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Is the drive toward ever-newer wines a form of OCD among critics?

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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.

  1. Steve,

    Thought about not replying, then replying, then not….finally gave in.

    I really found myself stuck on your last paragraph. I completely get the idea that journalism is the “insatiable search for the new, etc.” There is no doubt that is true, and that is part of what makes it exciting.

    My question is when does that search for the new tip over into the creation (or attempt to create) something new. When wine writers go on tour wine winemakers, promoting their works simultaneously, is that journalism any longer? Is that simply searching, reporting, unearthing new things? Of is that an attempt to make the news rather than report the news? And do you see that going on and think it is problematic?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Adam, it is problematic, but it’s also a symptom of a much wider problem in journalism: the 24-hour news cycle demands “news” constantly. In actuality, news doesn’t happen that fast–not even in our modern fast-paced world. Therefore, modern journalists have to find new “news” everywhere. This means taking something that isn’t really newsworthy and making it sound important. When it comes to wine, don’t forget that periodicals (wine magazines and newsletters) have publication schedules to meet, which are advertising-driven in the case of magazines. Even if there isn’t anything particularly new to write about, they have to discover the “new” mixologist, the “hot new” varietal, the “top” tasting rooms, etc. It’s a great example of Andy Warhol’s “in the future’ remark. Everything is famous for 15 seconds, then is replaced by something else. The problem is compounded by wine writers who know what they want to write about in advance, and then they shop around for winemakers to prove their point. Looking to praise wines under 15% ABV? Find winemakers making them, and then write an article about how they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    “My question is when does that search for the new tip over into the creation (or attempt to create) something new. When wine writers go on tour wine winemakers, promoting their works simultaneously, is that journalism any longer? Is that simply searching, reporting, unearthing new things? Of is that an attempt to make the news rather than report the news? And do you see that going on and think it is problematic?”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_mDTLphIVY&feature=kp

  4. I think there are two forces at work:

    1) Established critics looking to alert consumers to new and exciting wineries, while at the same time providing continued coverage/reviews on established wineries. Basically trying to provide as wide a coverage as possible to best help the consumer in buying decisions.

    2) New critics looking to establish themselves by searching out new wineries that run counter to those reported on (or disfavored)by the more established critics in order to differentiate themselves – thus hopefully making them more relevant. After all, just reiterating/reinforcing another critic’s opinion doesn’t generate much buzz ;) I think this is the case that is more manic in nature, since only through new wines/wineries can these folk make a mark.

    BTW – my smart a$$ response to anyone who says my wines should be “less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food”….

    I don’t make a condiment :D

    Brian Loring
    Loring Wine Company

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Nope, Brian. Nor do you make wine. You make a bottled cocktail.

  6. Nope, Bill. I make wines that represent the true terroir of the vineyard sites – not ones that fit some predetermined, arbitrary set of parameters. My horse is before the cart.

    And I think you may need to actually try our wines…

  7. Steve, I am as much or more opposed to censorship as anybody I know, but out-and-out rudeness, like that recently seen above, is beyond the pale and need not be tolerated. If you and I were in a pub or a coffee shop and a third person joined us then a fourth came along and gratuitously insulted the third, we would speak out against it. A blog is part of a community, and there are reasonable limits and behaviors.

    Anyone ought to speak his or her mind, but do it with civility. One can dislike any wine or any style without being nasty. If not, maybe one should not post.

  8. Bill Haydon, I appreciate you commenting on this blog. But I can’t tolerate outright rudeness. In the future, please watch your words, or I’ll have to 86 you.

  9. The search for the new is part of a very real revolution in how the entire country (not just NYC & California) eats and drinks.

    10 years ago, when I started managing a wine shop, there was almost no quality cheese, gourmet cured meats, and European-style bread in my pocket of Ohio. Today, there are dozens of those within a 3 hour drive.

    The consumer who eats these things — a consumer who actually seeks them out — wants choices of wine that are every bit as handcrafted and boutique. They no more want simple, cheap, genericly good wine – than they would want simple, cheap, genericly good cheese or bread.

    Critics who behave like the ones in your last paragraph are not only good and important, but offer a powerful counterbalance to the economic control of gigantic corporate wine brands that control a majority of the shelf space in this country.

    In short, this isn’t a push to ‘ever newer wines’ but an acknowledgement of the radical diversity of the American wine drinker experience.

  10. Dear Austin Beeman, I don’t accept your premise. Consumers are not forced to choose between “gigantic corporate wine brands” versus small, elite wineries producing gorgeous wines. It isn’t that simple. Some small wineries produce dreck. Some big wine companies, such as my employer, own small luxury brands that can compete at the highest levels.

