I've become fairly cynical over the past few years in the booze business, mainly because I've realized much of the allure with wine and spirits lies in the fact that there's so much to know that others do not, rather than the sheer pleasure of drinking. There's a certain personality out there that gravitates towards the areas of least resistance, hoping that the percevied mastery of something less ordinary is better than the competance of something familiar. I remember my friend's brother growing up, who wanted to be revered as a basketball star like his brother was. The only problem was he wasn't any good at basketball. Or baseball. Or soccer. Or any of the normal sports kids play. That's why he started looking at roller hockey leagues and lacrosse clubs, hoping that out of the ten kids in Modesto interested in these sports, he would be good enough to stand out. It wasn't about doing something he liked or having fun. It was about garnering praise.
Sometimes I feel like wine carries a similar intrigue for those seeking attention. A little bit of wine knowledge is generally held in fairly high regard, at least in the major metropolitan areas. You don't even have to be right! I sat next to a guy at dinner last night who was just making things up, hoping to impress his date ("This wine is made from a grape known as White Burgundy, it's different than chardonnay, much sweeter"). Because very few people understand the details, facts, or nuances regarding what is a very large and complicated wine world, it tends to draw in those with a tendency for pedantry, which is why wine is often linked to snobbery. After a few chapters of reading in a basic wine manual, the odds are that you'll know more than your neighbor. The same thing could also be said for art, another genre where the patron has very little idea of what makes one subject better than another. Much like with wine and spirits, we rely on experts who tell us why certain works are considered masterpieces and others simply child's play.
Because of this gulf in understanding, the wines (and even whiskies) that are obvious to the general consumer are rarely embraced by the experts. It's difficult to appreciate merit if you have no understanding of what came before it. Sometimes, however, the wines that are rated highly by critics tend to be too esoteric for the newbie palate. This can often result in bitterness between the two groups because one cannot understand the absence of practicality, while the other hates the idea of basic mass appeal. What I really appreciate, however, is when these two roads intersect and something wonderful is created that is easy to grasp, yet profound and new. Something like that happened during the 1980s in New York City.
The early 80s in New York was one of the most important periods in the history of modern popular culture. The downtown scene was bustling with young creatives like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Fab Five Freddy, and a slough of other artists whose impact would forever pave the way for future talents. One of the most famous artists from that period was Keith Haring, whose street murals and graffiti style transcended the basic subway tag, using simple imagery to tackle issues of gender, race, and homosexuality. You didn't need to visit a museum or a studio to view Haring's work. He would paint huge murals on the side of buildings, around the walls of a local pool, or in the bathroom at a community center. Haring's mural at the LGBT Center (pictured above) on West 13th Street is still there if you ask at the front desk to see it. Like his pal Basquiat, critics weren't sure how Haring fit into the legacy of modern art, simply because so many people who didn't know anything about art history were enjoying his work. How can it be good if so many regular folks without MFA degrees appreciate it?
Sometimes it takes a while for praise to come your way. While Haring was definitely celebrated by his own community in New York, his stock only really began to soar after his death in 1990. Many of his paintings sell for seven figures these days. Haring was good at what he did and he stuck with it, regardless of whether the experts wanted to call it fine art or not, because it made him happy and it made the public happy as well. There was never any attempt to condescend or impress with his work, only to make life a little bit more beautiful. If only all of our motivations in life could be so simple and pure.