Homogeneity and Difference in the Wine World

by Dwight Furrow

The wine world thrives on variation. Wine grapes are notoriously sensitive to differences in climate, weather and soil. If care is taken to plant grapes in the right locations and preserve those differences, each region, each vintage, and indeed each vineyard can produce differences that wine lovers crave. If the thousands of bottles on wine shop shelves all taste the same, there is no justification for the vast number of brands and their price differentials. Yet the modern wine world is built on processes that can dampen variation and increase homogeneity. If these processes were to gain power and prominence the culture of wine would be under threat. The wine world is a battleground in which forces that promote homogeneity compete with forces that encourage variation with the aesthetics of wine as the stakes. In order to understand the nature of the threat homogeneity poses to the wine world and the reasons why thus far we’ve avoided the worst consequences of that threat we need to understand these forces. I will be telling this story from the perspective of the U.S. although the themes will resonate within wine regions throughout much of the world.

The modern wine world in the U.S. that began to emerge and solidify in the 1950’s was built on five pillars, all of which contributed to the remarkable quality revolution that transformed wine into a readily accessible symbol of refinement that graces even middle class dinner tables throughout the world. Those pillars include: the adoption of the French image of wine as a dry (i.e. not sweet), food friendly, nuanced aesthetic object; advances in wine technology that enabled clean, consistent wines and extracted more flavor; an increase in ripeness levels encouraged by that improved technology as well as the emergence of warm climate wine regions; and the adoption of independent standards of wine criticism that put pressure on complacent traditions to increase quality. All of this took place in a context of expanding demand and the resulting need to ramp up supply and develop more consumer friendly marketing.

All of these factors led to higher quality and, in part, explain why today we can purchase a consistent, drinkable bottle of wine for $10. But they also, at least potentially, contribute to a more homogeneous product. It’s worth examining each of these factors to see how they might contribute to homogeneity.

When the U.S. reproduced the European, specifically, the French conception of wine and winemaking techniques, “wine” was thereafter understood to mean “grape wine” despite the fact that good wine can be produced from a variety of fruits and plants. Furthermore, despite the thousands of grape varieties used throughout the world to make wine, most winemakers in the U.S. and other emerging regions began to focus on 8-10 French varietals widely recognized to produce quality wine. The French model introduced refinement and quality by erasing multiple sources of potential variation.

U.S. winemakers were tinkerers and without the constraints of “old world”, European traditions, began experimenting with new technologies and techniques, especially temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks, filtering technologies, and better farming practices in the vineyard. This innovation was supported by a burgeoning wine science located primarily in the Enology and Viticulture department at University of California, Davis. All this technology produced cleaner wines with less bacteriological activity and allowed for more consistent ripening thus reducing the year to year variations that, in the past, had often produced inferior vintages. But that vintage variation is prized by many connoisseurs who prefer surprise and differentiation over consistency. Furthermore, although excessive bacteriological activity (the infamous barnyard aromas) and a high concentration of aldehydes (which have a pungent, bruised apple aroma) can destroy the flavors in a wine, in smaller concentrations they can make wine more interesting and distinctive depending on one’s personal taste. Wine science has been the driver behind the quality revolution and winemakers who don’t know the science are at a disadvantage. But if the practices of winemaking become too standardized and lack sensitivity to different contexts and the need to preserve variation, all that science can have a homogenizing effect. Given the sensitivity of grapes to environmental conditions, what works in one region or vineyard will not necessarily work in another. It is rather commonplace for winemakers to ruefully explain that in order to make good wine in their vineyards they had to unlearn their school lessons, not because the science is wrong but because the variations of which wine is capable do not easily lend themselves to the causal generalizations in which science traffics.

One of the most controversial issues in the wine world is the relationship between ripeness and wine quality. Throughout most old world wine regions, the most significant source of vintage variation and occasional ruined vintages was the inability to properly ripen grapes because of cool weather or cloud cover. Under-ripe grapes make wine that lacks concentration and shows hard acidity and rough tannins. The new, emerging regions had the solution to that problem–sunshine, along with the aforementioned improved vineyard techniques that enhanced ripening. There is still vintage variation in California and other warm wine regions but it’s within a narrow, acceptable range.

