introduced into Holland toward the end of the 16th century. They
became popular, then trendy, and mania soon set in. The flowers were bought and
sold on futures contracts, and prices escalated to the point where a single
bulb fetched the equivalent of ten times the annual salary of a skilled worker.
In 1637 the tulip craze collapsed as mysteriously as it began, and the Dutch
economy was in ruins.
It’s easy to
laugh at this today, but our current culture is no better. People such as the
Kardashians---individuals without a shred of talent, ability or redeeming
value---make tens of millions of dollars annually, and their every move is followed
by throngs of admirers. The media barrage is so intense that even those without
interest in the clan are tempted to take an occasional peek. When asked why
they deserve any attention at all, their most avid followers could not give a
rational answer. Yet the answer is obvious: the Kardashians are deemed to be important.
By basking in their media glow, those followers can also feel important.
The world of
wine is not immune to this insanity. In the early 1990s, for no logical reason,
the American sommelier community became fixated on Gruner Veltliner. The
trendier the restaurant, the more Gruner they had in the house. I remember
sitting in the Las Vegas outpost of Spago and leafing through four solid pages
of the stuff from both famous and obscure producers. No one knew what it was,
no one cared, and very few consumers ever ordered it. Still, a handful of
sommeliers had elevated a pleasant Austrian regional wine to near-mythic
worse now, because we live in a social media echo chamber. One of the first
things you learn in journalism is that stories can easily achieve critical mass
and take on a life of their own. Once a batch of reputable publications has
reported on a subject, it can no longer be ignored: whether the story has any
importance or merit, you have to cover it because
everyone else is doing so. In the wine world, this tendency is exaggerated
by the insecurity of many segments of the drinking public. Novices want more
than anything to be in the know, and the desperation is no less intense among
wine writers with experience and credentials. No one likes to be scooped.
similar is happening right now with the Loire Valley. Unless you’re a true wine
geek, you probably haven’t heard of Chateau Rougeard. It’s a family-owned
property that has been farming organically since the end of the 19th
century, producing small amounts of Cabernet Franc from estate vines. The wine
has long been famous in Europe, and appears on the list of many Michelin
three-star restaurants. It was recently discovered by American sommeliers, who
are far more enthusiastic about it than they ever were about Gruner Veltliner.
Even better than Gruner, you can’t get it---and nothing inspires passion more
than something you can’t have.
over Chateau Rougeard suddenly seems to extend to the Loire in general,
particularly when it comes to small family-owned wineries that follow natural
farming practices. One wine writer after another has been making a pilgrimage
to the region, gasping with delight over the lost world they encounter. Yes,
the wines are charming, but make no mistake: those writers are going there
because of the buzz, because their colleagues have written about it and they
don’t want to be left out. Wine quality is one thing, but getting the story is
far more important.
does this have on the average consumer? Absolutely none. If you offered 100
wine drinkers a choice between Cakebread Cabernet and a bottle of
Saumur-Champigny from Chateau Rougeard, the Cabernet Franc would likely be
collecting dust in a corner. As we learn in high school, though, not everyone
can be cool. I’ve never had Chateau Rougeard, and I’m sure it’s probably very
good wine. I’m also certain that it’s importance to critics goes far beyond the
juice in the bottle.
We’ve been hearing for at least a decade that wine critics and sommeliers are disconnected from the public they supposedly serve. The truth of the situation cuts deeper. Wine is an aspirational commodity. It awakens our desire for connoisseurship, our need to strive to be greater than we are. If you’re drinking $20 wine, you’re constantly daydreaming about what $50 wine is like. If you can afford $50, your curiosity begins to escalate toward the range of the expensive cult bottles. It never stops. The lemmings who are currently flocking to the Loire Valley are doing more than reviewing wine. They are fueling our desire to own the most expensive tulip bulb in the world, to be like the Kardashians.