September 4, 2013

Wine: Best things are often right in front of us


The growing chasm between people who have enough money to live comfortably and those who do not is the single greatest social challenge facing humanity. This chasm manifests in every facet of society. One facet of society is wine.

Anyone involved in the world of wine -- from casual consumer to dedicated oenophile, from buyer to seller -- who ignores the chasm between rich and poor, who indeed fails to engage with wine on a level that seeks to bridge that chasm, is at least weak, and at most culpable.

How do we drink wine, when approximately three-quarters of a billion humans do not have consistent access to clean water? Not "how can we?" but literally, "how do we?"

Like every other social product, wine is a field on which the game of cannibalistic capitalism is played, sometimes viciously. On the palate, wine can be bright, earthy, crisp, unctuous, savory or sweet. In the market, wine can function as a token of bragging rights, a commodity intended to enrich the rich.

Cheap wine has gotten cheaper, dear wine has gotten dearer. Wine as product is natural. Wine as commodity is unnatural. Wine as luxury-good commodity is reprehensible.

As with other cultural artifacts such as literature or cinema, wine's significance is often expressed most prominently in terms of sales. We are most impressed by market share.

What would happen if wine prices were set the way book and movie ticket prices are set -- that is, roughly, standardized? The "capital" necessary to engage with wine would be more cultural than economic. Yes, cultural capital often arises from economic capital. And yes, in an era of mass reproduction of cultural artifacts such as books and movies, scarcity is not the issue that it is with wine. But the thought experiment -- all wines roughly the same price; which would you pick? -- is compelling.

Some of the greatest wines in the world come from Burgundy, but there aren't too many people who can buy good Burgundy anymore. This is in part due to the natural constraints of scarcity in the region, but more due to speculation, and to the mafia classes (Chinese, American, Russian, just for a start) drawn by the scent not of earth and roses in wines of the Cote d'Or, but of money in velvet-draped bottles at Sotheby's.

In my job selling wine, I recently put together a selection of wines for a collector. He told me what sorts of wines he likes and is interested in laying down in his cellar. I proposed wines, which he approved. In procuring the wines, I ran into the usual assortment of out-of-stock challenges. When I told the customer of certain substitutions we'd have to make or bottles he'd have to do without, his responses were so nonchalant -- the overriding sentiment seemed to be, "just fill up the boxes" -- that I wondered whether he even loved wine at all.

There is a wastefulness at the heart of our culture. We are collectively responsible for creating it, and for reinforcing and sustaining it.

Most of the smartest, most passionate people working in wine today -- importers, sommeliers, writers -- cut their teeth in an era when the great wines of the world were available to drink. They learned at the feet of the masters.

If so many classics are now unavailable, a new conceptual framework for wine appreciation must (actually, has begun to) develop to address this relatively recent sociological fact. Younger wine lovers today orient toward adventure, the undiscovered, the context in which a wine is produced. In terms of flavor, they orient toward immediacy, interestingness, affinity with contemporary cuisine. Less and less wine these days is flawed, but flaws are not necessarily of utmost importance.

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