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Prime Time for Wine?

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

Prime Time for Wine?
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

There's Princess Diana, photographed at a benefit for AIDS research at Christie's auction house in New York City last spring. She's smiling at Henry Kissinger, who's beaming back like a love-struck schoolboy. And she's clutching a glass of Champagne.

The picture ran in the company's September newsletter, which summarizes the recent auction season. Wine is highlighted throughout: Bottles of Petrus adorn the inside front cover; an article notes that Christie's gaveled the largest single-owner sale of wine ever held in the United States in March, totaling $3.2 million; the back cover promotes the sale of another major collector's cellar in New York this month.

Is wine becoming trendy again?

There was a time, back in the 1980s, when wine was THE fashionable beverage. Chardonnay replaced Chablis as the trendsetter's choice for wine by the glass. The original yuppies launched a feeding frenzy over the 1982 Bordeaux futures campaign. Multinational corporations invested big money in California wineries, including an ambitious effort by Coca-Cola centered on Sterling Vineyards. I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a tanker truck rolling down an expressway; the sign on the tank says "Cheap White Wine."

But wine consumption in America reached a peak in 1985, and declined steadily for a decade. Coca-Cola got out of the wine business. There were bad vintages in Bordeaux. Wine lost its allure; it became a less visible part of the culture. And whether as cause or effect, wine is now simply ignored by most of the general media.

Compare England: Almost every general-interest magazine and serious newspaper there carries a regular wine column. Established wine authorities star in widely broadcast television series. But here, the only time wine makes it on television is when a public station rebroadcasts those BBC shows. And print media as important and sophisticated as the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine dropped their regular wine columnists and cut back on wine coverage.

But I sense a change in the works. The general media haven't formally acknowledged it yet -- The New Yorker, for example, has no wine column, and still limits restaurant reviews to occasional bite-sized comments in small boxes in the listing pages. But wine has been sneaking into the press recently in so many different contexts that it feels more like a movement than a coincidence. The Nossiter Phenomenon is a case in point.

Jonathan Nossiter, 35, is an independent filmmaker and wine consultant. Right now, he's enjoying success in both careers. He created an eccentric but savvy Francophile wine list for Balthazar, a SoHo brasserie that has become the hottest restaurant in New York. And his film, "Sunday," turned heads at festivals in Sundance and Cannes and is now in general release and being mostly well-reviewed. Wine Spectator features editor Ted Loos profiled him in our May 15 issue, and the ink has not stopped flowing yet.

I next spotted Nossiter in the September issue of Esquire. It's the first for new editor in chief David Granger, as he tries to revive the faltering men's magazine. Football and fashion dominate the contents, but wine is hard to miss. A reinstated drinks column celebrates European aperitifs. A news article illustrates the humorous, slightly bizarre wine labels by artist and wine buff Ralph Steadman which adorn bottles from Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon Vineyard. And Nossiter smiles at readers from the bar at Balthazar, recommending obscure wines from Germany and Greece.

Nossiter shows up again in the September 8 issue of The New Yorker. In fact, he makes two appearances. "Sunday" is favorably reviewed in the regular film column, and The Talk of the Town features a short interview with the director in "Hollywood and Vine." Showing a flair for polemic in both cinema and wine, Nossiter compares California Chardonnays to Sharon Stone, Cabernets to Sylvester Stallone and Merlot, "spuriously smooth and supple," to Tom Cruise.

But there's even more wine in the issue. A short essay in the listings section, titled "Peel Me a Grape," begins, "With this month's unusually early Bordeaux harvest, enophiles everywhere are having visions of a superlative '97 vintage. Could it rival the 59 BC vintage that Horace prized?" The brief essay goes on to cite Noah, Keats, John Hollander and Roald Dahl, among others.

Then there's the September 22 issue of U.S. News & World Report. The cover is a photograph of Julia Child buried under an avalanche of vegetables, and the accompanying nine-page story purports to tell how she "invented modern life." The piece is a mulligan stew of half-baked culinary cliches and pop sociology (in the 1960s, "a woman's view on Khruschev went unheeded, but not her paté"), and wine is notable for its absence. (In a discussion of the "French paradox," the greatest boost to wine consumption in the United States since Repeal, the author never mentions the role of wine in reducing the risk of heart disease.)

But like the return of the repressed, wine sneaks into the issue under the "Critic's Choice" rubric. Beside a photo of a wine bottle sporting the logo of the New York Yankees, there's a plug for Big League Bottling, offering $50 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon laser-etched with Major League team symbols.

Wine has even made it all the way back to the "so in it's out" stage, last embodied in that New Yorker cartoon. Take a look at the final page of the September issue of GQ. The editors' 1997 Overrated List includes, among others, ahi tuna, tiramisu and Merlot.

Well, that's no surprise to Wine Spectator readers. In a September 15, 1994, cover story on Merlot, senior editor James Laube wrote, "As California Merlot emerges from Cabernet's shadow, its popularity is outpacing its quality." Still, we're pleased that the general press is finally catching on and catching up, and we hope that their articles encourage a broader range of people to begin popping corks. Trendiness can have unpleasant side effects -- higher prices, reduced availability -- but overall it stimulates better wines and more of them.

Sometimes the media create news, and sometimes they only reflect an ineluctable reality. I have long had the feeling that in America the general press actively resists covering wine, denying it the critical attention it pays to dining or the other "living arts," as The New York Times calls them. But now wine may be building a popular momentum that can't be ignored. Stay tuned.

What do you think? Is wine becoming more trendy? Do you see more stories in the general media about wine? Post your thoughts on the Wine Conversations Bulletin Board.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Thomas Matthews. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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