Monday, August 18, 2008

Boxes (I just can't get enough)

Another perfect storm of media awareness has brought my attention to something that has long been in the back of my head somewhere . . . boxed wine. The NYT reported that Italy will begin allowing DOC wines to be sold in boxes and this weekend Dr. Vino also contributed an article to the Times extolling the virtues (mostly environmental and economical) of boxed wine. And in a rare moment of clairvoyance I also brought up the subject last week with my WBW roots post about "wine stands". Granted, I was speaking of Franzia which not only is this not Real Wine I'm not even sure it's real Industrialized wine. But whatever, it's all a part of the public consciousness. The salient point is this: I love boxes. For all the reasons Mr. Coleman mentions--lower carbon footprints, lower prices, ability to keep a "house wine" around for longer which is also about lower prices--but also because it fits nicely with my philosophy of wine as a food, or with food all the time. Boxed wine is a homerun concept for me, but I haven't actually purchased a box in many years. Because despite the emerging media attention and the increasing number of manufactures there are still few options on the market, and almost none that aren't bullshit. You can see a list at the BoxedWine blog site. So before I get in bed enthusiastically w/ this box trend I have a few suggestions.

  1. The wine has to be good. By good the mainstream media means comparable in taste and quality w/ what is offered in a similar bottle, meaning most boxed wine is typical, industrialized, super-market style stuff. Dark, soft, inky Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz and blends from Spain and Southern France that are usually flavored w/ oak. Or oaky Chardonnay or watery Pinot Grigio. I think the focus should be on wines or grape varieties that are versatile w/ food and take to a chilling well such as Gamay, Schiava, Bardolino, and Zweigelt. The options for white are endless but I think oak ageing requires some bottle ageing too so don't put those guys in a box.
  2. The wine has to take to chilling because of storage. I would never encourage someone to keep their reds stored on top of the fridge or in a kitchen cabinet, espcially once they're already open. And since there's not a lot of wine fridges w/ built in box holders (and most of us don't have that $ anyway) you've got to keep the box in the fridge.
  3. If we're going to be "green" in packaging and shipping than we should do it all the way. Use recycled materials and sustainable agriculture. Better yet let's get some natural wines into boxes. If Joe D. is listening how about some boxed Muscadet or Loire Gamay from Marc Ollivier et. al.? Most Real Wine doesn't require a cork.
  4. Even better still would be good, natural, local wines in boxes. For me that means a North Fork Cabernet Franc or Chenin or Sauvignon Blanc. I'm going to lobby the Long Island wine community for a good, inexpensive boxed wine made responsibly and available only in the Greater NY area. You do the same in your hood and soon we will save the world.
The picture is of Gertrude Stein, who by all acounts also loved boxes, the photographer is Carl Van Vechten.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wine Blogging Wednesday

I don't usually participate in this, but the guy who started it seems nice and it's the anniversary and besides it was easy for me. Just use the picture from the post below. No, that's not me, but it could have been about 7 or8 years ago (except probably not with the puffy jacket). We called it a "wine-stand" and when you got close to the end you had to pull the bag out of the box and squeeze it like it was a sheep's bladder or something. Usually we had the red stuff but sometimes it was the pink--oh that cold, sweet pink stuff. I'm not going to try it again. Not out of snobbery but time and I can't really waste money these days. There you go, WBW drink your heart out.

And the picture came from this blog.

But What's Wrong With Wine Snobbery?

I'll tell you. But first let's pretend you and I are out on a deck on a summer night somewhere in the vast sections of North America where you can still see stars and you ask me "is it wrong to wish on space hardware?" What the hell are you talking about? Except I know what you're talking about, we have a shared cultural experience and are connecting through it. In a limited sense we are spending Cultural Capital. This is a theory, or rather set of theories used in Sociology to explain how people use knowledge and life experience much like currency to advance themselves. Pierre Bourdieu is credited w/ introducing this concept (which was introduced to me by a sociologist friend, Sam) and you can do your own research if you want to learn more, I don't have the time or space to do so here. But it is an interesting framework for discussing many current cultural topics. It could help explain, for instance, why Barack Obama has been easily portrayed as elitist, effete and out-of-touch with the average American by the McCain Campaign. This seems counter intuitive since Obama grew up w/ a solidly middle class, single mother who was a student and academic and he only began to make serious money in the last decade after his books were published. McCain is the son of an Admiral and his second marriage to the heiress of the 3rd largest beer distribution company in the U.S. puts him squarely in the domain of the super-wealthy. But although Obama's education and life experience have worked like currency to help him advance to a Presidential nominee, they don't count when dealing with the working class of much of the middle U.S. But enough politics, cultural capital also applies to wine.

A cursory knowledge of wine has long been considered a sign of culture and class among the members of the Landed Gentry or social elite. In hoping to become accepted by these small social circles the wealthy along with the literati or intelligentsia (academics) have long sought to increase their cultural capital by learning as much as possible about fine dining and beverages. Often they over-compensate for humble backgrounds by knowing more than there noble hosts about said dish or wine or brandy etc. I know this description seems anachronistic, like a period film set in a 1930's British Estate or something, but the basic premise remains intact. In some places and cultural settings knowing something about wine is valued while in many others it is not. So what's the problem? A few people learn a lot about wine and are passionate about it, while most others not only don't understand wine, they don't understand why anyone should want to: they don't care. Except there are lots of people these days who do care, who are interested but are intimidated by the levels of specialization and sophistication that are often displayed by the "wine elites". This is where snobbery hurts.

