A Rant About 'Cult' and Wine from Peter Granoff

PGranoff_Headshot.jpeg

Photo courtesy of Peter Granoff.

Peter Granoff was born on the wrong side of the tracks, never grew up, and can’t taste his way out of a paper bag. Actually, Peter is the 13th American Master Sommelier (1991) and is an examiner for the Court of Master Sommeliers. After many years in hotels and restaurants, he co-founded Virtual Vineyards, the first business to sell wine on the internet (1994). Today he is co-proprietor of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco and Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in Napa. For more information on Peter’s extensive industry activities, see Petergranoff.com.

For a few years now, very high-end, in-demand wines from Napa and beyond have sometimes been referred to as “cult” wines. And “cult” in this context is supposed to be a positive moniker. Really? Has anybody looked up this word lately? Here is a quick dictionary definition:

  • a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object: the cult of St. Olaf.
  • a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister: a network of Satan-worshiping cults.
  • a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing: a cult of personality surrounding the leaders.
  • [ usu. as modifier ] a person or thing that is popular or fashionable, especially among a particular section of society: a cult film.

If we go down that list, it is only the very last that could be applied to wine in any positive manner (much as I love wine, I don’t consider it an object of religious devotion), and the negative uses of the term historically so far outweigh the positive that I really question how appropriate it is at all. After all, Jim Jones led a cult, Charlie Manson led a cult, Heaven’s Gate was a cult, the Branch Davidians were a cult. Popular culture and history both are replete with exceedingly negative applications of the word.

Following a cult, in these varied contexts, implies a complete surrender of discretion and judgment. You would think that marketers would be running in the other direction. And yet, we now see wineries launching their very first release designated—by them—as a “cult” wine. Well guess what, folks? Even if we grant that the term can be used in a benign manner on occasion, you don’t get to anoint a “cult wine” before anyone has even tasted it. The marketplace will decide if your wine falls into that category, and simply saying your wine commands a “cult” following—when there is no evidence to support the claim—only makes you look foolish. We need a better word!

I feel much better now ;>). Peter G.