One of the most fascinating cultural aspects of wine in America is the attitude people have that it’s something elite, difficult to understand and not for the common person.
I have a lot of younger friends who share these attitudes. It’s not that they don’t like to drink; they do. They like beer and cocktails and will get rip roaring drunk on a Saturday night. But wine? Something about it just doesn’t interest them. I will, on occasion, treat them to a wine I think is very good: a rich Napa Cabernet, a sweet dessert wine, sparkling wine. They’ll happily drink it, and concede it’s pretty good–but they’ll never buy a bottle of wine for themselves or order a glass of wine in a restaurant or night club.
Call it the Elite Paradox: wine’s upscale image keeps “ordinary” people from liking it.
How we arrived at this situation is complex. I’ve written about it before–the elitest image predates modern American society, having been imported from Old Europe, and then was boosted by inept advertising following the Repeal of Prohibition that sought to tell war- and Depression-weary Americans they could better their lives with a glass of vino. The epitome of this was a T.V. commercial, back when I was young, showing a wedding couple on a little boat in on a pond, he in tuxedo, she in bridal white. They were toasting with a domestic champagne. The message was that you can drink on your wedding day, but no other time. Wine, in other words, was an aspirational product.
For a more modern peek at how this attitude survives, look no further than Taylor Swift. The Grammy award-winning country music star recently told Esquire magazine that “she drinks wine on occasion because, ‘It makes me feel classy.’”
Analyze that. Here’s a young woman with, let us presume, more money than you or I will make in our lifetime. She has the ability to go anywhere at anytime, in high style, stay at fabulous resorts, eat at the best restaurants, party at the most “in” clubs and buy anything she wants. Sounds pretty classy to me. And yet, give her a glass of wine, and she feels “classy”–exalted, stylish, more fashionable.
And not just any wine. “If it doesn’t taste like candy or sparkles, I usually don’t drink it,” she adds. Taylor Swift, in other words, is The Sparkling Moscato Girl, the poster child for why Moscato is the hottest wine in the country.
I’m not criticizing her or anyone else, I’m just observing. Now, on a related note, I read that “By the middle of the coming decade, there will be more jobs in New York City in hotels and restaurants than on Wall Street and in banks…”.
The Financial Center of the World now has decided to be the Lifestyle Capital of the World, as jobs in the financial sector fall and profits at Wall Street banks topple. (Let’s pass the hat…) Somehow Taylor Swift’s “classy” feeling about wine and the proliferation of restaurants in New York seem connected. I feel it viscerally but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Here in the Bay Area we have a restaurant boom too. It’s amazing. San Francisco’s food gossip columnists can barely keep up. In my home town of Oakland there’s been such an explosion of restaurants and bars in my neighborhood, they’ve had to give it its own name: Uptown. San Francisco also is enjoying a brand new tech bubble, mostly built on apps, and centered South of Market (SOMA), near AT&T Park, surely the hottest neighborhood in town. (Well, maybe the Mission is. But SOMA and The Mission are really one big connected neighborhood.) I think in the future historians will look back at this era–roughly defined as starting with the Great Recession and ending when?–as a Golden Age of eating and drinking, with young people (like Taylor Swift) spending whatever money they make enjoying themselves at night. Why not? They have no idea if they’ll be alive in 5 years. They’re young and good-looking now, so they might as well get their kicks while they can. From the clubs in my hood, across the Bay Bridge to the joints around North Beach and the Financial District, through SOMA and over to the Mission and on up into the Castro, they’re partying like it’s 2099. I like to think our young people like wine more than Taylor Swift does, but I could be wrong. One thing’s for sure: they like their Moscato and their sweet infused cocktails. And so, for that matter, do I.
After all those stories from a few years ago about Chinese millionaires mixing Coca Cola into their Lafite, I figured it was just a matter of time before the Chinese discovered California wine, as Bloomberg is reporting.
