It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. There are several reasons for that, mostly personal. Mainly, I wanted to focus my energy on my Washington Post wine column, which reaches a much wider audience and, well, it pays. But The Post still mentions this blog in the tagline of each column, and my wife keeps chiding me to take that out because I don’t post here any longer. Every now and then WordPress notifies me that someone has subscribed to the blog, and that tells me there is still interest out there. Some friends have also asked me about WineLine.
So here we are. Maybe it’s time to bring Dave McIntyre’s WineLine back to life. It’s always been a zombie. I started it in late 1998 as an email newsletter when my gig at the time, Sidewalk.com, dried up because banner ads hadn’t been invented and no one could yet make money from a website. This was before the word “blog” was coined, or maybe around that time. Robin Garr was kind enough to host my humble little newsletter on his WineLoversPage website for a few years. I went to Blogspot, then Typepad, and finally WordPress. Will I migrate to Substack, like the rest of the world? Perhaps. I like Substack. It’s a writer’s community. I might not feel so lonely there.
I’m reviving WineLine — or at least restarting it, I hope it will be vital enough to continue — because there is more to write about than I can fit in my column. Wines that are delicious but perhaps too small production or more expensive than my target range for a weekly newspaper column. Or just more wines than I can include in my current format of three recommendations per week. My reactions to wine news, articles, silly brouhahas on social media. Most importantly to me, local news about Virginia, Maryland and the “Other 47” — a focus that defined my early wine writing but no longer fits in The Washington Post’s current self image as a “national” publication.
So what will you get with the “new” Dave McIntyre’s WineLine? Nothing polished. If I had a media team helping me, or if I’d simply gotten my act together, I’d have several weeks or months of posts ready to go so I could keep feeding you a stream of brilliant wine writing. But no. The only Force that is with me is inertia. You won’t get self-promotion; I’ve never been good at that. Content will be irregular, but it will be spontaneous, heartfelt and honest. Unvarnished (as in, my wonderful editors at The Post won’t be here to save me from myself). Humorous, I hope. Thought provoking, even. Sometimes just “Hey! Try this!” You may get a rant, but I hope no whine. (See what I did there?) Think of these not as posts or articles, but as letters to a fellow wine lover.
I hope you will enjoy it. Most of all, I hope you will let me know if you enjoy it, by posting in the comments. That’s the only way I’ll know if I’m reaching anyone or just talking to myself. Maybe we can get a good conversation started over a glass of nice wine.
All best for a wonderful 2023 vintage for you and yours. And thank you for waiting.
I enjoyed a Bordeaux themed week in mid-May. It began with a dinner featuring wines of Domaine de Chevalier, organized by my friend Panos Kakaviatos. Panos is a wine blogger and contributor to Decanter magazine, as well as a bon vivant of wine, Bordeaux in particular. He has this odd hobby of organizing a few dinners a year in Washington, D.C., centered around a vertical tasting of a single Bordeaux chateau. I wrote about one of these events 12 years ago, coincidentally also involving Domaine de Chevalier. (Though I see now as I look up that piece I inexplicably referred to it as Chateau Chevalier.)
This year’s dinner at 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown featured six vintages of Domaine de Chevalier blanc and six more of the rouge. Chevalier is in the Pessac-Leognan AOC that was carved out of Graves several years ago — this area is known for its white wines as well as its reds, and Chevalier is one of a few chateaux awarded classified growth status in both. The wines were presented by Patricia Alazraki, a New York-based brand ambassador for Monsieur Touton Selection, Chevalier’s importer.
The domaine has been owned since 1983 by the Bernard family, so the tasting provided a window into their stewardship over four decades.
The white vintages we tasted were 2017, 2010, 2001, 1993, 1989 and 1983. They demonstrated the ageability of top-line white Bordeaux. A blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, Chevalier blanc remains fresh for decades. Of these, only the 1993 showed signs of any sherry-like oxidation, though the acidity remained vibrant. In my notes, I wrote “humming more than singing.”
