone younger will approach me and ask for a recommendation. I can’t tell you how many crappy wines I’ve purchased based solely on the cute name or label design.

  6. Marni Grossman says:

    Oh, Keith. SO funny. “My daughters, who have robbed me of my last dime in their hunt for things like new shoes and education and ice cream, have effectively saved me from myself.”

    Kids are greedy like that.

    • Keith Dixon says:

      Plus they get me up at 6:30 most days! (= can’t drink much wine, anyway, because i have to get to bed…)

      thanks for having a read, marni!

  7. Jessica Blau says:

    Great post Keith.

    I’m a Wine Dummy. Don’t really drink it, can’t tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I’m always a little skeptical, too. When the waiter or sommelier brings the bottle and pours a bit for someone (never me) I often doubt that the person accepting or refusing the bottle even knows if it’s good. It feels like a wonderful stage show, everyone playing their part and no one turning to stage left and yelling, “LINE!”

    • Keith Dixon says:

      jessica, there is sometimes some doubt between good and bad bottles. the only one i’ve ever sent back in my life was a white i bought at pastis in new york that smelled like a basement. i called the waiter over and invited her to try a taste; she said not to worry about it, and they brought me a new bottle — this one much better.

      thanks for having a read!

  8. Bob says:

    Love this article. I have some good friends who have recently become wine bores and I find I am making up excuses not to see them as they have ceased to become interesting. Plus I avoid eating out with them as I don’t want to be paying stupid money for a glass of wine with my meal.

    I was always told the difference between a “Wine Snob” and a “Wine Expert” is that the expert will find a decent bottle under $10 – the snob will be wanting to pay in excess of $100.

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