June 2017 Issue | Article: Zachary Sussman
Competitive wine lovers now hunt down the rare and esoteric rather than the usual Parker 100-pointers, says Zachary Sussman. But in their doomed quest for authenticity, have they merely replaced one form of exclusivity with another?
Of the array of wine bottles amassed on the table of the Chinatown restaurant whose gracious “no corkage” policy makes it a regular destination for sommeliers, journalists and other wine industry professionals, one particular label has attracted our attention. Although not the most expensive offering, it’s undoubtedly the most difficult to find: a magnum of 1996 Raymond Trollat Saint Joseph, a classic Northern Rhone Syrah from the iconic small grower whose retirement in 2005 catapulted his remaining stock to cult status.
In an era when photographing a meal has become a prerequisite to eating it, it's no surprise that the group I'm with has begun snapping “bottle shots.” As guilty of the practice as anyone else, I log into my Instagram feed, only to notice that one of my dining companions has already posted a picture of the prized magnum, accompanied by the hashtag “#unicornwine.”
Every subculture has its own lingo, but that of sommeliers— or as we now call them, “somms” —must be among the most peculiar. Reserved for the kind of ultra rare, extremely limited— and therefore highly prized— bottles that inspire pangs of envy among wine geeks, the “unicorn wine” hashtag first surfaced on the Twitter and Instagram feeds of celebrity sommeliers like Michael Madrigale, formerly of Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group, and Rajat Parr, wine director for Michael Mina’s restaurants in San Francisco. Lately, the phrase has begun seeping into the mainstream.
Although “unicorn wines” share the same highly fetishized aura that surrounds the kind of blue-chip trophy wines collectors have always vied for (Lafite, Latour, Romanée Conti, the usual roster of cult “Cali Cabs”), they confer status not by virtue of their cost, which varies, but the special expertise it takes to acquire them. As former sommelier and current podcast host Levi Dalton once tweeted, “If you have to ask, it ain't Unicorn."
It’s tempting to view this trend as further confirmation that our wine culture has reached new levels of sophistication, that we’ve arrived at the latest chapter of the American palate’s twenty-first century renaissance. According to this view, the Boomer generation’s aspirational fixation on high scores and price tags has been replaced by an alternative system of values; rather than reducing wine to a luxury commodity, a new wave of drinkers now identifies wine as a unique expression of culture requiring a particular form of connoisseurship.
Anyone with a “black card” can drop hundreds, even thousands of dollars on the standard critically-approved case of first-growth Bordeaux. Not so with that coveted bottle of Trollat, however, or the notoriously elusive vintages from natural wine legends like Pierre Overnoy or Clos Rougeard, which now sell out pre-release (and make for prime Instagram "like-bait").
“Even if you knew what to look for, you wouldn’t be able to find it,” the unicorn creed declares. So, who wouldn’t want to document evidence of such conquests on social media? Not only does it award a badge of honor, signaling one's status as a card-carrying member of wine’s new counter-culture, but it also offers a searchable public record of one's own superior taste.
This leads to some troubling questions. Given all the street cred and social jockeying involved in their display, doesn’t the hunt for these ever-elusive “unicorns” simply trade one form of exclusivity for another? Rather than cultivating a more nuanced attitude towards wine, are we simply perpetuating a new incarnation of the same old snobbery and one-upmanship that has always attended the pursuit of trophy wines? If all we’ve done is shift focus from the expensive to the esoteric, has anything fundamentally changed?
Many of the same criticisms have been leveled against the wider “hipsterization” (to adopt that much-abused yet inescapable term) of the culinary world otherwise known as the “foodie movement”: our curious habit of seeking out the small-batch, the heirloom, the rare and obscure— and transforming it into the stuff of cultural capital. It was only a matter of time before this same principle would emerge in the context of wine culture.
To be sure, this skepticism is not misplaced. But beyond the smug self-satisfaction of being an early adopter— “I was into it before it was cool!”— the trend reveals a longing for something more than just bragging rights. If the impulse behind “unicorn wine” is exclusivity— a way of separating the converts from the philistines— it also has the reverse effect of uniting a community around a shared set of values, even if those values tend to be expressed in an elitist way.
What initially appears to be a cynical fetish for the hyper-artisanal— the nearly extinct bottle available only to a select group of initiated connoisseurs— also translates to a genuine concern for a wine’s history and origins. What’s important isn’t the price or the pedigree of the label, but how and why it was made, the way it embodies a local identity or communicates a sense of place. In this formula, rarity isn’t inherently valuable; it becomes valuable to the extent that it meets the conditions for a certain kind of “authenticity” – a virtue we equate with the small-scale and hand-crafted.
Maybe this entire mindset boils down to nothing but a predictably misguided brand of late-capitalist, post-everything nostalgia— the kind that, for about a decade, drove every new restaurant opening in my Brooklyn neighborhood to resemble the set from “Little House on the Prairie.” But no matter how absurd it might seem to turn to a bottle of fermented grape juice to deliver us from the consumerist homogeny of 21st century life, what we’re ultimately chasing is some version of the authentic; the rare and the obscure are just the places we expect to find it— whatever it might be.
The irony is that authenticity never actually materializes. The very moment we identify something as “authentic,” we’ve already excommunicated ourselves from its midst. After all, what could be less authentic than trying to be authentic? The question perpetually nags at us: “authentic” compared to what?
The real motive behind the “unicorn wine” obsession— the thing that fuels it with so much competitive envy— lies in this chronic anxiety about authenticity. What is it really? How do we know when we have it? Isn’t there always one degree further to go? This core of doubt is what compels us to make such a public display of claiming it— a phenomenon that Canadian sociologist Andrew Potter has aptly dubbed “conspicuous authenticity.” So we hunt for the bottles. We post the photos and click the hashtags. We perform a pantomine of authenticity for all to see, even as it escapes us— as unicorns, by their very nature, must.