It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.
According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.
The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.
“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines. The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern). That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”
I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.
My commenter also wrote: “there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars. Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”
The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.
So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?
It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”
As reluctant as I am to enter the minefield of any discussion about “natural wine,” I’m going to do so, because I have views on the topic, and because Jamie Goode just won a Wine Bloggers Award and if he can opine on the subject, so can I!
Jamie supported natural wine rather obliquely the other day on his blog. He didn’t quite come out and praise natural wine in multi-faceted specifics so much as give a face smack to another writer, Bruce Palling, who it seems had the temerity to criticize natural wine. Palling called the product of natural winemaking techniques “undrinkable rubbish,” a characterization Jamie took issue with, and he (Palling) also said wine writers have “a tendency…to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it [i.e., natural wine] they believe to be undrinkable…”.
Jamie shot that statement down, too, although it’s funny that in his article he manages to avoid any definition of “natural wine”; in fact at one point he writes, “Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’ because that’s a sideshow.” I don’t see how defining the term to which we’re referring is “a sideshow” because, after all, if we don’t know what we’re talking about, then we shouldn’t be talking about it, should we? But for Jamie, the importance of defining the term “natural wine” is insignificant, compared to the “truly great” nature of “some natural wines”; people who don’t “get” these wines don’t have “the energy or inclination” to try them because they’re “slightly smug,” which is what he accuses Palling of being.
Well, talk about “slightly smug”! I do agree with Palling on the “head down for a quiet life” thing: there are certain topics most wine writers approach with trepidation, because these topics are complicated, controversial and ill-defined; they thus are the source of major risks (to one’s reputation; to one’s mental state; who wants to be attacked on the twittersphere over such perilous issues?). “Natural wines” is such a topic; there are others for which the philosophy “Life’s too short” apply. What is natural wine? What is sustainably-made wine? What is biodynamic wine, organic wine, green wine? I now have some knowledge of what “sustainable” means due to my job, because Jackson Family Wines is committed to sustainability and so I have caused myself to study it more closely.
But “natural wine”? I have no more idea what it really is than does Jamie. I do admit to having a sense that the whole concept is slightly muddled; there can be a cultish aspect to it, as there can about anything arcane, in which a few people believe passionately and the rest of us worry that we may be missing out on something vital. But in this case I’m not really worried. My attitude toward natural wine is the same as my attitude toward religion: You’re free to believe anything you want, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it.
Besides, I part ways with Jamie when he implies that the only “vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting” these days is coming from the natural wine camp. That is just not true. It reminds me of the old saying “to go native,” which came from British colonial officials, living in conquered places like India, who under the influence of local conditions take on the sympathetic airs of natives, gradually losing their British ways. Or perhaps “Stockholm syndrome” is more apt: hang out long enough with radicals and you might eventually find yourself rather liking them, enough so that their beliefs start to make sense.
Anyhow, I don’t trust the claims of “minimal chemical and technological intervention” made on behalf of natural wine. No winemaker I’ve ever met claims to be in favor of “maximum” chemical and technological intervention. They all talk about hands-off approaches. It’s the first thing a winemaker says when you ask about their winemaking philosophy. But if natural wine consists of, in part, the following: no commercial yeast, no adjustment for acidity, no added sulfites, no fining or filtration (which can lead to instability), can it be any wonder that, every now and then, one runs across natural wines that taste (in Palling’s words) “like putrid apple cider, stale sherry or just as bad – characterless, bland and acidic.” We’ve all had “natural” wines out there that are that bad; one hesitates to mention names (another reason to keep one’s head down in such politically-charged waters is to avoid personal antagonisms), but I could name multiple critics and somms who agree with what I just wrote (and will name names off the record), even if they’re not ready to say so publicly.
