Wine is aspirational, or so they say. And if I had to guess what people mean by this, I’d guess that they see wine buying and wine obsession as expressions of desire for a certain lifestyle, or for status. Aspects of the wine market do reflect this: the labeling of the ubiquitous Redwood Creek wines, for example, and those advertising campaigns that used the graphic style of post–World War II National Parks posters, calling all good middle-class Americans to jump in the car this summer, head on up to see the Big Trees, and pop open a bottle of Cabernet with that steak dinner. Then there’s the status some wines confer, and the way that can make us feel that we’re leading a fancy life: My father-in-law once treated the family to dinner downstairs at Chez Panisse, and he brought an aged magnum of Château Margaux, from an excellent year. The bottle not only showed me what a great wine could taste like; it gave me a very pleasant feeling of inclusion in the high life. That remains the only Château Margaux I’ve ever tasted—there’s not a lot of grand cru Bordeaux in my daily life—so it remains also a certain aspirational high point.
But I think we can all begin reading aspirational as a more neutral term: Being human, we do itch for lifestyle and status, and yet we also itch for the common-sense knowledge about everyday pleasures that wine seems to express so perfectly. In other words, we want to know more about wine (and especially food-plus-wine) because we want to know how to live. In a culture as deracinated and untraditional as our own, that’s perfectly natural. It’s an old saw, in a way: The French and Italians had it figured out for centuries, while our food-industrial complex thrives on a relentless undermining of tradition. As soon as people settle into food traditions, they stop needing new products every other day. So the commercial machine of our food economy works tirelessly to persuade us to throw out yesterday’s habits and buy something new and improved—and, doubtless, the result of some elaborate industrial process.
A single half-bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir prompted these thoughts, on my first day home from a week-long work trip (kayaking in Alaska, on assignment, no hardship). I was out running errands with my wife, L, and our two-year-old, A. With the dinner hour approaching, and the sun shining, and late-summer warmth filtering through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District, we parked near our favorite little market, the Bi-Rite. They’ve got great prepared foods, and we often take a Bi-Rite picnic dinner and head up to nearby Dolores Park and eat in the grass while our kids run around. When L and I were courting in that neighborhood, about 10 years back, the park was a haven for drug dealers; now it’s a lovely urban greensward filling two steep, hilly city blocks. Victorians and Edwardians front the park on two sides, Mission High School fronts the third, and big Monterey pines, along the fourth, hide streetcar tracks. And as we assembled the dinner at that market, I noticed a 375-milliliter bottle of Chehalem Pinot Noir, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Twenty minutes later, when I twisted off the screw cap and poured the wine into a plastic cup and smelled its plain, balanced, unfussy bouquet along with the briny smells of the sea, and then sipped it between bites of cold roasted chicken and bread-and-tomato salad, I felt a small debt of gratitude to the very project of wine, and of wine obsession. Nothing miraculous about this moment, or high-status, or unusual in terms of lifestyle—just a middle-aged man and his beloved middle-aged wife, relaxing in the grass like a million other Americans, watching their hilarious little girl run around in circles, but still, the joy taken in a good wine and some even better food rounded out the moment, made it slightly more pleasurable and uplifting. And if it’s aspirational to want that feeling again and again, call me the Great Gatsby of wine.