The other vintages were not just singing, they were a choir. My favorite was the 1989, with lively tropical flavors. The 2017 was a reminder that we commit infanticide on white wines. This one was just becoming approachable, though it seemed to scold us for opening it so young. The 2010 was also closed, but I was able to swirl out a hint of sweet bay and jasmine. This one will continue to develop.
“The 2010 blanc is proof a classic vintage can make great white and great red,” Alazraki said, explaining that cooler vintages that are tough on reds often produce superior whites, while warmer years that favor reds run the risk of flabbier whites with lower acidity.
For the reds, we had 2010, 2005, 2000, 1995, 1990 and 1985. The 2010 was purple in color, plush in texture, and deep in flavor with black fruit. It was obviously quite young and if I didn’t know the vintage I would have guessed something much more recent. The ’05 earned a “wow” in my notes: “This seem to be opening up to reveal its potential,” I wrote. The 2000 was a crowd favorite with its velvety texture and fine tannins. “This is Christmas!” someone exclaimed.
The final three reds displayed the classic Chevalier style, and the classic Bordeaux signature of graphite, silky tannin with great balance as flavors transitioned from jammy fruit to more earthy, tertiary notes. My favorite was the 1985, which was simply outstanding.
I was seated next to Michael Apstein, the Boston-based writer for WineReviewOnline.com. Michael noted that the final three wines were noticeably less ripe than the more recent vintages and wondered if they might be pre-climate change. That’s no-doubt a factor, though I suspect changes in viticulture and winemaking — especially the move to micro-cuvees and an increased emphasis on blending — contributed as well.
One thing was undeniable: These wines were all delicious and displayed a consistent character we can attribute to Domaine de Chevalier and the Bernard family.
The dinner, by the way, was fabulous, and the service by Brian Zipin and his crew was flawless. Put 1789 Restaurant on your radar when in DC.
My Bordeaux week culminated a few days later with the annual Masterclass in Bordeaux held by the Heart’s Delight wine auction. The class this year was led by Jane Anson. I’ll summarize that tasting in a future post.
Ringo comforts me, even when I don’t know I need it. He sidles up when he senses the day has gone south and wags his tail while giving me that cute look. He swats his paw to get my attention, then ducks his head under my hand, this way and that, guiding me, caressing me as much as I’m caressing him. His ears are silk, his neck velvet. My worries drain from my fingers and disappear into his fur. I don’t want this feeling to end. He lingers long enough to bring a smile to my heart, then turns his head and gives my hand a kiss — not a slobbery dog embrace, just a quick bisou among friends, a reminder that life is good and it’ll soon be time to feed him.
Cattleya Cuvée Number One Pinot Noir 2021, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. ABV: 14.3 percent. $65 from the winery. (Sample.)
There’s a lot of wine downstairs. When I pull an older bottle “from the pile,” as I put it sort of accurately, I hold my breath. Will this be over the hill? Or will it be amazing? Most often, of course, it’s somewhere in between — holding up pretty well, perhaps with the fruit fading and the oak remaining. Sometimes I get a gem, and those can be wonderful.
Case in point: Fabbioli Cellars Tannat, 2010 — yes, 2010! — from Virginia. ABV is a modest 13.5 percent. This was a rare “California vintage” in Virginia, hot and ripe, forcing many winegrowers to harvest earlier than expected. One of those years where the radio news runs oversimplified reports about how we’re baking but the grapes are thriving. An easy vintage to over-generalize about.
Doug Fabbioli started his winemaking career in California, so he knows hot vintages, even if Virginia doesn’t remind him of them very often. This 2010 Tannat, after a decade or more in my imperfect storage, was still deep purple in color and fresh in acidity, with grippy tannins. I opened it two nights ago; it was fine, a bit tart and closed. Tonight, it was singing. It had a floral note that made me think I was bathing in a tub of roses. (My wife thought I was crazy, but she always imagines herself the practical one). Flavors of cherries and plums, with some black pepper spice, just don’t want to quit.
