Photo: American Psycho (2000) directed by Mary Harron
Now I'm playin' it real straight
And yes I cut my hair
You might think I'm crazy
But I don't even care
Because I can tell what's going on
It's hip to be square
-Hip To Be Square, 'Fore!', Huey Lewis & The News
It's one of my favourite films for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the cutting and poignant, if not outright hilarious, analysis of Huey's signature tune by a raincoat-clad Patrick Bateman, eerily coherent and direct in his musical analysis of Hip right before axing the absolute hell out of poor little Paul Allen. The problem with American Psycho is that because of the strong genratic™ (my own word) elements that make it feel more like a thriller than the black comedy it is, a lot of the sharp criticism that the film is actually making about male vanity, toxic masculinity, privilege, class, gender inequality, etc., gets missed.
No matter. That's not why we're here today. And to be clear, this little blogcicle is merely using American Psycho and its interaction with Huey as a jumping off point into a greater sea of consumer behaviour as it pertains to wine.
If you're struggling to track my thinking here (I wouldn't blame you; I am, too), I was thinking about how the way in which a winery presents itself impacts how seriously it is taken and by whom it is or is not taken seriously or appreciated. Though Huey Lewis grew up the son of an artist and jazz drummer in San Francisco, admittedly smoking a lot of pot along the way, his natural physical appearance that he grew into in his 30s as he attained commercial success just so happened resemble a conservative-like trope: a polished, clean-cut, blazer wearing white guy who didn't like to party that much and was into pro sports.
At first glance, it might not have been obvious that Huey & The News were once essentially the backing band for Elvis Costello, a rather punkish and arguably more hip icon. I used to serve Elvis Costello on a regular basis, and I will tell you, he's prettayyy prettayyy prettayyy cool. It might not have been obvious that Huey & some of the news came from jazz & beatnik roots, considering Huey's annual appearance at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on the PGA Tour, a notoriously right-wing-hooey (pun intended)-laden crowd. And I suppose, they just happened to be making music in the 80s where one could argue that the musical trends of the day just kind of took on a rather polished, big-time sound with an in-your-face brashness that lent their image more to one of square, blockheaded white dudes.
Alright, alright, sure. You get the point. "Things aren't always what they seem, Steven."
Yes, that's part of it and admittedly trite. But let's go a little deeper.
I think their undisputed masterpiece is 'Hip to Be Square,' a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it's also a personal statement about the band itself.
Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
I want to highlight the specific line, "the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends," first. If we think about wine, so many things about the experience of drinking it become apparent and important to us before we have a deeper understanding about what it really is, where it comes from, and about the personnel that contributed to its deliverance (great word that actually means "to set free").
We don't just wake up one day and start drinking wine for no reason, unless you're my grandfather. I'd argue that drinking wine in itself and many of the subsequent modes of wine drinkage in which we engage once we start are precisely just attempts on our part to conform to an image or trend that suits our idea of who we'd like to be and, assumedly, are not already.
We don't just like the taste of the wine, we like how we look when drinking it. We like the look of the bottle. We like the idea that we're a part of something. And that's where wine marketing and labeling comes in. The producer thinks: how can we match up our offering with the type of experience that our target consumer is looking for?
Sometimes, those consumers are also wine buyers. And it's amazing how powerful label and image is in this process. As we've said before, what more do we need to make great wine than a good vineyard, someone to tend to it, a roof, a bit of gear, and a winemaker that knows how to not screw it up? Why do we assume that the boring or ugly labels must be producing boring and ugly wines, while we also assume that the 'estate winery' with the towers and barrel room tours and the expensive sculptures must be producing excellent wines. Technically speaking, the things I just listed have absolutely nothing to do with wine, with the exception of how they make you feel before you drink it. Which, I'm saying it, matters more to our experience than we'd care to admit.
I'd argue that any wine lover's goal should be to understand how their own perceptions and preferences are manipulated and altered by their ideas about the wine they're tasting or having with dinner or crushing on rooftop patio somewhere. I'm not saying it's not OK to get swept up in the moment of a fancy presentation at a fancy property. But it's more important, if you realllllllyyy love wine and want to get into it at a deep level, to really practice checking yourself and those external influences that come between the glass and your lips.
You can drink a label, and you can't drink a glass building. Though some will try.
Let's conduct a little hypothetical experiment. I'm going to show you two wine labels here. I'd like you to make some notes in your mind about your impression of general quality and style based on the presentation of each. Then we'll dive in and talk about the reality afterwards. Ready?
OK. Just work with me here. Two red wines in a similar regional and stylistic category. What are your impressions of Diabolica on the left? Where could you see this wine being served? Who do you know, including yourself, potentially, who would be interested in drinking this wine? How much would you guess that this bottle is worth?
Now, answer the same questions for the Mission Hill on the right. Can you see how there's likely a different consumer at the end of the rainbow for these two wines?
No judgement from me yet. Let's do it again. Pardon the terrible formatting. Moving these things around in this blog processing program is a real pain.
