Are you a wine wanker?

I am.

Wanker [from Wiktionary}:  (UK, Australia, New Zealand, slang, pejorative) An idiot, a stupid, annoying or ineffectual person who shows off too much, a poser or poseur; someone who is overly self-satisfied.

The Brits and their island relatives south of the equator love the word “wank” which in addition to the above meaning has so many other colorful implications. In the context of wine, it shows up in this article, in yesterday’s Sydney [Australian] Morning Herald, in which the writer, Nick Bhasin, was swirling and sniffing wine at an office party when one of his co-workers said to him, “It’s hard to do that and not look like a wanker.”

I never had any preconceptions about wine wankiness when I was coming up. When I moved to San Francisco and fell into the wine culture, we all swirled and sniffed, held the wine against a white tablecloth to see how clear it was, “chewed” it as if it were meat, thoughtfully appreciated its finish, and then, afterward, talked about it with the excited animation of a cadre of Giants fans debating Tim Lincecum’s abilities as a pitcher. (If you live here and hang out in sports bars, you know what I mean.)

In other words, I’ve always been comfortable being a wine wanker and being in the presence of wine wankers, although, even for me, there’s a limit. You can be wanky (or wonky) about wine without losing common sense and normal ways of talking.

But nobody should be embarrassed about their wine wankiness, as Nick Bhasin apparently was. He asked a “wine educator” for advice on how not to appear wanky, and she told him, “The glass doesn’t have to be raised to the sky in conductor-like fashion. And swirling can be done subtly, it doesn’t require much effort to swirl a glass properly at all – and it doesn’t require exaggerated facial expressions either.”

She’s surely right; one can easily imagine Fred Armisen, on Saturday Night Live, doing his Guy Fieri sthick as an out-of-control wank, gargling the Lafite, and sniffing it so hard it comes snorting out through his nose.

There are such people; we all have seen them, at tastings and such. Usually they’re amateurs. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. I often wonder, though, how we got to this position, where the merest, sincerest interest in wine is perceived by others as pretentious and fatuous. People don’t think that baseball or wrestling fans are pretentious. Personal aircraft owners talk about their planes all the time (try hanging out in Napa Valley) and, while it’s annoying to those of us who do not own such boy toys, I don’t think it’s pretentious. (Well, maybe a little.)

Yet wine talk and behavior has earned its own place of infamy. I guess partly it’s due to our American disdain for high culture. Wine is associated with the wealthy (although that’s a stupid attitude, because wine is really the beverage of the masses), and Americans have always had suspicions of the rich. Particularly suspect are people who aren’t rich but take on rich “airs”; and could any “air” be more offensive than swirling and sipping? Hence “wanker.”

I’ll just conclude by saying that I never exhibit my wankitude in public unless it’s in an appropriate setting. If I’m at a party where nobody cares about what they’re drinking, then neither do I. In my family, we do have certain members who seek me out at Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings to ask me to pronounce on various wines. I’m happy to oblige, but not at length, and not because I don’t want to offend anyone else, but because that’s not why I go to parties. I do my analysis thing when I review and I do my drinking thing when I drink, and I keep the two things separate. Still, after all these years, I never fail to be amused when someone who knows me well introduces me to someone who doesn’t with the words, “Steve’s a wine expert.” The other person’s eyes open wide and, while they search for something to say, I can almost hear them thinking, “He’s a wank [or wonk].”


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