Terroirism Against American Wine
Living outside the States over the years inures one to the constant anti-American refrain, and I've become adept at dismissing criticism by simply not reacting. After all, whose mind is going to change?
Well, sometimes mine.
A couple of New York Times articles have pushed me toward admitting that there might be a problem with a lot of American wines -- and not just American ones, by the way, but Australian and other non-European wines as well.
Jim Holt, reviewing Jonathan Nossiter's Liqued Memory: Why Wine Matters, tells us in "The Terroirist" (October 15, 2009) a little about Nossiter's strong views on wine:
Here is what he likes: wines that are low in alcohol and high in "wild, exhilarating acidity"; wines that are light and aromatic; "skanky" wines that are "unpredictable" and "ornery" wines that "provoke an emotion"; wines "fully expressive of a place and its history."Nossiter is no stranger to controversy over wine. His 2004 film Mondovino covered some of the same territory as this book, and though I've not seen the film (nor read this book), I think that he has a point, based on what I've heard.
Here is what he hates: rich, fat, sweet, super-concentrated, overripe, jam-dense, high-alcohol, oaky, inky-colored, vanilla-y wines with no sense of place or identity.
And here is why he's angry: since the late 1970s, the wine world has been trending away from the former and toward the latter, in a process of global homogenization that, he claims, is erasing local identity and historical memory.
One of the main culprits, in Nossiter's eyes, is the enormously influential American critic Robert Parker, the so-called "emperor of wine." Parker grades wines from all over the world on a numerical scale of 50 to 100, like in elementary school. Consistently among his highest-scoring wines (which consequently fetch astronomical prices on the international market) are the big, sweet, high-alcohol fruit bombs. Nossiter blames Parker, along with the winemakers and consultants who hew to his judgments, for infantilizing taste by directing it toward "sweet and easy things." Even in France, wines are being made to please an American palate attuned to soft drinks and hard liquor. Nossiter's vendetta against Parker is hair-raisingly comprehensive, taking in everything from the mega-critic's "nonsensical, frequently ungrammatical" tasting notes to his "blandly kitschy suburban home" adorned with autographed pictures of Ronald Reagan, no less.
The quality known as "terroir" is real, but it's losing out to "wines with no sense of place or identity" -- as Holt summarizes Nossiter's critique.
I'm taking this criticism more seriously not merely because it comes from Nossiter, an American, but also because it's implicit in another recent wine article, this one by a wine connoisseur, likewise American, whom I regularly read, Eric Asimov.
In "Eat Local; Drink European" (October 19, 2009), Asimov 'wonders' about the ideological consistency of many San Francisco restaurants:
Nobody goes out to dinner in the San Francisco Bay Area to eat food flown in from Europe. Right here is the spiritual center of the Eat Local movement, which has persuasively argued the political, environmental, ethical and culinary benefits of cooking with local ingredients and supporting local agriculture.Apparently not . . . or not usually. The reason becomes clear as Asimov asks around and learns why. European wines pair better with the food served in many San Francisco restaurants, especially the ethnic restaurants of the city.
San Francisco is also in the heart of the California wine country, with Napa and Sonoma to the north, and the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey wine regions to the south. Restaurants here that so prominently credit their local food purveyors on their menus no doubt feature local wines loudly and proudly, right?
Not quite. A surprising number of Bay Area restaurants, including many dedicated to cooking with local ingredients, offer wine lists dominated by European bottles.
What gives? Is this hypocrisy pure and simple?
Part of the issue is indeed matching food and wine. Italian restaurants have regional Italian flavors that pair better with Italian wines. California wines bear little resemblance to the Italian originals and thus simply do not fit:
California wines tend to be heavier and more powerful than many European wines. In the judgment of many Bay Area sommeliers, they make for less-than-ideal partners on the table.Although Asimov and his interlocutors don't use the term, they are talking about the previously noted terroir, that untranslatable French expression defined by Holt as: "the ineffable way that soil, light, topography and microclimate conspire, over generations of human stewardship, to endow a wine with its unique soul . . . . [and offer] a sense of place you can taste."
I'm no wine expert, hardly even an amateur, but I do understand the point and can finally accept that the German girl with whom I shared a wine many years ago simply didn't like 'American' wines, and that her dislike wasn't grounded in anti-American sentiment but in terroir . . . though I suppose that she was, nevertheless, anti-American -- and therefore still an anti-American terroirist.