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$6000 Sweatsuits: On Jazz and Wine


Charles Mingus, 1976. Photograph by Tom Marcello, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

A few months ago, Dusty and I drove around Los Angeles with Doug Swim of Amy Atwood Selections, popping into wine bars and shops. The conversation got deep between stops, inspired by the people we were meeting and the changes that the pandemic brought to the way they create social experiences.


It got me thinking about a book I just read from the Jazz Historian Ted Gioia called, appropriately, The History of Jazz. There’s a pattern throughout the book that is not unique to music, but to how popular culture and art depart and converge over time. Here’s an example: During some decades (like the late 30s and early 40s) someone like Duke Ellington can present an artform to a popular swing audience and make a true connection. The audience doesn’t have to be prepared to appreciate the music or to be moved by something critically recognized as art. At these times, the distance between art and pop is insignificant.


During other decades (the late 50s, for example), popular audiences were only confused and frustrated by the “tone poems” of Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus, which critics described as being “absolutely crucial to the development of free collective improvisation…” The gap between art and pop at this time was a chasm. There was just too much the listener needed to know to understand what was going on in all of that noise.


I’ve been struggling to understand how some art becomes “classic” as time moves on while other pieces become antiquated–artifacts of their time but incapable of connecting with people of later generations. The answer may be in the relationship between art and pop. Perhaps art that resonates with the sentiments of its contemporary audience feels dated to audiences whose sentiments have changed. Maybe artforms that are distant from the popular sentiment of an era seem important later on because of the change they caused. There are other possibilities, too: Maybe there is an accidental convergence of factors, including luck, that conspire to freeze a moment in time, in perfect resolution, to reveal a universal human truth. Sometimes it's pop, and sometimes it’s art.


We’re in a moment right now where many contemporary arts have developed into forms that can be both critically and popularly appreciated. Culinary arts are a great example. So is music. And fashion. It’s no longer a rarefied cognoscenti who delight in challenging dishes, atonal compositions, and complex sartorial constructions. Instead, they eat excellent pizza, listen to hip hop, and wear $6000 sweatsuits.


Which, oddly, gets to wine.


This is one way to think of the equivalent historical development of our chosen artform over the past 100 years or so: We started with the Lafites’ of the turn of the century, flanked by their counterparts in Champagne, Barolo, and Burgundy, which required deep pockets, deep armchairs, and deep wells of knowledge to access. Next came post-war standardization in wine with the introduction of pesticides, industrial farming, stainless steel, inert gas, and precise temperature control which made wine predictable. From there, a revival took place with help from the Gang of 5 in Beaujolais, bolstered by Kermit Lynch on his adventures, which took people back to basics with simple, more naturally derived wines. Almost simultaneously, a countermovement rose up, flooding caves with freshly minted oenologists whose exacting scientific instruments were capable of producing wine of a ripeness and texture preferred by one very influential lawyer. But now, for better or for worse, we find ourselves in the era of glou-glou, where young people with limited knowledge of this history pound super allocated juice, the rarer the better: A stark contrast to where we started this limited history in the rarefied studies where wine drinkers quaffed cuvees, blindfolded.


But that’s just one way to think about it. Not wrong, necessarily. Incomplete.


Let me extend our jazz/wine analogy: After World War II, Jazz went in a thousand directions all at once (Trad Jazz, Hard Bop, Free Jazz, and the later Smooth, Fusion, etc.). There was no longer a prevailing sensibility pulling the progression of Jazz taught like a string drawn between past and future. Instead, the filaments split and frayed and everyone went in their own direction. Whereas movement and countermovement defined the evolution of the artform to that point, now opposing schools were no longer so oppositional, they were contemporary. It wasn’t Louis Armstrong talking shit about Charlie Parker, it was Herbie Handcock recording a tribute album to Joni Mitchell and collaborating with India Arie, Chaka Khan, and Los Lobos.


Something similar happened in wine. During any one of its eras, there were winemakers expressing unique places and winemaking styles all over the world, which were out of step with the prevailing trends of their eras. Movements overlapped. Wines blurred lines. Art departed and converged with popular tastes again and again over time, leaving us at the present moment where that gap is insignificant. And that’s not because our glou-glous have reached the level of art. Many would argue that would be antithetical to the whole “porch pounder” raison d’etre. “Don’t think, just drink.” But culturally, this mindset has thrown open the doors to many new possibilities. It’s piqued interests, wet appetites. Obscure, belittled varieties are now in demand. Novelty and playfulness are positive attributes, not demeaning euphemisms. Now is one of the most exciting times in history to drink wines, which–despite oceans of incipient hard seltzers, and mango/mint/tree sap aged sour beers–has a growing base of loyalists.


There is a time for glou-glou, and there is a time for serious wines. There is a time for study, and there is a time for drunkenness. We have arrived at a point in the history of wine where we have been prepared for both. The glou-glou is walking more and more wine drinkers in through the front door, and they’re sticking around for Ready, Passalacqua, Schoener, Parr, Bell, Pattaille, Sadie, Tschida, Metras, Foradori, De Moor, Boyer, Tissot, Ganevat, Pepe, Gorian, the list goes on and on and on.


But there is also another opportunity at our present moment in which convergence doesn’t simply happen between art and pop, but also between artforms themselves. As all artforms have found themselves fracturing into ever smaller pieces and we are, daily, inundated with “content” often indistinguishable from yesterday’s barrage, a truly special experience through which people make a connection with an object of art and with one another in the process could be one that combines art forms together. Is it enough in our post-post-post-modern world to simply experience a single piece of art while simultaneously trying to drown out the rest of an insistent world? Or do our brains need a more comprehensive form of stimulation to be “brought up short” or see some part of human experience with a fresh perspective? To get through to us, we need to taste and feel and hear all at once. The idea of a tasting menu has been around since civilization, so there’s nothing new there, but perhaps there is an opportunity with these broadly appealing artforms (natural wine, food, fashion, visual arts) to give more to their audiences than just pleasure and distraction. Maybe they can delight and move us at the same time. Surely in our fractured moment there's room for high and low, profane and exalted, serious and joyful.


If there’s a message in all this rambling, it’s this: art is always moving. If it has nothing new to show us, then it ceases to be. Anyone who tries to freeze art at a particular moment and ignore its endless reinvention has a vested interest in that particular moment. Our aim is to create wines that compel, but there will always be a commercial consideration. We have to keep the lights on, after all. We count ourselves lucky then, that we came on the scene when imaginations were a little freer than they have been in the past. Where possibility is exciting, not threatening. Where the string connecting the past to the present has snapped and the possible paths into the future are abundant.


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