In the summer of 2003, towards the end of the Parisian semester abroad that sparked my interest in wine, I had the misfortune of hearing a French funk band play an entire set of Parliament Funkadelic covers.
To put it gently, France has never particularly excelled at appropriating our own cultural idioms; something inevitably gets lost in translation. With chorus after chorus of painfully earnest exclamations of “wee want zee funk,” that night’s show proved no exception. So for all the apologetic self-consciousness that kept troubling me over those months—after all, the U.S. had just invaded Iraq, inaugurating the infamous “freedom fries” era—in that moment, I felt unabashedly proud to be American.
Of course, wine, that great Gallic birthright about which the French have every right to feel superior, has always been a different matter. But when faced with the latest effort from storied Burgundy producer Domaine William Fèvre, I couldn’t help but experience that same eye-rolling twinge of perplexity. The offender? None other than the company’s 2013 “Hipster Edition” Chablis.
Although it was released globally last April, it wasn’t until a recent October report in The Drinks Business that the bottle began to attract critical attention. Reactions on social media have revealed a predictable mix of hilarity, disbelief and exasperation. “‘Hipster Chablis’ is so ridiculous that I just spat tea across my monitor when I read this,” London-based Noble Rot magazine commented on Twitter. “Can’t help but think beginning of end,” retweeted Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Graham, adding the hashtag #vinocalypsenow.
What exactly, you might ask, puts the “hipster” in this “Hipster Edition” Chablis?
On the most obvious front, there’s the packaging. Oh, the packaging. Colored entirely white and decorated from neck to base with tattoo-like UV ink decals that glow under a blacklight, the bottle initially registers as an attempt at satire. When I first saw a picture of it on my Facebook feed, I was convinced it must have been a joke.
For the type of American wine lover—and I include myself in the ranks—who persists in upholding a nostalgic view of France as the bastion of old-world values, all of this represents cause for concern. Just as we want Paris to remain quintessentially Parisian, the paradox of a “hipster Chablis” might seem comical at first, but quickly becomes unsettling.
But no, upon further investigation, it turns out to be dead serious. What immediately catches the eye is a cartoon moustache emblazoned with the phrase “Like a Sir” (apparently, this refers to some kind of internet meme?), alongside exhortations to “Take a Sip,” “Keep the Secret,” “Wake Up” and “Love Me.” In addition to a handy QR code, which directs smart phone users to a rotating 360-degree animation of the bottle, it features a transparent gauge to indicate the level of wine remaining.
Both in design and execution, the “Hipster Edition” exists as a sequel, of sorts, to the limited “I Love Chablis” bottling the company brought to market in 2013, which targeted a similarly young urban crowd. This time, however, they’re citing a historical precedent. According to the current press release, “the Hipster trend is an independent, progressive, creative and off-beat way of thinking” that originated in the 1950s as “embodied by the ‘beat generation.’” “By adopting its codes,” the literature claims, “William Fèvre Chablis becomes the ultimate Trendy wine.”
To be fair, wine has always figured prominently in the annals of “beat generation” counterculture. At one point in Kerouac’s era-defining novel On the Road, for example, when narrator Sal Paradise dozes off in a crummy B-movie theater in Detroit, he even goes so far as to adopt the “H” word to describe the audience of “young longhaired hipsters who’d reached the end of the road and were drinking wine.” He fails to specify, however, whether the wine in question glowed in the dark.
As meaningless and endlessly parodied as the term has become, what any of this messaging has to do with the “hipster” ethos as it might exist today escapes me. What’s funny, in the meanwhile, is the way the term “hipster wine” has actually gained currency as a tongue-in-cheek shorthand for the “natural” or “minimal intervention” style that has defined the values of a new generation of drinkers.
Clearly, this isn’t the demographic the company has in mind. For all its charged rhetoric about “the contemporary hipster trend,” Fèvre discloses relatively little about the wine’s actual makeup. All we’re told of the 2013 “Hipster Edition” Chablis is that it was “aged 8 months in stainless steel tanks to preserve its freshness” and “possesses a lovely refined bouquet with notes of candied citrus and acacia.” Apparently details like the source of the grapes, or specific aspects of the vinification process aren’t “trendy” enough to interest the millennials they’re courting.
“Hipster” or not, at a time when French wine consumption per capita continues to plummet, it’s logical why a firm like Fèvre would make a bid for the youth vote. Sure, the sort of “hipster” they have in mind couldn’t be further removed from the bearded, skinny-jeans wearing, home pickling, fixed-gear riding stereotypes we tend to associate with the term. But it’s impossible to overestimate the enormous symbolic role the institution of the nightclub plays in the French imagination. The “boîte de nuit,” as it’s affectionately called, operates as that highly mythologized spot where les jeunnes of the nation can reliably be found grinding to garish techno, smoking too many Gauloises and trying to make sweaty “amour” to one another. In this vein, the bottle’s club-hopping posture starts to make a little more sense.
Of course, this kind of strategy is nothing new. On one level, the whole “hipster” campaign doesn’t substantially differ from the thinking behind brands like Moët Ice (Champagne’s attempt to compete with the cocktail), the curious proliferation of shot-sized tubes of Sauternes or any similar effort to shed wine’s stigma of stuffiness and lure fledgling consumers.
But something about this incarnation feels different. No matter how poorly it might read the trends upon which it’s trying to capitalize, the “Hipster Edition” only further confirms one of the stranger ironies to emerge from of our globalized marketplace: France’s ongoing obsession with Brooklyn as an international brand. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paris, where “très Brooklyn!” has become a catchphrase for all things “hip,” and a rising tide of Brooklyn-inspired restaurants, coffee shops and clothing boutiques shows no signs of receding. In the formerly dicey 18th arrondissement, there’s now even La Louve, a food co-op modeled after the famous Park Slope institution.
For the type of American wine lover—and I include myself in the ranks—who persists in upholding a nostalgic view of France as the bastion of old-world values, all of this represents cause for concern. Just as we want Paris to remain quintessentially Parisian, the paradox of a “hipster Chablis” might seem comical at first, but quickly becomes unsettling. This sort of gimmickry might fly in Champagne, we console ourselves, which, despite the rise of more terroir-forward “grower” bottlings, has always remained a fiercely brand-conscious region. But Chablis?
Ultimately, as consumers of wine or anything else, we can’t escape being marketed to. Whether this involves some stereotyped, glow-in-the-dark version of Brooklyn or romanticized notions of “heritage” and “authenticity,” getting sold a story is always part of the experience. Successful marketing uses that story to convince us it’s offering something we already want; bad marketing makes us see the story for the artifice it actually is.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that although the “Hipster Edition” Chablis is available everywhere from Russia and China to Vietnam, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, it remains conspicuously absent from the U.S. market. After all, we’re too close to the stage. We can see through the cracks. We should know better, right?