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Tag Archives: terroir

Big Wine and the search for authenticity

One of the most important changes in the California wine business over the past decade has been the rise of Big Wine and the role it has played in the growth of better quality cheap wine. It’s a story that has not been told, and why I spent a lot of time writing about it in The Cheap Wine book. Otherwise, many of us, myself included, wouldn’t be here.

It’s a subject that David Michalski of the Unversity of California-Davis handles admirably in the spring issue of Boom. It’s longish and a trifle academic in tone, but stay with it. Michalski reviews four books centered around the idea of authenticity in wine, but to get there he must explain why authenticity has become an issue. Because, before the 1980s, the very nature of wine was authenticity. French wine tasted of France, Italian of Italy, and so forth.

Then, writes Michalski, came California.

This manifesto for a new taste, one in which California figured centrally, resonated with a new generation of wine-drinkers. It was a message tailor-fit for an industry looking to reinvent itself, too, as California positioned itself in opposition to the snobbery of Old World wine. And although many of the so-called new breed wineries had close connections to the older generation, the image of California as an innovator and a challenger forever changed a trade once dominated by European markets and taste regimes. It opened wine to a wider global audience. It gave encouragement to developing wine regions across the globe. And it gave license to winemakers, even those back in Europe, to experiment with craft and science in the service of wine beauty.

This, says Michalski, is the double-edged sword of Big Wine and globalization and a result of what happened in California – cheaper wines that make wine more accessible and democratic, but by their nature lack authenticity and the terroir that is part of authenticity.

In this, he finds a middle ground that not many others have discovered, though one I share: That globalization does not mean the end of authenticity, and that it’s possible for Big Wine to co-exist with it. “A fuller study of the way terroir works in today’s economy reveals the importance of local branding within the global economy, a phenomenon scholars of consumption call glocalization,” he writes.

Yes, a crappy word, but a concept that explains a lot. It explains how Sicilian winemakers can use modern techniques developed in California to produce high-quality wine that still tastes of Sicily. It’s how Gascon wine, barely a consideration outside parts of France a decade ago, can be sold by large U.S. retailers who wouldn’t carry it unless there was a demand for it. And it helps account for local wine, which wouldn’t exist without the improvements in viticulture and enology that started in California 40 years ago.

Winebits 289: Terroir, three-tier, Wine.com

Another view of terroir? Terroir, a French term that has no exact meaning in English, is something wine geeks love to argue about – does it exist or not? Those of us who believe in terroir believe it lends a sense of place to the best wine, regardless of price. Anti-terroir advocates (yes, just like matter and anti-matter) say we’re a bunch of old farts and that wine should be made to taste the best it can, regardless of terroir. The eminent Paul Lukacs offers a third view – that, despite some truth, it’s mostly a myth perpetuated by French marketers in the first third of the 20th century. That should give us something to discuss the next time Paul and I judge together.

Another victory for the distributors: It’s depressing, but someone has to keep track of this stuff. The Illinois legislature, no doubt acting at the behest of some of its biggest campaign contributors, has passed a law that strengthens the state’s three-tier system. Three-tier are the alcohol regulations left over from Prohibition that prohibit consumers from buying wine almost anywhere but traditional retailers. The legislature passed the law because Anheuser-Busch bought a stake in its biggest Chicago-area distributor. The beer giant will now have to sell its share of the distributor. How silly is this? Like Ford being told by the Michigan legislature that it can’t own one of its parts suppliers.

For sale or not? The cyber-ether has been buzzing the past week or so with rumors that Wine.com, the largest Internet wine retailer and a friend of the blog, is for sale. Wine.com’s boss has denied the rumors, saying the reports exaggerate the company’s financial woes. Supposedly, Wine.com’s private equity backer was unhappy with its performance and wanted out. Regular visitors here know the uphill battle legal Internet retailers face, thanks to three-tier, and Wine.com is no exception. It has to become a local retailer in many states in which it does business to comply with state laws, a costly and time-consuming effort. If its financial backers are unhappy, the question is not that they are, but why they expected anything else given the regulatory environment.

The Beard Awards and regional wine

James_beard_foundation_awardsThe Wine Curmudgeon has always had a middle of the country perspective when it comes to the Beard Awards, the food business' version of the Academy Awards. That is, the winners always seem to be from either coast, and especially from the East Coast, and especially from New York City. Right, Sharon Hage?

So it's not surprising that restaurants that usually win a Beard award, wine or otherwise, have very little do with wine that doesn't come from an established region. That logic, if depressing, is understandable. Beard award-winning restaurants cater to people who want big wines that get big scores. Or, as a top-name chef who has a Beard on his resume told me, "my customers expect the Wine Spectator top 100 on my wine list. I lose business if those wines aren't there."

So when a restaurant with regional wine wins a Beard award, I'm practically typeless. Seriously. It has taken me longer to write this four-paragraph post than others that were twice as long.

But there it is: Terroir, a wine bar in Manhattan, winning for best wine professional this year — and Terroir serves New York wine at each of its three locations. Some of it is even featured on the epic wine list. Thank you, Paul Grieco (who won the award). It's a pleasure to find someone who understands that wine is not about what we're told to drink, but about finding something we like — regardless of where it is from.

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