The Ideal of Authenticity
As someone who has developed an audience over the years via writing, I get a lot of email and I usually have thirty to forty correspondences going at all times. People will randomly send me things they think I’d like; for example, the box of classic WWF action figures that showed up on my desk yesterday (pictured in the previous post). They also send links to articles that remind them of themes I’ve tackled, or relate to previous articles I’ve written. This happened last week when a customer forwarded me a link to The American Conservative and an article about Christianity in the Trump era. Embedded in that article, however, was a link to an interview with philosopher Charles Taylor that really got my head spinning. Authenticity has been the foundational theme of the modern boutique booze era. Anything viewed as mass produced, soulless, and with an identity rooted purely in commercial branding has been eschewed in favor of "authentic" products that express terroir, a sense of place, or an individualistic character. The story of a bottle has become almost more important than the quality of the liquid within it.
I’ve spent the last ten years working to build the educational side of the business as I’m a big believer in the story of alcohol. It’s part of what makes drinking fun and I like helping customers understand why wines and spirits taste the way they do. However, over the last few years I’ve watched that modern message become co-opted by companies, large and small, and social media narratives that stress the qualities of authenticity, history, and transparency in alcohol over basic quality and flavor, a misconstruction that I think will ultimately be the downfall of this era. I’ve told anyone who will listen in the booze business as of late my feelings about our precarious position. The spirits market in general is currently packed beyond capacity, flooded with previously unsaleable products touting unique and “complex” aspects of flavor that are often just flaws in production or random by-products of accidental decision-making. Twenty years ago, much of the craft spirits world would have been ignored by the drinking masses, but today you can put anything into glass and call it art. In a sense, a new focus on originality and uniqueness has helped provide a justification for shoddy craftsmanship—an idea that apparently dates back to the end of the late 1700s, according to Charles Taylor:
When people began to work out the ideal of authenticity at the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th century, there was also a corresponding emphasis on originality in art. This was new. If you go back far enough, when people made religious icons, they were craftsmen. They had no sense of their work being original or even that it would be good if it was original. Their products weren’t supposed to be original; they were supposed to be artifacts. And this has been totally overturned during the past two centuries. We now admire art, or music, or poetry not for its craftsmanship – the extent to which it realizes a template – but for its originality.
I like how Taylor stops to make sure the audience understands “craftsmanship” in the interview: the extent to which something realizes a template. It’s an idea the French understood long ago when they established AOC rules and regulations for wine, but it’s a concept that has been completely misconstrued by modern enthusiasts. There’s a reason that white Sancerre from France’s Loire Valley has to be made from Sauvignon Blanc and taste a particular way in order to call itself "Sancerre." It’s because there’s a specific template for Sancerre and for every other wine in France that carries a traditional regional designation. These rules and regulations exist to maintain styles of winemaking that have long been heralded for quality, and to protect consumers from imposter wines seeking to capitalize on their reputations. When we use the word “classic” to describe a wine from Sancerre, Chablis, or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, we use it to mean “true-to-form,” or to say that the wine has succeeded in “realizing its template.” What’s happening now, however, is a somewhat misguided marketing movement from wine and spirits producers, seeking admiration for realizing templates that have neither a previous documentation for quality nor any reputation for superior flavor.
You can see the interweaving of the aesthetic with the ethic of authenticity. The seeds were there from the very beginning. So it’s possible, if you look at ethics in the broad sense of what the good life is about, then people can say that the good life is really about this superior self-expression, of being original, rather than about what you might call morality, which is doing the right thing by other people. Indeed, for someone like Nietzsche, morality, doing right by others, gets in the way of what he sees as the real substance of the good life, which is self-realization, becoming an Übermensch and so on. I think you can see that that’s part of the whole turn in modern culture, which promotes the aesthetic to the highest possible position.
Let’s replace the above analogy with a booze-related version. If the good life of drinking is now about superior self-expression, of being original, rather than about what we might simply call quality—typicity or a classic, true-to-form character—then people could say that the good life of drinking is about valuing the character of regionality or uniqueness rather than something that simply tastes good. Indeed, for someone in today’s collector market, a good flavor actually gets in the way of what he sees as the real substance of the good life, which is the realization of a cultured palate, becoming a master sommelier and so on. I think we all can see that this has been part of the turn in modern drinking culture, which promotes the aesthetic of authenticity to the highest possible position.
In fact, the aesthetic of authenticity has become so important that in many instances we’ve simply forgotten flavor altogether. If that wasn’t the case, why would a distillery choose to tout “local” barley in a single malt when the unique, individual character of this particular barley has zero reputation for greatness and a challenging, unappealing flavor? Why would a winemaker laud a newly-planted vineyard’s terroir before first assessing if the site had anything important to say? How could so many terrible bottles, each with their own unique story, be making their way to my desk otherwise?
I’m not the first person to realize that authenticity and marketing go hand in hand. In fact, I had a meeting with a large producer this past week where I told them to be transparent, but more focused on flavor, fun, and drinkability than authenticity because I felt that particular aesthetic had been trivialized by the hoards of producers claiming to possess it. It's become a caricature of itself, something people like me seek to avoid rather than celebrate. If I were starting a brand today, I’d want no part of this market segment because it doesn’t represent people who actually like to drink—those who buy bottles for actual consumption, then return to purchase another.
You can understand why individualism is associated with selfishness etc, because very often the idea that I’ve got my own way of being, and I have to work it out, can be captured by highly inauthentic, general ideas circulating, such as the attempt to be oneself by being like a famous popstar. That’s a trivial way in which it can work itself out.
But it can also work out in such a way that justifies a great deal of irresponsibility. It’s interesting that the ethic of authenticity gets woven into the postwar period with the consumer society, a society in which we take for granted that the majority of people either now or in the near future will not, in their economic life, be primarily concerned with mere necessities, but with optional or discretionary spending. And into that situation comes the struggle of different corporations to sell their product, and they do so, to a tremendous degree now, in terms of ‘style’. Nike says ‘Just Do It’, and you think you are being brave in affirming your particular style in life by buying a pair of running shoes.
So you can see that there is a tremendous trivialization of the ethic of authenticity going on. At one end of the spectrum, you have great poets, like Keats and so on, who struggled against the immense pressure of their society to realize something really valuable. And at the other end, you get Nike shoes.
My question for the industry right now is: are we still concerned with making great wines and spirits—things with real value—or are we simply milking a marketing template to be realized with trivial claims of authenticity? The former is an actual market, while the latter is a passing fad.