The Rise of the Hipster Sommelier Part II: The Bubble People of NYWC and Their Fancy Wines
Since Part 1 of this story burst on the scene like an over-ripe tomato squirting juice onto a spotless tablecloth just a week ago there was a lot of talking, tweeting and Facebook blathering about it. The agitated talk wasn’t only audible in NYWC (New York Wine City), the home of the hipster somms who were it’s subject, but also in the luxury ghetto of Aspen, Colorado where the elite bean feast that is the Wine & Food Classic had just got under way. For a few days “Ass-pen”, as one reader called it, had a staggeringly density of hipster somms. In both locations they frequently met in huddles and nervously asked each other burning questions.
“Was he talking about me? I mean, he wasn’t thinking of you when he wrote all those horrible things, or was he?” Rumors flew in all directions and there was some naked outrage too, as in, “How dare he write all that mean stuff about us!”
I’ve stuck my neck out a long way many times before, so I’m used to being accused of monstrous crimes, but this was the first time it happened to me in NYWC. Let me be frank and say that it felt good, because all I did was publicize some painful truths about the new hipster somms of this fair city. In my book anyone who behaves like they believe themselves to be one of the New Masters of the Universe, as many hipster somms clearly seem to, is a legitimate subject for gonzo wine journalism of this kind.
On the opposite side to the hipster somms were many of the people who have to sell wine to them, and they unanimously applauded my daring. However, some of them were desperate to know exactly who was I talking about. Isn’t it time to name names? I had to point out to them that I’m not the DA of wine and this is not a list of people wanted for felonies.
Let’s face it, any general description of a social group is always approximate, each part of it applying more to some members of the group than to others, so let’s try to be fair and differentiate.
Of course, there are more and less talented hipster somms just as there are auto-mechanics or advertising executives. For example, a bunch of the hipster somms who worked for the Terroir wine bar group in NYWC (now only on Harrison Street in TriBeCa and in a container on the Highline) are clearly talented young people. No wonder they’ve been successful since leaving the School of Terroir. However, not every employer encourages excellence in the systematic way that Terroir’s Paul Grieco does.
For some establishments a hipster somms’ ability to sell the vinous equivalent of snake oil to their customers is far more important than their wine knowledge or professional competence. This attitude has encouraged the spread of vacuous wine waffle and the sound of windpipes meaninglessly reverberating to portentous statements. We are the Hollow Men and Women of Wine!
I could continue down that dark path, but my guess is that what many of you really want to know is what it’s like to be part of the glamorous hipster somm scene with all those invitations to luxurious wine tastings, cool wine parties and expenses paid trips to distant and beautiful wine regions. Welcome to the Pleasure Dome?
After four years trying to answer that question I have to tell you that on the right night with the right hipster somms and the right free wine in your glass it really can feel like that. That is, until the last bottle is emptied, everyone present returns to reality with a bump and suddenly wonders if their credit card can take the hit that continuing to drink at this level would expose it to. Honestly, I’m no different, because I’m also trying to pay a high rent and have fun in NYWC with a credit card in my pocket that’s frequently maxed-out.
In contrast, on a bad night it felt like being trapped inside a goddamn bubble. NYWC is composed of many such bubbles, and together they form a layer of froth floating on top of the city’s regular wine consumption. The latter’s a world the hipster somms generally treat with disdain, or even scorn. I mean, who wants to be part of the real world when you can float?
Someone in a bubble may not realize it, but they are always separated from real life on the outside, just out of their reach. That’s why a group of hipster somms in a bubble rapidly develop their own special taste in wine, their own special way of thinking about wine, and their own special way of talking about wine. No outsider can really understand what NYWC Bubble People are talking about, but if this unintelligibility is done with the right attitude it becomes super-sexy for some people.
Maybe you recognize this situation from baseball/motorcycle/jazz and similar geeky worlds unto themselves? Let’s face it, Bubble People are all fundamentally the same, and if you have an obsessive personality, then you’ll always find something to obsess about and create a new bubble.
Often what gets a group of hipster somms into a particular NYWC bubble is a shared obsession for a particularly type of Fancy Wine with the other occupants. Here it’s important to point out that there are two worlds of Fancy Wine out there, the first being the obvious one that’s all about fame and high prices. To access that world a hipster somm either has to have the right wealthy friends and/or work in a high-end restaurant. The other world of fancy wine is all about coolness, and to connect with that you have to be an insider otherwise you don’t know which Fancy Wines are the current Obscure Objects of Somm Desire; hipster precision of the kind that’s also devoted to beard-combing!
In both cases, it’s important that these are limited-edition products and are also exclusive for that reason. The truth is regular folks almost never drink this kind of juice, and that’s one element of its appeal to the Bubble People: the exclusivity makes them feel very special. They bask in the Fancy Wines’ aura as if it was the glow of a sunlamp in a tanning studio.
A perfect example of this is the hipster somm obsession with the wines of the French Jura region. That means not only those made from the well-known Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, but even more those made from the ancient Savagnin (think Vin Jaune) and yet more obscure grapes like Poulsard. It’s quite rare for regular folks to like those wines, because they’re often austere and charmless, and they can be a bit oxidized too. However, all that makes them irresistible to the hipster somms of NYWC. This discrepancy between popular taste and their own gives them a worthy cause to apply their missionary zeal to, and the chance to misanthropically dismiss regular folks when they refuse to concur with the current hipster creed.
Altogether, France plays a central role in hipster somm thinking, and if we throw Mercator & Co. into the trash can, then drew a map of the world with the dimensions and position of the wine producing countries determined by the importance the hipster somms accord each of them, then France is in the middle and covers more than half of Planet Wine!
This distortion is the result of gross idealization achieved with the active support and encouragement of French producers (all those free dinners and expenses-paid trips!) However, it also has deep roots in the more than two centuries of failure to produce drinkable wine on the US East Coast following the arrival of the so-called Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock back in 1620. The East Coast habit of looking back across the North Atlantic towards Europe as the mystical home of good wine started back then. The hipster somms veneration of France as the Holy Land of Wine is just a new form of this age-old prejudice!
The same is true of the way the hipster somms follow the long established habit of the East Coast dismissing almost everything and everybody from the West Coast as superficial and decadent. The only exceptions they made to their rule of dismissing California wines as both artificial and obese were for wines that tasted atypically light and tart for winegrowing regions with a Mediterranean type climate.
The more that juice tasted like funky old-fashioned French wines the more the hipster somms raved about it, in spite of the fact that (once again!) regular folks mostly found those wines mean and unattractive. In short, the hipster somms’ taste in wine is often radically out of step with their customers and the rest of the world. Are they really the revolutionaries they imagine, or are they just a group of fashion-conscious young people with the gift of the gab?
As far as I can see, the biggest effect they’ve had so far has been to give the dusty, old-fashioned world of wine a youthful and sexy new look. Let’s face it though, this puts them on the same kind of level as models and it-girls.
That’s enough painful truths for one day, I think. The final part of this mini-series in just one week’s time will be all about the hipster somms’ obsession with “authenticity” and so-called “natural” wines and what it’s doing to the city’s wine culture. WATCH THIS SPACE because big names will be named!
Read Part I of the series: The Rise of The Hipster Sommelier
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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