Why would the Chinese do something so apparently preposterous as pouring cheap soda into one of the most expensive wines on earth? The initial supposition was that the Chinese were just too heathen or unsophisticated to drink Lafite neat, but I think that explanation was insulting and disingenuous to a culture far older than our own (Western) one. They were putting Coke into their Lafite for an obvious reason: to sweeten it! By itself, the Lafite was just too dry to the Chinese palate, which by and large likes its foods slightly sweet.
The Chinese began their fascination with French wines when they started getting rich. French wines were the most famous and prestigious in China, so all the new millionaires (yuannaires?) turned to France to show off their new wealth, the same way they bought Gucci and Pucci and whatever-ucci. But guess what? The found they didn’t like their French wines because they were too dry and austere for their tastes. Funny how that works: you think you’re supposed to like something but when you finally experience it, you don’t. Hence, the decision to blend with Coca Cola made perfect sense. And Americans have no right to snicker at the Chinese for being rubes. After all, we are now a nation that worships mixologists, for whom straight vodka no longer suffices: no, we have to gaga it up with Triple Sec, sour apple pucker, heavy cream and a splash of Sprite. Calling all tiny umbrellas: report to the martini glass.
The Bloomberg article says the Chinese are now falling in love with “mid-priced, boutique quality California wine.” But it also warns that China’s wine market is “rapidly changing,” which means there’s opportunity, but also risk, for everyone. In a land rush, you want to be the first to arrive at the best place; then you have to make sure someone else doesn’t poach it from you lest you return home to the mother country, empty-handed. I suppose that wineries that started exploring the Chinese market decades ago, like Wente (everybody thought they were crazy back then: crazy like a fox) are now enjoying the fruits of their labors. But the Chinese really are ignorant about California, and I mean that not insultingly, but just in the literal sense that they don’t know much about it. The Bloomberg article says the members of a private club in Shanghai, invited to an exclusive wine tasting, “had never heard of Mendocino.” Okay, maybe Mendocino isn’t as famous as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Disneyland, but this does suggest how much education is required to make it in China. If they haven’t heard of Mendocino, chances are they haven’t heard of Monterey, Sonoma or Santa Barbara And Lodi? Fageddabboutit.
It’s very exciting, actually, that Wine Enthusiast now has a Mandarin edition specifically for the Chinese market, making it–I believe–the first American wine magazine to go there. Wine publications have a very important role in educating the Chinese public, and American wine magazines in particular have that obligation and also that opportunity. Yao Ming’s success in Napa Valley will acquaint the Chinese with Napa, or reinforce their existing perception of it, if they have one. But much work remains to be done to let the Chinese know that California wines from all regions and varieties are much to their palates’ tastes: smooth, complex, a little sweet, spicy and, above all, filled with umami (for the most part).
It was sheer green jealousy I felt as I read Eric Asimov’s “The Pour” New York Times column the other day. He’d been to a tasting of the 1982 Bordeaux, including all the first growths. Such tastings are one of the major perks of being a wine writer; you don’t get invited to them too often, so when you do, you make sure you’re there. (Plus, for a blogger, it solves the problem of another day’s content. Herb Caen, the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist, was constantly in search of material. He used to write, “Item, item, hoosegotta item?” Believe me, a tasting of ‘82 Bordeaux would be an item!)
Eric made an interesting statement. “One could easily make the case,” he wrote, “that the modern age of wine began with the 1982 vintage, or at least with the reception of the ’82s.” That’s good newspaper writing–pinioning a bit of history into the reporting. Eric takes us through the now familiar tale of how Robert M. Parker made his bones with that vintage. Several things happened as a result of his orgiastic praise of the ‘82s: Parker got rich and famous, wine reviewing received a huge shot in the arm as an indispensable and influential factor in the market, and the Bordelais went on to enjoy a period of financial prosperity that seems likely to endure for many more years, given the wealth and predilections of the Chinese. Oh, and one other thing: everybody started letting their grapes get riper than before. The Parkerization of wine had arrived.
