It’s fashionable for wine scribes to bewail wine’s globalization – or mondalisation, as we francophiles like to say – the growing uniformity as countries around the world produce wines from the same grapes at excessive alcohol levels and abundant new oak. (Are there any forests left on earth, anywhere? Can’t we make barrels out of bamboo? It’s sustainable!) And there’s usually a one-word answer, or villain, for all of wine’s woes: Parker. Well, lately, a new villain has appeared as the cause of these unfortunate trends: Consumers.
Yes, that would be you, or at least your neighbors. According to this argument, alcohol levels are creeping up because those are the types of wines consumers want to drink. Market forces, not critics, are driving wine styles. (Never mind that lemming-like consumers might be blindly following their favorite critics off a stylistic cliff.)
As Tom Wark, in his great blog Fermentation, recently put it succinctly and cogently (he writes no other way):
If you worry over the proliferation of big, high pH fruit bombs, don’t blame Robert Parker’s palate or Jim Laube’s [of Wine Spectator] preferences.
If you are troubled by the higher alcohol in wine these days, don’t blame new yeasts or new clones or global warming or the palate preference of critics.
If you worry about the invasion of non-traditional grape varieties pushing out traditional grape varieties in Old World growing regions, don’t blame corporate interests or globalist mindsets.
In every one of these cases the blame or responsibility falls on one entity: The consumer’s preference.
Wark’s argument is nuanced, and worth reading in its entirety. Here’s another nugget:
[A]s categories of consumer product begin to pick up a significant following, as wine has done over the past 30 years, the majority of products in a given category will take on a simpler, less complex character because most consumers in a large sample prefer simple [over] complex.
The consumer, as always, is king…but a simple King.
So market forces drive us toward the simple, the least common denominator (my term, not Wark’s). I can relate to that. Among the readers of my weekly wine column in The Washington Post, one in particular writes frequently to complain that I don’t recommend wines from Safeway or Total Wine & More, “America’s Wine Superstore,” favoring instead the small specialty stores that proliferate in the Washington area and make this a great place to be a wine lover. This guy refuses to drive an extra mile or two to a specialty wine shop, preferring the convenience and economy of the big-box store. That’s understandable. I prefer to buy my toothpaste, bandages, and ketchup at Costco because I can get the best prices and buy them all at once – but I also know these will be the same toothpaste and bandages that might cost a few pennies more at CVS or Walgreen’s, and the same ketchup that Safeway would rip me off for an extra nickel.
With wine, it is not the same. Those specialty stores – which, by the way, are just as likely as Total Wine to be in a strip mall down the road – offer small-production wines from family-owned vineyards that taste a world apart from the industrial sameness that feeds the beast of big-box stores and national supermarkets. They feature wines from local importers with small portfolios and distributors who represent cutting-edge wineries too tiny to grab the attention of the national distribution behemoths. Wines of variety and excitement, often without costing a whole lot more.
My job as a wine writer is not to justify a reader’s complacency. I want to prod readers out of their comfort zones away from the “simplicity” of industrial wine and encourage them to explore wine’s variety; to challenge their assumptions about what is good and lead them to discover for themselves the infinite array of flavors available to them for their simple glass of wine with dinner.