The wine emperor's new clothes

Thursday, 11 July, 2024, Peter Pharos
Once it enters your mind, the question becomes so persistent, so obstinate in its highlighting of an anomaly, that it’s impossible to remove. What if the Emperor’s weavers were telling the truth?

You know the tale, of course, in all likelihood first heard it as a child and have internalised it fully. Two con men approach a vain Emperor claiming they can make the most gorgeous clothes for him. But there is a twist: those clothes will only be visible to those of a certain intelligence. The ruse works. Even though nobody, Emperor included, can actually see the clothes, everyone plays along, lest they are found wanting.

Only, here is the catch. The sole proof of the weavers being fraudsters is Hans Christian Andersen’s name-calling. Would a scientist be satisfied with that? The fact that none of the cast can see the clothes doesn’t say very much. Couldn’t they all just be very, very thick? Let’s try to look at the hard evidence. Throughout the story, none of the capital’s inhabitants does anything that suggests much intelligence. But we do know that they all consider monarchy an acceptable form of government.

I am being facetious, but there is an underlying consideration here that has always had implications for wine. What is the inherent value of good wine if it takes a certain amount of interest, attention, and experience to appreciate it? Or, more simply, what’s the point of wearing, and paying handsomely for, the finest clothes if, as far as almost everyone else is concerned, you’re walking around butt naked?

Wine is particularly vulnerable to this criticism. Identifying quality in the beverage itself has little practical purpose. Though a drug, it is not a medicine. Raveneau does not cure gout more effectively than Aldi Chardonnay (if anything, both might cause it, I would guess at about the same rate). Proxy metrics that excite the modestly endowed in other domains are of little use in fermented grape juice.

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