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The International Style

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 geeks.

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 a number.

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 winemaking regions.

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 "international style."

by Mark Arvanigian

(EDITOR'S NOTE: PfW Panelist Mark Arvanigian's archive of weekly articles on wine from the Fresno Bee, hosted by The Wine Lover's Page.)






Article written July, 2000.
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