What do winemakers mean when they talk about “authenticity”?
I meet a great many people in the wine industry. They are of all ages. Many of the older ones are big successes, while many of the younger ones are just starting out. They may someday be big successes, but not yet.
Part of my job at Wine Enthusiast–an increasingly bigger part–is to be alert to trends. Magazines perceive their role, in part, as educating the public to what’s happening before everybody knows it. (I remember a criticism of the old Esquire magazine was that it was always discovering the avant garde when it already had become the rear guard.) So, when I’m chatting with people, I invariably ask, “What’s new?”
From Millennials I am hearing about a focus on “authenticity.” Now, I know what the word “authentic” means: it means real, not phony. There’s an authentic hundred dollar bill, for example, and a counterfeit one. But I’m never sure what “authenticity” means when someone in the wine industry tells me they’re trying to be authentic. I mean, there are gigantic brands out there that lay claim to the mantle of authenticity, and there are tiny little family winemakers who don’t claim to be authentic, but nonetheless are, if you know what I mean. (And of course, each of us is going to be the judge of what we perceive as authentic.)
But this isn’t about what I perceive as authentic, it’s what Millennials mean when they say they perceive a lack of authenticity in the older generation, and wish to replace it with the real thing. This is where the Socratic method comes in handy. When I don’t understand what someone means, I’ll ask, “What do you mean?” They need to explain it in terms that a simple guy like me can comprehend.
Now, I don’t want to get anyone into trouble or embarrass anyone or for that matter harm any friendships I have with millennial winemakers, so I’m going to avoid identifiable specifics. But I was talking to a young winemaker yesterday who told me he and his Millennial gen friends don’t think the older generation of winemakers is authentic. Well, I did my Socrates thing and as it turned out, he had a difficult time explaining to me just what was unauthentic about the older generation, or how he hoped to replace it with authenticity. He’s making the same kinds of wines as people in their 50s and 60s, is charging the same [high] prices, so he didn’t seem to be doing anything differently from the older generation.
The journalist in me has had a long time to develop a radar that picks up on inconsistency, vagueness, spin and just plain incoherence. That radar detects these things, and something in me can’t let them go unchallenged. If you tell me you’re seeking to do business in authentic ways that the older generation did not, then I’m afraid you have to explain to me (a) how and why they’re inauthentic and (b) how you plan not to be. And you’re going to have to be specific. You can’t just say “Well, I won’t hype anything.” That dog won’t hunt. Give me a specific example of a wine brand that hypes (and where do they hype?). In their marketing? In the production of the wine itself? Do you mean you’ll make unadulterated wines while everyone else is adding Mega Purple? Then say so.
I believe that these younger winemakers mean it when they say they want to be authentic. I want them to be authentic. But if they can’t explain to me what authenticity means, then how can they be? It’s just a word to express a feeling. If I can insinuate myself into their heads (never easy or guaranteed, but you have to try), it may be that they see a certain stuffiness that’s infiltrated the wine industry, especially in a place like Napa Valley; and they wish to air the place out, make it more accessible and friendlier, more human, as it were. If that is their goal–if that’s their definition of “more authentic”– then I’m all in favor of it. Young people, in particular, don’t like people who put on airs; they sense them the way Gus smells stuff on the sidewalk. I’ve recently met a lot of young winemakers in Paso Robles (I’ll be writing about this in the magazine in a few months) and am thrilled by their attitude down there: Let’s not do things the old way, let’s try new things. They’re not just talking about it, they’re doing it, with wacko (but very good) red and white blends that no one in Napa could or would ever consider (because Napa is so tradition-bound. It would be like someone in Pauillac making a blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc).
It may be easier in a place like Paso for a young winemaker to be “authentic” than in Napa Valley, because the marketplace inserts itself more potently in the latter than in the former. Doing business in Napa is expensive, no matter your age, and you have to sell your stuff, so you have to hew to a tighter template in order for the marketplace to take you seriously. This means, in effect, that regardless of how “authentic” a young Napa winemaker wants to be, he or she is probably going to end up making an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon–which may or may not be “modest” in alcohol. So where is the authenticity? Is it in the tasting room, where Rhianna is playing instead of Bach? Is it at a winemaker dinner, where the winemaker shows up in blue jeans and tattoos instead of a suit and tie? Is it in the places the young winemaker hangs out–dark, hip clubs instead of The Restaurant at Meadowood? Is it because the young winemaker is hot while the 60-year old winemaker no longer is? And what does any of this have to do with the actual quality of the wine (or, if the wine is authentic, maybe quality doesn’t matter?).
You see where this is going. It’s one thing to talk “authenticity” but quite another to pull it off. Whatever “it” is.