A friend of mine recently bemoaned how unexciting fine wine is today, compared to his fond memories of the wine vibe of the 1980s and '90s. "It's all about marketing and scores and money," he lamented.
Yes, we sure do see a lot of marketing sweat out there. And yes, a disturbing number of wine producers care more about scores, it seems, than about their wines. As for money, hey, what's wrong with trying to get a higher price? This is America, remember?
But my friend—who’s American, by the way—is utterly wrong about this being an unexciting era in fine wine. If anything, it’s arguably the most exciting moment in fine wine since the starburst fireworks that heralded the renaissance of fine wine that sputtered to life in the 1970s and fully ignited in the 1980s.
That was when wine, seemingly everywhere, woke up either from a long quality stupor (Spain, Italy, France, Greece) or became alive to brand-new possibilities (California, Oregon, Washington, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina). Of course it took wine producers a good while to gain traction, so it was only in the 1990s that the full force of this worldwide renaissance became apparent to everyday wine drinkers, who don’t follow every new wrinkle. Today's abundance of wonderful wines is a very new normal.
So what's changing now? Why is this moment, of all moments, so different?
The answer lies in a gathering force that, although far from universal, is altering both how wine is made and how we drink (and think) about what we're offered. It's all about what historians call "mentality." Allow me to explain.
In France during the 1930s, a new approach to viewing history emerged. It had its own journal, called Annales d'histoire économique et sociale. (The name changed several times over the decades, but this was the original.)
A key feature of the historians who collectively became known as the Annales School was their creative, inventive methods of teasing out from vast amounts of documentary evidence what they called the mentalité of everyday lives of long-ago eras.
They were unconcerned with traditional historical tropes of great men or wars or diplomatic events. Instead, the Annales School wanted to delve into how people, especially those who left no written record because they were illiterate, thought and viewed their world. If nothing else, the Annales School persuasively demonstrated the existence and force of "mentality."
What has all this got to do with fine wine? More than you might at first suspect. Many wine lovers—most, even—view wine mechanistically. How was it made? Did the wine see time in new oak barrels? What were the vineyard yields? These and many more practical considerations are vitally important, as well as revealing.
Yet they also are a narrow focus. Precisely because this mechanistic view is specific and often quantitative in nature, it seems to offer all the answers. But it doesn't. It's more the engineering of wine, if you will, an important means to an even more important end.
Mentality is that more important end. And that's why our wine era is really different. For the first time since the Great Fine Wine Renaissance began in the 1970s, the mentality of what we want from our fine-wine experience—both as producers and consumers—is beginning to change.
This is not just a matter of fashion or "changing taste.” Rather, it's reflective of an emerging cultural shift, a rethinking of wine beauty itself. What is it that makes a fine wine original? And not least, profound?
We can see it in the persuasiveness of biodynamic cultivation and so-called natural winemaking—not to all, to be sure, but to a sizable number of winegrowers and wine drinkers.
Both of these movements are rooted in a mentality that is very different from what underscored fine wine's Big Bang in the 1970s and '80s; these approaches have become inviting precisely because they are philosophical means to this newly emerging mentality of wine goodness.
For example, think of how our appreciation of French Champagne is beginning to change. The old benchmarks of the well-known grandes marques—the famous, heavily marketed names that once defined French Champagne goodness—are now no longer universally viewed as the pinnacle among Champagne cognoscenti.
This is not just because of a mere fashion for small, grower-produced Champagnes. Rather, it's because some of these small grower Champagnes offer a rethinking of what a great Champagne can be—less effervescent, more available to the effects of oxygen yet not actually oxidized and, above all, more vineyard-driven and less a matter of blending across an array of sites in order to achieve a large commercial quantity.
The Champagne likes of a Jacques Selosse or a Ulysse Collin reveal a profound shift, a radically revised mentality. And that shift translates to our evolving appreciation as consumers as well.
This transition in mentality, among both producers and wine lovers, is ironically not a consequence of the arrival of new technology. It's ironic because the Big Bang of modern fine-wine transformation, which was itself a mentality, was driven by technology.
The wine giants who created and shaped the Great Fine Wine Renaissance of the 1970s, '80s and '90s—people like Maynard Amerine, Robert Mondavi, Émile Peynaud, Angelo Gaja and Baron Philippe de Rothschild—sought to catapult the unhygienic, uncontrolled, unscientific wine world they inherited into a more technologically sophisticated, quantitative and controlled winemaking universe that could deliver consistently superior wines. They achieved this, triumphantly so.
This was, inarguably, a mentality in itself, one rooted in a fundamental question: How can we use technology not only to clean up wine, but also as a vehicle of self-expression? It was not a deferential mentality, but rather a muscular, interventionist one. Much good came of it. But like all mentalities, it either reached its limit or, some might submit, overreached it, with powerful, altering techno-tools such as reverse osmosis, spinning cones and vacuum concentrators.
Today, a new mentality presumes technological control while often choosing to reject it. This rejection, however, if exercised, is conveniently backstopped by the luxury of an always-present-in-the-background scientific education and the ability to intervene technologically if necessary. This, of course, was a luxury unavailable to predecessors.
Here's the bottom line: If you want to see why our wine era is really different, it's essential to look beyond the ubiquitous technology of our time and see instead the influence of mentality.
In the same way that we can now pretty much drive anywhere we want because we have vehicles of every kind and roads seemingly everywhere, the most important question is: Where to? That's why mentality matters. It delivers the direction.
The old mentality of technology was all about control and scalability. Robert Mondavi didn't just want to make reliably fine wine, he wanted to mass-market fine wine. What was once radical is today utterly normal.
Now a new mentality is emerging. It's not so much supplanting the old as offering a different ideal. This is, in a word, exciting. That's because the very control that the old mentality sought is now empowering a new one that radically differs in its ideal of beauty and goodness. Really, can wine get any more profoundly exciting than that? I don't think so. It's the root of it all.