Alright. Two Pinot Noirs from the same region. I know one of the bottles looks bigger, but let's assume they're the same size and that you're paying for the same amount of wine, which you would be in reality. Which are you wanting to be seen with? Which one gets your glands juicing? Which one looks more expensive? Which one looks more legit?
Here's where I don't have to be hypothetical. I think that most consumers would look at these four labels and think, "Cool, four different wineries to choose from". Well, to blow your mind, all of these wines are owned by the same person. 3 out of 4 of them are made at the same facility. It's actually possible that they were all made at the same facility, at least partially. The reds on the top could very likely have been sourced partly from the same vineyards, as can be said for the Pinot Noir wines on the bottom.
Did you think about the prices? Make your guesses now, because I'm about to tell you.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Diabolica Red Blend: $16
Mission Hill Reserve Shiraz: $27
Fern Walk Pinot Noir: $19
Martin's Lane Naramata Ranch Pinot Noir: $100
Diabolica and Fern Walk are what the industry calls virtual brands, which means that no actual winery with those names exists. Mission Hill, along with Martin's Lane, both with stunningly beautiful and expensive estate properties at which wine is made and patrons are entertained, have wines that go for upwards of $150.
How close were you in your assumptions? Were you way off on one or two of your preconceptions?
Now, to be clear, my purpose here is absolutely not to say that the more expensive wines in question are not indeed superior wines to their less expensive counterparts that we compared them with. But, how would you know without tasting them? All of them come from the same appellation: Okanagan Valley BC VQA. This region is simply too young to carry a standardized price-quality structure that lends a useful element of predictability or style. Not to mention that Okanagan Valley wines can be made from anything ranging from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon, in any number of styles from any number of micro-climates. It's kind of a lot to take it. And it's just one tiny little wine region in the big, bad world of wine.
We're getting sidetracked, although, as I always say, that's kind of the place you want to be at in your study.
I'll argue that on first glance, it seems that there's a connection between value perception and connecting a specific wine to a place with a beautiful facility that people can visit. The irony is that technically speaking, that changes the wine itself exactly zero-percent in terms of what is actually in the bottle. All four wines can indeed be traced to a facility if one looks hard enough. It's just that for two of the wines, once you track them down, you just end up at the location of something more expensive.
Is it possible that the image of being able to afford to visit and purchase wines from expensively lavish estates and having the good social taste to do so has something to do with the value (read: price) of wines more so than what is actually in the bottle? Is a wine worth more if you're standing in the grand tasting room at the grand mansion-esque estate and feeling a little intimidated and out of place? What the hell is going on here?
There are examples of the exact opposite. Examples of private winery facilities that consumers can't visit and drink rosé on the patio at and eat wood-fired pizzas at before taking pictures in summer dresses between a vineyard that looks over the lake for their Instagram accounts. Meyer Family Vineyards and Blue Mountain, both noted Pinot Noir & Chardonnay producers from Okanagan Falls, come to mind here. Sure, visits are possible and there have been times where the public was welcome, but these two producers and noted for their privacy. And the value in their wines.
Some of these producers are transparent about their location, their vineyard sources, their process, their people, and so on. And some of them are even more cagey, creating a mystique for the consumer, one that can only be broken through hard research and consistent snooping. Remember when I talked about how The Prisoner went from a 250-case niche bottling to a 250,000 case mega brand? Then there are projects like Sine Qua Non, bottling different wines under different labels each vintage, and staying about as cagey as someone producing goods can get. Just check out their website.
I'd argue that the ability of either grand estates or cagey, private facilities' ability to create value in the eye of the consumer is equivalent to the ability of indie-folk music and top-40 to appeal to listeners. Both are trendy in many ways for their base. You could almost pick them out based on the way that they dress themselves. It's just that one is there for your in plain sight and the other you have to look hard for. There's value in both.
Just like Huey Lewis was making fun of the way he was perceived as "square" despite his arguably hip leanings and oeuvre of creatively sophisticated work, solely based on his look and a couple of arbitrary preferences, we can often make assumptions about the wines we encounter based on stereotypes surrounding the knowledge we have. It's just important to know as a consumer that these stereotypes rarely paint the whole picture, or even an accurate partial picture.
It's an occurrence that begs us to ask ourselves: are we simply wanting to belong to a movement? Are we in love with a trend? Or do we actually want to experience this wine for what it is, and truly seek to understand it? Are we really listening to it? Are we getting to know it?
I've met so many interesting wine professionals with volumes of knowledge, sense, and valuable information who had not only zero Instagram followers, but no Instagram account at all. People who simply rely on their palates to quietly determine origin, character, quality, and enjoyment. People who aren't interested in the pleasures of conformity or the importance of trends, but those who simply are making a personal statement about themselves through a critical eye and a thirst for information and, dare I say it, truth. You know, in vino veritas and all that.
It might seem crazy. They might not seem 'cool'. You might not see this person around in any hotspots anywhere.
But, I'll argue that when it comes to wine, there is simply no denying it:
It's hip to be square.