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Time to end snobbery in wine–among owners

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Mr. ___ is the owner of a winery in California. It’s not necessary to identify him any further because there are many proprietors like him; hence he’s merely a surrogate for an entire group. He’s very wealthy. In fact, after he made his money, he bought his way into the wine industry, as many have done both before him and since. He now fancies himself part of an elite group, and to tell you the truth, his wines, with one or two exceptions, are pretty damned good.

Mr. ___ hires the best viticultural and winemaking team available and presumably pays them top dollar. As a result, his vineyards are impeccable, a fact he takes pride in. The same cannot be said of some of his neighbors, though, who don’t have his money and can’t afford to keep their rows of vines as pristine looking as a painting. Mr. ___ looks down on them. “They don’t have a lot of money, and so they can’t cut it,” he says dismissively. “When you’re used to drinking the best wine in the world”–this, he told me, after relating his love affair for Romanée-Conti and similar wines of luxury—“you can’t screw around, you make the wine best you can. If you let the weeds go [in the vineyard] and the tonnage, you get a watered-down product that can be good, but not great.”

He went on and on in this vein to disparage his “hippie” neighbors who farm the “old” way, all the while dropping names like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and other icons of the snobocracy. It was very distasteful to me, because I’ve seen this attitude a lot, especially in Northern California but occasionally in more liberal Santa Barbara, and it always rubs me the wrong way because it goes against the grain of the democratic [small “d”] spirit I think should pervade and unite the wine industry, especially in California.

I mentioned this to another, younger winemaker, who knows Mr. ___, although not well. Let’s call him Mr. Good. Mr. Good has a vineyard nearby Mr. ___’s. He (Mr. Good) didn’t come into the industry with a wad of cash in his pocket, he scrimped and saved and built his now successful business from scratch. He also knows, and is friends with, the “hippies” whose vineyard and winery practices Mr. ___ criticized. “Look,” he says, “those guys were doing it [i.e., farming grapes and making wine] when nobody else was. The reason we’re all here, including Mr. ___, is because of the hippies. And now you have the super-wealthy coming in, because of them. Are there weeds in the oldtimers vineyards? Sure. I have weeds in my vineyards. But you know who’s making the best wines up here? It’s…” and here he names a vineyard, farmed by one of the hippies, who sells to an out-of-area winery whose wine, believe me, is simply spectacular [as are those of Mr. Good].

This snobby elitism that runs through the industry like a vein of lard has always bothered me. You see it among the very wealthy who really do act like they’re the one percent who can’t be bothered to notice their less-fortunate neighbors, much less befriend them or find anything to like about their wines. But I can tell you, as a critic with wide experience, a wine’s quality cannot definitively be related to the amount of money it cost the proprietor to produce. As Mr. Good pointed out concerning the hippie vineyards, “Sometimes grapes from them can be more compelling” than grapes from the most meticulously farmed, David Abreu-style vineyard.

What makes a bottle of wine fabulous and memorable simply isn’t the amount of money that is lavished on it. Yes, money can elevate an under-performing wine to adequacy and even a degree of greatness, simply because money can supply cosmetic improvements, as in a style makeover program on T.V. But money can’t buy soul. A very great vineyard transfers its qualities to the wine in ways so mysterious that, centuries after writers started trying to define precisely how, the answer still eludes us. It might even be said that a very great vineyard can be “improved” in ways that rob the wine of an essential personality the land wishes to impose, in favor of the owner’s stamp. These are metaphysical, angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts, of course; but what we should be able to agree on is to get rid of the class-based snobbism in wine that really makes it so much less of a pleasant space than it ought to be, that allows a wealthy owner to dismiss his neighbors so cavalierly without being able to appreciate what makes their wines different–not worse–than his own.

  1. I don’t’ disagree with your thesis, but why are you afraid to actually call out people? These anonymous stories just sound silly. Although I’m guessing the fictitious David Abreau is a reference to David Abreu…

  2. Amen… and I’ve had to work with a men list who can’t be pleased, because they’re egos get in the way of me telling a heartfelt story. It’s a rare Mr. ___ who not only has a lot of money, but also hasn’t souled out in the process.

