Friday, December 7, 2007

Boomerang

It’s difficult to keep track, but I would be surprised if a week goes by without someone on the many Internet wine-centric sites bringing up the subject of the difference between Old World and New World wines. The subject is like a boomerang, it comes at you, makes a slow, wide arc, flies away and soon enough comes at you again and arcs off, as if in endless orbit.

The argument over the dichotomy between Old World and New World wines is an endless orbit; there is no definitive answer.

In a recent posting on Wine Lovers Page the question was posed thusly: Spoofulated or Artisanal?

In case you don’t know, “spoofulated” is a word used by some geeks to describe wines they consider overly touched by the hand of technology and by winemakers eager to please a certain wine critic.

Artisanal is a word that geeks often use to describe wines that they feel express the singular, hands-off nature of so-called traditional winemaking, not to mention the true expression of terroir.

The concept of terroir is often behind the arguments that ensue. As you probably know, the elusive concept refers to the particular “place” where the wine was born. After that, interpretation of the word is all over the wine map.

Before I proceed, let me say that this argument is mainly confined to red wine, for as anyone with a diploma in geekdom knows, “white wine is something to do with your hands.” That is a quote I remember from a once respected (even by me) but now retired wine writer. So, unless specified to the contrary, I am talking about red wine from hereon (but I don't for minute believe that white wine is undeserving).

There was a time when I engaged in such arguments on the side of terroir, tradition, artisanal, whatever it’s called. I hated the so-called New World style of winemaking: ripe, overly juicy (sometimes more like a fruit infused milkshake than a wine), and often heavily oaked. When the alcohol levels of still table wine began a steady upward invasion into Port territory, I hated the wines even more. So, I deluded myself into thinking that I knew the answer: Old World wines are traditional (artisanal) and New World wines are an abomination (spoofulated)!

I still hate the style of wine that I described above, and only drink it when I am exploring and do not know in advance what is in store for me, and I don’t drink much of it. But I have also grown up—finally, my wife would tell you.

In my adulthood, I’ve realized these three things:

1. I don’t know all the answers.

2. I don’t have to know all the answers.

3. All I need to know is what I like in a wine. There’s no reason for me to force anyone else into liking it, or to accept anyone else trying to force me into liking that other crap, er, style…

Yet, many wine geeks have this compulsion to be right, to be definitive, to be the arbiters of everyone’s taste.

I was content with sitting out the recent boomerang discussion on Wine Lovers, until someone entered the fray with a post that made me see a bright red!

Jamie Goode is a respected scientist in the viticulture and wine sphere. I respect him. His blog is in my blog roll. I’ve read his books—not sure if he has ever read mine, but that’s just my ego talking. Let me get back to the glare of reality.

This is part of what Mr. Goode posted in that particular discussion: “…technology can be harnessed to make wines taste more like 'they should'; to make them truer to their terroir.”

I’d say he tipped his hand toward “terroir” geekdom. Nothing wrong with that, except the word “should.” I had no idea that Mr. Goode knows exactly what wine should taste like—I didn’t know that when I was making wine, and I know a lot of winemakers who aren’t quite sure yet either. I mean: the possibilities are endless.

In any case, Mr. Goode went on to post further and he came up with the one that shot right up my spine: “…it's my view that there are few other places in the world that can make Cab/Merlot blends that have such freshness, drinkability, expression and ageing (sic) potential as Bordeaux…”

It’s my view that few statements about wine have ever been so vague yet so confident. What are freshness, drinkability, and expression, anyway? The words mean nothing specific to me.

Plus, guessing the aging potential of wine is a game of putting pieces together, not the least of which is the particular vintage, the producer’s track record, the nature of the blend, and the wine’s component balance. Blanket statements about a region’s wine age-ability do not activate my “understand” button.

Moreover, Bordeaux is a region within which are a number of growing districts and numerous macro and micro climates. I just don’t buy sweeping claims of superiority based on unidentified geography, especially after the claimant just told me how important terroir is.

To Mr. Goode’s point about “few other places in the world…” I assume he referred to the New World, which would take in a place called California.

In the 1930s, Martin Ray was in the California vanguard, pushing European grape varieties, and producing wine to prove their merit. Ray once owned and operated Paul Masson, in the days when the company produced stellar wine instead of successful commercials for mediocre wine.

