Throwing out the Terroir Baby with the Stale Goods Bathwater


So many wine media pundits speak of their love of Old World wine styles over the standard California offerings, which tend to overblown styles which please up front but lack minerality and length in the finish; muscular and fruit forward but without balance, interest and depth, brawny and generous yet dull and shallow; long on impact but short-lived. And I agree.

Behind the scenes among our winery clients it is well understood that this state of affairs is almost entirely voluntary. Smart marketing follows the money. Sometimes a winemaker just likes rich, forward wines. But mostly winemakers and marketers have better sense than to slog through the mud of today’s brutal competition by trying to sell wines of subtlety and finesse.

California and Australia get knocked for their clumsy but affable styles as if their terroir restricted them to wines without manners. Not true. Wines of grace, drive, depth and balance can be made anywhere on earth. I make them. But it ain’t easy. If only those very vocal enemies of global sameness actually represented a significant consumer presence, I’d be on easy street.

Although much bad wine is made out of ignorance of technique, and some out of preciousness in the name of authenticity, the lion’s share of California’s style paralysis is self-inflicted. Welcome to the land of lemmings.

But who can blame them? What fate awaits a wine which tries to swim upstream away from this stereotype? Classic wine styles with mineral energy and moderate ripeness require ageing. When we release them at readiness, the market in general regards them with suspicion and prejudges them as “stale goods,” as if vintage itself, once a mark of venerability, is now just an expiration date.

Today’s market is incredibly competitive. There are ten times as many wines in the market as when we introduced the wines of R.H. Phillips in the ‘80’s. Buyers today are obliged to reach for every possible simplistic crutch to pare down those many thousands to some worthy few to actually taste. One reliable guiding principle is that the good die young. Today’s New World Chardonnays come out within a year of vintage; the Cabernets within two. Almost anything still on the market three years after vintage is probably worthless.

Trouble is, this method utterly excludes whole categories of really special wines. Like their European counterparts, New World wines made in a classic style generally have much more “reductive strength.” This resistance to oxidation expresses itself in youth as closed aromas and sometimes even a slight stinkiness which resolves with time.

Several progressive winemaking practices get ruled out in a “fresh goods” style. Organic farming practices impart mineral energy, thus extending wine’s longevity, but also causing wines to be closed when young. The phenolic vigor and lower pH’s of properly ripe-not-overripe fruit also zips young wines up. Moreover the switch to screw caps blocks oxygen passage into the bottle and keeps wines closed, hard and even weedy until a few years open them up.

In the past, many wines which needed age were simply held back until ready for release. The market was small enough and astute enough to recognize that a delayed release of BV Private Reserve, Barolo or Côteaux de Layon was a mark of esteem and integrity. Today’s simplistic approach bars exploration and herds wineries into commodity thinking

No young winemaker with any passion (and I know no other kind) is drawn in the direction of sameness. Yet that is where the majority end up. New World winemakers who choose not to run with the traffic are for the most part poorly encouraged by the marketplace. An impressionable lot in general, they are prone to regimented, tangible, cookbook philosophy and uncomfortable with ambiguity.

As Walt Kelly put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Consumers have only themselves to blame for the central tendency among producers.

Turn the tide! Make it a point to try new styles and indulge inventiveness. Take some risks. Better yet, seek out the local retailer in your area who’s already caught up in the search for tomorrow’s yet-to-be-discovered stars. Erect a statue in the local park to any retailer courageous and passionate enough to plow new ground. Until more Americans start playing hard, you can look forward more of the same old same old.