When winemakers and wine writers talk past each other
My definition of a great wine book is one where there are things on every page about which I could write an entire essay. I don’t mean because the writers say such stupid things that common sense and good taste demand that they be challenged (which is the case with most new wine books). I mean because they’re so profound that they make you think about old subjects in new ways.
Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs is such a book. Every other sentence ignites a neural storm in my brain, setting off ideas that are kaleidoscopic in their complexity and implications. For example, Lewin quotes Rémi Edange, Domaine de Chevalier’s assistant manager:
The role of the Grand Cru Classé is to carry the values of the history of French wines.
Whatever can this metaphysical statement mean? Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever the meaning, such words would have no place in the modern Napa Valley. We have, in California, no formal ranking system, so there are no “Grand Crus” that have a “role” to play. The valley does have a history, but it is nowhere near as long that of Bordeaux. Besides, one does not get the sense, in today’s Napa Valley, that history weighs heavily on many people’s minds. A few, perhaps. Modern Napa is, well, modern. It is all about the now, with little reference to (or reverence for) the past. A millionaire makes his fortune elsewhere, moves in, hires the best talent money can buy, obtains grapes from some esteemed vineyard, puts out a $150 Cabernet, gets 95 points and is suddenly hot. That is not history, it is parody.
And what are these “values” of which M. Edange speaks? Lewin again quotes him.
The idea here is to keep the savage taste, the typicity of Domaine de Chevalier is not the technique of making Cabernet Sauvignon, it is to express the terroir.
Well, modern Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is all technique–and so may be modern Bordeaux, despite M. Edange’s assertion to the contrary. This is something Lewin, who is a Master of Wine, knows, since he immediately writes, in his own voice, “…savage is the last word I would use to describe Domaine de Chevalier: its style is the epitome of elegance, with a real precision to the fruits.”
This would not be the first time a proprietor made claims about his wine that did not bear up to the scrutiny of an educated writer. Proprietors always make claims about their wines that are not apparent to the most sincere observer. They may do this because they want to implant an idea in the outsider’s mind [yes, proprietors are not above manipulating critics], or because, being so close to their own “babies,” they actually believe [or have convinced themselves they believe] in what they claim. Does M. Edange really find Chevalier to be “savage”? What does “savage” mean? The word “Sauvignon” itself is said to come from the old French word “sauvage,” or “wild,” in the sense, not of some bestial, animal character in the wine, but because the grape was found growing in the wild. Cabernet Sauvignon certainly does not grow in the wild anymore. It is probably the best-cultivated grape in the world, the fruit equivalent of a cow, an animal that no longer exists outside of domesticity. So what can M. Edange possibly mean by Chevalier being “savage”?
I don’t know, I suspect you don’t know, and Lewin clearly doesn’t know. This confusion underscores the central point I want to make: Writers should never, ever simply pass along a quote from a winery principle, unless they’re sure they understand it completely and agree; or unless they’re willing to admit they disagree, as Lewin did, ever so diplomatically. Too many writers, unfortunately, don’t adhere to this rule, which is why there’s so much unhelpful wine writing. There’s nothing wrong or disrespectful about a writer telling an owner or winemaker, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That is the stuff real reporting is based on, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know…free P.R.