“Culture Wars” in the Wine World

culture warsAlder Yarrow called the latest debate in the wine world a “culture war”. On one side are fans of the “Parker-palate” –big, high-alcohol wines from  classic grapes advocated by celebrated wine critic Robert Parker. On the other side are  fans of the “new-breed palate”– higher-acidity, lower alcohol, less concentrated wines often from lesser-known grape varieties advocated by Eric Asimov and Jon Bonné.  The occasion was a tasting of unusual Napa wines at the Symposium of Professional Wine Writers. As Yarrow reports:

And then the taste wars began.

Critic Robert Parker penned an update on his bulletin board from his travels in Asia suggesting that his colleagues, Lisa Perotti-Brown and Jeb Dunnuck thought the wines were lousy, and that the tasting was a “disaster.” My friend David White shared his thoughts about this fairly extreme characterization of the session on his blog, Terroirist.

Perotti-Brown and Dunnuck chimed in confirming their low opinions of the wines, and then the conversations spread like wildfire from there.

A number of Parker subscribers wrote to suggest that they enjoyed those wines, and to point out the fact that Perotti-Brown and Dunnuck could be seen as casting aspersions at at least one wine that had scored 94 points and another that scored 97 points in the pages of the Advocate.

As often happens with such controversies, the discussion flared on the Wine Beserkers bulletin board, where it has extended to more than 200 back and forths.

It’s not my intention to wade into the fray of heated debate here, but merely to point out that clearly there’s something of a culture war going on in the American wine world

As is his habit in recent years, it looks like Parker has jumped the shark, condemning anyone who disagrees with him as incompetent.

This is on the heels of an even more fundamental debate that has been fermenting for some years now between what Tom Wark recently called “land-focused” wines vs. “hand-focused wines.

Today, in nearly any thoughtful discussion of fine wine by knowledgeable drinkers, one finds a near universal bias towards Land-Focused or “terroir-driven” wines over “Hand-Focused” or winemaker-driven wines. This land-focused bias—the belief that wines that accurately depict a terroir are “better” wines—is nothing new. Old World wine drinkers and vintners have held this attitude for generations and have codified the bias into appellation laws.

What I’ve been wondering is this: Is a land-focused fine wine bias a more reasonable or legitimate approach to understanding and appreciating fine wine than a hand-focused bias?

Although interesting for those of us who like a good argument, it’s inflationary to call these debates “culture wars”, as Yarrow admits. Unlike the culture wars over gay rights or religion, where human lives and destinies are at stake, these wine wars will have little effect since they will be ignored by most people who will go on drinking what they like.  More importantly, in a real “culture war”, one is forced to choose sides because to sit on the fence is to be complicit in some great harm that will significantly influence the life chances of people affected by it. But in this debate about wine styles no one is forced to choose (except winemakers I suppose). Big alcoholic reds from warm regions are a distinctive style of winemaking enjoyable for their pure deliciousness and intensity. More restrained, elegant wines with high acidity are interesting because of their liveliness, complexity, and sense of place. We can enjoy both and seek out the best examples of each without choosing sides.

Why not let a thousand flowers bloom? Certainly the wine world benefits from diversity like any ecosystem.

As to the distinction between “land-focused” wines vs. “hand-focused” wines, I doubt there is a sharp distinction between the two. The difference is alleged to be the degree to which a winemaker intervenes in the winery to shape the taste of the wine. “Land-focused” wines involve little intervention, allowing the unadorned flavors of the fruit and its location to shine. “Hand-focused” wines are a product of a winemaker’s attempt to shape the wine according to her artistic vision. No doubt, terroir is real and some winemakers seek to preserve it. But winemakers who seek to preserve terroir nevertheless have to interpret what that means and they make countless decisions about when to drop fruit, when to irrigate, sun exposure, when to harvest, not to mention fermentation temps, time to macerate, etc. all in the name of preserving terroir’s signal. Each winemaker will have a different take on it. This is obvious in, for instance, Burgundy where adjacent vineyard plots tended by different growers and winemakers produce vastly different wines despite strict regulations about winery practices. In the end, even hand-focused wines are “mind-driven”, a product of the winemaker’s artistic vision.

Again, we don’t have to choose one or the other but can appreciate each wine for what it is or perhaps what it is striving to be.

These debates are a sign of a vibrant, reflective culture. But there is no war going on—only people advocating that their own sense of taste must be universal. As the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued, it is the mark of genuine aesthetic judgment that it strives to be universal.

But there is no reason to take up arms.


  1. Age-old debate, but you did a good job of framing the discussion. Although, the idea of an overly manipulated cab sauv with an oaky, vanilla, creamy treatment is fairly unpleasant to me and a lot of other people I know… but I run into these wines all the time from Cali and Wash states. Like any other debate there are levels. Personally, I think a winemaker should have a “style” and develop a bit of consistency across vintages. The purist idea of allowing the fruit to completely dictate the wine is ignorant of the market. In poor vintage years, there would be no profits.

  2. Thanks for your comment Wine Doc(G). I don’t mind the big Cabs as long as they are not one-dimensional. But too many of them are. And I agree about being too purist about intervention in bad years. That is a ticket to bankruptcy.

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