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Hurry Up and Slow Down
[December, 1999]

In the commercial, a GenX hipster stares intently through his rectangular, geek-chic eyewear. Except for the pigeons surrounding him, he sits alone in what might be the Piazza San Marco in Venice, a serene square in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Suddenly he begins shouting his lungs out, scattering the birds, for all appearances possessed and ready for the stake until we see he's actually trading stocks through an interface reflected in his glasses.

Gee whiz. It's clear we're supposed to envy this guy his cutting edge cool, but every time I see the ad, I think "what a prick." Instead of one company's utopian vision, he's become for me a perfect image of America as it slides into a new century over the next few days, onanistically multi-tasking, disconnected from the world around it by technology and infatuated with its own cleverness. What's the future of wine in such a self-absorbed, breakneck world?

Whatever actually happens to civilization January 1st, it's the catastrophic potential of the Y2K computer glitch which unsettled the nation. Technology may have put us in the driver's seat, but for a while we got a glimpse of how the seat might actually be doing the driving. In between us and our food, environment, and meaningful interaction with other human beings, civilization has inserted microwave burritos, cars with TVs and internet chat rooms. Y2K is not just a revelation of our dependence on the microprocessor: it's a reminder of how insulated we've become from actual direct experience of the world, even as we hurtle ever more breathtakingly through it.

By contrast, the idea of wine -- at least as most people think of it today -- is about precisely the opposite, about deceleration and reflection. This is partially due to where wine comes from in the first place. In the vineyard, plants take 365 days to produce a crop, and farmers bend themselves to that cycle, methodically tending the grapes cluster by cluster to a harvest whose bottom line is never guaranteed due to the vagaries of the weather. After a few frenzied weeks processing the fruit, winemakers in turn must simply wait for the fermented juice to transform itself into wine over the following year or two.

In short, winemaking is a deliberate process whose engines -- time and nature -- might be glancingly manipulated but never controlled. From our urban perspective, it would be like sitting patiently at a light until it changes a year later, allowing us to edge our cars forward another block.

Nevertheless, drinking wine can inspire us to assume this pace, to step off the hamster wheel and take time to reflect, enjoy a meal or catch up with friends, however briefly. It may be that absorbing the complex experience encoded in a glass of good wine necessarily requires decelerating to a slower rhythm. But it's also because, with uncanny precision, wine can conjure up the personality of the land from which it came, the tone of the weather under which its fruit grew, as well as an amazing array of flavors, fragrances and textures.

Even allowing yourself to become vaguely transported by wine can connect you with experience outside yourself. Taken to its logical extreme, wine is a message from the world for us to slow down and savor our time on this tiny planet.

But in an accelerating culture where technology slices the moment into ever smaller wafers, and the luxury of time is earned only by moving fast, how realistic is this essentially European ideal? Assuming you're not wealthy enough to kick back and still have it all, what would you sacrifice to work part time and take long lunches, spend more time with your family, eat locally farmed but necessarily expensive foods? For poorer Americans, achieving this kind of lifestyle is more than a matter of skipping a few lattes: it requires elemental sacrifices which are much more difficult to reconcile, like a colder apartment in the winter and cheaper clothes on your kids.

Forget about wine's image problem as the playground of the snobbish and the rich, this is the real issue: how can a beverage inspiring slowness succeed in a culture which worships speed? The extent to which wine gains more of a foothold in our society depends on how successfully it can convince Americans to put the Sega away and chill out. But however calmer it might make our lives, is this possible in a culture which envies the guy in the ad?

Of course, there is a second path which might more successfully spread the word of wine: speed it up, at least enough to catch a few people to convince them to slow down. It means re-casting wine not as an alternative to the 21st century, but a component of everyday life within it. Whether this is even possible without simply beering wine into a social lubricant -- as a few larger wineries are starting to do to breach the GenX demographic -- is another question, but in many ways, it's the only realistic course the industry can take if it wants to grow.

In such a future, it means the hipster opens a bottle of wine and uses his eyewear to discover more about where he actually is. That's technology I can respect. That's the kind of slow-tech I can respect. That's the kind of slow-tech worth considering.


©1999 Matt Giraud. This column originally appeared in December, 1999 as The Crush, a bi-weekly wine column published in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon.

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