The Playbook That built American Wine Builds The Alt-right

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A few years ago I binge read through quite a few of the California oral history series on the wine industry. They are absolutely revelatory and I cannot say enough about how brilliant their first interviewer, Ruth Teiser, was. Some are technical while some are beautiful stories of entrepreneurship. Some are absolute thrillers like that of Antonio Perelli-Minetti’s where he participates in the Mexican revolution and breakfasts with Pancho Villa. One stands out in its own category, the Raymond Chandler category. I’ve held off writing about it for years to save it for a major piece, but I don’t think I can do it justice. That interview, actually two[1,2], is that of Leon Adams.

All of fine wine within the U.S., post prohibition, is the product of the elaborate propaganda campaign of Leon Adams. This guy was wiley and noir AF. The forward to the interview actually starts with the wine scene elder, Maynard Amerine, being tactful but eluding to how problematic Adams is. Adams was in the center of extremely active formative times for the industry. By interview time he was often the only survivor so we only know one side of the story (by a propagandist). We are left to take his word for it even though his frequent exploits put his integrity is in question.

I’m bringing this all up because we’re trying rid the White House (if not the country) of its Steve Bannons and Kellyanne Conways. This job is a challenge because most Americans do not know enough about propaganda. The tactics and impact of subtle things are blindsiding people. Leon Adams, thankfully, was mostly chaotic neutral, and lucky for us, used his compulsions to jump start the American wine industry. The Bannon’s and Conways are chaotic evil and their chosen obsession is tearing the country apart. If we don’t learn about these problematic personalities now that there is a strong template, we’re doomed to see tons of them, and they are all overly smart relentless workaholics.

To learn about propaganda and the minds addicted to it, we could turn to the great ladies of twitter (@sarahkendzior @mollymckew @rvawonk @zeynep) who are pretty much saving our uneducated asses and bringing the country up to speed. Alternatively we could briefly look at Leon Adams and see that so many of his tactics were highly effective towards his cause and are still in use today. This dangerous personality type, we glimpse in Adams, is in love with propaganda first and their almost arbitrary cause a very distant second. It has proven powerful enough to move a mountain that is/was American drinking tastes.

Adams was a newspaper guy and the time line of the story makes it seem like he chose a life of propaganda before he chose wine. His formative moment was reading Edward L. Bernay’s text Propaganda (page 13). Adams simply wanted a project full of characters to mettle with and wine had it. He does tell a great childhood story where his mother makes homemade Zinfandel in the Valley of the Moon and he enjoyed covering the prohibition beat. His early newspaper stories are very cool.

Leon Adams and many of these personalities are a bit shadowy and have a weird pathological compulsion for an effect they can have on society, positive if we’re lucky and negative if we are not. It becomes a cult of do unto others what you can get away with (Herod’s Law). When some see the template (while the rest of society does not) they join in and that is how you get the Milos and Louise Mensches, and it becomes no surprise that they secretly know each other. Why couldn’t they have just discovered wine?

Adams’ exploits over the years are wild and the read is very worthwhile. It spoils nothing to tell you how he dressed high school girls in Swiss peasant costumes to stage the first vintage festival after prohibition. There was no money for a real festival and he was able to relay the photo coast to coast through the associated press (fake news!). We see this same kind of thing now with twitter and viral media.

Wine then, in America, was a skid row beverage with exceptions you could count on your fingers (very cool stories with their own oral histories). All these propaganda efforts were luckily in sync with tremendous scientific work from UC Davis to build the science behind fine wine. Commodity wine was a salvage product. Table grapes were the priority then raisins then wine. It was often fortified and resembled cheap port. Demand had to change before the supply.

Control of language was a big part of the propaganda plan and we see a lot of that today. Adams passed bills using lobbyists in Washington and rewrote countless government documents and eventually educational books to establish table wine and dessert wine instead of fortified wine. When you are a drunk and you go before the judge saying you drank dessert wine, it reflects much better on the industry than if you drank fortified wine. Dessert wine is your own problem and spiked fortified wine is the industry’s problem. There were countless subtle changes and they all added up to pave the way. This was all figured out by a silver tongued devil with remarkable foresight. It also represents a startling amount of legwork that people of these compulsions are willing to go to. They work 80 hours a week to feed their compulsions.

We see the exact same behavior from the Bannons and Spencers. Scores of average racist people could not collude to invent the modern language of hate like we see today, but a few of the extra smart deranged types can absolutely spew it. The alt left is the dessert wine, subtle language changes with profound impact. You would not believe what it can do unless you see it in hindsight. So much of what just happened after the Charlotte protests were language games drawing false equivalencies to sway average people in Iowa, and it does.

We need to quickly diagnose these people and understand that they don’t even really care about their agenda. It is simply a narcissism and obsession with the magnitude of their impact that motivates them. They need be singled out and boycotted from their soap box podiums. The money trail encouraging them needs to be revealed and shamed to high hell.