As I write this, I’m contemplating the last swig still in my glass. Gritty sediment is coating the side of the bowl. I turn the glass this way and that, trying to fix deposits of sludge and isolate those last few drops for a final sip. Some dietary fiber won’t be too bad, right? After all, that’s what toothbrushes are for, right?
Fabbioli Cellars Tannat 2010, Virginia. (Purchased, I think.)
Several weeks ago, I received an email from an old friend, Terry Theise. Wine lovers will recognize his name: Terry Theise introduced my generation and probably a few others to fine wines of Germany, Austria and Champagne. He helped launch the “grower Champagne” movement by clueing us into the exciting 5% of Champagne not made by the big fancy houses. He may not have totally succeeded in nurturing us past our fear of sweetness in Riesling, but his fans know that his wines and palate are impeccable, and wherever he points us, adventure awaits. Terry’s annual importer catalogues were must reads — wine pun alert! — about the latest vintages. His two books, “Reading Between the Wines” and “What Makes A Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime,” are thought-provoking, thirst-inducing romps through Terry’s mind and palate. His prose seems fanciful, a stream of consciousness that seemingly spins tangents into the ether, yet always spirals back to land right on target at the point he was aiming for all along. Wine mellows most people; it supercharges Terry Theise.
Terry will most certainly demur about this description of his writing talents, but you can be the judge by checking out his website, terrytheise.com, where he posts tasting notes and thoughtful articles on his blog. Which brings me back to his email.
Terry had seen my column about a movement to make wine lingo more inclusive, and he took that opportunity to reconnect with a proposal: A written conversation, over email, about various wine topics, where we would pretend we were conversing across a dinner table, only with the ability to edit our remarks and without our wives rolling their eyes at our pontifications. We would each use the exchange as we see fit on our respective sites. He sent me a list of questions, which I eventually answered. He posted them recently here.
I hope to draw on more of this exchange (and I sincerely hope some future ones), but for now I want to highlight my question to Terry and his response. My question focused on terroir, and was prompted by reading some of his tasting notes on new releases from winemakers he introduced to U.S. consumers.
The following is part of my email exchange with Terry, including some conversational responses he added for his post linked above, and a few commentary asides from me.
DM: “Sense of place” and “terroir” are two concepts central to our modern view of wine. (Similar, to be sure, especially as one is an attempt to translate the other.) If we really want to taste the place in the wine, we should visit the place. Your intimate knowledge of the vineyards that produced the wines you brought to thousands of thirsty American wine lovers is an essential ingredient in your tasting notes that we have enjoyed all these years through your annual catalogs and now your website. For your customers and readers who haven’t been there, you bring us that much closer. You give us a key of sorts to unlock that “sense of place” when we taste the wine.
TT: Aw, shucks …
DM: Your travel and professional dedication to meet with your producers is not the only reason your tasting notes are so wonderful. Your personal perspective, your sense of whimsy and romance also shine through. And this could be another discussion: People say the winemaker should be considered part of a wine’s terroir — perhaps the reviewer or importer should be too? You certainly get your reader salivating for that wine. Or am I getting too close to arguing that terroir is just marketing hooey? As a writer, I’m always conscious of the need to make a wine relatable to my readers.
So here’s my question: [DM: FINALLY!] For someone to experience the sense of place, this essence that for many defines fine wine, is it necessary to have been there corporeally? As in, having visited at least the region, if not the specific vineyard? How important is travel to wine appreciation?
[DM: Here you will see the weakness of my question, which Terry zeroed in on immediately: the word “necessary.” When arguing with a shape-shifter capable of seeing through arguments from a 1080-degree perspective, avoid absolutes such as “necessary.”]
TT: So, to answer the question you posed … The crux word is “necessary.” It seems fair to say that one can’t fully experience a sense of place without a limbic connection to it, that is, without having been there.
[DM: I’m glad Terry explained what he meant by “limbic connection,” because Merriam-Webster.com defines “limbic” as “of, relating to, or being the limbic system of the brain,” which quite frankly does not help, and violates the essential rule against using a word to define itself.]
