The Production of the New: Wine Culture and Variation

by Dwight Furrow

Wine writers often observe that wine lovers today live in a world of unprecedented quality. What they usually mean by such claims is that advances in wine science and technology have made it possible to mass produce clean, consistent, flavorful wines at reasonable prices without the shoddy production practices and sharp bottle or vintage variations of the past.

This general improvement in wine quality is to be welcomed but I would argue that for wine aesthetics a more important development is the unprecedented diversity in our wine choices. What wine writer Jon on Bonné, recently referred to as “weird wine”—natural wine, orange wine, wine in cans, wine from unfamiliar locations—is an important part of the wine conversation. Wine is now made in every state in the U.S. and most of those states have their own indigenous wine cultures with distinctive varietals and unique terroirs. Throughout the world, emerging new wine regions from Great Britain to China promise to add to the stock of diverse tasting experiences. Wine grapes are increasingly grown in extreme environments—from high in the Andes, to the deserts of the Golan Heights, to the chill lake sides of Canada. Projects such as Vox Vineyards in Kansas City, Bodegas Torres in Spain, and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, California are rediscovering lost or ignored varietals while the University of Minnesota develops new varietals that can survive Northern winters. If you’re willing to navigate our spotty distribution system, most of this diversity is widely available. Although the best wines from the storied vineyards of France are now available only to the super wealthy, new generations of wine drinkers are growing tired of the hamster wheel of Cabernet/Chardonnay/Merlot and are seeking something more adventurous.

This focus on variation has not always been an intrinsic part of wine culture. As I described in my column last month, in the early 1990’s the growing wine culture in the U.S. was dominated by trends that would tend to increase homogeneity. Excessive ripeness, a reductionist approach to wine science, overly narrow critical standards, and most importantly rapid growth in the wine industry were poised to transform wine into a standardized commodity like orange juice and milk, serving a function but without much aesthetic appeal.

So what happened? How did we avoid that monotonous landscape of homogeneous juice?

One factor is that, in matters of taste, variation is a persistent norm. The reason has to do with the inherent features of taste. The phenomenon of sensory adaptation occurs when sensory receptors become exposed to stimuli for a prolonged period. Our sensory receptors decrease their ability to respond and we have less sensitivity to the stimulus. This is why people who live next to a freeway are not disturbed by the constant noise. In the context of wine tasting, this means we get bored eventually when tasting something too often. We become less sensitive to the stimulus and the flavors and aromas no longer seem vibrant or interesting. Thus, some resistance to homogeneity is always present in any aesthetic community.

Furthermore, in an aesthetic community, styles that become too popular will inevitably produce backlash for economic reasons. As the popularity of a product increases more producers enter the market in order to satisfy the demand. But many of these newcomers are incompetent or after a fast buck. As a result, there are many bad examples of the style that turn people against it. This is ultimately what happened when wineries expanded production rapidly and over-indulged in excessive ripeness in the 1990’s. Vineyards were planted in less than ideal locations and excessively ripe grapes in the hands of people who lacked the skill or resources to manage it produced unbalanced monstrosities that were a caricature of genuine quality.

Enthusiasts were quick to react to these excessive yet mediocre wines. For example, an informal “Anything but Chardonnay” movement emerged, first identified by name in 1995, which continues to influence wine choices today. Chardonnay develops florid tropical aromas in warm sites, takes well to oak and produces buttery aromas when undergoing a secondary, malolactic fermentation. Thus, it became known as the “winemaker’s wine” since it allowed winemaker’s to get creative with their winery techniques. This style of blowsy Chardonnay became so popular that throughout the world, less popular, yet distinctive local grape varieties were pulled up and replaced by Chardonnay. As a result, serious wine drinkers, who loathed the style and resented the loss of indigenous varieties, backed away from the grape until winemakers eventually got the message and began making Chardonnay in a wider variety of styles. Throughout this period Chardonnay remained enormously popular and has become the most widely planted white grape, but a minority of dedicated enthusiasts kept the pursuit of variation alive.

The backlash against excessively ripe, opulent wines has continued well into the 21st Century. In Pursuit of Balance was an association of wineries committed to producing dry wines with less that 14% alcohol thus mandating for its members less ripeness and a lighter style of wine. That association, launched in 2011, has since disbanded but their cause partly overlaps with the natural wine movement, also committed to lower alcohol as well as minimal intervention in the winery, that is growing rapidly and has become a serious player in debates about wine quality.

Today, those excessively ripe styles still exist, and an ersatz version of them using residual sugar to mimic ripeness dominates supermarket shelves. None of these movements amount to more than an eddy in the vast ocean of commercial wine. But they illustrate something important about aesthetic communities—although their existence may require commercial success, their heart and spirit are the usually small number of dedicated enthusiasts who resist trends, start new ones, and continually search for meaningful variations.

