“In the past, people would buy tickets to performances, and they would sit there and, if you were lucky, it was the great god von Karajan on stage or the great god Arthur Rubinstein,” said Jane Moss, the artistic director of New York City’s Lincoln Center in a recent interview in the New York Times.
Then came the kicker: “That has completely changed. Now everyone wants an experience.”
Sound familiar? Anyone who knew wine even 10 years ago, never mind 20 years ago or more, could echo her assertion in a wine context. You had a little piece of paper—a merchant’s newsletter, an advertisement, a restaurant wine list—with a bunch of known-to-you wine names on it, and they would sell with no fuss.
Those were simple, uncomplicated and yes, wine-anemic times. Anyone who wants to return to them is a nostalgic, even lazy, fool. Today’s wine cornucopia is a dream come true.
But what about that need for an “experience?” That, for our time, is really the nub of it, isn’t it?
It’s the problem—the professional challenge—for Ms. Moss as Lincoln Center’s artistic director and it’s exactly the problem for winemakers around the world, to say nothing of the importers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurateurs and sommeliers trying to sell the wines.
Really, it is no longer enough to put out a list of wines and prices in a newsletter or on a restaurant wine list and then just stand back waiting for your customers to come to you. Yet an awful lot of restaurants continue to do just that; amazingly, most restaurant wine lists today are no more visually interesting or informative than old-fashioned newspaper stock-market listings. That makes ordering wine in a restaurant like going to the doctor with not only a diagnosis of your problem but also the cure for it. “Excellent choice,” is the confirming reply.
Whether you or I like it or not, what’s true for music and theater today is also true for wine: people want an experience. It’s no longer enough, as it surely once was, for wine to simply be a refreshing accompaniment to your meal. Is this a loss? Yes. But nevertheless, it’s so.
We don’t think of wine as yet another form of entertainment, vying with music and videos and whatever appears on our many kinds of screens. But that’s what wine—fine wine, expensive wine—really is today. It’s entertainment.
Take Sine Qua Non, the label created by the idiosyncratic winemaking (and marketing) genius Manfred Krankl. Now, you may like his outsize, amplified wine style or not—if you’ve even had the chance to taste his sought-after, astoundingly expensive wines.
What Mr. Krankl hit upon was not merely a dramatic vision—and version—of one man’s idea of wine goodness, but also a larger contextual experience like no other.
Think of declaring to a marketing professional (no matter the field or the product): “I want to create a brand that will never use the same name twice for any wine I make. And every label for each wine will be different from the previous year. And oh, by the way, I may never make the same wine or blend from one year to the next, never mind use the same name.”
Can you imagine what a conventional marketing professional would say upon hearing such madness?
But Mr. Krankl, to his (deserved) success, hit upon just what his audience most thirsts for. His wines are experiences—sensorily in their tastes, visually on the labels and intellectually in their annual challenge. They are a stimulation like no other, a sort of raised fist, power-to-the-people, revolutionary wine propaganda.
Mr. Krankl is the philosophical direct heir to no less a revolutionary figure than Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who in putting art on his label made buying and drinking Château Mouton-Rothschild the first annual, not-to-be-missed wine experience.
The challenge of wine today is answering this very particular need of our time. It surely involves more than just the wine itself. If anything, the wine itself is the least of it, although making richer, more dramatic wines à la Sine Qua Non certainly gets attention.
Everywhere, both privately in homes and publicly in restaurants, wine is experienced in some kind of context. Perhaps for some restaurants the “new wine experience” might involve a larger return to old-fashioned sorts of food (classic French cuisine, anyone?). Or to a certain style of service. Have you noticed the return to the use of elegant trolleys and tableside service in some restaurants?
That restaurant wine lists are in need of wholesale revision is so obvious, I would think, that it scarcely requires mention. Really, the increased presence of sommeliers—who are worthy of every kind of acclamation—is only the beginning of the needed wine experience change, not the sole and sufficient answer to it.
Restaurant wine lists, thanks to the baffling variety of wines on offer, are more opaque, confusing and impenetrable than ever before. They’re an experience, all right. But not the one people are likely seeking.
In private homes, this thirst for an experience has been demonstrated by the stunning embrace of the many wineglasses offered by the likes of Riedel. The mere presence of one or another or several sorts of wineglasses from Riedel or, more recently, Zalto, signals to everyone that they’re in for you-know-what. It’s exciting, stimulating and, above all, makes wine part of the entertainment.
The last word rightly belongs to Jane Moss, the Lincoln Center artistic director. “The reason I was brought in was that the classical music world was changing,” she said.
“It used to be you could send out a little piece of paper with 10 famous names, and you’d sell out. And those days were going, and they’re really gone now.”