More California bashing in a beautiful new book
I revert quite often to the theme of wine’s “authenticity” in this blog, not because the concept is all that meaningful to me—it isn’t, in the sense I’ll get to shortly—but because it’s become the go-to meme with which others place wine into value tiers, usually to the disparagement of California.
We’ll call them the Authenticists, that nouvelle school of wine critics who claim that, in order for wine to meet their criteria of “authenticity,” it must be
- made in a foreign country, usually Europe
- with decidedly little technology or intervention
- in a place with a medieval heritage
- produced from a family whose winemaking traditions extend far back into history
- and who live modestly, even quaintly
- and it doesn’t hurt for them to have charming characters: a curmedgeonly Patriarch, a wise old Matriarch, a revolutionary son
- the wine itself must be modest in alcohol
- from an individual, usually old vineyard
- and satisfy the Authenticist’s version of “connectedness” to the land
The latest author to celebrate these values is Terry Theise, whose 2010 book, Reading Between the Wines, is out in paperback from University of California Press.
The book, rightfully, has been touted for the beauty of its writing, something Theise, who imports wines from Europe into this country, wanted to accomplish; his preface lauds the “lapidary style” of writing, which is “polished and cut to the point of transparency…that allows the object to shine through.”
As an admirer of good writing myself, I support this aim. That a wine writer should take the time to actually focus on impeccable writing is, mirabile dictu, a stirring antidote to this age of 140-character Tweets and wine “writing” that is characterless to the point of morbidity. Theise writes the way I like to read: with muscularity and attitude, precision and color, passion and intelligence. He must have left his editors at UC Press (who were the same as mine) with precious little to do because he gave them perfect copy.
But I want to look past the evident elegance of Theise’s writing to examine what it is he is saying, which seems to me dipped from the old, tiresome well of Authenticism. The indirect slam on California comes through in statements like “I don’t like Hummer wines,” in wholesale indictments such as “You’re picking overripe grapes because you’re scared they won’t be ‘physiologically’ ripe. Your wine has far too much potential alcohol, so you add water to the grape must [and] add…Mega Purple,” to anecdotes about the “connectedness” of Mosel winegrowers to their land and tradition in a way that implies that California winegrowing families possess no such connections, to assertions that the village of Zeltingen is “somewhere,” populated by “people who embody it,” as opposed to—what?—Los Olivos? Boonville? Forestville? which presumably are “nowhere,” and whose populace is disembodied?
Theise visits the grave of an old Mosel friend. “I love that he lies in the slate, the soil where his Riesling grew.” People like his friend “were the people of this place in the world. It’s no accident that there are almost no international consultants, the ‘flying winemakers’ from here. The Mosel gives its vintners all the stimulus they need.”
We are to conclude inferentially that California vintners have no connection to their land (tell that to the Seghesios, whose ancestors rest in Alexander Valley soil). That they are arrivistes without roots, lacking concern for their neighbors, uninterested in anything save hype and profit, who hire outsiders to tell them what to do and have no sensibility of their own. Theise tells a story of Mosel families who got up early one Christmas morning to help a neighbor pick Eiswein. “Afterward they gathered…for soup and Christmas cookies. And when they left they were all singing out Merry Christmas…”. “I ask you!” he cries in wonder at such communal love; “…being a Mosel vintner signifies membership in a human culture much deeper than mere occupation.”
There it is again, the insinuation that California (and the entire New World?) runs on “mere occupation” while the ancient, ennobled peasant-vintners of the Mosel have a spiritual connection to their land and culture that lifts their wines into some rarified category of Authenticism. Do California winemakers not help their neighbors, when help is needed? Certainly they do. They may even sing Christmas carols at that time of year. I could cite tales…And I would bet that the amount of money raised for charities, especially for field workers, in Napa Valley dwarfs anything in the Mosel.
Theise is right to poke fun at “flying winemakers” and a mythical “Hubris Hill” $125 cult wine (no doubt a Napa Cabernet) produced by a hired-gun winemaker employed by a billionaire lifestyle-seeking ex-engineer or Wall Street mogul. Such people do litter California wine country, and Lord knows I poke fun at them all the time because they’re so easy to satirize.
But to throw the baby out with the bathwater—to imply that the state is inauthentic based on a handful of extremes—is unfair and ahistorical. I’ve struggled to understand California bashing for a long time, whether it’s our wines or our weather or our lifestyle (“San Francisco Democrats,” “brie-and-Chablis drinkers,” “fruits and nuts,” etc. etc. ad nauseum). I suspect it’s part envy, but I also try to see things from the perspective of the Authenticists. Look, last week I drank and loved an entire bottle of Melsheimer 2010 Reiler Mullay-Hofberg “Schaf” Riesling, from the Mosel. Low alcohol (7.5%), from a family who’s farmed their slope for five generations, over 200 years—a gorgeous, admirable wine, just the kind of “connected” vintners Theise loves.
But when I look at their picture on this website, I can easily see a bunch of Mondavis or Seghesios or Pedroncellis or Davies or Bundschus or Benzigers, or any of scores of California families whose love of their land and connection to their culture are no less profound than that of anyone in the Mosel. And I think: good writing or bad writing, Theise still is indulging in California bashing. It’s silly, it’s a trope too easily depended upon by writers, and it’s time to get over it.