Although early in America’s wine revolution in the 1960’s and 70’s, winemakers kept ripeness (and thus alcohol) to levels typical of the cooler regions of France, gradually they learned to pick grapes later in the season to allow more sugar development, higher alcohol, lower acidity, and softer tannins. This tendency toward ripeness exploded in the early 1990’s. These rich, plush alcoholic wines were controversial. Not only were they too powerful to serve with most foods, some wine lovers argued that excessive ripeness destroyed flavor expression eliminating herbal and earthy aromas in favor of one dimensional fruit expression. Yet, these wines were popular and sold well. When we imported the French image of wine, we imported the notion of wine as a symbol of luxury, romance, and the good life. It’s easier to sell wine as a symbol of luxury when it’s plump and sexy with the texture of velvet, even if they sacrificed variation and distinctiveness. Although grapes, weather and winemaking strategies are part of the explanation of variations in wine styles, our idea of wine—our expectations about what wine should be—is a powerful constraint on those variations.

Does ripeness inevitably lead to homogeneity? Not necessarily. Sunlight and warmth are, after all, what is distinctive about some wine regions. Some of the best wines in the world from Napa Cabernet to Amarone della Valpolicella use ripeness to get their distinctive flavor profile. Although allowing grapes to hang on the vine can cause a loss of aromatic complexity, raisin flavors, and a muddy flavor complexion, it depends a great deal on the site, the variety of grape, and how the canopy is managed. Some vineyards do better with extended hang time than others. It’s more accurate to say that when poorly handled excessive ripeness destroys flavor distinctions. But that entails that a general trend toward more ripeness will produce more wines that lack distinction.

Wine criticism and education can also increase the potential for homogeneity. As I described in my column last month, the wine critic Robert Parker contributed significantly to the quality revolution by removing wine criticism from the control of writers who were trying to sell wine, and by establishing a grading system and independent standards that wines had to meet in order to gain critical approval. Yet, reliance on the opinions of one person, especially because Parker seemed to prefer the riper wine styles, likely contributed to increasing homogeneity as some winemakers began chasing higher scores by making wine they thought Parker would prefer.

These new, independent standards were no longer beholden to traditional assumptions about quality. Yet, they were not necessarily sensitive to the distinctiveness of local traditions. In the old world, relatively isolated wine regions with unique soils, climates and distinctive local taste traditions naturally developed the variations wine lovers crave, despite problems with consistency and quality. When those wines are thrown into a global market governed by quality criteria unmoored from these traditions some differentiation may not survive. Evaluative standards often shave off the rough edges of what is being evaluated in the interests of fitting it to a mold. This is especially true if critical standards consist of fixed, essential properties to which any wine must conform regardless of type or origin. It makes sense to take some objects out of context and evaluate them according to universal standards. It isn’t obvious that wine is one of those although the kind of de-contextualization that Parker achieved had salutary effects on wine quality. The question is whether it was at the cost of excessive homogeneity.

While Parker was developing his wine rating system, UC Davis was also at work on the wine evaluation side of the quality equation. Professor Ann Noble developed the aroma wheel that has now become a primary tool in educating wine professionals and consumers about wine tasting. The aroma wheel divides aromas into categories and subcategories giving wine tasters both the categories and the vocabulary to describe what they’re tasting. In the instructional materials developed to accompany the aroma wheel, each aroma was associated with a reference standard—an accessible household item or food with an aroma that students could use to develop their aroma memory and fix the reference of the vocabulary term. The motivation behind the development of the aroma wheel was the very real need for a common, reasonably objective, vocabulary to facilitate discourse about wine.

Wine science was also contributing to this emerging tasting model. Scientists began to identify compounds in wine that explained why we smell the various aromas on the aroma wheel. Thus, not only did we gain a common vocabulary for describing wine, we now had well-established causal relationships between compounds objectively “in the wine” and the subjective impressions of tasters, thus enabling standards of correctness to be applied to wine tasting. This development of what has come to be known as the “referential model”—aromas directly referring to chemical compounds in wine—has provided the foundation for the rigorous certification exams that sommeliers must pass to gain access to top jobs in the industry.

