Self Promotion and the Artisan Zietgiest in the Wine Industry
One of the more interesting consequences of the proliferation of new wine writers on blogs and elsewhere over the past 10 years is a return to the focus of the “Star Winemaker”. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the rise of the individual winemaker, a personality of sorts (such as it can be in the world of wine). That media and industry focus on the “star winemaker” started to wane a bit by 2,000, with the ground and terroir pushing aside winemaking personalities as the center of rapt attention in the industry.. And yet today, with so much more wine editorial being produced, there has been something of a return to the winemaker-as-star/celebrity. This attention matches the rise to prominence of the “Self Promotion generation”.
Some of the more interesting discussions I had with clients in the 1990s was about “the type” of winemaker they ought to hire when the occasion allowed or demanded. This conversation always seemed to weigh the costs and benefits of hiring a name; a winemaker known with in the industry:
“We are thinking about offering the position to Mr. NameWinemaker”
“They make excellent wine, but they are very visible and they’ve moved on to better positions regularly.”
“It would certainly bring attention to the brand.”
“Yes, and good attention…But how long will it last…There are other winemakers equally talented and much more likely to become an important part of the winery with far less likelihood they will move on soon.”
That’s how the conversation went. By the beginning of the new millennium, it was much less likely that a winery needed a name winemaker in order to make a splash. Wineries has proliferated through the 1990s and early 2000’s and there was a lot of interesting California wine being made by a host of younger and experienced winemakers across the state. The wine and the place were being shown off by a slew of new, dedicated artisans. So, with this spread of the innovation in California, the number of winemakers that had something of a name for themselves had either struck out on their own as consultants or to start their own wineries. Hiring a consulting was still interesting. But it’s not nearly as attention-getting as it was in the 1980s and 1990s to hire a Cathy Corison, a David Ramey, A Zelma Long, a Bob Levy, a Tony Soter or a Merry Edwards.
I believe it is indicative of the evolution of the California wine industry (its maturity, actually) that today the really well known and influential winemakers probably work for themselves and produce a brand that is a manifestation of that talent that made them influential and well-known:
Tony Soter and Soter Vineyards
Ehren Jordan and Failla Wines
Pam Starr and Star and Crocker
Cathy Corison and Corison Cellars
Mia Klein and Selene
Ross Cobb and Cobb Wines
Luc Morlet and Morlet Family Vineyards
Ted Lemon and Littorai.
The list goes on…
This rise of the self-reliant and self-producing winemaking celebrity is certainly an indication of the maturing of the American wine industry, both as a profession and institution. But it must be said that this risen image of the self producing winemaker as the pinnacle of artisanship has been helped along by the fact that there are so many more ways and places to tell their story. The winemaking artisan is not merely being identified, interviewed, written about and celebrated by third-party writers, but they themselves are also more able to self-represent and highlight their own ideas via social media outlets. This wasn’t an option in the 1980s and 1990s.
This is not to proclaim an age of narcissism in the wine industry, but rather to observe that we live in an age of self promotion and elevated promotional opportunities and that this zeitgeist is embraced and not considered a bad or awkward thing.
Certain winemakers will always leave a larger more impactful legacy than others in every era. But I think circumstances are in place today to see that number and diversity grow due to the different ways in which legacies of importance are established. Expanded media outlets, social media and the current artisan zeitgeist make this true.