Sunday, January 02, 2011

Points of Reference; or James Suckling Doesn't Get It

I watched the documentary Blood Into Wine recently. It's a very good and funny film about the efforts of Maynard James Keenan and Eric Glomski to produce serious wine out of Arizona. One of the featured parts of the film is when then-Wine Spectator writer James Suckling comes out to Jerome and tastes through Keenan's Caduceus Cellars line-up.

Now I have not tasted nearly as many wines as James Suckling has, particularly the wines of Northern Italy which some of the initial Caduceus wines drew from for inspiration, so I'll defer to his palate on flavors and nuance. Or for the sake of this article I will.

What pissed me off about Suckling's commentary is that virtually every comment he made was referencing the Arizona wines against wines from France and Italy--wines which are made thousands of miles away in very different places by very different people.

So I ask, what's the value in that?

Let me frame this argument with one basic conceit: the reason that certain wine regions of the world command a premium is largely a product of historical accident. In the United States, the eastern half of the country couldn't grow vitis vinifera grapes meaning that the established and entrenched wine making tradition had to begin in the West and Southwest. And even then, prior to Prohibition it was New Mexico that had the most land under vine, not California. California benefited from shrewd businessmen and a wealth of immigrants from wine-friendly regions of the world like Italy and Eastern Europe.

Globally, both the Middle East (probably the birthplace of the wine grape) and Eastern Europe (the home of some of its earliest and most significant varietal mutations) suffered under very wine-unfriendly regimes. In the Middle East, Islam's alcohol-prohibitions severely stifled growth of the industry, while under Communist rule in Eastern Europe, ancient vineyards and distinctive varietals were torn up and replanted with high-yielding vines to maximize production.

Or sometimes something as simple as a particular Champagne being acclaimed by a particular ruler, as was the case with Veuve Clicquot in the court of Tsar Alexander I, can catapult a wine's reputation. Alternately, flooding the market with a cheap little wine like Blue Nun can damage a wine's reputation for decades.

But these aren't products of deliberate effort or inherent quality--they're historical accidents. The English like wine. They can't (or at least couldn't) make wine in England so they purchased wine from abroad. Both historical ties and proximity meant that most of that wine was coming from France. This esteem for French wines transferred to the New World and as global demand increased, prices went up.

Are there some wineries which produce better wine than other wineries in the same region? Sure there are. Are there some countries which produce better wines, on aggregate, than others? Probably. But I would argue that there is no inherent reason that any region of the world within the grape-growing latitudes produces better wine than any other region. All it takes is finding the right combination of land, grapes and talent. The countries of Western and Southern Europe are the most esteemed and established wine producers largely because their wine industries have been allowed to develop relatively unfettered for a couple thousand years and have spent most of the modern era without either prohibition or centralization. We haven't even had 100 years of unfettered wine production in the United States.

Which is a long way of saying that it's pointless to refer to a wine produced in Arizona against a wine produced in the Northern Rhone or Tuscany. It's indicative, I think, of the out-of-date mindset of major wine writers. They still write from the reference point that wines, regardless of where they are produced, should be striving toward a perfection that is defined against a standard that is largely shaped by the big red wines of France, Italy and the Napa Valley.

And that's plainly absurd. These are wines that are produced in these places for specific reasons. Northern Arizona has about as much in common with Tuscany in terms of terroir as James Suckling has in common in terms of physique with LL Cool J and to continue to privilege these old-guard wines is foolish, counterproductive, and out-of-touch.

We live in a global wine world where great wines from every corner are readily available. The wine drinker who grew up without privilege and without reading Wine Spectator doesn't believe in the cult of the Esteemed Taster. Instead this drinker wants the raw data which, when coupled with personal recommendations, facilitates his or her individual decision making.

So we need to look at every wine region as aspiring to something unique to its location--not aspiring to Bordeaux. Tell me about the land, the grapes, the climate. Tell me how the wine tastes--is it balanced? Fruit-forward? Earthy? Don't give me some bullshit about how this wine isn't achieving something it never set out to achieve. What does that accomplish besides showing off how many fancy northern Italian wines you've tasted?

Continuing to privilege these specific wines and specific styles as if they're an aspirational goal for all wine regions is ridiculous. Anyone who continues to do so should, kindly, stop.


Cabfrancophile said...

Great post. Suckling really does pander to 'elite' collectors of 'elite' wines, so it's no surprise he references everything to certain regions and producers.

I don't fully agree there's no external frame of reference for newer regions and producers. Whatever the cause--accident, quality or talent--the established wine regions and producers have developed techniques and acquired knowledge by experience. But there are limits of validity--definitely there's no point in replicating one region in another.

Anyway, Blood Into Wine is a good documentary, one I also enjoyed. I could sense Maynard James Keenan was barely tolerating Suckling's pomposity.

David J.D. said...

Thanks for the comments. I suppose there can be history as a reference point for wine makers in new region, particularly if it is a region that was previously devoid of wine makers. I think, however, that it's a matter of utilizing the tools and techniques we've learned and matching them to a particular terroir rather than forcing a style or varietal upon a particular place.

Case in point, the Dos Cabezas vineyard in Arizona was producing ripe fruit yielding high-alcohol wines that were ignored as poor Paso Robles imitators. Glomski & Keenan took it over, turned it into Arizona Stronghold Vineyard and are now producing well-balanced reds mostly between 13%-14% and getting more attention. Attention that is admittedly enhanced by Keenan's celebrity.