One thing we frequent tasters
all know, yet discuss all too little, is the highly subjective
nature of wine enjoyment. Each of us appreciates different qualities,
differently. That which is "good," therefore, may not always
be better to us all. Professional winemakers and oenologists
can find many types of "flaws" and are becoming increasingly
adept at irradicating them. Flavor characteristics that I have
enjoyed in premium wines, such as the mustiness wrought by Brettanomyces,
have been minimized or eradicated in modern wines. Some would
say, rightly, that this is as it should be: Brett is
technically a flaw in wines.
But is it just me, or are premium
wines from all quarters increasingly lacking in personality?
I have recently tasted, from the current or very recent vintages,
offerings from very reputable producers of high-end California
red wines, and my conclusion is that they all make the same
wine. The essential components seem to be overtly ripe, rich
fruit (cassis, cherry, plum) with varying degrees of depth,
and almost nothing else. To add insult to injury, the fruit
is often of the sort that tastes artificial, with an alcoholic
or faintly chemical finish. To my palate and way of thinking,
this sort of polished, one-dimensional product is very much
the child of the so-called "international style" of winemaking.
"So what?" you say. That trend,
with its focus on clean flavors, fruit and polish has dramatically
raised the quality of all wine produced and sold as "varietal."
Wine writers laud that the across-the-board increase in quality
more than compensates for the boredom of a few erudite wine
Well, I'm not so sure and I am
not sure that the wine press, with its "house style" and set
of preferences, has indeed been responsible for the very real
rise in overall quality, particularly at the lower end. This
should probably be attributed to the workings of the market,
and to the introduction of new technology to the winery, rather
than to the work of wine writers. The average wine drinker is
not, after all, reading the Wine Advocate. Instead, they are
buying grocery store wines, produced in vast quantities, for
earliest consumption. These people are buying the latest technology
in a bottle, and are right to assume that their lot has improved
because of it.
For those of us that taste wine
early and often, however, the wine press has had an appreciable
effect; the principal disadvantage of their "house style" is
tedium. The wines they advocate (and, I would argue, are making
into a stylistic trend) can be full, rich, jammy, silky, whatever
- but they will always lack interest to those who remember the
way it used to be. Modern winemakers (especially in California
and Australia though, sadly, the trend is spreading) are churning
out wines utterly lacking in personality, and which therefore
fail to inspire much interest. They lack individuality, and
leave a hollow feeling on the taster's palate, in his mind,
and, increasingly, in his wallet.
To those of a more egalitarian
bent that say that the needs of the many (quaffers) outweigh
the pastime of the few (collectors), I would respectfully disagree.
If the average wine novice thinks that he will, in the years
to come, be able to broaden his wine experience easily by trading
up in price, I am sorry to be the bearer of ill tidings. It
is becoming increasingly difficult to gain a range of new flavors
and textures not found in lower-end wines by simply buying more
expensive ones. For example, there are few California Cabernets
in the $25 range offering flavor revelations not found in a
good $15 version. Likewise, as many of us are also becoming
painfully aware, turning in your $25 Cab for a $40, reserve-level
wine may leave you with a heightened sense of "no-big-deal."
Caveat emptor is the guiding principle in today's wine shop,
except among solid brands at low-risk prices. Ironically, it
may be that the wine buyer is safest at the $10 level!
Now, I am not exactly a Philistine
in this brave new world, which is now so global in its orientation.
Hungary, New Zealand and South Africa are and should be considered
right alongside Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa by writer and consumer
alike. By and large, this is a good thing for consumers. However,
if these new regions produce wines without any connection to
place, which lack any trace of local individuality, what is
the use of introducing them at all, other than economic? By
drinking commercially acceptable, commercial-tasting cabernet-merlot-chardonnay,
wine drinkers will gain little insight into traditional styles,
and once the wine-producing world has replanted the countryside
with these, many ancient traditional varietals may be lost.
And replant they most certainly will, for vintners will realize
that the kudos of the press - including the elusive score of
'90' or above - and the money it brings will come most easily
that way. And so the cycle spins.
Does this mean that traditional
wines fail to achieve high scores and status? Of course not.
