There’s no danger in bashing California wines, which is why people do it
A few days go I blogged that there’s a certain sameness to much of California wine–the same top 5 or 6 varieties, made in the same style–and I was willing to take some of the blame, as a critic who bears some responsibility for what people drink.
Then a reader who identified himself as Blovinum commented, “I agree to you that America and much of the world is a homogenized society (so in wine) and 2nd. I agree to the statement that you as a critic is in a part responsible for that fact. But man himself is the reason why there is, like I call it, a ‘Coca-Cola taste’. Everyday, everytime the same preferences, whatever it is. Most of us behave like a cattle in a flock. No individuality, no self-confidence in the own sense of taste and no courage to discover ‘new land’.”
I replied, “Dear Blovinum, I completely agree with your analysis of humanity! It seems to be in our genes to obey the herd mentality. I’m sure there are solid reasons of survival for banding together, as opposed to each of us going our own way. If you’re out there on the edge of the crowd, it’s easier to get picked off by a hungry wolf.”
The reason this is such an interesting point is because it has to do with this ongoing discussion in the wine community about wine style. You know the outlines: On the one side are those who like lower alcohol European wines that, they say, show terroir, while on the other side are those who enjoy the big, rich, fat California style of high alcohol and fruit, which makes (some say) all wines taste more or less alike, at the expense of terroir.
Now, I don’t know any fans of the California style who bash European wines as being too thin–I certainly don’t. The bashing seems to be one-way only, from the Europhiles. I’ve written plenty about this, so I don’t want to reprise the whole megillah again. But I do want to take a deeper look at why so many people around the world love the California style–and why a tiny minority doesn’t.
We humans do have it programmed within us to behave like what Blovinum calls “cattle in a flock,” and for the reason I stated. Our ancestors were smart, but they also were physically slow and weak. That made them vulnerable to predators, like saber-toothed tigers and wolves. They learned consequently to stick together, like antelope on the plains of Africa, to better protect themselves from being eaten.
That’s one reason for the herd mentality: People in general don’t like to stick out. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down, as the old saying goes. There’s something else: Humans have a sweet tooth. Chimps use twigs as tools to dig honey out of a hive. Sugar tastes good, of course, but the reason Mother Nature made it taste good is because sugar in its various forms is necessary for brain function. Sugar tastes good for the same reason sex feels good. Both are necessary for the species’ survival.
So if you add the herd mentality to this fondness for sugar, you have a lot of people who find a rich, fruity, slighty sweet California wine delicious. Including me.
That explains why wines the world over have been getting riper: Once advances in viticulture and enology made it possible, it only made sense for winemakers to produce wines that appeal to these built-in tastes. It’s a wonder that wine has been as popular as it was over the course of thousands of years of human culture, when so much of it must have been brutal, nasty stuff. That’s why the Greeks and Romans so often sweetened it with honey or resin. People drank wine even though it didn’t taste very good because they enjoyed its psychedelic effects.
What this explanation doesn’t fully account for is the violence with which the anti-California crowd attacks our wines. This gets us back to those iconoclasts who fancy themselves as refusing to go along with the common herd. They see themselves as independent minds, going against the tide of popular taste, ardent defenders of ancient values against a mindless rabble. They are, in other words, on the edge of the crowd. That’s no longer a dangerous place to be; there’s little risk of a wolf picking you off if you bash California wine.