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Closure of Masa’s raises questions about cult wines


Grub Street, the San Francisco food blog, is reporting that  Masa’s, the fine dining staple opened by chef Masataka Kobayashi in 1983, is closing after 30 years.”

Masa’s is, of course, the Michelin-starred, legendarily expensive ($154 five-course wine-and-food tasting menu) restaurant, north of Union Square, that’s lured in generations of foodies. For sheer luxe, it’s had few rivals.

Founder Masataka worked at Auberge du Soleil before launching his eponymous restaurant. He was found murdered in 1984, a crime that has never been solved; subsequent chefs have been a who’s who of culinary superstardom (Julian Serrano, Ron Siegel, Gregory Short). Masa’s wine list was as celebrated as its food.

Why is Masa’s closing? Grub Street blames it on “formal, tablecloth’d fine dining [that] has gone out of fashion.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Inside Scoop” food columnist, Paolo Lucchesi, reports that the building’s owner “wants to install a more casual restaurant in the space.”

In San Francisco, many high-end restaurants have shuttered their doors over the years: Trader Vic’s, Stars, Charles Nob Hill, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton among others. All were hit by changes in taste that made them victims in the highly-competitive restaurant world, which depends on fickle customers always looking for the next hot spot. In the case of Masa’s, the Great Recession provided the coup de grace that finally put Masa’s out of its misery.

In fact, the continuing effects of the Recession are hurting restaurants nationwide. On Friday, Nation’s Restaurant News reported, via Lewis Perdue’s News Fetch, that “Restaurant operators [are] downbeat as sales, traffic soften.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that high-end restaurants are on the verge of extinction. For every Masa’s that closes, a replacement opens: Hakkasan, The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse, Katsu. Local reviewers go wild, and those able and willing to afford them flock to their doors.

Yet you have to wonder, how long will they last? Ten years? Fifteen? Or, like Masa’s, thirty? These numbers seem highly unlikely; a restaurant’s life span is getting shorter, not longer.

Which brings us to the subject of cult wines.

I would imagine that the proprietors of cult wines, especially Napa Valley Cabs, like to think their brands will be around for a long time. After all, Lafite is still here after, what? 700 years? (“the estate was the property of Gombaud de Lafite in 1234” – Alexis Lichine)

But many a Napa cult winery is no longer as culty as it once was. We must assume that some of the famous names in Napa were hit hard during the Recession, and that it was only the owners’ deep pockets that enabled them to hang on. Their hope was that, with recovery would come improved sales, at traditional prices.

Yet are these expensive cults not the wine equivalents of Masa’s, “formal, tablecloth’d” wines that just may be out of step with today’s more casual approach? People, especially younger ones, are looking for things other than show-offy wines: they want wines of interest, of deliciousness, from all over the world, wines that are different and unique and that tell a story and are easy to drink with food. Above all, they want wines that are affordable. I believe that the weltanschauung of wine has shifted irrevocably, due not only to the Recession but to changes in America’s demographics. We are rapidly becoming poorer and less white, changes that cannot bode well for super-expensive wines. In a sense—and I don’t mean to get political here, but it’s just the truth—some of these cult wines are like the  Republican Party, out of step with the mainstream of where America is going. That’s why they lost so badly in the 2012 elections, and that’s why cult wines may be endangered in the next ten or twenty years.

Some will survive and even prosper. Brands as powerful and embedded as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate likely are the Lafites of Napa Valley, and will be with us for a very long time (assuming their family ownership wishes to continue them). But I have to tell you, there are a lot of Masa’s in Napa Valley—wines that were hugely popular in their day, but are now increasingly anachronistic.

  1. I know a few still wealthy cult wine buyers and have watched their interests and purchases change over the years. They follow the same learning curve. They start out interested in tasting the best wines that are made, sign up to Parker’s newsletter to find out what is the best, and buy whatever gets 95 or highter irrespective of price. As they learn more about wine they become mature enough to start following their own tastes, eventually becoming embarrassed about once following a critic’s suggestions lock step. In the end they travel, explore and seek out new experiences and wines of wider variety and taste. They are less interested in what other people think, and more interested in what they themselves have learned.

    To keep the cult wine thing going you need a constant stream of newbies with disposable income getting interested in wine. I think that stream has run its course and is drying up.

  2. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. There are hundreds, if not thousands of choices of great wines in the market. The great majority of these, from both large and small producers are available at reasonable prices. If the cult wines go away, it won’t hurt my feelings. For the most part, the cult wines are not about wine or good times with friends and familly. They are about showing off.

    Too bad about Masa’s though. I had the good fortune to dine there while chef Masa was still around. At that time the restaurant was not cheap, but it wasn’t super expensive either. Sort of like a tasty $40 Pinot.

