I gave a talk last week about America’s wine revolution at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati. It is a lovely, privately funded institution that has a terrific speakers program, and I was honored that they invited me out. Around 100 people attended, and it was gratifying to see how interested they were in the culture of wine. There were a few self-acknowledged wine geeks in the crowd, but most were casual wine enthusiasts. Yet, they all seemed completely engaged by the topic. I spoke for around 35 minutes, then took questions for a half-hour. The questions were very smart, and had we not run out of time, the discussion might have gone on long into the evening. We know that cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have incredibly vibrant wine scenes, and we also know that there are plenty of oenophiles in places like Charlotte and Austin. But at the risk of sounding like an ignorant coastal type, it was very encouraging to see that the wine bug is truly a national phenomenon. During my talk, I made the claim that United States has the most dynamic wine culture of any country now, and the audience in Cincinnati proved my point.
I drove back and forth to Cincinnati, about nine hours each way. Driving was probably not the wisest choice—the Pennsylvania Turnpike is as dull as it is interminable!—but it was depressingly revealing. There was nothing to eat on the highway except fast food, and by the look of things, fast food was pretty much all that was available off the highway, too, in places such as western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Sure, we all know fast food is everywhere, but I don’t think you can fully appreciate the extent to which it dominates the American landscape until you drive through some of these areas.
Acclaimed consulting winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt gave an interview earlier this month to the French newspaper Le Monde in which he acknowledged preparing special cuvées expressly for the annual Bordeaux en primeurs tastings. Derenoncourt told Le Monde that the en primeurs blends are put into barrel sooner than the rest of the vintage so that they taste more evolved than would otherwise be the case six months after the harvest. Decanter magazine picked up the story last week and cited a handful of winemakers confirming that this is standard practice in Bordeaux. One winery owner, Yann Bouscasse of Châeau Cantinot, confessed that he gives different samples to different critics; some taste from new oak barrels, others from older barrels. “James Suckling, Neal Martin or Robert Parker will get a new barrel,” Bouscasse said, “while Gault Millau, or Revue du Vin de France, will get second or third use. American tasters can cope better with oak—Suckling likes a wine with more body.” Setting aside the fact that Martin is British, not American, Bouscasse’s candid remark calls to mind Michael Kinsley’s famous definition of a gaffe: it is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. I might have more to say on this topic tomorrow, but I am just curious: is anyone surprised to learn that the Bordelais are doctoring up samples for critics?
Bloomberg Pursuits, a quarterly magazine published by Bloomberg, recently sent me to Tokyo to do a story about the city’s culinary scene. Hardship duty, I know—it was a delicious assignment (despite an epic case of jet lag), and I came away convinced that Tokyo is the best food city on the planet. By the end of my week in Tokyo, the only outstanding question for me was how quickly I could get back there (soon, I hope). The story was posted last week; here’s the link, if you’d like to have a look. I thought I’d also use this opportunity to share some of the photos I took in Tokyo—a mix of food porn and street scenes. (I posted two of these pictures back in March. Please forgive the repetition, but really, who could ever get tired of looking at blowfish sperm sac?)
I’m delighted to report that my Vanity Fair article about Rudy Kurniawan won a James Beard Foundation journalism award. The awards ceremony was held Friday night in New York. I’d been nominated for Beard awards in the past but had never won—I just figured it was my destiny to be the Susan Lucci of the Beards. But Lucci eventually got her Emmy, and now I’ve got a Beard.
Several people near and dear also won Beards. Jancis Robinson, along with her co-authors Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, was awarded a Beard for her remarkable opus, Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavors. Roger Sherman won for The Restaurateur, his outstanding documentary about Danny Meyer, and the Canal House ladies, Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, won a Beard for their terrific book, Canal House Cooks Every Day. It was a fun evening that ended with a rollicking after-party at David Chang’s restaurant Má Pêche, where much wine and many pork buns were consumed. (On Twitter yesterday, Chang indicated that he is considering taking the pork buns off the menu because “pork belly doesn’t grow on trees.” I trust this has nothing to do with the fact that I ate around a dozen pork buns at the party—they are addictive little bastards, and I was starving.)
The Beard journalism awards were on Friday; last night, they held the Beard restaurant and chef awards, during which several people were inducted into the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. This year’s inductees included Dorothy Kalins, a mentor to my wife and easily the most influential figure in my household (I rank sixth, after the puppy), and my excellent wine writing colleague Eric Asimov. Congratulations to Dorothy and Eric for these richly deserved honors.
