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So Where's the New Messiah?

Posted: March 14, 2000

So Where's the New Messiah?

By Matt Kramer, columnist

This is it. We're here in the ballyhooed new millennium. And we're waiting. For what, you ask? I'll tell you: the new wine messiah.

I'm serious about this. You see, a new phenomenon has emerged in the past few decades. If you want to be a "wine star" -- a real biggie -- it's not enough simply to make good wine. It's not even enough to be a good marketer. No, you've got to be a messiah.

This messiah business follows a consistent, faintly biblical pattern. Typically, a high-quality messiah emerges from humble origins. Take Angelo Gaja, for example. Who ever heard of Barbaresco? Nobody, really. Folks in nearby Barolo barely knew that it existed, never mind anyone in Boston. Nobody knew or cared about this Barbaresco wine that this guy Gaja was raving about.

Then there's the "big kahuna" messiah: Robert Mondavi. Talk about humble origins. Let me tell you, when it came to fine wine in 1966 -- when Mondavi started his winery -- it didn't get much more humble than Napa Valley. I mean, the place was nowhere. Oh, sure, just as in Barbaresco and Barolo, the locals thought highly of themselves. You could have written a nice little doctoral thesis on mass self-delusion. Mondavi's response to the naysayers: "Just wait. You'll see."

This, by the way, is the hallmark of messiahs everywhere. Not only don't they take "no" for an answer, they don't even hear the same questions. That's what makes them messianic -- or nuts. Of course, if you're a rich aristocrat, like the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild, you're charming and eccentric.

On the surface, Rothschild would seem to be the exception to the messianic rule of humble origins. But in the context of the snooty Médoc of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, he was condescendingly seen as a rich Jewish parvenu. Thus, he came from a certain kind of humbleness, however well-upholstered.

Baron Philippe's decades-long crusade to elevate Château Mouton-Rothschild to first-growth status was less about wine and more about validating his modern, populist vision for actually selling Bordeaux and its wines. And it started early. Way back in 1926, at the age of 24, he successfully persuaded the owners of Château d'Yquem and the (then) four first-growths -- Châteaus Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion -- to Château-bottle their own wines rather than selling them in barrel to shippers.

This underscores another common element of all successful messiahs: stamina. They are obsessed, possessed and tireless. Nothing slows them down. Their frequent-flier mileage is measured in light-years. They make and spend money, but really they care little about it. They live well -- when they get around to it.

Interestingly, their products aren't necessarily "the best." They must be very fine, to be sure. But that in itself is not enough. All these messiahs have legitimate competitors. But they also have something else: a powerful evangelical impulse. Truly, their "best" is fashioning new dreams and translating their visions into the mass consumer market, using their products as examples of a better future. Think of America Online. Or Hollywood.

What makes a messiah? Above all, a vision that transforms and penetrates. It permeates others' dreams, even if they weren't dreaming. It doesn't just have to be with wine alone. Georg Riedel did it with wineglasses. And it can be regional in scale: David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards showed the way in Oregon, as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat did in California's Santa Barbara County.

But what separates messiahs from marketers is that they are more than just seducers. They are endlessly willing to engage, cajole, convince, entice and yes, ultimately, sell. But what they're selling is a vision rather than some mundane commodity.

So now it's a new millennium. Where are the new messiahs? Where are the new messiahs for Chianti, the Loire or Australia? Or for Cabernet Franc or Pinot Gris?

Less material but no less substantive, will we see a political messiah for freedom in buying, selling and shipping wine? For that matter, will a Mexican-American wine messiah arise from the unsung laborers on California's vast wine plantations to entice a broad new audience? After all, one of the unmet visions available to the wine world is that somebody, la Julia Child, will seduce a new set of participants.

They will come, I'm sure.

Let us pray.

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This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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