I gave a talk last night to the Sonoma County Wine Library on “what makes a wine book for the ages.” That’s a rather august topic, and it made me compose a list of the books in my own wine library (which is very substantial) that I have enjoyed a great deal. Here’s the list. As you can see, I prefer older books: newer ones seem more slapdash, and the writing certainly leaves something to be desired.
- Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury, 1934.
- Wines, Julian Street, 1948
- The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel, 1934
- Also their American Wines, 1941
- Hugh Jonhson’s Story of Wine, 1989
- The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen, 1932
- All of Harry Waugh’s Wine Diaries, 1960s-1970s-1980s
- The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, 1969
- ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon, 1942
- Drink, Andre Simon, 1953
- Gerald Asher’s Gourmet articles, reprinted in soft cover
- I came up on Bob Thompson’s “Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines” and Olken, Singer & Roby’s “Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines”
- Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits, 1981
- The World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson, 1977 edition
- Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson, 1977
- Wine Winemakers Dance: Exploring Terroir in Napa Valley, Swinchatt & Howell, 2004
- The Wines of America, Leon Adams, 1973
I’ve gotten so tired of geeks talking up the virtues of Riesling that it actually came as a relief when I read Jancis Robinson’s column on her blog yesterday in which she concedes she might “go to my grave” without the masses never properly appreciating the wine she has loved “for roughly 35 years.”
Riesling freaks have been telling us Americans for years that there’s something wrong with us for not loving Riesling. They say that we’re too bloated and superficial to appreciate a wine so subtle and pure as Riesling. They suggest that, if we prefer Chardonnay, we’re a bunch of heathens with no capacity for enjoying nuance.
Every time I read or hear someone like that, something inside me revolts. Of course, being the polite person I am, I don’t really reply. But Jancis’s column—and bless her for writing it—has enabled me to finally speak my mind on this overweaning tendency of the Riesling Drinkers towards arrogance and condescension.
I have had a lot of Riesling in my time, mainly German, often Alsatian and occasionally Australian, and certainly from California. Some of these have been everyday wines; some of them have been expensive. In fact, back in the 1980s, before I was a paid wine writer, I used to shop at the old Connoisseur’s Wines, on Bryant Street in San Francisco, which specialized in German wines. I knew the floor staff, and I still have labels in my tasting diary of some of the Rieslings I drank.
I never fell in love with it, is what I’m saying. Sure, I “got” it. It was usually off-dry, crisp in acidity and incredibly delicate. It often reminded me of water—not because it was bland, but because it was so light and pure and natural. Back then, I didn’t taste blind, so I was always looking for that “garden” quality Hugh Johnson spoke of, not to mention the petrol—and I usually found it. And I appreciated the acidity. I once went to a big tasting at Fort Mason of (I think it was) the 1991 vintage and tasted more than 100 young Rieslings. My gums haven’t been the same since.
So sure, I recognize Riesling’s greatness. It truly is one of the noble white wines of the world. But the reason I never fell head over heels in love with Riesling is precisely because of what Jancis says: It “just has too strong a personality to appeal to consumers to gain global attraction…unlike Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, it has a very powerful flavour…even when it is young…which some people are bound to dislike.”
Good for Jancis for her candid appraisal of reality. She’s the only widely-published wine writer I’ve ever heard admit that there could possibly be something troubling about Riesling. The rest of them sound like it’s the Second Coming, and only those with eyes to see and ears to hear will be admitted to Heaven.
Riesling does have a very powerful taste. People complain about Chardonnay being too much of this and that, but I’ve never had a great Chardonnay that wasn’t at the same time subtle. It’s hard to explain how a rich wine like Chardonnay can be subtle except to use my usual metaphor of certain people whose wardrobe and hair and underlying good bones make them look like a million dollars and yet they still are elegant. George Clooney, perhaps, or Denzel Washington (in the past I would have said Cary Grant). Riesling by contrast is one of those wines whose personality is so overwhelming that you either like it or you don’t.
