Laurence Faller Matters: Wine Fetishism and Wine Reality

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 06-19-2014

Domaine Weinbach is located in a 16th century Capuchin monastery at the foot of the mighty Grand Cru Schlossberg, just outside of the charming village of Keyserberg, resplendent with twee medieval half-timbered houses lined with flowerboxes. 

Laurence Faller.

Laurence Faller.

It was the morning following Christmas, and we—my wife, brother, and myself–were greeted by Laurence’s sister, Catherine, who manages sales. The winter scene could not have been more idyllic; I stood with my wife and brother in front of an ancient monastery that might have been of gingerbread, watching the fog roll down the Schlossberg mountain, glistening with hoarfrost. Two shutters popped opened above me—I heard a sing-songy “âllo!”

Looking up at Catherine peering out from the shutters from above, I half expected a bluebird to land on her shoulder.

With the passing of Laurence Faller on May 13th at the way-too-young age of 47, the wine world lost one of its most distinguished winemakers. But Laurence Faller’s significance to the wine world exceeded the gorgeous wines she made.

Passionate, beautiful, and immensely talented, Laurence was part of a group of whip-smart young Alsatian and Loire Valley winemakers whose biodynamic, non-interventional, or otherwise experimental techniques would resonate throughout the wine industry, forever changing how we think and talk about the relation between wine and earth.

She was a leader. She was a visionary.

And she was also a woman.

Through her actions and examples, Laurence was an all-too-rare role model for the minority of people in the industry who are not White Males.  Let’s face it: especially, perhaps, in the United States, wine collection—like other hobbies of fetish, such as collecting baseball cards; cars; cigars; coins; indeed, collecting or compulsively consuming anything, really—is largely a male enterprise.

This is not, of course, to say that women don’t drink wine. The numbers show quite clearly that they do.  However, we also know that the world and culture of “wine collecting” is largely driven by men—and a fetishization of worldly things that is, somehow, distinctly masculine in ethos. So much of the wine world is reducible to dudes lusting after and gushing over their treasured bottles, fretting and hand-wringing over what bottles to buy and how many.

Meanwhile, many bottles—especially, ironically enough, the most rare and expensive examples—may never even be opened. In wine as in sex, fetishism is mostly something men do.

And then there’s the fact that the culture is driven largely by people chasing points—those grand numbers that, through a mystification rooted in an appeal to authority, give off that sheen of objectivity that justifies the enterprise. And, of course, it’s a historical fact too that the kinds of over-reaching rationalizations involved in this kind of quantification—the kind that extend from a naïve positivism—have long been associated with masculinity.

Drinking to excess, and excess in general, is also historically tied to masculinity. One white male, Hercules, famously got so drunk on Alsatian wine that he left his shield in the Rangen vineyard (his shield is now on the Alsatian flag). Perhaps even male demi-gods, and not just Oedipus, aren’t immune to fetishization.

For Karl Marx, commodity fetishism entailed replacing relations between people with relations between objects in a way that masked the social character of, and the actual labor involved in producing, the commodity.

In his cornerstone concept of “commodity fetishism,” Marx was trying to show that capitalism had to be viewed in the very terms that it claimed to move beyond. That is, the old relations of people to things, characterized by the mysticism of object animism and spirituality, now reappears in the commodity that seems to have a “magic” value that exceeds its material production. We value the IPhone not because of the (human) labor that goes into it, not because of its material reality, but because of what it represents in the (inhuman) world of commodities.

And, obviously, wine collection is commodity fetishism par exemplar.

Approaching fetishization from a different direction, Freud and Lacan showed that, once we are out of the womb, our experience is dominated by the “lack” of that originary oneness. The desire for that sense of completion and fullness can never be fully realized, and the fetishized object stands in for that essential lack.

But while we can’t always get what we want, we can, sometimes, get what we need. Yet, too often wine seems to stand in for our most base desires: the desire for privilege, exceptionalism, power, and probably most of all, social status.

On our trip to Domaine Weinbach, we were treated to a taste of Laurence’s wines; the early bottled varietals were mostly and reliably completely dry, etched in crystal while remaining sublimely rich. The late harvest wines were sweet but never cloying, ice sculptures dripping with zippy tropical fruit and honey.

The room was tastefully decorated with unique antiques that, I can only imagine, have belonged to the house for centuries. Perhaps even the Capuchins used that stunning antique stove in the corner? As we tasted, we were transported into a Black Forrest fairytale. Laurence and Catherine’s mother, Collette, who looks like your fairy godmother, floated through passages outside the tasting room—which is also their home—nursing a rare SGN.

I recall a certain “wine celebrity” back in the Parker Board days very publically proclaiming that, as he aged and his palate developed, he learned to better appreciate Gewürztraminer. I thought this was odd; Gewürztraminer is such strange grape to turn to like that. And, frankly, most people that like Gewurztraminer at first for its powerful flavors—and many people don’t—tend to go in the opposite direction as they learn to better appreciate balance.

But there was a political subtext.

To have made this claim at that time, in the way it was made, was also to make an argument for Parkerization. It was a not too subtle endorsement of the unctuous, oily, high-alcohol, lushly fruited, fragrant, blousy version of Gewürztraminer that was favored by Parker Points.

And yet, here, at Domaine Weinbach, the Gewürztraminers, while rich, maintained a distinct and undeniable elegance. They were fashioned with an uplifting acidity, never ranging into the fat, oily, and cloying style that dominated during the Parker years. These were spicy, floral, and minerally—fascinating wines that bridged the sleek dinner table style of old-Alsace with a richer modern style, and without falling into the usual traps of modernity.

To me there has always been something grotesque about the French penchant for describing wines in gendered terms. And, given their richness, I think that one would have trouble characterizing Weinbach wines as truly “feminine” anyway. But how can we deny that these benefited from a feminine perspective?

I like to think that wines like these resist fetishization. I like to think that in the trueness of their statement, they serve as a bulwark against the worst impulses of the wine community.  I like to think that their “magic” comes from the transparency rather than the obfuscation of their production.

Perhaps you might point out that the Parker crowd appreciated Weinbach wines, which is partially true, or that I’m just fetishizing wine in my own way, which is probably true.

In any event, frankly, I’m not sure we appreciated Laurence enough. Domaine Weinbach wines are testimony to a visionary winemaker that should be venerated with the all-time greats. The wine culture needs more people like Laurence Faller, which makes her passing all the more sad.

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