By Matt Kramer, columnist
It's unavoidable, this century-ending numerology. Even those who are unmoved by such "events" -- and I count myself among them -- cannot help but feel the pull. A century is coming to a close, which is an occasion that only a few wines and none of us drinkers will see again.
Does is actually mean anything? Not really. But it is a marker of sorts, and for that reason alone, it's worth noting. Also, it gives pause for a sense of history.
Let me give you an example. You know what wine lovers in the 1950s feared most? Rosés. Can you believe it? It's hard to imagine today, even with the popularity of pink-hued white Zinfandels. Nevertheless, back in the '50s, wine lovers despaired over the threat of a plague of pink wines.
The English wine writer P. Morton Shand, in A Book of French Wines (1960), wrote: "In the course of a journey through a good part of viticultural France in the autumn of 1957 I made day-by-day notes on [what] people lunching and dining round me in restaurants or hotels happened to be drinking. Men, whether alone or with one another, demanded rosé far more frequently than red; women always chose rosé rather than white."
Shand despaired of a "looming danger that a number of estimable growths may gradually be squeezed out of existence and progressively supplanted by a body of undistinguished and largely indistinguishable rosés."
But it didn't happen.
California is now in its second golden age. The first one was back in the 1880s, when a prosperous, confident young California was fired by fine-wine ambition. The Prohibitionist movement, which started in the early 1900s, doused it. You couldn't blame anyone for concluding back then that wine had no future in America.
But it didn't happen.
And what about today? Well, we've got the usual naysayers around us still. There's the antialcohol crowd, which is nothing if not pesky.
The aggravated issue of wine commerce -- sending wines across state lines directly to consumers -- will resolve itself. The spoils will get divided somehow, although it's not going to be a clean or quick fight. There's too much entrenched privilege and money at stake. But it'll get settled.
We'll still see the usual populist bleating about how "wine is an elitist thing." This, I believe, is a perennial. We'll never get rid of it. It's the wine equivalent of flag-waving. But it's unimportant.
So what is important? Ambition. An unrelenting pursuit of quality. And an involved and, yes, critical marketplace. This last point is fundamental. Like it or not -- and it hasn't always been pleasant -- America's interest in fine wine has had enormous impact. And it's not just a matter of money. Rather, it's our unrelenting criticality.
We Americans are not always "right" in our judgments. After all, we're still learning. But we're willing to line 'em up, taste 'em blind and do it right. Thousands of wines get tasted. There's an acute awareness of conflict of interest, which is something that many European wine writers are still cavalier about. "Tut, tut," they say. We say differently. And wine is better for it.
So what can we see on the edge of a new century? There will be the usual economic variations and passing fashions. (Who predicted Merlot madness?) But this much is certain: Fine wine will be more integral to our aesthetic lives than ever before. It will be increasingly seen as a declaration of civilization.
And not least, the New World will be at the forefront in a way that no one could have plausibly predicted even as recently as 20 years ago. Who could have imagined that California -- to say nothing of Oregon, Washington, New York, Ontario, Australia and New Zealand -- could take a rightful place alongside the fine-wine benchmarks of France, Italy and Germany?
Our sheer push will continue to transform fine wine. No one can deny that the young pups have roused the old European dogs to new vigor. Italy's wines have never been better. France is rediscovering its old virtues of territorial distinction, giving us finer, more acute versions of its famous vineyards. Spain has exploded with ambition and confidence.
The future looks swell.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday 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.)