I don’t want to pick on Riesling, though, so much as reflect on the attitude, among certain wine writers, that you have to be like them in order to appreciate it—and if you don’t, then you’re not like them, which means your taste is questionable. Isn’t this the very elitism we’re trying to get rid of? Besides, it’s important to ask the question, Why haven’t Americans embraced Riesling when all the “important” tastemakers have been ordering them to for years? Jancis once again tumbles into the truth when she quotes a senior U.S. representative of an important German estate to the effect that “sales of both domestic and imported Riesling are now falling and that ‘Riesling remains a one-customer-at-a-time proposition.’” Are the American people stupid for not buying Riesling? Are they just a bunch of yokels who don’t have the sophistication to understand what their betters recommend?
What’s the fastest way to make an asshole out of yourself in a restaurant? I was wondering because of some recent experiences, so I asked my Facebook friends, and as usual, they stepped up to the plate and offered up a potpourri of opinions which I am happy to share with you!
Send back the wine merely because you don’t like it.
Arrogance toward the staff.
Walk in like you own the place.
Snap your fingers at the server.
Light up a cigar and refuse to put it out saying……”this is a $100 cigar!!!”
Ask to speak to the Chef before your food has been served!!
Yell for service.
Take a line of my fav movie, The Jerk, “Hey waiter, you think in a fancy restaurant like this, you could keep the snails OFF the plate. And what’s with all this OLD wine, please go bring back something new, something from this year!”
Talk loudly on your phone.
Question a waiter about a dish and then show that you doubt he knows what he’s talking about (as in a long-ago date that I walked out on).
Pull down your pants and ask the server “what wine goes best with Wienerschnitzel?”
Quickest would be to ask to be moved from where they seat you three times. That’s instantaneous. Or maybe to just start insulting the hostess before you even get to that.
Anything that disrespects the restaurant staff.
Speak loudly on your cellphone while sitting alone at a table, without regard for your volume level.
Ask for a reasonably priced wine from their wine list.
Have no reservation, show up at 8 on the weekend and mispronounce the owner’s last name because he is a “dear friend”.
Ask in a loud voice, “what the fuck is the soup du jour?”
Because of course he’d give you a table…
Snapping your fingers to get service or refusing to take your ill-behaved children outside that are clearly too young to be there, so they can cool off and quit screaming.
Order Orange wine!
Send your food back because it’s too hot.
Ask for their finest white zin.
Tell the chef how to cook. That will get you in hot water quick!
take photos of everything including selfies of you with the waiter, chef, somm…
Talk about how good food, wine and service is at other restaurants.
Order something not on the menu.
Scrape your plate, and then complain that you did not like the food!
Rudeness towards an employee.
BUT…the biggest asshole(s) in a restaurant is the person, or persons who know full well the restaurant is closed, and yet they stay to absurdly late hours, keeping everyone else waiting there for them.
Asking for a red Château d’Yquem.
Leave a .02 cent tip.
Letting your kids run around like wild creatures in the restaurant instead of making them say in their seats (not bringing them something to do to keep them occupied also makes you bad) and then looking at your kids and smiling like everyone should also love them too when in actuality everyone is plotting the demise of them & your family (and I am a mom!). Also allowing them to scream like it’s some cute thing they do. It’s not.
Walk out of the restroom with your skirt tucked in your panties.
Ask for ice in your wine.
Be a loudmouth name dropper, take every call on your non-muted ringer, and also incessantly talk about the legs of the wine.
or wear a Dodger hat, anywhere outside of L.A.
Act like your customers are a dime a dozen.
Declare yourself and your friends “foodies who have eaten at the best restaurants on the planet”. Then say that you’re allergic to everything.
Loud bitching and moaning.
[This is Steve] I’m sure that none of my readers has ever committed any of these faux pas! I certainly haven’t!
“A shift in the consumer base,” fueled by “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles”: that’s what Rabobank, one of the the nation’s biggest lenders to wineries, is talking about, in their latest report on the wine industry.
