For a while now I’ve been thinking about the sheer volume of new wine (different labels) have hit the market in the past several years, why and what it really means. In an effort to synthesize my thoughts on the subject, I decided to write a blog post which will be a bit of a ramble as it comes together. By way of disclaimer, this is a very subjective topic and so what follows can only be viewed as my opinions, questions and ideas.
Not long ago, on one of the wine group sites I follow, a fairly seasoned wine drinker ask if the artisan wine being vinted today was so quickly produced as to have reduced it’s quality. The inquirer made particular reference to Big Reds and domestic Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. On its face it is a fair question as clearly over the last five to ten years, these wines have changed, but without the context of who is drinking wine these days and their expectations the question may miss the bigger issue of consumer demand and preference.
I am old enough to remember the days when our domestic wine industry (California primarily) consisted of less than a hundred major wineries and winemakers that produced most of the wine we could find in our local liquor stores (yes back then that’s where you had to get your wine). Candidly the quality of the wine available in Washington State where I lived at the time couldn’t hold a candle to what we currently have available to say nothing about sheer variety. Washington State didn’t have the wine industry it does today so it was not a factor For the record, at the time I didn’t think the wine we had available was all that bad. I was a wine drinker, not a collector or a taster back then and we bought it and we drank it pretty much right away. How production wine got made and aged (if at all) really wasn’t an issue like it is today. In the modern wine world, where you source grapes, what grapes you blend, the medium in which you age the wine, how long it’s “barrel aged” and how long it ages in the bottle all matter. Frankly all these elements impact the sensations we experience when we drink wine. Basically, over time, wine for many became an experience, not just something to drink with a meal or on a hot afternoon. I really believe that not only has the wine improved over the years, so have the wine consumers expectations and knowledge of wine.
Okay, I confess that I am a bit of a wine geek and for me the wine experience is as much about comparing this wine or vintage to another wine or vintage not just drinking it with a meal or in the company of friends. I keep tasting notes on all the different wines and vintages I drink so that I can watch and understand how each wine and/or vintage changes over time. This takes a lot of time and unless a person really enjoys that sort of thing it’s probably not high on the agenda for most wine drinkers. In fact as I read comments posted to the many wine groups I follow, I would say there are really very few who enjoy the kind of detail I do. Clearly the younger set of wine drinkers (huge generality) want to go to the market or wine shop by a bottle and enjoy it right away, just like I used to when I was younger. That said the biggest difference today is the choices available and the number of outlets available to them . I also posit that they prefer their red wine smoother and less acidic with gentler tannins than I do. Simply wine is to be enjoyed for the flavor and the circumstance (not a bad thing) rather than to be compared, contrasted and analyzed. In the a practical sense, wine consumption is a matter of style and preference that makes room for both extremes and everybody in between. At the same time the number of choices makes selection more difficult.
I will observe that the growth and change in artisan winemaking results directly from the changes in and breadth of consumers wine preferences as well as the increased number of wine consumer in the market today. This however does muddy the water a bit for the wine geeks like me. Much of the change in character comes from an increase in the amount of blending that occurs in making wines carrying the same varietal lable. Blending wine varietals has always been around, but the extent and degree of blending has, for me changed the playing field a lot. For example a Cabernet Sauvignon by label name doesn’t have to be made from exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (seldom is) and depending on the State of Origin or AVA it may contain as much as twenty-five or thirty percent other grape varietals. The secret is out – by adding Merlot or Zinfandel (or other red varietals) winemakers can smooth out younger wine and differentiate their wine from the pack. Based on market feedback, this enhanced blending is popular and has increased both sales and consumption in the younger market sector. It has also brought about an increased interest in red wine amongst a new female population that previously had gravitated to toward less acidic and softer whites.
What this has done for this wine geek is to make cataloguing wines more difficult as I now find myself with a vastly larger inventory of each “varietal” to parse through and rate. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy the process, but it makes giving them a “star”or a “numerical Wine Enthusiast type” more difficult as now I have to factor in or out, as the case may b, the personal preference for wine style within a specific varietal that in the past had all been pretty close in style. As I decide how to deal with this issue I’ll probably take the style factor out of the qualitative rating and add detail to my notes about the wines style.
The other problem the new “drinkable younger”, smoother style wine creates for rating is the need to determine how well a wine will age and what it will do in flavor, acidity and tannins as it ages. In the past I found it quite easy to taste a red wine when it was young and be able to judge those changes because each varietal had a pretty consistent blend and behavior. Today I find that I am taking almost a week with a lot of exposure to air and sometimes as many as five tastings to determine what a wine will be like at other points in its life and just how the basic characteristic will change. Simply tasting and rating these wines is now more of a process than before. The French have been dealing with this for years and really have it down to a science they make some wines to age (Vin de Garde’) and some to drink right now but their classification system, while very arcane, makes the distinction clear. The newer, simpler American AVA classification system not so much. Simply unless they can find reviews with a lot of detail, wine drinkers are left to a lot more chance as to whether they will enjoy a bottle that they pick up at the market while shopping for groceries.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, I have rambled as I brought together my thoughts and it has help point me in a direction as to how I will rate and review wine, but it has drawn no clear conclusions. So stay tuned and I’ll keep you posted as I work to find and end to this ramble.
Hi Robert. Nice to see you writing again. I realize you may have been posting new articles for some time, but it’s been several months since I last checked in on old friends at WordPress. Before that, I hadn’t seen a post from you in quite a while, so I’m glad to see this. I enjoyed learning about your thinking and your process and the seeming evolution of the wine market responding to younger drinkers.
As it happens I was reading an article just this morning that included a small bit of discussion on winemaking, acids and tannins, as well as an homage to a winemaker you likely have heard of and know about. The title sucked me in, but the story of the winemaker fairly enthralled me. Just in case you haven’t already seen this story, I’ll share it here and would love to know what you think.
The reporter is Esther Mobley. The title of her article is “The lost civilization of California wine,” which she calls “the haunting story of a vineyard’s rise, collapse and refusal to die.” Here’s the link: The lost civilization of California wine.