Life Among the Vinos: Making Sense of Wine’s Rival Tribes

snowThe 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.”

historyLife 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.

6 responses

  1. A good article. Not having encountered this dichotomy expressed in this particular way before, it certainly interested me. I found myself on the side of the Wagnerians, being one of those who enjoys genuinely fine wine very much but definitely unable to afford it most of the time. My own buying criterion is based on my (and others’) observation that, in the UK at least, and regardless of the origin of the wine, quality and price increase together steadily up to around £20-£25 a bottle, after which the actual value of an untried bottle is much less predictable. I stick (mostly) to that, and as a result don’t drink myself into penury, despite opening a fresh bottle most evenings to share with my wife.

  2. I asked Mr. Google about ”There are two kinds of people in the world…” and was told, “About 9,370.000,000 results.”

    According to know your meme.com the phrase apparently originated with Mark Twain who is credited with saying,” There are two kinds of people. People who accomplish things and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is far less crowded.”

    While your division into Wagnerians and Martians is undoubtedly true of many people there are others. Personally, The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce insists I should be a Wagnerian unless I save up for a special occasion –birthdays and anniversaries which end in 0 or 5, some holidays, discovering a son will be married and the bride’s family is paying for the wedding, retiring with enough money to enjoy my time, winning the lotto etc. Then I can be a Martian.

    Others I know reason differently with taste the deciding factor rather than money. However they tend to cross the divide. Wine to have with burgers tends to cost less than the wine to enjoy with Lobster Thermidor.

    Still others spend on wine based on whether the boss is coming for dinner or not: He’s coming and it’s fine wine, he’s not coming and the price drops significantly.

    There are two kinds of people in the world: people who divide the world into two groups, and those who don’t. I find people are infinitely more complex.

  3. I’m torn to address two issues: science vs. humanities and the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” views. I’ll try to be concise.

    I see no tension between the humanities and sciences. I do see tension between ignorance like that exhibited by our present national administration and science. I majored in math and minored in physics, but I took far more English literature, history, philosophy, religion, art, music, German and other subjects than math and science. At my college, Davidson, founded in 1837, they insisted on a liberal arts education in the classic model and from what I can tell, they have done nothing but improve on it in the many years since I graduated. My high school in Arlington Virginia had the same attitude, by the way.

    As for the wine views, I made home wine for 30 years, some pretty good, and I’ve written for wine consumers and the industry for more than two decades. This has allowed me to taste good and bad wines all over the world, and I’m firmly in the Wagnerian camp. I’m quite happy with a nice Trader Joe’s wine or even rosé from a Bota box as long as I get some every day (I don’t know about French hybrids…) but I can also appreciate exceptional wines occasionally, like the 1980 Beringer Cabernet and 1996 Beringer Merlot I enjoyed last weekend – as well as the Harlan and Screaming Eagle at a chi-chi event Saturday though they were far too young to open.

    In fact, I find that almost all the current Napa Cabs I am offered need age, in some cases serious age. I’m reminded of the Emperor’s new clothes every time I see people raving over a precious, expensive wine that isn’t as pleasant to drink now as, say a Frog’s Leap or St. Supéry version costing a tenth as much or even a mass-market wine under $20. I’ve almost never had a technically flawed wine from a big U.S. producer, but I’ve had many expensive wines undrinkable with Brett, TCA, acidic acid, oxidation and unidentifiable bacteriological, fungal and other contamination not to forget excessive new oak, the supreme contaminant in today’s wine world.

    Always find your writing (and talking) provocative.

  4. Paul — I come out of a legal and business background and have found that the very best employees I ever hired all came with a strong liberal arts and science/math grounding. I also found that the people who I worked well with were not the ones that became interested and impressed when I started looking at the higher end of the wine list at dinner. There were some of those whose favors could be bought with an over aged Bordeaux or stuffy California Cab with dust on it, but by and large most were interested in having a nice bottle of wine with a nice meal and focusing on the agenda at hand. Since I retired (repurposed) I seldom buy wine costing more than $20.00 bottle and while, as a collector, I do buy some to lay down, I have become far more interested in finding interesting wines that I can enjoy right now and honestly there are more of those out there than I can ever sample.

  5. Interesting bit on “tribes”.
    I say wine is not natural, it is an human artifact. Vinegar is natural. I can smell it in some bunch rot we are dropping.
    Mousiness is not a couple of fresh turds, it’s finding your pet mouse after it died a couple of days ago. All “defects” are “complexity” beyond your own preferences.
    I disagree with most “terriorists” they misuse the term as does 99.9% of folks using the term microclimate.
    As America’s only producer of wines made from grapes treated with zero pesticides and ingredient labeling, I find “natural” wine producers inconsistent.
    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol
    Growing fine wine sans pesticides and with ingredients listed.

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