Why Is the Wine World So Un-Woke?

Memorizing details about grapes and vintages won’t tell you anything about a winemaker’s moral condition.

When I was in the final round of interviews for perhaps the most significant job of my career, I got a curious email from my future editor. My writing was good, sure, and I knew about wine. But are you comfortable writing profiles?

What a weird question, I thought—mastering the profile is journalist training wheels. But I considered the question in context, and deduced the subtext, which was: Would I be comfortable writing about rich people? Specifically those wealthy enough to have reached the top rung of what in Napa Valley are euphemistically called “vintners”?

I wrote back, saying yes, of course I could write profiles, and yes, that included those of the rich, provided they’d done things that were newsworthy. I pointed to a glowing column I’d written about a guy who’d built a multibillion-dollar company in the Midwest before returning to farm pinot noir on the Oregon turkey farm where he grew up. I was hired.

Honestly, this was not me being a closet socialist. I like money as much as any writer should, but the idea of wine as a luxury has never sat right with me. Money is necessary to make wine, but too often it goes toward the polishing of ego, rather than wine’s more profound aspects. So when it came to people with money who got into wine, I found myself siding with the farmer and grape grower Lee Hudson (one of the moneyed, newsworthy people I did profile), who told me, “Having money is a tool to be used, like a hammer.”

I hadn’t thought about that email for a long time, until the days after Anthony Bourdain’s death. Bourdain didn’t particularly touch the world of wine; like many writers and personalities in food media, he seemed to enjoy it tangentially, perhaps less than whiskey and beer if his TV show was any guide. And for sure, his suicide should be a call for the wine industry, like the food world, to take a closer look at the strains it puts on mental and physical health. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Bourdain was known for his willingness to poke at the dark underlining of putatively shiny things—including the food world he loved. I’m not talking about not ordering the fish on Mondays. I mean his willingness to remind us that immigrants make our restaurant and agriculture industries run, and his questioning of our fetishism for exotic foods and places while overlooking their realities. He tore into the safe space that food is supposed to occupy, and found grubby politics and exploitation and abuses of power. There was a reason his earlier show was called No Reservations. And there was a reason that, when he traveled to San Francisco, he went to Oakland to talk black power with Bobby Seale and to discuss the falsehoods of “authenticity” with Indian-American chef Preeti Mistry. He wasn’t just comfortable going there. He felt that an essential part of loving a thing was to tear down the false romanticism surrounding it.

Food, and food writing, may be guilty of its share of glossing-over, of preening and celebrity and the lionizing of malcontent, egoist chefs—not even at the Batali-Friedman-Besh level, but more subtly. It’s no different with tech, where Steve Jobs’ iconic status could overshadow the fact he wasn’t a terribly nice person. But when it comes to whistling past its problems, wine asks those other industries to hold its beer.

It is an industry that, because it’s viewed by outsiders as a nice little escapist haven from the real world, has a nearly pathological aversion to its less-than-perfect side. Perhaps that’s why wine people are, astonishingly often, adherents to the provincial philosophy of “fuck the critic”—the view that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything; or perhaps why the industry prefers to be written about by its own insiders; or why there’s a tendency, these days, to gloss over flawed and fucked-up wines as abstractions, or personal expressions of style, rather than them being sacrifices of peoples’ time and money. Somehow it has become okay to shrug off a bottle of murky nerello mascalese as though it weren’t 50 bucks of disappointment sitting in our glass.

Wine is also a convenient place for virtue-washing, maybe because success is literally measured in 100-point terms (less so today than in the past, but still) and, until just recently, by metrics that push for bigger and more. It’s a pursuit that routinely rewards the wrong people. I’m not even talking about coarser specimens like Fred Franzia, the father of Two-Buck Chuck, who once wished for a swooping owl to shit on a reporter’s head. I’m talking about the people—wealthy white men, mostly—who, like clockwork, show up in fancy portraits on the covers of trade magazines. You know, vintners.

We should be able to be more accountable for the culture that wine holds up to the world, and to confront it when it becomes a refuge for the rich or a dodge for the contemptuous.

