Pretentiousness? It's poetic licence

Without pretension there would be no fine art, no poetry, no architectu re, no advertising slogans...
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A ROW has broken out in the world of fine wines, a real corker, a row with a spectacular nose, a firm attack and (let's hope) a long finish. Two of the nation's top oenologists are currently at each other's throats. One is Michael Broadbent, the upright, old-fashioned, bicycle-riding director of Christie's fine wine department; the other is Serena Sutcliffe, the aquiline, tremulous, polyglot supremo of Sotheby's international wine department.

Naturally you expect a certain professional rivalry between the opposite numbers of such competitive organisations. But, in a BBC TV documentary, Vintner's Tales, presented by Jancis Robinson and to be screened next week, Mr Broadbent goes a little far. Asked why he never goes to the same wine tastings as Ms Sutcliffe, he replies: "Really, I find her haughty and rather nose-in-the-air. The word, if you really want the word, is pretentious".

Pretentious, elle? Of all the words you might expect a wine expert to use in condemnation of another wine expert, "pretentious" is the last. For pretentiousness comes with the territory. It's a requirement of the job. An unpretentious wine connoisseur would be as much use as a surreptitious town crier.

Enemies of Ms Sutcliffe can point to some spectacular feats of adjectival fireworks in her attempts to encapsulate the glory of crushed grape juice. She is fond of words such as monumental, fabulous, incandescent, mythical, eternal, immense, archetypal, awe-inspiring, majestic and "grandiose, in the French sense" when describing upmarket drinks.

In the last year's auction of Andrew Lloyd Webber's wine collection, she identified the flavours of "jammy wonder", "glorious toasted lime", "hawthorn and honey" and "the Cairo spice bazaar" in a number of expensive premiers crus classes clarets. To her phenomenal, hair-trigger sensory arsenal, the 1959 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Burgundy was "rich coffee and undergrowth on the nose, cocoa on the palate".

You may, like Mr Broadbent, find this stuff hard to take. You may decide, like him, that "the word... is pretentious". And I would reply: So what? What's wrong with being pretentious?

What, for example, is the alternative to Ms Sutcliffe's synaesthetic deductions? To say (as Mr Broadbent once said of a supermarket vin ordinaire) that it's "an ordinary, straightforward red colour and smells vaguely of wine"? Give me Ms Sutcliffe any day. To those who pooh-pooh EM Forster's reading of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as an uprising of goblins against their Creator, I'd say it represents a more coherent response to the music than saying you like the tunes. To people who laugh at the Millennium Dome as not just overpriced but "pretentious", I'd say that's precisely why I love it - because it combines with such insouciance the qualities of biblical crown of thorns, royal crown and crown roast of lamb.

"Pretentious" is a word we hurl too readily at human attempts to see transcendent things in the everyday. If my neighbour claims to detect the odour of Kirov ballet tights in a bottle of Chilean merlot, if my daughter sees the shadow of mortality in a melting ice-lolly, or if I claim that a three-line haiku by Lao-tzu is the finest expression of love in the history of poetry, we may all be guilty of pretension - but at least we tried.

For the enemies of pretension are far worse than its exponents. We detect pretension in others when we dislike their claims to a sensitivity that's greater than our own. We think they're just pretending a response. They're faking a rapture we don't (or can't) share. They see stars where we see mud. They are either lucky bastards or they're posey charlatans. Let's agree it must be the latter.

But it's the courting of pretension that makes life worthwhile. If we like or love or hate something, if we feel joy or pain or sorrow and look for some metaphorical correlative of it in the outside world, let us indulge ourselves as we like without this dull, prosaic condemnation. We may be imprecise or overly colourful, we may make idiots of ourselves, but at least we expressed it, whether the result was an over-excited tasting note or Chartres Cathedral.

For without the occasional foray into grandiosity (in the English sense), affectation or even vanity, life would be ghastly. Without pretension there would be no fine art, no poetry, no architecture, no advertising slogans, no religion, no Zen, no couture fashion, no speeches, no metaphors, hardly any pop lyrics, no satire. The world would be a place of cold sense, precise description, modest utterance, a grim calibration of external facts, a sterile dystopia of functional buildings and sensible clothing. And all the wine would taste just of wine.