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Winebits 335: Cheap wine, wine terms, and lots of wineries

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Winebits 335: Cheap wine, wine terms, and lots of wineriesHead to Target: The Wine Curmudgeon is always encouraged when the non-wine media does a cheap wine story, since that’s another step in the right direction — helping Americans figure out wine. If the Los Angeles Times’ recent story recommending wine to buy at Target included too much boring Big Wine (Clos du Bois chardonnay, really?), the story’s heart was in the right place. How can I be unhappy with anything that recommends Beaujolais? Though, and I mention this as a cranky ex-newspaperman who wants to help someone who apparently doesn’t do a lot of wine writing, mentioning Robert Parker in the blurb for Sterling cabernet sauvignon was counterproductive. Anyone who cares about Parker scores probably isn’t going to buy $10 cabernet at Target.

Stoned wine: Beppi Crosariol at the Toronto Globe & Mail answers a reader question about the wine term stony, complete with bad jokes. It’s actually a decent explanation, and includes a good description of minerality: “Flint, wet stone, chalk, limestone, slate, graphite – various rocky words get trotted out with increasing frequency today…” and he notes recent scientific findings that the grapes probably didn’t pick up these qualities from the soil.

How many wineries? The state of Texas, with 266,874 square miles, has about 300 wineries. Napa County, with 748 square miles, recently celebrated its 500th winery. This is a mind-boggling figure — there are more wineries in Napa than in all but two or three states (depending on whose figures you use). Is it any wonder that it’s the center of the U.S. wine universe, even for people who don’t know much about wine? Will we start hearing phrases like “carrying grapes to Napa?”

Wine term: Post-modern

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Wine term Post-modernNo, the wine term post-modern is not something that usually shows up in the Winestream Media or on most of the websites with winespeak dictionaries. But post-modern is a crucial term in understanding the evolution of the wine business over the past couple of decades.

I adapted it from literature, where post-modern defines a style of writing that rejects the idea that narrative is the most important thing in the novel. In post-modernism, it’s not necessary for the plot to go from beginning to end, or to even make sense. Things just happen, and that’s what writers like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Martin Amis explored.

An astute visitor has noted that winemaker Clark Smith wrote a book, published last year, called Postmodern Winemaking, and wanted to make sure that I gave credit where credit was due. I wasn’t aware of the book, or certainly would have. We apparently cover much the same ground with the term post-modern, though Smith focuses on the winemaking aspects, while I’m concerned less with the technical aspects and more about what it means for consumers (and Smith drops the hyphen, like a true post-modernist).

My view? In wine, post-modernism rejects traditional methods and benchmarks, just as post-modern literature rejects traditional narrative. That means terroir doesn’t matter, that varietal character isn’t important, and that alcohol levels are for old ladies. In this world, the only thing wrong with a 15.5% chardonnay without green apple fruit is that no one had thought of doing it before. The idea is to make wine the way the winemaker wants, free of the constraints that hampered the process for the past 500 years. Or, as one leading post-modernist wrote so memorably: “California promotes wines that don’t suck.”

The International style of winemaking, where winemakers in Italy or Argentina consciously try to make wine taste like it came from Paso Robles, is part of post-modernism, but it’s not the only part. What’s more important, and what’s often overlooked, is how Big Wine has adapted post-modernism to its purposes — to sell more wine without having to educate consumers.

Hence, dry red wines with sweet fruit that don’t taste dry; wines without tannins, because the casual wine drinker doesn’t like them — even though tannins are an integral part of red wine; and wave after wave of sweetish white wines, like moscato and Prosecco, where the wine is made to a taste profile and not necessarily to what the grapes give it.

The other thing that matters is that post-modernism is neither good nor bad. It just is. Martin Amis is a fine writer, but he makes me crazy. You don’t have to like those wines; rather, you need to know they exist and that they are in stark contrast to wines made in the traditional manner. I’m not going to tell you what to drink. Instead, I’m going to describe what the wine is like and let you make up your mind. And using the wine term post-modern is one more way I can do that.

Wine terms: Flawed

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Wine terms: flawedIn which the wine is spoiled, usually oxidized or corked, but that also takes in a host of more geeky flaws like volatile acidity and brett. Technically, there’s a difference between a wine fault and a wine flaw; a fault is a major defect, like oxidation, and the latter is less important, like brett. But both mean the wine is off, and the terms are used interchangeably, even by experts.

The good news is that very little wine, especially compared to 10 and 20 years ago, is flawed. Growing techniques and production methods for almost all of the wine we buy are infinitely better than they were, which means better quality grapes are combined with cleaner, more quality conscious winemaking. Hence it’s very difficult to find a flawed wine on a retail shelf.

The easiest way to detect a flawed wine? If it doesn’t taste or smell the way it’s supposed to. An oxidized wine will taste like bad brandy and a corked wine will smell of wet newspapers or a damp basement. Volatile acidity often smells like a band aid, while brett is like a barnyard.

In this, note the difference between a wine that is flawed and wine that is made poorly or in a style that you don’t like. An example of the latter is high alcohol, which I don’t like but is not a flaw — even though I wish it was. An example of the former are overly-bitter tannins. When we did our tastings at the Cordon Bleu, several of my students insisted that the wine was flawed because the tannins were very harsh. That tannins, by their nature, can be harsh and bitter never seemed to satisfy them, and neither did my explanation that tannin management isn’t a high priority in many cheap red wines.

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