The Big Lie of Wine Democracy

Can truly fine wine ever be anything other than intrinsically elite?
Aug 21, 2012

In American culture—and never more so than in a presidential election year—we hear a lot of huffery-puffery about democracy. It's a touchstone of American life that everything should be available to everyone. It's a pretty good springboard to all kinds of commerce. And it sure sounds good.

But is it really true for fine wine? Please note the emphasis on "fine." The late Robert Mondavi would surely have replied, "You bet it is." He built his empire on a surprisingly populist notion of bringing fine wine to the masses.

Of course, when that effort started, exemplified by Mondavi's always reliably good Napa Valley Cabernet, the wine-drinking "masses" were much smaller than they are today, with much thanks for their now increased numbers going, of course, to Mondavi's very efforts.

Since that early and profoundly influential effort (which began in 1966 and gained steam in the 1970s), much has changed. Wine is now "normal," which is nothing less than astonishing considering that it was only a few decades ago that wine in America was anything but.

Today, we face a new reality. Simply put, it's this: The conflict of our (wine) time is that the more wine has become democratized, the more we expect to be able to find a limitless supply of what we want, whenever we want it.

For silicon chips or potato chips, this limitless horizon of democratic availability is real. But for wine—genuinely fine wine—you quickly reach a point of literally diminishing returns.

The reason is simple: The good stuff comes from somewhere, a plot of land in a certain microclimate that has physical limits. This is why single-vineyard designations on labels, however persnickety they may seem, will persist.

Winemakers like to crow about the superiority of wines blended from multiple sites. This plays to their professional sum-greater-than-its-parts prowess. But privately they know that blending is important only because most vineyards aren’t good enough to stand alone. Or that their commercial need exceeds their supply of truly choice grapes. Either way, it’s making a virtue out of a necessity.

Nobody ever got rich (or elected) in America by being openly elitist. Instead, the trick is to pretend to make "privilege" available to everybody. This is the secret to the success of both Napa Valley and Las Vegas, to say nothing of pretty much every so-called luxury brand in the world today.

"The Big Lie of our time is that you can have all the quality that comes from artisanal craftsmanship and true fine-wine grape sourcing available to you in unlimited quantity and limitless distribution wherever you go."

But is it true for wine? One thing is certain: A lot of forces would like you to think so. It's why we see so many ultra-heavy bottles, long corks, glossy wines with Teflon textures and bright fruitiness. And, of course, the high prices that signal high quality. (How good can a wine be if it’s cheap?) This is Wine Marketing 101 and we all know it.

So here it comes: In today's 21st-century wine world there are now really two kinds of fine wine. There's the faux-fine wine for the masses and the real fine wine for the elite. The difference is easily distinguished. Faux-fine is replicable and can be scaled-up as needed to meet demand. Real-fine is distinguished (and limited) by its originality. You can bristle all you like at such a description, but it's so.

The secret of today's new wine democracy, the actual, functioning, real democracy, is that admittance to the so-called elite is, ironically, quite wonderfully democratic. Anybody can get in. You have only to have the interest. (You thought I'd say, "the money," but—hah!—not so. Many of today's genuinely fine, "elite" wines cost surprisingly little.)

The new wine democracy is not about money, but rather how much effort you're willing to expend. Are you willing (and sufficiently interested) to read about and then hunt down all those thrilling little producers in the Loire Valley, in Spain, Portugal, Oregon, Greece, New Zealand and the unheralded nooks and crannies of California? If you are—and you actually do it—you're in. Welcome to the wine elite.

But if you're not, then you're being played. The Big Lie of our time is that you can have all the quality that comes from artisanal craftsmanship and true fine-wine grape sourcing available to you in unlimited quantity and limitless distribution wherever you go. It ain't so. Anybody who tells you it is so has a powerful vested interest in making you believe the Big Lie.

Oh, you can get good, technically well-made wine in quantity with vast distribution. Indeed, that's the technological and marketing achievement of our time. But the real, true fine wine? As the best New York connoisseurs would say, "Fuhgeddaboudit."

This is not something that many of my wine-writing colleagues care to discuss, as it leaves a no-room-at-the-inn aftertaste of exclusion.

But it's real. Indeed, it's one of the underlying, even subconscious, roots of a recent journalistic kerfuffle after New York Post restaurant critic Steve Cuozzo "grumped" about restaurant wine lists being “100% inscrutable” (his words).

Mr. Cuozzo complained about not recognizing any of the wines on a restaurant wine list. But it wasn't his ignorance that incited his howl. Rather, his self-esteem was bruised. The list's underlying message was that he was not among the wine elite. It was a list designed, in a velvet-rope fashion, precisely to let you know who you are—or what you're not.

Fine wine today truly is a democracy. Anybody can gain citizenship. But you've got to want in. And you've got to make the necessary effort. Beware the populists, the sorts who say that you can learn a foreign language in 10 days with no effort. Or that you can know about—and find—fine wine without any effort. It's a Big Lie. And that's the truth.


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