For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?
An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.
“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!
Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.
This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!
As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.
I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!
If more proof were needed that wine has become as mainstream in America as fast food, it was just supplied with Taco Bell’s announcement that the chain will begin serving wine at its stores, beginning in Chicago and San Francisco.
The Irvine CA-based company put out a press release on Sept. 15 stating its intention “to create a new experience as the brand expands into urban markets,” and part of that “new experience” is the creation of a concept they’re calling Taco Bell Cantina (TBC). The press release explains the reason: “Today’s consumers are living in more urban settings and our new restaurants cater to their lifestyle in adapting our traditional restaurant concept to fit their modern needs.”
Well, that sounds like Millennials, doesn’t it? They’re moving to cities like San Francisco in droves, and they are different from their parents and from their more rural cousins. Their “modern needs” include a desire to “live, work and play” in urban settings, where they don’t have to drive a zillion miles to get to and from work. Taco Bell Cantina also will feature “the local architecture of the neighborhoods each restaurant serves,” although so far, there’s no mention of sourcing locally-provisioned ingredients. Maybe that’s the next step.
Here in San Francisco, the new restaurant will be close to AT&T Park, arguably the city’s hottest neighborhood, and will “cater to [that] quick pace, tech savvy and vibrant community.” It also will be as green as fast food gets: “LED lighting, use of reclaimed elements where possible and recycling.”
Will coders cotton to Taco Bell Cantina? I’m sure they will. I never get the impression that the hoards of young developers you see all over San Francisco these days are particularly informed when it comes to food. They like big flavors, some hint of authenticity and inexpensive prices, which is what they’ll find at TBC. I haven’t been able to find a menu for TBC, but the San Francisco Chronicle reports the new foods will be free “of all artificial colors and flavors…by year’s end…Artificial dye Yellow No. 6 will be removed from the nacho cheese and Blue No. 1 will no longer be used in the avocado dip.” The press release says the foods will be “tapas-style…shared appetizers.” That’s very Millennial, too.
Sounds good to me!
I don’t know what the wines will be at the San Francisco location, or the beers, for that matter. It’s not open yet. The Chicago restaurant apparently had a soft opening recently that USA Today reported on. They said the menu included “new appetizer items [such as] chicken tenders, rolled chicken tacos [and] mini quesadillas.” That also sounds good to me. I’m often running around looking for something healthful, tasty, fast and cheap. As for booze, USA Today reported that the Chicago location is selling something called Cantina Punch and Cantina Margarita, as well as Dos Equis and New Belgium beers and wines from two California brands I never heard of, Steelhead Vineyards and Stack Wines. Thanks to the miracle of the Google machine, I found out that Steelhead is a project “dedicated to creating a better world”
by supporting Trout Unlimited; the winemaker is an old pal, Hugh Chappelle, who was at Flowers and Lynmar and now works at Quivira. So I bet the wines are pretty good. As for Stack Wines, it seems to be easy-breezy, California-appellated wines-in-a-can made of glass-like plastic.
This is a nice step for Taco Bell to take. There’s a place for fast food in this country, and it’s cool that Taco Bell is lifting the experience up a little. I could see myself grabbing a quick bite next time I’m at a Giants game, which I will be for their final one of the year against the Dodgers, on Oct. 1.
I don’t have anything against rosé. I like a good rosé, as long as it’s dry. One of the best tastings I ever went to was at the old Vertigo restaurant, in San Francisco, which claimed to have the nation’s biggest rosé wine list. The bartender set me up at the bar one afternoon before the place opened, and I happily explored the wonderful world of [mostly French] rosés.
What I do have something against is this meme, which seems to have popped up a year or two ago, that rosé is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I mean, you can’t pick up a Sunset Magazine or a wine magazine or an airplane magazine without an article trumpeting rosé as the chic new black. The latest is the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday article, “Planet Pink: How rosé became the wine lover’s darling—and a social media sensation.”
Let’s get this straight right away: rosé is not “the wine lover’s darling.” There’s no such thing as “the wine lover’s darling.” It’s not orange wine, and it’s not Prosecco, and it’s not anything else that has hitherto been acclaimed to be the next big thing. Rosé is simply a nice little wine that can be delicious with charcuterie, but “darling”? I think not.