  3. You sorta lost me at the GOP analogy, and not just because of my political leanings, in that the exact same argument could be said of the Democrats in the 2010 elections just over 2 years ago (lost touch with the American middle class who want to keep some of what they earn, etc.).

    In any industry, I feel that the genuine article will always have a solvent place to sit (Lafite) and almost by definition “cult” products cannot be considered “classic” like the old guard. So I don’t think the question is so much whether cult wineries can maintain their cult status as it is whether the cult wineries have enough oomph to be able to make that transition from cult to classic.

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    There’s a couple of jokes floating around the industry that many probably don’t want to hear. They are, however, quite telling of the current zeitgeist of the market. The only question remains as to whether it’s a current “trend” that will someday swing back in Napa’s favor or indicative of more fundamental and long term changes in the market. What can’t be denied (although it strenuously is in certain quarters) is that it does exist as a fundamental market condition currently.

    Joke #1: Having a wine list full of Napa cult wines is like having a closet full of leisure suits.

    Joke #2: A distributor bragging about the superiority of his California book is like a passenger on the Hindenburg bragging about having the best stateroom.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    “To keep the cult wine thing going you need a constant stream of newbies with disposable income getting interested in wine. I think that stream has run its course and is drying up.”

    I agree with you that it’s run its course in the US. China, however, is another story, and I think you see the hopes being pinned in that direction from the recent moves by Parker to the almost schoolgirl like love of China in Napa itself. I made the mistake of criticizing the Chinese government in front of a couple of Napa winery owners once, who practically fell over themselves defending the honor of great Chinese nation.

    In China you have a very gauche, noveau riche business culture combined with a culture that has long frowned on drinking, has no historical appreciation for fine wine and as of now views wine almost solely through the prism of being a symbol of status and socio-economic standing. Sounds like the perfect destination for the Parker-Napa nexus to take their act as it increasingly becomes rejected at home.

  6. Always find your take on things insightful Steve. Will Harlan be around in 700 years? Not if the Climate keeps changing.

  7. Donn Rutkoff says:

    The GOP? Again? Look at the large majority # of GOP in the US House, state houses and governors as the mid to lower tier wines. Joe six pack, Susie Vintners Blend, Barry Box Wine. The shrinking # of Dem. in governor and state assemblies and in the US House as the cult wineries. Like the private wealth of Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry. Romney Mr. Bland but operated at a profit. Mr. Charme Schoole Obama with trillion dollar overspending. Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money to spend on cult status or SEIU and AFSCME chiefs pay. But the Vintners Cuvee rolls on and pays the bills. Out of touch. Most wine bloggers NEVER buy a $10 or under bottle wine to actually drink. When was your last box of Franzia, a Rosenblum xxxiv cuvee, or Meridian Chard????

  8. Damaris Bautista says:

    Fine dining should stop existing in America. Given that we are all just eating fried food and McDonalds. Just like 1.3 billion Chinese are too ignorant for wine. Oh how some in the wine world love to generalize…

  9. Given that all we eat in America is McDonalds, fine restaurants should just stop existing in here. Just like 1.3 billion Chinese, are simply too ignorant for wine. Oh how some in the wine world love to generalize….

    Great post Steve!

  10. It’s openly discussed here in Healdsburg (with some derision) that a certain well known producer, who became famous for fine Pinot Noir, before being sold, has increased it’s production dramatically, and since it’s also well know that the domestic consumption from their “List”, is down substantially, the conclusion is that that river of expensive Pinot is being sold to the Asian market.
    It’s easy to imagine this happening to any number of “marquee” labels, who’s true glory days are well behind them.

  11. Dear Bill Hayden,

    I don’t think it is wise to sum up 1.3 billion people in one generalization. It is the typical argument, that the greater Chinese population does not deserve fine wine because they don’t have the palate or appreciation for it. You do realize you are comparing a people that has thousands of years of food culture to an American culture that largely prefers TGIF to actually learning how to cook? I regularly sell wine to young Chinese who have twice the palate I have and are not spending it on $500 wines. Same goes for many Countries in the East. It is fascinating to me.

    I, like a huge majority of Americans, did not come from any kind of “historical appreciation of fine wine,” so I guess I shouldn’t drink the stuff either? Your comment lacks any real understanding of the current trends of the Chinese consumer (particularly the younger generations) and is frankly closed minded and shallow. Think how far the American palate has come in just a few generations.

    I get your point, but things are changing fast in China, more than we can realize. The Chinese public, like all people, have just as much right to consume the goods we do. 不要担心,他们不会喝你的酒.

