In a recent Wine Spectator column, Matt Kramer laments the decline in loyalty that afflicts much of the traditional wine world, especially Bordeaux, which led to some long faces at a recent Bordeaux tasting.
As I looked around the large, elegant room where the big Bordeaux bash was held, I was struck by a palpable lack of excitement and enthusiasm. The Bordelais stood stiffly behind their respective tables, the men almost uniformly clad in suits and ties. It looked like a wedding reception where most of the family, who necessarily had to be there, would much rather have been somewhere else.
Well let’s not shed crocodile tears for the Bordelais. When you jack up the price 10x beyond what even dedicated wine lovers can pay, you can’t expect loyalty. They have thumbed their noses at their traditional market while chasing the high rollers in China and Hong Kong and so are now perceived, rightly or wrongly, as selling just another international luxury item . Wine lovers have moved on to Italy or Napa where they find quality at a more reasonable price.
But Kramer thinks this decline in loyalty has to do with the fact that, as wine quality throughout the world has increased, there is no longer anything special about Bordeaux wines.
Unlike 30 years ago, everyone in the room is now surfeited with Cabernet and Merlot blends from seemingly everywhere in the world, many of them qualitatively equal or superior to those from Bordeaux. A sense of Bordeaux’s singular uniqueness is forever gone, at least in international markets where the world’s offerings crowd the retail shelves.
I’m sure the availability of quality wine from around the globe has some impact on Bordeaux’s cachet, but I doubt this is the whole picture. Despite quality Cabernets from Napa or Chile, Bordeaux wines remain distinctive. The best Chateaux still produce wines that reflect the unique soils, climate and winemaking styles of Bordeaux. Kramer is mistaken in thinking these wines are qualitatively replaceable.
Instead, I think we feel less of an emotional connection to particular producers because industry consolidation and modern forms of finance have ensured that, regardless of the verbiage in wine marketing materials, most wines are made by massive, faceless corporations whose only real concern is their balance sheet. The wines may be good because they have the resources to guarantee quality, but they lack the romance that has always been part of wine’s attractions.
As Kramer points out, the old story of a winemaking family reaching back generations—the story that used to give us an emotional connection to a producer—is dull and shopworn. And it is not just Bordeaux where the old ways are dying.
Like so many European producers, who live in a provincial wine world where their local audience is unfailingly loyal (and can’t buy any other wines anyway), the Italians did not appear to understand that what they imagine makes them unique is, in fact, anything but. All Italian producers are seemingly family operations; they all seemingly have been rooted to their places for centuries. And for our part, we’ve all heard this so often that it’s like throwing a pebble at an elephant: You’re not going to get its attention.
“Seemingly” is the operative word here. The fact that descendants of several generations of winemakers now own a few hundred shares of stock in the corporation that owns the winery is meaningless unless grandpa is still making his morning rounds checking fermentation temperatures. The fact that all those generations of success provide the capital to buy the juice they need to correct for vintage variation and to fly in armies of consultants to do their blending just doesn’t make an emotional connection.
Neither does the story of the wealthy corporate lawyer who had an extra $50 million lying around to buy the best vineyards, the latest technology, and the best talent coming out of UC Davis. There is nothing wrong with that but there is nothing emotionally bonding about it either.
What is emotionally bonding and inspirational is someone with a personal vision of what wine should be like and the personal conviction to struggle against long odds to make that vision a reality. It’s the winemaker as “farmer artist”, who can transform nature with her own hands into something sublime, that is still alluring.
Where is such winemaking to be found? Right under your nose in your local wine industry. Once you get off the profit-maximizing, points-whoring, global wine market you find small producers, struggling to make ends meet, who make wine just for the sheer love of winemaking. This is where you find wines with meaning to go along with flavor.
Kramer grants the significance of local wines but it is not their “localness” that makes them interesting. It is the motivation and vision behind them that provides the human connection and makes them worthy of loyalty. If all you want is flavor then any wine shop will have it from anywhere in the world. But if you want to drink character and spirit, visit your local winemakers.