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Drinking Out Loud

Timing Is Everything

As we enter a new decade, which wines are in tune with the economy and culture, which are missing the moment, and which are about to falter?

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 5, 2010

As a new year—and a new decade—begins, it’s impossible not to think about time. But as I was driving, listening to my local jazz station on the radio, I found myself more struck by the power of timing than by time itself.

What triggered this was hearing one of the Great American Songbook standards sung to exquisite perfection. Everything about this modern-day recording was pitch-perfect in every sense—the singer, the song, the background arrangement. Yet I knew that I was listening to an artifact rather than to a vital life force.

In music today, you have a slew of magnificent musicians who love jazz or the Great American Songbook (and often both) and who struggle to create careers from musical forms that are no longer central to modern life.

This is not to say that, as with classical music, there isn’t an ardent audience. Rather, it’s a fact-of-life recognition that where once these expressions helped define or enhance the lives of a vast audience and were part of a common national, even international, cultural vocabulary, today they are nurtured and sustained by only a small cohort.

Why does this matter? Commercially, it matters because it’s hard for practitioners to make a living. Artistically, you’re swimming in a backwater unrefreshed by new ideas and the creative juices that emerge from the pressure of a demanding, involved, insistent public that wants both novelty and improvement.

What has this to do with wine, you ask? Timing matters with wine, too. We’re living in a moment where wine—the whole, huge, complex, multinational glop of it—has never been more present in middle-class lives almost anywhere. Indeed, we’re only just now seeing the rise of wine as a cultural force in Asia, with far more influence yet to come.

So wine in the aggregate is certainly in tune with the times. But not all wines. That wonderful song on the radio made me think about which wines are right on the beat, which are missing the moment, and which are nearing an inflection point where they may well be about to lose step and falter.

What I’m describing is not just fashion. Rather, it reflects that we now live differently, with different emotional, psychological and practical needs. Take sweet wines, for example. Personally, I love them. Yet I’d be less than honest were I to say that I drink them anywhere near as regularly as I do dry wines. I don’t finish a meal with them. And most of the (austerely simple) dishes I make and eat don’t seem to be enhanced by them. Probably you could say the same.

Does this mean that sweet wines will disappear? Hardly. They’re still abundant and beloved—but by a small cohort (think jazz). These wines no longer define our ideal of wine beauty, the way they did a century ago. They are alive and cherished, but the culture that created them is now historical rather than contemporary (think the Great American Songbook).

This is one of the reasons why a wine as utterly original and brilliant as Tokaji Aszú struggles to find a modern audience. This despite huge investments by outfits such as the French insurance giant AXA (which owns Disznókó) and Spain’s Vega Sicilia (which owns Oremus), to say nothing of many smaller but still substantial investments by others. Timing is not on their side.

Yet the timing is right for Argentina. Not only does the country have something special in its uniquely vast Malbec plantings, but timing gained its producers an edge, and an education. Argentina watched enviously in the 1980s as Chile launched its cheap, commodity wines in the international market with great success. Then Argentina saw Chile suffer the stigma of a low-rent image from those same cheap wines, an image it’s only now overcoming.

When Argentina’s time arrived, its producers made sure to offer both inexpensive and high-end wines. Chile paid the tuition; Argentina learned the lesson. Good timing, wouldn’t you say?

France, for its part, continues to be challenged by timing. For a nation that was once almost preternaturally gifted at knowing how to present its glorious wares—wine and otherwise—France today seems like a nation paralyzed. Its food is depressingly devigorated (unlike Italy’s and Spain’s). Its wines remain qualitative benchmarks, yet somehow a new generation of wine drinkers seems unmoved by them (see Loire, Alsace, Beaujolais, most of Bordeaux). Improbably, even incredibly, today there’s a whiff of backwater to France.

What about France’s small but passionate subculture of “natural” winemakers? The Loire and Burgundy have a growing cadre of biodynamic producers. Don’t they represent an essential vitality? They surely do.

But I ask you: Are they really changing French wine culture? I don’t see much evidence of that so far. Witness the onslaught—that’s the only word—of antagonism to wine on the part of the French government, avowedly in the name of health.

