Dubious Wine Achievements of Our Time

How smart wine people became boneheads
Oct 2, 2012

Cautionary tales, like accidents on the highway, are irresistible. Yes, partly it's the spectacle. But there's also the sense that if you're smart, you'll somehow learn from others' mistakes and not make them yourself. It's this underlying optimism that makes cautionary tales so appealing.

An especially appealing element in the examples to follow is that the tale of woe is reversible. The same folks (or at least a succeeding generation of them) who were once so savvy can, and very likely will, become so again. For example:

Bordeaux Made Itself Boring. Of all the wine events that I've witnessed so far, none has surprised me more than the erosion of Bordeaux as central to the world's wine culture.

Now, before you start sputtering about the fabulous prices nowadays achieved by the top Bordeaux estates, please remember that these few properties—maybe 100 or so, tops—are but a pinnacle of a vast array of producers in the region.

These top estates get not only all of the attention but also a disproportionate amount of the profits. It's estimated that the famous châteaus account for just 3 percent of Bordeaux's total wine production but a whacking 20 percent of the value of all Bordeaux wines.

The reality of the larger Bordeaux region is bleak. In 2010, Bernard Fargues, president of the AOC Bordeaux and Superieur syndicate, revealed that that up to 90 percent of its members (around 2,000 producers) were in financial difficulty, with fully 50 percent in serious financial distress. Such a statement shouldn't come as a shock. After all, in the mid-2000s, prices of everyday Bordeaux wines plunged by half in just three years, and have never recovered.

Interesting as these details may be, what is more fascinating—if less statistically verifiable—is how boring Bordeaux has become. Apart from reading about insane auction prices in Hong Kong, when was the last time you heard anybody talking about Bordeaux? Enthusing about Bordeaux? Hell, even drinking Bordeaux?

More tellingly yet, when was the last time you met a wine lover under 35 who even mentioned Bordeaux?

For someone such as myself, who came of wine age at a time when Bordeaux wines—not just the classed-growths but the many crus bourgeois too—were the very stuff of wine discussion, the idea that Bordeaux is so boring as to be disregarded is astonishing. Apart from a small bunch of (mostly older) collectors pursuing the luxury châteaus, Bordeaux is off the radar.

The cautionary nutshell: Wine producers who say, "It can't happen here," had better think again. If it can happen to Bordeaux—once the epicenter of the fine-wine world—it can happen to you.

The Banalization of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. You might keep in mind the macro-cautionary tale of Bordeaux when considering this micro-cautionary story about what is arguably the epicenter of California Pinot Noir: Sonoma County's Russian River Valley.

In the space of just a handful of years, Russian River Valley went from a mere trickle of Pinot Noir from pioneers to a gush of more than 4,500 acres of Pinot, most of it planted within the past decade or so.

What's not to like, you ask? At one level, it's surely a Good Thing. But here's the catch: An awful lot of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is repetitive; too many of the Pinots are, to this taster anyway, oversimple and overripe.

Of course, your tasting mileage may vary. But I have to say it: Today, when I pick up a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir I brace myself for a deeply colored, lush, rather flat, simple wine with too much oak and too little of the layers and nuance that I, anyway, think distinguishes fine Pinot Noir.

That Russian River Valley can create just such impeccably fine Pinot Noirs is not in question. I've been heaping praise upon the likes of Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Dehlinger and others for decades. But not everywhere in that overlarge (for pinpoint Pinot Noir distinction) appellation can deliver such qualities; not every place in Russian River Valley is as cool as might be desirable for Pinot Noir.

Why have so many Russian River Pinots become banal? Two causes come immediately to mind. One is late picking. Simply put, too many wines seem overripe. No red grape so quickly loses shadings and nuance to overripeness as Pinot Noir.

The other reason is a sameness of clonal selection. The majority of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir plantings are composed of the same, flavor-potent Dijon clones of Pinot Noir, known as 113, 114, 115, 667, 777 and so forth. (They are so called because they were identified by a French clonal selection program in Burgundy based in Dijon.) Ask any nursery supplier: These are the Pinot clones everyone wanted (and got) in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is when Russian River Valley vineyard plantings expanded significantly.

It was a mistake. A little of these Dijon clones go a long way. As with an intense perfume, you just want a dab, not a splash. A great Pinot Noir vineyard has dozens of clones, not just three or four. And above all, not just the narrowband flavor-potent Dijon clones.

The cautionary nutshell: If everyone plants the same clones of the same grape and picks at lush ripeness levels, you get, well, the same banal thing. It's a form of flavor commodification. And it's now happening in the very place about which so many of us got excited by the possibilities of California Pinot Noir.

Wisdom of the Wine Crowd. The mantra of the moment is the so-called "wisdom of the crowd." An array of pop culture articles and books in the past decade have celebrated what one writer called "collective intelligence."

Financial types, for their part, celebrated the power of so-called prediction markets, in which groups of people guess or bet on something, with the results aggregating into a consensus.

Not since the old Soviet and Maoist eras have we seen "the people" so lavished with praise and unqualified admiration.

Inevitably, the wisdom of the crowd got applied to wine criticism. You see, if enough people—never mind how little they might actually know—post enough of their tasting notes, a crystalline "truth" about a particular wine, or even a whole region or vintage will make itself known.

This, in a word, is propaganda. One hundred people who don't know much about, say, Auxey-Duresses adds up to 100 muddied, baffled and often duplicative conclusions. (You think all those tasting notes were generated in pristine isolation from everyone else's conclusions?)

When it comes to fine wine, there is no wisdom of the crowd—that’s not only a delusion, it's a pernicious delusion. When it comes to fine wine, there is only informed opinion, never mind whose. Such informed opinion can come from anyone. It doesn't have to be a professional critic. We've all met plenty of impassioned wine lovers who have devoted thousands of hours (never mind dollars) to the subject. We should all listen closely to such people. I sure do.

But we must first decide that they are indeed informed. We must first confirm that they have, based on demonstrated experience or exposure, a basis for their opinion. It's not enough that they are part of the "wisdom of the crowd."

The cautionary nutshell: If you believe that fine-wine judgment can be crowd-sourced, you'll find yourself merely running with the herd.


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