What is it about the wine press that they always have to be discovering some trend? I suppose it’s inherent in the nature of media publications. If you write for a newspaper, then you have to dig up some “news.” If there isn’t any, then you take some current thing and inflate it so that it can plausibly be called “news.” This happens in politics all the time: it’s the “shiny new thing” phenomenon, also known as “shiny object syndrome,” where “a new idea captures your imagination and attention in such a way that you get distracted from the bigger picture and go off in tangents instead of remaining focused on the goal.” In my opinion, Republicans do this all the time: they dangle Obama’s birthplace, or some other nonsense, in front of the electorate, hoping to divert our attention from real issues, such as jobs, healthcare, the cost of college education, climate change and the vast disparity of incomes in America—issues for which that political party has no answers.
Wine writers are not quite as cynical or calculating as political operatives, but “shiny object syndrome” is something they indulge in due to the pressures of their jobs. One couldn’t really publish a wine section in a major daily newspaper and say, “There’s nothing particularly new in the wine industry today,” could one? So you come up with yet another “darling.”
Now, what’s this about “a new social media sensation”? Same old same old. If you want to bolster your case that something really is a darling, then you go to the Google machine and find as many glowing references to it online as you can. That bolsters your case: not only is it your claim that something is a darling, but all those wise people out there on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are saying the same thing! Therefore it must be true: for social media doesn’t lie, exaggerate or distort, it is a magical expression of authentic thinking in the world, and thus the perfect tool for trendspotting.
Well, I am being sarcastic, of course. Social media is filled with the same ridiculousness as life itself. The rule of social media is fifteen minutes of fame, after which the phenomenon in question sinks back into obscurity, to be replaced by the next “darling.”
Besides, what if rosé really is the new “darling”? Does that make you want to run out and find a rosé? Maybe you’re the type of person who feels that you don’t want to miss out on something that everybody else knows about. If that’s the case, it’s not rosé you’re looking for. But, as I said, rosé can be delightful, especially during the kind of heat wave that California is now experiencing. It’s forecast to be one of the longest heat waves we’ve had in years—started yesterday and will continue at least through this week. This is not what growers need at this time: it will profoundly speed up the ripening process on those grapes not already picked, leading to a possible crush rush; there will be cases of sunburnt fruit; and if you can’t find pickers to harvest your grapes in time, you’re going to have sugar spikes to deal with.
I am off on another road trip for Jackson Family Wines, down to Newport Beach for a fancy dinner. This time, alas, I must leave Gus behind, but he’s in good hands with my family. Have a great day. Grab yourself a nice rosé, chill it, and savor it later this afternoon by your pool, if you have a pool. If you don’t, savor it anyway.
For the first time ever, wine, beer and spirits are equal in the eyes of the public, at least here in San Francisco and, I think, throughout coastal California. This is where cultural trends begin, so there’s no reason not to think this equality will not shortly apply throughout the country.
I make this claim because, as I keep my finger on the cultural pulse, it’s obvious to me that no one of this trio of alcoholic beverages can any longer claim cultural or culinary supremacy. For many years, wine was in the driver’s seat, due, no doubt, to San Francisco’s location as gateway to wine country. The fashionable people—those in the know, the ones who set the trends—preferred wine. Beer was for frat boys, while spirits were for boozy traveling salesmen at hotel bars imbibing Mad Men-style martinis.
How that has changed! Suddenly, beer became craft, not Bud Lite, and the most interesting people—the tattoo crowd of artisans, musicians, code writers, jocks—started adoring it. All you read about anymore were craft breweries, which were uber-cool. Stores such as Whole Foods and even Safeway vied to find the latest little microbrewery. Prices for individual bottles skyrocketed to $10, $15, $20. Beer labeling turned into High Art, the 21st century equivalent of the psychedelic rock and roll posters of the 1960s. Beer gardens opened featuring food as interesting as in any wine bar. Even women—traditionally not beer drinkers—turned to this newly fashionable drink.