A snob is not, as some have suggested, simply a person who cares about what they eat, drink, watch etc. I think most people have opinions about what they eat and drink and how the spend their free time. Their likes may be different than yours, but not worse. So a snob is, to borrow from the online dictionary, "a person who believes himself or herself an expert or connoisseur in a given field and is condescending toward or disdainful of those who hold other opinions or have different tastes regarding this field: a musical snob. " I think most of us can immediately sense when some feels superior to us because of their knowledge in a particular field and it is, quite simply, off-putting. When dealing with wine this leads many who would otherwise be willing and interested participants to become defensive and engage in so called "reverse snobbery". It's a vicious cycle and it does no one any good. If your whole sense of self-worth is based on knowing more about something (wine) than others that's fine, enjoy your life of constant doubt. But for the rest of us we should attempt to share our knowledge with others in a friendly, non-hierarchical manner realizing that everyone knows more about something than we do. We all have acquired some cultural capital that's worth sharing rather than spending.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Don't Take Anything Too Seriously . . .

Ever. Don't take yourself too seriously, don't take others too seriously, don't take me too seriously. Don't take anything too seriously, I mean it, I'm serious. Ciao.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Wine Judgments . . . Who Cares?

Since two movies are being released about the famous Judgment of Paris (Bottle Shock, and another based on George Taber's Book) there's a resurgence of interest in the impact this event had as well as heated discussions about the incursions of the mainstream media and Hollywood into the serious, academic and purportedly independent world of wine. When Sideways came out same thing happened: much hullabaloo and prices for most Pinot Noirs went up.

The scientific validity of that competition in Paris is generally considered statistically irrelevant. Like most blind tastings and competitions there's too many factors involved to render any sort of accurate conclusions. The wiki article on the whole event sums this up nicely. But of course the public perception and the imagery of the tasting did matter. California wines were on par (some said better) with their French counterparts. This ushered in a whole new perspective among casual wine drinkers around the world and while the effects were probably as much negative as positive it was, and is of lasting importance.

For me, Bordeaux is as much a British wine as it is French (and these days it's a truly international affair) so I don't think that line-up even mattered in principle. The Chardonnay war was a little more interesting, but I think the effects of the '76 tasting on Chardonnay around the world was largely an unfortunate one. The question of American vs. European wine is of course interesting to me. I've already pontificated too much on it though, but you can check out an interesting little discussion I was involved in at the Wine Camp recently.

As far as the movies go I think they should be judged as movies, not wine history pieces. And all those that devote long posts and discussions to all the inaccuracies and wine fallacies in these movies should proudly take their place beside the Tolkien fans that did the same when those movies came out. That being said I'm a bit skeptical about a film that portrays a British man (Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier) as being uncomfortable and tepid around fried food. And after aging for a few years I still give Sideways a solid 89pts.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The End of the Beginning, Part 2

3 to 4 decades ago the traditional wine producing regions of Europe (the Old World) found they'd escaped almost a century of calamities: phylloxera, drought and floods, wars and severe economic depression. They were poised to capitalize on improved technology, emerging global markets and a resurgence of producers who were ready to bring the past and future together while continuously improving the quality of their wine. Only problem was these emerging markets (the New World) were already producing their own wine and then . . . DISASTER! At a tasting in Paris wines from California were forced to compete with their French counterparts and they won (sort of)! This famous Judgment of Paris is now finally being made into an accurate, objective and sober historical documentary. Winemakers all over the globe were emboldened to break the mold and attempt to copy the success of these California producers. Meanwhile the Seventies and Eighties flew by and emerging middle classes throughout the developing world found they had more disposable income and sought to emulate the lifestyles of their economic counterpoints in Europe and North America. And people in the States began to want something other than beer and martinis at cocktail parties. Wine seemed like a really good idea--classy, pretty, more booze than beer and less than vodka--but the only problem was most people didn't like what was available at the middle to low end of the market. These wines (often European) were too sharp and astringent to drink alone at ambient "room" temperatures (too warm). It was a perfect storm for the New World producers. They had warm climates along with access to technology and cheaper operating costs (inexpensive land, lower taxes, lax labor laws) which allowed them to began producing wines at the same quantity as Europe's wine lake regions for less money. And these wines were friendly w/out food; soft, dark and lush and often flavored w/ oak. No nasty acidity or chewy tannins that needed time and a good meal to be enjoyed. Drink this stuff at the loft party out of an over-sized glass or through a straw. The "New World" of wine had arrived with a bang.

