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Why Everyone Loves to Laugh at the ‘Wine Snob’ Archetype of Film and TV

There is perhaps no quicker, easier way to prove someone is insufferable in film or television than to portray them as a wine snob.

The archetype of the pretentious, joyless wine aficionado may flash on our screens for a few moments as a throwaway joke or atmospheric detail. Such was the case with the new Netflix series The Gentlemen, when a mysterious millionaire insists upon having his $40,000-a-bottle wine cartoonishly double decanted (a method experts told us “isn’t necessary at all”).

Or the wine snob might take a more central narrative role. Consider the 2004 film Sideways, which follows Paul Giamatti’s oenophile character, Miles, on a roadtrip through Santa Ynez Valley wine country as he incessantly denigrates Merlot.

“If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving,” he says—a sentiment that, following the film’s success, impacted actual Merlot sales in the United States. And yet for all the wine knowledge Miles flaunts, and despite his real-world impact on wine trends, he is not an aspirational figure.

PAUL GIAMATTI as Miles Raymond.
In Sideways, Miles is an avowed Merlot hater. Image Courtesy of Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

“Sometimes it feels like the more someone is an expert in wine, the less we like them,” says Devin Parr, founder of The Vinter Project.

Ironically, Miles is less of a connoisseur than his strong opinions may have led viewers to believe. The 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc from St. Emilion that Miles had been saving for a special occasion and wound up drinking at a fast food restaurant is, in fact, a Merlot blend—making him not just insufferable, but also a hypocrite.

As a creative device, the wine-snob archetype is reliable comedically, because it exposes the pretension—and, at times, emptiness—of an industry that many people feel excludes them. Characters portrayed as wine snobs are often vaguely villainous, while people who appreciate beer or cocktails seem approachable and fun.

“Think about the oenophiles in the media,” says Mike Ringland, a Philadelphia-based sommelier. “Hannibal Lecter loved a nice Chianti. Christian Grey loved a Pouilly-Fumé. These are all characters that, while brilliant or successful, are portrayed [in] a certain unhinged way. It’s as though if you’re deeply into wine, you’re smart, but in a psychotic way.”

Production still from Netflix's The Gentlemen
A scene from Netflix’s The Gentlemen, which features an unusual decanting method. Image Courtesy of Netflix

Ringland points out that James Bond’s love of martinis only makes him cooler. What’s the big difference?

“James Bond would never order white Burgundy by producer or village or cru,” he says. “Doing so wouldn’t make him seem sleek and cool—he would be perceived as stuffy and nerdy.”

Wine became “stuffy,” Ringland suspects, in part because of all the formalities associated with wine service that, while beneficial for a guest (presenting the bottle, inquiring about decanting preferences and temperature), it makes “people’s eyes start rolling, as if it’s a big joke.”
“The perception of drinking wine to American consumers often carries this irony: ‘Oh look, I’m being fancy!’” Ringland says.

He often recalls a scene from the 1990 film Opportunity Knocks, in which Dana Carvey, a con man pretending to be a sommelier, is at dinner and a stuffy French waiter presents him with the wine menu. Carvey’s character selects a wine, and the waiter leans in and says, “Excuse me, but that is the address of the wine distributor.” The French waiter is seen as uptight for knowing about wine, and Carvey is the relatable common man for thinking it’s all nonsense.

Many wine professionals, however, feel that the caricature of wine lovers reinforces the exclusion that many regular wine-drinkers feel. These are people who can’t afford the Central Coast wine road trip or the $40,000 bottle, or who fear making a wine-ordering faux pas at a fancy restaurant.

ANTON EGO. Regie: Brad Bird aka. Ratatouille
The food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille flaunts wine knowledge. Image Courtesy of United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

For his part, Ringland feels his job is most important when he’s helping people on a budget find the perfect wine for their meal: “Out of a 1500-bottle selection list, I know exactly what $62 bottle you’ll never forget.” But his approach to engaging with consumers hasn’t always been the norm.

“For decades, many—but not all—wine professionals have approached guests with the same boilerplate, high-level wine dialogue that usually lacks meaning to the average consumer, alienating them in the process,” says Sam Bogue, beverage director at Flour + Water Hospitality Group. “There are some incredibly talented wine professionals who have perfected the craft of adapting the language they use in each setting to more warmly incorporate their guests into the conversation, but for a long time, this has been the outlier.”

And that’s what makes the caricature so entertaining—it flips the power dynamic, mocking the type of expert that makes more casual wine drinkers feel inadequate. “The trope has become so ubiquitous in our pop culture because many people will have interacted with this exact style of behavior at some point in their lives,” says Bogue.

Interestingly, the wine snob stereotype may disincentivize people from learning more about wine.

“Unfortunately, the fear of being obnoxious can stop anyone from trying to learn or talk about wine,” says Bernadette James, the in-house sommelier at Stages at One Washington and The Living Room in Dover, New Hampshire. “What actually makes a wine snob is intention. A wine lover simply enjoys talking about wine, while a wine snob loves proving how much they think they know about wine.”

Set on a girls trip to Napa Valley, the 2019 film Wine Country offered a refreshing, often joyful break from the cinematic tradition of conflating wine lovers with wine snobs. At a tasting on a Napa vineyard, where a friend group of middle-aged women are celebrating a 40th birthday, a male employee tries to tell them which notes they should be picking up on, and a character says flatly, “I don’t wanna learn about wine on this trip.”

Of course, that’s another extreme—committing to ignorance—but the depiction at least gets closer to what people actually love about wine: being with friends, enjoying the taste, having a joyful experience.

‘Succession’’s Tom Wambsgans
In Succession, Tom Wambsgans is a Walking Wine Metaphor. Image Courtesy of Warner Bros Discovery

“The world of wine can be so unapproachable, that we’ve forgotten what wine is actually about: connection and pleasure,” says James. “If we can all approach wine with intention, with pleasure, with humanity, then wine snobs and the fear of being one disappear."

Bogue sees the prevalence of the wine snob shrinking, in part due to wine tech, which has allowed “for more democratization of wine notes and the tasting process.”

The natural wine movement has also had an impact. “It seemed to be in direct opposition to wine snobbery when it first started to invade the wine zeitgeist of America back in the 2010s,” he says. “Natural wine presented itself as playful, more affordable and less tied to tradition, meaning you didn't need to know a ton to break into it. Ultimately, it's fun style made it less ‘fussy.’”

Few things, however, can stay unfussy forever. The natural wine snob has since garnered a reputation for intimidating casual drinkers with their insistence on the supremacy of “barnyard” wines.

“It does seem that we've come full circle,” says Bogues. “Natural wine can feel just as pretentious—if not more—as conventional wine. So the cycle continues.”

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