Saturday, December 24, 2011

Making Authentic Wine

One of the wine world's most authoritative, creative, and combative bloggers is Tom Wark.  If you don't check out his blog periodically or follow him on Twitter, you're missing out on some of the best insights on our industry.  That, coupled with the fact that he has been working tirelessly to free the grapes (shippingwise) makes him one of my favorite reads.

His most recent post (http://fermentation.typepad.com/fermentation/2011/12/authentic-wine-and-mistaking-the-tail-for-the-snout.html) got me thinking about authenticity of wine.  I'm not going to try to define wine here--that would be like trying to define art, something only an idiot would try to do (see my last post)--but rather think about what it means to try to make wine here in Pennsylvania.

Tom's post takes on a recent book about "authentic wine", basically destroying the premise the book was written from.  The book tries to say that the wine industry is heading in an industrial/commodity driven direction and that the uniqueness of wine is being lost, or at least championed by a select few.  Tom's point is that there is a huge diversity to wine these days and that there are more artisanal wineries than ever.

My jumping off point here is that we're all trying to wag the dog to some extent.  Yes, I make wine in the backwaters of an industry that prides itself on pioneers from hot climates and respects cool climate entrepreneurs with a backhanded compliment smacking of condescension.  Am I bitter?  Perhaps.  At the tail-shakers?  Not really.  Let me explain.

As with most things American, there has always been a drive to succeed, and in this country, it usually means making  boatload of money by selling stuff.  Suply and demand is what built this country.  And the wine industry is no different.  The reason for the oceans of wine that has been created in this country is simply that there has always been a demand for it.  And as the demand grew, supply rose up to meet it as that's where the dollars were.

The problem with mass-producing anything is that you have to make sure the majority of the people are going to like it, or else you defeat your purpose.  But there's hardly anything out there when made in bulk doesn't lose its originality.  Beer, cars, chairs, hamburgers, wine.  It happens to everything.  Name one mass-marketed item that is unique.  It is, by definition, impossible.  An oxymoron.

So what does this mean for wine, and specifically my wine?  I can assure you that Allegro wine is not at all mass-produced.  We're a small place in southern PA, growing grapes for almost 40 years.  We have Cabernet and Chard vines older than most of the ones in CA.  So, why haven't you heard of us before?  Because we make small amounts of wine.  Would we like to make more wine?  Sure, but here's the kicker: there aren't enough buyers.

This is not because of the current "economic situation."  No, most people in this country cut there wine-teeth on Mateus, wild Irish Rose, or Sutter Home.  They then "graduated" to "real" wine....from California, where it all seems to taste like sunshine and fruit.  Slightly homogeneous?  Maybe.  Sure, there are subtle differences, but I would argue there's more difference between a St.Estephe and a Margaux than a Napa Cab and a Napa Merlot.....

And people--i.e. wine consumers and more importantly the wine retailers--like those wines.  What's not to like?  They're fruity and alcoholic and easy to drink.  Quite unlike what we're making here in Pennsylvania.  we're more akin to France 40 years ago than anything else.  Are we authentic?  We damn well better be, or our few customers will leave us.  But will we ever get the respect and success we hope for?  It all depends on whether America decides to follow what their brain and conscience tells them is right, or if they're slaves to their hedonistic palates.

This is what happens to "authentic" or "natural" wine.  When a wine speaks of place, is truly terroir-driven, is truly unique, that's when you find authenticity.  The problem is that most terroir-geeks only like certain terroirs, and if you're not on the short-list, you're probably in the backwater with me.....

2 comments:

  1. I was reading an article that said with the high alcohol, late-ripening movement in the Central Valley and northern California, most of the Cabs, Zins, and Merlots all taste alike. But that this movement was consumer-driven because, as you stated, such wines were easier to drink and better tasting (i.e. fruitier) than traditional, French-style Merlot or Cab. And that is why so many of these wines that the mass consumers buy... tastes the same. :) And it demands the age-old question: do you make wine for the winemaker's palate? or for the consumers?

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  2. Good question, Denise. Like all self-respecting winemakers in non-industrial enterprises, I'd have to say that, of course, I make wine for myself, for my palate.

    I do, though, make a distinction for some of my wines. Kris and I basically decided years ago that the wines that are over $13 I make to my style and the wines under $13 I make in a more popular style. It works for us.

    Naturally, this all begs the question as to whether "my" palate is at all like the palate that is "popular". It's hard not to like those Napa Cabs, the high-octane Zins and jammy Merlots. I know my style is different from my predecessor John's style. He liked his acid and his structure both high. Very much old-school, 1960s and 1970s Bordeaux and Barolo. I tend to emphasize fruit more (perhaps as evidenced by my reliance on Merlot but still not as much as most of my colleagues.

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