We want stronger food tastes. What about our wines?
A couple years ago, Dr. Vino wrote an influential blog post called “Is the clock ticking on hedonistic fruit bombs?” He didn’t come right out and say so, one way or the other. But he cited evidence of a “backlash” against high alcohol, extracted wines. Since then (Dec. 2007), lots of people have wondered if the pendulum is swinging away from higher ripeness and toward wines of greater finesse. I, myself, have written about this, although I’ve done so in the same hedge-your-bets way as Dr. Vino. I have speculated that cooler vintages in California (and, man oh man, 2010 is turning out to be one of the coolest yet) may be helping to bring the grapes in at lower brix levels.
Now comes an absolutely fascinating article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal with powerful implications for the wine business. With the intriguing headline “A Taste for Hotter, Mintier, Fruitier,” its thesis is that “The increased craving for intense flavors suggests that the American palate is changing.” Changing from what to what? Away from “natural flavors” and towards “intensity in flavor.” The author, Miriam Gottfried, lists plenty of examples of how steroidal flavors are being packed into our foods: “Snack chips are spicer. Chewing gum is mintier. Energy drinks are fruitier. In short, American cuisine is adrenaline cuisine.”
Gottfried bases her conclusions after interviewing a chef at a New York outfit called International Flavors and Fragrances, whose website describes it as “a leading creator and manufacturer of flavors and fragrances.” Their executive chef told Gottfried that Americans are seeking “a lot more umami,” the term popularized some years ago to describe a certain type of appealing savoriness in food. That Americans are in fact seeking more savoriness is accepted by a vice president of the James Beard Foundation, who told Gottfried, “You always need something spicier, something more, a bigger high” when it comes to food. He was echoed by a chef at McCormick’s (the spice people), who told the reporter, “Bold is replacing boring.”
I can totally accept this hypothesis. We do want more flavor, don’t we? As a longtime aficienado of cookbooks and food sections in the local newspaper, I’ve noted a trend toward spicier, bolder, richer, more layered, more complex and more savory food. Here in California, with our heavy Mexican and pan-Asian influences, our cuisine has become wildly delicious and adventurous. A good restaurant meal is a high to rival any substance I’ve ever had.
If it’s true that the American palate is changing in the direction of bigger and bolder, can it also be true that those same Americans are wanting their wines to be tamer and leaner? I suppose a case could be made. You could argue that a big, bold meal wants a companion wine to be restrained, in order to let the food star. On the other hand you could take the “like-with-like” route and suggest that the last thing you want with a big, umami-flavored dish is a thin little wine.
I’m still not ready to come down on one side or the other and make some stark pronouncement that hedonistic fruit bombs are [or aren’t] dead. I don’t know if the pendulum is swinging, and if it is, which way. We in the media tend to paint things in too-absolute terms anyway, as if everything is black or white. Of course, things aren’t. America is too big a country, and too fractured in cultural diversity, for such simplistic pronouncements to be made.
What are my own experiences with “hedonistic fruit bombs”? There are still plenty of them. And I don’t see them going away anytime soon. Of course, the word “bomb” is an explosive one. Your “bomb” may be my “chockful of fruit” delicioso. California growers and vintners have worked too long and too hard to achieve fruit perfection to turn around and throw it out the window. Cooler vintages may lower the alcohol a little bit, but not enough to reverse a generational shift, which is what we saw from the 1970s to the 1990s. The most important word in all this may be “hedonistic.” Last time I checked, it wasn’t an expletive, but a word based on the Greek root for “pleasure.” Nothing wrong with pleasure, in my book.
P.S. No new post tomorrow. I’m in Seattle for the weekend.