In Praise of Wine Snobs and Classists
And now let us praise the wealthy, wealthy-adjacent, privileged, conspicuously consuming wine consumers who, with their showy and snooty displays and consumption of expensive, rare, hard-to-find, wines from Old World and New World wine regions with particular emphasis on wines of high ratings, have created the modern wine industry and made way for the diversity of wine now seen across America.
Now imagine a world in which California wines named “Burgundy, Barbaresco, and White Chablis” all made from some blend of over-cropped grapes are presented to us in jugs and magnums for the lowest possible price. Imagine a world of fine dining where “Blue Nun” sat in the middle of a list of by-the-glass wines in order of price.
It was those upper-middle, upper class, and rich folks spread out across the country who took the bait, used some of their leisure time to come to California and investigated a relatively small cadre of wineries who they’d read somewhere was not just naming their wines after the grapes that went into them but were also doing so with a real commitment to quality (or at least doing so in a French sort of way). These folks took a chance and changed the wine industry.
it is fashionable today to suggest there is certain “classism” in the wine world. This word in the wine context is another synonym for “snobby”. But both “Classism” and “snobby” have always meant the same thing: A disparaging moniker aimed at those who have means and mean to use them on expensive wine and who, God bless them, spend time digging deep with other classists and snobs discussing the composition of the dirt in which the wines’ ingredients were cultivated. “Classism” and “Snob” are almost always just another indication of envy or aspiration.
By visiting the wineries in the 70s, 80s and early 1990 who were making an effort to demonstrate the potential of New World wine, by buying these wines, by championing these wines and by being willing to go to any length to get on the list of the most coveted “cult wineries” that motivated even more ambitious wineries to be created and experiment and create wines that would appeal to these same wealthy and wealth adjacent folks, these classists and snobs got the wine revolution going.
This in turn resulted in a filtering down. Middle-class folks with more and more wineries to choose from in Napa and Sonoma, in Mendocino, in Santa Barbara and other locations, trekked out to visit these wineries. They stayed in the newly built hotels to support the new visitors. They ate at the new restaurants that catered to folks with the kinds of palates that just might indulge in Steak Tartare, classic French cuisine and the then roaring trend of “California Cusine”, that were opening across the various winelands in California and Oregon and Washington.
All of a sudden, what started with mainly a bunch of middle-aged, rich white guys looking to explore something new and who were catered to by a relatively small group of writers who also sensed something important was happening in the vineyards of California and thought writing about it in new magazines and newspaper columns, exploded into a full-blown industry of craft and artisan wines of supreme quality and innovation that are now priced for just about anyone to buy.
The original rich folks that traveled to California and paid homage to Robert Mondavi, Ridge, Heitz, Caymus, Stony Hill and other originals, then, along with their sons, turned their attention to Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Maya, and Bryant Family. It was never really about snobbism or showing off. It was about discovery. It was about sharing a passion with like-minded folks and talking about it, and reading about it…and sharing their treasures.
If you talk to any of the now high flying wineries up and down the West Coast, they will each tell you that their “most important and special” customers are doctors, attorneys, hedge fund managers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs made good and other just, plain rich folks. These people are the bread and butter. They are also the people keeping an eye on and eventually supporting the talented assistant winemaker at a Pinot house in Oregon who will one day go off on their own and produced juicy, complex, low alcohol, and well priced Albarino or Tempranillo from the southern Willamette Valley, further enhancing and promulgating a culture of artisanship and experimentation.
My point is that if you care about diversity of wine and wine styles, you will want to think twice about “classism” and “snobbism” in the wine world. It’s not such a bad thing that the rich have helped deliver to American wine drinkers. And it will continue to be not such a bad thing. These folks, while continuing to drone on about which wine is this and which wine is that, and about their most recent acquisition and why you must stop drinking that and start drinking this, are the same folks who will continue to support and champion and make viable a crazy vibrant wine industry in America and along with it a diversity of wine unmatched anywhere in the world.
Tom, we are also lucky they bid up and big on our auction lots to support our migrant and vineyard worker health programs that are far more effective than the insurance we obtain. What I have noticed is over the 36 years here, it is how wine enthusiasta prioritize the spending of their disposable income with school teachers, postal workers and people in the trades being among the strongest Oregon wine advocates (we have 16,000 owners now). When they gather together, the joy they share and the belief in the future of Oregon wine unites them with physicians passing bottles to beauticians. It is really something to feel the optimism in the room.
Your model is among the most unique in the industry. I’ll bet you have some of the best parties too.
Quite right, Tom. In my younger days I ‘moonlighted’ as a buyer of European wines for a small retailer who focussed on USA wines (mostly California with a small foray into Oregon, Washington and Texas, as Houston was where we were based) and wanted to diversify his offering. Our best customers were the medics from Texas Medical Centre, the solicitors and barristers and CEOs, etc. of the oil companies. They encouraged us to import the best (highest Parker-rated wines) from California, but even more relevantly the highest-rated wines from, especially, Bordeaux, but also Super-Tuscans and top-class Burgundy. Hence, the Southwest began its journey to discovering the World of Wine. We also had Friday -night ‘happy-hour’ tastings and talks, eiher by the owner or me and occasionally producers who happened to be in town, introducing the not-quite-so-wealthy to the wonderful of wine. You are completely correct about the trickle-down effect on prodcution and diversification. Thank goodness, no more California ‘Chablis’, a.k.a. Colombard and goodness knows what else.
Well said Tom. You always seem to say the necessary thing that other either can’t or won’t say.
I would only add that this is always what happens in every industry. The upper third of wealth drives innovation and distribution of all types of products because they are the ones willing to pay a premium.
The small little importer, the small distributor, the DTC-only boutique winery, & and indie restaurant/retail all exist because there are people who don’t always look for the lowest price, but instead are willing to pay for the sublime and the ground breaking..
Colombard as “Chablis”. Yes. I recall.