THE RISE OF THE HIPSTER SOMM – Part 3:  Awesome Hair and the Death of Delicious

How could I be so mean? After publication of parts 1 and 2 of this story about the hipster somms of NYWC (New York Wine City) on a number of outraged young people threw that question in my face, and there was also some hate mail.  However, I received many more supportive messages and they came from right across America, suggesting that members of this tribe can now be found coast to coast. Many of the wine industry members who thanked me for tackling this subject also felt a compelling need to tell me their own stories about hipster somms, and some of them were eye-popping.

A winemaker who wishes to remain anonymous let me in on one of the great Hipster Somm Secrets. A group of young somms from NYWC (New York Wine City) recently visited him and got very excited in his cellar. It happened when he poured his “Reserve” Riesling and told them that it had been a wild ferment (i.e. it fermented without cultured yeast being added). Suddenly their eyes lit up, because that made the wine wildly authentic for them.

Behind this enthusiasm lies the deadly serious business of the hipster somms: the triage of industrial schlock that barely deserves to be called wine from acceptable but boringly conventional wines, and from the hardcore  “juice” hipster somm adore. A wine can only enter the last of those categories by passing their Authenticity Test, which demands every product to jump through a series of flaming hoops earning an authenticity point for each successful passage.

The first of these hoops is bio-dynamic vineyard cultivation (an extreme form of organic farming, aspects of which resembles black magic), then come wild fermentation, very low sulfite content, having “terroir” character (a special taste supposedly derived from where it grew), bearing a name that’s either ancient or has a serious 21st century attitude, wacko label design, etc. If a hipster somm can tick enough of these boxes for a particular product, then it becomes a Fancy Wine and it’s name enters the hipster somm loop where all the other hipster somms pick up on it.  But back to that wine cellar.

One of the young somms then asked the winemaker if anything else made his wine special, that is, if it could jump through some more flaming hoops and earn additional authenticity points. The winemaker put on the same kind of serious face that preachers used to use a lot, then drew a deep breathe. The somms could tell that something really important was coming.

“Right after fermentation it smelt and tasted really good, but then we did something very unusual,” he explained in a hushed voice and all of the somms were hanging on the edge of their seats in expectation of what he would say next.

“We took three hairs from the head of Thomas Pastuszak and dropped them into the tank!” he said in a tone of awed reverence. Pastuszak is the talented young wine director of the Nomad Hotel on Broadway in NYWC, and a great wine showman. He also has awesome hair!

Then the whole group went ape shit, and to be fair some of them laughed at themselves. However, others took it totally seriously because the Hipster Somm Secret of what awesome hair can do for Fancy Wine had been revealed!

Now I have to let you in on another Hipster Somm Secret. They may put on the Most Amazing Show Planet Wine Has Ever Seen, but behind their well-practiced patter, their studied poses and the rigid dogma of their Old World Wine Religion often lies a gaping chasm of doubt and uncertainty. Whenever I saw one of them directly challenged by someone who really knew what they were talking about I saw a look on the hipster somm’s face that said, oh shit, do I really have no fucking idea what I’m talking about? Often that look quickly turned to one of anger, as in, why does this person have to expose my ignorance now?

The hipster somms’ prime strategy for coping with their lack of knowledge and experience is to be each other’s set of crutches. This results in a special kind of bonding, making them an extraordinarily cohesive social group in spite of the enormous differences in their abilities, backgrounds and temperaments. That’s why they’re all talking about and venerating the same Fancy Wines, the ones that passed their Authenticity Test. No wonder so many NYWC wine lists look the same: the underpaid and undertrained young people who wrote them are all looping the hipster somm loop!

Now it’s time to get down and dirty. No wines are more awesomely authentic for the hipster somms of NYWC than the so-called “natural” wines, meaning wines that in the cellar where they were made were allowed to behave like badly brought-up teenagers who seldom wash or shave and ignore the everyday rules of polite behavior. OK, some of these wines taste interesting, and a few of them even taste good. However, the degree of oxidation and/or microbial spoilage in many not only makes them taste unpleasant, but also obscures the characteristic aromas and flavors of the grape variety.

From the perspective of drinkers who enjoy regular type modern wines these “natural” wines taste somewhere between disappointing and disgusting, but they aren’t the target audience for these wines. They were made with the hipsters somms in mind. As Ulf Sjodin MW recently observed, “I understand why somms like natural wines – it’s because they don’t need to study anything. There’s no need to learn and identify the specific characteristics of individual grape varieties.”

The other thing which makes “natural” wines appealing to the hipster somms is the radically different methods used in their production compared to regular modern wine. The clay amphora may actually be just another winemaking vessel like the stainless steel tanks and the wooden barrel, but it’s perceived by the hipster somms as pre-technological, therefore uncorrupted (a virgin birth!) and consequently spectacularly alternative.

The last thing I want to do is to deny youth its worthy causes, the opportunity to rebel and to establish its own identity, but the facts are the facts. The oxidation, microbial spoilage and other faults of some “natural” wine can be proven by chemical analysis, and many of the hipster somms of NYWC are in denial about these issues Big Time.  As a leading West Coast somm who wishes to remain anonymous said to me, “Hipsters think they’re Banksy, but on their best days they’re a horrible imitation of Jackson Pollock.”

Back in the late 20th century New World winemakers often criticized traditional French winemakers for using the word “terroir” to excuse funkiness in their wines that resulted from winemaking issues they’d failed to address. Today, the word “natural” is being used by the hipster somms in much the same as terroir was by those French winemakers decades ago. For the hipster somms it has become the New Holy Word of Wine and the BS of Choice for these New Masters of the Universe!

In this final part of my story I feel obliged to point out that none of what I’ve written is original. Before I started work many winemakers and importer/distributors who sell wines to the hipster somms begged me to say all these things, because they feared the blow back if they dared to say, the emperor has no clothes. That’s how old the core of this story is! They also told me that some of the hipster somms really ought to know better, and in that connection one name came up again and again.   

The buzzing hive of the NYWC hipster somms has a queen bee and some people think that she’s the hippest of them all. Pascaline Lepeltier, the sommelière of Rouge Tomate soon to reopen in Chelsea, comes from the Loire region of France, she is extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, also a warm and generous person with far better manners than most of her colleagues. I mention all of this to make it clear that there is no hint of animosity in what I write, rather the opposite. And this is why I feel great disappointment that this Jean d’Arc du vin is playing the hipster somm game. Why? What is she’s seeking by following this trend?  Is she following a strategy of coolness optimization? Or is she craving acceptance? Or is she seeking the elixir of youth?

Regardless of what the explanation for is this I find this situation worrying. I fear that if things keep going like this, then there’s a real chance I will live to experience the Death of Delicious in New York Wine City.     


Read Part I of the series: The Rise of The Hipster Sommelier

Read Part II: The Rise of the Hipster Sommelier Part II




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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