TT: That compels the next question, which is: How crucial is that phenomenon to wine appreciation? And the answer to that one is, it depends on what one wishes to derive from wine appreciation. For someone like me, travel was crucial. It wasn’t a duty or a box I needed to check to establish my bona fides, but rather something I was deeply driven to do. It deepens the “sense” of wine in every way. You could say it provides the umami to the experience of wine fascination.
[DM: Whoa. Soundbite alert!]
TT: Regarding the possibility that “terroir” risks being just so much marketing hooey, my definition of terroir is narrow, and therefore (in my view) defensible. It is this: Terroir describes a cause-and-effect relationship between soil components and wine flavors for which no other explanation seems possible. It is a basis for the concept of spirit-of-place, but only that — a basis.
[DM: I’d pat myself on the back for eliciting this bon mot from Terry, but I have a feeling he’s said it before. That doesn’t make it any less valid, though.]
DM: That’s a rather Holmesian reference. It reminds me of the Great Detective’s advice to Dr. Watson: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I hope I’m quoting that correctly, lest the Baker Street Irregulars start haunting the comments.
[DM: As I read over this now, I am also reminded of the deductive tasting technique taught by the Court of Master Sommeliers: By eliminating wines because certain characteristics are not there, you narrow the possibilities to identify the wine you’re tasting.]
TT: I always liked that statement. I also tend to think that when we have a weight of empirical data that seems to lead to a particular conclusion, until it is disproven it might as well be true. But if it ever is disproven, then we shouldn’t cling to it. My problem with expanding the definition to human influence, weather, one’s own responses or anything else, is that once you throw all these things into the definition, you’re saying that everything that has an impact on wine is part of terroir, and that is a conceptual chaos, in my view. Obviously, all those things are part of the mix, but what comes first?
Yes, the concept has been misapplied in service of “marketing hooey” — [DM: Another note to self: Don’t be too cavalier with your references.] — and it’s annoying as hell, and does harm. Just because some wine-romance is bogus doesn’t mean that all of it is. But that’s where you and I come in. How are our innocent readers supposed to tell the authentic from the bogus?
The experiences you describe would be thought ephemeral by certain people, but they aren’t. They’re part of one’s response to all the things behind a wine’s aesthetic attractions, they show that we can respond to wine from depths of our natures, and the wider the emotional/spiritual contexts, the richer our accord with wine can be. But naturally, it begins with the desire to bring that about, or at least to bring something about, which takes us back to your first question:
[DM: BOOM! Here we go — order out of chaos!]
Must one travel to wine regions? My answer is no, but that’s because of the word “must.”
[DM: My exact word was “necessary,” but okay, they’re both imperatives.]
In fact, I think we self-select; that is, people who grow curious about wine, or who read about it or see pretty pictures in wine books can easily think “It looks like fun to go there.”
To sum up, I think a concrete definition of terroir is easily possible, whereas the idea of sense-of-place is bound to be ethereal. But ether is real, after all! It’s fine to stop at “Something is happening to me that I don’t have words for, but I like it.”
And you’re right, if you’ve been to Tuscany you’ll never drink Chianti the same way again. Must you go? Of course not. Will you benefit from going? Of course!
Sauvignon Blanc seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Bordeaux seems to be rediscovering its signature white variety as it grapples with the implications of climate change. (And yet, could Sancerre be getting too ripe? Definitely something to explore there.) California seems to be emphasizing Sauvignon Blanc more, which unfortunately means some are getting incredibly expensive.
Bibiana González Rave is putting her heart and soul into her wines at Alma de Cattleya, but not her ego into the price. Her 2022 Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma County costs a relatively modest $25 and provides great value. The fruit comes from five hillside vineyards in Sonoma County and includes some of the aromatic musqué clone for additional aromatics. Bibiana ferments it in neutral French oak barrels and ages it in wood for an additional six months before bottling.
Don’t think New Zealand gooseberry with this one — or if it is gooseberry, it’s underripe gooseberry. To be honest, give me this blind and I might guess Grüner Veltliner because of the intense aromas of jasmine and lemongrass and flavors of quince and guava. Tasted the second day, it shows a bit more stone fruit. It’s fine by itself but the firm acidity would help it match all sorts of foods.
