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.


5 Responses

  1. Fred Peterdon - December 23, 2019

    Appreciated your comments. Thought the Hall’s response that “it isn’t fair” to single out them/this event was particularly oblivious to the perception of the general public. I do have to take exception to your characterization of wine being the drink of educated elites. Perhaps now, but historically it has been the go to drink of people, peasants and nobility from Mediterranean regions that followed them when they emigrated to the US. Certainly the case here where I live in the Dry Creek Valley/Sonoma County. Look at prohibition when California grape growers made big money shipping grapes to mid-west/east coast to mostly ethnic groups that had to have wine. The reality and perception of wine has certainly changed in the last 60 years and not all for the better.

  2. Tony Caffrey - December 23, 2019

    My take: Butty’s response likely did Warren more harm, than her attack on him. He exposed her as a hypocrite, and amplified her desperation, which may be the result of her already slipping numbers, due to policy shifts. Not that Butty hasn’t shifted policy, but he’s managed the shifts more artfully.

  3. Helene - December 28, 2019

    Ouch, big ouch! Fortunately in Europe wine IS the drink of the people. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) in the UK takes a prize for snobbery, too, although, to be fair, wine-knowledgeable punters still tend to come from Oxbridge or other Russell Group universities and Public Schools in the UK and from the better Unis on the continent, too, unless they are lucky enough to be part of wine-growing families.

  4. Tony Caffrey - December 30, 2019

    Hall-O-Caust Wine Anyone?  

    Nasty, and inappropriate, beyond good taste, a trivialization of holocaust victims and survivors, but not without some justification. Sometimes ethically challenged people suffer from a condition only a good kick in the gonads will cure.

    counterpunch: Backstory on a Billionaire? Mayor Pete’s Favorite Wine-Maker Hasn’t Been a Good Napa Neighbor

    Craig and Kathryn Hall have given $2.4 million to Democratic candidates, party campaign committees, and PACs since the 1980s … James Conaway, author of the Times best-seller Napa: The Story of an American Eden and, a more recent sequel, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in the Age of Calamity, has a very different view of nouveau riche “vintners” and their environmental impact …

  5. Tony Caffrey - January 4, 2020

    Politico is reporting today that Warren has ended her Wine Cave Offensive.
    Would it be schadenfreude to speculate that her comments contributed to her lower 4th quarter fundraising haul?  Answer: No!

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