||The matter of globalization in wine seems to put certain people on the defensive. This is regrettable, not least because defensive people often lash out, and a dialogue which ought to be able to be conducted civilly ends up being conducted evilly. Robert Parker‘s recent essay, posted on his website, contained many reasonable and persuasive points, the value of which was diminished by an intermittent tone of invective. All intellectuals aren‘t “pseudo-intellectuals” (I wonder how he tells them apart) and all persons taking views contrary to his aren‘t guilty of membership in the “pleasure-police.”
I‘ll try to summarize the positions of the two camps. Critics of globalization in wine are actually suspicious of a uniformity of wine-styles they perceive has arisen over the past roughly-20 years. For the sake of brevity, let‘s call these people “romantics.” Proponents of globalization—let‘s call them “pragmatists”—argue that wine in the aggregate has never been better, and that good wines are hailing from a larger number of places than ever before. They do not perceive a problem, and think a bunch of fussbudgets are trying to rain on their parade. Romantics would counter that the sense of multiplicity is misleading, because it‘s actually the same type of wine hailing from all these new places.
I cannot reasonably deny the validity of the pragmatist‘s argument. There are certainly many more competent and tasty wines (and concomitantly fewer rustic, dirty or yucky wines) than there were twenty years ago. Yet I can‘t help but wonder; certainly the floor has been raised on overall wine quality. But has the ceiling been lowered? That, I interpret, is the romantic‘s argument. But not all of it. Baseball fans are cruelly aware of the steroid scandal threatening the basic integrity of the sport. We are sometimes less aware of the role we ourselves have played in bringing this about.
We seem to want to wish it all away. We enjoy the prospect of herculean demi-gods bulked up on chemicals hitting baseballs 500 feet. This is becoming our Ideal, and players embodying this ideal put butts in the seats and command the largest salaries. They are also the envy of other, less “enhanced” players, some of whom seek to climb on board the gravy train. I see a metaphor here. There is no doubt that the prevailing recipe for modern wines with commercial aspirations effectively seems to churn them out; ripe, sweet, softly embedded tannins, large-scaled and concentrated. The pragmatists care less about how such wines get that way than they do about being entertained and thrilled by juiced-up sluggers hitting the ball 500 feet.
I‘ll yield this argument is properly conducted in shades of gray. Parker has often expressed his esteem and admiration for moderate, elegant, temperate wines. He typically scores them in the high 80s, and has told me he wishes more people prized and drank such wines. Yet he must be aware the commodity called a “Parkerscore” in fact damns such wines with faint praise. And though he admires these wines well enough, he reserves his love and expressive emotionality for their bigger, more hedonistic cousins.
Thus a particular idiom becomes the prevailing idiom, because everyone wants the scores and the financial success they engender. It is the singular persuasiveness of this monoidiom against which the romantics struggle. They—we—are innately wary of uniformity, as it is contrary to nature. We are also alert to an insidious effect such uniformities can create. We risk becoming passive, infantilized, dulled.
When all things are one single way there‘s less need to pay attention to them, for they no longer can surprise you. Pragmatists will claim I am overstating the case; none of them argues that all wines should taste the same. Fair enough. Yet they themselves often accuse romantics of wishing to return to some imagined Eden of dirty, weird and rustic wines (which, they sneer, we excuse by citing terroir).
The dialogue threatens to reduce to a war of straw men.
I would ask the pragmatists to consider this question. How, in a world of wines made by an indisputably prevailing set of practices in pursuit of a given result, will there still be room for the quirky, the asymmetrical, the evocative? Or, are we content to permit such wines to disappear? Is this the wine-world—is it the world—in which we wish to live? If not, how do we prevent it?
I am not placing value judgements on “modern” methods. Many of them are benign.
Nor is this the time to argue against the falsifications. Some people think it‘s fine for ballplayers to use steroids! I am asking for consideration of the consequences inherent in a belief system. It is certainly true that regions such as, say, Priorat, were unknown and unavailable twenty years ago. Yet to my palate this signifies very little, for Priorat‘s wines join an international glom of hotclimate reds whose wines are, in the old phrase, much of a muchness. Yes, there is another (yet
another) source of big-ass reds. I‘m not sure why I should care.
In cuisine there comes a point of ennui when all one sees are the same luxury ingredients in nearly interchangeable preparations. Monday it‘s squab stuffed with foie gras in a truffle nage:
Tuesday it‘s squab stuffed with truffles in a foie emulsion; Wednesday it‘s truffle-crusted foie gras in a squab jus, and eventually it becomes a meaningless farandole of dishes constituting the luxury-dining-experience, which you could have in Hong Kong or Los Angeles or Las Vegas or New York or Kuala Lampur. It becomes a membrane separating you from the world, swaddling you in a specious bliss, seducing your senses. I imagine this when I taste yet another big wine indistinguishable from myriad other Big Wines, and yes, it might well be superior to the weird little wine that grew there before—might be—but what does it signify? That people in many different places can suss the formula and apply it? I‘m not sure why I should care.
And yet we romantics must yield the point: the floor has risen, and this is a good thing. Our struggle is to applaud this while protecting the ceiling. And the “ceiling” isn‘t merely new stratospheres of hedonism (even more ripe fruit, even more intensity: more more MORE) but rather those wines uniquely great. What other great wine is great as the best Loire Chenins are great? As the best Barolos are great? As the best Jurançons, the best Mosel Rieslings, the best Grüner Veltliners, the best Grand Cru Chablis? Ultimately it isn‘t greatness we must protect—it is uniqueness. Preserve the unique, and greatness will take care of itself.
The pragmatists need to realize there are risks inherent in their aesthetic.
And we romantics need to realize certain things too.
We have misapplied the concept of terroir to excuse flawed wines. This concept is precious.
We need to respect it, and use it with care. We have been guilty of a form of puritanism; if it tastes unpleasant it must be virtuous. The pragmatists ought in turn to acknowledge theirs isn‘t the only form of pleasure. There are worlds alongside the sensual, and wine can be intellectually and spiritually nourishing, and people can desire these experiences, and the true hedonist isn‘t threatened by them.
I wonder if we cannot all unite behind the value of diversity. I would like to think so. From my high-rise window I can often see raptors soaring and swooping through the sky, and I love these big graceful birds. But I could never imagine myself feeling “I sure love these big hawks, and other big birds too, eagles, buzzards, and I sure wish all birds were like these because they give me such pleasure.” What of the assertive red cardinal? The graceful heron? The silly woodpecker? The pensive dove? I want to live in a world of thousands of different wines, whose differences are deeper than zip-code, each one of which shows me the unending variety and fascination of this lovely bit of green on which we walk.