One point that should not be underestimated is that winemakers as a group are not prone to excessive conformity or orthodoxy. They tend to be tinkerers always experimenting to find new ways of improving quality. They value independence, some are fiercely independent, and each has their own firmly held opinion on wine quality and how you get it that varies widely from person to person. Obviously there are exceptions and everyone works under financial constraints but the ethos of artisan winemaking is not compatible with a corporate culture where people trim their sails to conform to a party line. Winemakers also have some ability to be tastemakers as well. They are after all making the wine and have more authority grounded in real expertise than anyone else in the business when it comes to defining quality. If they have a media presence, charisma, and the time to actively promote their wares they are in a position to introduce innovative products and gain public acceptance for them.

The sheer growth in wineries and wine regions over the past 30 years also contributed to increased diversity and variation. New wineries and wine regions, as well as less well-known traditional regions trying to enter the international market, immediately face a marketing problem—they are unfamiliar and unknown with no track record to instill confidence in consumers. Thus, they need to set themselves apart by pushing for higher quality and finding a distinctive product to offer. For example, Argentina got behind Malbec and Chile embraced Carmenere, both grapes that were in sharp decline in France and widely unavailable until they were promoted by these emerging regions. New Zealand with its distinctive version of Sauvignon Blanc may be the best example of an emerging region that managed to acquire a distinct identity because it offered a distinctive taste profile. The cautionary story here is Australia. Long an innovator in wine technology and blessed with an ideal climate and several microclimates conducive to growing wine grapes, they tried to capture the low end market by selling generic juice with cute animals on the label—they still haven’t quite recovered their reputation.

Paradoxically, the appellation system in the old world, although not a source of innovation, has been reasonably effective at preserving authenticity and resisting homogenization. With their tightly regulated production practices, most of the distinctive vineyards of France and Germany have resisted attempts to increase yields to expand profits or tart up their wines to appeal to “new world” tastes or consumers at the bottom of the market. They, for the most part, continue to target consumers with the experience (and disposable income) to appreciate distinctive terroirs.

It is worth noting that the emergence of so-called “terroirists” in the new world have contributed mightily to diversification in the industry. During those decades when wine technology and wine science were making rapid gains, many industry people in the new world were skeptical that wine quality and distinctiveness was a function of specific vineyard sites. They believed that skillful farming and winemaking created distinctive wines; the geology and geography of the vineyard was less important. Today, it is hard to find a winemaker who still believes that, and most would argue that the vineyard is the most important factor in crafting quality wine, even though the slogan “wine is made in the vineyard” is a bit of an exaggeration. Because vineyards vary greatly in factors such as weather, drainage, aspect to the sun, elevation, and soil composition, attempts to preserve and take advantage of these differences have made significant contributions to the range of expressions of which wine is capable.

Finally, although we think of wine as something created in a winery from grapes grown in a vineyard, the discourse community that surrounds the production and selling of wine provides important feedback about quality standards and styles and ultimately bears the responsibility to encourage variation. As the 20th Century came to a close, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the critics at publications such as the Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter, and a few large circulation newspapers were the primary tastemakers with the clout to influence what people purchased. While these critics, unlike the previous generation, were not in the wine trade and thus could claim some degree of independent authority, it was still a relatively small group who, despite some well publicized spats, shared basic assumptions about wine quality. [Allegations of pay-to-play corruption have been persistent; it remains unclear whether there is anything to these allegations.]

Today, the situation is dramatically different. Although wine journalism has suffered immensely from its disruptive influence, the Internet has led to the proliferation of voices having some impact on what people drink. Friends share recommendations on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Wine blogs and online magazines are ubiquitous, and wine education programs encourage non-professional consumers to acquire more knowledge of the complexities of wine and to become more reflective about what they drink. Despite the “influencer” moniker that has been attached to some of the more active voices, few people have much influence, although many people have some influence. But what is interesting about these non-formal wine communications networks today is that you stand out by discovering something different, something no one else knows about. Add to that mix small importers and distributors, wine bar buyers, and restaurant somms all who have a similar incentive to discover what is new and exciting, and you have a community of “difference hounds” scouring the wine landscape for novelty.  The current diatribes against somms with peculiar tastes imposing their preferences on unsuspecting restaurant goers is usually unwarranted. No doubt sommeliers are in the service industry and thus the customer comes first. But part of their legitimate mission is to expose to consumers to available variations.  In fact, I would argue that the primary responsibility of wine writers and critics to the wine community is to report on what’s new, to track variations in wine styles and judge which variation ought to be preserved.

Thus, the key factor in maintaining the health of the wine community is that the difference engine continues to grind away producing more of what is the essence of wine—its capacity for variation.

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