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Tastemakers are ready for a return to classicism



You can’t really blame the famous Napa Valley wineries that came of age in the 1970s for running out of steam a little bit by now. The problem, to the extent there is one and I think there obviously has been, is that American wine writers and sommeliers (a group included in the larger group of “tastemakers”) tend to be a fickle bunch. Writers, especially, suffer from “what’s new?” syndrome: Witness the obsession verging on mania of all those “rising stars” and “wineries to watch” articles in the wine press. As a former member of that establishment, I can tell you that the pressure on “what’s new?”– from editors and publishers and your fellow writers–is tremendous. There’s little in it for the hard-working wine writer to remind the public that a forty-year old Napa Valley winery is producing fantastic wines. Nobody wants to hear it. They want to hear about the sexy newcomer who just got 100 points from [fill in the blank].

This is the truth, but it isn’t entirely the fault of the people who are paid to market and promote these wineries. They’re fighting an uphill battle. Our throwaway culture wants youth, not longevity—ask any Hollywood actress over 40 (except Meryl Streep). One day, you’re 22-year old Winona Ryder, garnering wows for The Age of Innocence and Little Women. The next, you’re in your forties and doing Frankenweenie.

It’s sad and pathetic—tragic, even—but, like Tony Soprano always said, What you gonna do? There are two important take-homes here: One concerns how those 40-something year-old Napa wineries stay relevant in the second decade of the 21st century. The other is, How does a young modern winery plan to stay relevant in 2050?

To stay relevant, the older wineries have to be smart. Just as people of a certain age (me included) understand that, to keep the weight off and stay trim, you have to burn more calories than ever (because your metabolism slows down), so too the older winery needs to step up the pace. But that doesn’t necessarily mean working harder: It means being more intelligent and efficient. To continue my analogy, it doesn’t mean the older person has to stay on the treadmill twice as long (although it could), it also means she has to be more careful about the food she eats. When you’re twenty you burn off that double bacon cheeseburger in five seconds; when you’re older, it’s “from the lips to the hips.”

In the same way, the older winery has to work smarter. If that means learning about social media, even if they think it’s stupid, so be it. But it could also mean taking a long, hard, honest look at your wines and asking yourself if they’re really what people want to drink these days. If you’re convinced they are, then say so! Loud and proud.

The younger winery that’s planning to be around in 30 years also needs a game plan. Staying lean, limber and quick isn’t all that hard if you’re already lean, limber and quick. But it’s really hard when you’ve become bloated and lazy. If I was 28 and running my own winery, I like to think I’d know how to keep the ball rolling. Work on DTC. Be out there on the road, meeting consumers, accounts and tastemakers. Do social media. Connect, connect, connect. Taste widely and often. And please, understand history!!!

So what do I mean by the headline, “A return to classicism”? I truly think that in our world of wine the OCD of “new new new” is shifting as people realize that what’s “new” isn’t necessarily better. Not that there’s anything wrong with a new winery—not saying that! But we mustn’t get so mesmerized by these new cult wineries that we throw the baby out with the bathwater and relegate older wineries to some kind of netherworld populated only by your grandfather’s ghost. The truth is—and it bears repeating again and again—what has long been great is worth everybody’s attention. Wine has been the greatest beverage in history because it is the only one (beer and spirits included) that can follow the arc of greatness over centuries down to the individual winery level. Indeed, this is why Europe has Grand Crus. Well, guess what? So does California, albeit in a shrunken time span. If you’re a younger wine drinker, a younger somm or blogger, whatever, you owe it to yourself to understand the classic wines of California—and you owe it, not just to yourself, but to your customers and clients and, indeed, to the history and soul of wine itself.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Family wineries that arose 40 years ago have another problem: succession.

    The founding parents’ dream to plant a vineyard and make “a little” wine may not be shared by the scions — who coming of age sought their own identities and destinies.

    Now the parents are at retirement age.

    Is there a next generation to take the helm?

    That intergenerational transfer of control and family wealth is the basis for investor Charles Banks’s estimate that “between 30 to 50 percent of California wineries are either in financial difficulty or aren’t as profitable as they could be.” And a sale is their exit strategy.


    That same parental generation may be benignly ignorant of social media marketing.

  2. Great post. But consumers also owe it to themselves to understand the classic wines of Washington state. Some of our wineries have been around long enough to stand the test of time too.

  3. Boat Drinker says:

    A bit of a narrow view of what can be defined as classic, no? I suppose you speak to American classics.

    Often the “new, new, new” to which many (though maybe not you) refer, isn’t actually new at all. Wines from the Loire, Languedoc, Sicily, and many others… are often times characterized as the latest fad, or trendy, when the reality of it is they have been around for an incredibly long time. Just because the average wine drinker has not been exposed to a wine does not mean that it should be dismissed out of hand as trendy or looked upon with derision.

    I hate myself for going here, given the horse has already been buried, but I’d also wager the core of the argument for what has been dubbed “lower” alcohol wines belongs under the heading “A return to classicism”. I’m not referring to the lunatic fringe, nor challenging their mirror image….

    Sorry about that.

    I think I get what your saying to people – don’t forget Jordan on the way to the Dirty & Rowdy tasting room. I don’t think that is a bad message, but people should be encouraged to keep their minds (and palates) open. It is a big, big world out there, and if you are a curious drinker you can find yourself stumbling onto wonderful new discoveries, many of which are actually classics!

  4. redmond barry says:

    When decent Cabs start at $40 there’s a problem somewhere. I’m assuming this topic did not come out of nowhere and there’s news brewing about some famous family winery.

  5. The great Herbie Hancock once said that the reason he stays relevant is because he is constantly re-inventing himself.

  6. About 3″ of rain so far today. My 2,000 vines will like that. Gives me hope we will produce our normal 250 or 300 cases this year. Shall I consider a return to classicism? No, I think I will just make it the way I learned. If it keeps raining and I can’t go down to the vineyard tomorrow, maybe I will once again try to do a Tweet or attend to Facebook.

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