The Hipster Somm Just Might Be What Wine Needs

By John Lenart in Food on Sep 19, 2014 7:30PM

Hipsters annoy me. Their whole “I did, heard, drank that before anyone ever heard of it” shtick grates on my nerves. Their air of superiority based on knowledge of some arcane factoid makes me want to run screaming from their presence.

Because the hipster's primary goal in life is to make you feel inferior because they know things like the name of the band Justin Vernon was in before Bon Iver, and you've never heard of any of those things, it's no wonder that some hipsters are attracted to the world of wine. I mean, the quantity of facts about wine is virtually limitless. This makes wine a perfect topic for the hipster to flaunt their knowledge of little known facts over others. I mean, come on, who loves to lord their knowledge of trivia over others more than wine people? The idea of the hipster sommelier is so obvious.

And they are out there, they put together wine lists of natural wines, from small producers, grown biodynamically, from little known grape varieties. Sometimes these wines are very good, sometimes they're just odd. But as a consumer who is a little knowledgeable about wine, I often find myself feeling ignorant when faced with such a list.

In fact, I am ignorant about many of these wines because I've never experienced them. So, while sitting there with friends looking to me to select a wine, I find I have to talk with the sommelier because I know virtually nothing about the wines on their hipster wine lists. And that's fine. I love to talk about wine and like to hear the stories behind wines I'm unfamiliar with. But a lot of consumers feel intimidated by such a list and often will just pick something almost at random without ever asking about it because they don't want to feel ignorant.

The idea of the “Hipster Somm” has been the subject of several recent articles and blogs, most prominently James Laube's article, “Dim Somms,” in the September 30, 2014 issue of Wine Spectator. (It's behind a paywall, so unless you subscribe you won't be able to read it.)

In the article, Laube says many winemakers think these so called Dim Somms are “misguided know-it-alls who are doing more harm than good.” The main target of this article is a group calling itself “In Pursuit of Balance.”

IPOB was founded by Rajat Parr, sommelier for the Michael Mina restaurant group. According to its website, IPOB “seeks to promote dialog around the meaning of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay.” According to Laube the group is pushing for lower alcohol wines, preferably under 14 percent. Laube goes on to say that a number of somms refuse to put wines on their list that rise above this line. He thinks this is silly and I agree with him. I've drank balanced wine that has been above 15 percent alcohol and have had unbalanced wine as low as 10 percent alcohol.

Laube says that this has created “a contentious relationship between somms and producers. Restaurant wine lists should respond to many influences - the style of the menu, the tastes of the proprietor, and the demands of the clientele all factor in.” Again, I agree with Laube that lists should be influenced by these things. However, as a consumer I don't really give a damn about the relationship the somm has with the producer. I just want a good list, with good value, and good service. I should go on to say that Laube is known as a fan of the big, ripe, high alcohol wines that IPOB is so opposed to. So maybe, in all of this, he's really just defending the wines he enjoys.

Recently, I had dinner at Table, Donkey and Stick (2728 W Armitage Ave.) and was discussing the unusual wines favored by hipster somms with bar manager John Douglass. While I figured a wine list filled with esoteric wines made wine unapproachable to many consumers in Chicago, which is arguably a beer and cocktail town first, Douglass offered a different perspective. He told me that “Often, I can take a beer or cocktail drinker and tell them about some off-beat wine. I tell them about the winemaker, who maybe only has a 10 hectare vineyard and produces a little known grape, but makes excellent wine. And all of a sudden they're interested in the story and want to try the wine.” It's funny how these unusual wines that I thought would be off putting to people who are not typically wine drinkers can be, in fact gateway wines. I'd always been under the impression that it would be more mainstream wines that would get people into wine. I guess I was wrong. I mean, anyone can order a Napa chardonnay.

But if you're going to order a glass of Aligoté from Bouzeron, like the one I had at Table, Donkey and Stick the other night, it's likely going to need some discussion between you and the somm first. It's just these kinds of conversations that Douglass suggests is going to get more folks ordering wine. Oh, and by the way, I am by no means suggesting that Douglass is a hipster. Well, he does have the requisite facial hair, but that's about as close to hipster as he gets.

So maybe these hipsters with their love of arcane wines, little known grape varieties, and growing areas are the keys to moving Chicago's wine scene forward. Next time you're looking at a wine list and you feel like you have no idea about any of the wines on the list, call the sommelier over and ask some questions. You might hear an interesting story and learn about a great wine.