Do you see the French wine industry rising up and smiting—or even effectively engaging—its foe? You do not. French winegrowers are in disarray, disengaged and seemingly in despair. This is not the sign of a healthy, vital wine culture that’s syncopated with today’s timing.

And what about California? Is its timing still cutting edge, as it once was? With the notable, thrilling exception of Pinot Noir, California’s current wine culture, to this observer anyway, is stagnant.

So much money—so much overhead, really—has been invested that you see little appetite for innovation and even less for risk-taking. The stakes are too high, and too many owners don’t know or care enough about wine to pursue something original. The ratio of “wines of fear” to “wines of conviction” is more lopsided in California than anywhere else on the planet.

What about all those tiny, hip “virtual” wineries, you ask? Structurally, they exist because it’s the only way for someone with little capital to now break into California’s pricey wine game. But they don’t represent a fundamental alteration in the fabric of California wine culture. After all, most of these “virtual” wineries are making the same wines as the (vineyard) landed gentry.

Do we really need yet another California Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon? Yet that’s what is still mostly grown and offered to “virtual” wineries—and what these hip nonwineries offer to us. Only those who control the vineyards can give us real innovation and distinction—as opposed to the gimmicks of packaging, the cutesy names and the ever-greater ripeness that today pass as substantive change.

Too many wineries cling to the formulaic for fear of a misstep. California is fast becoming the Lawrence Welk of wine, looking at its feet while dancing, counting the beat, “Ah one, and ah two …”

In Spain and Italy, though, it’s a whole other story. Both nations continue to surge ahead, offering us ever-better wines from newly invigorated small winegrowers creating fascinating wines. Both Spain and Italy seem to have a chronometer-like accuracy in keeping step with the times—practically jitterbugging with it in their wines, on their labels and in their sheer, joyous pizzazz.

Spain, especially, continues to dazzle with both its food (arguably the best in Europe today) and its vastly improved wines from nooks and crannies even the Spanish themselves never heard of just a decade ago. For example, have you heard of Campo de Borja? Likely not. Yet it’s next door to Rioja, making wonderful wine from ancient Grenache plantings. (Spain has 593,000 acres of Grenache, which is more than all of California’s wine grape plantings combined.)

Australia, in comparison, is probably the current poster child for bad timing. It sure seemed like a juggernaut only a few years ago. Yet ask any retailer (in America, anyway): If it costs more than you’d need for a couple of Big Macs, Australian wines are tough sells. (See Chile, above, for the reasons.)

Does Australia deserve this? Surely not. But the Aussie situation is a classic example of the adage “In life, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you ask for.” Australia invested everything in its big-boy, bulked-up wine culture and almost nothing in its own latent-but-very-real artisanal wine culture.

Timing caught up with the Australian wine juggernaut—and ran right over it. The wine world hummed a terroir tune—or at least whistled it—while the Aussies kept playing the same bulk-wine jingle. They’re still peeling themselves off the pavement Down Under, with yet more structural contractions and cultural cramps to come.

Does timing matter to wine drinkers? You bet. When economics and a local wine culture are in sync, we get better wines from more interesting producers offering us new notions of wine beauty. Think of California in the 1970s, Italy in the 1980s, Spain in the 1990s, Argentina and New Zealand in the 2000s and now, starting in 2010 … where?

I won’t pretend to have the answer to that question. But I will say this: The wine culture—whether specific to a single district or even a whole nation—whose timing will be perfect in 2010 will be the one that is the most joyously adventurous, the most transparent in its labeling about how it grows its grapes and makes its wines and, not least, the one that gives us something to dream about.

Giving us something to dream about is what France (oh, my beloved France!) once did. It’s what made Italy so irresistibly seductive. It’s what made California—its wines, its food, its free-and-easy way of living—so inspiring.

Many years ago I was visiting Burgundy producers with my friend Michel Bettane, the great French wine critic. After tasting something ethereally wonderful, I was later gushing to Michel about the beauty of Burgundy. Michel smiled and said, “Ah, Matt, you want to dream your wines.” And so I do.

I believe this is true for most of us. Above all else, I believe this: Timing is always on the side of whoever can make us dream our wines.