And when Rabobank talks, wineries listen. Every winery in the country—certainly every winery I know in California—is obsessed with predicting the future, for if there is indeed “a new wave…in global wine styles,” wineries want to know about it. What is this “new wave”? What is the shift going to consist of? Most importantly, what new “wine styles” are consumers going to be looking for?
To begin to understand the future, it’s necessary to know the past, for nothing happens without lots of things that have already happened making it happen. So let’s take a look at the past, to see if it helps us comprehend the future.
We know what “wine styles” the consumer likes now, for the consumer votes with his wallet. You might loosely call it “Californian.” People like ripe, fruity wines, red and white. They like varietal wines (notwithstanding this current gaga about red blends). And, here in America, they like wines from California.
But it hasn’t always been so. The last time there was a true “shift in wine styles” was more than a generation ago. That’s when Americans started drinking more dry wine than sweet (those silly Sauternes and Rhine wines). It’s also when they decided that varietal wines were more upscale. Since California led the nation in the production of dry varietal wines, it’s no wonder that consumers gravitated toward California wine.
Let’s go further back in history. Before the era I just described (some call it the boutique winery era), America had been mired, for another 30 or 40 years, in that sweet wine era (if they drank wine at all, which not many did). Prohibition was, of course, the dead hand that had interrupted the country’s vinous progression. So what was happening before that? Again, not many people drank wine—but those who did drank good wine, from Europe and from California. It may not have had varietal names, but in many cases it was made from proper vitis vinifera varieties.
So we’re had three distinct eras since the 19th century: one, when a few Americans drank good wine; a second, when more Americans drank bad wine; and a third, the current, when lots of Americans are drinking good wine again, mostly from California, but in reality from all over the world. So if we’re in for a global shift in wine styles, what could it be?
Well, first, the timing is right: America seems to change its preferences every 30 o4 40 years, so, if you date the current era to the boutiques of the 1960s, we’re ripe for a change, maybe even a little overdue. If things do change, then today’s preference—remember, it’s for ripe, fruity wines from California—will have to change to something else. But what could that be?
We’re not going back to a liking for sweet wines, believe me (although a great off-dry Riesling, a sweet late harvest white wine or a red Port are earthly delights!). Therefore, consumer preference is likely to remain with dry wines. What, then, about fruitiness? I can’t see that changing either, for at least three reasons: one, fruitiness is an ingrained taste: not only humans like fruitiness, but birds and animals, too. Two, the world palate has shifted away from lean, angular wines to riper, rounder wines, and no matter how many articles get written about the low alcohol fad, that’s not going to change. Third, if we are indeed in a time of global warming (as indeed the Bordelais themselves believe, and as seems to be an increasingly credible belief in Napa Valley), then it will be awfully hard to produce wines of the type of old-style Bordeaux, when alcohol levels barely exceeded 12 percent, tannins were gigantic, and the wines took decades to come around.
So what options do we have? Precious few. Dry, fruity wines are what seems likely to remain. Of course, we could turn away from wine altogether: America could become a cocktail drinking country, a beer drinking country, or—heaven forbid!—a dry country. But none of those options is likely. Wine has been at the center of western culture for millennia; it’s now becoming so in Asian culture; wine is not going anywhere.
So the Rabobank prediction has to be taken with a certain latitude. There won’t be any major “new wave of innovation on wine style.” That’s bank-study language: the people who write this stuff have to come up with sexy sound bites in order to make headlines. What’s more likely is that the trend of the last three-plus centuries will continue. The world’s love of noble varieties—Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah—will continue, despite short-term shifts, every few decades, in the particulars. A few oddballs will succeed at the margins—Muscat is the classic example—but they don’t have staying power. The major varieties Americans love won’t change. Zinfandel will go in and out of style, as the press dictates—but the great producers always will be in demand among the cognoscenti. Beyond that, I just can’t see any huge new intrusions of other varieties.
