When you read the words ‘fashion industry’, what mental image springs to your mind?
Unnaturally thin people obsessing about their appearances and being bitchy to each other?
Maybe that’s because you saw the 2006 Meryl Streep movie The Devil Wears Prada, popular enough to ring up $340m at the box office, against a production budget of $35m. Or the 2006 to 2010 TV series Ugly Betty, or the 2016 film Zoolander 2 featuring cameos by such fashion luminaries as Anna Wintour, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Valentino and Tommy Hilfiger.
How about ‘computer programmer’?
Have you conjured up a male with glasses, a bad complexion and poor social skills?
Or what about ‘movie producer’?
But, given recent news, perhaps I don’t need to go there.
My point is that professions breed stereotypes. Sporty, female software writers may not like the way their profession is perceived, but the decision of IT companies to launch businesses with names like computer-geeks.com, geeks.co.uk and best of all cgoc.com (which stands for Computer Geeks On Call) does not undermine the quality of their work.
Wine people, as I discovered last week, resent the image of wine lovers as pretentious, condescending and – worst of all – full of bullshit.
Their outrage was provoked by my online suggestion that it might not be a bad idea for members of this industry to watch a YouTube clip called Adam Ruins Everything - Why Wine Snobs Are Faking It.
The film depicts three young women who find wine lists and wine shops confusing: “There are so many; how am I going to choose?” asks one, while another wonders what a wine with a frog wearing a hat is going to taste like. “Mossy?”
They also struggle with wine terminology. What does ‘dry’ mean? Or ‘body’?
This is when the supercilious middle-aged male wine expert (“My palate is incredibly refined”) appears and offers the girls the fruits of his knowledge, recommending one wine over another and eloquently describing the difference between a red and a white.
His pompous bubble is burst by the Adam character, who tells the girls and the audience about a famous 2001 experiment by Frédérick Brochet at the University of Bordeaux.
Brochet’s study into wine perception discovered that ‘experts’ were unable to tell the difference between a red wine and a white one with red dye, and that, when served the same wine in two different bottles, they also assumed that the one with the grand cru label was much finer than the vin de table.
The film ends with the ‘expert’ recovering from his embarrassment by gleefully swigging from a bag-in-box of white Zinfandel.
Angry online responses to the clip from wine industry members included: “that video is a cartoon and full of misinformation… there’s plenty wrong with that.”
“I struggle to think another industry where this would have happened.”
“An attack for the sake of attacking.”
Real wine experts aren’t like the one in the clip, explained a couple of Masters of Wine, while a UK-based wine educator agreed, saying that he’d ‘never met anyone like that.’
Adam’s revelations are similarly dismissed. The ’experts’ in Brochet’s study were actually wine students. No proper wine professionals would have been fooled in such a way.
This last defence is unfortunately hard to sustain - at least in the case of the 70 or so judges at the California State Wine Competitions of 2005 to 2008. The vast majority - 90% - of these well regarded palates, as Robin Goldsmith reported in the Journal of Wine Economics, were unable to replicate their medals within a single flight.
But how many of us could say that we never get it wrong? I certainly wouldn’t. I’d readily acknowledge to often having been made a fool of by a label, and I’ve seen it happen countless times with people I respect, including producers who’ve failed spot their own wines.
No one is saying that here is no such thing as expertise – just that it’s far from infallible. How a wine is appreciated is almost inevitably influenced by its context.
In any case, whatever the context or skills, the way wine and the wine industry are perceived by professionals and enthusiasts, is not the point. I don’t expect a member of the US National Rifle Association US to give me a fair view on how gun ownership is or should be considered.
Instead of complaining at the way outsiders are making fun of the wine industry in YouTube video clips, we should be considering why millions of people enjoy watching them do so. And why the tongue-in-cheek Paso Robles Man promotional video has been so much more popular than more serious educational efforts.
And instead of rubbishing his clip, we should listen to Adam reassuring the girls that “of course wines taste different, but it’s totally subjective. Like all foods. We don’t need sandwich experts because we know what we like… Forget the snobs, take risks and drink what tastes good to you”.
Which part of that last sentence would any of us really disagree with?
Maybe the last word should go to the US artist Cindy Sherman who, in 2016, produced a fashion shoot for Harper’s Bazaar in which she gave her own verdict on the fashion industry; “It's so self-involved."