Oh, and don’t miss her rosé of pinot noir.
Photo from the winery website. Wine tasted was a sample.
A shorter version of this article was published on WashingtonPost.com on March 30, 2023.This version includes some anecdotes from my interview with George that didn’t make the shorter piece.
When social media algorithms take a break from pushing cleaning hacks, my feeds are awash in vineyard photos. Friends update their travels. Wineries tout new releases or chronicle the progress of a season. Sheep grazing on cover crops between vine rows in winter reassure me that a new vintage is coming soon. But as I scroll, my thumb always hovers when I see a photo by George Rose. I enlarge it to full screen, pinch out to zoom in, or move to a larger device so I can see the photo in a broader format and soak in every detail. A George Rose photo does not simply capture a snapshot in time, it reveals the essential character of a place.
Rose is a professional photographer who studied with Ansel Adams in the 1970s and played paparazzi to Hollywood stars (and Adams himself) for the Los Angeles Times. He worked a quarter century in winery public relations for Fetzer, Allied Domecq, Kendall-Jackson and J Vineyards — always with camera in tow — and now travels throughout California with camera and smartphone from his home base in Solvang, in Santa Barbara County wine country.
This winter’s wild weather in California has kept me dialed in on Rose’s feed, for photos of snowfall in Lake Tahoe, incoming blizzards in the Santa Ynez Valley, and rain showers in Death Valley. Some of those may eventually feature in his current project, a photo exploration of California’s relationship with water through drought, wildfires and now atmospheric rivers.
I reached out to Rose after he announced earlier this year that he had donated some 140,000 digital images he has photographed to the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, where they will be available to historians and researchers interested in how the landscape of American culture and viticulture evolved throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. About half those images relate to wine. I wanted to hear his personal perspective on how California wine had changed during his career, and how he viewed this change through his camera lens. We spoke over Zoom.
“I’m a terroir guy,” Rose told me right off the bat, as any self-respecting wine shutterbug should be. “I’m all about where the grapes are grown.” His interest in photographic terroir was sparked in the early 1990s, when he accompanied the LA Times wine writer Dan Berger on winery visits.
“George was the most inquisitive of all the photographers I worked with,” Berger recalls. “He was always wandering into places where I couldn’t imagine he would get much of anything, and he always came out with something creative.”
That creativity led to a photo book called “The Art of Terroir” and a few limited edition coffee-table books for Sonoma and Santa Barbara county wine regions, as well as steady work doing promotional calendars for wineries. He has also done work in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and British Columbia’s Okanagan wine region. He even owned and edited a newspaper in Mendocino County for a stretch.
Climate features prominently in all these features.
“The climate in California and elsewhere is intensifying,” Rose said. “The heat waves are hotter and longer, and this year is turning out to be a crazy year with the rainfall. It ended the drought in three weeks, and was ripe for photography. I’m fascinated by weather and climate, and I always try to document them in my photographs.”
During his quarter-century in public relations, George saw a lot of marketing trends come and go. “There was the flange top with no foil on bottles from Robert Mondavi, then the race toward heavier bottles that would break your back when you’re shlepping cases around,” he recalls.
“There may have been 20 million people in America drinking wine on a regular basis back then, and now it’s more like 60-100 million. There was also a big Neo-Prohibitionist movement that was finally killed by the French Paradox. In the 1980s, a cooking segment on the Today Show was not allowed to show a label on a wine bottle.” Today of course, Ray Isle and Leslie Sbrocco do regular wine segments on that show.
“I ate my way across America in the wine business,” he recalls. One of his early exploits was a barrel-making roadshow he cooked up for Fetzer Vineyards. “Fetzer had its own cooperage, using oak from the backwoods of Wisconsin. We took our cooper, Darrel Roberts, on a six-city tour to give demonstrations on toasting barrels to trade and restaurant clients.” These would be followed by dinners cooked by Fetzer’s resident chef, John Ash. Stops included Tavern on the Green in Manhattan and Wrigley Field in Chicago. When the Fetzer caravan reached the parking lot of Chasen’s restaurant in Los Angeles, the mercury was soaring over 100 degrees. “During the demonstration, the barrel went up in flames and someone went scrambling to get fire extinguishers from the trucks,” Rose recalls with a laugh.