Bourdain was clued into the ways that celebrity and success could blur moral lines. He broke what you might call the food world’s myth of implied pleasure: that food, because it’s literally nourishing, should be a refuge from all the other shit that comes our way—and that writing about it should reflect that. He saw, as a journalist, that he had a responsibility to push back against a trend that’s also alarmed people like the writer Arundhati Roy, who recently lamented that “writers are being reduced to creators of a product that is acceptable, that slips down your throat.”

I fear that’s precisely where wine, or at least wine writing, is headed. While I don’t want to presume anything about our readers—you’ve read this far, haven’t you?—on balance I’m astonished by how many people, even those attuned to the ethical impacts of the food they eat, remain totally un-woke about wine. There is little awareness, for instance, of the wide economic disparity that has been created in the past quarter-century between the middle class who actually make many of the best wines and the upper class who, today, are the only ones that can afford them. There’s little acknowledgment of the ranks of everyday workers who make the industry run—and who are often forgotten when crisis comes. For that matter, we manage to ignore that it’s a world still guided by powerful white men, stark in its lack of diversity. Wine also continues to have an even harder time than food acknowledging its gender gap and sexism, its pay gaps, its problematic labor issues or the homophobia that simmers in a lot of winemaking communities. (Quick: Name the last gay winemaker you read about.)

Those of us who serve as guides and savants to this world are rarely rewarded for piercing the bubble. On the occasional moments I turn my Instagram feed to what might considered off-topic—to art or cooking or, God help us, politics—my metrics plummet. Stick to bottle shots, Drink Boy.

I get it, in a way. We assumed experts are meant to provide some kind of road map through an unknowable, confusing realm. We’re expected to help you find a bottle for dinner, and not complicate the conversation. But that has led us, at a time when wine is more interesting than ever, to trivialize its cultural value. We’ve sacrificed context—I mean real critical context, not the fanboy literature that passes for too much wine writing today—for comfort and a sense of belonging. I think Bourdain might look at the situation and point a blaming finger at many of us for failing to explain why one wine is worth more than another, or why certain wines are culturally suspect because they’ve been made with cynical motives. (Big wine companies love when we abandon context for the blind pursuit of deliciousness. Context is the enemy of fake-artisan wine, after all.)

Of course, context requires a deeper understanding of wine, and its millennia-long continuity of culture. And that can be a scary thing. But a lot of wine people have willfully chosen to forsake that deeper learning in favor of an education that consistently maintains itself as value-neutral—a realm flooded with pedantic details about places and grapes and vintages. But a million flashcards won’t tell you anything about a winemaker’s moral condition.

That might explain why, for instance, there was so much stuttering in 2013, when Friulian winemaker Fulvio Bressan used the word “gorilla” (and worse) to describe a black Italian cabinet minister. I’m still blinkered by the fact that there was actual debate about whether Bressan’s wines should continue to be reviewed, as though unveiling oneself as a racist left much room for debate. Can I skip a wine because the winemaker’s an asshole? Of course you can.

But I worry that we’re actually developing even less tolerance for these difficult truths. Even in wine, we seem to have succumbed to the current American idea that we are entitled not only to our own opinions, but to our own facts. Is a wine flawed, or does it just fit an alternate interpretation of “character”? It’s a hard truth to be told that your taste might not be pristine, which is why we increasingly listen only to those who share our tastes, and our view of the world. Wine has become a realm of tribes: naturalists, collector bros, cynical swill merchants.

All this has come even as we’re told that, culturally, context is finally winning: Today’s young consumer, we’re told, is conscious of who makes what they eat and drink. If that’s true, we should be able to consider the maker of a wine alongside the wine itself—to not overlook deeper values when it comes to deciding what to drink. We should be able to be more accountable for the culture that wine holds up to the world, and to confront it when it becomes a refuge for the rich or a dodge for the contemptuous. And we should be able to encourage the industry, in its composition, to better reflect the wider drinking public. Honestly, it should not be a stretch to drink good wine made by talented, decent and interesting people. But I think we’re still pretty far away from that. It’s still too easy, in wine, to sacrifice nuance for safety.

Surely, there must be an opening to channel a bit more Bourdain in our narrow little world—not as a cynic, or a full-time scourge, because wine is still about pleasure. But wine is a vital enough part of our culture that it loses nothing by having its gilded sheen rubbed off. Like a lot of people, I took away from Bourdain’s death a reminder that even in an industry built on pleasure, there’s room for a clear eye. I can do better on that front. We all can.

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