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Double trouble

Two wines are better than one

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

Like some sort of tipsy Noah’s Ark, the world of wine comes in pairs. Or maybe that means it’s like socks. Or pants. You’ll pardon me if I struggle with this whole simile thing; I’m a metaphor man, myself. Anyway…the point is that there are two kinds of wine.

“Yes, yes, we know. White and red…what, we needed some pasty-faced wine geek to tell us that? Where’s the Sex column, anyway?” No, that’s not quite what I mean.

Spend a lot of time among wine folk, and you’ll start hearing two words an awful lot: traditional and modern. Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? It’s not. Because what those words mean depends very much on who’s using them, and what their wine preferences are.

To the traditionalist, “modern” is pejorative. It means a wine made with a lot of deliberate adjustments…in the vineyard and in the cellar…to conform to a taste that admires fruit, size and youthful smoothness over anything else. Oak is often a major (or dominant) component, while acidity is to be avoided. Most importantly, bigger is always better. And thus, a traditional wine would be one that follows an older path…the fewest possible winemaking techniques, no particular emphasis on fruit or size, plenty of structure for aging if that’s the wine’s destiny.

To the modernist, of course, this is all nonsense. Modern wines have the benefit of our accumulated knowledge and seem to be what most people – or at least most Americans – want to drink. Why, they’ll ask, is the fact that a wine takes twenty years to be drinkable a good thing, when one can get just as much (albeit different) pleasure from the wine right now? Traditional wines, according to the modernist, are rife with sloppy winemaking, biological flaws, and an aggravating and money-wasting inconsistency from vintage to vintage, or even bottle to bottle.

And, yes, there are a few who happily embrace both styles. But not many. Most people, once they’ve discovered their own preferences, eventually sidle into one camp or another, gradually becoming louder and more strident about their preferences as they go along. There are trends, too; right now, traditionalists are the minority but ascendant, which is a counter-reaction to a tsunami of modernist wines from all corners of the globe over the last few decades. And Noah’s Ark gradually tips to the left. Must be all those missing socks.

But why should there be any struggle between the two camps at all? Because wineries have their fingers in the wind and their ears to the ground (which makes it hard to drink wine, by the way). A wine might amble along in a traditionalist mode for a century or more, but if consumers seem to be clamoring for the wines of their more modernist neighbor, it takes an iron will and complete financial security – surprisingly uncommon in the world of wine – to stick to one’s philosophical guns. To the modernist consumer, this is just spiffy, because it means more wines that they’ll like. To the traditionalist this is a disaster, for the same reason.

This is more than a theoretical struggle. Entire wine regions have undergone changes of late, to the delight of one camp and the agony of the other. Bordeaux is one of many poster children, and if one lifts one’s ears from the ground and listens to the chatter in the wine world, pretty much every opinion possible has been aired on this subject. “The wines are better across the board.” “No they’re not, and most of the great wines are shadows of their former selves.” “You mean the green, bitter, underripe wines that never came around to maturity?” “Yes, in preference to the oaky monstrosities that taste like they’re from Australia.” (And yes, this is what passes for angry debate in wine geek circles.) Showdown at the Cabernet Corral! Corkscrews at ten paces, then turn, swirl, sniff, sip, and spit!

But let’s leave all that spitting behind for a moment, and take a look at another divide in the world of wine, one that is – at least to me – more significant than that between the traditionalist and the modernists. And it gets far less press, because to even talk about it is to nibble away at its foundations and expose a good deal of the wine business for what it really is. It’s the bifurcation between wines made as art versus wines made as product.

Clothes, cars, cheese…name just about any category, and there will be a wide range of products. Some are targeted at the mass market (Levi’s, Toyota, Kraft) and some are targeted at the specialist buyer (Jimmy Choo, Aston Martin, Jasper Hill Farm). “But wait,” you might ask, “haven’t you just separated products into cheap and expensive categories? Where’s the insight in that?” My first answer is: be careful, or I’ll flood you with more Noah’s Ark/sock jokes. But the second, and more relevant answer is that things are a little different when it comes to wine.

