31 March 2011

on greatness

A recent exchange in the commentary section of this blog got me thinking about the concept of Greatness in wine. It seems to me that many disagreements about wine might be reduced to differing ideas about Greatness.

In the exchange I mention, the owner of O Château Wine Bar, Olivier Magny, responded to my critique of his establishment by citing the Greatness of the wine on offer there: 
If people want a non distinct glass of wine for less than 5€, and a big crowd of arrogant bobos then yes, I'm not afraid to say that our bar is the wrong place... 
...Maybe Paris is not ready for [O Château Wine Bar], maybe in a few weeks, we'll realize that the project of a wine bar that serves only great wines is too ambitious and that we should do what Everybody else does: serving glasses of average wines in average environments for 4 to 9€ and make it sound like Good value because it's inexpensive.
Setting aside, for the moment, Magny's hilarious and completely unwarranted martyr syndrome, there are two substantial flaws in this argument, which was intended to counter, or deflect attention from, my assertion that wine at O Château is rapaciously overpriced. Both involve, I think, misunderstandings about Greatness.

The first argumentative flaw is the false dichotomy Magny proposes between serving "only great wines" and serving "average wines." Ditto the implicit either-or choice of a "non distinct [sic] glass of wine for less than 5€" and the steep pours on offer at O Château, many of which are priced comparably to short plane journeys.

The second flaw is the irrelevant conclusion embedded in Magny's claim that people who elect to drink wine glasses priced at 5€ or less are "a big crowd of arrogant bobos." People who drink wine for 5€ per glass is a demographic that includes almost all of Paris, as I pointed out in one of my responses. The fact is that the city as a whole is a major wine destination, and within the city there exist numerous internationally-recognized wine bars and restaurants, none of which, to my knowledge, routinely charge mark-ups of over 1000% on glass pours, as is de rigeur at O Château. 

More importantly: are drinkers of non-great wines necessarily "bobos"? The term "bobo," a portmanteau of "bourgeouis" and "bohemian," was coined by conservative columnist David Brooks; originally he used it to refer to a class of monied New Yorkers who self-consciously couched their expenditures in arguably more spiritual or utilitarian terms than previous generations: wheatgrass, professional hiking gear, single origin espresso, etc.

In the perhaps somewhat generous assumption that Magny was using the term in its intended meaning, then it seems fair to assume also that he was referring to the natural wines I espouse so frequently on this blog. 

Fair enough. It's true that drinking natural wine is a political as well as aesthetic choice for me, and therefore the decision is more or less open to the same charges of faddishness and false conscientiousness that follow the aforementioned "bobo" trends. But in my experience, I've found that for every merited accusation of sad insincere "bobo-ness," there are ten or a hundred that express merely an uncomprehending spiteful knee-jerk skepticism towards any sort of engagement on the part of consumers. And it's not as if hurlers of the B-word would prefer a total disengagement from consumerism at large; they would simply prefer to head off the implicit expectation that consumers ought to think independently,* probably because they themselves have never been very good at it. 

This brings me to where my idea of Great Wine differs from Magny's. He writes: 
Now, as per the price of wines thing, the concept of our wine bar (ah, concept, marketing, evil) is that it's a "bar à grands vins". So, the 3cl size has no other point but to allow people to try the most legendary wines in the world at the cheapest possible price: Pétrus 2004 for 49€ - sold at cost price by the way - Yquem 1991 for 18.5€ a glass... I would or (believe it or not) could never afford to buy a bottle of these wines, but i do feel like making mini glasses of them accessible to most is a Great thing. Now, i do thing our prices are extremely reasonable. [All spelling / grammar / punctuation sic sic sic]
Now, I have a random prejudice against those wine dispenser things O Château employs to dribble out their Great Wines. In the vast entropic randomness of the world, I just don't believe its possible for the delicate flavors and aromas in a bottle of Great Wine to remain unaffected by their vacuum-sealed environment and the effects of ambient light for periods of months or years on end until the passage of enough suckers willing to cough up 49€ depletes them, sip by sip. For me it is neither an edifying nor an enjoyable method of experiencing Great bottles. But this is immaterial to my larger point about Greatness and independent thinking, which is this: the Great Wines that make up the loss-leader** pours available at O Château are the same Great Wines habitually acclaimed by Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, Decanter, eRobertParker.com, Wine Advocate, and so on.  

