Thursday, May 28, 2015
EPHEMERA: Cult Wines and Wine Cults
Back in the 1980’s and ’90’s, the wine world was obsessed with cult wines. Cult wines were almost strictly from California (there were outliers like Leonetti and Quilceda Creek—remember Quilceda’s original shit-brown label? Wow, maybe an alltime ugly label), and were created by Parker ratings. Wine folks my age can remember them with great ease and nostalgia, like naming your favorite baseball players when you were a kid—Marcassin, Bryant Family, Colgin, Harlan, Sine Qua Non, Kistler, Aubert, Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Clemente, Koufax… Ah, those were the days.
I had every one of those cult wines on my wine list, and more (Araujo probably belongs on there, and Dalle Valle). Some I liked very much, others I didn’t. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to work hard to sell them. A lot of wine lovers wanted to try all of them, like birders who want to finally add an Ivory-billed Woodpecker to their life list. Wine geeks even tried to anticipate what the new Parker-created cult wine would be (oh, man, have you heard about Blankiet?!), try to get on the mailing lists before the scores were published. Chat rooms were always ablaze with sad little men announcing “The Sine Qua Non (or some other cult wine) mailing list just arrived!—what are you buying?” Knowing, of course, very few were in their exalted company.
It seems to me that we’ve gone now from a wine culture of cult wines to a culture of wine cults. The impulse is the same, but it’s an interesting shift.
Maybe it’s that 100 Point wines are no longer rare. I’m more interested in a wine that received 99 points—I want to taste what near-perfection tastes like. Perfection is so overrated. When you think about it, a 99 point wine is better than a 100 point wine. It can improve; perfection can only go downhill, like Marilyn Monroe or Whitney Houston. But as 100 point wines have become almost commonplace, cult wines have less of a grip on the imagination of wine geeks, or at least it seems that way to me. Now all the fuss is about wine cults—Natural wines, orange wines, wines from obscure grapes grown in obscure regions, wines in pursuit of balance…
When I was a sommelier, I was paid to participate in a discussion, put together by a marketing company, about how to become a cult wine. Wineries wanted to be the next Kistler, or the next Harlan Estate. At that discussion, the other wine professionals and I agreed that it revolved around Robert Parker—though that wasn’t the answer the marketing folks wanted. As marketing folks tend to do, they believed there must be a formula, a path to being a cult wine. There wasn’t a path, of course, except through Parker’s bladder. So, of course, wineries began to engineer wines they believed he would like and rate 100 points. Which was stupid to begin with, and completely backfired, as marketing ideas often do. Now wineries no longer proclaim they’re a cult wine. Now they proclaim that they’re natural, that they’re honest wine, that they’re authentic. This is what Scientologists and Charles Manson would tell you, “I’m honest, I’m real, I’m authentic.” We’re in the new era of wine cults.
There are lots of messiahs of these cults—Alice Feiring, Raj Parr, Nicolas Joly, Isabelle Legeron MW, to name a few. And if you read their propaganda you read of people whose very lives have changed because they “discovered” natural wines. They’ve seen the Light. And with the fervor of the newly converted, they preach their Gospel of Truth. I think it’s sort of sweet. It reminds me of being in high school and all the born-again Christians would have prayer meetings and sing, “Get Together” by the Youngbloods. I admired how they seemed genuinely connected, even though I had little interest in their mindless message. I feel that way now about the Natural Wine zealots. They seem so committed, and so at peace with being right. It seems to have a way of curing their loneliness, and what better purpose can wine serve? I think the same way about the In Pursuit of Balance folks, although their cult is much more blatantly commercial, a kind of Scientology without the blackmail of homosexual celebrities. Yet they seem like a happy little bunch, such a tight little club, choosing members in the same way as kids we picked the nerds and the fat kids last at softball.
Wine is a big enough tent, of course, to contain all kinds. I’m content to explore wine on my own, without any labels or cults, interested strictly in what each wine has to say to me. I often don’t like what a wine has to say to me, wines can be completely dishonest or fake or insincere. But I think I learn a lot from that. A lot of Natural Wines I’ve tasted strike me as complete fakes, as natural as Mount Rushmore, whereas there are many wines In Pursuit of Balance I find wacky but incredibly interesting, like Amy Sedaris or the guy talking to himself on the park bench who doesn’t even know I exist. I don’t need cults and their rigid sets of rules in any aspect of my life, and I rather pity the folks who do. And I’d gladly trade my Colgin for a Coulée de Serrant, depending on what I’m feeling that day. There’s a reason we taste wines blind. Humans live by labels. Humans love labels. I try not to.