Sunday, October 15, 2023

The Battle for Wine – Symbolic vs. Economic Value

“When, and under what emotional pressure, does a memory shift from being a reliable account of something to a story that we tell ourselves about what we wish had occurred?
– Anthony Lane reviewing the film, “Anatomy of a Fall” 

As with almost anything on planet Earth these days, wine is also experiencing conflict. Mostly from dueling perspectives and accounts about what wine is. Throw in a dollop of virtuousness, a sprinkle of inexperience, a teaspoon of youthful confidence and a cup of the shifting of cultures, and right before your eyes all the tried and true, the mainstays, the fundamental market movers, shift in their relevance.

A young writer friend who I admire put it this way: “I sometimes feel like there’s the actual wine market and what moves it, and then there’s the tiny bubble that a small number of cool kids in NYC and LA think is cool. Which has symbolic value, but actual economic value? Not so much, I guess!”

When I read that in a recent message, it succinctly outlined the conflict in the world of wine – the symbolic versus the economic significance in today’s evolving wine culture.

We were talking about the economic powerhouse that Bordeaux is, but how minor its influence is with the up-and-coming wine professionals. Oh, I get it. Bordeaux, for what seems like forever, is seen as an elite white male patriarchal polestar in the world of wine.

But consider this: take the five first growths of Bordeaux. And factor in their yearly production of wine, at the highest level. Then take into account what those wines will sell for when futures are offered. Now also take into consideration one of those properties, Latour, doesn’t play in that sandbox exactly the same way as the other four do, but they ultimately will move their product as well.

Now, think about this: in a good year, those five properties conservatively and collectively generate half a billion dollars a year in sales, and that doesn’t even include the second and third tier labels they make. That’s some pretty significant economic clout, anyway you look at it. You’re gonna have to sell a hell of a lot of pét-nat to achieve that kind of economic tsunami!

I have a smattering of first growth Bordeaux in the wine closet and a bottle or two of méthode ancestrale in the wine fridge. I’m happy to enjoy both.

The value of influence is in flux. Maybe it's more about a new re-ordering of the chairs on the deck of the luxury liner. The impact of power derived from that wealth cannot be underestimated in the marketplace. But also, the energy of an ascending generation, willing to cast off the old robes of the erstwhile high priests of wine, is something that doesn’t seem to be going away, not just a flash in the pan.

Juvenescence is flexing, and the world is watching and waiting – has tradition been tossed into the compost bin of history? Is ‘pop’ culture winning the wine war?

If you’re a pét-nat producer, you might be hoping, it’s your time. It’s your Taylor Swift moment, you might be thinking.

While the race for progress has been dominating wine culture and the wine trade since the end of World War II, now it seems a return to simpler ancestral methods are de rigueur. As an old hippie, I kind of get it.

When our son was born, we decided to have him be born at home. Eight days later, he was circumcised, according to some older traditions.  And several months later, he was also vaccinated, in accord with scientific findings. I do think technical advances can and do enhance life.

Likewise, for those who haven’t been afflicted with total amnesia, regarding the last 70 or so years of headway made in winemaking, it’s nothing short of a miracle that when one opens a wine today, it is usually not purposefully flawed. Forty years ago, you couldn’t have said that as confidently. We kissed a lot more frogs in 1984 than we do in 2023.

That said, if one wishes to taste a wine today of the most recherché description, it is easy to do so in most urban centers. In the city I live in a café recently opened up in the downtown area, proudly claiming an “unwavering dedication to natural wines, the only wines they'll serve, plus local beer and batched cocktails. Natural wines are a growing category and indicate wines made with organically or biodynamically grown grapes, with no or low sulfites, which are used to preserve wine but can cause headaches, stomach aches, and other symptoms.”

Aside from what appears to be a mild case of virtue signaling coupled with a dallop of misinformation (sulfites are not the Darth Vadar of wine), again, I return to the quote in the beginning, not to belabor a point, but to emphasize what I believe is at the crux of the matter in today’s shape-shifting wine world:

“When, and under what emotional pressure, does a memory shift from being a reliable account of something to a story that we tell ourselves about what we wish had occurred?”

I remember trying wines early on in my career that literally made me sick. They were flawed. At the time, I was a Birkenstock wearing, lacto-ovo vegetarian, eating only free-range fertilized eggs, raw milk and cheese and whole grains and organic vegetable. So, I wasn’t some grey flannel corporate wonk looking for a “slab and a Cab” at my local “continental” restaurant on my overinflated company expense account.

Hence, my tolerance for deviation. I completely understand it. But also, not wishing to recast history or even the preferred reality as it is in the wine world. Yes, there is room for all expressions. And yes, some will survive and some will not.

I have no illusions of ever seeing Bordeaux returning to the cool kid’s clubhouse. And, actually, I don’t think Bordeaux is going in that direction.

My young journalist friend confided to me, “For what it’s worth, I keep waiting for Bordeaux to be cool again. Someone out there has to be plowing with an obscure breed of horse and making carbonic cab franc and vin-jaune styled Semillon somewhere in Graves or something, right?”

No doubt. From his lips to the goddess's ears.


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