As humans I think it's natural to gravitate towards those with common interests, but I can't remember a period in my life where I found as much insularity as I have over the past few years. I don't just mean politically, either; I mean generally. As someone who works in a retail environment, I talk to people all day long, so I get a sense of what's on the mind of our Bay Area residents. On top of that, the spirits blog has put me in contact with thousands of people around the country, many of whom send me emails on a regular basis. Through them, I gain a little more insight into what's happening in other parts of the land. There's a common thread through many of these interactions that mirrors what I read in the news each day about America. What's interesting to me is that, simply within the conversation of wine and spirits, there seem to be completely different takes on reality—in both the consumer and professional spheres! Those views, right or wrong, stem entirely from a number of insular communities that seem to reinforce whatever conclusion has drawn them together. It's no different than a Facebook group, a politically-oriented news feed, or a religious sect where each populace seeks to surround itself with likemindedness. I approach personal relationships in the same manner. When I go out with friends or colleagues socially, I want to talk with people who have common interests and avoid those with whom I might have philosophical conflicts.
I think that fear of confrontation is ultimately what isolates us as humans. We're often afraid to disagree or present opposing viewpoints, so we keep quiet and simply avoid the subject the next time it threatens to arise. When we are passionate, honest, or forthcoming about our views, it's usually within a safe and supportive environment of likeminded individuals and that's where we lose our sense of reality. For example, it's easy for a group of wine sommeliers to believe that grüner veltliner is going to be the next big wine craze when they go from restaurant to restaurant, talk with other geeky professionals, and reinforce each other's advanced interests. But when grüner veltliner doesn't take off and remains an outlier on the wine list (where it's always been), you begin hearing snotty quips like: "people don't get it" or "consumers don't know what's good." Most people would call that wine snobbery, but in reality it's simply what happens when the general population doesn't reinforce the preconceived notions of insularity. It's no different than thinking you're a shoe-in for the presidency, then finding out you've lost. I heard the same things this past November: "What are people thinking?" or "How can society be so stupid?" You could call that elitism or condescension, but what it really means is: why doesn't everyone else think the same way I do? Why didn't my version of reality come to fruition?
As of late, my favorite conversations at K&L are the ones that challenge both me and the consumer. I actually prefer dealing with customers who don't share my tastes or opinions about wine and spirits. It forces me to look outside myself and see the market realistically—as it truly is! I've worked with a number of people over the years who approached wine retail in just the opposite manner, however. They pushed their tastes, their opinions, and their beliefs on the customer and then wondered what the problem was when the client didn't like the selection. "They just don't understand wine," they would scoff when the patron left in a huff. These are the two extremes I see in the world today when it comes to human interaction: we either look to avoid straightforward conversation, or we seek to impose our will upon others. Few people have the patience or the desire to venture outside their little islands. Rather than challenge that isolationism, we allow people to tailor their lives to the reality that best suits them. That type of insular living might make us happier in the short run, but it presents a fairly large problem when we're forced to communicate or work outside of these boundries.
You don't have to agree with someone else's opinion, but I think it's always beneficial to try and understand where they're coming from—especially if your job is to serve a broad spectrum of the public!! If I only bought spirits that I myself wanted to drink, K&L would be a much different store. I wouldn't know what people wanted unless I talked with them and listened to what they had to say.