In talking about wine styles, and why and when they change, I usually turn to the analogies of popular music or fashion. I ask people to walk into their closet and examine their wardrobe, and think about when and why they bought a shirt or jacket, and which are their favorite items, or the ones they never wear.
Today I couldn't help but think about how pop icon Michael Jackson influenced the entertainment world. No matter what you thought about his curious persona or mercurial career, the one white glove or moon walk dance, there’s no mistaking his lasting legacy. His music is an extraordinary body of work. Jackson had many imitators, but no one could match his musical achievements. They invite comparisons to the likes of Elvis Presley or the Beatles.
Granted, wine styles can't and don't change with the fluidity of pop music, hemlines or pinstripes. Wine is agriculture. Changes in style are by nature more gradual. But styles do change, and of course, and so do tastes. The two go hand in hand. What may have been hot last year isn't now. My taste for collecting different kinds of wines has ranged from impulsive to disciplined, but usually well in between those extremes.
With wine, conversation about changing styles often revolves around how wines age. When readers describe drinking a 30-year-old Mayacamas or Heitz or Louis Martini Cabernet, they wonder why winemakers stopped making those kinds of wines, and more to the point, they wonder whether the modern versions will endure as those have.
Truth is, it's unclear at both ends of the equation. Few winemakers still favor the styles of the aforementioned wines, and it's anyone's guess as to how long or well today's stars will shine.
If you asked Bob Travers why his 1974 Mayacamas aged so gloriously, I'm sure he'd say it was the vineyard and the year more so than any winemaking magic in the cellar. I'm sure, too, that he had a good idea that the '74 vintage was special early on, as indeed it was. But I’m not sure he could offer greater insight into any other specifics aside from the results: it had to be a great year since the proof is in the bottle. Time reveals the truth with older wines.
For whatever reason, the style of the 1970s Napa Cabernets ran its course. New vineyards were planted, old ones reconfigured, the number of brands proliferated and winemakers aimed not only for a different style (i.e. riper flavors and gentler tannins) but ways to differentiate their wines from an ever-growing multitude of offerings. For example, most of the great Cabernets of the 1960s and 1970s were 100 percent Cabernet. Today it's rare to find such a wine.
For all the glory of the iconic wines of their era, people forget that there were far more that lacked complexity, charm, and texture and didn't evolve in such a magnificent fashion.
Of course, our tastes have changed, too. There was a time when people who bought Napa Cabernet routinely aged the wines, believing both that the harder tannins of the era needed time to soften but also that the wines would get better. The hard tannins didn't soften, and most of the wines didn't gain.
We wine drinkers wanted and expected more from our wines – more depth, flavor, balance, texture and complexity – and perhaps we were less patient, wanting to drink and enjoy our wines in their youth rather than cellar them and miss the fruit purity of an infant wine.
Today with perhaps 800 individual bottlings of Napa Cabernet, it's no wonder there are both so many different styles and such a great emphasis on place. Yet it's curious how similar many of those wines are. For every glorious Bryant or Lewis Cabernet, there are many imitators who simply can't achieve the success of that style. Do we have too many wines made in that style? I think so. And that is changing.
Today's wines are better made, more complex, better balanced and they give us more of everything--perhaps most obviously immediate gratification. I believe that many of today's wines will age well, but many others won't, just like in years gone by.
Judgment day is coming for many modern-style wines, and each of us will have to ask ourselves if the wines met our expectations.
John Burman — Jupiter, Fl — June 26, 2009 7:01pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — June 27, 2009 12:58am ET
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m — miramar beach, fl — June 28, 2009 1:42pm ET
Bryan So — CA — June 28, 2009 3:05pm ET
Mike Officer — June 28, 2009 8:31pm ET
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — June 29, 2009 11:36am ET
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — June 30, 2009 9:33pm ET
Harvey Posert — napa valley — July 1, 2009 2:19pm ET
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