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I don’t hate cult Cabs, I just hate cult Cab writers

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As I blogged on Nov. 3, I’m of two minds when it comes to so-called luxury wine. Part of that whole elitism thing turns me off, but I also understand that for millennia, wine has been viewed as a luxury product. The reason for my ambivalence is my background. I was raised a middle class kid in The Bronx, and my family were liberal Democrats. We had a mild mistrust of rich people that was in no way negative, it’s just that we didn’t think they understood our lives and sorrows (and maybe we didn’t understand theirs). I never got to know wealthy people, though, until my wine critic job brought me into their world (and them into mine, I guess). Then, I discovered that rich people are no different from me. We’ll all the same under the skin.

But I still get uncomfortable with the wine-as-luxury thing, and I never quite understood why until this weekend, when I had an Aha! moment. I was down in Monterey and picked up a copy of California Style. It’s one of those glossy lifestyle magazines you find in upscale places, like Carmel and St. Helena. In this case, they were giving it away in the hotel I was staying at. [Disclosure: The room was paid for by the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association.) The magazine had ads for Diane von Furstenberg, Gucci, Chanel, that kind of thing. Flipping through it, I found an article I just had to read. It was on “The making of CA’s newest cult Cab.” (The magazine’s website is listed as www.magazinec.com, but when I tried it with both Safari and Firefox, I got “site not found” messages.)

It was after reading this article that I finally understood the source of my discomfort with “luxury wines.” It’s not with the wines themselves, or the rich people who can afford to buy them, much less launch them — no, it’s with the worshipful writers who pen these pandering apotheoses to wines they, themselves, in all likelihood will never be able to buy, and that in any case they cannot possibly understand. Nor are they even good journalists, content as they are to quote from a press release. The wine is Dana Estates 2005 ($275), a Napa Cab made by Phillipe Melka, which the author describes as “Napa’s next big thing” that “will be released to the open arms — and cellars — of collectors around the world.“ In breathlessly giddy tones, the writer gushes about the “approachable elegance” of the winery’s design, with its “appropriately lofty but intimate setting” and “soaring indoor/outdoor dining room with a Brobdignian reclaimed walnut table.”

This isn’t an article, it’s an advertisement. Would that magazine ever write an honest article on some struggling little winery in Lodi? A mom and pop winery in Calaveras County where they took out a third mortgage to buy equipment? I don’t think so. Too downscale, not culty enough to appeal to people who pick up lifestyle magazines in hotel rooms to see what kind of aspirational baubles they should lust for.

Whew, sorry for the rant. Had to get it out of my system. Proposition 8’s passage has me in an evil mood, and California Style magazine just happened to be there. If I ever get to review Dana Estates, and I hope I do, it’ll be in a brown paper bag, so no one will be able to accuse me of harboring grudges against it.

  1. Dr. Horowitz says:

    I think cult wines, and even more so the people who buy and drink the Kool-Aid are interesting.

    If you can track down the following documentary about social class I highly recommend it:
    http://www.pbs.org/peoplelikeus/index.html

    I’m conducting filmed interviews on cult wine and hope to have a video to post in the Spring.

  2. I’ve seen this magazine before (probably in my Carmel hotel room once) and not only are you spot on with an article like this feeling like an advertisement, it probably is one.

    My wife has done some editorial work at a lifestyle magazine like this before and these publications are often solely for the use that you and I got out of them; something to read in your room and/or use to seek out the local gallery selling $10K works of art. But at the same time they need to have some journalistic spin lest they be seen as nothing but local catalogs.

    Everyone of these has a “Wine & Spirits” section where they review some hot wine or vodka.

    This wine may in fact be just as great as “advertised” but I would not be surprised to find out that someone at the magazine knows someone at this label and, well, you get the idea.

  3. Eric, I bet you’re right!

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    I have nothing against cult wines or gullible rich people or shallow wantabe writers. It’s a little boring circle of pretend friends to whom owning something by a noted artist, clothing designer, automobile or beverage brand is a business or makes them momentarily happier.

    Just before reading this post, I was looking at photos posted on Flicker by young woman who took an unpaid year off from her teaching job and is circling the globe doing volunteer work in places like AIDs clinics in Africa and orphanages in India, etc. There are photos of her scaling peaks in Nepal, paddling rafts down white water, and holding darling babies. There are dozens of photos of beautiful children she has met and felt compelled to photograph and post. Currently she is in Thailand in a remote region with her boyfriend who flew over to join her. There are some thirty five pages of photos and in every photo, everyone has a big grin.

    In contrast to this young woman’s journey, a gushing story about the next big wine seems sad and pathetic.

  5. I find this article humorous, because if I open any major wine magazine here in Spain, I find that negative, or critical, articles are hard to come by of any famed winery. Because we are fractioned by region, and culture, most articles appear to be homages to high end cult wines, which consequently, reflects well on the region as a whole. And as pride runs deep, typically, it’s the big Priorat, Rioja or Ribera del Duero monsters that gain center stage. We’re talking the ones with wineries designed by world renowned architects like Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava or Rafael Moneo. My point, I’m absolutely sympathetic to your gripe considering that Spain is clocking in with an 11% unemployment rate, who is going to buy a 1000+ euro bottle of Vega Sicilia?

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