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Cult Napa Valley Cabernet as Drag Queen

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An admiration for female beauty, brought to extreme, over-the-top stylization, is what characterizes the Drag Queen: the man who takes on the appearance of a particular sort of woman, often a celebrity: Judy Garland, Cher, Diana Ross, Carol Channing, Joan Crawford, Dolly Parton, Barbra Steisand. These are women already exaggerated, by hairstyle, makeup, attire, fame and attitude, to iconic excess. The Drag Queen, in turn, exaggerates the exaggeration, creating (she hopes) a work of art and wonder.

Almost always, Drag Queens take on an assumed name that is as much a parody of real names as their appearance is of real women. Divine, Chi Chi LaRue, The Lady Chablis and, from La Cage Aux Folles, Miss ZaZa Napoli suggest the sexually exotic plumage of their owners. The true Drag Queen, as the U.C. Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler notes, “radicalizes the norms of gender performance,” making drag far more than mere masquerade; indeed, no Drag Queen in history ever intended to pass as a woman (the way a cross-dresser might). Butler correctly understands that Drag is performance art, combining the flamboyance of Hollywood with the mind-bending challenge of genderfuck.

Is Drag then deliberately provocative? Considering that most Drag Queens restrict their professional activities to appropriate circles (drag balls, drag bars, GLBT parades) in which no one is particularly shocked, but rather gladdened by them, the answer is no. Drag Queens wish to be taken seriously, but on their own terms, and mainly (and this is an important consideration) by those who understand them. Drag isn’t easy. The successful Drag Queen has spent many years and thousands of dollars to create her own, special brand. She doesn’t just throw on a wig, paint her eyelids blue and put on a ball gown. The costs are considerable, involving waxing, wigs, jewelry, false fingernails, lipsticks, hair sprays, brushes and puffs, perfumes, fake eyelashes, designer shoes, foam rubber breasts, and, of course, the dresses and accessories themselves, which can cost as much as a new car. Beyond all that, the most successful Drag Queens are expected to throw extravagant parties, especially if they are running for election in the numerous “Royal Courts” that practically every American city has. Empress V Cha Cha, a famous queen from San Francisco, once told me she’d spent $22,000 on entertainment expenses in a single season, all of it out of her own (not very well-padded) pocket.

Let us now consider cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. Just as there is “regular” Napa Valley Cabernet (no slouch, that), so too the cults have to exaggerate that style and become much more than regular. If that means riper fruit and more new oak, and perhaps a little Mega Purple, then so be it: People expect flamboyance in their cult Cabs. A “regular” Cabernet doesn’t stun; it’s simply a good wine. A cult Cab is expected to stun, to stand out, to elicit gasps of surprise. It “radicalizes the norm” of standard Cabernet.

Nor are cult wines meant for the masses. Cult Cabs are designed (I choose that verb deliberately) for the connoisseur: the person who likes and appreciates them, who has some understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in crafting one (famous-name winemaker, equally famous flying winemaker, famous proprietor, the glamorous architecture and appointments of most cult wine headquarters, the expensive new French oak barrels, the exclusive mailing list). Just as you or I might try to keep from staring at The Lady Larissa (with her exquisitely blond beauty), but would steal glimpses of her because she is, after all, a work of art, so too is the connoisseur of cult wines above all fascinated by the artistry in the bottle (and often of the bottle). The connoisseur prides himself on possessing the knowledge to recognize the artistry of a cult wine, in the same way that the best admirer of a superbly-made up Drag Queen is another Drag Queen. Only they know how much trouble it takes to look that good.

What of names? Cult wine designations themselves can sound like Drag Queens: Maya. Les Pavots. Cariad. Screaming Eagle, when you think about it, could easily be Lady Screaming Eagle, part Joan Crawford “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” horror show, part vampiric Angelina Jolie. The camp aspect of cult wines lies in their appeal, in the way they elevate us by allowing us to share in their mystery–even if we ourselves are ordinary mere mortals. Just as Americans are fascinated by the celebrities who adorn the covers of supermarket tabloids, so cult connoisseurs are fascinated by the most elite and expensive Napa Valley Cabernets. These wines are the Drag Queens of wine: exotic, unfathomable, exaggeratedly gorgeous, glamorous, worshipful and a little insane: all that effort for something so ephemeral (wine is drank and pissed out; makeup is washed off when the party’s over). The quibble (which almost all wine critics routinely note) is that cult Cabernet, as a “star” wine, is not really suitable for everyday pairing with food; like diva Drag Queens, the cult Cab selfishly demands to be loved on her own, without competition. And, finally, like the great diva Drag Queens, each cult wine has its groupies. Drags have their courts; with cult wines, they’re called mailing list members.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    Funny, entertaining piece. Thanks for the laughs on a chilly morning.

    My metaphor, however, has always been the leisure suit: something that, in its heyday, seemed just so utterly new and hip and cool that one couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t be around forever.

    Looking back though, it has become an embarrassment….a relic of a self-indulgent and somewhat immature era. The older generation would prefer not to be reminded of the money wasted on them while the younger generation can’t fathom why anyone wanted them in the first place.

  2. Great piece with and unexpected yet devilishly accurate metaphor…

  3. Great writing Steve. I met Coco Peru once backstage over drinks… And now I wonder what would’ve happened if I would’ve put a bottle of Harlan on the table (if I actually had one in the cellar). Would there have been drag queen tension???

  4. Kurt Burris says:

    Love the piece Steve. Thank you. I have been using the term “boob job” wines for wines that, while you can tell some awesome fruit went into them, may seem a bit enhanced. Drag queen is a better term.

  5. A very interesting analogy, and a very thought-provoking column. Wow.

  6. David Vergari says:

    After reading your article I’ll never look at cult Cabs in quite the same way.

  7. Steve, in the immortal words of Ali G: You’s well clever.

  8. When I heard that some were adding port to their cabernets, I was dismissive of it as some internet rumor, until we actually received a solicitation from Ficklin Port to buy bulk port for that very purpose. What to make of this? The drag queen analogy perhaps explains it.

  9. How about Super Tuscans: Sassy Caya? Tina Nello? Massy Toe? Horny Liar?

  10. Steve, I always enjoy reading your posts and this one is now at the top of my list.

  11. Bill Haydon says:

    “When I heard that some were adding port to their cabernets, I was dismissive of it as some internet rumor, until we actually received a solicitation from Ficklin Port to buy bulk port for that very purpose. What to make of this? The drag queen analogy perhaps explains it.”

    Why am I completely unsurprised?

  12. brilliant! I think I learned as much about drag queens as I learned about cult wines from this post. To extend the analogy,is Oregon pinot noir a beautiful brunette that doesn’t shave her legs?

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