There were more existential issues for marketers. “I remember sitting in a conference room with corporate types debating whether the winery needed a website. Then social media was supposed to be our salvation. When I started at Fetzer, my media list had 25 names. Now, wineries are by lifestyle bloggers, social media influencers and thousands of visitors. Most wineries don’t have the staff to keep up.”
George’s years in winery public relations have left him worried that consumers have lost — or never really made — the connection between wine and the vineyard.
“Wineries have always had trouble convincing consumers that wines are made with grapes that are subject to climate and weather,” he said. “Social media was supposed to help us sell wine. We have images of people clinking glasses, but we’ve gotten away from showing how the wine is made.” Vineyards give Rose special inspiration.
“Walking the vineyards, I can tell whether the vines are healthy or not. And viticulture has changed tremendously, especially with the move to sustainability,” he told me. “Practices such as reducing drip irrigation, finding the right grape varieties for the soils — there’s a more heads-up approach to grape-growing than when I started in the business.”
Improved viticulture and the emphasis on sustainability has helped California’s vineyards some crazy intense weather in recent vintages.
“These few years have been excruciating,” Rose said, citing the last three years of severe drought. “Now the drought is over, at least until the next one begins, which could be next week. But the good news is, the vineyard ponds are full. And perhaps surprisingly, through it all the vines seem to be just fine. And that’s the beauty of grapes. You don’t have to do anything. Whether it’s dry or whether it’s wet, there’s going to be a 2023 harvest. It’s going to happen just like it did in all the previous years.”
And just as in every California grape harvest for more than three decades, George Rose will be there to photograph it.
Some of George Rose’s photography can be seen at www.georgerose.com and on Instagram @georgerosephoto. His current project, “California’s Changing Landscape: The Way of Water,” is scheduled to be published in April 2024 by the California Nature Art Museum.
Photos by George Rose, courtesy of George Rose. 1) “Winter at Platt Vineyard,” Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County, California, 2016. (George Rose/Platt Vineyard). 2) “Morning Dew on Pinot Noir Grapes,” Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, California, 2017. (George Rose)3) Book cover mockup.
I cut my wine teeth when “ABC,” or anything but chardonnay, was all the rage. This was the golden era of buttery, oaky chards that cried out for “chicken in a cream sauce,” and I found myself gravitating more toward sauvignon blanc and riesling. Even now, decades later, chardonnay is rarely the first wine I reach for when I want a white. (Unless it’s Burgundy, of course. All generalizations about chardonnay stop at Burgundy. Including that one.)
So I tend to end up with chardonnays with some age on them. The other day as I was rummaging around in The Pile I found two of my favorites from 2015: Stony Hill from Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District and the Roserock from Drouhin Oregon in the Eola-Amity Hills of Willamette Valley. This was too good an opportunity to pass up.
My wife and I enjoyed these with dinner over a few nights. They paired beautifully with salmon, a Persian chicken and eggplant dish a neighbor brought us, and a simple spicy tofu stir fry. Each wine balances oak and acidity with vibrant fruit. The Stony Hill was a bit more voluptuous, while the Roserock remained laser-focused. Both had softened with a few years of age and shed any resistance, but they should also last many more years. Pity I don’t have more. (In what should become a regular caveat when I write about wines from The Pile, these were not in temperature-controlled storage but in the basement of my drafty suburban split-level home, which we keep slightly cooler than tolerable because — well, wine!)
These wines reminded me of my fondness for chardonnay from the Willamette Valley and certain mountainous outcrops of Napa Valley. Do you have any favorite chardonnays lurking in your collection? Which are your favorites, from California, Oregon or elsewhere? Any sleeper regions you wish you could find in stores? (Mine are Argentina and New Zealand.) Please let me know in the comments. (Both wines were samples.)
