Monday, October 26, 2009

Terroirism Against American Wine

Ineffable Quality?

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."

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.
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.

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.

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?
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.

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.

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At 7:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I suppose my perenial favorite - Boone's Farm, Strawberry Hill - didn't make it onto the "what he likes" list?


At 7:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Probably not, even though they're light-bodied, because they're not -- technically speaking -- considered wine.

But I myself have a few fond memories of your favorite.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A 4 oz. glass of Duplin Carolina or Hatteras red sweetens my palate after dinner every evening. Trying a local wine when visiting friends and family in other parts of the US has long been a tradition. As I recall, Majuang was pretty nasty stuff. Has it gotten better?

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I haven't tasted Majuang for some time now, but I tend to like the harsh tannins -- if that's what you didn't like. In other words, I didn't find it so bad (though I don't recall its flavor so well anymore).

But I like a wide variety of wines. Maybe my palate will change as I taste more and more.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:20 AM, Blogger LaFleur2009 said...

I am not a sommelier in any way shape or form. I drink little wine, for it goes straight to my head, and then sends me straight to bed! LOL But I do either find wine to be too sweet or too acidic. Still looking for the perfect wine (for me) mild but a little sweet, low acid. High alcohol content ok ;-) I was unaware of the Anti-American campaign. Thanks for your post!

At 3:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

La Fleur, thanks for visiting.

I'm no expert either, but I tend to like both styles of wine -- the heavy-bodied, high-alcohol types and the lighter, lower-alcohol types. The problem comes if one dominates so much as to push the other out of the market.

As for the 'anti-American campaign' . . . well, I shouldn't be taken too seriously on that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

off-topic question:

How is homeschooling working out for your daughter or will she start that next March?

At 7:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, we signed her up for an online homeschooling program, and it seems to be working fine. She likes it, and it leaves my time more free than would be the case if I were having to teach her higher mathematics and science. I still work with her on Milton, as well as some languages.

I'm concentrating more on En-Uk now, who -- like all boys -- is not as advanced as his sister was when she was 10.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:31 PM, Blogger Bohemian in Korea said...

I'm a big fan of Amarone della Valpolicella. It is an Itailian wine that has become popular during the last 10 years or so and is the very definition of a heavy high alcohol always I find your articles in good taste.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Bohink, good to hear from you again.

I guess that the writers referred to in this blog entry would object to Amarone della Valpolicella since it's a heavy, high-alcohol red wine.

Myself, I think that there's room at the table for drinkers of both sorts of wine.

Jeffery Hodges

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