So I’m not advocating making natural wines illegal or anything like that. I am saying that sometimes in this modern world, ideology can capture even the most well-meaning wine critic in its grip; and ideology is never a good thing, is it, because it insists that one way, and one way only, is the approved way, and everything else is false. As Palling writes, referring to the D-Day invasion of Europe that spelled the doom of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, “it personally pains me when anyone tries to force their opinions or taste onto me or anyone else. That, after all, is what thousands of people laid down their lives to prevent, on those beaches in Normandy, precisely 70 years ago.”
Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?
That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?
I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.
It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.
I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”
This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.
Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.
Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.
I’m a wine magazine guy—a product of that environment. I put 25 years of my life into writing about and reviewing wines for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. I did pretty well, so I think I can say I “get” the culture. I was there in the 1980s, and I was there until earlier this year. What I’m about to point out, therefore, is based on experience, on a keen understanding of where wine magazines are at today, and on love.
First, what wine magazines are doing right. Their publishers and editors might regret it, but I think we can all agree that the primary focus of a wine magazine—from the public’s point of view, anyway—is the wine review. When all is said and done, it’s the reviews that people turn to first. And today’s consumer wine magazines continue to do a great job at it. Critics are, for the most part, honorable and sincere, and they pride themselves on being fearlessly independent of the advertising side of their companies. This independence is a credit to them, and to their publishers, who must occasionally cringe when an advertiser gets a lousy review. So a big thumbs up to magazines and critics for a job well done.
Now, I have to get onto what wine magazines could do better. I’m talking about what the trade calls the editorial side: the articles. If the reviews are the nervous system of the magazine, the articles are the flesh. They fill the pages; they provide the content (to use the word currently popular). The articles are what publishers and editors hope the public will actually read, after they’ve finished scrutinizing the reviews. But here, IMHO, wine magazines are letting the public down. Things could simply be better.
Twenty five and thirty years ago, the nascent American wine magazine was the most exciting thing a budding wine lover could lay his hands on. (Well, almost ; >) Wine writers, like consumers, were busily and happily discovering wine. Their articles brimmed with the joy of discovery, excitement and passion. There was a sense of shared adventure: writers invited readers to come along with them on the voyage, and readers eagerly participated.
We writers were young then, and our brains were ablaze. I remember my first winery profile. My first winemaker Q&A. My first interview with a collector, my first regional piece, my first wine-and-food pairing story, my first vintage report. And my first published review! It was like having sex for the first time. I was super-jazzed to write it all, and was able to transmute my joy into the written word, thanks to a God-given talent I was born with. So were the other writers with whom I was contemporaneous. Together, we invented a new type of wine writing. It was distinctly American: not too high-brow, but serious, enthusiastic, without guile or malice (common then in Europe), sincere, sunny, chatty. The world had never seen wine writing like that.
Most of the magazines of that era are still around; the wine magazine has proven to be (to quote Woody Allen) a resilient little muscle. For that, we may be thankful.
Do you ever get the feeling, when you read an article in a wine magazine, that you’ve read the same article 25 times before in the same magazine? Sure, the names and places may change, but the template is the same. You see the same “Vintage Report on California Zinfandel” (or whatever) repeated every few years, with the same predictable phrases (“a new, more balanced style”) as you read in the magazine’s 2009, 2005 or 1999 articles. The same routine lists of “winemakers to watch” who turn out to be, in many cases, winemakers who weren’t worth watching; but the wine writer is expected to turn these articles out every year or so. Ditto for regional pieces and the entire gamut of topics the wine writer is expected to cover.
When I read today’s wine magazines—and I read most of them regularly—I can’t help feeling a sense of ennui, of déja vu. I think I know the reason: today’s senior wine writers have been writing the same stuff for 20 years or more. They’re in their 50s and 60s now; it’s hard for them to conjure up the same sense of wonder they felt in 1994. They try their best, but they’re only human; the heart sinks when it realizes it has to write yet another “pairing wine with food at the Thanksgiving table”column for the zillionth time.
The American wine magazine is in a rut, but the way forward (or out) isn’t readily apparent. I think wine magazines have to come up with new ways of writing about wine that are inspired by social media: they have to be more transparent, more participatory, and more human. What do I mean by that? I mean that the writers can no longer be a distant, aloof “voice of God.” Readers don’t want that anymore, especially younger ones. They don’t want to be talked down to, they want to be invited to join a conversation.
