The Prejudiced Palate

Is everyone increasingly biased about wine today?
Aug 16, 2011

It all began with a lunch I had with a winegrower. Suffice it to say that this fellow was not Californian. He was an affable guy, intelligent and makes pretty good wines. The conversation came around to Pinot Noir. "I don't like California Pinot Noir," he declared.

I was a little taken aback when I heard that. To dismiss all California Pinot Noirs in one swoop is a bit much. Let's be blunt: it's a prejudice. And it's hardly the first time I've heard this particular prejudice. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Oregon winegrowers or supporters of Oregon Pinot Noirs be equally dismissive, declaring—with no little vehemence—that California Pinot Noirs simply aren't the "real thing."

Happily, I was able to make my winegrower acquaintance drink his words, as it were, after spotting a 2008 Peay Vineyards "Scallop Shelf" Pinot Noir on the wine list. We ordered it and he discovered in a single sip that it was everything he was sure California Pinot Noir couldn't be: delicate, fragrant, even ethereal. Terms like "Chambolle-Musigny" and "Volnay" filled the air.

Now, there are plenty of California Pinot Noirs that are not to my personal taste—too alcoholic, too extracted, too oaky, too voluptuously excessive. I'm sure that you could draw up your own list just as easily.

Fine wine has always had divisions. For example, there has long been a tension between those who find a greater merit in Bordeaux over Burgundy and vice-versa. Nothing new there. It's been going on for centuries.

But in today's brave new wine world we're supposed to be over that, right? Apparently not. The existence today of the prejudiced palate is astonishing. We were supposed to get past all the old-fashioned snobbery once wine became more "normal," remember?

Despite numerous iterations of the famed 1976 Paris Tasting—nearly all with results replicating the original—a surprising number of folks cannot wrap their brains (never mind their palates) around the incontrovertible fact that California can create a helluva Cabernet Sauvignon.

But the prejudiced palate doesn't stop there. How many times have you heard someone say that he or she doesn't like Italian wines? Any Italian wine. "I don't like Italian wines," they begin. "They're too acidic, too tannic, too weird. I don't get them."

The list goes on. For example, how often have you heard German wines dismissed as "too sweet"? Or Cabernet Franc dismissed as excessively "green" or "vegetal?" What's even more amazing is how often one hears wine professionals say such things.

Then there's the even more bizarre turn where peoples' palates are derided. Would you care to hand me a buck for every time you've heard someone say that a taster has a "California palate?" I didn't think so.

"Today's new prejudice has taken on a different coloration, one more common to rabid sports fans. People now root for or against one or another wine region or grape variety."

Is there an "East Coast palate"? I've heard plenty of California winegrowers submit that there is—and that their wines are subject to a Eurocentric prejudice because of such "East Coast palates." Do they exist? You tell me—especially if you're from the East Coast.

Now, a lot of this is just off-the-cuff shorthand. But make no mistake, the prejudiced palate exists. Indeed, it's thriving in a way—and to a degree—never before seen.

In the old days—which is to say, 20 or 30 years ago—only European wines were good. Everything else was "domestic." Was there ever a more dismissive term? Happily, we never hear that term anymore, which is one measure of how far we've come. Thank heaven (and the late Robert Mondavi) for that.

But today's new prejudice has taken on a different coloration, one more common to rabid sports fans. People now root for or against one or another wine region or grape variety.

Is this such a terrible thing? Probably not, but it can have an inhibiting effect. Too many worthy grape varieties are still seen as "lesser," such as Gamay Noir, Muscat, Lambrusco, Baco Noir, Zweigelt and a whole list of other varieties that get little or no respect, never mind a proper price. And that, in turn, makes producers less willing to pursue such wines or celebrate them.

Here, the prejudiced palate makes itself felt. Pinot Noir lovers, for example, too often look down upon Gamay Noir, as do many Pinot Noir producers. The best Pinot Noir zones in North America could create superb Gamay. But there's a prejudice against it. Ditto for Pinot Blanc vs. Chardonnay. Sure, the market plays a powerful role. But prejudice informs it.

The issue here is not an obligation to love everything or be fatuously uncritical. Rather, the issue is a new kind of "diss-thinking" that has replaced the old snobbery with a raw Clockwork Orange derision.

We're seeing this with stunningly sweeping dismissals of Australian wines, for example. Care to hand me another buck for every time you've heard someone dismiss Australian reds as big, brutish, over-extracted, over-oaky and overblown? Sure, such wines exist. Too many, even. But there's more to Australian wine—a lot more—than this prejudice admits.

Increasingly, we're seeing the effects of prejudice—call it a malign ignorance, if you prefer—shape what's being grown, what's being offered and what's being praised. Or not. It's seeping into today's wine discourse. Don't you think? Or am I imagining something that's just other people's idea of "good fun?"


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