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The ’90s Magazine That Courted Wine’s Early Counterculture

During its decade-long run in the ’90s, Wine X offered a subversive—if sometimes misguided—take on wine. Zachary Sussman on the legacy of the magazine that tried to cultivate wine’s counterculture before there even was one.

“Ally McBeal getting a bikini wax—peachy, a bit green, a little soapy, a little waxy.”

“The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies suckin’ on some Wint-O-Green Life-savers—cool cherries, minty smiles.”

“Stylistic. ‘Black Hole Sun’ by Soundgarden—an anthem of intensity.”

These are tasting notes that once appeared in one of the country’s top-circulating wine magazines. As dated and hilariously earnest as these descriptions seem today, back when they first ran in the pages of the now-defunct Wine X magazine, they represented an approach to one of the industry’s most enduring challenges: how to convert America’s misguided youth into the next generation of wine consumers.

In his introduction to the 2000 edition of X-Rated Wines: The Wine X Magazine Guide to Winea compilation of the magazine’s wine reviews, founding editor Darryl Roberts describes his mission to “offer a new voice for a new generation of wine consumers” by relating wine “to people, places, movies, books, music, and things the vast majority of you can really identify with.”

All too often, this desire to “make wine cool” falls laughably short of the mark. What makes Wine X’s example unique in the annals of wine media history, however, is that (for a time, at least) it actually succeeded.

During the magazine’s heyday in the late 1990s, Wine X commanded an enviable readership. “We had a total circulation at our peak of around 330,000 readers and we had maybe 125,000 subscribers,” Roberts recalls. Celebrities like Tori Amos, Moby and even Dr. Ruth graced its covers, and Jason Priestly was an early investor. (“I like big, fat, aggressive, thick, chewy wine,” the Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob muses in his exclusive Wine X interview.)

The magazine’s influence extended even beyond the confines of its own pages. In collaboration with the Wine Brats—an organization of Gen X wine geeks founded by winemakers Jeff Bundschu, Jon Sebastiani and Mike Sangiacomo—the publication threw massive “wine raves” at venues across the country. Turns out the glow stick-addled parties, organized by Maxwell Leer and Adam Vourvoulis, that made headlines a couple years ago had a forebear.

In retrospect, Wine X anticipated so many of the strategies marketers have recently adopted to reach millennials. “I realized that everyone was only intent on targeting the Boomers who were already drinking wine,” explains Roberts. “My contention was that if we could engage 20-somethings in a style and language that they’d embrace and understand, and show how wine could fit into their lifestyle, they’d be open to drinking wine, too.”

Like so many of its contemporaries, however, Wine X struggled to adapt to the digital publishing revolution and finally folded in 2007. Full disclosure: I never knew it existed until a few months ago, when it was brought to my attention that one of the magazine’s original subscribers, Darin Szilagyi, had purchased the rights to the Wine X brand with plans to revamp it early next year. Normally, the news wouldn’t have captured my attention. But the deeper I traveled down the rabbit hole of Wine X’s curious history, the more I found myself wondering about its legacy.

During the 1990s, when American wine culture was just starting to mature, the media diet available to wine lovers consisted of two basic choices. On the one hand, there was Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate; on the other, Wine Spectator. Neither option qualified as particularly unorthodox or edgy. Over time, their perspective came to define the entire discourse around wine, entrenching the conservative (and conveniently commodified) value system of the tasting note and the 100-point scale.

In hindsight, we take this narrative for granted. But the fact of Wine X’s massive readership at the time interjects a big question mark. How different would the conversation be today if there had always been an alternative platform large enough to counter the dominant point of view?

The magazine’s archives, portions of which are still available online, reveal plenty of cringe-worthy missteps and backfires. Cue this novel take on sparkling shiraz, for example: “With the same potential for greatness and a uniqueness akin to Hungarian Tokay Aszu [sic]… Australia’s sparkling red has waited more than a century to enter center stage.” What fascinated me, however—and raised so many nagging “what ifs”—was the way the magazine attempted to insert a counter-cultural perspective into the mix decades before a viable wine counterculture even emerged.

Back in this pre-hipsterized age, the market was far more homogenous, having yet to splinter into the complex minefield of warring aesthetics and ideologies it currently encompasses. So many of the categories that we now celebrate were still lightyears away. This was decades before anyone had ever heard of “grower” Champagne. Confined to a few remote bars in Paris, the natural wine movement hadn’t even started to trickle onto U.S. shores. There was no Etna, no Jura, no orange wine, no Sherry revolution. Beaujolais was still largely resigned to nouveau.

We view these categories as having arisen in opposition to the prevailing Parker-centric paradigm, from which we’ve only recently emerged. Even if Spectator and Wine Advocate did try to embrace some of these expressions early on, they typically did so by encouraging them into their own mainstream mold, rather than celebrating their idiosyncrasies. Wine X, meanwhile, tried to establish an open-minded, non-luxury perspective, which valued the “fringe” as the core of what makes wine cool.

For a variety of reasons (mostly financial), the magazine never fully realized that vision. Which is a shame, because those were the years in which we probably needed it most. Had Wine X survived, let alone flourished alongside its more conventional peers, maybe we would have outgrown the Boomer-era influence of Parker et al. a little sooner, or wouldn’t have succumbed to it quite so completely.

It’s ironic, then, that Wine X is coming back to us at a time when the old guard is rapidly waning. In the years since Wine X folded, Parker sold a major stake of the Wine Advocate to a group of Singapore-based investors (from whom Michelin just bought a hefty 40-percent share). Sommeliers became “somms,” ditching the suit and tastevin for a T-shirt and jeans. The wine media fractured from a few voices too many. Natural wine hit the big timeIn place of 100-point cabs and first-growth Bordeaux, we now hunt rare and elusive “unicorns” (and post them on Instagram them for all the world to behold).

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have wound up where Wine X had been heading all along. Despite all this progress, however, I can’t help but wonder where we might go from here. As we’ve learned to embrace and even fetishize esoteric styles, one unintended consequence has been how quickly the fringe continues to be mainstreamed. When even Vogue is featuring roundups of orange wine and pét nat, you have to ask: What truly represents today’s wine counterculture? Where is the edge when the edges have been rounded-off?

When Wine X first launched in the 1990s, the culture war was being waged at its fiercest, and both sides of the battle were more clearly drawn. Since then, notion of cool in wine has become so varied, fluid and multi-dimensional that it’s practically impossible to define. It’s cloudy, funky natural wine, but also classic Burgundy; both Golden Age and “new” California; Eastern Europe, the Canary Islands, small-production Champagne and beyond.

If anything resembling a wine counterculture does exist today, it will be found somewhere within a postmodern pastiche of styles and aesthetics. And to represent this complex matrix for the next generation of drinkers will be a lot more challenging than name-dropping Drake in a tasting note. At this stage in our evolution, we no longer need wine to be made cool for us. We’ve finally arrived at the recognition that it’s plenty cool on its own.

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