Posted by Adam Lee
Currently, there is a movement in California backing away from the bigger, higher alcohol wines that seemed to become the norm sometime in the late 1990s. Some of this is due to a string of cooler vintages, but some of it is a deliberate decision by a number of winemakers to necessarily take a step back from always pushing the envelope on ripeness. All of which is fine and good, but I have a question about this movement. Are we winemakers doing American wine drinkers a disservice by moving blindly towards producing lower alcohol, better balanced, more food-friendly, more ageworthy wines?
That’s right—a disservice. Take a look at these figures on California wine sales in the United States. From 1997 to 2001, California winery shipments to the U.S. market went from 384 million gallons up to 387 million gallons. Less than a 1 percent increase in 4 years isn’t going to get anyone excited. From 2001 to 2007, those same shipments increased from 387 million gallons to 457 million gallons—an almost 18% increase. Certainly one can point to other factors in attempting to explain this increase, things like a growing economy or a certain movie, but I think the correlation between this new, “riper” style and the boon in wine sales is more than coincidental.
Now, I participate in enough wine forums to hear the cries of those who deride the new, riper style. They will scream, “How can you say that producing more balanced wines is doing the consumer a disservice? Wine is meant to be an accompaniment to food, and these new style wines overwhelm any meal. They are not true to the grape type or the terroir. They don’t age well. And people really don’t want a wine that will get them buzzed after only a glass or two.”
I understand these sentiments. And I would begin to respond to them by asking, “When did you forget what it is like to be younger?”
First off, I’m always skeptical when someone tells me what something is “supposed to be.” If the grape comes from the place, then isn’t the wine necessarily a reflection of the grape and the place, even if it doesn’t meet your personal taste? And the age argument has never impressed me tremendously, as most people drink their wines early anyhow.
But the food argument really strikes me as out of touch with reality for many younger drinkers. Quite frankly, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone with children younger than 13 years of age make the argument that the new-style wines don’t go with a meal.
Let me tell you about a meal in my house. We have 3 kids, ages 9, 4, and 2. We don’t sit down to a proper meal. Oh, we try. Dianna and I open a bottle of wine and end up drinking 30 percent of it before the meal even starts, about 60 percent of it after the meal while doing the dishes and getting the kids ready for bed, and only 10 percent of the bottle with a meal. And that 10 percent doesn’t even get the opportunity to pair with the food. It accompanies us trying to convince the kids to at least taste their broccoli, or us cleaning up the inevitable milk accident when we serve the kids in regular cups because we’ve run out of sippy cups, or trying to hide the kids-meal toy before the kids see them and forget about their food entirely. I tell you this: The new-style wine goes pretty well with this kind of meal.
I’m not trying to argue that there is only room for one style of wine— not just one style in the world, not just one style in California, not even just one style in one winery. What I am arguing is that the arguments often made against the “new style” of wine are out of touch with the reality of many Americans.
Instead of arguing for one style over the other, perhaps there is a better way to view things. Over the years, Dianna and I have discovered something after making wines from lots of different places. Certain vineyards, such as Pisoni and Keefer, do better for us if the wine is made in a bit bigger, a bit more extracted, a bit more “new” style. Other vineyards seem to perform better when produced in a somewhat more traditional style. Places like Sapphire Hill and Van der Kamp show their alcohol more readily and seem out of balance more easily if we push the “new style” envelope.
My point is that, as an industry in California, we should ultimately be figuring out which style, which winemaking decisions, make the best wine at each vineyard and then producing that wine. What we shouldn’t be doing is changing styles because of changes in trends or because of the comments of a certain group of critics or because of which way the wine wind decides to blow.