The Culture of Wine in the Age of the Kardashians

“Everybody wants to be a DJ, everybody wants to be an MC” – De La Soul, Magic Number

“You’ve got to have style, and learn to be original”  – Boogie Down Productions, My Philosophy

I cannot begin to understand why surgically manicured visages, post-operatively devoid of the originality with which they were genetically graced, dominate modern media.  Whether it be a Kardashian, a Lohan, or some vaguely feminine and slightly-over-tanned flotsam that washed up on the Jersey Shore, the normative female phenotype has been rhinoplastically re-defined and re-bootyed: plumped up lips; streamlined noses; oval-shaped eyes with curtly tucked eyebrows; salon-managed skin tones that are darker than streambed clay but lighter than a brown paper bag.  (Not to slag off just the ladies of the day; most of the Hollywood men-bots are just as devoid of character and individual nuance, save for the fat, stoner, comic stock characters that have always had their place near the sun, if not quite in it.)  This procedurally enhanced aesthetic similarity in the Age of the Kardashians is in stark contrast to the media darlings of the 1990s, where the lunch-starved waif look of Kate Moss shared the spotlight (but not the order of baby-back ribs) with the callipygean roundness of Anna Nicole Smith, both of which competed with Cindy Crawford’s beauty mark for magazine covers around the world.  Looking back, it is clear that 20 to 30 years ago, mainstream society had substantially greater appreciation for the genetic or experiential foibles that were unique to a person.  Warren Beatty’s nose?  Harrison Ford’s chin scar? 

Perhaps the “Pursuit for Sameness” in the Age of the Kardashians is parallel to a more ubiquitous development in the greater social construct: the rise of the Big Box store.  At no point in the history of this country have more people been able to go out and buy the same exact clothes, foods, homegoods, and appliances, regardless of their location.  Undoubtedly, there is a comfort in buying into the “sameness”; you know that enough other people are shopping at Target, Wal-Mart, or Costco and buying the same things you are buying, thus validating your decisions.  And if each one of us is primarily a compendium of decisions, well, you cannot be ill-judged by adopting such an approach.  The prevailing attitude seems to have become if we look alike, and we eat alike, and we like the same things, we put ourselves above reproach.  Either way, I can’t relate.  I grew up in the 1980s, about 25 minutes north of Yankee Stadium in lower Westchester, New York.  Rather than wear the brands of sneakers that were sold in the surrounding suburban shops and malls, my friends and I would go down to Fordham Road in the Bronx, and hit up the V.I.M. store for Diadora high-tops and other obscure brands and styles that were not available up by us.  The goal was to stand out by being different, original, by sporting a pair of kicks that were not only good looking but which nobody else in our high school could find.

How does this relate to the culture of wine in America?  There is a growing culture of sameness in the world of American winemaking that is equally disconcerting.  It is the sameness of grape varieties, the sameness of clones, the sameness of barrel coopers, the sameness of elevage techniques, the sameness of viticultural practices, and the sameness of parameters of wine criticism that threatens the industry.  Most of us love Pinot Noir, a lot of us can swoon over Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Grenache and Syrah as well.  But fewer and fewer winemakers are providing a new (or at least, long-lost) sense of Pinot Noir, Cab or Chardonnay.  So many American wines taste . . . just like the bottle next to it on the shelf. 

To be sure, the early 21st-century leaders in the lower-alcohol Pinot Noir school, such as Copain and Inman Family, as well as the early 21st-century leaders of the non-interventionist Pinot School, such as Littorai and Radio-Coteau, have demonstrated successful approaches that have been lauded and implemented by others with equal (and in some cases greater) success.  The In Pursuit of Balance and West of West groups, in particular, have done well to capture the public’s attention in this regard, and it is no accident that Littorai, Copain, Hirsch, Evening Land, Red Car, Peay Vineyards, and sommelier supreme Raj Parr hold down the vanguard in these groups.  But the members of these groups represent but a fraction of the marketplace.  Looking at the industry as a whole, there remains too many wineries that fail to demonstrate sufficient elements of originality and character in their wines to break out from the pack.  Rather, there seems to be an ever-growing group of 40- and 50-something men (very wealthy men), who have started wineries or purchased vineyards over the past 6 or 7 years and who are content just to be making wine with the same “ultimate set of winemaking tools” (to paraphrase Jeff Spicoli), with little concern for growing grapes that speak uniquely of a single site, or of crafting a wine that speaks in its own voice.  Just being recognized as the owner of a winery and invited to a couple of industry events seems to be enough to satisfy their soul.  When I was 18, De La Soul observed, “Everybody wants to be a DJ, everybody wants to be an MC.”  Nowadays, it seems everybody wants to be a winemaker.  And the by-product of this infatuation is a farrago of banal wine choking the distribution lines.

At the same time, fewer winemakers seem to be taking the chance on obscure or foreign grape varieties that might thrive in California.  There seems to be a lot less risk taking, and a lot more playing it safe.  On the wine criticism side, the viewpoint continues to be “entertain me, and do it in 30-60 seconds ’cause I’ve got a whole lot of wine to taste and I haven’t got all day.”  Wine critics continue to judge wine based upon their preconceived notions of what a wine should be, without letting the wine unfold in a decanter over the course of a few days, or taken with food, and deliver up the goods on its own terms.  Consequently, I believe many wines are judged by a critic before they’ve had a chance to fully reveal their true nature and full range of complexities and strengths.  And therefore, the critic writes up a review that captures the sameness that is shared with other wines from the same AVA, but with little discernment between producers, without grappling with the individual nuances derived from site and farming.  What we are left with is a safe review for a safe wine that captures the sameness of its type, thus further reinforcing the narrow scope of what constitues “a very good to excellent wine.”

This is dangerous.  Because the Sicilians, the Corsicans, the Piemontese, the Slovenians, the Portuguese, and the farmers of the Alto-Adige, to name but a few, are not playing it safe.  They are making decidedly unique wines, in decidedly unsafe ways, from obscure grape varietals (or from well-known varietals presented in an atypical manner) that are delicious.  If they haven’t already, the likes of Abbatucci,  G.B. Burlotto, Castelfeder, Occhipinti, Hofstadter, Hauner, and Fiegl are about to blow the doors off your tasting cart.   

So what is the remedy?  In short, what we need now are more American winemaking visionaries, more producers like Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon, who is tearing between parallel universes to chisel an original, living college of grapes and grape-friendly organisms out of a bowl nestled in the hills of San Juan Bautista, while making a home for world-class Grenache, Albarino, Syrah, and Carignane.  We need more producers like Duncan Meyers and Morgan Peterson, who get amped just talking about the esoteric grapes and old vines they shepherd.  We need more visionaries like Pax Mahle, who was not afraid to train Nebbiolo to behave under the California sun.  We need more winemakers with guts like Wells Guthrie, who was willing to go long on Anderson Valley Chardonnay, and knockedout a killer Chard with a Chablisienne edge to it in the 2010 vintage.  We need more farmers like Nick Peay, who is still willing to use biodiesel for his tractor, despite the fact that it gums up the works so much that he spends most of his free time fixing the darn thing.  We need more people like Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman calling picks while the grapes still have their natural acidity intact.  We need more people like Ted and Heidi Lemon, who live by their words and improve the earth from which their grapes are grown.  We need more winegrowers like Alex Davis, who shy away from the spotlight and let their wines do the talking for them.  We need more winemakers like Eric Sussman, who refuse to rely upon inputs in the winery and insist upon making as honest a wine as possible.  We need more people to appreciate the genius of Paul Draper.  But most of all, we need more praise, in our wine media, for that which is original.

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