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A Wet Kiss to Wine Kitsch

Lettie Teague rails against tacky wine geegaws and other accessories—and learns that defending good taste can be a very lonely battle.

My friend Kathy likes to dress up her wineglasses with jewelry. Now Kathy is an otherwise sensible woman, not much given to dolling up household objects or, for that matter, herself (she regards lipstick with as much trepidation as another woman might plastic surgery). And yet she loves to decorate her glassware with wine charms—silver and glass trinkets shaped like ballerinas, wine barrels, tennis rackets and so forth. At last count she had more than 30 charms and said she was hoping for more. They won't, however, be coming from me.

I'm not a big fan of wine charms. Or, indeed, most wine "accessories." That includes ties printed with wine labels, T-shirts dyed in real Cabernet juice and monkey wine-bottle holders (yes, there are such things). Ditto for wine games, key chains and wine bottle "attire." (The oxymoronically titled company True Fabrications offers ways to "dress your wine" ranging from tuxedos to flapper dresses to a chef's jacket and toque.)

Frankly, I don't see how a costume can enhance a good bottle of wine. Or why a fondness for a particular vintner would be best expressed on a T-shirt or tie. And yet the accessories audience is immense, embracing far more than just oenophiles. Anyone with an identifiable hobby, favorite athletic team or preferred breed of dog is considered a fair tchotchke target. (As the owner of two corgis, I've been the recipient of much corgi-themed merchandise, including coffee mugs, clothing, artwork and books.) I've gotten my share of wine things as well, including socks that say WINE GIRL (a big hit with the airport security scanners), lots of grape leaf–printed kitchenware and even a sign declaring ICI, ON BOIT DU BON VIN ("Here we drink good wine"). The latter was a gift from two well-meaning (and optimistic) friends. It hangs by our back door, giving guests a false sense of promise when they come to our house for dinner.

I suppose this is how most wine accessories are sold: People buy them to give to other people—not knowing if the recipient really wants a door sign or a monkey wine-bottle holder. But what, I wondered, would happen if I gave my friends and family wine accessories and actually witnessed their reactions? Was it possible that they might feel the same way that I do?

My first wine accessory gifts went to F&W's test kitchen supervisor, Marcia Kiesel, and senior test kitchen associate, Grace Parisi. I bought two wine-themed aprons: for Marcia, a burgundy apron that read SOPHISTICATED, SEDUCTIVE, COMPLEX AND FULL-BODIED (...AND THE WINE'S NOT BAD, EITHER), and for Grace, a black number that identified her as a WINE SNOB. "I love this," said Marcia, who normally goes about her business in chef's whites. "It looks very professional," said Grace admiringly. Was she joking? "No, I like it," Grace insisted and complimented her apron: "This fabric is good quality." But didn't she, as a professional, prefer a more sober look? Preferably without some silly wine slogan? "Not always," Grace replied. I was taken aback. I'd expected the pros to have strong feelings against such frivolous things. "I also like those things that you hang off wineglasses," Grace added. "You mean wine charms?" I replied, shocked. (What might she admit next? That she had a collection of monkey wine-bottle holders?) Grace nodded. "I have a lot of wine charms. Except they only seem to work for the first glass of wine; after that everyone gets too loopy to know which charm is theirs."

My next wine accessory gift went to my sister, a high-end home furnishings designer from Texas. I decided to give her the flapper outfit bag from True Fabrications when we met for dinner while she was in town. According to a True Fabrications spokeswoman, this "outfit," which features red fringe, a purple boa and pearls, is one of the company's biggest hits. Because my sister is pretty particular about fabric and design, I figured she'd have something scathing to say. Instead, she screamed when she saw the bag—in delight rather than rage—and lunged across the table to grab it. "I love this!" she declared. Our waitress, alarmed by the sound (and maybe thinking she had a Heimlich maneuver to perform), hurried over to see what was wrong. Then she caught sight of the flapper outfit. "That's fabulous!" she said. "Where did you get it?"

"You can't really like it!" I asked my sister, aghast. "Well, the stitching could be better. It's done a little cheaply inside," she said, a bit more critically, giving the fringe a pull. "But," she added, "I would still give these as gifts." What about the wine inside? Had she happened to notice I'd brought her a great bottle of Argentine wine—the 2004 Malbec from La Posta? "It's a wine made by the highly regarded Argentine winemaker Luis Reginato," I said. "That's nice," she replied distractedly, still fingering the bag. "Do you think I can order this directly from the company?"

The wine accessory experiment wasn't going the way I'd envisioned it would. Clearly I needed to find some more off-putting stuff. So I purchased a wine tie that practically glowed in the dark—festooned with labels from fictitious producers from all over the world. I gave it to my friend Peter Travers, the famous film critic. "Would you wear this to dinner?" I asked, thinking Peter would certainly decline. "Sure," answered Peter, "why not?"

Our dining destination was Nobu Fifty Seven, the newest Manhattan restaurant from chef Nobu Matsuhisa and co-owner Drew Nieporent. Nobu Fifty Seven is not only one of the most sought-after reservations in New York City (thanks to a three-star review from the New York Times), but quite the fashionable scene. And yet Peter, in his shiny wine tie, seemed cheerfully oblivious to any possible sartorial scorn.

All the waiters at Nobu Fifty Seven dress in black, as do most of the patrons, so Peter's tie shone forth like a veritable beacon. Yet our waiter, an engagingly chatty fellow, declared it had "style." I couldn't help asking, "Don't you think it's a little—loud?" But our waiter wouldn't be swayed. "No, it's nice to see some color. I don't get to wear color," he added rather wistfully.

Wasn't there anyone who was as offended as I was? Was mine truly a lone voice crying in the wilderness of wine kitsch? Surely there was some fellow purist who would take my side, who would find such paraphernalia equally off-putting. I went home and pored over wine accessory catalogs and browsed through Web sites until suddenly I discovered just the right thing to make my point: a glass chess board with pieces that look like miniature glasses of wine. Made from "the finest quality glass" (for only $9.99!) it was billed as "an ideal gift for anyone who loves the fascinating game of chess."

Now, if I could just find Bobby Fischer's address.

Published January 2006
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