COMMENTARY

Wretched Excess

In a time of plenty

By Ken Friedenreich

I received a news release announcing the hiring of a new winemaker for a Napa Valley property owned by a consortium of wine companies. The list was shorter than the manifest for Noah’s Ark, but it was indeed a large holding.

After the hoopla this “new opportunity” would engender, especially for the winemaker’s take-home pay, the happy talk wound down to the contact person, a woman of millennial vintage with a midtown Manhattan perch high enough to alert the known universe with no impediment.

So our Odysseus doesn’t sail the wine-red sea. Instead of a wily loner, he’s a line-item on a balance sheet. He suffers no fate from vainglorious gods out to drown him but will die, instead, on rocky shores of a quarterly report. Experience is not lived, but packaged and sold in the coin of celebrity or innuendo or high-five tub-thumping. Heroic epithets become SKUs.

The problem now lies in embracing two distinct conditions of the wine industry. These conditions are not like mushrooms popping up on the forest floor overnight. They have been around; they aren’t even necessarily awful. Quite the contrary, they manifest good developments.

So, why am I bugged? Let’s see.

A winemaker moving to a new property should not be announced as if it were the Second Coming. People change jobs, careers, spouses and wardrobe labels all the time. It seems gratuitous to track a winemaker’s accomplishments in a news release just short of citing his merit badges earned as an Eagle Scout or her winning “best performer” for her high school’s version of “The Miracle Worker.”

The wine, not the winemaker, should be the brand. The challenges for a capable steward of vines are presented daily and often, and not on the Empyrean heights of Sixth Avenue. This hyper-prose is oddly misapplied to a relatively minor change in job descriptions. A bland mission statement wraps this fish in corporate paper, complete with contact information for those wishing to follow this epic story.

What really goes on looks like this: The success of the wine industry is a manifestation of larger changes in behavior and fashion. Sometime around the arrival of President Ronald Reagan, pitchman par excellence for California wines and American goods in general, the national appetite recalibrated for brews, spirits and wine. More people tuned into wine and away from booze. Similarly, the beer swillers became beer enthusiasts.

Changes of habit and preference led, as well, to a new focus on local identification and pride of place. Many of us recall beer brands associated with a baseball team and one city — Rheingold: New York Giants. Community esteem derived from origins of goods associated with one area. Wines proved an ebullient instance of such local allegiances.

The second factor would be discretionary dollars. Wallets grew fatter and palates grew up. Tuna was seared — even as we could appreciate Charlie on the tin. Chinese was no longer chow mein. It was regional, spicy, and for the American diner squeamish about food that looked back — well, let’s just say diners pretended not to notice prawns still wearing their heads or chicken feet this writer will never touch.

Still, money allowed freedom to explore as many more people escaped the nets of the old neighborhood and its reassuring provincialism. Nonetheless, the barrage of the new is processed, albeit clumsily, in the Cuisinart of memory.

Growing up around sailboats, I learned very early how to swear, and drink gin and tonic. I even learned the difference between port and starboard — you can drink Port. HL Mencken, nurtured by experience, claimed the martini was the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet. A good news release doesn’t quite equal this achievement, but you will notice it when it arrives in your inbox.

Readers crave positive news. Wine knowledge is always the receding tidal wave, the door in the dream eluding our reach. But the latest dish cannot but add to the surfeit of indigestible information.

To survive, we must secure footing on Odysseus’ bark rather than tie ourselves to the mast to withstand a Siren’s song with its manufactured wine news. We risk a fatal distraction clouding the manifold pleasures of wine so abundant and a more precise indication of place than a GPS will provide.

We are drowning in good wine but, even more, in minutiae about wine, about lifestyles, about careers clambering up status ladders and everything else you don’t need to know as your senses embrace a glass of wine.

Too much of what crosses my virtual desk attests to the need to classify and over-specialize simply to cut through the din. Scoring wine is a bad outcome of an attempt to describe wine as something it is not — a trading card or a pinky ring. A barkeep has morphed into a mixologist. A wine captain, former waiter, can train to become a sommelier, with more hours of training than the pilots of B-1 bombers.

Also, there exists differences of degree in the souls of California and Oregon winemakers. Both are collaborative to some extent, and both compete in ways not needing shoulder padding. But there’s a Hollywood sign in the California wine milieu not easily found in Willamette Valley. Celebrity is a grain of sand and its care takes up too much time.

I remind readers that Edward Bernays, the putative pioneer of public relations, noted the public was no standing army but a passing parade. And sand irritates, even a few grains.

We can assess news generated for wine drinkers and wine editors by their sensitivity to Bernays’ keen observation, made in the days when mail entailed licking a stamp. I call that progress. It only happens to rhyme with “excess.”

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