Would A Small Bit Of Altruism Be A Saving Grace For A Wine Industry Obsessed With Competition And Status?

It isn’t so much as what’s in the bottle as what’s the motive. Hint: It isn’t wine.

“man wearing black suit jacket holding sake bottle” by Willian West on Unsplash
“The motive is emulation — the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to out do those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves,” — Thorstein Veblen

There’s an interesting narrative in the wine world which has been growing over the past few years, one which has elevated the status of a select group to new found popularity. It’s this idea of status and ego. This all came about back in 2012 with the delivery and instant popularity of a documentary simply titled Somm. The film delves deeply into the minds and lives of four men who seek to pass the difficult Master Sommelier exam. Run by The Court of Master Sommeliers, Somm delivers a narrative of struggle, dedication and hardwork as it forces one to realize the sacrifice these men take on as they prepare for this all consuming exam. It’s nerve racking and a pleasure to watch. But what this documentary did outside of showcase the elitist and absurd, was to stimulate a new economy whereby those whose morals are ground in ego and status, now found themselves with a new platform of acceptance with which to drive forward. Six years later, this new world view can been seen ever present in the news stories we now see. Here are just three which caught my eye recently.

The first, ironically, arrived in my email as an official address from the Head of the Court of Master Sommeliers. If you don’t know what the Court is, put simply, it’s one of the highest, if not the highest, governing body for wine certification and education in the world. The email which I received, was sent to all past and current members.

Full disclosure: I currently hold a “level two” Certified Sommelier designation from the Court.

Its details stopped me in my tracks as it discussed the stripping of certifications from twenty three out of a possible twenty four recently passed Master Sommeliers. Their titles were taken away due to leaked information concerning the tasting portion of their recent Master Sommelier exam. This news rocked the wine community and caused many to consider the credibility of the Court and its examinations. I was left aghast by what I read. Sad state for those who did not cheat. But here’s the thing. This news shocked me, but it did not surprise me. More on that below.

On the heels of this controversy, news of the impending arrival of Somm III, the third instalment of this now widely popular Sommelier documentary series began to circulate. This time around, Director Jason Wise has chosen to take the series into the past, 1972 specifically, as this was the year California, Napa and wine in the US landed on the proverbial map with the now eponymous Judgement of Paris. If you don’t know what any of this means, here’s some information to help bring you up to speed.

Then finally, on October 13th, just four days after this massive scandal, five rare bottles of Romanee-Conti from 1937 and 1945 sold for almost two million dollars! Romanee-Conti is often considered the most prestigious estate in the world. It’s found in Burgundy. The wine they make is Pinot Noir. Today most new bottles fetch in the thousands. I could comment on the absurdity of this sale but the language I might use will offend some of you, so I won’t. Let’s just leave it at, wtf!

All three of these news events happened within weeks of each other, yet all three are harbingers of a wine community obsessed with status. But what is it about wine which causes those who work in or are obsessed with it to crave a form of status often reserved for insecure actors and musicians? The Oscars are bait for those who need reassurance that their work is good. The Grammy’s are much the same. We the viewing public obsess over these individuals because we’re addicted to celebrity. Yet, it’s news stories such as the three above which make me wonder if the wine industry isn’t also succumbing to such an unfortunate fate. Wine selling for thousands, even millions in this latest case doesn’t surprise me. When you’re rich and have excess, what else are you going to spend it on? Fat cats love to show off. That’s not going anywhere. Somm III isn’t necessarily a bad idea, except that it’s ethos is surrounded by the absurd. It’s meant to showcase the status of California wine versus the greatness of French wine. It’s goal isn’t to tell or teach about wine but to prop up one over the other. It’s glamorized and stylized to showcase the haute couture of a world which is anything but. If you don’t believe me, just watch the trailer.

Romanee Conti may sell for two million, but its sale is a far cry from what the industry currently is. Just ask the poor Mexican who picked those grapes of the Napa Cabernet you’re currently drinking. It’s a slap in the face of the hard work, yes it’s actually farming, which goes into making all that wine we love to drink. Sales such as these showcase a rather large disconnect** with the reality of the industry.

**Side note. If you want to learn more about disconnect in business. Just watch the saga unfolding right now between Uber and its drivers. As the company races towards its IPO, it’s drivers are being left behind by a company set to rake in billions. Only a select few will profit from this happening and it’s not the drivers. It’s a massive disconnect the company is trying to stave off, with horrible offhandedness.

When thinking about this disconnect, I was drawn to a quote by renowned French economist Serge-Christophe Kolm, who asked the question of ego and its overall role in the health of the masses in his now influential 1983 essay, titled “Altruism and Efficiency”:

“What would the result be if we replaced self-interested egoists with altruists who were interested in the welfare of everyone, not just themselves?”