David Rossi
Napa, CA, USA —  January 5, 2010 4:24pm ET
Patience Matt. Just when you think things are in the doldrums a wind blows. I am one of those small California winemakers without land nor winery in my own name, and while I agree with your lament I have hope.

There is a lot of passion in this industry and there is a new wine and a new grape and a new area which we don't even talk about that will emerge.

I can't say where or what, but it will come.

May I suggest that you may have found a new editorial slant for an issue in 2010. Wines of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas? Reisling, Gewurtz, and Pinot Gris is Anderson Valley? Norton in the midwest? Icewines from upstate NY?

The excitement and passion are out there, but you just might not find it in France, Italy, Australia or Napa
Patrick Murray
Allyn, Washington, USA —  January 5, 2010 4:54pm ET
Hi Matt,

What about the Washington State Cabs? I think I see movement in that direction, especially with the number of 90+ point Wines that are competitively prices.

Pat Murray
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
Wine World —  January 5, 2010 5:26pm ET
Matt:

Love your Comments/Blogs. Just a minor/slight correction: I'm afraid Vega Sicilia owns Oremus, ergo, AXA do the same with Disznoko.

Keep Up The Good Work. . .
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  January 5, 2010 5:46pm ET
Mr. Esquivel: Thanks for your kind words and for pointing out my error in mistakenly switching the ownerships of Oremus and Disznókó. I have corrected the column to show correct owners. My thanks again.
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  January 5, 2010 6:09pm ET
Matt,
Thanks for the article - thought-provoking and expressive, as always. Being a musician, I especially enjoyed your analogies. :)

At one point, however, you write, "With the notable, thrilling exception of Pinot Noir, California’s current wine culture, to this observer anyway, is stagnant." Really? To me, the rise of the Rhone Rangers is not only vibrant, but it seems to have replaced the interest in Pinots, to my mind. Yes, there are several, wonderful PN producers who weren't around 20 years ago, and they're learning and fine-tuning their vineyards more and more, but can they make enough juice to satisfy a large audience? The US audience heard "Pinot Noir is good; Merlot is bad," from the movie Sideways, but what they failed to hear is how finicky Pinot is and how it's best made in really small lots. In the end, PN can't deliver what the US, at large, wants. There isn't enough of the good stuff to go around, and there seems to be a pretty dramatic drop-off in quality just behind the good ones. Oh, and btw, US, good Pinot ain't cheap, and you're gonna' need bigger glasses if you really want to be able to appreciate what that PN can do. I can't count the number of friends who have expressed disappointment to me about not enjoying Pinot Noir as much as they thought - and hoped - they would.

To me, the Rhone Rangers can succeed where the Cabs and Pinots have failed. Especially Central Coast Syrah and Grenache producers aren't strapped by the high cost of Napa real estate or the need to age their wines nearly as much as a Cab (or Cab blend). Meanwhile, they can also make more high-quality wine that's a bit more obvious in its appeal than Pinot Noir (and let's face it, those new American wine consumers grew up drinking sodas and milk), and they can do it at a more reasonable price than Cab or PN.

I agree with the dynamism of Spanish wines, and if any region in France is making news and shaking things up, it's gotta be CdP. And what are they growing in Spain and CdP? Grenache, of course. 'Think the success of those regions is going to impact what succeeds in the US. I sure do, and I'm putting my money (quite literally!) on the Rhone Rangers. Pinot Noir had a white-hot, 15 minutes of fame, and the best producers will always have a following, but I think the masses will start dancing more to "Que SYRAH." Whether Central Coast or WA, I believe that the Rhone producers are more in sync than the Pinot producers.
Roger Gentile
columbus ohio —  January 5, 2010 7:00pm ET
Dear Mr. Kramer,

Yours was a delightful and insightful piece, and points out the myriad changes which might well come. Specifics aside, this is a fluid industry -no pun intended- and change is inevitable. Back in the 60's it was New York State, all things Gallo, and French wines as the consumer's focus; the '70's saw Portugese Rose (e.g. Mateus), Germany's Little Lady (i.e. Blue Nun) and the now odd CA whites ( Krug Chenin Blanc, Wente Le Blanc de Blanc, and Weibel Green Hungarian); the 80's were all about Lambrusco, emerging CA "cult" wineries, and the awakeneing Aussie wine peddlers; came the '90's and the decade's wealth, and the Napa Elite emerged challenging the great growths of Bordeaux. After that, your piece exactly says it all...meaning things change. Things like life, fortune, love, and, to the point, what wine works now and what wines no longer do. Your article showed me two things...you understand the market, and you are still quite an astute wine writer.