And then spirits graduated from the preferred drink of the cigarette and “quicker liquor” crowd to the province of the mixologists, the coolest crowd there ever was. Bartenders became as famous as NFL quarterbacks or guitar-thumping thrash rockers. Magazines like The Tasting Panel featured hot, handsome, sexy mixologists in tatts and Panama hats: it was no longer unusual for an aspiring, up-and-coming kid to want to pour in a club. The top restaurants expanded their wine lists to include beer and every kind of spirit there is. In San Francisco, the Valencia Corridor sprouted almost overnight from being a dull stretch of used clothing stores and cheap apartments to the hottest, trendiest neighborhood in San Francisco, largely due to the bars and restaurants where new cocktails were invented overnight, using the weirdest new ingredients.
And so the stage was set, in the Recessionary years, for us to re-emerge from that awful darkness into a new time where you can no longer define which cultural club someone belongs to based on what they drink. Everybody drinks everything. It’s simply a matter of how they feel at the moment. The die-hard Cabernet drinker discovered trendy infused-vodka cocktails, or rediscovered the retro gimlet. The burly Giants fan discovered that Chablis—the real stuff—isn’t just for girls. The ladies turned to Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas to drink with their charcuterie. And we’re all the happier for it.
This is good news, of course, but it also means that all producers are going to have to compete that much harder. The drinking population of this country always will have its limits due to a variety of factors that inhibit some people from imbibing. So it seems to me that creativity is going to be the je ne sais quoi that sells products. This, of course, reverts to marketing, that mysteriously opaque religion which everyone professes to understand, but doesn’t.
Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)
After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”
Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.
After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”
And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:
- vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
- the market
- consumer preferences
- climate change/global warming
- Dijon clones
- longer hangtime
- super strains of yeast
- younger vines
- warmer fermentations
Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.
The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.
I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”
Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.
It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.
Brother Laube comes out swinging against In Pursuit of Balance, in the Sept. 30 issue of Wine Spectator. (Sorry, no link. The Spectator has one of the best firewalls in the business. No subscribe, no read.) I’d been wondering how long it would take him. After all, Jim is famous for giving high scores to ripe, plush wines that can be high in alcohol—which is exactly what IPOB is against. You might even say that IPOB is the anti-Laube (and anti-Parker) establishment. So Jim had to declare himself sooner or later. He’s a nice, modest man who doesn’t pick fights, but even shy folks fight back, if attacked enough.
This isn’t to say that Jim is merely defending his own reputation. For there is something fundamentally irrational about IPOB. Jim implies this when he says that IPOB “admittedly [is] unable to collectively arrive at a definition of balance,” which is true enough: Ask around, and you’ll find that the majority of wine critics, sommeliers and merchants believe that the rationale of IPOB is for wines to be under 14% alcohol by volume. But I’ve heard co-founder Raj Parr say, at an IPOB event, that that’s not at all what IPOB is about. So what is it? IPOB’s Manifesto defines “balance” in rather boilerplate language. It doesn’t say anything about alcohol levels, only that alcohol should “coexist” alongside fruit, acidity and structure “in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.” But there’s something tautological about that statement, not to mention deeply subjective. Which leads back to the question, What is IPOB really about?
Well, publicity, for sure. There’s some real marketing genius at work with IPOB, which in the few short years of its existence has become something of an insurrectionist force rather like, well, another 4-letter acronym group: ISIS. I Googled “In Pursuit of Balance” and came up with 155,000 hits, but that doesn’t even begin to measure the impact IPOB has had in sommelier circles from San Francisco to New York and beyond. IPOB has, in effect, gone viral.
Jim also referenced the “contentious relationship [that] has developed between somms and producers,” and I’m glad he did, for his voice carries weight. His message—to somms—is that if they don’t put certain wines on their lists just because of “a number” (alcohol percent), they do a disservice to their customers, who may prefer those kinds of wines. Somms, of course, are famous for not liking wine magazines and wine reviewers, who are threats to their existence: If all you need is a famous critic’s score, then somms would be out of a job. So joining forces with IPOB is, for a somm, a way of fighting back against a media elite they never much cared for anyway.
Be that as it may, this is not a quarrel among equals. For Wine Spectator’s senior columnist—one of the most powerful wine critics in America, if not the world—to throw down the gantlet to IPOB is a significant gesture. Jim has presented his case cogently and respectfully, and mostly without snark. (Well, “dim somms” wasn’t his invention, it was Helen Turley’s.) I think In Pursuit of Balance must reply to the rather serious charge that it fundamentally doesn’t know what it’s talking about.
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