    I’ve found a few really great guys along the way, who still have a lot of soul, thankfully.

  3. Lisa Wicker says:

    This post is making tears come! Add non traditional wine country and multiply this mindset by infinity. Granted, to cover my salary and those of two others, I must match my wines to my customers taste and yes, at the price of selling my soul sometimes. But…I have opportunities here to not be locked in by convention. Me=CA in the pre judgment days, CA=France. Not unlike the inexpensive, sweet jug wines coming out of California in the sixties, my wine is making non wine drinkers wine drinkers. Ultimately “I know better” and at some point, sooner than later, I will pick up and move to “traditional” wine country to meet my “before I die” goal of making exquisite, f#%*ing amazing, omg wine. For now, making wine from dirt to market here is providing me with with invaluable problem solving making merchantable wine under some, shall I say, unusual conditions. It really is ok I have to defend myself in California, but NEVER with the guys like Mr. Good, they know how hard I work. It’s all good, I have the best job in the world, even in Bourbon country.

  4. What is that old saying about corvette owners, compensation. In your story the protagonist is merely using snobbery as a reason to compensate or rather justify the consumer paying his very expensive labor costs compared to the surrounding vineyards even though from the same land. Labor costs don’t always make the ultimate wine; the soil, weather, varietals, clones, rootstock, trellis, orientation, etc… and how you use that labor to adapt makes the ultimate wine. No doubt his wines are good, and I believe I actually know your protagonist, but the real compensation comes from emulating others, for example Mr. _____’s love affair with Romanee-Conti, after all he is not the owner of that brand.
    Personally, I make it a point to reference the wines that I make as the varietal, not what some else makes – I would rather ride my own coat-tails than another’s. I also think part of his snobbery is frustration that he is selling less than the “hippies”, which is probably a result of his price point more so than the quality of the wine. Last time I was in bordeaux I enjoyed Ch Petrus, but bought Ch Gazin (the neighbor) – nearly the same wine in my eyes, one less snobby than the other, and one less expensive than the other. But that is genius of our free-market, you are free to be a snob and buy snobby wines, which we all know doesn’t always equate to sensorial hedonistic pleasures – just like that corvette.

  5. Mr.___ is a tw@

  6. Kyle, yes I misspelled David’s last name, now corrected. Re: the anonymity, these are judgment calls on my part. The individuals aren’t important, it’s what they stand for that needs to be called out.

  7. Steve, I can’t imagine what circles you move in but I’ve never met ANYONE like Mr.—–.

  8. I understand your reasons to not name names, but do you think people will change if they aren’t called out on their crap? Do you think Mr. ___ sees himself in the same way you do? Consumers have no more information today than they did yesterday and thus Mr. ____ faces no financial punishment either. I fail to see how calling out snobbery will do anything to change said snobbery…

  9. Tom Wark: Really….???

  10. As former hippie winemakers, I’m with Tom Wark. Never heard vintner, rich or hippie, talk like Mr….

  11. christophe says:

    Steve,

    The ScoREVOLUTion is weeding out these distasteful Mr—-. You keep writing about the problems of this industry, its time to come back home. Embrace the context of the Hippie, embrace the variations of this industry. Become welcoming to all, because there is no such thing as a bad or perfect wine. There are too many humans. Variation is good.

  12. Dear Steve,
    Does it make me a snob if I immediately thought: “Ah, the difference between Napa County and Sonoma County” when I finished reading this blog? Just kidding, right?
    Totally hear what you are saying, but just wanted to point out that socioeconomic status doesn’t always indicate snobbery. I’ve seen a wealthy ‘outsider’ come into the business; throw a party for all their neighbors (some of whom don’t know each other even though they’ve shared a fence-line for 10 years) and become great stewards of the land and proprietors of great wineries.
    I’ve also seen people who have been in the area for years be reclusive, rigid, non-cooperative, unwelcoming and entitled to a lifestyle they don’t want to share with the ‘outsider’, wealthy or not. There are folks who lobby strongly to prevent further growth of vineyards or construction of new wineries; even when the new guy does extensive environmental impact reports, erosion surveys, groundwater surveys, traffic impact studies and plans for a LEED-Gold Certified, carbon-neutral, solar powered, hay bale insulated, electric car charging, (you get the point) winery.
    Simply, there seems to be an “I got mine, but I got here first, and you’re too late.” mentality in some areas, across all economic classes.
    Thankfully, I think the “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality prevails in MOST of the wine industry and I’m truly happy and excited for my neighbors/friends/acquaintances when they get high scores by the critics, sell out their wines, get on the list at a Thomas Keller restaurant, or find a few acres of decrepit Gravenstein’s west of Sebastopol on Gold Ridge Soil to plant some Pinot Noir.
    In all, the wine industry seems more cooperative than cut-throat.

