Is the drive toward ever-newer wines a form of OCD among critics?
The search for “the new” is the story of California. Whether it was the reinvention of the self, or the society, the Golden State always has lured those restless with the existing order, and anxious to replace it with something innovative and, they hope, better.
This reinvention reinvents itself constantly. Nowhere is it better reflected than in our cuisine, as Joyce Goldstein’s book, Inside the California Food Revolution, makes abundantly clear. But we have to look no further than the current contretemps over what makes wine “balanced” to see it in another, and possibly ideological, form.
Joyce wrote her book to chronicle the rise of California cuisine, with its emphases on freshness, locality and seasonality, but she turns her eye also toward the evolution of California wine. “As California chefs began cooking more innovative food,” she writes, citing names like Ridge, Chalone, Calera and Bonny Doon, “they began seeking more innovative wines.”
By “more innovative wines,” she meant wines that aspired to something greater than the jug ‘burgundies,” “sauternes” and “rhines” that dominated production up until that time (around the 1960s and 1970s). This surely was innovation which was needed; if California ever was to become a wine state (and it seems to have been destined to), it would have to turn more towards a European system of proper appellations and noble varieties.
It worked. But we also have to admit that there was much to be admired in those old wines, with their faux names. They were cheap, they were clean, they went well with food, and they were pretty good, if my memories of what I drank in the late 1970s (just as that era was trailing off) are correct, and I think they are. Those old jug wines were vin ordinaire that appealed to vast numbers of American consumers, and without them blazing the trail, the rise of the boutique winery would not have been possible. Far from condemning them, we ought to celebrate them.
Still, that period of innovation—the boutique winery era–was a good and necessary one. We come now to another period, which may prove to be more of a hiatus than a legitimate tipping point. It is characterized by a somewhat noisy cadre of wine writers, critics and restaurateurs critical of what they perceive as wines whose alcohol levels, fruit extraction and oak render them “unbalanced.” Rather, this cadre says, wines should revert back to their original purpose, of being less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food, rather than dominating it.
Which sounds rather like the role the jug wines played in this country post-Prohibition through the 1970s. They were wines to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience of dining and socializing, not wines that demanded to be the diva-like stars of the table. Now, it’s good that we have a movement that desires to see wine restored to its proper place in the hierarchy; but where the new critics have a bit of ‘splaining to do is this: there is nothing particularly affordable about the wines they celebrate. Unlike the jug wines of the past, which anyone could afford, these new darlings of the School of Balance can be as pricey as the big, oaky varietal wines they decry.
It would make more sense for a critic to scream from the rooftops the virtues of under-$10 wines that could slake the thirst of a nation that’s not as wealthy as it used to be. That would be one thing; I could jump onboard that train. Instead, the critics of the big California style are calling for a new elitism: of low-production wines, made by people they perceive to be personally interesting—wines with modest alcohol levels, and moreover made from grapes that in some cases aren’t even fully ripe. This is the result of the increasingly strident call for “more innovative wines,” which sometimes seem like it has more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder than with providing us with wines of deliciousness. But then, every wine writer/critic also is a journalist, and journalism, in its essence, is the insatiable search for the new, the radical, the innovative, the undiscovered. That is the strength of good journalism: it prods a complacent culture onward. That also is the weakness of journalism that seeks simply to unearth whatever happens to be new that day, and disregards what is lasting. Innovation, for its own sake, is meaningless.