There is no doubt that the aroma wheel has helped bring professionalization to the industry, made wine education more available, and provides argumentative ammunition to counter the claim that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. (It isn’t, as demonstrated by the people who pass the rigorous tasting exams). Yet, it is plain that there is the potential for increased homogeneity if these tasting tools are too rigidly applied. For instance, the aroma wheel encourages wine tasters to look for those aromas that appear on the wheel. But because wine grapes are notoriously changeable and sensitive to environmental conditions, there are many more aromas in wine than those appearing on the aroma wheel. This is not a problem if it’s used as a rough guide or entryway into wine tasting, and there is nothing preventing the aroma wheel from being updated. But when mechanically applied it will leave out much of the allure of the search for differentiation that drives the wine community.

There are similar worries about the referential model of wine flavors based on the identification of chemical compounds which some people advocate should replace our less precise aroma descriptors. No doubt pyrazines cause green, vegetal aromas and vanillin smells like vanilla. These causal relationships provide a firm foundation for the legitimacy of professional wine tasting. But in the real world these compounds interact in complex and non-linear ways to produce emergent properties that cannot be predicted from the mere presence of a chemical compound—it is these emergent properties that create the heady aromatics that make wine enjoyable and that distinguish one wine from another. In other words, what matters is not simply the presence of vegetal aromas but how they interact with and are balanced against other aromas to create an overall impression. It remains to be seen how successful science will be at analyzing these flavor components in their singular detail. But at present aromatic complexity far exceeds the ability of a chemically-based vocabulary to describe it. Furthermore, both the referential model and the aroma wheel ignore tertiary properties such as beauty, elegance, harmony or finesse for which there is no scientific account. We respond aesthetically to the overall impression of the wine, not only to its individual parts. The referential model is inherently a reductionist view of wine that leaves out of the picture many of the variations that make wine interesting.

Finally, turning to economic sources of homogeneity, as wine becomes increasingly popular, wineries must plant vineyards in less than ideal locations to keep up with demand. Many vineyards simply cannot produce distinctive wines and differentiation is left up to the winemaker to produce artful blends that show some distinction, a strategy that will fail more often than not, if the grapes lack quality.

The need to market wines to these new consumers also created conditions that will tend to increase homogeneity. People responsible for selling wine had long argued that wine labels should feature the grape varietal—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.—rather than the region or vineyard as was the custom throughout much of the old world wine producing countries. The old way of selling wine assumed that differences were largely the result of regional and geographical differences and the regional appellations set restrictive rules governing wine production methods and permissible grape varieties in order to preserve those differences as a marketing tool. However, new world consumers lacked the knowledge required to navigate the complex appellation systems in Europe, and thus emerging regions such as the U.S. adopted varietal labeling instead, with relaxed appellation rules that gave wine producers more freedom to produce the wine they wanted.

In theory, this freedom gave new world producers the ability to create more differentiated wines since they were not constrained by law to make wine typical of their region. But since regional distinctions were no longer guaranteed by law in the new world, the origin of the grapes carried less meaning—or to put the point differently, in the new world, regional designations were a less reliable marker of difference. You really have to know the producer to know what is in the bottle. And varietal labeling doesn’t help much as a marker of specific differences. No doubt Pinot Noir is different from Cabernet Sauvignon; varietal labeling is informative as long as the winery strives to maintain varietal typicity. But these are generic differences that tell the customer little about the specific character of what is in the bottle since each varietal can be made in a myriad of styles. Since there is less legal enforcement of difference in the new world and less information about differences on the label there are fewer mechanisms for resisting homogeneity.

Thus, as wine culture approached the 21st century the table seemed set for a collapse of the differentiation that motivates wine lovers. Today, is the wine industry a hellscape of overpriced, monotonous juice differentiated by cute bottle labels and dubious “branding strategies”? Despite some disturbing trends, the answer to that is no. Thus, there must be forces operating in the wine world that preserve differences in the face of the aforementioned potential for homogeneity.

I will describe those forces next month.

For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art,and the Cultural Revolution