There's nothing wrong with this: these wines are famous and considered Great for a reason. I would just submit that the term Great should not by definition exclude all that is not also Famous and Eye-poppingly Expensive. In his disparaging dismissal of the supposedly "average" and "non distinct" wines served at Paris' other, less profiteering wine bars, Magny is essentially equating money with taste and discrimination. 

Whereas, in my estimation, there are numerous other wine bars and restaurants in Paris who share O Château's determination to present exclusively great wines. But these wine bars and restaurants evince support of a definition of Greatness closer to my own, which demands only that a wine provide a uniquely pleasurable aesthetic experience that nevertheless remains an honest reflection of a particular region, a particular winemaker, a particular vintage, grape, and so on.

Why not demand more? one might ask. Shouldn't a Great Wine stop you in your tracks, leave you dead in your boots, gasping for air, clutching for the right descriptor? I would argue no, not necessarily. In my opinion, wines like that are fun sometimes in the way that theme park rides are fun sometimes. If you had to commute to work on one you would soon tire of the experience. The Italians have a nice word for wines that ask a little too much of one's attention: impegnativo.

It follows from this that, yes, I consider drinking wine to be more like commuting than a tropical Spring Break adventure. Mostly because a broad, rich understanding of wine doesn't arrive suddenly in a moment of epiphany; rather, it develops from attentive tasting, over time, of the kind of Great Wines I mention above. I'm talking about wines with typicity: something valuable to tell you about a culture, a tradition, a heritage. 

The good news is, Great Wines of this sort can be found for under ten euros a bottle at good cavistes in Paris.*** I myself drink this kind of Great Wine five nights a week. Here in Paris - outside of the alternate tourist universe represented by places like O Château - this kind of Great Wine can actually be had very easily, at minimal expense, without much fuss at all. 

* I do not mean to endorse the idea that wheatgrass consumption or Direct Trade coffee purchases in themselves are evidence of engaged consumerism or of independent thinking. But the former two practices indicate, at very least, a belief in the desirability of the latter two. 

** "Loss-leader" is a marketing term, referring to products sold at or below cost in order to rope in other, more profitable sales. In the case of O Château, the owners are evidently hoping to attract the customer who will sell a kidney to afford a single cost-price sip of a particular famous wine, after which he or she, reeling and still thirsty, will purchase larger pours of O Château's other, significantly less charitably-priced wines, at markups of roughly 1000%. 

*** Admittedly, they are found far more frequently in the 10-30€ range.

Related Links:

Ô God No: O Château, 75001


  1. How else could he defend his high margins but to promise a great experience every time? At those prices few will be honest enough to admit their disappointment when the wines fail to deliver.
    I agree that there's plenty of satisfaction from many "lesser" wines.

  2. My quibble with your post is describing the wines you favor as great. Preferable yes but consistently great?

  3. I would like to bring to your readers' attention that we ran a complete check of our pricing file. There were a few mistakes indeed that are now corrected. Wine at O Chateau is back to being as good and as good value as it has always been. We also changed the size of the servings from 3/6/12 to 3/10/15cl which seems more in line with what clients seem to care for. The wine selection is just as ambitious as when we opened. And good news is: the place is completely happening, clients love it, keep coming back and thank us for creating such an exciting wine place in Paris. We're working really long hours but could not be happier and more excited.

    (sorry, person who writes this blog).

    Now, to the person writing this blog, I would like to congratulate you for finding yourself a new nemesis. The fact that it's me is bad luck (for me - mostly as it will most likely force me to come back to this blog to defend my name and that of the people I care for) but I'm sure it will make for countless posts of cyber-frustration for your readers to enjoy.

    Oh, and please, keep explaining your readers about French sociology... Such beautiful command of everything French honors you.

  4. Bravo Aaron!

    It seems that, thanks to your blog, Olivier Magny has reduced his prices and increased his squirt sizes, if we are to believe what is written here (I haven't personally gone to find out if a dribble of Dard et Ribo is still as insultingly expensive). Seems like his clientele, firstly, and 'those he cares for', secondly (and consequently, because I assume they are his employees), have a lot to be grateful to you for.

    And you get an extra reader to boot. Who may learn to temper his absolute arrogance in thinking that there were no good bars à vin in Paris before his own... (cf his previous comment). Au contraire, there are many that have been defending, and still defend, a higher idea of wine and what it means to promote it than such scandalous and cynical pricing practices suggest.

    Hats off to you, Aaron! Continue writing with conviction in your tastes and attention to prices.