This is difficult when we’re dealing with the printed page. One might suggest that’s why print is in trouble—because it cannot be immediate and participatory, due to the nature of the publication process. Yet I would argue that this isn’t a fundamental weakness of print magazines, but a fundamental challenge: wine magazines need to take their authority and use it to overcome the temptations of utter predictability and repetiveness.
One thing that can to done to make wine magazines more relevant is for younger writers to come onboard, and this is, of course, happening even as we speak. But just because a writer is younger doesn’t protect her from falling into the same old templates that older writers have been practicing for decades. After all, younger wine writers shouldn’t strive to be mere iterations of older wine writers. They should develop their own styles, even if that means challenging assumptions at the magazines that hired them. The problem with that is that the younger wine writer is usually low man (or woman) on the totem pole, and also is answerable to publishers who are as old as, if not older than, their longtime writers. Thus, the younger writers may not feel emboldened enough to shake things up—and the wine magazine remains in the doldrums.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but as I began this post, let me repeat that I’m a child of the wine magazine. I love wine magazines, I believe they play an incredibly important role in educating the public, and I believe they’ll be around for a long time. I just think that some re-imagining and reinvention are in order if they’re to remain relevant.
I’ve been watching developments for the last few months concerning these new .wine and .vin Internet domain names. Not closely, just sort of casually. I knew there was some controversy about them, but I wanted to keep an open mind, and besides, who has the time nowadays to research every complicated issue of social, economic or technological policy?
So it was that yesterday’s big article (by my old friend Chris Rauber) in the San Francisco Business Times really grabbed my attention.
“Noted wine regions, including Napa and Sonoma, protest new .wine Internet domain names,” the headline screamed. In addition to the Napa Valley Vintners and Sonoma County Vintners, those opposed to the proposed domain names include the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association and—in other states—the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, the Walla Walla Wine Alliance, and even the Long Island Wine Council.
Pretty impressive lineup. These are power players. I know the California regional associations quite well from my many years of rubbing elbows with them; with the power of their member wineries behind them, they possess clout. And they’ve been joined in their opposition by some powerful Congressional representatives: Mike Thompson (one of the senior Democrats in the House) and Anna Eshoo.
I can’t remember a time when so many regional associations joined forces publicly in opposition (or in support of, for that matter) a pending issue. So I figured I ought to look a little more deeply into what’s going on.
At first blush it makes sense to carve out .wine and/or .vin domain names. We all know the Internet is running out of domains and has been for years.
This is why ICANN, the corporation in charge of domain names, added additional ones to the more familiar .com, .org, .gov, .edu and .net—because “the internet—or .com at least—is running out of space. So many names on .com are taken that people and businesses have to struggle to find a suitable one.”
Enter .wine and .vin.
Two years ago, ICANN, in response to the problem, announced it would accept applications for additional domain names. It got nearly 2,000, many of them contested. ICANN decided to auction off the non-trademarked domain names to the highest bidders; the first auction was a year ago, and brought in over $9 million, through the sale of such domains as .club, .college and .luxury.
So what’s the problem with .wine and/or .vin? After all, even the U.S. government approves of the auction plan, which, after all, is an expression of classic free market principles. Last March, an agency of the Commerce Department declared that “ICANN is uniquely positioned…to develop the transition plan” toward a new set of domain names. Although the department urged ICANN “to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal” for the transition—an encouragement to compromise and conciliation—the wine associations aren’t buying it.
Rauber writes: They “contend that ICANN’s plan includes ‘non-existent to grossly insufficient safeguards from illegitimate companies’ hijacking their names, histories and legacies. They claim ‘unscrupulous’ bidders could grab web names such as napavalley.wine or wallawalla.wine and in effect hold them hostage.” A spokesman for the Napa Valley Vintners told Rauber, “[H]is organization fears the proposal would ‘provide a new playground for nefarious actors to poach the place names of famous wine regions around the world.’”