The majority of wine (by volume) is made as a product. From a philosophical point of view, it’s no different than, say, Kraft Pasteurized American “Cheese” Product (now available in three flavors: white, off-white, and yellow). The primary consideration of a company making such wines is to maximize profit, which is reflected in every step of the process. Grapes are purchased with an eye on quantity. Fermentation is carefully – and chemically – managed to achieve a specific result. Marketing studies and focus groups will have their say. Price points will be targeted and achieved, with a careful eye on the competition. Label and bottle designs will be as appealing to the target demographic (usually working-age women) as possible.

There’s an alternative path to wine-as-product, too; this one coming mostly from the Old World. Some firms make wine simply because that’s what they’ve always done, not because that’s what they want to do. Grapes are still sourced by quantity, but almost nothing is done in the cellar other than transforming the grapes into wine as quickly as possible. Consumption of this sort of beverage used to be the backbone of the European wine culture, but now it’s a dying market…which is why these are the people you’ll occasionally see protesting a lack of support (that is, subsidies) from their national governments.

The wines that result from these processes can be, depending on the producer, good or bad, but their primary quality is their inoffensiveness. Wines like this will never be great, though of course that’s not the point. If wine were no more than this, there wouldn’t be books, tastings, poems, critics, Wine Expos…all the cultural satellites captured in the gravity of wine’s orbit that give it special status as a beverage. (See? I rule the metaphor! Or, I guess that might be an analogy. Well, whatever, at least it’s not a simile.)

And wine as art? Can wine be art? Some of its practitioners think so. For them, wine is an expression…of the earth, of the grapes, of their own winemaking skill, or of whatever comprises their muse…and, just like art, while it would be great if everyone could immediately perceive how brilliant it is, the fact is that not everyone will. They’re wines for the specialist consumer who wants to know and taste the grape, the place, the story in each bottle.

Mass-market wines tend to split very clearly along regional lines: from the Old World they’re mindlessly traditional, from the New World they’re relentlessly modern. Artisanal wines can be either traditional or modern, because what separates them from the mass-market is the intent behind their creation, not their stylistic tendencies. And, perhaps in contrast to most other products, in the wine world price doesn’t at all correlate with a wine’s “artistic” component; there are horrifically expensive mass-market wines and dirt-cheap artisanal wines.

Is there spillover from one category to another? Yes, but not as much as you might think. Very, very few companies make both mass-market and artisanal wines, though many who make the former claim to make the latter. But beware: smaller production and a higher price do not suffice to make a wine artisanal. A mass-market producer can, and usually does, market-test and craft their $70 shiraz with the same tools they used for their $10 chardonnay.

So why does this matter to you? Consider how you buy wine. Do you buy by price? Because you like the label? Do you pick up whatever’s available at the supermarket or corner store while you’re doing the rest of your shopping? Then your choice is almost exclusively limited to mass-market wines. Or do you spend time browsing the aisles of specialist wine retailers, chatting with the staff, regularly taking home unfamiliar bottles on their (or someone else’s) recommendation? Then you have access to artisanal wine, though most such stores will also carry plenty of mass-market stuff.

Or, think about wine writing. (“Why?”) OK, I don’t have a good answer for that one, but: the mass-marketers don’t really need publicity to sell their wines (they have advertising budgets), while the artisanal crowd needs press to even be noticed. Thus, when the wine press goes to tastings, it’s mostly the artisanal stuff that’s offered. Moreover, since we get to taste so much wine, we – like restaurant critics – become jaded by the same old, same old. We crave diversity. Since mass-market wines are, by their nature, the very opposite of diverse, we end up craving – and buying for our own consumption – the artisanal. Thus, that’s what we write about.

In the end, diversity is what it’s all about. For people who just want “wine” (as opposed to beer, or soda, or water), there’s something at the right price and style available pretty much everywhere. And for those whose interests are both broader and deeper, there are also plenty of wines to satisfy their most ardent curiosity. It’s the best of both worlds. It’s like having one’s cake and eating it too. It’s like that famous historical guy with the thing and…the, uh…other thing.

Sorry. Similes still confound me. But I’ve never metaphor I didn’t like.

(First published in stuff@night, 2007.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.