  13. Phil Grosse says:

    Tom and Bill, you guys are lucky. I’ve met many, many people like Mr.—-. But not solely in the wine biz. There are fatuous individuals everywhere. They’re sure that their success in one field qualifies them as certified oracles in any field they deign to opine about.

    I’m not sure they are overrepresented in the world of wine; I’ll defer to Steve on that point. Fortunately for me, as a consumer, they’re easy to avoid.

  14. Kyle,

    Perhaps the goal of the entry is not to bring financial punishment to any particular individual, but to bring to light the subject (along with I believe Steve’s intention to see it ended)?

    Alex – Well said, appreciate a positive perspective on this subject!

  15. Nick, its is not an unknown idea that there are snobs in the wine industry. No light needs to be brought about snobbery. However, doing something about it would be a novel idea rather than just saying there are snobs…

  16. I think I know Mr. ___, sounds like a New York Banker that moved to Napa? :) Restaurant industry bubbles over with such types who then don’t understand why they fail after a couple of years of having that snobby attitude. They have it with the guests and the staff who create the atmosphere and have their hands on the owners cash every night.

  17. Matt Meyer says:

    I think both are great for the industry. It’s like the Yankees who help market baseball to the masses and spread the gospel and the scrappy A’s who all real baseball fans outside of NY would love to see knock off Goliath in a postseason matchup. I think polished well funded wineries appeal to the masses who like shiny things at first glance and the hippy winery appeals to the wine nerd looking for the diamond in the rough.

  18. Kyle,

    I was not suggesting that it was an unknown idea, perhaps if my words had been better chosen it would make more sense. Either way Steve’s chose not to use names because he felt it wasn’t important, you on the other feel that is of no benefit if names are not used (I have that correct?). Perhaps something to consider is that “calling people out on their crap” (by name) people whom you must professionally and socially interact isn’t the most novel idea at times. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t do it (I do see your point), but sometimes if we’re not in a place/position to influence change our words are some what powerless.

  19. Kurt Burris says:

    Domaine Serene

  20. Kurt Burris says:

    Just as a type specimen

  21. Bill Haydon says:

    Great article, Steve. I cut my teeth in Napa Valley working for a small winery and it remains one of the best experiences of my life. This, however, was in the late 90s, and I could already notice this rather distasteful subculture to the valley. I would argue that such a mindset has only become more prominent in the decade since.

    My last–and final–experience with working with Napa came about a year ago when I was approached to consult for several small wineries about their sales and distribution problems in a few major metropolitan areas. The degree of hubris and complete disconnect from market realities was stunning among the vast majority of this group.

    I listened to one maker of expensive Zinfandel brag that he sold 85% of his production DTC, knowing full well that he was sitting on three backed up vintages in the market. I had my own Mr___ with over a decade straight of mid to high 90 Parker scores who managed to get himself unceremoniously dumped by his Chicago distributor yet had the arrogance to reenter the market with the (illegal) demand that their be a 50% price premium on any sales to retail.

    Whether these people want to admit it or not, Napatude has become a real problem for the premium California wine industry out in the real world beyond those valley borders. Their act has grown increasingly stale and tired, and these people had better change their tune because the market is proving that it will not change or bend for them. That or they can sit on their back vintages and hope that their label becomes a status symbol in China because 2003 is never coming back.

