Sat 24 May 2008
In an ideal world, we would all drink great wine. Of course, in an ideal world, many Americans wouldn’t regard drinking wine as a sin or a bother or too complicated and pretentious or unnecessary and so on, and they would regard having a glass of wine with lunch or a couple of glasses of wine with dinner as completely natural and enjoyable.
But in this less than ideal world, many people who do drink wine are perfectly happy drinking whatever comes their way, whether the wine was produced by a megalithic conglomerate churning out millions of cases of wine a year or a tiny family-run vineyard where the earth and the grapes are held sacred and the wine is made with minimum manipulation.
In her new book The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (Harcourt, $23), the fearless Alice Feiring lays down this manifesto, what she calls “the dogma of authentic wines.” The tenets of this dogma are these:
Healthy farming practices
No extended cold maceration
No added yeasts or bacteria
No added enzymes
No flavors from oak or toast
No additives that shape flavor or texture
No processes that use machines to alter alcohol lever, flavor, or texture or that promote premature aging
As a purist — and it’s hard work being a purist — I certainly subscribe to this regimen for making authentic wines that embody the soil in which the vines grew, the climate and weather that nurtured them and the character of the grape varieties. And, as Feiring does, I deplore the strenuous mechanical interventions that turn proper Dr. Jekel-like grapes into overblown Mr. Hyde-like parodies of themselves, especially at the luxury end of the business.
But the authentic wines that Feiring and other enlightened wine writers and a cadre of sympathetic producers and importers thrive on and lovingly promote can’t be found in huge mass-market amounts. Most handcrafted wines, like handcrafted watches or handcrafted shoes or apple strudel, are made in small quantities, just because they’re, you know, made by hand. (Though we have to be careful nowadays; anyone can slap the buzz-word “artisanal” on a label or box of any sort of food-stuff, from apricot jam to epazote, because a segment of the public demands that “quality” and “authenticity.”) Many handcrafted wines are brought into the United States by small importers that deal with small distributors; many of these wines stay in the larger or more sophisticated markets on the coasts.
What I mean is that, loath as we might be to admit it, there’s a place for mass-produced wine. If the “masses” in this country ever decide that moderate wine-drinking can be a guilt-free pleasure and a benefit to health, that wine enhances food and the eating (or dining) experience, they’re not going to turn to the handcrafted wines of France or Spain or Italy or Argentina (or sometimes the United States) to satisfy their curiosities and palates. Much as I would love for America’s neophyte wine drinkers to cut their teeth on, say, one of Jo Pithon’s Anjou Blanc wines or one of Marc Ollivier’s Muscadets — and I wouldn’t mind a sip right now — there’s not enough of that fine stuff to go around.
If only 100,000 people, a mere .387 percent (not even four-tenths of 1 percent) of this country’s population — imagine Billings, Montana — decided that they were going to consume one bottle of wine a week, that would come to 5,200,000 bottles of wine a year, or something like 433,333 cases of wine. Whence will all that wine originate? Not in the hallowed precincts of artisanal producers; as I said, they don’t make enough wine. No, the wines for those 100,000 new drinkers will come from wineries or properties whose aim is to please many palates, the more, as it were, the merrier.
Not that I’m advocating industrial wine, short-cuts and easy outs. The huge companies like Constellation, Gallo and Fosters are too eager to launch series after series of wines intended for myriad demographic groups, price ranges and devotees of cute critter labels. I taste a great deal of that stuff, and it’s largely mediocre. Honest winemaking, however, can exist on a broad scale, and when I think of the California wines that I grew up with — Mirassou, Concannon, Parducci, Pedroncelli, Fetzer and such, even Carlo Rossi — I recall that wines made in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of cases could be damned tasty, satisfying and enlightening.
Sure, many Old School producers harvested by tractor and used commercial yeasts, but those were the days before oak chips and powder, tannin and acid additives and the voodoo of micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis. I think that it’s still possible to make tasty, satisfying and enlightening wines without those contemporary techniques, without the artificiality. But such wines don’t have to be great, they don’t have to floor you with vivid authenticity, they don’t have to wear their virtues on their sleeves.
They just have to be good.