For the industry as a whole, then, the two centerpieces of the “modern age of wine” have been the rise of the importance of critics, and the trend toward riper, sweeter, fruitier (and possibly oakier) wines, both red and white. But things don’t arise from a vacuum; these two phenomena both were already happening before Parker discovered the ‘82 Bordeaux. The 1970s, which is when I first began studying wine, saw the birth of an amateur wine press that was informed, passionate and centered in California. In that pre-Internet era, these pioneering writers saw their words into print through newspaper columns, full-fledged wine books and “handbooks” that could fit into the back pocket of your jeans. It was from this fertile soil that Parker started his own newsletter, The Wine Advocate. (I’d love to know which wine writers he was reading and loving before he began.)
Now, here we are. Consumers dare not buy anything unless it has the imprimateur of a critic. Winemakers try to wander from the Parker style, but find it difficult to do so, unless they don’t care what important buyers think. There’s much talk of more restrained wines, lower in alcohol and less oaky than Parker liked, but it’s premature to declare that the age of Parker has ended. As it was years in the making even before anyone heard of Parker, so it will be years in the unraveling when he’s finished.
Those of us who fancy ourselves historians of wine are likely to agree with Asimov that that 1982 vintage was a game changer. History always is hard to write before much time has elapsed; but whenever consensus is reached that an event is historical, it’s because that event brought together a bunch of smaller events, each important in itself, into one coherent thing (think, for instance, of the current Supreme Court hearings on the Affordable Care Act). Anything that can bring Parker, wine critics, Bordeaux and a shift to a riper style into one broad context must surely be historical. Good call, Eric Asimov.
Reading Men’s magazine’s list of the “Top 10 up-and-coming wine regions” and not seeing California on the list made me think, “Holy cow! California is no longer a new wine region but an old one!”
It startled me. I’m so used to thinking of everything in California as new: new cities, new citizens, new suburbs, new malls, new parks, new restaurants, new roads, new martini recipes, new ethnic cuisines, new ways of organizing society–the state itself is a State of Mind of Newness in all its exciting configurations, and has been for 150 years.
But California, evidently, is no longer considered a new wine region. Old, old, old! It’s the expletive word of American demographics. Nobody wants to be old in a youth-oriented culture, least of all a wine region whose appeal always has been that it is the refreshing alternative to stale Old Europe.
Can it be true? Is California really (what’s the opposite of up-and-coming?) a down-and-going wine region?
Let’s consider the facts. California’s wine industry dates from roughly the middle of the nineteenth century. (I know purists will argue it’s older than that, but the point is moot.) From that perspective, it’s one of the newer wine regions, compared certainly to Europe. But really, California as an important and emerging wine region dates only to the 1960s and 1970s, when the boutique winery movement began. So California’s wine region really is as new as a freshly minted coin–certainly far younger than Austria, South and South West France, Portugal, Galicia, Jerez and Italy, all of which appear on the Men’s magazine list.
Even Israel, Argentina, South Africa and Chile are certainly no newer than California, in terms of a wine industry. So we have to ask the question from a different perspective: When Men’s refers to “up-and-coming” wine regions, they must be doing so reputationally, not historically. In other words, Men’s is suggesting that California has become a little boring, while these other regions are exciting.
Why would Men’s come to this conclusion? Let’s dig. The editor of the piece, Paul Casciato, is an editor for Reuters, the British news agency. He is a Brit. The English long have had “airs” against the California wine industry. Paul’s specific title is Lifestyle Editor. He covered, for instance, last Spring’s Royal Wedding of Wills and Kate, and has written about the decreasing weight of ladies’ handbags and how middle-aged people “are the most likely to look for love online,” so we can conclude that he is not a serious wine journalist.
