History will doubtlessly regard 2018 as a troubled year in many respects, but like every year in recent memory, it will go down as another great one in wine. You probably don’t need me to detail the troubled aspects for you, and indeed you’d better not ask, because I could compile a pretty depressing list from my “day job” as a professor of Political Science. But with that noted, let’s pivot to the observation that wine is one dimension of human life that is becoming more intricate and beautiful and captivating before our very eyes…and palates.
Lest you conclude that I’ve turned sentimental as the holidays approach, I should bolster my credibility by indicating that I’m not much of a believer in progress per se. The evidence from my academic research suggests that humans destroy at least as much as they develop, and forget at least as much as they learn. So, it is a good thing I’ve got an evening job, as I’m continually buoyed by the clear fact that wine gets better every year.
My optimistic view regarding progress in the wine world is best expressed against a pessimistic backdrop, and that was provided not long ago (2004) in the film, “Mondovino.” Wine lovers should consider watching the movie and judging it for themselves, but I think its thesis was already wrong back then (and I argued to that effect on a panel at the Smithsonian after the film’s USA premiere at which Jonathan Nossiter, the writer and director, was present). As I understood it, the basic contention of “Mondovino” is that wine is being wrecked by the evil triad of Globalization, Corporatization, and Homogenization, with the prime culprits of the latter phenomenon being Robert Parker, Michel Rolland and The Wine Spectator.
This thesis has lost even more of its plausibility in the years since the film’s initial appearance. First, Globalization has turned out to me mostly good for wine, resulting in a diffusion of technology and expertise that has made it possible to produce wonderful wines from hitherto obscure grapes in places that formerly languished as vinous backwaters.
Second, Corporatization has produced divergent effects, and though some of them are certainly lamentable, it also provoked a pendular counter-swing that is extremely valuable. Specifically, giant import corporations and distribution companies have not stomped out specialty importers and distributors but rather promoted their proliferation. These nimble little companies continue to provide artisanal wines from family wineries, and they do a much better job of representing them and telling their stories than the medium-sized companies that got stomped by the giants.
As evidence, I’d cite the simple fact that the list of suppliers with whom I work in relation to the 12 restaurants I consult for in DC, Maryland and Virginia is now four times as long as it was a decade ago. Yes, the biggest companies on the list are bigger than ever, but their growth is no more impressive than the proliferation of insurgents.
Moreover, even the giantism of the giants isn’t all bad, as the rise of sizeable wine corporations has given our favorite beverage a shot at competing with other, more profitable beverages to gain attention from Millennials with advertising and marketing expenditures. As I argued against Jonathan Nossiter 14 years ago, the enemy of artisanal wine is actually not Big Wine, but rather Big Beer and Big Spirits, with their lavish advertising, including ads run during events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA basketball tournament games.
Young people don’t start on wine with Assyrtiko from Santorini or Tannat from Uruguay; they start on affordable, competently made, slightly sweet, attractively packaged “mass market” wines and then graduate to more sophisticate products. If it were not for “mass market” wines, we’d have no answer for Bud Light or Captain Morgan at the front end of the consumer pipeline. Although plenty of college kids would still graduate from that stuff to wine, there’s good reason to believe that many more of them would graduate to craft beers and decent Scotch--and stop there--than to Assyrtiko or Tannat if it were not for corporations like Constellation and Gallo.
Although I stand by the point that “the giantism of the giants isn’t all bad,” I certainly wouldn’t assert that it is all good, either, or that some great little companies haven’t been stomped. Yellow Tail was a catastrophe for wine from Australia, and I’m well aware that big importers and domestic producers are often in cahoots with distribution companies to choke off direct-to-consumer sales by buying off state legislators with campaign contributions. Additionally, I know very well that it is no picnic for small importers and distributors to compete with big companies for retail shelf space or placements on wine lists, and that more than a few of them have been driven out of business by Wine Goliaths. These are examples of very real problems of major scope, and they aren’t to be minimized.
Yet, with that noted, it remains true that big wine corporations have helped pull millions of consumers into wine, and likewise true that they’ve helped make many quality improvements possible because they have investment capital for technological innovation and research on viticulture and winemaking that family winemakers simply can’t muster.
I know that some readers will dislike the point I’m making, and that’s no surprise to me, as almost everyone finds it easier to like a French vigneron in a beret than a corporate executive with a briefcase. However, in light of the facts that corporations haven’t killed off vignerons or the scrappy little importers and distributors who continue to get their wines to us, the comparison of beret-versus-briefcase presents us with a false choice.
Finally, it seems clear that the threat of Homogenization warned of in Mondovino and lamented by various industry observers has simply not come to pass as predicted.
Sure, there are examples of homogenization to be found, and a particularly conspicuous one is presented by Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Most of the wines in this big and important category have become distressingly uniform in style since a few clever proprietors like Allan Scott boosted residual sugar to above 10 grams per liter, enabling the wines to work as stand-alone cocktail sippers. Other producers had no choice but to respond in kind--or have consumers turn on their wines as overly sour. Although there are still very good renditions to be found, the key segment of the category priced at $15 and under is now so compressed stylistically that picking the better examples can seem like an exercise in hair-splitting.
That’s not quite the end of the bad side of this story, as there’s also a lot of Sauvignon made in places like Chile and South Africa that mimics the Kiwi style. But with that granted, it remains true that Sancerre is probably stronger as an appellation than it has ever been, offering dry, mineral tinged Sauvignons for which demand is extremely strong. When spring frost and summer hail ravaged Sancerre’s vineyards in 2017, it touched off something approaching panic among restaurant wine buyers last summer, as I can attest from first-hand experience. Moreover, at lower price levels, dry and racy Sauvignons from the broader region of Touraine are now easy to find, whereas they were extremely rare a decade ago.
I could stack up plenty of other examples with ease, but I’ll choose just one: Champagne and sparkling wine. Champagne is better--way better--than it has ever been, with excellent, stylistically diverse wines being turned out by big houses, medium-sized houses, and little growers, all of which are doing very nicely in commercial terms. Although Möet & Chandon has established sparkling wine operations in multiple locations beyond France, this instance of Globalization and Corporatization has not appreciably harmed other sparklers, as Cava is doing just fine and Prosecco is kicking ass, as everyone knows. And, of course, the fact that slightly flowery and sweet Prosecco in Extra Dry renditions is soaring even as Champagne is thriving at ever lower levels of residual sugar proves that the threat of Homogenization was, quite simply, overblown.
The world has plenty of troubles, as always, but wine has never been better, and by my reading of trends, that will continue to be true in the year ahead. As in the past, I’ll spend my days in 2019 studying political troubles, but my evenings will continue to be soothed by the beautiful beverage that our ancient forbearers regarded…plausibly enough…as a Gift of the Gods.
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