    @ Mr Magny, for your last snide remark, which betrays the belief, probably founded on your publishing exploits (a journalistic style compilation of stereotypes of - and held by - a certain Parisian bourgeoisie), that you yourself do have a command of what it is to be French. Happy (and deluded) are those who are completely transparent to themselves. However, I fear "le petit prince" might not recognise your drawings of "parisiens", but I guess that's because he came from ELSEWHERE, and therefore lacks the qualifications to have an opinion? Sheesh...

  5. Ah, man, Olivier is SO MUCH COOLER THAN YOU. Bet that pisses you off

  6. I suppose 3 cl of cough syrup is fine. But 3 cl of Yquem is morally obscene.

    Reminds me of Colette who wrote: "If I cannot have too much of a great thing, I prefer not to have it at all."

    Thanks, Aaron, for this wonderful wine blog.

    Thanks also for these extremely instructive exchanges with Mr. Magny, who for the last few weeks has been posting here one of the most amazing examples of counteradvertising I have ever read.

  7. Dear Aaron,

    You seem to be a nice and sensible chap with a great love of wine and who knows what he is talking about. However, after reading about your skirmish with O' Chateau, I feel a bit weird and uncomfortable. So, as this place is a blog and people are welcomed to comment, here are my comments:

    Fair enough - you don't agree with O' Chateau's approach of wine, why don't you just use your precious time and intelligence to talk about subjects that matter, things you do like, you do enjoy, and that you would like to share with the world. Of course, you can reply that this is your blog and you can say whatever you feel like... OK.

    I feel a bit weird reading your last text about this story because you sound more and more like some sort of radical extremist. I think sometimes we could replace some of the words by the name of one of the three religions and you would fit perfectly as a radical cleric launching a war against non-believers... I have to say that your use of Great Wine with Capital Letters reinforces this feeling. God Almighty.

    Also, I feel rather uncomfortable when you seem to link your wine approach / philosophy / attitude to some sort of political views: "It's true that drinking natural wine is a political as well as aesthetic choice for me".

    Well, truly something is wrong here. Everything is political. Especially when you are a Marxist. Please correct me if I am wrong, but you are a Marxist. Therefore, pouring Marxist theory into the wine you drink seems to make you want other people to drink the same sort of Marxism aromatised wine you seem to worship.

    It seems that you are not talking about wine anymore. Wine is just a vehicle for your Marxist political positions in life... I am just writing as I think here, please take no offence.

    This O'Chateau guy may do things the wrong way and you don't like the concept and marketing of his wine business, fair enough, let it go. There are hundreds of places like this around the world. As a Marxist, you may not like people who try to make money with a new business concept of selling glasses of wine... I am afraid that all this has a lot to do with politics, and very little with wine.

    I don't know this O'Chateau guy and I am not interested in going to his bar in Paris.

    My last comment about all of this is the folowing: you seem to become more and more Parisian. Bobo comes up a lot. You are a Marxist (correct me if I am wrong). You start to write about things you hate, when you could use this time talking about more positive things. Like a lot of Parisians do, hating something and making a point out of that is strengthening your own identity as someone superior (in taste, knowledge, etc.). I hate O' Chateau-like wine people and business, therefore I am different, therefore I exist, therefore I am so beyond you. This is a very Parisian way of doing things. I think it is time you spend some more time in the land of the free to recharge your batteries. Becoming a Parisians is the last thing that you want to happen to you.

    Having said that, I find your blog entertaining and informative. I will not read about your next 'je-ne-sais-quoi new wine bar that I hate' post but I will happily read the ones about places you like and wines you want to share with the world…


  8. @Mark: thank you for your thoughtful response!

    about marxism: it's true that i have, in a joke in a footnote on this blog, once referred to myself as a "molotov-hurling wine marxist." so i have little room to defend myself against your repeated assertion that i am a marxist. i wouldn't call myself one in any seriousness, however. and despite my best efforts at continual highbrow digression, this remains a blog about wine.

    about negative coverage: i am sorry you feel weird and uncomfortable, uncomfortable and weird. but i do believe criticism is crucial to a healthy discourse - particularly when it comes to food and wine blogging. blogs on these subjects are otherwise apt to devolve into running advertisements for eating and drinking in general. some contrast with the usual glowing, rapt descriptions is now and then necessary to reassure readers that the writer in question isn't just some smiling uncritical schmoozer seeking comped items. many food / wine blogs read like that.

    about becoming parisian: i'm a long way off, as anyone who's heard my mangled french will attest. but i think you may have a point, insofar as this is a fussy city, and i feel relatively at home here.