  11. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve, you’re right. My comments to Brian were out of line. My response to Adam–while perhaps funny given the source material with which to work–was out of bounds. I sincerely apologize.

    Brian, to take my cynical, smart ass hat off for a moment, your follow-up response was very insightful and quite honestly touched upon an issue that I’ve brought up here before. What happens when the natural expression of a lot of/many/most California terroir is–through both a combination of warm climate and fertile soil–to make very ripe, overly expressive wines that aren’t necessarily good on the table? Do you, as a winemaker, properly express that terroir or do you try to force the square peg into the round hole and attempt to make a more restrained, lower alcohol, higher acid, lower pH wine? The answer is easy when the market wants the former, but what is the answer when the market increasingly wants the latter and has access to exactly those kinds of wines from a multitude of European terroirs and often at much lower prices to boot? To quote the movie Swingers, “there’s the rub” and the conundrum that much of California is facing right now.

  12. Bill,

    There are a couple of ways to look at your question:

    1) Assuming that what you say is true about California terroir, then historically what has happened has been the creation of a new market/wine type. The most obvious example is Champagne, which is planted in an area that is arguably too cold for the production of still wines. They created a different style of wine (one that some would also say aren’t necessarily good on the table) and created a market for it.
    2) The other way of looking at your question it to ask how far the movement you describe will go. It appears that with the 2011 vintage (the one that most naturally fits your description) a good number of wines had to be discounted and yet continue to languish on the shelves or in warehouses. That would suggest that the movement isn’t yet sufficient to absorb a large number of wineries moving that direction. The European influence on the market is somewhat muted given the smaller vintages they have experienced (that will not continue forever), but I’d suggest that that is more of a concern for those who make the “more restrained…..” style as those wines have thus far been higher priced than their European counterparts. How those wines follow a European model and yet also differentiate themselves from those lower priced, longer pedigreed wines is truly a challenge.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  13. Bill,

    I don’t agree with your premise that wines (such as ours) “aren’t necessarily good on the table”. Not only do they work extremely well with the food I like to eat, but they also work very well on their own, which I would argue is the defining quality of great wine.

    Adam Lee has made some great posts at various times on various sites describing how he drinks wine at home. Most of which is consumed before and after a meal. I think that applies to many people these days. Who has time to sit down to a 2-3 hour dinner every night? I don’t.

    But there are times when I do get to linger over dinner. Over the past week or so, I’ve had some amazing wine and food pairings. An Aubert Chardonnay and a Bonaccorsi Fiddlestix Pinot with an awesome bacon cheeseburger at The Hitching Post. Some of our wines with another dinner at The HP featuring grilled lobster, pork, beef, and lamb. And just last night some extra tasty Jamon Iberico de Bellota and artisan cheeses with a stunning 2012 Siduri Pisoni Pinot.

    And interestingly, Jenne Bonaccorsi (being extravagant) brought a 2005 Denis Mortet Gevrey-Chambertin Les Champeaux to The HP burger night that, while nice, was totally boring. I’m sure it would have worked well in another setting with different food, but that night it was the wine that wasn’t good on the table. Based on that, should I advocate that Burgundians need to re-think the wines they’re making and instead try to produce bigger, more expressive wines? Of course not. Burgundy does what they do best, even if their wines don’t match well with a lot of the foods I prefer (or consume most often). And California is doing fine as well, even if some folk can’t ever find a good food match, since many of us can and do all the time.

    So there is no rub, despite what the vocal minority that advocates for lower alcohol, more restrained domestic wines wants us to believe. It’s not that they’re wrong in their opinions, it’s that their opinions are just that, opinions. Not facts. And from where I stand, they are the minority of wine drinkers in this country. Or they are the voices of certain economic concerns that are looking for a niche in the domestic wine scene, either as new players or old players trying to defend their historical turf (i.e. Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc). Of course, the latter could be said of me as well. So I will extend the courtesy that I would hope they would to me and accept that it’s based on passion and personal preference and not simply marketing. And that there’s room in the wine world for all styles of wine, not just the ones that appeal to one specific group.

    Brian Loring
    Loring Wine Company

  14. Bob Henry says:

    ON THE INCREASING INCIVILITY OF BLOG DISCOURSE . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Op-Ed” Section
    (April 21, 2006, Page A1f4):

    “When Blogs Rule, We Will All Talk Like —-”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114558585173032092-email.html

    By Daniel Henninger
    “Wonder Land” Columnist

    . . .