Lastly, an update on the Kurniawan saga. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman said that he will allow three Burgundy winemakers, Aubert de Villaine, Christophe Roumier, and Laurent Ponsot, to testify by videotape at Kurniawan’s trial, which is scheduled to begin September 9. Federal prosecutors had expressed concern about that date because it would likely conflict with the harvest and would make it impossible for the winemakers to testify. So for the moment, at least, September 9 remains the start date.
“The jihadist movements of non-sulphured wines, green, under-ripe wines, low alcohol, insipid stuff promoted by the anti-pleasure police”—Robert Parker via Twitter, 5/1/2013
An Al Qaeda safe house in Waziristan, Pakistan
Sheikh Omar: Khalid, I asked you not to disturb me until lunch hour.
Khalid: I am sorry, Sheikh Omar, but I felt obliged to bring this to your attention immediately. This Blobber Parker—he is on to us once again. Look at what he wrote yesterday.
(Khalid places his iPad in front of Sheikh Omar).
Sheikh Omar: He is indeed on to us. But we have no need to silence him; he is helping our cause.
Khalid: I’m afraid I do not understand, Sheikh.
Sheikh Omar: Yes, Blobber Parker sees that we are using wine as a tool of jihad. He is a very intelligent man, with a keen nose for wine mischief; he once met with the FBI and taught them everything they know about fake wines. But no one believes Parker anymore. He was for many years a powerful wine critic, the most powerful wine critic, but now his people mock him. They regard him as a sodden fool shouting at the voices in his head. The more he talks about jihad, the more they scorn him. They believe the opposite of whatever he says. He is an asset for us.
Khalid: So he is a prophet in the wilderness, one might say.
Sheikh Omar: In a manner of speaking, but “prophet” is perhaps not the right word. I’m not such a stickler, but some of our brothers might not appreciate you referring to an infidel as a prophet.
Khalid: You are right; let me rephrase that. He is a wise, benevolent emperor shunned by his demented people. But tell me, Sheikh, for I have never understood: how is wine part of jihad?
Sheikh Omar: Khalid, we have studied these people closely.
Khalid: These people?
Sheikh Omar: Americans. We have studied Americans very closely and know them better than they know themselves. They are a decadent, hedonistic people. They savor the pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of the table, and they naturally prefer decadent, hedonistic wines. In contemplating some of the more subtle ways in which we could break their will—what we call “soft jihad”—it occurred to us that if we could persuade them to renounce wines of pleasure, to turn away from the wines that truly made them happy, we could weaken them, weaken their resistance to us.
Khalid: Genius. But how did this happen?
Sheikh Omar: Burgundy. We convinced the infidels that the wines of Burgundy were the true wines of pleasure.
Khalid: And that’s not the case?
Sheikh Omar: Ha! Have you ever tasted that shit? I spit it out, of course, but I tasted Burgundy, and it was just as this Blobber Parker said—thin, acidic wine that only a person who hates flavor, who hates pleasure, who hates life and little children and puppies, could possibly like. The aroma was like the breath of a thousand camels, and it is said that all great Burgundies smell like this. Do you know what DRC really stands for? Dirty rotten crap. Blobber Parker saw Burgundy for the cruel hoax that it was, and he tried valiantly to stop his people from smiting their palates with these emaciated, insipid wines.
Khalid: So how did we convince them that Burgundy was good?
Sheikh Omar: We found impressionable young sommeliers, and we played on their vanity. We told them that Parker had a grudge against Burgundy, that his palate was shot from too much high alcohol wine and too much Flannery’s beef, and that they could become the new tastemakers by championing the wines of Burgundy. Once we had the sommeliers duped, the stupid journalists fell into line, and consumers soon followed. We also planted people on wine discussion boards, where they would rave about Burgundy, and this further helped lead the infidels astray.
Sheikh Omar: It was worked out better than we ever imagined. These pathetic Americans have convinced themselves that the path of righteousness leads to Burgundy. In fact, it is the road to dhimmitude, and to the restoration of the caliphate. Beaune is the new Vienna, and this time, Insha’Allah, we will breach the gates.
Khalid: Do they really like Burgundy?
Sheikh Omar: They think they like it, they tell themselves they like it, but you can see that they are not deriving any pleasure. The wines are thin, and so are their smiles. They now completely shun the wines that they most enjoy. They are a demoralized people. Their economy is terrible, they’ve run out of good reality shows, they turn to wine for solace, and all they get is flavored water. And it is not just Burgundies that they torture themselves with: they drink cadaverous, vegetal wines from other places, too. They are even forcing winemakers in California to produce such wines. California, the land of sunshine, and they make wines that taste like they came from an outhouse in the Loire—can you imagine? It is a nation gone mad, a nation of wine masochists. And I must tell you something else: we have also conspired to deprive them of the wines they used to prefer.