However, many of the great producers of traditional-style wines
that have been embraced by wine writers were stars long before
the press came along. Thus, Heitz Vineyards in Napa can accept
a few disappointing scores while continuing to produce wine
like they always have: they were famous for making great Cabernet
before Wine had a "Spectator" or an "Advocate." Yet most vintners
do not have that luxury. They know that, in spite of (or because
of) the so-called wine boom, the industry is incredibly competitive.
The seal of approval from important sectors of the wine media
is an important part of the marketing process. Now, lest dear
reader think that I am completely without regard for the press
let me say that I believe such journalists to be valuable sources
of information. In particular, the coverage and reporting on
the quality of particular vintages and overall trends in viticulture
have served as the eyes and ears of many of us unable to keep
close tabs on such things. Thus, the Wine Spectator's reporting
of the '97 vintage in Burgundy, and the disappointing quality
of the astronomically-priced whites from the Cote d'Or (May
21, 1999) saved many of us seduced by the report of a near-perfect
growing season from splurging on what by all reports are little
more than pleasant, early-drinking wines. Nonetheless, the press
also is responsible for the "100 point scale," which argues,
curiously, that the qualities of a wine can be quantified numerically.
As with every objectification of the subjective, someone's preferences
prevail, and become something of a standard. Generally speaking,
that preference has been for wines that produce clean, rich
fruit; rich mouth feel; and soft tannins. This has become the
benchmark. The attraction of this approach is obvious: it favors
the casual drinker, who makes up the great portion of the wine
market, and who cares little for complexity or true character.
This is aided by the simplicity of the quantification approach,
i.e., for most casual wine drinkers, higher score = "better"
wine. The Wine Spectator even calls their tasting section a
"Buying Guide", so as to erase any confusion over how the consumer
should use their scores. Thus, wines with high scores ring up
sales, and the wine world is led a merry chase, in search of
And so we come to the crux of
the matter: are winemakers producing a style of wine which meets
the broad standards of excellence/acceptability set down by
the industry's chief marketing wing, the media? It seems that
they are. Every retailer and wholesaler worth his salt understands
that a '90' in the Wine Spectator is one of the chief signs
of a wine's marketability. This can, of course, be overstated:
image, price, track record, and value for money are factors,
just as they have always been. Yet increasingly it is the press
that is driving fine wine sales. Can this have any other effect
than the modification of winemaking, in favor of a preferred
style? Vintners, who are increasingly corporate employees, have
generally succumbed to the lure of The Score, and because these
scores can be most easily achieved by making a certain type
of wine, with definable characteristics, many wines are made
which resemble each other greatly.
For a real feel for it, just
look around at some of the wines you've tasted lately. Can you
still find wonderful Chianti Classicos in the traditional style?
Sure. More and more of them, however, are eschewing structure,
distinctiveness, personality - and ageability - in favor of
fruit-driven richness. Many of these wines are absolutely luscious.
Fewer of them show an individuality of style, and fewer still
make you think while you taste. These wines tend to resemble
one another. Maybe this makes sense in a world of modern, clinical
winemaking. I really don't know. But I do think that the truth
of the existence of this general trend becomes clearer with
each successive vintage, and in most of the world's traditional
Obviously, this trend should
concern the connoisseur of fine wine: he is most vulnerable
in the short term to catching the blahs at a tasting. However,
it should also be of real interest to the casual consumer. Taken
to its logical conclusion, this trend could be a tangible barrier
to his search for high quality, reasonably priced wines that
also display reasonable levels of character and individuality.
In short, many who have begun drinking lower priced wines over
the course of the so-called Wine Boom will eventually, we hope,
want to trade up. What they likely find when they make their
move will be wines far inferior in interest and character to
those which seduced many of us some years ago. Some would say
that this is already a real problem: price inflation in California
wines has not led to the panoply of interesting wines that had
been predicted, just more technically correct ones. The string
of recent outstanding vintages cannot hide the fact that great
California wines are still not as good as their French counterparts.
What are being produced in voluminous quantities there are rich,
fruit-driven, sometimes wonderfully tasty wines. Mostly in the
by Mark Arvanigian
NOTE: PfW Panelist Mark Arvanigian's
archive of weekly articles
on wine from the Fresno Bee, hosted by The Wine Lover's Page.)