Devil's Advocate - Some People Find Wine Frightening. We Need to Feel their Fear

Robert Joseph is fairly relaxed about pronouncing tricky wine names, or the risks of choosing a disappointing bottle. But he wants us all to give more thought to our fellow human beings who find wine daunting.

Reading time: 2m

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

Oenophobia, or fear of wine, is a real thing.

How do you react to those words?

Do you think: “Really? Tell me more.”

Or are you thinking: “What nonsense!”?

Before going any further, I should support my assertion that it’s a ‘thing’ by saying that oenophobia is apparently to be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). There are also mediaeval references to it with reference to banquets and social occasions. All of which seems to indicate a certain level of authentic ‘thing-ness’.

Fears of all kinds – not just phobias – are fascinating in the way they straddle the real and the irrational and in their essentially personal nature. Someone I know very well used to be terrified of public speaking but had no hesitation in repeatedly accepting an invitation to stand on top of an aerobatic biplane while it looped the loop.

Irrational humans and rational beasts

Animals fear things and situations they know from experience could do them harm, as well as unfamiliar phenomena and circumstances they have no reason to trust.

The fear many people have when it comes to wine is of embarrassment. Of being seen by others to have “got it wrong”. This might range from “What a cheapskate, turning up to dinner with a bottle of that!” to “Oh my God, he’s drinking Sauternes with the steak!” to not feeling confident about how to pronounce Viognier or a lack of appropriate vocabulary when asked to make a comment.

Then there’s the fear of financial loss. “Am I being ripped off by a fancy label or bullshit words?”. Or loss of potential pleasure: “Am I going to hate this? Or not enjoy it as much as I would if I’d spent a bit more?”.

No cause for concern

People who are confident with wine often dismiss these concerns – often while mocking those poor unfortunates who think the first syllable of Riesling rhymes with ice or who have failed to learn that Chablis is made from Chardonnay.

These are the wine professionals who see no need to make wine labels or restaurant lists more informative. What they have in common is that none will have worked the floor as a successful sommelier or had to listen to a distributor explaining to a producer why a hard-to-pronounce name can also be very hard-to-sell.

I know what it’s like not to empathise with someone else’s fears. I often mock my teenage daughter for being scared of small, harmless spiders, but I know it’s not very laudable of me. Saying there’s nothing about these multi-legged invertebrates to justify her anxiety will do little to relieve it. To achieve that, I’ll have to try wearing her shoes. Animals are, we are now learning, better at empathy than we used to imagine. We should be better at it too.

Unless we want even more wine drinkers to embrace the less fearsome options offered by celebrity wines, big brands and private label varietals.


Academic Papers

A consumer survey done by Hochschule Geisenheim University shows that wine-interested consumers in Germany expect transparency around ingredients. Prof. Dr Simone Loose presents the findings. 

Reading time: 7m 15s



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