In this weird year, when we experience whiplash whenever we watch TV, check our phones or open the newspaper, we shouldn’t be surprised to see two head-scratching debuts that show wine arguably at its best and its worst.
The first comes from Snoop Dogg, the rapper, who joined the cavalcade of celebrities slapping their names on wine labels earlier this year with 19 Crimes Snoop Cali Red, a blend of petite sirah and zinfandel that sells for an affordable $13 a bottle. It’s the first California wine from 19 Crimes, an Australian brand owned by Treasury Estates, a major wine conglomerate that also owns Beringer, Chateau St. Jean and other U.S. brands. I’ve yet to taste Snoop Cali Red, but the Aussie version is most notable for its augmented-reality label — scan it with your phone and the label comes to life to tell the story of the 19 crimes that could get British miscreants banished to the penal colony that became Australia.
When the wine was launched, some criticized Snoop Dogg for that association.
“The partnership between a black man and a wine brand associated with ‘criminal’ activity is troubling — and tone deaf — given the dangerous, tired stereotypes associating people of color with crime,” wine writer Julia Coney, founder of blackwineprofessionals.com, wrote in the online magazine VinePair.
Coney’s critique — in which she quoted other Black wine professionals, both favorable and critical of Snoop’s association with the brand — was published April 22, a month before George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement again took center stage in the nation’s discourse. Does that unintended context make 19 Crimes Snoop Cali Red more tone-deaf, or more relevant? It arguably makes it more fraught.
After all, those British convicts became Australian pioneers, with another chance at life and redemption. In a recent interview with CNN, Snoop Dogg echoed that theme: He’s had his own troubles with the law and teamed up with fellow ex-con Martha Stewart to do a cooking show. He even published a cookbook called, “From Crook to Cook.”
“19 Crimes represents and celebrates second chances,” he said in the CNN interview. “We all have a past which is part of the journey and builds character.”
Why wine now, when he used to celebrate “gin and juice”?
“Once I started getting intellectually together, wine started to enhance my thinking and my thought process. You want to go with whatever you are or wherever you’re at — and as I got older, I wanted to age like fine wine,” he said.
“Even the glass that you’re drinking it out of, the way that you hold the glass, your posture, your conversation . . . all of that comes with the feeling of drinking wine,” he added.
Snoop Dogg’s vision of wine is akin to its role in the Last Supper — it’s redemptive, lifting us up from the mundane, all for $13 a bottle.
Compare that to WineLair, an exclusive club opening this month in D.C.’s West End district. WineLair, which is more of a dimly lit series of rooms than a lair, is the first U.S. outpost of WineBank, a collector’s sanctum with outposts in Frankfurt, Hamburg and Cologne in Germany and Vienna. An initiation fee of $5,000 and membership dues starting at $300 per month will get you a personal “vault” where you can store 52 bottles of your most showy trophy wines and a refuge where you can pretend the world outside isn’t going down the toilet. Oh, and your membership fees will allow you to buy some really expensive rare wines, too.
To be fair, WineLair must have been in the works long before the pandemic sent the West End’s lawyers and lobbyists scurrying to work out of their home offices in Potomac and McLean. The club’s publicists tell me they are getting positive feedback from potential members seeking a safe place to entertain clients. But I can’t help but recall that scene in the movie version of “Doctor Zhivago” where the czarist aristocracy sips champagne at an opulent gala, oblivious to the revolution occurring in the streets outside.
Wine is losing market share to hard seltzer and other “alternative” beverages. As it struggles to appeal to a broader audience, does it really need a new venture that emphasizes its snooty reputation as a luxury item for the elite?
On the other hand, so long as we have a 1 percent for whom $5,000 membership fees and monthly dues are merely chump change or tax write-offs (subsidized by the rest of us), ventures such as WineLair may succeed, even as society as a whole moves toward diversity and inclusiveness.
As for me, I’d rather hang with Snoop.