What Wine Twitter Taught Me About Wine

One writer wades into the heart of wine’s conflict zone to see what he can learn about the values and anxieties that define its culture today.

A decade ago, Harvard scientists stumbled upon an important discovery about the universal behavior of bubbles. When bubbles burst, they do not vanish quietly; they metastasize. The penetrating force causes the thin film encasing the captive air to fold in on itself, warping into the shape of a donut, before surface tension cracks the donut into a ring of smaller bubbles. Of course, it doesn’t take a Harvard degree to understand how bubbles react to surface tension. All you need is a Twitter account.

In mid-January, New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner posed a simple question to Twitter: What the fuck am I supposed to say to indicate the wine I want from a wine list? Attached was a photo of a wine list, with understandably confusing inconsistencies in what was being denoted: Some entries listed the name of the wine, others the varietal or region, others both.

The seemingly innocuous tweet became a micro-phenomenon the way many viral tweets do: It found the sweet spot of being deeply relatable to many people, and treasonous to an oenophilic few. Responses ranged from:

(Translation: You are absolutely right, Helen, this list is comically hard to follow.)

… to:

(Translation: Yeah, it’s a little abstruse, but think of wine selection like an intro to dance class. It takes guidance, communication and, sometimes, a little hand-holding. )

… to:

(Translation: You’re a hypocrite.)

The tweet created space for some wine professionals to reconsider their methods of communication. For other wine insiders, Rosner’s position as a food authority made her judgments ring hollow. “Foodies resent the subject of wine because its complexity undermines their sense of mastery of the restaurant experience,” tweeted wine writer Aaron Ayscough, whose earnest defense of wine’s esotericism cast him as an antagonist in the network of tweets and subtweets, leading him to call the entire ordeal an “oenophobic foodie manhunt.”

From my vantage, Rosner’s original tweet was objectively perfect: There was a little something for everyone to agree or disagree about. Twitter’s wine bubble was forced to confront an outside force and it folded in on itself—just as the scientists said it would.

I am probably one of the “foodies” Ayscough had made note of. There are certainly some sensory experiences I’m more privy to than others, and I feel completely comfortable synthesizing flavors and experiences and histories into a legible mood board. Wine, on the other hand—and the language around its flavors, experiences and histories—has always felt impenetrable. So it was a bit of a delight to realize that, as I dug into the tweets from the many different tiny factions that splintered off in response to Rosner’s question, a nascent wine education was underway. I’d stumbled into a conflict zone that might help me better understand the values and anxieties that define current wine culture. Maybe I could at least begin to learn about wine the way so many people take in any kind of knowledge these days: by diving headlong into Twitter wormholes.

It’s not a perfect means of conducting an experiment, to be sure. Social media as the construct we know it to be today is no more than 30 years old; wine, a social medium, dates back more than a handful of millennia. In that time, it has been codified in myriad ways across just about every conceivable academic and practical discipline. It is art and it is biology; it is language and it is history. It is an object of obsession, the cause of debilitating hangovers in your misguided 20s, a cultural and generational divide and a thermometer for our increasingly fevered planet. It is a little bit of everything, but not to everyone. That’s the rub. Codifying wine in a way that might serve and support a more general audience has always been something of a holy grail. Or, perhaps, an ultimately destructive concession.

Wine might just be doomed to feel exclusionary. Insecurity is built into the discourse the way anything popularly considered elitist esoterica would be, in or outside the States. In response to Rosner’s tweet, software engineer Kelly Ellis tweeted, “I would immediately find a list like this so intimidating that I’d choose something random in a varietal I already know instead of trying something new, just because I’m afraid of embarrassing myself.” Of course, that sense of insecurity cuts both ways, which gives both novices and experts shields to protect the ego instead of bridges for reaching understanding together.

As I stalked Twitter, I wondered about the man who approached the grail of wine populism: Robert Parker, who more or less constructed wine’s modern mythology over three decades with his industry-changing 100-point rating scale. But the critic—inarguably one of the century’s most influential, in any field—hasn’t tweeted in three years. Still, it feels like he’s remained a vital substrate in the wine world; everyone seems to be, in one way or another, responding to the monolith of that influence.

