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Dog Whistle Wines



“Even as Americans chug down Chardonnay in record quantities, few buyers are dropping more than $50/bottle on the coast’s most popular white. Unless your name is Kistler, Ramey, Kongsgaard, or Peter Michael, there’s no market at over $50,” a popular online wine retail site declares. We’ll call these Chards the KRKPM group.

Well, a quick search of my Wine Enthusiast database found the following brands all of whom have at least one over $50 Chardonnay: Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Jarvis, Joseph Phelps, Del Dotto, Hanzell, Paul Hobbs, Lynmar, Stonestreet, Martinelli, La Crema, Ram’s Gate, Carte Blanche, Signorello, La Rochelle, Knights Bridge, Sanguis, Two Sisters, Merry Edwards and Migration. And I’m sure if I’d spent another three minutes poking around, I would have found even more.

So why would that online pub say “Unless” you’re a KRKPM nobody cares about you? Because it’s written for a type of wine snob who only buys the “big names.” This person either doesn’t know of the existence of any other wines, or, if he does, thinks that nothing can be as good as his KRKPMs. And of course, the situation is mirrored by other varieties for which Mr. Snob also has his “must buys”. (Click on “Napa Cabernets” on the aforementioned website and the first name that shows up is Abreu. If that’s not the snobbiest wine in California, I’d like to know what is.)

I’m not here to complain about the quality of the KRKPM Chardonnays. I just want to delve a little deeper into my ongoing exploration of the snob mentality that sees the world in such pigeon-holed blightedness that it honestly believes “there’s no market” for any wine not anointed with its imprimateur. Let me start with a question: Do the people who covet the KRKPM Chardonnays not also covet Williams Selyem, Rochioli and Merry Edwards? That’s hard for me to believe. But then, I don’t hang out in KRKPM circles. (I can’t afford to.) It is true that I occasionally run into these people, usually at events that attract a wealthy crowd. There, you do see them marching with zombie-like outstretched arms to the Kosta Browne table (and by the way, how come the online pub didn’t include Kosta Browne on their Chardonnay short list?), passing right by perfectly fine Chardonnays that don’t happen to have been raised to sainthood by the Popes of point score perfection. It always makes me sad, and a little mad.

I headlined this post “Dog Whistle Wines” because the term dog whistle, when used metaphorically (and usually politically), refers to “coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) In politics, to use one example, “family values” is a dog whistle term, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

In the case of the online wine pub, the KRKPM brands mean nothing to the general population, but to the “subgroup” who must have only the approved wines of the world, they mean something far different. The dog whistle message here is that the online pub is their kind of retailer–one of us, so to speak, not them, “them” being the unwashed, unsophisticated booboisie who think that La Crema (gasp!) is great Chardonnay. * This need for exclusivity separating them from the common man is one way that snobs are different from you and me (and this certainly is not a blanket indictment of the rich, per se, but of an attitude one occasionally finds among them).

I like to think that with the coming of age of a younger generation in this new millennium, we in America are moving away from this crass fixation on dog whistle wines, and I think we are. I’ve spent a great part of my career trying to get people to break their addiction to a handful of “cult” wines, but sometimes it’s like Sisyphus rolling that rock up a very steep hill because it’s trying to change human nature, and human nature changes very slowly, if at all. (And the older I get the less I think it ever changes.) Just when you think American consumers might be making progress, as an older generation of dog whistle wine-slaves dies off, here comes China, which seems to be the new market for dog whistle wines. Sigh.

* I’d like to see the Ayatollahs of cult wines taste blind a La Crema 9 Barrel Chardonnay against any of the KRKPMs.

  1. Hmm. I’m not so sure of your interpretation of this line, given the full context. Be curious to see what other readers think. Oh, here’s the link:

  2. Oh, hey, one other thing that’s kind of interesting: When you click on the link to “Napa Cabernet” on that site, it returns the results in alphabetical order.

  3. I second Pete’s thoughts! I don’t disagree with your main premise, but you took that quote (and you misquoted) way out of context… Oh, Pete, maybe that’s why Abreu is snobby, having your name start with AB is just rude! 😉 Steve, are you made you don’t get sent Abreu?

  4. TomHill says:

    “passing right by perfectly fine Chardonnays that don’t happen to have been raised to sainthood by the Popes of point score perfection.”

    Hmmmm…I’m kinda curious as to who these “popes” are in your mind that creates these “zombies”. Parker?? Laube?? Tanzer??? Boone?? Heimhoff?? Meadows? Olken? Mead? Balzer? Chroman? Bonne?? Asimov?? Teague??

  5. Kurt Burris says:

    I have always found it amazing that people that have been successful enough to afford the “dog whistle wines” can be so insecure in their wine choices to fall into this trap. It’s just a bottle of wine, take a chance sometimes.

  6. doug wilder says:


    You wrote “Because it’s written for a type of wine snob who only buys the “big names.” This person either doesn’t know of the existence of any other wines, or, if he does, thinks that nothing can be as good as his KRKPMs.”

    Knowing that this is Wine Access, I think you miss their entire point. Their business is finding high quality wineries that will agree to sell them small caches at a discount (on a handshake) of wine to offer through their mailing list. They write about these wines through a personal viewpoint and seem to be successful at it. When they throw out the names of many of the cult wines, it is primarily to illustrate that the wines they are writing about measure up based on at least one critical opinion. Professionally, I find that an effective way to help customers appreciate choices in wines they may have either ignored, or don’t know about. They seem to work pretty hard at what they do. Speaking of Kosta Browne, their One Sixteen Chardonnay program is barely out of the gate and relatively unknown outside of the winery. While well made I don’t think that even the winery would expect it to have reached the level of their Pinot Noir in two vintages.

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