Wine is a broad church, and gets broader with every creative, entrepreneurial soul who turns their love for the Dionysian sup into a way of life.
Cathy Huyghe is one such soul. A grand-daughter of Pennsylvania coal miners on both sides of her family, she retains (as she quips) a “sensitivity to the working stiff.”
Her ‘Blue Collar Wine Guide’ caught my eye because it is rare to see someone with high-powered wine credentials (she holds WSET qualifications and studied under Masters of Wine at Boston University) and high-profile wine jobs (she writes about wine and business for Forbes; she co-founded wine industry data firm Enolytics) acknowledging – much less reviewing – supermarket bottles and boxes.
Having spent much of my life drinking ‘blue collar’ wine, I appreciate it getting the respect it deserves. Like manufactured pop – the music, not the fizzy drink – it is an accessible entry point to a world of delight. Those who love wine and/or music learn by consuming, trying new things, developing their sensibilities and tastes. Huyghe values this journey. Her own path into wine began through working in restaurant kitchens, first Chez Panisse in Berkeley, then Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Las Vegas. “It started out being something to do with my physical body, with my hands. Then a somm at Bouchon turned me onto wine.”
She began writing about wine “to learn about it” and discovered a fascination for the business of wine. Several years of writing landed her the Forbes job. As she got in deeper, Huyghe “realized there was a lot of data, a lot of information about the industry. But little was being done [with it] outside of the big companies.” This insight was the seed from which her data business, Enolytics, grew.
It offers SaaS for e-commerce to help wineries segment, forecast, clean data and all those other fun behind-the-scenes things that go into getting a bottle from the vineyard into a consumer’s hand, via the internet. Enolytics is part of a process of democratization driven, Huyghe says, “in part by the breakages in the system that Covid is exposing.” Among other things, the closure of fine dining restaurants has driven premium winemakers to more accessible means of distribution. Her articles on Keller Estate’s “pivot” to selling via NakedWines.com are instructive: ‘Rethinking online sales’ and ‘Covid’s more subtle insidious impact’.
Enolytics also works to understand how wine is marketed and presented. One of its studies analyzed 40,000 tasting notes from Wine Enthusiast and found tasting notes varied in length and complexity depending, largely, on the cost of the wine. “Cheaper wines critics found less interesting got shorter reviews that used more uniform language. For more expensive wines, they got creative, wrote more [and] gave them higher scores. You could deduce that higher-priced wines get more attention from the critics.”
Perfect egalitarianism may be a way off, but as long as ordinary folk embrace wine its pleasures will grow more inclusive. “It comes down to interest,” Huyghe says. “If people decide they want to spend time and effort on wine you’ll see it in what they Tweet, what they post.”
Huyghe should know, because that was her journey too.
The following excerpt is from Huyghe’s book Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World Through the Lens of
a Wine Glass (Provisions Press, 2015). Buy it on Amazon.
How to Live your Wine Life with No Regrets
An elderly friend of mine – I call him The Young Man – treads like a mountain goat down the creaky stairs of his home in West Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a hot summer evening but, as we descend into his cellar, the temperature of the air cools appreciably and we both feel a sense of subterranean relief.
A psychiatrist by training and a long-time faculty member of Harvard Medical School, The Young Man has lived in this house for more than fifty years. He knows every crevice and fault and advantage but, at age 93, he steps gingerly down.
He moves slowly toward the wine cellar in the basement, one deliberate step at a time. I follow. I could see the wet splotches on the back of his short-sleeve, collared shirt where drops of his perspiration had soaked through.
“There really isn’t that much to see,” he says to me over his narrow, frail shoulder.
He doesn’t see me roll my eyes as he takes one step, and then another.
He’d told me about a bottle of Grand Armagnac he’d bought decades ago because it dated from the year of his birth, 1914. I could see his eyes brighten, even behind the thickness of his bifocal glasses, with the excitement and the resonance of such a purchase and such a wine.
If this was any indication of what he had tucked away, his protests of “not much to see” were charmingly self-effacing.
But by the time I leave his home that night, I realize that – aside from the Armagnac and one or two other bottles – he is right. There really is not much to see. I am disappointed, but not because I’d lost my chance to uncover a treasure trove of vintage wines.
I am disappointed because so many lovely wines he had stored away were well past their prime and almost undrinkable. They’d wasted away in their bottles, down in the cellar, behind lock and key. As though they were living beings, buried alive, secured away from the pleasure they could have brought. Echoes of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” throb in my head.
“I’ve been saving these bottles for a special occasion,” my friend said as he searched for something on a low shelf in his wine cellar, which is really a locked closet around the corner from dusty storage boxes that hadn’t been opened for untold decades. “But all the special occasions seem to have passed me by.”
My friend points to an eight-bottle rack in the left-hand corner of the uppermost shelf in his cellar. He tells me about a Frenchwoman named Francoise who shuttled the once-valuable wines into his possession. He remembers every bottle’s provenance, but he never opened a single one of them.
It is clear, as I listen to him talk, that it was more about Francoise’s attention, and her pleasure in bringing him the wines, than it was about following through to open and actually drink them.
He has watched from the sidelines as the wines approached their prime, peaked, then slid downhill. So there the bottles sit as we find them that summer evening: unsavored, unappreciated, and clouded by regret.
Keep reading Hungry for Wine… buy it on Amazon