Cult wines, or the triumph of hype

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smSteve Heimoff’s post “Closure of Masa’s raises questions about cult wines” (http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/02/04/closure-of-masas-raises-questions-about-cult-wines/) really has little to do with Masa’s and a lot to do with cult wines.  Heimoff questions whether cult wines are becoming something of a dinosaur, something that will expire before the ever changing demographics and tastes of our society.  I have my doubts, but I’m really going to devote this post to my own views on cult wines.

I can summarize my views succinctly:  I hate cult wines.  It seems like no matter how I approach cult wines, no matter what my point of view of the moment, I can find no redeeming quality in cult wines.

First, let’s look at quality.  No doubt, the average cult wine is better than the average wine, when you factor in all the mediocre wines out there.  And, let’s face it, lots of wines don’t just end up being mediocre—they were mediocre from the get-go.  Not even an attempt to be anything other than plonk.

But cult wines are no better on that score than most well-made wines.  Ask yourself if, tasting blind, you could pick out with any regularity the cult wine ringer from a flight of non-cult wines.  I know to the extent I could succeed on that score, it would be blind luck.  Even when I know which wine is the cult wine and which is not, I can’t see how the cult wine is, on average, better than a $15-30 wine of the same variety and style.

But, when you think about it, what is it that makes a cult wine a cult wine?  It really has more to do with mob psychology, abetted by savvy marketing, than anything else.  Everybody says Harlan or Screaming Eagle or whatever the latest entry into the cult wine Hall of Fame is, is lights-out, and the herd meekly follows.  Again, I’m not saying these wines are piss-poor.  They are, by and large, fine wines.  But are they really head and shoulders above the rest?  Hardly.

But the quality issue is really the least of my issues with cult wines.  Wine should be one of life’s simple pleasures, nothing more, nothing less.  It’s a complement to a good meal, or conversation with good friends, or, even better, both.  It’s something that should be enjoyed by all, old, young, male, female, high-school graduates and Ph. Ds.

I had today what I can only describe as an exceptional glass of ice tea.  Don’t know what it was about that glass, or maybe my mood, but it just really hit the spot.  That ice tea was of one of life’s little pleasures.  That’s what wine should be as well.

Cult wines are the exact opposite of that.  Instead of being a simple pleasure, it turns wine into a contest where those with the money and “sophistication” can supposedly enjoy something the rest of us can’t.  They become the self-anointed high priests of wine.  Instead of a simple pleasure for all to enjoy, it’s the prized possession of the few insiders.

I think this does enormous harm to the business.   How often do I hear someone say that they are “just” a novice, don’t “know” wines, can’t “appreciate” a truly fine wine?  Most of those people probably aren’t going to become regular wine drinkers because being able to appreciate wine has become a feat to be mastered with great effort.  Note that there are no “cult” beers, “cult” orange juices, or “cult” much of anything else.  To win a few snobs with money to burn, we’ve alienated a large part of our potential market, to our harm and their loss.

Since snobbery is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, I think Heimoff is wrong, and that cult wines will be with us for some time.  But if Heimoff turns out to be right, no tears will be shed here for their demise.

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2 Responses to “Cult wines, or the triumph of hype”

  1. Tom wark says:

    Jeff:

    “Cult Wine” is just another name for “wine demand well beyond it’s supply”. Why it is in short demand isn’t a secret: Very little was made. Why it is in high demand is a more interesting question. But it IS in high demand and because of that economic reality gives it a high price tag.

    I think both of us will agree that the producer cannot be faulty for pricing their wine as high as they want (or can).

    But here is where I think you go off track: There have long been expensive wines that the average person (again, for economic reasons) can’t afford to buy the wine. For that matter there have long been homes, cars, cigars, watches, certain kinds of rare plants, certain animals and numerous other items that are in demand well beyond their supply and result in a high price.

    The thing is, the high price does not necessarily equal quality if only because in large part “quality” is a very subjective idea.

    Now, do high priced wines suppress overall demand for wine. That is to say, does the existence of high priced wines suppress consumption of wine? For the past 30 some odd years consumption of wine has been increasing in the United states and all along the way there have been high priced (cult) wines. How can that be.

    I have a real appreciation for old and rare books. But I largely can’t justify their purchase in any amount because their price, were I to pay it, would leave me without the funds to pay for the things that I must have. And yet, my appreciation for old and rare books remains with me.

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