Rite of Regression

When it comes to wine, there are two camps in the battle of one-upmanship. Either it’s all the same, or the more expensive product really does taste that different. Depending on how you frame your identity, and perhaps more on how much money you make, you select one and claim it’s the optimal viewpoint.

Not particularly interesting. The same strategy is used to qualify one’s personality as optimal for any number of attributes. Anyone braver than you is a reckless idiot; anyone less so is a coward. What is interesting, however, is that this is a novel framing for wine enthusiasts.

Historically, a penchant for fine wines reflected a cultured upbringing and disposable wealth. It said, “I have enough money and taste not to mind spending ten times the money for ten percent better taste.” Fine wine reflected the buyer’s accomplishment in other areas of life to a greater degree than his exposure to nice things. That it offered so little bang for the buck was the root of its placement as a status symbol.

In an argument with a modern day wine snob, you’d find something inexplicably different. His love of expensive wines would not tread on his sense of value. The argument would outlandishly invoke a dubious dollar per palate cost-benefit analysis in which the claim was made that a $200 bottle actually tastes ten times better than a $20 bottle.

Certainly, one may be cultured enough to appreciate the differences others may not. But a claim of an order of magnitude of difference is outlandish. It is a qualitatively different argument. No longer is one drinking fine wines because he can afford to, but because his taste buds are fundamentally different. Taste moves from a statement of decadence or accomplishment to actual genetic superiority.

Any other culture in any other era would find this downright laughable. Why we entertain it may have to do with a fiction devised to deal with adolescence. To temper the frustration of feeling we’re falling apart while seeing others largely composed, we posit that our experiences and emotions are unique. My life feels so uniquely difficult because it actually is.

As far as coping mechanisms go, this one is rather benign, especially when used to simply weather adolescence. However, we may be seeing it transform into an externally consistent subculture which, at the moment, goes under the name emo. Like its antecedents, emo is based on two precepts. First, the universe enforces a conservation of feelings in much the same way as it does mass or energy. Suffering can be noble, and if not karmically returned, can at least be exchanged for respect in its description. Second, and more relevant to our discussion, is that some are truly able to experience life differently. An emo has no reservations asserting a postmodern disconnect from the universal human aesthetic. He can see beauty others cannot, whether in an off-color playground Polaroid or a windswept garbage bag.

In this framework, one does not acquire a taste for fine wines through a lifetime of exposure but simply by being special. The real riddle here is why adults are allowing themselves to treat a childish coping mechanism as if it had substance in the physical world. Or, more to the point, can someone even know when he has reached adulthood and should put away childish things.

Without a coming of age rite to demarcate the nearly instantaneous biological and psychological transition into adulthood, nouvelle wine snobbery is the least of our societal concerns. In an attempt to extend childhood, we act perplexed when children mysteriously lose interest in school and copying their parents around eighth grade. We force them to continue to live as children as long as possible, labeling their dissatisfaction with this arrangement “teenage rebellion,” a newly invented stage between adolescence and adulthood where there was previously only adulthood. With no clear boundary between childhood and adulthood, we should be no more perplexed when adults do childish things as when children do grown up things.

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