"You're a fluid thinker," my friend said. I assumed she was referring to my preoccupation with wine, but no, she meant my Prius.
My friend had been reading "Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide," a new book by Marc Heatherington and Jonathan Weiler, political scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They separate our hard-line political factions by simple choices we make in our lives, such as what type of car to drive, whether we buy coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts, what values we instill in our children. These define our cultural and political biases, as well as the difficulties the sides have in communicating with each other. The authors describe the two extremes as "fluid" or "fixed" thinkers.
While my friend discussed this in terms of our national political debate, as I listened to her and later explored the book, I couldn't help think of how this could describe wine lovers. Judging by my social media feeds, my fellow vinophiles come in all political stripes. One post's bonding over a tasty chard can quickly disintegrate into shards of vitriol over a comment on the day's news. So let's try to leave politics out of this discussion and look at how our choices in wine define us.
Heatherington and Weiler describe fluid thinkers as people who "support changing social and cultural norms, are excited by things that are new and novel, are open to, and welcoming of, people who look and sound different." Prius drivers, or for the second edition, Tesla. Fixed thinkers, on the other hand, "are warier of social and cultural change and hence more set in their ways, more suspicious of outsiders, and more comfortable with the familiar and predictable." They drive pickups. And well, maybe Cadillacs.
Fluid thinkers enjoy experimenting with wines. They embrace "natural wines," and they find entrancing funky flavors that repel more conservative drinkers who thought those faults had been eradicated by modern winemaking. They seek out environmentally friendly wines made by organic, biodynamic or sustainable methods. They care about how many liters of water are used to make a bottle of wine, or the winery's carbon footprint. They don't care about point scores from some critic their parents slavishly follow. They love to try wines from non-classic regions such as Virginia, Maryland, Bulgaria or the Jura, and unfamiliar, tongue-twisting grapes such as rkatsiteli or mtsvane. They will splurge to enjoy the experience of a rare or unusual wine, especially if it was fermented in a concrete egg or buried underground in a qvevri.
Fixed thinkers enjoy their cabernet sauvignon and their barrel-fermented chardonnay, especially if their wines have cult or grand cru status. The higher the alcohol and the higher the point score, the better. They stick to the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Napa, Barossa and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They debate classic style vs. modern, Suckling's scores vs. Parker's, and they revel in the nuances of a favorite vineyard from year to year. Entire evenings are consumed discussing which vintage to drink now or to hold. They cast a skeptical eye on local wines, because they tasted one two decades ago and it was awful.
Some of this is generational. Baby boomers who discovered wine in the 1980s or 1990s and are now at the top of their earning capacity or beginning to drink down their cellar collections can be excused for being set in their ways. But they may have helped put top wines from Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy out of reach for younger drinkers just discovering their palates and earning potential. Millennials and younger drinkers have more options to explore and are willing to give less expensive wines their due.
There's common ground, of course. Oenogeeks of all stripes enjoy a terrific bargain, that wine that boasts a high quality-to-price shouts quality-price-ratio and offers bottled fun no matter the pedigree. Whether we celebrate Harlan or Movia, we can high-five over a delicious bierzo.
We can go too far toward this common ground, though. Jennifer Gersten, a music doctoral student at Stony Brook University, wrote a brilliant essay in The Washington Post's Outlook section in December lamenting how classical music is being dumbed down to, essentially, elevator music to soothe our jangled nerves. We risk losing the "bristling harmonies," the "cutting yowls" and "multidimensional textures" of classical music at its best when we think of it only as an invention "to address a yawn shortage," Gersten writes.
The same with wine. If we focus solely on what's cheap and good, the basic need for all of us, we risk losing sight of the bristling harmonies and cutting yowls that make wine exciting, that connect us with a distant land, our culture and history, and make a wine worth a little more cash.
As for me, bring on those biodynamically farmed, environmentally friendly Teslas as they cut through the clutter of the humdrum. I'll still enjoy a good cabernet any time.