Contemporaries, like James Suckling and Jancis Robinson, who, at one point, may have pushed back against the dogma of Parker, now serve as the new old guard of wine expertise; there are the antagonists from the natural wine world, like early evangelist Alice Feiring (whose first book was titled The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World From Parkerization) and Rachel Signer, the creator of the natural wine magazine Pipette. Feiring and Signer, and other devotees of natural wine, advocate for a style and philosophical approach to winemaking that is now as mainstream as any—something Parker called “vinofreakism” back in 2010. Then there are the new antagonists, who skewer the template of wine expertise shared by the old and new guards alike. It’s perhaps best seen through sommelier Adam Vourvoulis’s @natural_whine Instagram account, which freely delights in poking fun at the wine industry’s many pretentions and hypocrisies. (Vourvoulis once co-wrote arguably the most confusing wine list in history.)

These different factions appear to operate largely in silos, each with their own sense of time and priority. There is a bit of whiplash going from, say, a @natural_whine post mocking the way people use modern wine jargon to the Twitter account of a British critic like Tim Atkin (a contemporary of Robinson and Suckling), who spends much of any given year abroad, spending weeks in a region to compile long, detailed reports. Atkin operates as the kind of gatekeeper that wine critics have traditionally acted as, making use of his access by giving the best recommendations he can offer and sharing relevant histories. Experts like Atkin may always be arbiters of taste, but social media has worn away at the sense of gatekeeping. Winemakers can now readily share their own stories without a proxy, a means of communication that shares an ethos with the natural wine boom: It’s easier to tell a story if you have nothing to hide.

“It’s not natural wine the conventional wine people are upset about, it’s the use of technology to push it,” Vourvoulis wrote in an Instagram caption in early February. “Social media has brought natural wine to the future and left the old guard behind as it screams MAKE WINE GREAT AGAIN to nobody.”

But beyond the tweets about vertical tastings and minerality and mousiness, and the Instagram memes about starter kits for the burgeoning natural wine enthusiast, there is a sense that, for once, the dangers targeting each faction in the wine world are one and the same.

The planet’s climate crisis is a problem of the now. Regions of California and Australia, two of the most highly publicized wine hubs leveled by wildfires, are having to rethink their growing practices with future catastrophe in mind. It’s a mindset being adopted even in less-extreme circumstances. U.S. import tariffs are problems of the now. The 25 percent import tariff on wines and other goods from the E.U. enacted in October 2019 has already been disastrous for small importer businesses; the mere possibility of the proposed 100 percent tariffs could threaten tens of thousands of jobs as businesses look for ways to cut costs. That isn’t even taking into account the wine sold at restaurants, which will have significant price hikes to keep up with their already narrow profit margins; either the consumer foots the bill, or the restaurant closes. The othering and factionalization that can happen within communities are rendered meaningless when the whole is imperiled. (The threat of an entirely destabilized U.S. importing industry was, indeed, used as a cudgel against Rosner’s musing.)

Everyone moved on from Rosner’s tweet within days; that’s just how Twitter works. There are real problems that loom over the wine community, and some that require a great deal of intellectual reckoning. But in social echo chambers, folks tend to hunker down, pick a side and spar with the devil they know. Rarely does it end with any kind of mutual concession.

Ultimately, the biggest thing I learned about wine through Twitter is that the predispositions required to stomach social media are more or less the same conditions necessary to embrace wine as a part of one’s identity. It seems impossible to appreciate wine without dipping into at least some of the pretensions of the lifestyle, the same way it’s impossible to get much out of Twitter without appreciating inane joke constructions optimized for the 280-character format. Both realms can feel suffocatingly insular and unintelligible to the uninitiated. But that’s part of the allure, isn’t it?

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Danny Chau is a freelance writer and editor. He was a James Beard Foundation Award finalist in 2019.