Snob Appeal

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Got a message from a young American winemaker, Jason Burrus, working in Malta. Apparently one of his former UC Davis professors had sent around a story I wrote about Zelma Long for the San Francisco Chronicle. Zelma’s an icon of winemaking and a pioneer in making the wine industry a great place for women to work. While the story was mostly about her, it included some discussion of a new wine she is making in South Africa. The wine’s fairly expensive by some standards, because people in South Africa want desperately to be seen as fellow travelers with the great wine regions of the world, and a serious price tag is one way to make people notice you.

Burrus sent the following message after reading the story, which you can also read by clicking here.

“I enjoyed reading this article until I got to the point where her wines are selling for $50 and $70 a bottle. This is ridiculous. All of us, as UC Davis students and graduates, enjoy making top-class wines. But, isn't the the real reward in winemaking to make better wines at lower prices so that everyone can afford and appreciate fine wine? How many of us, as winemakers and viticulturalists, can afford to drink the fruits of our labor anymore? Stories like this just increase the snob factor of fine wine, something I think we as an industry are trying to move away from.

“I make wine in one of the poorest countries in the EU. Our most expensive, barrel-aged, Bordeaux red wine sells for $14. But the real success is our bread-and-butter wine, a wine made of Sicilian must of the varieties Catarratto, Ansonica, and Inzolia grown in high-vigor/yield style. This wine retails for $1.68 for 750 mL. Not only is it cheap, but it's actually good wine and it sells very well. Wines at this price and quality are a relatively recent event in this industry; they are the direct result of the advancements in hygiene, processing, and scientific knowledge that institutions like UC Davis foster.

“I will continue drinking wines like this others that sell for less than $5.00 on a daily basis, and those of $70 once or twice a year. So, which is the real success story here?”

First, I should answer his question. The answer is “Both.” I could not agree more that the wine industry needs to create more wine drinkers, particularly in the U.S., and that good wines under $10 are the best way to do it. I also agree with Burrus that technological advancements -- and willingness of people in "legacy" wine regions in Europe and the Middle East to adopt them -- have transformed wine drinking in those parts of the world. So what Burris is doing in Malta, and what countless other small producers like him are doing around the world, are absolutely a huge success story for wine. And good for him for choosing such an unusual place to write his chapter of that story.

At the same time, the wine Burrus calls “ridiculous” because of its price is also a success story. It’s a success story for South Africa, as well as for Zelma Long and her husband, Phil Freese. The two of them have always worked for other people’s wineries. Now they have one of their own, and they are making what I call a statement wine. The statement is that they believe South Africa can produce wine as good as anything else in the top rank.

This sounds like a fairly personal, perhaps even odd statement to make, but if you visit South Africa, which is transforming its society, economy and arts so fast it’s hard to believe (much less keep up with), you understand that it’s not a weird thing to want to declare to the world. It’s a cry from the heart of a whole nation.

Now that I am warmed up, I must also comment on Burrus’ claim that stories about people like Zelma Long "just increase the snob factor of fine wine."

I am pretty sure I am not a snob, I can say for damn sure that Zelma Long is not a snob, and I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of the people who drink her wine are not snobs either. They certainly have a lot more money than I do, but that does not make them snobs. It means they can choose wine for reasons other than the need for calories. They can choose to drink Two Buck Chuck or Screaming Eagle. They can buy wine because of the story behind it, which is what is attracting a lot of people to Zelma Long’s new wine. This does not make a person a snob. This makes them curious, and fortunate enough to explore their curiosity at $50 a bottle.

No matter how poor Malta may seem to Burrus, and how virtuous his $1.68 wine may feel to him, the $14 wine he makes is a pure luxury item. No one in Malta needs it. They buy it for pleasure, or to feel special. This does not make them snobs, and it does not make Burrus a snob for producing the wine itself.

The only thing that increases the snob factor of fine wine, in my opinion, is prejudicial behavior that is dismissive of others. I do not know Jason Burrus, and I don’t think he would consider himself prejudicially dismissive of Zelma Long. But throwing around terms like “snob” is a knee-jerk habit I see in a shocking number of young people in the wine business. All I can say is, look into it a little deeper before you slap a label on people or their preferences – especially when you get your paycheck from satisfying them.

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