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Going The Distance

Posted: April 4, 2000

Going The Distance

By Matt Kramer, columnist

It seems to me that the percentage of consumers who are interested in laying down wines for five, 10, or 15 years or more is minuscule compared to that of wine drinkers who deplete and replenish their modern-day 'cellars' on a regular basis," writes Joseph F. Persinger of Freetown, Ind.

Then comes the zinger. "It may be," he adds, "that in this new century the ability of wines to be aged for decades will come to be of concern only to a few effete collectors."

This was in response to my Jan. 31 column ("21st Century Sensibility"), where I wishfully whimpered about a return to restraint in winemaking. Mr. Persinger has a point. Most wine drinkers dobuy wine for immediate consumption.

It's a long-standing, vexing issue. How long can anyone reasonably expect wine lovers to sit on their wines like brood hens on prize eggs?

Nevertheless, the giveaway is the accusation that such concerns are "effete." They're not. The market speaks clearly and unequivocally: We want finewine. Every statistical indicator says that all of us -- including the French, Italians and Spanish, by the way -- are drinking less but drinking better.

Fine wine is the order of our day. This allows, indeed invites, a legitimate discussion about who's zoomin' whom. Is everything with a high price tag or a famous name automatically "fine"? Even if it seems likely to decline in quality in a relatively short time, thanks to excessive vineyard yields and too much tinkering with acidity?

Cynics might say it's a moot point. After all, nearly everybody's drinking the stuff within 48 hours of purchase. This might be called, in legal parlance, "the Beaujolais Nouveau defense."

But it won't wash. And the reason is surprisingly simple: We're payingfor real quality. And too often we're not getting it.

Imagine, for example, buying a Mercedes-Benz that falls apart after just a few years. Or that can't handle (in every sense) ripping along at autobahn speeds hour after hour.

Now, we Americans aren't allowed to drive as fast as the Germans. But we buy Mercedes-Benzes because the cars are builtto give us such performance, whether we use it or not. We're paying for it.

The same applies to fine wine. There's a new kind of "fraud" today -- namely, paying for a Mercedes-Benz wine and getting all the trappings but not the built-in goodness.

You don't believe me? Look at the 1999 harvest in Burgundy. Yields were so high that growers asked for -- and got, as usual -- official authorization to go up to 40 percent over the already generous maximum allowable yield.

What will result from this? Actually, it's simple. You'll get a famous vineyard name on the label. It will taste good right away. You'll pay upwards of $200 for the bottle and -- this is important -- you'll be able to say you've had, say, a Chambertin.

But did you? No, not really. There are only so many corners you can cut in fine wine before profoundness is lost and replaced with pretense. You will have had a wine that is labeled Chambertin. But you didn't have the real thing, except for the legal niceties.

How can you know this for certain? Simply by comparing the real low-yield article with the technically legal but spiritually fraudulent high-yield version. What will be missing is depth of flavor, texture ... in a word, soul.

This, by the way, is hardly confined to Burgundy. Look at the ever-higher yields in Bordeaux and in Napa Valley. Or listen to the whisperings in Barolo about perhaps, someday, allowing the recalcitrant Nebbiolo grape to be conveniently blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Why is this happening? You guessed it: supply and demand. A lot more people in a lot more places (understandably) want the same wines. What's a winemaker to do? Give it to them, that's what.

"Nobody will miss the concentration," they say to themselves. "You only need low yields if you're gonna age the stuff. And nobody does that anymore." Of course, that doesn't prevent us from being charged the same high price.

Imagine how you'd feel if Mercedes-Benz started making cars that couldn't go the distance. Cheated. Fine wine is no different.

Comments? Send us an email.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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