I was way up above California Street, looking out from the Crown Room of the Fairmont Hotel, watching the elongated cargo boats rotate in the blue San Francisco bay. I think it was up there, flanked by some of earth’s most talented winemakers pouring their wines at La Paulée—San Francisco’s celebration of the rarest and best of Burgundy—that I first caught wind of the hubbub.
Eric Railsback, owner of the Santa Barbara wine bar, Les Marchands, was behind me talking about Unicorn Somm, the Twitter personality that exists only to harass famous sommeliers. The figure remains anonymous, making full use of that media’s shade, growing steadily more brutal in recent weeks. Apparently the tweets of that day had revealed that they were here at La Paulée, working among us. The news resulted in no shortage of conjecture and side eyeing amongst the crew.
“He’s somebody that is funny. Not many sommeliers are funny,” Railsback said. I looked around the room. No one looked funny. Railsback, a former protégé of sommelier Rajat Parr, is himself funny in a perpetual way, and oft serves as a comic rabble-rouser at events like these. If it weren’t for some tweets that went after Parr directly, and in a fashion that was somewhat below the belt, Railsback would have been suspect number one. Perhaps in defense of Parr, or maybe because he fit the description, Railsback was assuming the role of lead huntsman.
Whatever might be assumed about Unicorn Somm—from the incessant sniper shots, the essential rudeness of this trolling behavior, the send-ups that are sometimes excessive and unnecessary—the cracks can be pretty astute. Some examples:
— Unicorn Somm (@unicornsomm) February 19, 2014
Good luck to all taking the MS Exam coming up. I hope you fulfill your dreams of being off the floor and behind a desk at Constellation.
— Unicorn Somm (@unicornsomm) January 31, 2014
— Unicorn Somm (@unicornsomm) January 28, 2014
Whoever Unicorn Somm is, the voice works as some kind of acting out, a bubbling up of something fairly negative, but as-yet undefined. The handle makes a pretty harsh satire, and since satire is usually a demonstration that some aspect of the subject is absurd, but nobody is saying so, it leads one to wonder: What’s bugging Unicorn Somm?
It can’t be that the targeted sommeliers are just completely full of shit. Most actually do know what they’re talking about. Is it simple jealousy? Disenfranchisement? Admittedly, a frat-like element does subsist within the club of the sommelier elite. Might this element be spawning its own electronic Lambda-Lambda-Lambda?
Perhaps an explanation might lie in the handle itself. Unicorn Somm, as a name, succeeds in making a dual reference. On one hand, it makes a claim to elusiveness—a grandiose taunt to the effect of: You jocks won’t catch me. I’m a myth.
But, on the other hand, the name appears to mock a defining feature of contemporary wine culture: the notion of the “Unicorn Wine”—a bottle that is extremely rare, and therefore a brag-worthy thing to taste (or maybe just photograph). A #unicornwine hashtag exists, but how it began—or who coined the phrase—remains unclear.
Unicorn Somm attaches the absurdity of its own behavior to that wider class of wine-conquering showboats—a class to which every wine fan has belonged, at least at some point. And, with a twinge of deep irony, they go further by tying that satire right up into Twitter itself.
I don’t mean to reward all this behavior by suggesting this is social commentary worthy of praise. Rudeness is only so appealing after one exits high school. And I have a hard time thinking cowardly pot-shotting is cool, especially when fired from deep within the Internet. But I do like subversive types, and I like the fact that Unicorn Somm throws label worship back into the faces of the hallowed masters of its arena, and that they do so using the arena’s own lame-ass lingo.
Ultimately, whether it’s Unicorn Somm’s intention or not, the handle draws attention to another, more salient question: How is social media affecting the way we value wine? Empty bottles of vintage Cornas erupt in the feed, followed by a Vin Jaune or two for good measure, then six or eight bottles in a lineup at an undisclosed locale, some recognizable, some not. Never has the line between sharing and bragging been so ghostly, and never have so many wines accumulated prestige so quickly for the sole reason that they are hard to find.
Only a small part of me worries about the social implication here—the fact that bragging is no longer an unclassy act or a naked request for approval (or, to be more relevant, likes). We might as well write that off as fallout of our age. What is troubling, though, is that something very important gets dropped upon the scrap pile: experience itself.
The effects of photography on our perception and memory of events are well documented. The pictures tend to replace the actual experience for us. We don’t remember the wine, we remember the Instagram. The wines themselves evaporate within their dressing up—in filters and hashtags, or in external sources of value, like rarity.
But the real core of this issue is that we risk institutionalizing a severe missing of the point. A great wine is a very rich experience. When opened and tasted, it blooms from a state of chemical soup to life as a sensory concept in the mind, and it exists there in its ultimate form, connecting sense data to our awareness of history, geography, family and the entire, continuously unraveling stream of a culture. This experience is never static. It zags and surprises, conversing with your food. And the wine doesn’t have to be rare or expensive to do so; it only has to spark the imagination. For a period of time, it becomes part of what French philosopher Henri Bergson referred to as your “duration”—that true reality of rushing experience, a reality in constant, vital flux. Time is not actually a series of individual moments, and motion not a series of points, but rather both are fluid. Similarly, great wines are not found in photographs. Nor do they exist in a single sip.
Now, I’m not sure the Unicorn Somm was born as a response to this threat, hoping to save genuine experience from industry showboating. But, if so, I can certainly understand. After all, it has been over a similar missing of the point that so many wine professionals (themselves likely hashtagging bottle-conquerors) have lambasted score-givers like Robert Parker, with the dual complaint that A) quick tastes can’t possibly be enough information for an accurate score and B) what critics think is entirely external to the experience of a wine and should have no bearing on its value. I would suggest that a wine’s worthiness to appear on Instagram says equally as little about its context or ability to inspire love and memory. Could Unicorn Wines be our generation’s 100-point wines? Perhaps so. Or perhaps I just have Luddite leanings.
Throughout that day at La Paulée and the next, I heard a number of theories about Unicorn Somm. One held that it was two people—a man and a woman. Every once in a while, Eric Railsback would nod toward someone I didn’t know, and then give me a look, like, What about that guy?
The following night, in a back room deep in the guts of the Fairmont—around the corner from a grand ballroom where some 600 Burgundy fanatics and collectors had assembled to eat and drink the most impressive examples of their stash—a team of 40 or so sommeliers went to work amongst a variegated array of unobtainable wines. We hacked at foil. We yanked with tools. Chunks of cork were scattered at our feet. The hotel carpets were wet from melting ice. Bottles of DRC lay empty and clanking in trashcans. Some bottles sat half-drunk, having been sampled and then abandoned in favor of something else. I myself even dumped a near entire bottle of 1996 Comte de Vogüé Musigny. It wasn’t showing well, and I needed the decanter it was occupying.
If experience was in the building, it wasn’t of the very patient kind. Guesses continued to fly about who the Unicorn Somm could be. But at no point was the content of that figure’s tweets discussed, nor was the question of his or her reason for existence ever raised. Instead, we just continued to open, taste, photograph, repeat.