Tue 13 Jul 2010
Many issues confront writers about and consumers of fine wine at this point in space and time, shifting entities worthy of debate themselves. The very concept of writing about wine and the differences among writing, criticizing and reviewing are subjects of a great deal of discussion on the world’s wine blogs, along with the efficacy or necessity of various rating systems. The newest buzz topic of “natural wine” — even attempts simply to categorize or define it –generates clouds of sound and fury that seem to have obscured such previous bones of contention as terroir and biodynamic philosophies. People who write about California’s wineries and wines expend generations of electronic capital on the matters of high alcohol and the overuse of oak barrels. In the rarefied echelons, auction houses, wine collectors and their attorneys are atwitter about what appears to be a proliferation of fake prestigious bottles that are apparently strewn about the landscape like squalid pretenders to the throne.
And then there are the millions of consumers who, far from these controversies and disputes, just want a decent glass of wine with their dinners.
I thought about these themes recently when I was down in Vicksburg, Miss., for my grandson’s second birthday party. The historic river-town, the upside-down apex of the Mississippi Delta, is a four-hour drive from Memphis if you take I-55 to Jackson and turn west. My son told me that he would be cooking hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages on the grill outside, and I told him that I would bring some red wine fit to accompany such hearty, smoky, meaty fare. I rummaged through the wine rack and chose six bottles, two each of some pretty damned big cabernets, merlots and syrahs. As it happened, I misread the audience.
People assembled for the party that afternoon — neighbors, friends, the parents of my grandson’s daycare compadres — good, kind folk who have been helpful and generous to my son and his little family since they moved to Vicksburg about 18 months ago. I was introduced, inevitably, as a wine expert who had brought special wines to the party, but when I offered my wares, the questions repeatedly put to me were these: “Do you have anything sweet?” and “Do you have anything that’s not too heavy?”
Stop, readers, before you say, “Oh, those kinds of people.” Those kinds of people comprise most of the wine consumers in America, and I promise you that they’re completely unconcerned about notions of place and terroir, of natural wines versus manipulated wines, of auctions and ratings and in what forests deep in France’s heartland the mighty oaks grew that provided the wood for the barrels that aged whatever wine you and I might be having with dinner tonight. No, those kinds of people desire a wine that’s not substantial, not shaped by oak or laden with tannin, not complicated or multi-dimensional, but rather a wine that’s pleasant, easy to drink, flavorful and, yes, it’s true in many cases, a little sweet. A friendly electrician at the newspaper where I used to work told me once that nothing in the world made him happier than going home to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs and a glass of port, and he didn’t mean a glass of port after dinner, he meant with the spaghetti, and who was I to say “Gack!” (I assume he meant a glass of non-vintage ruby port, not, you know, Taylor-Fladgate ’66.)
It’s a commonplace saying of the wine industry and wine commentary that what we call “fine wine” — intended for cellaring and aging –occupies about five percent of the wine made in the world, while the other 95 percent consists of everyday wine meant for fairly immediate consumption. In terms of writing about wine, of course, that five percent has traditionally received about 95 percent of the attention, though the proliferation of blogs dedicated to inexpensive wine may have changed that estimate to some degree. Of course fine wine is far more interesting to taste and write about than everyday wine, just as Philip Roth is more interesting to read and write about than Nora Roberts (though as a model of industry she should be an inspiration to us all). Everyday wine, however, is important enough as a huge market for American consumers that as a product it should be better than just serviceable.
I certainly understand the desire to own a winery that produces, say, a thousand cases of exceptional cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir that commands a dear price and garners glowing reviews and awards. How many people do such wines affect, however? Perhaps a few hundred collectors and restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Isn’t it a nobler endeavor to produce 100,000 cases of a well-made, dependable, delicious wine that costs $12 a bottle and that will bring pleasure to millions of people in their homes and favorite bistros? I recently interviewed the wine manager for a small, well-run restaurant in Memphis who said that he can’t offer Napa Valley wines by the glass or bottle for a reasonable price, even though he would like to. The reason? “They’re not good enough,” he said. That’s an assessment borne out by my experience, though I would expand the criticism to California as a whole. Generally speaking, wines in the $10 to $15-a-bottle range are better from Spain, Italy and Argentina (not so much Australia anymore) than from West Coast producers.
There’s not a thing wrong with making simple, decent, palatable wines that display enough personality that one would want to drink another glass and buy another bottle. And of course there’s nothing wrong with making superbly nuanced, elegant, deeply layered and profound wines for those who can afford them. I think, though, that a great segment of the wine consuming audience — an audience that wants good wine, not plonk, not dreck — exists only at the margins of the wine industry’s consciousness, like my son’s neighbors down in Vicksburg. They tried the full-bodied, tannic wines I poured for them, were polite about them, and then went looking for the beer.