This is where the Old World/New World debate sort of stagnates in the late '90's. But the last ten years has seen a rise in the awareness of "natural" or "artisanal" winemaking and this sensibility is beginning to leave the domain of wine geeks and writers and enter the mainstream. Although this new (some may argue traditional) movement is prone to the same sorts of marketing schemes and gimmicks that the global wine trade inspired, it is, at its most fundamental, a perfect counterweight to the world of mass market, over-produced, over blown wines. And not all (most, but not all) of these natural wines are from Europe. Also, parts of Europe now successfully compete with mass produced wines from North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. And there are even newer wine producing areas like India and China. So reducing wine styles to a simple aesthetic of Old World vs. New World and linking a method or style of winemaking to a region is no longer completely accurate.

In the tradition of (pseudo) Academia, which this series of posts has attempted to embrace, it is now time to conclude with some bold and definitive statements. It seems that wine today can still be categorized or separated in to two camps: wine that is made in a way that respects and is symbiotic with the land it is grown on and the people who grow it and that seeks to be the best it can be for what it is, and wine that is made as a commodity first with the goal of pleasing as many people as possible and making as much profit as possible. The latter could be called "modern wine" and the former "neo-traditional postmodern wine". But that's silly. Instead I like the preferred nomenclature that has arisen lately (not my invention, maybe his) of "Spoofulated" wine vs. "Real" wine. Of course our history shows that winemaking is always a balancing act between nature and technology and the best Real Wines still do this today. And we shouldn't romanticize the past; wine has always been a commodity and some regions have been producing wine with the primary goal of making lots of money for hundreds or thousands of years and even the craziest, stinkiest Biodynamic producers have to make a profit. But clearly there is a vast and distinguishable difference between what one winemaker called "wines that tell a story in a bottle" and those that sell an image to a consumer that wants all his wine to taste the same, day in and day out. And even if Real Wine becomes a global trend it will still be possible to distinguish the real Real from the fake. At least that's my belief.

The pic., by the way, is of a bottle of GrosJean Torrette: a traditional blend of indigenous red grapes grown in the Val d'Aosta by French speaking Italians. It is most definitely on Team Real and it was quite tasty.

A list of references I've used in all the posts dealing with the history of the Old World/New World debate. (Just because I got info. from them does not mean I endorse the views or opinions of these references. The internet is a strange place, dudes).

Phoenician Wines and Vines
Wine making, beer mark Middle Ages | History of Alcohol | Event view
Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink
Wine from Classical Times to the Nineteenth Century: Information and Much More from
The World Atlas of Wine 5th Edition, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
A Wine Atlas of the Langhe, Felice Campenella et. al.

All of the blogs and websites on my roll, but a special thanks to the lab rats at Rational Denial

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Good Bad wine vs. Bad Bad Wine vs. Bad Good Wine

Just wanted to take a quick break from history to put in my 2 cents on a topic that's been popping up all over wine-blogger land recently. It's nothing new, but the issue of cork taint (TCA) and other flaws in wine always gets people excited and encourages passionate conversations about chemistry and taste and winemaking practices. Although I think there's a bit of muscle flexing involved in the Science and Tech. discussions I understand completely why this issue is raised so often. It's a real bummer to open a wine you're excited about (and possibly spent a bit of money on) and discover it's corked or otherwise flawed. But it's also a bummer to open a wine that tastes exactly like it's supposed to and that taste is, to you, gross. The source of controversy and/or difficulty emerges in all the possible scenarios in between these two extremes.

The ability to detect TCA in a wine has become a litmus test for credibility at many wine drinking occasions. Often the person deemed to have the most knowledge or experience is expected to make final judgment on whether a wine is corked or not. This is silly. I think most people with even rudimentary wine knowledge could be trained to quickly spot cork taint and distinguish it from other flaws just as well as anyone. But there are some wine aficionados who for what appears to be biological reasons have a very difficult time with this; Brooklynguy's post on this subject is both honest and refreshing. Others may be "immune" or simply unfazed by different flaws such as "heat" (excessive alcohol) or oxidization or when a wine first begins to "turn" (become vinegar). One common flaw occurs when a wine is "cooked", which means it has been damaged by poor storage and subjected to temperature fluctuations or exposure to heat. But in an earlier experiment at the Lab a wine that was exposed to extreme heat was preferred to the normally stored bottle. So does this mean some people prefer "cooked"(flawed) wines or that sometimes heat damage isn't actually a flaw? Another controversial flaw is brett, a sort of renegade yeast strand that can manifest itself in many ways. Some think it adds complexities and secondary flavors to certain wines, others claim it's always a bad thing. At their extremes all of these "flaws" will make a wine taste bad to almost everyone, regardless of their knowledge or experience. But the difficulties arrive when a wine that should be good just isn't that good. If you've had this wine before than you'll know for sure if it's not as good, but if we're talking about something finicky like old Burgundy maybe it's just not "showing well" or maybe there's a little flaw somewhere. If you don't have the luxury of buying several bottles of the same wine every time then you may never know. And though it's easy to let this frustrate (and then overcompensate by declaring a definitive flaw) I don't think it should become an issue that ruins an evening or a meal or a gathering of friends. If you get an obviously corked, or otherwise flawed bottle at a restaurant send it back, or return it to the store where you bought it. If there's more ambiguity involved then just allow for a few seconds of disappointment and then move on, use it as a learning experience and get excited about the next bottle. Or open a can of beer.