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Big trouble in St.-Emilion


Interesting story in the Times about a brouhaha in St.-Emilion, where the decennial reclassification of Chateaux is in total disarray, the result of the hidebound bureaucracy that governs French wine law.

The French penchant for classifying wineries and regions has long been part of the allure of their wines. When I first learned about the Classification of 1855, I practically memorized the entire chart, and tore through Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s “The Wines of Bordeaux” in an effort to understand why Lafite was a First and Cos d’Estournel, just across the street, wasn’t.

Every once in a while, somebody tries to classify California wines. In the Eighties, somebody named Roy Andries De Groot proposed one. A couple years ago, Alder, at Vinography, reported on a fellow who classified California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends by winery. More recently, Lettie Teague, over at Food & Wine, wrote a thoughtful analysis and concluded (a little whimsically, I thought) that the best classification scheme for California would apply, not to wineries or vineyards, but to winemakers.

Let’s face it, there never will be an official classification in California of anything to do with wine. Nobody would tolerate it and nobody would accept it even if there was one. Can you imagine the fallout if, say, Harlan was declassified from a First to a Second (for whatever reason)? It would be the lawyers’ full employment act.

Anyway, I’m off to New York for the week for our annual summer meeting at Wine Enthusiast. We’ll be planning the 2009 editorial calendar, determining the nominees for our Wine Star Awards, touring the magazine’s brand new office building, and, oh yes, eating a lot of great food and drinking quantities of great wine!

It’s a good opportunity to see my fellow editors and catch up on what’s happening in their territories abroad. My favorite part of the week is when we all gather to pitch our nominations for the awards. There are 11 in all, including categories such as Wine Region of the Year, Winemaker of the Year, American Winery of the Year and Lifetime Achievement. Everybody usually has someone in mind for each category, and we get to defend our nominees and try to convince a majority to support us.

It’s also interesting to brainstorm the articles. Looking ahead is always precarious, and seems especially so now. Who knows what will happen in the year 2009? Earth-shattering events could overshadow the next trend in mixed drinks, and are likely to. The U.S. will have a new President (yay!) and the economy could seriously tank.

However, we have to soldier on, and the likelihood is that Americans will continue to enjoy their alcoholic beverages and there will be news to report and plenty of wines to review.

So it’s on to the The Big Apple for me. I’ll be back next Friday, Aug. 1.

P.S. Check out my new Wine Enthusiast blog, available Monday Aug. 28.

  1. Hey Steve,

    Pick me up some Bialys at Pick-a-Bagel ;>)

    If you can, check out Theresa’s Polish restaurant on 1st Ave near 5th or 6th street on the lower east side. If you feel adventurous, hit mom-and-pop places Greenpoint near Manhattan Ave and Nassau Ave.

  2. I’d bring you back some lox but I don’t know if the TSA would allow it.

  3. Larry the Wine Guy says:

    How could we possibly classify wine in CA when the supposed best CA wines are more the result of technology than vineyard specificity. Classifications in Europe were based on the singular uniquness of vineyard origin. Though the hand of man plays a role, the fact the a serious wine writer would suggest a classification based on the winemaker implies a complete mistunderstanding of the basis of great wine. I am fairly certain that RO, Mega Purple, Velcorin, were not a part of the winemaker’s craft in 1855.

  4. Larry’ you’re right. But that won’t stop some ambitious writer from trying to do it anyway. By the way, I do think there’s a stronger possibility of classifying vineyards (although I don’t recommend it) based on continued excellence over long periods of time. For example, Tokalon.

  5. Larry the Wine Guy says:

    Thanks you for the response. I agree that a system based on long term vineyard quality and individuality would be the best approach for a CA classification. That said, how would this system account for a winemaker that completely obscures a vineyard’s identity through amelioration in the winery?

  6. Well, the critics would point out that the winemaker is screwing up the vineyard’s potential. It’s happened in Bordeaux forever.

  7. Larry the Wine Guy says:

    Agreed yet the vineyard’s potential remains dormant and can re-emerge with the proper management. Man’s hand can definitely interfere with the vineyards indentity either through a lack of obssession for quality in viticulture or excessive input in the viniculture.

  8. Sometimes these “terroir vs. man’s hand” arguments remind me of the angels-dancing-on-pinheads debate of old. There is no correct answer, yet it keeps speculative minds (and wine writers) gainfully busy!

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