Is Wine Developing Its Own Version of Normcore?

Of late, the fashion world has seen the rise of "normcore," a trend in which high-effort style is being replaced by everyman basics. Wine, it turns out, is experiencing its own version of the trend. Jennifer Fiedler on how blending in may be the new standing out.

normcore wine rose with ice beaujolais

This fall marked the second season of fashion week coverage dominated by slideshows of cargo pants and Birkenstocks, with writers trumpeting the rise of “normcore,” a trend in which the fashion world attempts to blend in with the rest of us.

A February New York magazine article, one of the first to detail the phenomenon, situated the concept as white flag to an increasingly high-effort street style that had come to dominate fashion blogs and social media. As the internet made fashion immediately available to the masses—or so the theory goes—staying ahead of the trend curve became nearly impossible and, as such, the new cool became fitting in, rather than standing out.

Wine drinkers, hardly the most fashionable lot, might feel a ping of recognition here—not about the return-to-outlet-mall-basics part (yet), but more regarding the pre-normcore tension about the pace of trends, and just how dizzying keeping up with the leading fringe of hot-right-now can be. Is cru Beaujolais now so known, for example, that nouveau has retaken the mantle of “it” Beaujolais? Is Pét-Nat—the must-try of 2013—still a thing?

Case in point: This fall also marked the latest online dust-up in the debate over whether wine lists are becoming too esoteric, with sides arguing over whether the general population is getting shortchanged by wine tastemakers who, as one side argued, value obscurity over quality. Meanwhile one wine writer, in response, declared, “if you think a restaurant’s wine list is too weird for you, you are too old to eat there.”

The question is then, with “weird wine” becoming more widely adopted, can wine’s version of normcore be far behind? And what would that look like?

But now that these producers and grapes have become somewhat commonplace, “cool” wine is at a crossroads. What began as a search for value in the undiscovered has, for some, become a transfer of value onto the wine’s obscurity itself—the difference between “this undiscovered wine is cool” and “this wine is cool because it’s undiscovered.” And it’s here, where maintaining the frontiers of the obscure-cool gets increasingly untenable, that wine begins to look more like the pre-normcore fashion world.

By most accounts, wine in the United States has gotten much more diverse over the last decade. But the rush toward the fringes is no mystery: Consumers became priced out of traditional benchmarks. Take Chateau Mouton-Rothschild’s 1982 vintage, for instance, which initially sold for $390 per case. The 2013 vintage went on sale this past spring for $353 per bottle, and that’s before the restaurant mark-up.

For a new generation of wine drinkers, seeking out esoteric and unusual wines became a way of establishing a different value system, one that ignored past status symbols of crus, points and high price tags. Buoyed by adventurous importers, retailers and sommeliers, an alternative wine canon emerged and evolved; cru Beaujolais and traditional Rioja became the gateway to Jura and orange wines.

But now that these producers and grapes have become somewhat commonplace, “cool” wine is at a crossroads. What began as a search for value in the undiscovered has, for some, become a transfer of value onto the wine’s obscurity itself—the difference between “this undiscovered wine is cool” and “this wine is cool because it’s undiscovered.” And it’s here, where maintaining the frontiers of the obscure-cool gets increasingly untenable, that wine begins to look more like the pre-normcore fashion world.

It’s a silly but fun game to point out which labels might fill the slideshow of wine normcore—the Birkenstocks and cargo pants of the wine world, if you will. The cans of Tecate and Miller High Life that sommeliers post to instagram, perhaps? Or maybe Kendall Jackson, the kitchen prop for The Big Bang Theory’s Penny, who is so everygirl the show’s writers won’t give her a last name? For a stretch, one could argue the case that the new California movement or the rediscovery of Bordeaux—both of which are having a very old-is-the-new-new moment—could belong.

All of these sound almost right, except cheap beer isn’t wine, leading sommeliers don’t seem to be padding the lists with KJ and the price tag for most thoughtfully-made California wine is anything but casual.

One of the reasons why pinning down wine’s normal might be so tough is that it’s such a niche industry to begin with. While (most) everyone wears clothes, of the 60 percent of people in the U.S. who drink alcohol, only 35 percent self-identify as primarily wine drinkers. Turns out, the normal thing when it comes to wine is to not drink it.

Certain brands have tried to capitalize on this dissonance by marketing a raft of anti-snob, weeknight value, wine-for-the-rest-of-us stories, all purporting to showcase so-called normal wine. But even if you’re trying to be anti-snobby, there’s something about the act of calling out a specific wine label or brand as normal that elevates it to not-normal status.

Part of the trouble is that the United States has never really been good at table wine—the European concept for normal. We’re still too young to wine culture, still too caught up in, as wine writer Mike Steinberger calls it, “a particular form of snobbery.” But could we be finally chipping away at this and learning how to act normal around wine?

The all-rosé-all-summer phenomenon might come closest to approximating what table wine could look like in the United States. Yes, specific labels command a certain amount of attention, but for the most part, the producers are interchangeable; what consumers seem to want is whatever’s pink. The way one can ask for it in a restaurant or store (“I’ll have the rosé”) conveys a blankness that can be utilized by both wine nerds and regular people alike—the perfect choice for blending in.

But rosé’s growing popularity may be more of a symptom rather than example of what normcore wine might look like. As conceived in 2013 by K-Hole, a trend-forecasting group, normcore is more about an open-minded approach to consumption on the user’s part, rather than the specific brands themselves. It’s about wanting to make connections with other people through shared experiences instead of asserting one’s individuality—the willingness to play the tourist rather than be the expert.

Through that lens, normcore is a concept that lends itself easily to the wine world. As a consumer there’s been no better time to play wine tourist than the present, especially now that the trendiness of certain categories of wine—orange wine, for example—is beginning to wane and be replaced by a more nuanced view of what makes something like skin-fermented white wine work.

While the rush toward the obscure yielded bouts of vitriol, it’s important to remember that obscure wines themselves are not discordant with the idea of normcore—it’s the way in which they are used. As a Bourdieu-ian tool to display status? Not so good. But as a way to experience culture—be that of the restaurant or producer or country that the wine is from? Better. As a way to connect with other people? Best. On a micro-level, a wine list with a point of view can come off as manifesto-y, but on a macro-level, a wine culture that can support multiple points of view is a sign of health.

There does seem to be a groundswell in the acceptance that wine can contain multitudes. Sherry and gamay can coexist with Bordeaux and California cabernet. Unoaked and oaked chardonnay both have their place. There’s a time for fancy glassware and a time for putting ice cubes in your rosé.

And it’s here, perhaps, in this omnivorous approach to the unprecedented diversity in the wine world—where what label we choose to drink at any one sitting cannot possibly define us—that normcore wine may actually exist. When we drink to join others, rather than set ourselves apart, maybe wine will have finally become embedded in American culture, and what could be more normcore than that?

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  • VinoRai

    Nice write up, Jennifer. While on one hand, we hope this isn’t a trend because we all know the short shelf life of a trend, yet on the other hand, the rise of digital media has empowered the everyday consumer to become power-explorers and make more informed and better decisions. This momentum knows only one direction: forward. The same goes for wine as well (or at least we hope). As a Turkish wine importer, we’re optimistic of a renaissance brewing in wine consumption & discovery here in the U.S. led not just by technology but also by certain generations like the millenials. Here’s to more wines! Cheers.

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  • Ahli Anggur

    The most normcore-ish trend I’ve observed is people asking for blends. Usually, red, but otherwise they don’t seem to care what the wine is a blend of or where it’s from. Someone has somehow convinced them that blends are a good thing. Apothic, or apocalypse?

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