  12. Kurt Burris says:

    A wine merchant told me an interesting story a couple of years back. One of his better clients is a successful surgeon who drank nothing less than 40 to 50 dollar bottles of wine for his “Tuesday tipple” and went up the price list from there for weekend fair. During the recession his 401K turned into the proverbial 201K and he cut back on his price point to 10 to 15 dollar bottles for everyday consumption. When asked if he enjoyed wine less he said, “No, actually I am enjoying it more, because every bottle doesn’t need to be spectacular.”

  13. Bill Haydon says:

    Wayne, I meant no offense to Chinese people, and I agree that things are (may) be changing rapidly. That being said, generalizations–rooted in fact, history and current experience–can be made about the market and the role of wine in Chinese culture and particularly the business culture which will be doing most of the buying and consuming.

    While I didn’t explicitly state it, I was hoping that the implication would not be lost that my description of the Chinese wine culture was not that far off from that of the United States wine culture in the 70s and 80s as both Parker and Napa ascended.

  14. OK, wait, maybe the cult wine makers can… can… OK, redraw the map so all the people they sell to will be represented in the electoral college, uh, I mean, the wine stores, so that one person who buys their cult wine is equal to five “peasants” who drink lesser wine… Or maybe they can just bitterly complain about how they are getting screwed because “the wine consuming public doesn’t understand us…” or, or? not let anyone buy wine that isn’t cult wine! That way they’ll disenfranchise the rest of the voting, uh, I mean wine buying, public… Thanks Steve, once again, for your pithy and insightful comments/comparisons…

  15. Bill,

    Fair enough, and I tend to agree with the comparison to the 80’s and 90’s. One thing I have come to learn about China is this, constant change. I think that while the business culture is buying much of the wine, I expect that to change as well.

    While I think Mr. Parker’s new attention on Asia may prove smart, the young people I speak with from the region of the World, are still not much interested in what he has to say. The tide certainly seems to have shifted.

    Good topic.

  16. I’ve often wondered about those who only buy Cult or Classic Wines.

    Do they really understand what they’re buying? Can they really explain quite explicitly, if you pin them down, why they like it or why it is so much better than a lesser wine.

    I offer the above because one of my old time wine buddies had a wealthy friend who only bought first growth Medoc. I asked him if his buddy knew anything about wine, and he answered “Hell no, he just buys it because he can afford it.”

    Finally, some great insights posted today!

  17. i don;t know if the cult wines are going away, but i sure hope so. i will happily dance on the grave of any winery that sells a $50 red blend as their “inexpensive” wine

  18. Masa’s is, of course, the Michelin-starred, legendarily expensive ($154 five-course wine-and-food tasting menu) restaurant, north of Union Square, that’s lured in generations of foodies. For sheer luxe, it’s had few rivals.

    $154 for all of that makes me so sad. I realise i live in such expensive, yet poor country. We’ve become an expensive place before getting rich.

    Any decent meal here costs more than that.

    I pity the fools too. So many europeans are flooding the market here thinking there are high paying jobs for all of them.


  19. Steve,
    Hope you feel well soon, will send some home-made chicken soup thoughts your way. But, “weltanschauung” really? I thought it was fitting that you used that word because the whole concept of cult (anything) is tied to the nouveau-riche, I-want-you-to-think-I-am-superior thing.

    There was an episode on a recent “Pawn Stars” tv show where Rick and Correy go to look at a hot rod that a person built and decided to sell. The owner is clearly passionate about his car and has receipts for work and chrome plated parts totalling over $80,000 dollars. They offer him $5000 for the car because they know it will not sell for more than $10K -$12K. Needless to say, the car owner thinks they are idiots, even though they have bought and sold more hot rods than he will ever build.

    Sorry to burst bubbles, but wine is not that unique. If you fixate on what things cost and how shiny they are, you are bound to look like a fool. On the other side, lets also remember that people get drawn to cults (and subject themselves willingly to the brain-washing) because they fall passionately in love with something (be it a hot-rod, wine or Rudolph Steiner…)- I propose we raise a glass to passion! Hail China.

  20. Steve:

    I’ll assume for the sake of my question that “cult wine” sales are slowing in the US. Notwithstanding my lack of understanding of what a “cult wine” really is…onward:

    What role does an increasingly fragmented and egalitarian wine press play in the slow-down of this category?

  21. Steven Mirassou: I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. We want quick history nowadays. Unfortunately, history tends to take her time.

  22. John Cunin says:

    More has changed in food and beverage in the last 100 years than in the previous 2000 … The way we make, cook, and consume food and drink bears no resemblance at all to the way it was after WW1 … There was a royal family, bequeathed real estate, feudal society, and agricultural tradition going back to the 13th century … Now we have financial royalty, stratospherically expensive real estate, capitalistic society, agricultural technology going back to the 1980’s (maybe) … Do the cult wines of Napa have a shot at 7 centuries of longevity ??? as long as the royalty wants it, it will exist …

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