What’s a wine cave really for?

Kelly J. Hayes

Shramsberg Vineyards 2016 Blanc de Blanc

I like wines that bring people together. In 1972, President Richard Nixon served the 1969 vintage of this wine at the historic “Toast to Peace” in Beijing with then-Premier Zhou En-la. It was pretty heady stuff. And the Blanc de Blanc, both then and now, saw time underground in the historic Shramsberg caves that were dug by Chinese laborers commissioned by Jacob Shram, a German immigrant who in 1870 founded the winery. Made from 100% chardonnay, this $41 bottle reflects the beauty of the Califonia sunshine in a dry and crisp glass of bubbles.

It happened again last week.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sneered, “We don’t go to wine caves or wherever to raise our money.”

It was a thinly veiled swipe at an unnamed rival. Though everyone knows it targeted former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. This follows comments made in December by fellow democratic hopeful Elizabeth Warren who, at a debate, similarly used the “wine cave” brush to paint Mayor Pete as elitist. Even “Saturday Night Live” got into the act with a Kate McKinnon spoof.

While the point that Buttigieg is funding his campaign by cozying up to billionaires may or may not have validity, to be clear, the “wine cave” rhetoric is meant to be divisive. It is an attempt to create a sound bite, a buzz phrase that infers an us-versus-them, rich-versus-poor, wine drinkers-versus-non-drinkers divide.

Beyond that, it also inaccurately demonizes the wine world by using a symbol to suggest elitism.

While wine caves have indeed become status symbols in some wineries, particularly those in the Napa Valley, the origin of the caves is utilitarian. They are an ancient, clever way to store and age wines in an efficient, temperature- and humidity-friendly environment. The vast majority of wine caves are not an amenity, but rather a tool for the production of an agricultural product. In much of the world, wine is a part of day-to-day life, not a luxury product.

A little background on the wine cave controversy:

On Dec. 15, a fundraising event was held under the title “An Evening in the Vineyards with Mayor Pete.” It took place not exactly in the vineyards, but rather in the cellar, or wine cave, at HALL Wines, which is owned by Craig and Kathryn Walt Hall. The Halls have a long history with Democratic Party fundraising as well a significant roll in philanthropic causes in the Napa Valley. Kathryn is the face of the winery, which specializes in the production of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. She also was the U.S. ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001.

Now, by any definition, HALL Wines is upscale. Over the top might be more accurate. The art collection amassed for display there is world-class, featuring the likes of John Baldessari, Jim Campbell, Nick Cave and Jaume Plensa to name just a few. And the wine cellar room is clearly designed to impress those who pay the price for special events and tastings.

But what has seemed to set people off the most was a chandelier that hangs above the table where the dinner was held. Made by the Austrian glass producer Swarovski, it reportedly features 1,500 grape “crystals.” It has been reported that approximately 200 people attended the fundraiser with tickets priced from $500 to $2,800. Expensive, but hardly billionaire pricing.

If you have ever traveled to wine regions around the world, you know the charm that is evoked when you tread down ancient stone steps into the damp and cold depths of a wine cave. There you’ll find hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bottles of wine from different vintages resting in racks, aging until they are ready to be released. The low, vaulted ceiling — often illuminated in soft light — only enhances the aura of wine waiting for its perfect time.

Perhaps the most famous of these caves are found under the chalky soils of the Champagne region in France. Called les crayères, or chalk caves, these vast caverns were originally hollowed out during the days of the Roman Empire. As the great Champagne houses began to evolve, they served their purpose in the aging of the effervescent wines that were riddled, or turned, regularly. In World War I, the caves became underground cities as residents of the region sought safety from the raging war above.

In recent decades, many wineries — yes, some owned by billionaires — have created lavish visitor amenities in caverns below their wineries where guests can taste wine while noshing on cheese plates and such. The intent is to impress and the experiences can be magical. There is little need to degrade that element of wine for a cheap insult at a competing politician.

On Valentine’s Day, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative proclaimed that, while they would not impose the previously threatened 100% tariffs on European wines for the time being, the current 25% tariffs on certain French, German, Spanish and British wines would remain in effect. It was a bittersweet and temporary victory, but still a welcome sign.

It is a dangerous time for wine. Let’s hope both sides of the political aisle can refrain from using it for their personal gain.

Aspen Times Weekly

See more