by Peter Pharos

We’ve Never Had It So Good

“I have opinions of my own, strong opinions,” that beacon of American conservative thought, George W. Bush, is alleged to have told us, “but I don’t always agree with them.” I felt a bit like that towards the end of my claim to be living in the Post-Modern era of wine. It’s not that I don’t stand by my analysis, of course I do, it is just that it made things feel so…dismal. It is something that happens often when you try to capture the complexity of reality in neat conceptual schemata. The Curse of Theory I call it. It explains why so many rich kids with humanities degrees seem to be unhappy all the time. Or, for that matter, the nation of France.

The pessimism feels uncalled for because, objectively viewed, this is the best era to drink wine in history. By “drink wine” I don’t mean the act of absent-mindedly imbibing grape-based alcohol but taking an active interest in the beverage itself. What in times of less self-aware faux-egalitarianism would have been called connoisseurship, or, more simply, treating wine as a hobby. To verify the hypothesis, one would need to look at what wine culture is based on, i.e. the appeal of moving from casual drinking to semi-serious engagement. These conditions are well-known. Wine’s capacity for complexity is practically unmatchable; only the finest of distilled spirits come anywhere close, but even if you put the whole lot of them together, you only get a subset of the variety of flavours wine can provide – and nothing that stands even remotely close as a food accompaniment.

Then there is the famous, or infamous, notion of terroir. Uniquely amongst alcoholic drinks, wine expresses its place of origin, with the differences at times appearing even at a minute scale. Those differences do not stop at space but extend through time. The same label can be different from one vintage to another; even better, the very same wine will be different from one year to the next. You won’t go very far trying to age your beer in bottle. Wine culture also has the historical advantage of a few centuries’ head start as an intellectual pursuit. You can mock tasting notes and serving temperatures and wine glasses, but the simple truth is that they set the golden standard for every type of beverage appreciation. It is not a coincidence that drinks salespeople from tea to sake and from bourbon to kombucha all try to ape the wine dictionary.

If we agree that this is what makes wine rise above the status of alcohol delivery mechanism, then there has never been a better time to drink wine indeed. The number of places making wine has never been higher; more importantly, the number of places making good wine has exploded. The idea that England would produce wine in both quality and quantity would be laughable as recently as the early 1990s. My home country of Greece has been making wine for millennia, but go back as recently as 40 years, and you would be hard-pressed to find even one tenth of the quality, and even one fortieth of the understanding of the land and its grapes. A handful of, mostly French, regions aside, the same applies to the majority of historic wine producers. The quality, variety, and reliability of modern wine offering would be undreamt of.  Add to this the huge increase in the number of people engaging with wine seriously, and the breadth and diversity of views they bring with them. For anyone who claims to like the intellectual side of wine, the above should be a cause for definite celebration. So many more toys to play with, so much more enjoyment to be had. Looked upon more closely, the lauded “golden age” of wine drinking seems to have been the same five blokes in London, drinking the same three bottles of claret. Of course people picked up the tiniest differences; anything to escape the boredom.

All this seems, and is, incontestable. Then why the long face? One element, as per my post-modernism thesis, is that the wine industry has been a bit too successful, and a bit too homogenised, for its own good. Travelling offers a good parallel: it’s easier, and probably more pleasant, to be a tourist than ever before, but the exoticism factor has been substantially reduced. Similarly, it seems that right now there is no big disagreement to have fun with, the type of thing that brings the spice of debate, like the New World, or Parker scores, or natural wine. Everything, for now, appears to be settled.

There is, however, another lament that comes up frequently and, I suspect, explains the all-around dourness. The feeling that a good chunk of great (misleadingly referred to as “benchmark”) wines are no longer available to anyone but the super rich. The idea is that, until relatively recently, even the greatest wines were, more or less, within reach – everyone has a golden era story of how they bought this premier cru or other. To the extent that this is true, it is only a minor part of a much greater economic conversation. To be honest, I don’t begrudge any Boomer all the Château Whatever they have drunk; I am much more annoyed by them buying million-pound houses with three months’ pay and two packs of Aztec. But I am also not convinced that top wines ever had as egalitarian a target market as people claim they did. Cristal was not created to honour the accountants of Tunbridge Wells.

It is a feature of the wine world, even amongst the cognoscenti, to confuse price with quality. I have argued before that, past a certain price point, the bottle stops being real wine and becomes a luxury experience. The wine attached to it might be bad, might be good, might even be exceptional, but the actual quality means very little, as its essence is not the drink but the opulence it is meant to convey. This luxury FOMO of wine culture is strange; it is even stranger that it seems to be stronger among professionals who, one would think, know how the proverbial sausage is made. I struggle to think of another field where professed aficionados are sad for not partaking in one-percenter affairs. It would probably be quite fun to have the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform at my New Year’s Eve party, the way they did for Roman Abramovich, but, somehow, I don’t consider the erstwhile owner of Chelsea more of a connoisseur of 1990s Californian rock music for it. I also guess it would be nice to sit courtside next to Jack Nicholson at the Staples Center, but I don’t think it would make me any wiser about basketball. (And, like many an uber-expensive Napa Cabernet, I can imagine the experience becoming overbearing very quickly.) Do car journalists lament they will never get to drive the golden Bentleys of Saudi royals? And do those that do drive one pull rank on the rest because of it?

I have been wondering for a while why this peculiarity exists in wine culture, and I suspect the answer lies in wine education, which sets the benchmarks we take for granted. One of its biggest successes is making people forget that it is developed by, and largely for, the interests of wine salespeople – and UK salespeople especially. It is almost tautological that for a salesperson, the most important wine is the most expensive. It has always been thus in wine, so we take it for granted, but it is actually quite bizarre as a concept. Imagine if Pfizer got to write the university curricula in pharmacology; Viagra would feature in every semester. This mechanism also explains why wine education has a reflexive obeisance to the most banal industrial wine, and a bizarre affectation for a facsimile of business education. At times it reads like someone is trying to get an MBA by watching YouTube videos of Gary Vee.

But it’s not Romanée Conti I complain about, I hear you say. It’s all the other wines that I could buy five years ago, and now I can’t. You know, the cool ones. Well, same rules apply. I have accepted that 2011 is the last vintage of Viña Tondonia I am going to buy. It is not that the price is above what I would ever pay for a bottle of wine, it is just that, for my taste and wallet, this is just not a good purchase anymore. If tomorrow I make three times the money, then back to the shopping cart it goes. But I don’t feel sad about the loss, let alone annoyed by their success (hey, if they can pull it off, good for them). If anything, I feel a bit excited, liberated even. A comfort zone was useful in the fake-golden era of the 1970s and 1980s. Today, for a wine hobbyist, it is more of a stagnation. There is so much great wine to enjoy, so many great vinous experiences to discover, and so few evenings to do it in. Because there has never been a better time to drink wine than today.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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