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?
Jan 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.

Economy Opinion

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