What is that strange acrid smell lingering over the island of Manhattan and the coolest parts of Brooklyn like a stale fart? It’s the remains of the gigantic stink caused by my three part series about the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City) on Grape Collective some weeks back. That’s nothing to worry about though, because through the fall and the holidays it will slowly dissipate. The thing we all need to worry about is what’s not going away in hurry: the mortal threat to Delicious by some of the hardcore hipster somms.
Delicious and I go back a long way (please feel free to change her sex if you have a different sexual orientation) – we hooked up back in April 1976 when I enjoyed my first glass of wine – and I feel the same love and affection for her now as back then. However, now I fear that if we don’t do something to help her Delicious shortly will be murdered here in NYWC. How did I come to that conclusion?
It all began with the appearance of those stories on Grape Collective. I was declared to be many vile and despicable things, including “the Trump of Wine”, but one of those accusations was spot. I am guilty as charged of writing a one-sided description of the tribe of NYWC hipster somms. That struck me as an urgently necessary corrective to the clamor of voices hollering that they were the sexiest people on Planet Wine. (Yet another thing for which New York can be the capital of the world!) I felt compelled to tell the other side of their story, and many of the comments I got convinced me I was right to reject the path of elegant understatement and finely nuanced argumentation.
That last point requires some explanation. Although the hundreds of Facebook comments about the series included many messages of support for my analysis of this subcategory of the broader hipster community, some top dogs in NYWC wine importers and distributors only commented by email directly to me. Why? Because their business is selling wine, many of the hipster somms are important customers, and of course they didn’t want to tick them off and lose sales. The dominant tone of their secure and encrypted comments was, they’re getting away with murder, and finally you wrote what we’ve all been thinking! Through talking and corresponding with them I finally grasped the gruesomeness of their and our situations.
The top dogs of NYWC are generally in their forties or fifties, and in the cause of complete exposure, I should point out that at 56 years of age I belong to their generation. The culture of excellence at the companies where they work meant that it took them many years to work their way up to a senior position. During that time they acquired a load of experience and learned a ton about the complex world of wine. I get that, because I just celebrated 30 years of fulltime freelance journalism.
Then, suddenly a bunch of kids in their twenties and early thirties appeared on the streets of Wine Gotham. Unlike previous generations who had to work their way up, they quickly obtained somm jobs and many become the wine buyers for restaurants with significant sales. They took the short cut of cool and (as explained earlier in this series), those restaurants had saved money by employing a less experienced somm. Then some of them became convinced they knew more about wine than the top dogs, and were therefore the New Masters of the Universe! Can you imagine how galling it must be for the top dogs of NYWC to have to kowtow to those arrogant kids day in day out? Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch…
Several of the top dogs who wish to remain anonymous then explained to me how and why the truth is even worse than this! To make full sense of this a very brief history lesson is necessary: For decades the top dogs of NYWC struggled against the influence of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and other critics who followed his adulation of wines with “gobs of fruit”, massive body, high alcoholic content and low acidity; the (in)famous Parker Style. The top dogs were no less committed to the hedonism of wine than The Man from Monkton (Parker’s home in Maryland), but they believed even more strongly in Old World Elegance. For them Delicious effortlessly succeeds in being the most beautiful woman in the room, although she’s not a flashy dresser and never shows a lot of flesh. In contrast, Parker Style wines are hookers who let it all hang out!
After years of hand-to-hand salesmanship, taking restaurant listings one by one, the top dogs conquered most of NYWC scoring a famous victory over Parkerism. But, at exactly the moment of their triumph the hipster somms rolled into town, erected a golden calf called “natural” wine and began worshipping it; end of history lesson.
They’re still worshiping at that altar, and that’s why they assumed my comments about certain “natural” wines being grossly oxidized and/or otherwise faulty – I was talking about poorly made examples of skin-fermented wines with low/no added sulfites produced from organic/biodynamic grapes (the better description of this category) – was a vicious attack on all “natural” wines. My policy of treating every wine I encounter the same in order to give each of them the same chance of impressing me strikes the hipster somms as heresy, because of their black-and-white if you’re not pro-“natural” wine, then you must be anti-“natural” wine attitude.
Sure, not all of the hipster somms of NYWC subscribe to this hardcore version, not least because it demands the marine-tough rejection of every wine regular or fancy folks say tastes good. However, all of them are hearing this creed in the echo chamber that is the Hipster Somm Loop, and some of them are seduced by the fanaticism. What lies behind this rigid new wine PC? The arrival of modern cellar technology beginning with cheap sterile filters in the late 1940s, then stainless steel tanks from the 1960s made it easy to make wines with attractive fruit aromas, leading to the cheap fruity wines that dominate markets around Planet Wine and to many limited-production wines further up the price scale, both in the Parker style and more elegant alternatives.
The general hipster obsession with authenticity (think Portlandia) leads the hardcore hipster somms to dismiss fruity aromas in wine as the work of the twin devils of science and industry. They regard those aromas as the products of technological trickery that not only manipulates, but actually falsifies all the wines subjected to it: Evil Fruit! The soft version of this rejects most wines with attractive fruit aromas because they are way too conventional and seeks out obscure wines of this kind, because their obscurity makes them less suspect.
Let’s leave aside the question of whether this is all a terrible misunderstanding resulting from a drastic lack of knowledge (a typical hipster failing), because we urgently need to know where this extremism leads. My anonymous top dog informers are sure that the hardcore hipster somms want to rub out Delicious in order that their golden calf no longer faces a challenger. When I thought through all I’ve recently seen and heard in Wine Gotham I reluctantly had to admit that this was the best explanation for all those experiences.
How to get away with murder? Certainly not by a pack of them knifing her to death in a public place (think Julius Cesar), because there’s no way of hide it when you shit on the carpet in cool NYWC restaurants and bars like that. Hiring a hit man (think The Day of the Jackal) won’t work either, because Delicious is still alive in far too many places at any one time. In fact, the only way she could be killed would be through poison being administered in small doses over years until it accumulates in her body and she suddenly bites the dust. The top dogs tell me that the twin poisons being used are categorical rejection and systematic denigration. They rang their hands when they talked about it, because they couldn’t see any way to stop it.
I felt seriously depressed for a while, but then I realized there was something I could do, something we can all do. How can we save Delicious in NYWC and beyond? It’s actually very simple and easy, but it demands courageous to stand up to a hipster somm, particularly of the hardcore kind. What we all have to do is to ask for delicious wine, to complain when there are too few delicious wines on the list, and when the wine in the glass tastes great to say to the hipster somm, “that’s Delicious!” This is at once our slogan and the antidote to hardcore hipster somm poison. If enough of us say those words often enough, then she won’t just survive, she will also smile on us.
Read Part I of the series: The Rise of The Hipster Sommelier
Read Part II: The Rise of the Hipster Sommelier Part II
Read Part III: Rise of the Hipster Sommerlier Part III
Stuart Pigott is a British wine journalist living in Berlin. He has published a number of other wine books, including Touring in Wine Country, the Wine Atlas of Germany, Planet Wine, and Life Beyond Liebfraumilch.
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