Wine’s Curse: Can We Break the Spell?

harry potterTwo articles posted at World of Fine Wine’s website pose wine’s greatest challenge and perhaps the solution.

Andrew Jeffords laments the high cost of the world’s best wines. In comparing fine wine to fine art he writes:

For most of us, great art is free, or almost. You can spend an hour in front of Vermeer’s Lady Standing at a Virginal or Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus in London’s National Gallery for nothing. Streaming services make great music near-costless; a second-hand copy of War and Peace can be had for 99p. The works of William Shakespeare are downloadable in a few online minutes. The Hughes estate still enjoys copyright on his Collected Poems, but the book cost me £16.99 and this poem occupies one page out of 1,333, so its price is 1.27 pence, and it will illuminate the rest of my days. Costless enjoyment of great art, by the way, is one of the enormous privileges of contemporary human life; this was rarely true in times past.

Alas, as we all know, wine is different:

This is wine’s curse. You cannot go to the National Gallery and spend an hour enjoying a glass of La Tâche for free. Spotify will not stream it into your kitchen. There is no second-hand paperback version of La Tâche. No one enjoys La Tâche disinterestedly; everyone has skin in the game. The owner plays potentate; the guests are flattering courtiers; every sip is a sacrament at the high mass of wealth and privilege.

The moment that significant pecuniary value attaches to an aesthetic experience, it begins to tarnish. Infections set in: elitism, snobbery, fashion, the clique, avarice, exclusion. Of course La Tâche is an extreme case, but the difference with  a £20 Gigondas is one of degree, not kind; the problem is that there is a price tag at all, since some noble bright enquiring spirit is always excluded. Innocent aesthetic enchantment belongs only to those for whom the price does not matter.

As Jeffords admits, we can never eliminate monetary value from wine. It takes resources to make wine. And, truth be told, it’s not quite true that great art is almost free. The cost of a trip to London’s National Gallery from California would set me back as much as a bottle of La Tâche. Viewing the museum’s offerings on the Internet is not an adequate substitute. Only media that can be accurately and comprehensively digitized can be distributed with minimal costs. The visual arts are not yet among them.

He hopes some wine philanthropy might solve the problem. But he also suggests a more likely solution.

You can be open to the anarchic, and to alternative aesthetic languages. Forget obsessions with sulfur and fantasies of purity: this is the real contribution of the natural-wine movement to wine’s pool.

Importantly, he references the key point:

Never forget, too, the keystone of wine aesthetics: difference precedes excellence. It’s a liberation of sorts.

It’s the variations in wine that are fascinating. I can explore the glorious differences between various styles of Pinot Noir and vineyard sites that grow them many times over for the cost of a single bottle of La Tâche. We can break the spell of wines’ transactional curse by focusing on what is really important in wine aesthetics. Beauty comes in many forms.

This brings me to the second article at World of Fine Wine, Jamie Goode’s “The new fine wine.”

We are now seeing the emergence of what US-based ex-sommelier and winegrower Raj Parr has called the “new fine wines.” These are wines from outside the classic regions, made without undue intervention in the cellar from privileged vineyard sites that are farmed well and picked at the appropriate time.

We are no longer dependent on the classic regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Barolo to source great wine. Emerging wine regions throughout the world have joined the quality revolution with the help of advances in our knowledge of viticulture. Furthermore, as Jamie points out, the importance of the classic regions was not always based on merit:

However, the new fine wine concept challenges the idea that all the great terroirs have already been discovered. The fact that some wine regions—or parts of some regions—are celebrated today is in part a historical artefact, often driven by economics and logistics, such as the proximity to wealthy urban centres or lucrative trade routes, or even first-mover advantage. There exist many terroirs capable of greatness, and now a combination of open-mindedness, viticultural skill, and a sensitive approach in the cellar is creating some very exciting wines from regions that some fine wine brokers have never heard of.

Breaking the spell of overpriced reputations will take both patience and a willingness to experiment. It takes decades to develop vineyards and to hone a region’s style. Winemakers, wine writers, wine buyers, importers, and their consumers must be willing to try something new and evaluate it fairly. But I suspect in 20 yrs. the list of the world’s great wine regions will be significantly longer than it is today.

Hopefully, the economics of wine production will make the richest aesthetic experiences available to anyone who has an interest in seeking them out.

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