Mr Andrew J Green
Kansas —  January 5, 2010 9:49pm ET
You say this is not about fashion, although it certainly sounds that way. While I am interested by what's new -- and I second the praise of CaliRhones for both quality and value -- there are many Napa vineyards that produce quality wine, have and resisted the crazy cult prices, that are as good as ever. Caymus immediately comes to mind as a producer of fabulous Napa Cab that has held the line on price for a number of years. Ditto high-end Behringer, Clos du Val, Stags Leap and others.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  January 5, 2010 10:08pm ET
What a wonderful read!

Many winemakers will be looking at themselves saying "I hope that I don't become the Lawrence Welk of the wine world!". A new term that will become part of the wine worlds common conciseness.

Happy New Year!
James Biddle
Dayton, OH —  January 6, 2010 10:20am ET
Matt,
Yep, timing is everything, but it almost always requires prespective. Some have lived through the changes you've mentioned, but without much mindfulness. I always appreciate not only the thought behind your observations, but also the thoughtfulness of the issues discussed within broader related issues--thanks. On another note, it's possible to be ahead of the timing curve. Before I read this entry,I just finished reading your book on Piemonte's culture/food/wine. My immediate thought was that your book was about 10 years ahead of its time--but it resonates with these times (if one can find it!).
James Suckling
 —  January 6, 2010 10:59am ET
Matt. Thought-provoking piece. I am not sure that it's fair to generalize about countries or states, when it comes to bad timing, or making dream wines. The dream wines from France, California, Australia and everywhere else are all there if you open your eyes my friend. Live the dream. It's never been a better time for wine consumers than now.
Richard Scholtz
Austin, TX —  January 6, 2010 11:33am ET
I think part of the reason for the rise of Spanish and Italian wines is they had great room for improvement. Ten years ago, when I heard Spanish wines, my first thought was "perfect for sangria," and trying to find a good Italian wine that was affordable was like playing Russian roulette. What a difference a decade makes. No doubt timing helped them as well.
My main problem with France has been it's stubbornness to adapt to a changing marketplace. You only need to look at Champagne for a prime example of this. Fortunately, there are pockets in the Loire, Bordeaux, and the Rhone that are seeing the light, and beginning to bring in New World technology, while holding onto the Old World traditions.
I'll say this again, because I think it bears repeating. The next hotspot for wine is going to be Paso Robles and the Central Coast region. There are some really excellent wines coming from there, and with the cheaper real estate and production costs, they are going to be knocking on Napa's doorstep for wine supremacy in California in very short order. While I don't think they are going to be replacing Napa completely, this region is starting to show up on everyone's radar. I say get in on the opportunities and mailing lists now while you can.
Manuel Michalowski
Washington, D.C. —  January 6, 2010 11:34am ET
I, too, am a fan of Grenache, CdP, Spanish Garnacha wines from Calatayud, but I disagree with Mr Oneil's comment regarding CA Rhone Rangers. I have not seen too much evidence of this resurgence coming out of CA. As for CA Syrah,it's still a hard hand-sell to consumers; it's way overpriced, and frankly, I'd rather drink Syrah from the Rhone. Matt, I found your article to be interesting, and thought provoking...there are plenty of lessons to be had by all. Still, there's plenty of great wine out there, especially from regions that are off the beaten path (e.g., Basilicata).
James Zalenka
Pittsburgh PA —  January 6, 2010 1:40pm ET
As a singer of songs from The Great American Songbook, I think if you've never heard it before, it's new to you. I always find great songs from earlier eras that seem fresh to me and my audience. I believe the same is true for wine. You, most certainly, are a well traveled wine aficianado who is naturally bored because you've tasted everything. Twice. That is not true of most people.
Molly Choi
New York, NY —  January 6, 2010 2:07pm ET
Dear Mr. Kramer,

I agree with the previous posters that your piece is indeed thought-provoking and insightful. However, I think you’ve omitted mentioning a region whose time really may come in 2010 - South Africa.