When preparing yesterday’s rant about the current existential dread in the wine industry over the indifference of younger consumers to our favorite tipple, I came across this piece I wrote just more than 10 years ago. It still rings true to me, so I’ll post it again here.
What is wine? Is it merely fermented grape juice? At its most basic, yes. But wine can be so much more. A connection to a cherished memory, a liquid impression of a place and time. And these don’t have to break the bank. Even those of us who can’t afford those expensive bottles — those of us who “explore on the edge of the map” — can experience the thrill of that connection to another place, another time.
The following was originally published on WashingtonPost.com on December 31, 2012.
You don’t have to know Burgundy to know wine, but the more you know wine, the more you will want to know Burgundy.
That’s the blessing and the challenge of modern wine. We don’t have to start at the top, seeking out and tasting rare vintages of Echezeaux, Romanee-Conti or other fine Burgundies to understand pinot noir and chardonnay. Nor need we mortgage our future for a taste of first-growth Bordeaux to experience wonderful cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The globalization of wine, especially technological advances in the vineyard and the winery, has made it possible to produce good wine just about anywhere, and the global economy allows us to try wine from anywhere without leaving home.
Good pinot noir is produced in California and Oregon, of course, but also in New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. By concentrating on these regions, a budget-minded wine fan can gain an understanding of pinot noir before tackling Burgundy. Cabernet and merlot fans can explore Chile’s Colchagua and Aconcagua valleys before shelling out for Napa or Bordeaux.
But that globalization has also led to similarity. As Paul Lukacs argues compellingly in his new book, “Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures” (Norton, 2012), modern technology and a global marketplace have helped create an international style that, at a certain level at least, trumps place of origin. The international style “emphasizes ripe fruit flavors, lush textures, and forceful levels of alcohol — in a word, flamboyance,” Lukacs writes. So when we go into a store or restaurant and ask for a chardonnay, it doesn’t matter whether it comes from California, France, Australia or just down the street as long as it tastes like our idea of what a chardonnay should be.
So we are awash in well-made, technically sound wines from around the world that tend to taste alike. We could stop there and be happy with the reliability of today’s inexpensive wine. (There are many evenings and many meals when such wines are just fine.)
Yet many wine lovers want more. We explore the regional expressions that do persist, finding differences in pinot noir from New Zealand’s Central Otago and the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. We move on from our favorite gulpable malbec and discover the nuances that Argentina’s cutting-edge winemakers achieve with grapes grown in alluvial soils at ever-higher altitudes in the Andean foothills. There are winemakers around the world who rebel at the sameness of the international style and take pride in creating wine that expresses its place of origin. The problem, of course, is that those wines are harder to find and cost more. But they are worth seeking out.
Many wine drinkers try to escape the confines of the international style by experiencing unfamiliar regions and grape varieties. Mencia from Spain, gruner veltliner and blaufrankisch from Austria, wines fermented and aged in clay pots buried in the ground; all these are populating lists at wine bars and restaurants. Modern winemaking has helped improve these wines and made them available across the globe. It also has helped spur the dramatic rise in regional wine in the United States, including impressive growth in Virginia and Maryland over the past decade.
Riesling is in vogue among sommeliers, writers and adventurous consumers, despite a lingering misperception among some that it is always sweet. In fact, dry Riesling achieves impressive finesse in New York, concentration and power in Washington state’s Columbia Valley and a full-throated roar in Australia. In Austria, it achieves an intense mineral quality. Perhaps Riesling is the anti-chardonnay: It delights us precisely because it challenges our idea of what a Riesling should be.
In the weeks ahead, we will continue to explore wine from the edges of the map, taking advantage of the success of modern winemaking around the world while seeking vintners and winesnot restricted by an international style. And we may detour from time to time toward iconic Burgundies and Bordeaux. It’ll be a fun voyage.
The wine community has been abuzz lately about its difficulty attracting young consumers. It’s a bit like drug pushers hanging around the school yard wondering where the kids are.
