Fighting Wine Snobbery

Dear Helena,
My father-in-law is a major wine bore. He pores endlessly over the wine list, cross-examines the sommelier, makes a big song and dance of swirling, sniffing, and slurping, and then drones on about the “undertones of damp gingerbread and slightly overcooked blackberry jam.” Then it’s on to comparing this wine with other wines from the same producer or region, and blah blah blah. I try to change the topic, but he ignores me. Is there any way to stop him? He’s actually pretty cool most of the time.
—Shut Up and Drink

Dear Shut Up and Drink,
Overintellectualizing what should be a sensual experience is a sure way to take the fun out of it. And these days, you’ll encounter not just wine snobs, but craft beer snobs. However, the way to draw people in is not to intimidate them. “The ones who are really passionate … are asking you questions like ‘What do you get out of this?’ and ‘What does it remind you of?’” says Michael Jones-Morales, a wine seller in Los Angeles.

All that showing off is a desperate attempt to bolster a fragile ego. That’s why the typical wine-bore monologue often comprises a “tasting résumé,” says Hannah Blumenstiel, a lawyer in San Francisco who has attended many wine events with her wine-collecting partner. This is a list of “the legendary vintages they have sampled and who they tasted it with.” Beer bores do the same, says Zak Davis, western regional sales manager for Shmaltz Brewing Company: “They like to talk about the time they went to this brewery or met the founder of that brewery.”

It would be nice if you could tackle the bore’s insecurity directly and somehow boost his low self-esteem, obviating his need to show off. For instance, you might offer a compliment such as, “Wow, it’s amazing what a deep understanding of terroir you have.” But any affirmation you give the person might be misconstrued as interest. And if someone is insecure at his very core, a bit of ego-stroking from you won’t do much to fix the problem.

The only escape is to change the topic. But don’t just say out of nowhere, “Have you seen the new Spike Jonze movie?” Then it will be obvious you zoned out. Here’s how to segue with finesse:

1. Monologue segue
Blumenstiel recommends taking something from the person’s monologue as a jumping-off point. This shows that you are listening. For instance: “So you’ve been to Burgundy. Does your job allow for you to travel much?”

2. Dinner segue
The second way to change the topic, which Jones-Morales suggests, is to start talking about the food: “This Syrah pairs well with the steak. Did you hear that a lot of people are learning to butcher their own meat nowadays?”

I don’t claim this strategy is foolproof. The most dedicated bore can bend any topic back to the one you’re trying to avoid: “My job? I’m an accountant, so I usually take a wine vacation just after tax time. Last year it was the Loire.”

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.