Khalid: How so?
Sheikh Omar: Do you remember a few years ago when I and several of our brothers cheered the news that thousands of bottles of an Australian wine called Mollydooker had been destroyed in a warehouse accident, and how I went around all that day calling myself the Mollydooker Sheikh?
Khalid: Now that you mention it, I do.
Sheikh Omar: That was no accident; we did that. Besides persuading Americans that the worst wines are really the best wines, we have tried to reduce the supply of wines that they actually enjoy. Some of our brothers in captivity were very cunning—they convinced the infidels that the harshest way to waterboard them was to use Mollydooker. The fools have gone through hundreds of bottles of this glorious wine because they think it is compounding the torture. But they are the ones tortured by it: they now treat it as if it is poison. They wear Hazmat suits while opening the bottles and make sarcastic comments about the high ratings that Parker gave Mollydooker.
Khalid: And what do our brothers think of the wine?
Sheikh Omar: They love it. They don’t try to drink it, but it gets in their mouths anyway, and they say it is very tasty. In fact, they think Parker was too restrained in his praise of Mollydooker.
Sheikh Omar: I feel sorry for this Blobber Parker—as sorry as I can feel for an infidel. He recently sold his business, and a life of luxury now awaits him. And yet, he persists in trying to save his countrymen from themselves. He knows what we are up to, he knows we are using wine to wage jihad and to slowly drain Americans of their zest for life, and all he gets in return is the mockery of an ungrateful nation. The Americans are unworthy of such a man, and they will come to regret their failure to heed his many warnings. In turning away from hedonistic fruit bombs, they have disarmed themselves, and they will pay dearly for this mistake, Insha’Allah.
Apologies for the silence last week. There were one or two things that I had planned to post, but with all the madness in Boston, I wasn’t in much of a mood to talk about fermented grape juice. Wine just seems very small at moments like that. True, between regular mass shootings, a steady supply of natural disasters, and assorted other mishegas, one is reminded of wine’s smallness all the time nowadays. But amid the carnage in Boston, one of my favorite cities, I found myself at a loss for wine words.
Others were not. The Wine Spectator ran an interesting two-part series last week looking at the newfound passion for sherry among American sommeliers and wine writers and wondering if their enthusiasm will trickle down to the chardonnay guzzling masses. “Does Wine Evangelism Work?” asked the Spectator. It is a great question, and sherry is an excellent test case. It is a complicated category, and the wines are not obvious crowd-pleasers. I’ve got more to say on the topic of wine evangelizing, but before I say it, I’m curious to know if all the buzz about sherry has reached your ears. Are you a sherry drinker? If not, has sherry’s sudden cachet tempted you to give these wines a try? Have you purchased any sherry recently, and what did you think of it? I’m eager, too, to hear from retailers: are you seeing heightened interest in sherry? The somms and the scribes are proselytizing furiously on behalf of sherry, but are they winning any converts?
A follow-up to my previous post: the federal jury that ruled in favor of Bill Koch yesterday in his lawsuit against Eric Greenberg today awarded Koch a whopping $12 million in punitive damages, to go along with $379, 000 in compensatory damages. That works out to $500,000 for each of the 24 counterfeit bottles that Greenberg sold to Koch. In my earlier post, I made a smart-ass comment about Greenberg no longer being able to afford wine and having to switch to beer–it turns out I might have been right! The jury deliberated just two hours before reaching its verdict yesterday, and it has now awarded Koch $12 million–I think we can safely conclude that the eight jurors really, really did not like Greenberg, who says he will appeal the decision. The arrest last year of Rudy Kurniawan showed that the government took the wine fraud issue seriously, and Koch’s resounding victory against Greenberg has proven that a jury can be persuaded to take it seriously, too, and that those caught selling counterfeit wines can face very harsh consequences. I’d imagine the Greenberg verdict has sent a chill through certain corners of the fine wine market.
Late yesterday, Bill Koch won his lawsuit against fellow collector Eric Greenberg; a jury in New York ruled that Greenberg had defrauded Koch by knowingly selling him counterfeit wines. The jury took just two hours to reach its verdict and awarded Koch $379,000 in compensatory damages; it reconvened this morning to decide on punitive damages. If the eight jurors want to really stick it to Greenberg—and based on the speed with which they returned the verdict, they clearly did not think well of the onetime billionaire (much of his fortune apparently evaporated when the tech bubble burst)—this loss could be a brutally expensive one for him, especially if he’s forced to cover Koch’s legal fees. Koch reportedly spent $10 million pursuing the case. After this experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if Greenberg gave up wine and switched to beer. It might be all that he can afford now. (For those of you with time to spare and a taste for legalese, here’s the transcript of the closing arguments and the verdict.)
