Cool About Wine?

Is a lack of emotional commitment the modern wine way?
Cool About Wine?
Matt Kramer says the sheer abundance of fine wines available now encourages enophiles to play the field. (Jon Moe)
Dec 1, 2015

It's a contemporary wine paradox: The more wines we have to choose from, the less emotionally committed we become. This is unique to our time. Indeed, you could go so far as to say that it's a 21st-century phenomenon, so recent is it.

On the surface, the problem—if that's the word—is sheer abundance. Anyone who follows wine in the United States, and to a lesser but still significant degree in Great Britain, knows that we're seeing today a diversity and abundance of wines never previously witnessed. It's thrilling, stimulating and, above all, overwhelming. It's also, in a strange way, emotionally numbing. Allow me to explain.

It wasn't so long ago—just 15 or 20 years back—when anyone with an interest in fine wine sampled the offerings and landed on just a few squares, at most. You became first intrigued by and then enthralled with red Bordeaux. Or California wines. Or Italian wines. Or Burgundy.

The selection in each category was significantly more limited than it is today, especially at the highest quality level. The expansion of the ranks of top-quality producers in California, Italy and France, to say nothing of Spain or Portugal, was explosive and is still ongoing. Even the seemingly sanctified classified-growths of Bordeaux were not, in fact, anywhere near as uniformly high-performing as they are now.

But what was really different then was us. When our high-quality choices were fewer, we were more inclined to emotionally commit. You were a Burgundy guy or gal. Or you were utterly devoted to the subtleties and distinctions of red Bordeaux. (Famously, these two wine-emotion cohorts never intermixed.)

Italian wines, for their part, seemed to attract a very particular group. You would think that the natural affinity set would be Americans of Italian descent—and they certainly were present in quantity. But I venture to suggest that the real emotional affiliation for Italian wines came from those of us non-Italians longing to warm our hands, figuratively speaking, in front of what I like to call the Great Italian Fire. We loved their passion, their unapologetic individuality, and for some the fact that it wasn't French.

Everything about French wines back then seemed fussy; Italian wines (and their producers), in comparison, seemed unfussed and warmly welcoming. Also, Italian wines offered an alternative vision and vocabulary of wine beauty and culture than what we had previously received from France. Ditto for California and its wines.

The key point is that you committed. You threw yourself ever deeper into your chosen wine or culture. You traveled to California and practically rolled in the catnip of its freewheeling wine culture. You liked its easy and casual accessibility. (Believe me, meeting the winemaker at a big Bordeaux château was rare. You were received by the export director or, for a fortunate few, the owner.)

This sense of emotional commitment has largely evaporated today, with the noteworthy exception of local wines. (More about that in a moment.) Wine lovers today are so inundated with so many fine wines from so many places on the globe that the idea of wine monogamy seems silly, even futile. It surely seems unnecessary.

It's easy enough to see the gain in today's wine abundance. But have we lost something worthwhile as well? I believe that we have. And it's not, as you might think, a matter of sentimental loyalty. Rather, what we've lost—to some degree, anyway—is the kind of understanding that comes with deep affinity.

Emotional commitment means, in part, accepting a wine on its terms rather than just yours. Your own prior preference is set to one side. For example, if you were committed emotionally to Italian wines it meant contending with tastes and styles that certainly were different from anything you previously knew or liked. In some cases you may very well have been puzzled or even disturbed. (Think of such unusual Italian wines as Vin Santo or Amarone, or the high-acid, food-necessary likes of Barbera.)

But you stayed the course. After all, you were committed. You studied the individual culture, its cuisine, its often highly localized aesthetic. (Think Sherry. Or old-style Rioja.) Eventually you "got" it. The wines made sense.

Does this exist today? Sure it does. But I would submit that it's not to the same degree. Our wine choices are so rich and so far-flung as to very nearly preclude the possibility of such a level of emotional commitment. Certainly, there's little incentive.

As mentioned previously, the sole shining exception to this is local wines. A powerful sense of identification now seems, to this observer, to be invested with wines produced close to one’s sense of “home.”

Only with local wines—Oregon wine lovers, Washington wine lovers, California wine lovers—do I see the same sort of emotion and almost obsessive attention that once was lavished on wines from afar. The same is true, by the way, among wine lovers in Australia and New Zealand. (You want a sense of what I'm talking about? Think craft beers. Now, there's emotional commitment.)

Naturally, there will always be strong followings for one or another wine. But the need, or desire, for emotional commitment and identification is largely gone.

Am I wrong in my perception? Do you think that what I've described is as present today as it was in the past?

And above all, is it even desirable? Or is today's cooler, more informed, even forensic, approach to wine a preferable way to be?


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