The War on Wine
I must have some Luddite blood. I don't own a Blackberry or a mobile phone or a digital TV, don't posses a single video game, and prefer my clothes of wool or cotton. I like to split firewood and forage for wild mushrooms, will never own a car that doesn't have a stick shift, and prefer to know something about the food and drink I put in my mouth, preferably the person who produced it. As well, I've never met a foie gras I didn't like, couldn't live without my Macintosh, and have just spent far too much money on a 5-burner, dual-fuel, stainless steel stove for my kitchen. So much for consistency, but that is who I am.
The subjects that have drawn me in as a writer-so far, shipbuilding on the Maine coast, the life of a rural French restaurant and its village, and the winemaking families of this book - are all bound up in tradition and authenticity. My experiences have led me to conclude, in broad strokes, that our customs and traditions don't just have a value, they have a price when they are lost, and it is never a bad thing to examine them in detail, to deeply consider the implications of that loss, the price we pay when a world open to us is closed to our children and their children after them. Within each book, I have shared my observations, in particular looking at those rare phenomena of the modern world in which the old ways stubbornly cling to life, enduring and adapting. Some kinds of history, it turns out, are pretty hard to kill.
Today, in every winemaking country, there is an epic battle raging which has everything to do with these notions. The press identifies the combatants variously as the New World vs. the Old World, or technological winemakers vs. traditional winemakers, corporate agribusiness vs. the small winemaker, "international" style, varietal-based wines vs. appellation wines. Simply put, it is far easier for a corporation to sell a standardized, branded product line with its predictable price points, production costs, and return than to bring to market something, like wine, which, by its very nature, tends to vary every single year. What the ordinary consumer does not realize is that the outcome of the first skirmishes of this battle is already determining what is in their glass, what they can buy at the market. More nefariously, what they also don't realize is that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it is now possible to manipulate wines in a thousand ways - with rot retardants to yield riper grapes, with laboratory yeasts known to produce certain flavors, with reverse osmosis machines to remove water or alcohol, with oak chips or tannin powders added to the fermenting tank, for example -- to create wines that have trademark tastes and smells, wines that have been, in effect, standardized, too.
Traditional winemaking is built on the idea of appellation, that the actual place from which a wine comes - its landscape, geology, and climate, the way the vines are tended, the centuries of savoir-faire that the family winemaker brings to his craft, that all of these are more important than the kind of grape he is growing. Many Americans, however, tend to associate their tastes with a particular kind of grape, and our winemakers (and more and more foreign ones, too) are happy to cater to our desire to see zin, or chard, or merlot, or cab painted boldly on the front label, and, once the bottle is opened, even more boldly on the palate. Beyond uselessly broad geographic areas, we do not have appellations here, and besides, the whole idea of appellation is one which arises out of hundreds of years of winemaking experience and history, neither of which we yet possess. (A valiant group of mostly smaller California winemakers are fighting the legal and cultural battles to begin to limit and regulate what can be called, say, "Napa" wine, but they've a long row to hoe and are meeting with fierce resistance from the Gallos, Diageos, and Constellations of the region.)
We are a notoriously impatient people, and, in a rush to establish our own identity in wine-trampling the traditions of other cultures in our haste-I believe we are making a mistake. We need to learn to walk before entering the sprinter's blocks, to listen and take what is good from others instead of defensively running them down as old-fashioned or behind the times. The world is a large enough place for the expressions of thousands of winemakers, but that huge variety, that lovely chaotic landscape of wines as various and distinct as the landscapes they come from, that is under threat.
As a consumer, your choices determine the future. The supermarket wines will always be there, unchanging, branded monoliths. Go to your local wineshop. Avoid any place where every shelf is stuck with tags enumerating which wine guru gave what pointless grade to the wines. Do you let the waiter order your dinner at the restaurant? The furniture salesman choose your living room sofas? Ask. Taste. Learn. Above all, enjoy. Wine is supposed to be about pleasure, not an onerous burden fraught with risk. Remember that, and you can still have lots of fun while doing good, too.
Posted by Michael at October 4, 2005
All material ©2005 Michael S. Sanders