    Technorati, a site that keeps numbers on the blogosphere, reports that as of this month the number of Web logs the site tracks is 35.3 million, and doubling every six months. Technorati claims each day brings 75,000 new blogs. . . .

    But in a “Blogs Trend Survey” released last September, America Online reported that . . . 50% of bloggers consider what they are doing to be therapy. . . .

    Not surprisingly, a new vocabulary has emerged from clinical psychology to describe generalized patterns of behavior on the virtual continent. As described by psychologist John Suler, there’s dissociative anonymity (You don’t know me); solipsistic introjection (It’s all in my head); and dissociative imagination (It’s just a game). This is all known as digital identity, and it sounds perfectly plausible to me.

    . . . But there is one more personality trait common to the blogosphere . . . It’s called disinhibition. . . .

    In our time, it has generally been thought bad and unhealthy to “repress” inhibitions. Spend a few days inside the new world of personal blogs, however, and one might want to revisit the repression issue.

    The human species has spent several hundred thousand years sorting through which emotions and marginal neuroses to keep under control and which to release. Now, with a keyboard, people overnight are “free” to unburden and unhinge themselves continuously and exponentially. . . .

    BUT RELIEF MIGHT BE COMING . . .

    Excerpts from Fortune “Techland” Section
    (November 12, 2007, Page 46):

    “OMG !!! The End of Online Stupidity?;
    A software team is building a filter that blocks unintelligible comments”

    Link: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/11/12/100954554/

    By Josh Quittner

    Internet veterans have long complained about the steady erosion of civility — and worse, intelligence — in online discourse. . . .

    But there’s still hope for intelligent life on the Internet. A team of software developers is hard at work on a “stupid filter” that promises to do to idiotic online comments what a spam filter does to junk and unwanted e-mail: put it in a place where it can’t hurt anyone anymore.

    . . .

    How does it work? [ SEE ARTICLE FOR EXPLANATION ]

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding Adam’s comment . . .

    “It appears that with the 2011 vintage (the one that most naturally fits your [Bill Haydon’s] description [of restrained, lower alcohol, higher acid, lower pH wines]) a good number of wines had to be discounted and yet continue to languish on the shelves or in warehouses. That would suggest that the movement isn’t yet sufficient to absorb a large number of wineries moving that direction.”

    . . . please weigh in here.

    From your experience (cited twice in your blog), a significant percentage of 2011 California Pinots are afflicted with mold and mildew.

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/08/15/an-inconvenient-truth-about-pinot-noir/

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/12/17/more-on-the-troubling-2011-vintage/

    That can be the cause for the public’s disinterest/uninterest in adopting these wines for the dinner table.

    Or do you attribute it to other factors?

    ~~ Bob

  16. Bob Henry, I don’t know if a large number of 2011s are unsold. If that’s true, I doubt if it’s because of the mold and mildew that I found in some Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in particular. The 2011 vintage was upheld by some famous critics as excellent, mainly because they didn’t taste as many wines as I did and therefore they had no way of knowing how many spoiled wines there were.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Just so you know: you’re reply to my comment is time coded June 22, 2014 at 7:09 am [time zone unknown].

    The notice of its posting didn’t hit my Gmail in-box until moments ago (circa 2:45 am PT today, June 23, 2014).

    ~~ Bob

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Let’s be literate at this late hour . . .

    Steve,

    Just so you know: YOUR reply to my comment is time coded June 22, 2014 at 7:09 am [time zone unknown].

    The notice of its posting didn’t hit my Gmail in-box until moments ago (circa 2:45 am PT today, June 23, 2014).

    ~~ Bob

  19. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    As a consultant to wine stores who goes undercover as a “secret shopper” to gather competitive intelligence about my clients’ competition, I see LOTS and LOTS of 2011s languishing on the shelves.

    And wine merchants, falling victim to the “sunk-cost fallacy” [*], refuse to bite the bullet by discounting them to order to move them off the shelves, and replace them with the much superior 2012 releases.

    Low or non-existent stock-turn rates on your physical inventory means zero ROI on your tied up working capital. That is a precursor to going out of business.

    And dissatisfied consumers with their drinking experiences. (Which threatens the loss of repeat business — as it is projected that “Acquiring a new customer costs about five to seven times as much as maintaining a profitable relationship with an existing customer.” [**])

    ~~ Bob

    [* http://articles.latimes.com/2006/sep/17/opinion/oe-schwartz17

    [** http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122766322705958805.html

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