This is not to imply that the ten regions on Paul’s list do not produce excellent wine. But readers should understand a possible back story here, which is that publishers and editors love asking their writers to come up with Top Ten lists. They do it all the time. (Just look at a women’s magazine, like Oprah.) Readers love Top Ten lists (or, at least, the publishers and editors think they do). Crafting a Top Ten list isn’t hard. You can make a game out of it, like the old Mad Libs word game:
First, write a sentence that begins: “Here are the Ten…
Then choose an adjective: sexiest, ugliest, most expensive, weirdest, worst, best, likeliest, stupidest, oldest, rarest, most fun, most unusual, cheapest, funniest, most shocking…etc.
followed by a noun [singular or collective]: wines, travel destinations, places to live, fashion accessories, colleges, sports, cities, politicians, breakfast foods, tropical resorts, talk show hosts, wine writers…etc.
Then make an arbitrary headline: HERE ARE THE TEN UGLIEST TALK SHOW HOSTS or HERE ARE THE TEN STUPIDEST WINE WRITERS, and bingo! You’ve got a cover story in Men’s magazine!
Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I’d like to take a few minutes to remember its victims. There’s actually a wine connection, which I’ll mention at the end.
Anyone who lived in Oakand or south Berkeley on that fateful day, Oct. 20, 1991, will never forget it. It’s seared into my memory, in a way that not even the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which had struck just two years previously, could match. I think that’s because the earthquake was over before you even knew it; it was only 15 seconds long. The Firestorm, by contrast, lasted for hour after hour after agonizing hour.
I learned about the bias of the big media establishment against West Coast news from that Firestorm. Although the New York-based television stations and eastern newspapers certainly covered it, they gave it short shrift. If a disaster of that magnitude had wiped out 3,000 homes in a densely populated New York or Washington, D.C. neighborhood, killing 25 people including firefighters, it would have been the biggest news story of the year. It would even have been a huge story if it had occurred in San Francisco or Los Angeles. But because it was in the East Bay–”just Oakland”–the national news media played it down.
I was on my way home from the gym that Sunday morning. At 11 a.m., it already was turning out to be one of the hottest, driest days of the year, with intense Diablo winds rushing from inland toward the sea. Such weather isn’t unusual in October. Walking east from Broadway, I smelled smoke, and the sky had a peculiar orange tinge. When I got home, I turned the T.V. on to see what was happening. The local stations had already interrupted programming and commercials and gone into nonstop coverage. I went up on the roof of my building, and that’s where I had my mind blown.
The East Bay Hills are just about a mile away, as the crow flies. They dominate the eastern view, rising to about 1,300 feet at their highest, which is a pretty good height considering that most of Oakland is at sea level. Most of the topmost part of the hills is semi-wild parkland, preserved forever as the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the greatest urban wilderness areas in America. But the lower elevations, right down to where the slopes hit the flatlands, were and are densely packed neighborhoods.
I knew the hills well, because I had run their fire trails for many years. So when I stood on my roof and saw a 2-mile wide wall of flame, a hundred feet high, filling the sky with black, roiling smoke, I was terrified. It was clear that a catastrophe of the first order was unfolding, right in the heart of Oakland.
I was glued to the television all afternoon. They reported that a house was being burnt down every 11 seconds! I also packed some things to go, in case I had to evacuate. (I didn’t.) There was a major freeway (the 580) between the fire and my house, but the fire already had jumped two other freeways (the 13 and the 24), and there was no reason it couldn’t leap over another. Not only were the Hills engulfed, but the fire was advancing on three fronts: toward downtown Berkeley, toward the Montclair Village section of Oakland, and, particularly horrifying, it was barreling straight through to Piedmont and Rock Ridge, from where it would easily have taken out my neighborhood, downtown Oakland.
Two months later I wrote an article for the East Bay Express on the fire. I interviewed Oakland firefighters who had battled it. They assured me that they’d had nothing to do with stopping that fire. Nothing at all. In fact, they’d had to retreat four times that afternoon, to save their lives. Miraculously, around 4 p.m. the winds changed, from the offshore Diablos to an onshore pattern. That not only pushed the flames back upon themselves, over areas denuded of fuel that had already burned; but the onshore winds are loaded with moisture from the ocean, and are cool. By evening, when the fire had largely ended, the temperature had gone down by as much as 20 degrees. By that time, about 25,000 firefighters from all over the country had gathered along the fire’s perimeter.
The Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991 was the worst urban wildfire in the nation’s history, and remains so today. I pay my respects here to the families of the people who died–to the people who lost their homes and pets–and to the brave firefighters who risked all and in some cases paid the ultimate price to save us.
The wine connection was that I heard of a guy who had a big wine cellar. When he realized that his house was going to burn down and he had to get the hell out of there, he threw as many bottles of wine as he could into his swimming pool, hoping the water would protect them. It did–but it also peeled off all the labels!
California wine is just too expensive. It really is. Not all of it, to be sure. There’s a lot of expensive wine that’s worth the price. But there’s a ton of badly made, mediocre wine that will set you back an arm and a leg, and that’s a real drag.
Of course, nobody’s forced to buy overpriced wine, and I don’t have any sympathy at all for people who are so ignorant or devoid of taste that they willingly plonk down $30, $40 or more for a wine that I would score, at best, 84 points. That’s their problem, and if they like what they’re getting, fine. But I can tell you that when I give a low score to an expensive faulty wine, it makes me mad.
The first thing I wonder is, does the winery team even have the slightest clue their stuff is average, at best? If they know, then they’re engaging in very ugly, nefarious behavior–all the more awful when the wine is accompanied by glowing “winemaker notes” telling us how glorious and rare it is.
If the winery team is unaware they’re sending out plonk, they should be fired. I was having this conversation yesterday with someone who works in marketing for a big winery. I wondered how it’s possible to have to sell something you know isn’t very good, and still keep your soul. Yes, your “soul,” meaning–not what some religious people say–but your integrity, conscience, love of truth. If your job is to sell something you know, in your heart of hearts, isn’t good, but you spend your time trying to convince people it is, then you’ve lost something you used to treasure when you were young. I can only imagine the rationalization that people engage in to dull the pain. I suppose a fat paycheck helps to narcotize.
I shouldn’t let my blood pressure be affected by a bad bottle of $50 wine, but I can’t help it. I think, “What in the world is wrong with you [meaning the producer]? What were you thinking?” The other thought that always follows is, how can this winery remain in business? Sometimes, when I review a bad expensive wine, I’ll go into Wine Enthusiast’s database (which you can access for free) and look at the winery’s track record. More often than not, these wineries have been producing dismal stuff, at inflated prices, year after year after year. How is this possible? Who buys it? Don’t they know that a 16% Syrah that tastes like sugared asparagus is a total ripoff? That a $36 Petite Sirah that tastes like melted jam is a joke? That a $55 Cabernet with nothing but caramelized oak is an insult? That it’s insane to pay $50 for a Port-style wine (in a half-bottle, at that) that’s thin and lacking in anything but sugar? That if you fork out $30 for a Chardonnay that tastes like buttered popcorn, you should have your head examined? These are all real examples from this past week, although obviously I’m not going to name names. And if I went back over the last year, I could write a book called “500 wines you should hate because they’re not only boring, but they’re trying to rob you blind.”
It all leads to a final question. Let’s say I blind taste a wine, think it’s pretty dumb and simple, but that I could imagine drinking it in a paper cup at a party some Saturday night and not actually throwing up. I give it 83 points. Then I see it costs $6 retail. I still think it’s a pretty boring wine, and I won’t adjust the score, but I will soften my language to suggest it might be a good buy for someone who’s looking to get off cheap. That kind of wine doesn’t make me angry. I’ll think, “Okay, I wouldn’t buy it, but at least the producer doesn’t have hubris, and millions of Americans will benefit from this cheap wine.” But those expensive ones really piss me off.
When you’ve been a critic for a while, as I have, it’s a lesson in humility. You realize that a lot of people must like stuff that you find execrable, because these wineries just keep on cranking it out. That makes me realize it’s just my opinion. But I know what I know, and I believe that what I think I know is true. There’s an awful lot of bad California wine out there that’s absurdly priced, and I wonder how long it can go on.