My favorite Adams anecdote is how he wanted to jump start sparkling wine in the U.S. (page 79). No one really drank the domestic stuff or even table wine. It wasn’t yet respectable. J.B. Cella’s daughter was a torch singer and no doubt a real babe. Everyone obviously crushed on her so Adams turned an industry event (Raisin Day) into a Champagne ball centered around her performing to actually get the industry guys to show up. Black tie and ladies in evening dresses, very different than Raisin Day. Well, wine guys did not yet drink wine, they drank whiskey. Adams controlled everything at the event and served no whisky, only sparkling wine which no one had ever drank before. Events back then circulated through the society papers and all the photos no doubt showed a well dress crowd all with a new beverage and a fad was born.

Adams telling is really amusing and you can tell he was very proud of the stunt. It sounds kind of stupid, but we see neo nazis calling themselves the alt-right as a re-branding to also attain respectability. Motherfucking table wine getting an article in GQ about how dapper they are and we let them pull it off. There was outrage when this recently happened, but few had serious alarm bells going off that neo-nazis simply renamed themselves to get in the society pages. We did not have enough stories like the Adams story to see how powerful lame stunts like that were. We cannot forget again.

After that stunt, Adams goes right in to explaining all the ghost writing he used to do. You have to be ruled by compulsion if you are single handedly going to do all that legwork.

So, I went on from there. I realized the only way I’d ever been successful in indoctrinating anyone, personally, was by ghost writing. I did tremendous amounts of ghost writing. What I wrote would always be published under the name of some wine industry person. This had happened in other industries in which I’d operated as well. I would write my ideas into an article, and then people would praise the author whose name was signed, for what he had written. Then he would begin to believe it himself.

Bannon and Steven Miller did this for Trump and we see other variations of this where lobbyists write complete bills for politicians and ask them to simply sign their name. The New Yorker just described nefarious billionaire Carl Icahn pulling off this stunt for trump. When it was called out they retracted the document and claimed the wrong version was released. The New Yorker article is a heavy duty and very specific tale of kleptocracy and the evaporation of wealth. The quality of Icahn’s wealth is absolutely disgusting. There is little original prosperity, it is all transfer prosperity.

“You will take these characters!”—and I used Setrakian as my number one example—”you will book them on the luncheon circuit, to make speeches about what a wonderful industry the wine industry is. They will talk to every Rotary Club and every Lion’s Club and every Kiwanis Club and Optimist Club. You will distribute literature about the wine industry and about the uses of wine, especially table wine, about cooking with wine and so on. They will talk about all these things. I will give you a model speech for them to use, but don’t ask them to use it. I want them to develop their own speeches from your material. You book dates. They’ll make these speeches and people will applaud. When they’re applauded they will begin to believe what they said.” This was done.

This is the story of the birth of wine in America. Political propaganda, sadly, has advanced well beyond the tactics Leon Adams used which are almost standard guerrilla marketing these days. Remember, what sets Leon Adams apart from clever marketers is compulsion to keep doing it and satisfaction from the game he played. It was more than a pay check. He employed people we would think of simply as marketers executing ideas described above.

Politics has taken a dark turn towards blind siding so many with the concept that distraction is he new censorship. This play book creates room for a whole new group of sacrificial personalities. They will say horrible stuff they do not care about to create spectacles that eat up finite time or specifically distract from other controversies while time marches on. Ann Coulter would be a prime example. Any minute you devote to her hollow words is time you will not spend advancing your understanding of economics and wow does it add up. So much hate is actually based on simple economic misconceptions. This ilk has odd pathological issues and get secured the promise once they sacrifice themselves to live out their days in ivory towers and gated communities. They are guaranteed no consequences. At the moment we do not know how to properly categorize or quarantine these characters.

Resisting propaganda used to be easier before this recent era of dark innovation. We see too many intelligent people giving their finite time to trolls and too many young and newly engaged giving their time to Ann Coulter and not to economics. We used to line item protest and now these personalities and new tactics force us to juggle. We divide ourselves when we say don’t give time to that issue, they are trying to distract you from this yet both issues clearly matter. There is little advice on how to master these scenarios. Barnie Frank explained that you cannot look at the way a politician voted on an issue in isolation, it always has a larger context. Did they vote against something small they wanted to gain an ally for something bigger and trickier to achieve? Political activism for the citizen used to be arithmetic and now it is Barnie Frank’s calculus.

We owe Leon Adams a lot of gratitude for the effort he put in to jump starting the wine industry in America. In the comparisons I draw, my aim is simply to note a personality type. Depending on what they latch on to, they can have positive impacts on society or the very negative we are seeing recently. We are so fortunate Leon Adams aimed his boundless energy and creativity at something positive.

This is something I had to get out of the way before my next piece about positive forms of nationalism centered around inclusion and belonging. It will be a look through the lens of the hospitality industry. Leon Adams is worthy of some serious scholarly work and his oral history with Ruth Teiser will reward anyone that reads it.

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