Wine Caves and the Reality of Elitism
The reason the “Wine Cave” attack by Elizabeth Warren on Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the last Democratic debate was so effective was that wine is still viewed by most as a symbol of elitism, snobbishness and privilege in the United States. Moreover, this is one of those cases where the symbolism reflects reality.
The attack was also made more memorable by the use of the term “wine cave”. It has a strange and memorable ring to it. But to make the attack work as it did, Warren didn’t need this strange term. “Wine Cellar” or “Napa Valley Winery” or “Ritzy Winery” all would have worked since they all imply the same as “wine cave”: a place where you’ll find the elitist, monied and powerful crowd gathered
The point Senator Warren was making, of course, wasn’t really about wine or what it symbolizes. She was attempting to criticize the Mayor for hobnobbing with rich folks and taking their money. The fact that this took place in a dark, well-appointed “wine cave” where secrets could be whispered among the elite while drinking very expensive wine just put the icing on the criticism.
But it was the well-earned elitist symbolism of wine the really made the attack work.
Wine has always been a symbol of the elite and privileged for the simple reason that it is a more expensive drink that was never the choice of the common man in America. Beer, Rum, spirits and cider, all easier to make and less expensive to purchase, have had this honor.
Then there is the long-accepted image of the wine sophisticate who studies and ponders and elevates wine to an intellectual pursuit. This is not something a common person has time for, let alone the inclination or the education. Like the high price of wine, the leisure time and mental devotion one would require to properly set wine on an intellectual pedestal simply wasn’t a commodity the common man possessed.
Wine, then, has always been the drink of the wealthy, privileged and intelligent. These are three things that historically most Americans have distrusted, despite many aspiring to them. So, to be seen in a “wine cave”, in the sophisticated enclave of Napa Valley, sitting at a well-appointed table, under a crystal chandelier, among (some) powerful millionaires and billionaires, sipping on wine is exactly the kind of elitist imagery that would instill mistrust among the common American.
The Wine Drinker Trope that was hurled at Buttigieg is not only politically effective, it happens also to be reflective of reality. Wine is more expensive because it’s more expensive to produce than beer or spirits. The demographics of those who drink wine more commonly than beer or spirits include higher incomes. Wine is also a drink that lends itself to far more thoughtfulness than beer and spirits given that wine is a more potent reflection of time, place, people and culture than is beer or spirits.
The most interesting element of Senator Warren’s attack on Buttigieg was that despite being the least wealthy person on the debate stage, he has the appearance of being most like the stereotypical elite and privileged wine drinker. Buttigieg appears more intelligent due to the fact that he speaks and carries himself in a more articulate and upstanding way than the other candidates. He also appears to be the most intellectually nimble among the other Democratic candidates. Put a wine glass in his hand and no one would be surprised to hear him expound in detail on a preference for Bordeaux over simple Cabernet (or perhaps the opposite while in Kathryn Hall’s wine cave in Napa Valley).
For the record, I think the Mayor responded well to Warren’s attack that he could not be trusted to resist the pull of the elite and powerful’s money. Of course, it’s not prudent to voluntarily fight with one hand tied behind your back and expect to succeed.
However, Warren’s attack will stick with Buttigieg for the rest of his campaign and will be something he will need to push back against. Wine as a symbol of elitism is powerful, primarily because the symbol reflects the reality that wine is a drink that lends itself more readily to those who are not common folk.