These are serious and legitimate concerns. Nobody wants to see a situation wherein some for-profit wine company buys the rights to, say, “napacabernet.wine”, thus misrepresenting itself and its association with venerable Napa Valley. Napa “has had our name ripped off” before, the Napa Vintners spokesman said (most of us remember when and by whom that was!) and isn’t about to let it happen again.
You’d think that ICANN and other legal entities could address the concerns of those opposed by building in rights and protections for stakeholders, and that’s exactly what ICANN has proposed to do. They’ve created a “Legal Rights Objections (LRO)” mechanism by which disputes can be resolved when someone objects to “a third party’s application for a new TLD [top-level domain].” Negotiation is more or less normal operating procedure in our era of contention and litigiousness, but the wine region associations remain unconvinced, and certainly they have a point when they fear they’ll be forced to spend a whole lot of money, either on lawyers or on buying back the rights to names they want.
This is a sticky one, and I have to admit I’m not sure which side I come down on. What do you think? Should .wine and .vin be up for sale to the highest bidder?
Yahoo News says that four factors in China are driving “a soaring number of consumers” to drink wine.
- more affordable prices
- globalized palates
- younger demographics
Assuming this is true (and it appears to be), I thought it would be interesting to see how these same four factors are playing out in America.
More affordable prices. We certainly see a plethora of affordable wines for sale here. The Yahoo article doesn’t define “more affordable,” but let’s say that in the U.S., that would be $15 or less per bottle. There’s a ton of wines in that price range available here, so we’re even with the Chinese on that.
Globalized palates. Again, no definition, but one has to assume this means that the Chinese like the same flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and so on, as we do. Since these wine varieties are widely available on the international market, including here in the States, that makes us again even with the Chinese.
Younger demographics. The article refers to “urban, educated Chinese consumers in their 20s and 30s” who are driving the soaring sales. Well, we have people like that, too, but from what I hear, a lot of them are preferring liquor and beer to wine these days, so that may be keeping our own consumption down.
E-commerce. As I blogged the other day, e-commerce is indeed becoming “the distribution model of choice” in China, although it’s not entirely clear to me why this should be helping to fuel increased demand there. In my previous post, I interpreted e-commerce as meaning a business-to-business model. The Yahoo interpretation is much broader than that, and includes consumers buying wine directly from the Internet, rather than from brick-and-mortar places, both on-premise and off-premise. We certainly see direct-to-consumer sales via the Internet in this country, but it doesn’t seem to be contributing to greatly increased consumption. According to Wine Institute, our per capita has held pretty steady, with total wine consumption per resident per year being 2.4 gallons in 2006 and rising only to 2.73 gallons in 2012.
I think wine hit China with such drama and uniqueness in the last five years that it was bound to excite consumers, especially younger ones with a little extra money to spend. It reminds me of the atmosphere in America (or, at least, in the coastal cities) in the 1970s and 1980s, when wine really was the most exciting alcoholic beverage. It was the zeitgeist in America that fueled wine’s meteoric rise, but zeitgeists change. Right now, wine is in that same position in China, so it’s not surprising that these western-oriented, educated urban drinkers are buying and liking it. They want to feel, and be perceived as, smart, tasteful members of global society, and wine is one of the best portals to enter that rank.
The funny thing about China is that is changes the way we view ourselves in America. For my entire career, it’s been apropos to describe America as a young wine drinking country. But how can we continue to say that, now that an even younger wine drinking country is out there? On the other hand, we’re not an old wine drinking country, like France, Italy or Spain. I guess that makes the U.S. a young-to-middle aged wine drinking country. We now have several generations of wine lovers—starting with my own Baby Boom generation and extending through Gen X and Millennials—each of which has discovered wine and, in the process of interpreting it for themselves, ended up reinventing it. The same will happen in China, and faster than it occurred here, because everything happens faster these days.