Time to end snobbery in wine–among owners
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.