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Wine's Homogenization: A Brief History
By Paul Lukacs
Mar 22, 2016
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Wine today is radically different from wine in the past.  Not just the distant past, the wines that the Greeks or Romans or even Shakespeare’s Falstaff drank, but also the relatively recent past--wines that were drunk, cellared, and admired well into the middle of the 20th Century.  Many commentators have identified the influence of science and technology in vineyards and wineries as the chief catalyst of change.  Equally significant, though, are shifts in consumption--who drinks wine, and when and why they do so.  Put simply, we, the consumers of the new millennium, have changed wine in fundamental ways.

What exactly have we done?  There used to be a stark division between wine worth savoring and wine whose only virtue came from calories and alcohol.  The French called these two “vin fin” and “vin ordinaire;” the British dubbed them “fine wine” and “plonk.”  That distinction no longer exists.  Even the most inexpensive wines nowadays are modeled upon fancy fine wines.  They are identified in the same terms, and for the most part consumed in the same circumstances.  It works the other way around too.  Many swanky wines echo inexpensive wines in their flavor profile.  This seems especially true in the United States, but one sees (or tastes) evidence of the phenomenon worldwide.  Homogenization is a crucial component of wine’s 21st Century globalization.

How did all this happen?  In the middle of the last century, when ambitious vintners began to aspire to compete globally, the fine wines of Europe, particularly France, stood alone as the best in the world.  Thus people like Robert Mondavi in California, Piero Antinori in Italy, and Miguel Torres in Spain started to make wines that aped the great wines of France--most notably, red Bordeaux and white Burgundy.  They did so by using the same grape varieties and the same winemaking methods as their French counterparts.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were planted just about everywhere, and oak barrels became de rigueur for successful winemaking.

The wines that these vintners made, wines like Mondavi’s Reserve Chardonnay, Antinori’s Sassicaia, and Torres’ Gran Coronas Black Label, proved very successful.  They did so in two respects.  First, they performed magnificently against top French wines in blind tastings conducted by supposedly knowledgeable experts.  Second, and ultimately even more important, they inspired other vintners to follow them.  Aping the original apers, this second wave of producers often made wines that sold for significantly less money and so attracted an entirely different audience.  In America, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is probably the most familiar example.

Consider how that wine, first introduced in 1982, tasted back then.  It offered bright fruit flavors, notable vanilla or butter notes from oak, and more than a hint of sweetness.  That last represented a nod to the American consumer’s notorious sweet tooth, but everything else about the wine followed the Burgundy-inspired American model that had triumphed a decade earlier at the top end of the price spectrum.  KJ’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay quickly became a huge hit.  Its second vintage won a double platinum award at the American Wine Competition, and it soon became the country’s single most popular varietal wine.
 
What happened next?  Chardonnays at all sorts of price points started to echo it, their creators hoping to replicate at least some of its commercial success.  So called “fighting varietals,” then priced at or under five dollars a bottle, did so, thus marking the end of old-fashioned jug wines with meaningless foreign-sounding names like “California Chablis.”  But so did pricier, ostensibly more desirable wines.  Before long, Chardonnay in the Kendal-Jackson image became synonymous with American white wine, no matter if costing five or fifty dollars a bottle.

This didn’t just happen in the US.  Given the large and lucrative American market, producers everywhere in the world--including Burgundy--started to emulate this style.  Wines made with Chardonnay, no matter where the vines were planted, became sweeter, just as wines made from Cabernet became richer and riper.  Despite the reservations of some commentators (including me), this trend shows no evidence of slowing down.

It’s true that new technical and scientific knowhow enabled vintners to grow grapes and make wines in order to satisfy pre-designed flavor profiles.  But the desire to emulate those profiles and hit those targets came from the commercial success of wines like Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay.  The result was--and is--remarkable homogenization the world over.

Wine has not necessarily become more popular over the past sixty or seventy years.  In virtually all countries with long histories of wine drinking, per capita consumption has in fact declined.  But new markets have opened, and drinkers have demanded different sorts of wines--“ordinaire” that echoes “vin fin.”  The days of cheap plonk are over.  The market now insists on more, no matter how little (or how much) you have to pay.

The clichéd explanation for this phenomenon is that while many people may be drinking less wine, they also are drinking better wine.  This is in part true, but our understanding of “better” has become quite narrow, no matter that more wines from more places have become available to us.  The “best” wines today tend to be those that fit a predetermined model to a proverbial “T.”  They are not wines that taste distinctive or idiosyncratic. 

Moreover, in many places, including the United States, people actually are drinking more than they used to.  Back in the 1950s and 1960s wine was an afterthought, if a thought at all, for most Americans.  It played a nearly mute second fiddle to hard liquor and beer in the national consciousness.  That obviously is no longer true.  People from all across the socio-economic spectrum enjoy wine now.  Though connoisseurship retains a touch of upper-crust snobbishness in many minds, whereas having a glass of Cabernet with a hamburger at a local hangout does not. 

The good news in all this is that wine consumption today has become more democratized than ever before.  More people are enjoying good wine, meaning chemically unflawed wine, than did so a generation ago, let alone for thousands of years beforehand.  The bad news, though, is that a great deal of that wine tastes very similar.  Sure, the market still has a place for individualistic wines, but that place is quite small when compared to the immense share taken by all the predictable-tasting ones.  That, after all, is the biggest change of all.  These days, many if not most consumers know what the wine they buy will taste like before they even open the bottle and take their first sip.