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Vines by the Rhyme

Rappers boost a varietal.

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In the opening to the video to his new single, “Country Ass Nigga,” Nelly takes a healthy slug from a wine bottle, grimaces ever so slightly, and wipes his upper lip clean as he savors the fruit-juicey kiss of the first rapper-branded Moscato (“Freaky Muscato,” marketed by his hometown crew, the St. Lunatics). Moscato, if you didn’t know, is a white-wine varietal, and Mr. Hot in Herre isn’t its only notable partisan in the hip-hop firmament; it’s also been extolled by Drake, Soulja Boy, and Gucci Mane. Those plugs have accelerated a full-blown Moscato boom: According to Nielsen, sales grew about 73 percent in 2011 after doubling the previous year. It is the fastest-growing varietal in California—E.&J. Gallo, California’s top bulk winery, has introduced five new Moscato products over the last two years. Growers in California have been frantically planting Muscat grapes (the kind used in Moscato) to keep up with demand, marking the first known occasion in which rap has directly affected the biosphere.

Those who stopped paying attention to hip-hop drinking mores a few years ago might be stunned to discover that sweet wines and flavored vodkas (frequently mixed together) have dethroned malt liquor and Champagne as rappers’ drinks of choice. As rap’s concerns have moved from street cred to in-your-face opulence to sweatered preppiness, so too have its booze preferences shifted. Easy-drinking wines prevail in a world where rap’s biggest star, Drake, is a Canadian former child actor who might as well have walked out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The wine industry, meanwhile, is happy to see a surge in popularity for what is effectively a starter varietal. “If you like soft drinks, you’ll probably like Moscato” is how California-based wine consultant Jon Fredrikson puts it.

One wine writer in a hip-hop-centric city, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Gil Kulers, has argued that rappers are ruining Moscato, citing Drake’s poor pairing choice on “I Invented Sex”—Moscato with lobster and shrimp—as evidence. (Moscato, Kulers wrote, is much too sweet even for seafood and goes better with dessert, an argument he punctuated by writing his own terrible rap verse on the subject.) Kulers isn’t much of a fan of California mass-market Moscato to begin with; among connoisseurs, Moscato d’Asti, an Italian sparkling version, is much preferred. For wine snobs, Moscato is the new White Zin, the varietal used as a knowing punch line on Frasier and, more recently, as the tongue-in-cheek name of a highbrow-meets-lowbrow arts-and-food magazine. It’s a signifier for plonk at which the enlightened turn up their well-trained noses.

But really, any declaration about the worth or lack thereof of an entire style of wine should be treated with suspicion. Consider the case of Sideways, the 2004 indie-film hit whose oenophile protagonist, Miles, hates Merlot. Enough Americans took Miles’s opinion as their own to stymie Merlot sales for years. Moscato is just the most recent beneficiary of this hither-and-thither dynamic. Speaking of which, just last month, up-and-coming Brooklyn rapper Troy Ave released a new single: “Merlot.”

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