Wagnerians vs. Martians

Rhine maidens from an opera by a different Wagner.

I’ve spent the last couple of days reading Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in American. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagnerians sing an appealing but fundamentally radical song in the American context, where wine is just one of many beverages  and not always the cheapest or most convenient to purchase.  Regulations that treat wine as a controlled substance are very anti-Wagnerian.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms. I guess you could say that Two Buck Chuck is a Wagnerian wine, for example, although I think there’s a lot more to Wagner’s idea of wine than just low price.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms  fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less that superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Ray’s history is therefore especially tragic since his attempt to take California wine to the heights through Paul Masson ended so badly. Paul Masson today is an undistinguished mass market wine brand — as un-Martian as you can get.

When wine enthusiasts of my generation think of Paul Masson (now part of the Constellation Brands portfolio), it is often because of Orson Welles’ classic television ads, like this one from 1980 promoting California “Chablis.” Roll over, Martin Ray!

Two Ideas of Wine

Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be a Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the bottle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.”

Monolithic Thinking?

I guess I am a Wagnerian, too, if I have to choose, but I’m not as pessimistic as Pinney. I’m about to throw myself into full-time book-writing mode: I need to finish my current project this summer so that it can be in bookstores in early 2011. The more I work on this project the happier I am with its upbeat title.

Grape Expectations started out as a simple pun on the famous Dickens novel, but it has evolved into something more. I have developed genuinely optimistic (if not “great”) expectations for the future of wine and I see the three forces I study in the book — globalization, Two Buck Chuck and the “revenge of the Terroirists” — as possibly bridging the Martian-Wagnerian divide.

Can wine be both common and great? Why not? Wine isn’t one thing, it is many things to many people. No purpose is served in my view, by monolithic thinking. That’s my hope … and my Grape Expectations!

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4 responses

  1. Outstanding blog! Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge and keeping our passion for wine alive. Who fully understands the process of wine from the vineyard to the table will learn to love wine for ever. Wine is a God’s gift.

  2. Anyone interested in wine should have a look at “The Brady Book”, a collection of writing by Roy Brady. His insights into California wine after World War II are invaluable. I am reminded of it by recalling his accounts of visits to Martin Ray’s winery–yikes! Ray was as we say, a piece of work.

  3. I very much enjoy your posts. Always well though out, well researched, and well written. After this one, I’m curious to check out A History of Wine in America and your forthcoming book. Any others you would recommend?

  4. According to this post, I must be a “martian” in my approach to wine reviewing. I have tasted hundreds of wines over the past year or so and definitely find a correlation between quality and price. Wines under $20 generally can be quite good but the best wines almost always turn out to be $30, $40 or $50 a bottle. Furthermore, I have found a higher incidence of “corked” wines in the lower priced category.

    That said, I do agree that there are plenty of fine, enjoyable wines that need not be expensive. Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest do a great job at that. And there are small wineries that turn out fine values for under $20. I don’t want to single out any here because there are so many deserving of mention, so send me an email and I will send a list of recommendations.

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