The idea that society’s big open melting pots have been replaced to a certain extent by narrow, closed tribal silos is no longer novel, but it is very important. Are we becoming a culture of isolated tribes with fundamentally different beliefs and norms? If so, wine must have its tribes, too.
Snow’s Two Cultures
C.P. Snow’s observation that the intellectual world had divided into two tribes was shocking in 1959. His essay on “The Two Cultures” (pdf here) argued that science and humanities were increasingly alienated, speaking different languages, thinking in isolation.
Each tribe could exist on its own, I guess, but what about society? How could an increasingly technological society survive if science is not tempered and informed by values and a deeper understanding of the humanity it is meant to serve? How can the humanities be relevant without an understanding and appreciation of science and technology? These were relevant questions and they are even more relevant today as artificial intelligence advances.
“Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding,” he wrote. “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”
Mutual incomprehension — that sounds familiar. Today, of course, the incomprehension is compounded by digital technologies that permit and even encourage us to only interact with “friends” within our own tribe and to read only news that reinforces our tribal dogma. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.
Life Among the Econ
Axel Leijonhufvud’s 1973 essay on “Life Among the Econ” presented a serious critique of the economics profession and its tribes, the Micros and the Macros, in a satirical form. What if alien anthropologists stumbled into a university economics department, he asked? What would they see? What would they think?
The answer is not so much different from Snow’s two cultures and my idea of tribes, but Leijonhufvud focused on their beliefs or religions. The Micros idolize the supply-demand market cross and build worshipful totems (“modls”). The Macros have nothing whatsoever in common with the Micros except that they worship a Macro-cross (IS-LM) and build rather extravagant modls of their own.
“Some Econographers disagree with the bleak picture of cultural disintegration just given, pointing to the present as the greatest age of Econ Art. It is true that virtually all Econographers agree that present modlmaking has reached aesthetic heights not heretofore attained. But it is doubtful that this gives cause for much optimism. It is not unusual to find some particular art form flowering in the midst of the decay of a culture. It may be that such decay of society induces this kind of cultural “displacement activity” among talented members who despair of coping with the decline of their civilization. The present burst of sophisticated modl-carving among the Econ should probably be regarded in this light.”
Life Among the Vinos
Wine has its tribes, too, and many have observed that the divisions between them and mutual deafness among them are a growing concern.
I wrote about some of the Vinos tribes in my book Wine Wars. I was inspired by 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 America. 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.
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.
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 than superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”
Two Ideas of Wine
The tribes of Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them, but that’s how tribes sometimes works. 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 an ardent Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the battle 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.” So these tribal divisions have serious consequences for the wine industry.
Wagnerians and Martians are not the wine world’s only tribes. Come back next week for my report on the Terroirist and the Naturalist tribes.