The World Cup is about to bring massive global media coverage and awareness to this fascinating and beautiful country. The movies District 9 and Invictus, with their star-powered promotion, have begun the buzz that will only grow louder the closer we get to the matches this summer. But what do soccer and Hollywood have to do with wine? Timing and culture. The timing for this giant spotlight over South Africa couldn’t be better for showcasing their wine culture, especially in this challenging economic climate. It is perfectly in sync with where the region is headed in the minds (and cellars) of wine buyers and enthusiasts.

Despite huge advances in the winemaking industry in the post apartheid era, South Africa is a region that remains largely under the radar. But as consumers increasingly seek value and ‘trade down,’ they will discover that many of the Cape’s wines overdeliver for their price.

South Africa also has a new generation of young, dynamic winemakers who are eager to learn and innovate. Many of them travel abroad to work multiple harvests, which provides unique exposure to varied winemaking styles and techniques.

To your point about transparency in labeling, South Africa has perfect timing again. Due in part to its historic isolation, they were farming sustainably long before it became fashionable to do so. This year their industry will unveil a groundbreaking labeling system, that not only highlights their commitment to environmentally sustainable wine production, but that will also contain information to allow a consumer to trace every bottle to the vineyard practices of its source. No other wine producing country has this level of production accountability.

Lastly, you say the ‘it’ region of 2010 should give us something to dream about. If you have ever traveled to South Africa, taken in the staggering beauty, experienced the grace and generosity of its people, seen the dichotomy between rich and poor, marveled at how much has been achieved in such a short time despite such a long road still ahead, you’ll have found your answer. The excitement and optimism of progress and change that is ever present, coupled with their dynamic and progressive wine culture, would give anyone plenty to dream about.

With kind regards,
Molly Choi
Scotty Scott
Montgomery, Alabama —  January 6, 2010 2:29pm ET
Very thought provoking article, Matt. I particularly like the "dream your wines" assessment. If wine buying was completely rational and without emotion how boring it all would be. I think the dream is alive and waiting to be found, as always, just beneath the next cork.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  January 6, 2010 2:30pm ET
You can make a case that any one of these regions could be the next new hot region (all over again) if prices came down and the multitudes of us winedrinkers were able either explore the region for the first time or enjoy a new love affair with a region "out of favor". Take Napa for instance, I cut my wine teeth on drinking their wonderful wines back in the late 80's and early 90's, prices for Caymus (regular bottling) was $20 and the special select from 1990 was $55 - I know, I bot a bunch of both and they were unbelievable to say the least. However, anything with Napa now on the label now starts at $100 and goes up from there (yes, I know, there are exceptions) - so guess what? I don't buy or drink them anymore and haven't in 10 years. To me, I would love to re-explore Napa but won't at these prices. Could it be the next "hot" region - to me, absolutely, but prices need to adjust dramatically. Ditto for many of these regions, Bordeaux, Burgundy and now, look at the prices for the better Argentinian wines, are you kidding, in a few vintages they are already over $100/bottle? Guess I won't be exploring that area anytime soon. If you can't try the best for a reasonable price (DRC, Petrus excluded) then it will be difficult to know what the next hot wine region will be. QPR rules these days!
Jonathan Rezabek
Chandler, AZ —  January 6, 2010 4:53pm ET
Matt,
Although I agree that timing is important in the wine world, I feel that classifying countries as the main factor influencing the economics is too broad of a generalization. Wine is producer specific. Take your wine of the year- Pieropan is a great producer in a less than reputable winemaking region.