In the 50s, Napa, Sonoma, and their surroundings started to do what Ray knew could be done: produce world-class red and white wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. For the next twenty-five years, in relative obscurity, some of the most wonderful Cabernet-based wines ever produced in the United States came from California, especially between the 60s and 70s.

I suppose I should forgive Mr. Goode. He is too young and too far away (Britain) to have experienced the old Inglenook, Masson, Martini, et al, wines. He certainly must have missed the wines of Andre Tchelistcheff, especially the Georges De Latour Private Reserve. Those wines proved a long time ago that Cabernet Sauvignon (and other grape varieties) can express themselves quite well in California, with the help of good winemaking, of course.

It’s neither the fault of the grapes nor of the terroir that recent developments have removed such “traditional” wines from the California scene. To allude that it can’t be done may sound definitive but is incorrect, which leads me to how I became an adult.

After fighting the good cause for a number of years it occurred to me that, while words like tradition, artisanal, and even terroir may have their place as adjectives to describe a particular feeling or sense that a wine evokes, they say little, if anything, about what wine is or, in the words of Mr. Goode, “should taste like.” They say more about the human egocentric outlook, “I know and therefore I’m going to make sure you know, too.”

As an adult, I have come to understand that this argument over spoofulated vs. artisanal is a nice parlor game but a distraction from the plain truth that people need to discover for themselves what they like and what they do not like. If they are too lazy to do that, well, what’s there to argue over?

Now an announcement!

My first blog entry for 2008 will have an added feature.

I intend to include a note or notes about individual wines at the end of each blog entry, with special emphasis on wine and food pairing.

I am doing this because I have been asked to do it. Also, I see it as an experiment. I want to see if I can remain within the boundaries of subjectivity without proselytizing and without making seemingly objective definitive proclamations.

I promise, however, never to say, “you should buy this wine.” Plus, every wine I mention either will have been paid for by me or, if it happens to be a freebie, I will let you know.

Spoofulated or Artisanal

NOTE: There’s an organization operating a blog that sells health products to consumers—it goes by the name Healthfullup. Through the RSS feed, this blog lifts and prints my copyrighted material in its entirety from Vinofictions.com, without my permission and without paying compensation.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All Rights Reserved.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Boomerang" Well thought out and thought provoking...it's good to be able to express an opinion, run the idea around, then deliver...as always it's great to read your blog...

Thomas Pellechia said...

Thanks.

Wine Limo said...

Yes did you know Martin Ray and Paul Masson smuggled Romani Conti clones in for Zellerbach who owned Hanzell back in 1953 which is now recognized by UCD as the Hanzell Clone, Pinot Noir of course.
The insinuation that good wine can be made in the cellar rather angers me as if one can start with bad fruit and through the magic of modern equipment transform it into great wine! I smell an equipment salesman behind those sort of statements! You cannot make good wine from poor fruit! You cannot make wine with great longevity with low acidity. There are certain things that are true and ones that are not. Some of these high alcohol low acid fruit bombs are good to drink now and for a couple of years, but they will not or cannot, because of the lack of acidity, develop into great aged wines that make life wonderful and memorable, that stay in your mind for decades. I am old enough to remember those great wines of California. I believe in terroir I remember the BV wines of Andre, where I first identified the Rutherford dust! Of course this is important but the fruit must be picked at the perfect time too and if you want it to be long lived it must be below 3.5 PH, 24-26 brix, this is the truth. I guess I have my position too. I also think there is nothing wrong with liking your wine like your women ready to pass out. But, those will never be great wines, however, most drinkers will not keep them long anyway....I very much enjoy your articles Thomas!

Wine Limo said...

Oh I forgot to tell you the wine list is up 930 wineries in Napa and Sonoma of course it will never be finished but that is the wine business!
www.limosamerica.com

Thomas Pellechia said...

Limo,

I generally agree with you.

Wine Limo said...

Thomas-
Feel free to disagree with me too! I am always will to look at another point of view. We are all continuing to learn hopefully...

Thomas Pellechia said...

Believe me, Limo, when the time comes, I will.

Maybe you missed some of what I posted in Boomerang about what I think of high alcohol wines.