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