The Fresh Fetish - Part II
Posted by Bradford Fullerton on February 12, 2013
It was six years ago, I had just moved to Los Angeles and I was fortunate enough to quickly find work at a boutique wine shop. I didn't know much about wine at the time except for what I briefly learned to B.S. while waiting tables at a corporate Italian restaurant back in Texas, so this whole world was new to me and quite frankly, fairly damn obnoxious.
All the different regions, so many species of grapes, the glassware, more grapes, the absurd descriptive taste adjectives, Jesus-even-more-damn-grapes... this world was so dense and so intimidating. It was all so silly to me that I probably would have walked away from it entirely had it not been for one thing keeping me there, and probably the last thing you’d ever expect to read on a beer blog... Wine is Goddamn delicious.
Since the boss wanted his staff as informed as possible, we got to sample dozens of wines a day, most of which I would have never been able to even dream of affording on my own. I had experiences that teetered on indecency with Bordeauxs, Sangioveses, and, my personal favorite, Sauternes. My palate was open for the first time to what a deeply complex and dynamic tasting experience could be and I cursed the fact that I would never be able to enjoy the convenience of a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck again.
But, as my adoration of wine itself grew, so too did my disdain for the culture surrounding it. The more I worked there, the more I learned of a world where people with deep pockets could reserve entire vintages of a particularly well-hyped wine before the grapes were even harvested. I learned of a world where outside investors built climate-controlled warehouses and sat on thousands of bottles for decades until the value of their “commodity” eventually doubled and they then sold it off, having never taken a single sip themselves. I learned of a world where strict adherence to traditional standards was often considered cannon law, and so any creativity was thereby effectively shunned. I learned of a world where one man’s 100-point scale review was so influential that countless wineries would tailor their wines specifically to please this one single person’s tongue.
But most of all, I learned of a world where, with few exceptions, the really good stuff, the wine that makes you gasp and truly understand the phrase “liquid art”, those would forever be out of reach to all but those lucky few who could afford it. Sure, there will always be some undervalued hidden gems out there, but for the most part there is no arguing one simple, sad truth... Fine wine is a rich man’s game.
So, in the end, despite all the amazing sips I took, the experience still left a bad taste in my mouth. And I fell out of lust with wine. You can guess what happens next. My particular breakthrough craft brew was a Racer 5 by Bear Republic on tap. And I know I promised I wouldn't get into my conversion to story, but in that moment I swear it was like being a 12-year old stumbling upon his dad’s Playboy stash for the first time. Here was a beverage equal in depth and flavor to any fine wine, only without all the bullshit baggage or harrowing price tags that came with it.
I quickly immersed myself within the world of a craft beer, a movement I learned was essentially started by groups of friends experimenting in their basements and garages, and though things have exploded over the past few decades, little has fundamentally changed from this early mindset. Innovation is still encouraged and risks are taken freely (Take some of Dogfish Head’s more exotic releases as a prime example). Pretension, though certainly present, is for the most part met with eye rolls. We’re beer geeks, not beer snobs. It’s not about image or reputation, it’s about the damn beer. This is a movement which is localized, open-sourced, and most of all, completely accessible. In this brave new world, all are welcome.
I was explaining all this recently to a friend of mine who happens to work in the wine industry, and they in response argued that as lovely as all those self-righteous sound-bites may seem, in reality it’s just a matter of time before the craft beer world begins to resemble fine wine if it keeps growing at this rate. Where there is popularity, there is value. They're obviously right to a certain extent, when demand outstrips supply, costs will inevitably go up, and we’re already starting to see this happen with some of the more rabidly hyped of beers (I'm looking at you, Westvleteren 12)