Okay, that’s unfair. Every consumer industry wants to attract new consumers and frets when its core demographic starts dying off. For wine, that core demo is us Boomers, who are beginning to fall off the actuarial table. Or at least, we are theoretically contemplating our mortality by slowing down our purchasing because we realize we’ll never be able to drink all of it. (There’s an essay there about whether we ever really intended to drink it or if we just bought it to admire in our luxury cellars and congratulate ourselves on being affluent and smart enough to buy it.)
The catalyst for all this wringing of hands and gnashing of purple teeth was the Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report on the state of the wine business, released in January. Rob McMillan, the report’s author, has been sounding the alarm for years but the industry hasn’t paid attention. Until now. I suspect his predictions in past annual reports are finally showing up on winery sales ledgers. We see the light of the oncoming train in the tunnel, but we don’t panic until it’s right in front of us.
I’ve written up past SVB reports, in years when they didn’t get the End is Nigh response of this year. I won’t summarize McMillan’s 2023 analysis — you can find it everywhere on the vinoweb and in the original here.
But I do have some thoughts on the generational shift issue, from a left-field perspective. My lens is a book published in 2012 called “Inventing Wine,” by Paul Lukacs. I reviewed it back then for The Washington Post, part of my only appearance in the book review section (aside from my annual writeup of wine books in my regular column). But Lukacs’s thesis has stayed in the back of my mind all these years, because I believe we are re-inventing wine now, in so many ways. More on that in posts to come.
Lukacs got right to his point in the first paragraph of his introduction: “So while people in different times and places have long drunk the same basic chemical substance, they have done so for a wide array of social and cultural reasons, in the process coming up with very different uses for it. Through its extensive history, wine has played various roles, being everything from a vehicle for spiritual communion to a source of bodily nourishment to an object of aesthetic appreciation. In virtually all of them, it has brought pleasure, but pleasure conceived of in a wide range of ways.”
How did Boomers conceive of wine? It was part of the good life, growing out of post-World War II travel to Europe, culinary exploration ignited by Julia Child. The real Boomer boom came in the late 1980s with the growth of the American wine industry. That’s when I got hooked on wine, in my late 20s, as the Cold War was ending and we appeared headed to an era of global peace and prosperity. The Greatest Generation may have won the war, but we won the post war. Time to party.
Wine was part of the good life. The best, as defined by arbiters such as Robert Parker and other critics, were to be collected and enjoyed, if not consumed, as symbols of our success. Wineries and vineyards became the playgrounds of the wealthy who sought to return to the land, whatever that means. Even “returning to the land” was a symbol of luxury. Magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast amplified this aspirational ideal of wine as the ultimate lifestyle. As Lukacs wrote, “an object of aesthetic appreciation.” If you’ve never participated in a “100 point dinner,” you’ve no doubt seen people bragging about them on social media. Wine appreciation at its worst.
Our children see all this as excess. The 2008 Great Recession was a blip for Boomers, but a formative experience for generations hanging on for dear life at the end of the alphabet. (Even that nomenclature hints of the End Times. What comes after Gen Z? Gen Alpha — as in “I am the Alpha and the Omega”?) They don’t envision a secure economic future, even if they will inherit whatever we don’t squander. They haven’t seen the world moving toward peace and stability — their world is school shootings, police brutality, systemic racism, insurrection and disfunction in Washington. They’ve lost faith in their national leaders. (I remember my father saying, “Wow, Nixon lied to us.”) They don’t expect Social Security to help them, and they may not believe the Earth will be habitable when they reach our age. They see us building our wine collections instead of trying to solve these problems. Why should they be interested in overpriced luxury wines? Why would they want to be like us?
Okay, I’ll stop here before I go totally off the rails. When my wife and I got hooked on wine back in the ‘80s and sought out other oenogeeks, we wereamong the youngest by far in our friends circle. Now we’re among the oldest. Today’s 20- and 30-somethings may or may not discover a love of wine, but it’s not likely to be our wine. It will be wine reinvented on their own terms.
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