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Classic, schlmassic: another silly wine word to get rid of

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I’m tempted to say, pace Justice Stewart, that I can’t define “classic” wine, but I know one when I taste it, except that I can’t say that, either, because it’s not always true. I do know a classic wine when you tell me its name.

You: “Here’s Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.”

Me: “Oh, that’s a classic wine.”

But this gets us into the territory of blind tasting, and I’m tired of writing about that (I will again, but not now). However, this notion of “classic wines” is endlessly fascinating, because it involves, not just wine, tasting and judgment, but linguistic processes which, as a Stanford professor points out, are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions…”.

This means, in brief, that the way we describe things—to ourselves and to others—shapes how we perceive them. This shouldn’t be surprising, in a post-Heisenberg world. But it would not have surprised our grandmothers, either, who understood the commonsense validity of “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Anyhow, bravo to Wine & Spirits for their Fall 2015 issue, which examines the question of what is a classic wine? It’s a spirited romp through the world of fine wine and, even if we’re no closer to defining “classic wine” at the end, getting there is a hell of a lot of fun.

One of the articles, by Luke Sykora, seeks to determine what are the classics of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Few surprises there from the past: For the 1960s and 1970s, Luke lists five: Charles Krug Vintage Selection, Beaulieu Georges de Latour, Freemark Abbey Bosché, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. (Luke also referenced specific vintages, but I am omitting them for convenience.)

Now, one could, theoretically, add others to the list, but lists, like undergarments, are best kept brief. Luke seems to have been influenced in his selection of yesteryear’s classics by Gerald Asher, who participated in a tasting with him; and certainly there is no living wine writer better equipped to pronounce on Napa Valley Cabernet from that era than Gerald. In him, we see one parameter of defining “classics” that is sometimes overlooked: authority, which means that the situation has been codified by some person or panel of the utmost esteem. (Indeed, the 1855 Classification itself possessed authority only because its drafters were so respected.) In other words, if Gerald says that these five Cabs are classic (and this statement is in accord with our general understanding), then we are inclined to agree.

So much for the 1960s and 1970s. We now move forward to today. What are the new classics? To answer this, Luke’s group, which included Gerald, tasted a dozen wines from the 2012 vintage. Luke didn’t identify the complete lineup, but listed three that “seemed destined to show life and typicity in 20 to 30 years’ time,” meaning that ageworthiness is one of the qualities Luke’s group associates with a classic Cab. The chosen three wines were Dominus, Spottswoode and Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve.

So we have implicitly implicated three qualities that constitute the definition of “classic”: authority, typicity and ageworthiness. All are big, weighty, dense but, as we shall see, problematic constructs. Authority presupposes a writer/critic of longstanding reputation, a person of good will and trustworthiness, whose intellectual capacities cannot be doubted. We always have had such individuals: Thomas Jefferson, André Simon, Professor Saintsbury, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson. In more modern times we move to more controversial choices, Robert Parker being the obvious candidate; but everything in our morally discombobulated world these days is controversial. If we continue the arc of time into the future, things seem destined to grow more and more controversial, meaning that we may (sooner than we think) run out of authority figures, which will call into question the notion of “authority” itself. If there are no authority figures, who will tell us what wines are classic?

But wait, there’s more: the second quality that defined “classic” was typicity. But here, too, we are in profoundly murky waters. “Typicity” as we’ve known it is melting faster than the Arctic icecaps. In Burgundy and Chablis, typicity almost no longer exists, as producers do things their grandfathers would have found appalling. Global warming also undoes typicity. Besides, who—in this welter of controversial topics—is to decide what is “typical” and what is “atypical” anyway? And if something happens to be “atypical” who’s to say it’s not the “new typical”? You see how complicated this can be.

And then there’s the third thing that underlies classic wine: ageworthiness. But if we’re prepared to accept Luke’s contention that ageworthiness can only be determined after “20 to 30 years,” then we may not be able to arrive at a conclusion about which Napa Cabs are classic today until the year 2035, at least. This is not a very satisfactory solution for those of us who want to know now. Nor will it take into account those wineries that (a) do not exist today, or (b) are not part of the tastings by which we will determine ageworthiness, since such tastings always have an arbitrariness to the selection process.

What are we to do? My answer is to do away with the notion of “classic” wines. “Classic” is a word. As the Stanford professor warned, language “unconsciously shap[es] us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions.” Surely defining “classic” wines is a lofty abstract notion, but it’s also a fundamentally unfair one that skews our perceptions into outright bias against other wines that are not so deemed.

Besides, what of Pinot Noir? We have no such comparable historical examples of it in California, the way we do with Cabernet Sauvignon. During Gerald Asher’s 1960s and 1970s, who were the equivalent names in Pinot Noir to Charles Krug and Beaulieu? There were none, even though some wineries (including Beaulieu) had tinkered with Pinot. Therefore, there are no “classic” Pinot Noirs from the 1960s and 1970s. What, then, would be considered “classic” Pinot Noir today? Bold is the critic who would dare to declaim that list. Should Rochioli and Williams Selyem be on it due to their historical placement? The early bird doth not necessarily a classic wine make. Is Sanford, which has undergone more transformations than Caitlyn Jenner, classic? I will not even mention Chalone. The problem is that there are so many great Pinot houses, with seemingly more popping up all the time, that to attempt to construct a list of “classics” is sheer folly, even if it makes for entertaining journalism.

So let’s be done with this notion of “classic” wines. It’s one more yoke of the past we can safely jettison.

  1. In CA, the classic wines are best designated by region, not by maker: Napa Cab, Sonoma Zin. “Classic” means that pinnacles of consistent quality have been achieved with certain grapes in certain regions over many years. After that it gets murky: Paso Robles Rhone blend? Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay? Amador Zin? Russian River Pinot? At this stage of its evolution, CA can necessarily have only a few classics.

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