There's a lot of pretense in the enjoyment of alcohol and most of it is based on image. Society places value on knowing what's good and what isn't, so we of course feel the pressure to align ourselves with only the best! What amazes me however is when experienced vinophiles forget that their drinking habits weren't always quite so advanced and that they were once just as green as any budding enthusiast. I'll never forget going to a prominent local winery's tasting bar and trying to joke with the person pouring about the old days of Boone's Strawberry Hill. She stared at me, straight-faced, dead serious and said, "I never drank anything but great wine. Even when I was sixteen."
Drinking only what's "good" isn't something one can generalize because "good" isn't a blanket term. What people value depends on what they consider "cool" or desirable. I read an article in the New Yorker today that mentioned the "upper-middle class desire for authenticity" as a trend currently driving the food industry. I would venture to say that it's a topical force with booze as well, influencing the purchases of those who want to be viewed as more in touch with world culture. Other factors that currently affect our drinking image are points and ratings, rarity and collectability, and scale or size of production. Some people pride themselves on only drinking 90+ point wines, others only the whisky from closed distilleries. Some people are way too cool to drink anything you've ever heard of because they don't care about image (the irony is incredible).
Now I'm not pointing out the trendiness that influences other people's liquor purchases while considering myself above the fray. I'm just as susceptible to marketing and image as anyone else and so are most of the people I work with. What's interesting though is that, because we at K&L are considered experts, people tend to rationalize their purchases to us as if we are constantly judging them by what they buy (like the guys at the record store in High Fidelity). We are not some group of super snobs who only drink amazing, expensive, rare booze every time we imbibe. I, particularly, am very vulnerable to marketing and self-perception, and it has only been through trial, error, and much contemplation that I have come to the conclusions I have about alcohol and what it means to me.
No one wants to be seen as an uncultivated novice, but we all were at one point, so there's no point in acting like we're too cool. Every curious drinker tried to learn more about their passion by following other respected figures or those considered knowledgable - that's how we learned. What we also learned, however, (just like we did when we made friends on the playground as kids), was that certain wines, spirits, and cocktails could say something about the type of person we were. Some of us look back now to what we drank five years ago and laugh because we can't believe we liked some of the things we did, but those choices say something about our development as drinkers and as people. Our tastes have changed over time and so have our ideologies. Since I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about, I'll share with you some of the things I did when I was trying to "get into" wine and spirits.
-I started by purchasing the Wine Spectator and looked for all the affordable 90+ point bottles I could find. Then I called every store I knew of to find them. I figured this was what all serious wine drinkers did.
-I began downloading wine podcasts and listened to them while working out at the gym. I remember running on the treadmill at the Embarcadero YMCA after teaching all day, listening to three guys sit in their living room and talk about how many 90+ point wines they just finished drinking. In my mind I was learning more about wine. What I actually learned was how many 90+ point wines these guys were drinking.
-I watched Sideways over and over again and romanticized the idea of knowing as much as Miles did. I thought it would be so cool to sit with people and talk about wine the way it was done in the movie. It wasn't until years later that I realized he was supposed to be rather pathetic and annoyingly pedantic, as well as hypocritical.
-Once I hosted a dinner and was very proud of the fact that I was serving Yellowtail Chardonnay instead of Charles Shaw. It was a big step up in my mind.
-When I started at K&L I would go to the staff tastings, taste a wine I didn't like, but then learn later that it got great reviews so I would buy it anyway, thinking I'm supposed to like this. This happened many, many times.
-When I took over the liquor buying at K&L, I used to buy every single limited edition whisky bottle that came into the store thinking these must be the best because they're so sought after.
-I am still to this day more inclined to buy a wine if the label moves me. I love old school French labels that have a picture of a rustic farm or countryside drawn on them. It makes me think that I too am a Frenchman, sitting in the hills drinking some ploussard or slightly oxidized savagnin.
Is there anything wrong with any of the above admissions? I don't think so. They're not practices that I'm likely to follow now, but they're not too different from what many people do or have done. Nevertheless, some in the fine wine & spirits community (as referenced above) would die before ever admitting to having done something so elementary. Doing so might change their perceived image.