So Long, Seahaven: Wine’s New Mainstream

In an effort to rub out the complications of a complex wine world, many of America's tastemakers aimed to simplify it. But like Seahaven, the fictitious town in The Truman Show, that narrow world has split at the seams.

wine's new mainstream kaye blegvad

During a particularly pivotal moment in “The Truman Show,” Jim Carrey’s character sits in the driveway of his home in Seahaven and describes to his wife what’s passing in the rear-view mirror: Lady on a red bike. Man with flowers. Volkswagen Beetle. Lady. Flowers. Beetle.

On a loop.

With that, his fake reality—one created to keep him safe and, presumably, happy—splits at the seams.

I’ve been replaying that scene in my head lately as I’ve considered two particular wines that hint at one thing: Wine’s mainstream, a narrow tableau of well-liked, but mild-mannered grapes crafted to make us feel safe and, presumably, happy, is being sheared apart.

The first is Blowout, the latest creation from Abe Schoener of The Scholium Project. It’s a typical Abe creation, deliberately poking at convention: verdelho and grüner veltliner, two grapes not particularly associated with California, grown in his beloved Lost Slough vineyard, which sits below sea level in the Sacramento River delta. It’s a fizzy wine, but rather than undergo Champagne-style fermentation—or even the bulk-tank method used to make things like Prosecco—it’s simply carbonated, not unlike being made in a giant SodaStream.

Schoener dubbed this process “methode futuriste,” an homage to the Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Is carbonating wine contributing to the greater culture? I’m skeptical, and I’m not particularly down with applying the ever-hasty Martinetti’s frame of mind to wine’s avant-garde; he was both an ascetic (he wanted the Italians to abandon pasta and the principles of slow eating) and a fascist.

At the same time, I can’t discount the warm reception that Blowout has gotten—down to photos of it being drunk from the bottle with a straw. A deliberate bit of eccentricity, perhaps, but it has grown on me in the months since I first tasted it. Weird? Sure. But it’s also a dose of sheer pleasure.

Same with the second wine, a Tavel from L’Anglore, the natural property run by former apiarist Eric Pfifferling in the very southern Rhône. Traditionally, Tavel is a hearty rosé, full of fruit but still very much a breezy Mediterranean wine. Pfifferling’s crosses into a territory more akin to a light, Jura-ish red, the fruit less pronounced but balanced by a red-wine sturdiness. It’s not as deliberately rule-breaking as Blowout, yet here’s what they share in common: Both flaunt the rules, but never at the expense of deliciousness.

The beef with such wines is that they’re too far out from the mainstream—their very existence, to wine conservatives, is an affront to traditional values. Except that traditional values, in wine, have always embraced more tolerance for change than we’ve been led to believe, which is why we keep coming back to enologist Émile Peynaud’s oft-cited assertion: “Tradition is only an experiment that worked.”

By the 1990s and through the early 2000s, wine lovers were being dropped directly into our own version of Seahaven.

With both wines, their deliciousness is amplified by their difference. If they were mediocre—or, as is sometimes the case on the cutting edge, a microbial experiment gone awry—their quirks would be easily written off. But their success requires us to question convention. Lady. Flowers. Beetle.

There have been efforts to create order in wine for centuries. After a whiplash of innovation in the 1970s, in the ’80s we were suddenly reminded that great wine came from a limited number of well-known places: Sancerre and the Médoc and Brunello were the canon. A rung or two down came a slim roster of varietals. Chardonnay, cabernet and pinot grigio were lingua franca, regardless of whether they came from Monterey or Sicily. Master them, and you could master wine.

Of course, there were always some comers appearing to plead their case. Ribera del Duero and Barossa Shiraz seemed new and shiny. But when you moved any further out to the fringe—grower Champagne, grüner veltliner—you received the sort of kind smile reserved for sideshow attractions. (Come, see the grape with an umlaut!)

By the 1990s and through the early 2000s, wine lovers were being dropped directly into our own version of Seahaven.

Why were we subjected to this oversimplification? The short answer is that Americans, and their tastemakers, were scrambling at the time to make wine less snobby, and yet somehow at the same time hold it up as a symbol of modest affluence. Was wine still the cheap juggy drink it had been to 20th-century immigrants? Was it supposed to be a spendy bit of conspicuous consumption for the country-club set? No wonder we were confused.

And so along came that “Truman Show” view of the world, because the easy way to popularize something seen as confusing and elite was to rub out its complications. Why deal with nebbiolo (make that chiavennasca) from Lombardy or the nuanced wines of the Jura when you could organize the world into neat little boxes? Why indulge in diversity when you can unload truckload after truckload of oaky $30 cougar juice to the masses? Why struggle with quality sherry when pinot grigio is so unthreatening?

The New Mainstream doesn’t ask us to drink from one canon, with a few choices on the fringe, much as we’ve concluded that we don’t need to choose between Top 40 and indie. Taste today isn’t pushed quite so hard to accommodate the mass market, unless you deliberately want to chase a Billboard-style dream of the next big hit. (That philosophy, I’d assert, has yielded a lot of crappy wine and a lot of crappy music.)

In the New Mainstream, Beaujolais can field wines as serious and studious as the Côte d’Or’s. Mount Etna can stand hold its own with the Langhe. You can debate the relative merits of orange wine and old-vine Chilean reds without having had your passport stamped in Pauillac.

Despite what the old mainstream might have you believe, this sort of narrowcasting is just fine with today’s emerging drinkers. They know better than to be duped by breathless scorekeeping or the narrow quality barometers of the past. (Thanks, Internet!) And they know a lot more than the previous generation ever did about a far vaster array of wines, not as connoisseurs—a term we might put out of its misery—but as interested and curious drinkers.

After all, if there’s any lesson to be learned from “The Truman Show,” it’s that it requires a hell of a lot of work to force simplicity onto a complex world. Ultimately, it is easier, and there’s more pleasure to be found, by embracing diversity rather than mandating simple taxonomies.

I am not, incidentally, heading toward an argument to do away with the old. Wine thrives—it cannot move forward—without a tension between old and new. We could not love Ribeira Sacra if we didn’t have Rioja as a counterpoint. We couldn’t love Carema without Barolo. There’s no need to abandon Chianti or zinfandel just because frappato or counoise come along. Further, most of these wines—and even that gonzo Tavel—aren’t even really new. They’re just beneficiaries of a renewed interest in old and forgotten things. They are the product of the marriage of tradition and restlessness, and they would make Peynaud smile.

Which is why the arrival of the New Mainstream (or the many mainstreams) doesn’t hasten the end of tradition, as some might have us believe. Many of the world’s great wines continue to be great. What stands to be wiped out—and what I’ll willfully go after with intent—is the mediocrity that came to define so much of the old mainstream. It’s no longer OK to believe that playing it safe, and appealing to the obvious, can breed success.

Nor is it OK to accept without pushback the shocking price hikes that have taken so many great wines out of the hands of those who helped to build their fame. When Bordeaux and Burgundy have been turned into toys for the rich, the rest of us have every right to seek out new benchmarks. That, too, is part of the New Mainstream.

“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.”  That’s how Ed Harris’ character, who created the world of “The Truman Show,” put it. The old wine world we were once presented with—a narrow one that championed safety and tolerated mediocrity—is crumbling. The New Mainstream dictates that we live with complexity. Like Truman, we’re sailing out into a far wider world. We’ve left our fears behind.