Crazy about aging wine–literally
In the little guidebook published by Vibrant Rioja, their marketing arm, the Riojans say “Riojas are ready to drink when purchased. Rioja is the only wine region in the world that does not release any of their wines until they are ready to be consumed–you can pop open any bottle and drink it–no aging required!”
This no-aging-required meme, aimed at the masses, has been one of Rioja’s commercial selling points for years. It’s a good message. People are scared and confused about when to drink or not to drink a bottle of wine, and to reassure them that it doesn’t matter is pretty clever. On the other hand, I wonder if it’s working, because Rioja isn’t exactly setting America on fire, despite the fact that the wines can be fantastic and are particularly well priced compared to California and France.
The Californians actually could say the same thing, if they wanted to–that all California wines are ready to drink on release. It’s not something you can prove or disprove, it’s just a claim. Actually, there are very few California wines that require aging. Oh, I frequently will advise my readers at Wine Enthusiast to cellar a bottle of this or that for up to 8 years (I’m uncomfortable going beyond that), and every once in a while I’ll actually assign a wine a Cellar Selection designation. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t drink these wines on release. You could, and be perfectly happy.
So why don’t Californians use the “no-aging-required” strategy? If a wine is fresh and clean and inexpensive, they’ll often say something in their marketing along the lines of “Drink it now with a [fill in the blank food]” but you never see, say, a $100 Napa Valley Cabernet with a “Drink it now” message, even though most of them are just fine young (assuming they’re good wines to begin with). Nor do you necessarily see Cabernet houses (or Petite Sirah houses or even most Pinot Noir houses) saying much if anything about when to open their wines. The reason why is because they don’t want to get too far out on a limb that breaks off beneath them. If they tell you to drink their wine soon, they’re afraid people will think it’s not important and thus not worth the price, because the consumer has been trained to think an expensive wine has to age in order to be drinkable. Also, the winery might actually want their customers to cellar the wine, because they truly believe it’s ageworthy.
But if they tell their customers to stick the wine away for 8-10 years, then they’re afraid that the wine may suck when it gets old, because a lot of California wines that people hope will age don’t. They’re also afraid of putting the idea in the consumer’s mind that the wine is undrinkable young, because they know a lot of people don’t have the time or inclination to age wines. So the wineries are between a rock and a hard place. The less they say about aging, the safer they are.
Actually, when I asked the question, “So why don’t Californians use the ‘no-aging-required’ strategy?,” there’s another answer: California doesn’t have a statewide marketing order, the way the Riojans do. Four thousand California wineries couldn’t agree on which way is north, much less a unified message about something as complicated and cuckoo as ageability.
And this is why we’re all crazy about aging. Aging wine makes me crazy. Admit it: it makes you crazy too. We guess, we keep our fingers crossed, but we really don’t know, and, knowing that we don’t know, we’re reluctant to advise too strongly–at least, the more honest of us are. (Certain critics will suggest absurd windows of drinkability with the mathematical precision of a solved equation.) Aging is the third rail of California wine: nobody really wants to touch it.