His conclusion, after careful analysis, is that such a world would lead to a more fair and efficient distribution of resources and income. Could Somm III have been better served as a story of how the number of Sommeliers working in restaurants today has grown exponentially since the first Somm came out? How this growth has fuelled a new interest in wine education and stewardship which in turn has benefitted the overall restaurant and dining community at large. Who wouldn’t want to watch this? The narrative could have gone in so many directions. I’m holding out hope for Somm IV. In the meantime.

The Master Sommelier scandal is a perfect example of the tipping point the wine world now faces. It’s why the stripping of those titles, some possibly unjustified, was so important. This instance showcases the length some will go to attain the highest honour a wine professional can achieve. Attaining that lucrative Master title can cause many to risk it all even if passing is highly unlikely. However, this willingness to risk everything, even cheating, wouldn’t have come about had the prize not become so desirable.

Since 2012, when the first Somm documentary came out, enrolment for the Court of Master Sommeliers four levels of courses has grown substantially. When I first wrote my introductory course back in 2013, it was easy to sign up. Now if you go online, waitlists for the certified and the advanced levels are not uncommon, they’re now the norm. There’s a reason for this. Becoming a sommelier became a thing. A master even more so.

Like a young kid who’s excited about acting for all the wrong reasons (fame, money, celebrity) becoming a master sommelier has given an industry once dominated by stuffiness a new frontier. To become a master is to become Drake or Kanye. You’re a celebrity instantly. This entails flights around the world, money, adulation and fandom.

The making of Somm III is a similar example of this hunger for adulation. As humans we can’t help but want to conquer and out do our previous successes. There’s nothing wrong in this. But for the majority of those who drink wine, it is what it is, a beverage of fermented grapes. Nothing more. Somm III is nice. But Somm’s influence has changed the wine community forever. Its accessibility on Netflix gave the Court the platform it never knew it wanted. With millions of eyes learning the scope one must endure to become a master, ego soon drove hundreds to want to pursue its stature. Again, there’s nothing wrong in this. I was once one of them. But it’s news stories such as these three which makes me wonder if things have gotten out of hand. I say this with a level head and a clear understanding that the vast majority of regular folk, who drink wine often, are not concerned with the nuances of what wine is or ought to be. To them, wine is either delicious or it isn’t. Cheating to become a master sommelier is a form of positional good. Same as paying two million for five bottles of wine. They’re acts meant to position oneself above the mass. It’s all driven by ego.

Back in 1899 a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist by the name of Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in his book “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” He describes the term as being a form used by consumers who look to buy expensive items so as to flash their wealth over others versus using or buying an item for a general purpose. An example of this would be buying a simple Jetta versus a Porsche. Both are built to do the same thing, get one from A to B, except that one is more valuable and flashy. If the intended purpose is to buy a car to drive around a city, the Jetta would suffice. Buying a Porsche implies a form of status and wealth. For Veblen, this type of behaviour is characterized by a society of wasted time and money. This type of action helps no one except to prop one over another. Veblen’s book was based in a time where the divide between the goods the rich possessed and those the poor desired were considerate. We might be there again. It’s why it’s ethos is so important now.

With global warming and the effects of changing weather patterns, the wine world over will see its landscape drastically remodelled over the ensuing years and decades. Those working in the fields picking grapes work tirelessly for modest wages, yet many vineyards are facing shortages as workers flock to other industries. Instead of focusing on some of the more pressing issues facing the industry, sales of wine for extravagant amounts, cheating on wine exams and the making of puffed up documentaries are the news stories which dominate how the wine community is presented. It’s unfortunate and as Veblen decries, a waste of time and money.

Altruism is the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. It’s a concept of shared happiness at the expense of self. Cheating by one or several on a Master Sommelier exam caused many to lose their titles, forcing all to retake their examinations. By thinking of self, all failed. Somm was a great idea. It’s a wonderful examination of dedication and an eye opening view into a world many had never known existed. Somm III looks to serve one sole purpose, ego. I may be asking too much from a documentary which may only want to entertain, but I can’t help but think, with so much clout and so little to lose, could it have been more?

Nevertheless, I reserve hope and optimism the wine industry has a bright future, even if part of it is fixated on an egoist self. More working Sommeliers can be found all across the globe. Enthusiasm is high. France looks to be rebounding from a disastrous 2017 harvest. This is exciting news for the heart of the wine industry. Where it goes next, time will only tell. I just hope I don’t see more news updates of wine selling in the millions. Seriously, wtf?