  22. As a consumer, I know of at least one Green Valley/RRV producer of pinot, zin, and chardonnay that is just brimming with an arrogant, elitist attitude that I cannot stand. Without naming it directly, I do believe that Bob from WS worked there just prior to his current employment :). Every time I have been to their tasting room, I feel as if I am under-dressed, bombarded with critics scores (this should not be your only method of selling wine), and surrounded by bad juju. They spend more time bad-mouthing other popular wineries (like J. Rochioli) than they do talking about their vineyard and/or winery practices. The wine is good to great, but it is good to great at a lot of other places too, so it is hard to be heartbroken about it for too long. I guess part of my point is that this phenomenon can exist in Sonoma as well as Napa, but it certainly isn’t as pervasive.

  23. GrapesRGreat,

    I worked for the winery which you speak of, not in a wine production or hospitality role but had a chance to work with most all of the employees there on some level for a period of 5 years. I will say that the owner of that winery is one of the nicest unassuming wine owners I’ve ever met (that list not long I should admit) and worked for. I can also see why WS was able to “steal” another winemaker from them, who is also one of the nicest most down to earth winemakers I’ve ever met and worked with. Now from a hospitality stand point I can see what you mean, hearing you loud and clear on that. It’s too bad the owner and winemaker were no there to pour wine for you! :)

  24. Nick C,

    I’m sure everything you say is accurate, and it is definitely too bad we couldn’t interact more with the “nuts and bolts” of the operation. We did go back more than once after all, because the wines were so good, but both times we unfortunately left with a sour taste in our mouth. The tasting room staff kept steering the conversation away from their wines and on to how such and such winery falsely kept a waiting list (and hype up) when they really had plenty of wine to go around, something they would never do. This was their explanation of why they didn’t have a waiting list and had plenty of all the wines to sell.

    The real bummer is that they do not ship to Ohio, so sadly I have to go there if I want anything beyond their basic bottlings (available locally on occasion). Absolutely gorgeous grounds and location though.

  25. Bill Haydon says:

    The tasting room staff kept steering the conversation away from their wines and on to how such and such winery falsely kept a waiting list (and hype up) when they really had plenty of wine to go around, something they would never do.

    Grapes, while I agree that for a neighboring winery to go out of their way to point that out is quite low class, I’ve found the underlying situation to be quite common.

    I recently was at a tasting with the owner of a Napa winery pouring four cookie cutter 15% alcohol, $150/bottle cabernets. When the buyer at the venue began discussing a distributor in a secondary market that we both new, the winery owner literally jumped out of his chair asking me, “can I use your name?” Lord help me, but the first thing that came to mind was the crackhead with the bag of burgers in Menace To Society. However, if one looks at this winery’s website there is a large, bolded, red font SOLD OUT next to every single wine, yet he’s begging strangers to hook him up with distribution in second (arguably third) tier states.

    Something about an emperor and his shiny new clothes.

  26. Donn Rutkoff says:

    I am just glad I went to school in the wine program at Napa Valley College and learned about wine from the hard working people there. An unbridled plug for the school, yes, to no profit, except only in the enlightened views toward wine and rubbing shoulders with a lot of very earnest learners from many walks of life and wine backgrounds. I have had my share of snob, including a big one from a very early hippie, but learned to consider it like a pothole. You hit it, it jars you a moment, then is gone. But I doubt that the Mr. ___ referred to would either recognize himself or take it in good measure, and that is sad. There is a radio host, maybe not well liked by the voting % in Calif. (he is conservative Dennis Prager) who has “The Happiness Hour” as part of his program. He talks with and discusses peoples’ happiness. A nice thing to explore.

  27. Steve,
    You have a great knack for calling out issues in the industry that so many turn a blind eye to. I’ll refrain from discussing Mr. ___ for obvious reasons, but I will say there’s a flip side; an enormous group of people who make wine because they have to. Not because they were born into it, but because they are driven to it. They got bit by the wine bug and just couldn’t get away from it. For me the bite happened in 1997 and festered for years before I finally made the move to Healdsburg because working for a distributor just didn’t cure me. Many other tried to satisfy their fever by blogging. Allen Baker, Hardy Wallace, and William Allen all took that approach, and all found themselves knee deep in grapes this past fall.
    Don’t lose faith Steve, those of us in the silent majority will always be here doing it “for the love of the game”.

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