It looks to me like, far from Rabobank’s prediction of “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles,” we’re looking at a continuation of what is. What will determine who makes it, and who doesn’t, isn’t so much a question of style, as of marketing, communications, consistency, value, consumer engagement, distribution, success in direct-to-consumer, sales expertise—in other words, the fundamentals of good business practice. There is, indeed, “a new wave of innovation,” but it’s not a stylistic one, it’s innovation in the way wineries interact with, and respect, the consumer.
Like King Arthur seeking the Holy Grail, wine marketers turn a covetuous eye toward Millennials, or Gen Y, as the answer to their (sales) prayers. Nothing surprising about that—marketing people always are looking to attract buyers–but what’s downright bizarre is that many of them are changing their previous marketing message, in some cases radically, in order to get across to a generation that’s poorer and less influenced by branding than their parents.
The latest to do so are the Bordelais, who are “targeting younger generations of UK wine lovers” with “affordable whites from the region” that “aren’t expensive” and so are “perfect for the younger consumers.”
Bordeaux promoting itself as the affordable alternative? “Perfect for the younger consumers?” Sacre bleu, what is the world coming to?
Granted, the pitch is for white Bordeaux, not the red classified growths. Still, it’s kind of the opposite of Bordeaux’s message for, what? the last 250 years: The home of some of the world’s classiest and most expensive wines, with iconic names like Margaux and Lafite, and the fabulous garagistes of the Right Bank.
What’s going on?
Several things are obvious. Younger consumers don’t have the spending money their parents and grandparents had—and they may never, which puts traditional Bordeaux beyond their financial reach. Beyond that, they tend not to care about wines “Grandpa drank.” Bordeaux, to Millennials, is stodgy, old-fashioned, even boring: they may have heard of it, they way they’ve heard of Clark Gable, but it’s just not something they’re interested in.
The Bordelais marketers fully understand this, of course, and have been looking for ways to continue their success over the centuries. For a while, it looked like the Chinese were the answer to their prayers, but if my reading of the media is correct, that market is plagued with internal difficulties (fickle consumers, counterfeit bottles, China’s own burgeoning domestic production), so China can’t be relied upon for the long haul. Hence Bordeaux’s curiosity with Gen Y.
I don’t think Bordeaux has ever reached out to younger consumers in quite this manner. It represents an abrupt volte-face for a region that’s generally been steady as she goes for generations. As I wrote here seven months ago, “Why not try to interest ‘the younger generation’ in Depends© “ Okay, that’s a bit snarky, but it does get the point across that Bordeaux has their work cut out for them.
A little more than a year ago, the marketing director for the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux gave some “Advice for Connecting MIllennials to Legacy Brands,” among which category he included Bordeaux wine. He asked the all-important question, “How does [Bordeaux] remain relevant and accessible to today’s consumer?” His advice will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, or to anyone familiar with the social media landscape:
- Keep it digital–but also real
- Make it personal
- Bring them the world (e.g. through visuals and mobile apps)
Nobody could argue with this approach: it’s standard operating procedure for every company in the world nowadays that hopes to survive. But what the marketing guy did not suggest was positioning Bordeaux as “affordable” and “inexpensive.”
The marketing director concluded, “The lesson for all legacy brands is we don’t need to change the elements of our identities that give us authenticity and personality to connect with Millennials–but we must demonstrate how we fit into our target’s twenty-first century lifestyle.”
That’s all well and good, but what I don’t understand is how Bordeaux’s single greatest and most valuable identity for hundreds of years—luxury, if you can afford it—now is supposed to morph into “affordable.” Mind you, I’m not saying anything about the quality of under-$20 Bordeaux Blanc or Entre-Deux-Mars or similar wines. I’m sure there are many fine ones out there. What I am saying, though, is that there has to be a reason why a Millennial (or anyone else) would pay for such a wine—how it’s supposed to “fit into” their lifestyle.” I wish the Bordealais well in this, their latest, roller coaster ride.
Call it island fever. No blog today! Back tomorrow.