I believe that these are some of the factors that will be affecting timing in the next decade:
1.As the large influx of new wine drinkers' palates evolve the more they will move away from the overextracted, overoaked and brawny wines i.e. most Barossa Shiraz (yes, I realized I just made a generalization).
2.As cuisine gains more popularity people will become more conscientious of the complimentary role of wine. Wine nerds need a reality food/ wine pairing show.
3.More people will come to discover the beauty of aged wine. The backlog of older vintages ageing on retailers shelves will create a mini renaissance of wine appreciation (hey, this wine tastes nothing like Kool-Aid?!).
4.We will not be so focused on finding the next up and coming region, and wineries will work on improving what they already have. We waste a lot of time trying to find the hot new grape in the hot(literal) new wine region. DRC has taken thousands of years to master what it has.
Gavin Mccomas
Eugene, OR, USA —  January 6, 2010 10:24pm ET
And what about Oregon? Pioneer of American Pinot Gris, new-world master of Pinot Noir (of course, the Eyrie Vineyards figures largely into that), and host to one of the world's most important viticulture climatologists, Greg Jones, son of the founders of Abacela--one of the U.S.'s first serious new-world Tempranillo. The Pinot grape not only absorbs the conditions of it's production, whether it be terroir, winemaking style, etc., but it also has an incredible ability to absorb the will of consumers. In these tougher times, there are whole new and rather exciting categories of prices and styles. Meanwhile, there's still the ongoing work of tactfully delineating AVA boundaries, improving viticulture and diversifying and integrating the industry with respect to the rest of the world. Which, of course, has plenty more experience. Working within this industry also informs one to the camaraderie of its compatriots. Take Oregon Pinot Camp, where winemakers from around the world come to learn from and share information with Oregon producers and other members of the Oregon wine community. The timing here is exciting. The enthusiasm, capability and quality of this burgeoning and maturing wine-growing region certainly deserves recognition with respect to the 'timing' phenomenon you discuss.
Tom Jacobsen
Hillsboro, OR —  January 6, 2010 11:18pm ET
Once again, thanks for the article. While my wine taste seems to fall somewhere between you and Mr. Steiman, your writing keeps me thinking, learning and subscribing. Cheers to the New Year, good wine, music and all things that provide enjoyment and thought.
Kaj Ahlmann
Lower Lake, California —  January 7, 2010 2:06pm ET
Matt,

Thank you for the nice article.

I respectfully disagree with one comment:

"...California’s current wine culture, to this observer anyway, is stagnant."

There are some clever young minds mobilizing quickly in this new economic landscape, and we're not all making Pinot Noir.

Best Regards,

Christian Ahlmann
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  January 9, 2010 9:55pm ET
Matt, you are the best resource the WS has! Most wine writers write as though they cut their teeth in the business of historical textbooks. You put some of the passion and interest back into a topic that certainly doesn't lack either yet is often written about as though it were part of the daily obituraries. Keep the pen handy.


Dan J
Dale Rouse
Oregon —  January 11, 2010 10:39am ET
Mexican Nebbiolo from the Baja Peninsula
Tom Lynch
Atlanta, Georgia, USA —  January 12, 2010 1:23am ET
Thank you, Molly! I think you're dead on. It is South Africa's time. And there is one other reason (in addition to the great list you gave)... Variety.

As Mr. Kramer noted, countries often get stagnant when locked into one or two varietal types as the popular standards everyone feels they have to produce. South Africa has avoided this rut. The wine industry is the perfect reflection of the "Rainbow Nation" of eleven different official languages and cultures. That unique aspect of South African culture permeates the wonderful variety of South African wines. With a seemingly unending number and type of micro-climates and styles and influences and cultivars, one will never get bored drinking South African wines.

Cheers!

Tom Lynch
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  January 13, 2010 5:46pm ET
Dear Mr. Kramer, I agree with most of what you said (although I do agree with Mr. Suckling's comment as well), but one thing that still puzzles me is why I keep hearing so much about Argentine Malbec, at least those from Mendoza. Living next door to them, I still find (with the exception of expensive wines such as Catena Zapata's flagship wine) most of what is on offer irritantingly sweet, low-acidic, food un-freindly. For my part, I find Patagonia's Malbecs and non-Malbec wines such as Chacra and Noemia a more interesting proposition.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 31, 2010 5:39am ET
Washington and Oregon.... the time is right for their fantastic 2007 and 2008 wines to take over the market!!

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