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Drinking Out Loud

Why Our Wine Era Really Is Different

It's because of the "M" word: Mentality

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 21, 2014

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.

Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  January 21, 2014 12:57pm ET
How do you and Wine Spectator editors define "natural wines"? Is this essentially the same as "natural winemaking?
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  January 21, 2014 1:52pm ET
Thank you for this thought provoking piece Mr. Kramer. I too cannot imagine a more exciting time to be enjoying wine. From my perspective it's growers and vintners and their drive to excel that is fueling the progress. High scores and money may validate successful efforts but there seems ample evidence that something else motivates these individuals to strive to produce something great. Let's hope they continue to succeed.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  January 21, 2014 2:34pm ET
Mr. Travis: You ask: "How do you and Wine Spectator editors define "natural wines"? Is this essentially the same as "natural winemaking?"

I cannot speak for Wine Spectator editors, but I would be surprised to find that a definition of "natural wine" exists either at the magazine or anywhere else, for that matter.

Natural wine, so-called, is a good example of a "mentality". It is more easily recognized in outline than prescriptively defined. I don't think that anyone can dispute that a mentality now exists among a certain number of wine producers who seek to achieve through vineyard management and winemaking craft a different ideal of wine beauty and goodness.

This mentality has been called (usually by others), appropriately or not, "natural". The very word, as I'm sure you know, is itself provocative.

The provocation of the term "natural" aside, there's no disputing that a mentality is at work. In broad outline, it's reflective of a mentality that prizes a holistic approach in vineyard management employing as few chemical treatments such as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides as possible.

The same mentality is applied in the craft of winemaking as well, preferring, rightly or wrongly, native yeasts rather than using cultured yeast inoculations; a desire to use as little sulfur as possible; a preference for avoiding controlled-temperature fermentations; the use of gravity flow rather than pumps; and a preference for neither filtering nor fining. Whether these and other such practices are "natural" is a matter of semantics.

What is real and true, however, is that taken as a whole, such an approach--whatever you want to call it--reflects a mentality.

It's not inscrutable why such a mentality has emerged. We live in an age where interventions of all kinds are normal, such as plastic surgery. If someone says of a woman that she's a "natural beauty" I think that most of us, men and women alike, would share an understanding that the person in question has not been reconfigured in any dramatic or obvious way by plastic surgery. (The New York Times recently reported about people who get themselves transformed by plastic surgery--a more accurate term would be "transmogrified"--to resemble their favorite Hollywood celebrity.)

Wine has its own such "plastic surgery". Take, for example, a wine made from grapes picked at 30 degrees Brix which would create a wine of about 17% alcohol when fully dry. Yet the winery reports that the wine is indeed fully dry, yet it's only 14% alcohol.

How is that possible? Obviously, such could not occur in nature. In this case, the wine was allowed to ferment to dryness, reached its inevitable 17% alcohol level and then was put through either a spinning cone or reverse osmosis machine to remove the unwanted "excess" alcohol. This, too, is a mentality.

The key point in all this is that the semantics don't matter. And that anyone who tries to be prescriptive about what is or isn't "natural" or "interventionist" or "manipulative" winds up creating an ever more elaborate, legalistic and ultimately suffocating orthodoxy that serves no one.

What does matter is recognizing that mentalities exist and can be forceful. We, as wine consumers, can choose among several different such "mentalities" today. And yes, the resulting wines can be and often are different from one another--sometimes dramatically so and sometimes subtly. (A nip and tuck to retain an intrinsic beauty is one thing, while being reconfigured à la Michael Jackson is quite another.)

The existence of these modern wine mentalities is, to me anyway, very exciting. If nothing else, it's certainly different in both scope and depth from anything that's previously occurred in the long history of fine wine.
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  January 22, 2014 9:30am ET

A fascinating and wonderful blog. As an History major, I have always found the work and direction of the Annales to be fascinating (and found American correlations in works like "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" by James Agee).

One cautionary note, however, is that members of the Annales school might themselves oppose (or at least question) using their mindset and general direction of study to look at contemporary trends in society and winemaking. They generally tend to look at much longer term trends and those generally further in the past. This avoids placing undue importance on what sometimes proves to be brief counter-movements. I am not saying that is the case with the current mentality that you mention....but only time will truly tell that story.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Brian Adams
Glenview, IL —  January 28, 2014 11:14am ET
To expand on Mr. Lee's point, above: shifts in 'cultural dynamic' are akin to an ocean liner reversing course. The change is slow, often imperceptible, but persistent. Therein lies the key variable. Today's winemakers and consumers may learn to embrace a new mentality, but it comes with their collective willingness to work outside their comfort zone for a significant period of time. Exactly how long remains to be seen.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  February 2, 2014 10:24am ET
Great expose' about today's "moment" in fine wine. However, I would add that today's instant, electronically driven communication enhances understanding and appreciation of fine wine among the most important component of the wine world........ the consumer. Social media offers numerous means for us to understand and compare wines, but most importantly, it helps us make an informed decision regarding not only the all important (correct) price, but also how any particular wine might be enjoyed. What to pay, taste and appreciate is at our fingertips instantaneously.

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