It is a huge victory for Koch, who filed the lawsuit in 2007. Although the Florida energy tycoon won a default judgment three years ago against Hardy Rodenstock, who sold him four of the so-called Thomas Jefferson bottles, Koch has had mixed results in his campaign to rid the wine market of fraud. A lawsuit he filed against Christie’s in 2010 was dismissed, and he has also had some setbacks in cases that he’s brought against Acker Merrall and Royal Wine Merchants. The Greenberg complaint was the first Koch lawsuit to reach a jury, and as such, it was an important test. The wine fraud issue doesn’t generate a lot of public sympathy; rich guys buying $30,000 bottles of wine and getting swindled by other rich guys is an issue that is more likely to provoke Schadenfreude than outrage. The challenge for Koch’s lawyers was to not only prove their case, but to convince a jury that even billionaires purchasing obscenely expensive old wines are entitled to consumer protection. Koch’s attorneys succeeded in doing that, and the fact that a jury found in Koch’s favor is no doubt very encouraging to the prosecutors preparing the case against Rudy Kurniawan. Indeed, from what I understand, Jason Hernandez, the Assistant U.S. Attorney who is the lead prosecutor in the Kurniawan case, was in the gallery for much of the Koch v. Greenberg trial.
But Hernandez wasn’t taking a break from the Kurniawan matter. On April 8th, the government obtained a superseding indictment against the alleged counterfeiter At a hearing two days ago, Hernandez told Judge Richard Berman that the new indictment consolidated some of the claims contained in the previous indictment and added two more wine sales to the charges against the 36-year-old Indonesian collector. In addition, the new indictment includes a list of assets that the government wants Kurniawan to forfeit, including two homes in the Los Angeles area, nearly $750,000 worth of jewelry, a Lamborghini, an $18,000 Montblanc pen (for his handwritten tasting notes?), a stake in an unnamed restaurant, and a stake in a land management company in Burgundy (as I reported in my Vanity Fair article about Kurniawan, he invested in a business set up by winemaker Étienne de Montille to finance the purchase of vineyards in Burgundy, notably de Montille’s acquisition of a parcel of Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts).
Kurniawan pleaded not guilty to the new indictment, and it was during Wednesday’s hearing that Judge Berman tentatively scheduled the trial to start on September 9th. Hernandez indicated that he may have to ask the judge to push back the start of the trial because several winemakers he intends to call as witnesses will be tied up at that time with the harvest. Presumably, one the government’s star witnesses will be Burgundy winemaker Laurent Ponsot. As you may recall, Kurniawan’s undoing began with the allegedly fake bottles of Ponsot Clos Saint-Denis and Ponsot Clos de la Roche that he tried to sell at an Acker Merrall auction in April 2008. Ponsot traveled to New York to prevent those bottles from being sold and thereafter embarked on a quest to find the source of the fraudulent wines. He soon concluded that Kurniawan himself was the counterfeiter, the FBI eventually got involved, and Kurniawan is now sitting in a Brooklyn jail cell awaiting trial.
In other legal news from the wine world, Robert Parker posted a video last weekend in which he said that The Wine Advocate will be publishing Antonio Galloni’s Sonoma report in its next issue. Galloni’s failure to turn in that report, and his stated intention to post it instead on his own site, led The Wine Advocate to file a lawsuit against him last month. If Galloni has indeed had a change of heart, I assume the lawsuit will be dropped. But I’ve seen no updates yet on the status of the case. Stay tuned!
Have you ever noticed that critiques of “professional” tasting notes are much more interesting and entertaining than the tasting notes themselves? In general, tasting notes suck. The tasting note, as a literary form, doesn’t easily accommodate stylish prose. But a bigger problem, I think, is that most wine critics are not good writers, and their shortcomings are magnified by the absurd number of tasting notes that they typically churn out. They tend to fall back on the same tired descriptions, the same overwrought phrases, the same ridiculous metaphors, which makes their notes achingly dull to read but exceedingly easy to mock. The famed children’s author Roald Dahl, himself a wine enthusiast, once wrote a letter to Decanter magazine in which he derided as “tommyrot” the “extravagant, meaningless similes” used to describe wines. He asked of wine critics, “I wonder…if these distinguished persons know that their language has become a source of ridicule in many sensible wine-drinking households. We sit around reading them aloud and shrieking with laughter.”
Dahl now resides in the great chocolate factory in the sky, but tasting notes continue to provide endless comic fodder. Keith Levenberg, who is one of the finest wine writers in the business (even though it isn’t actually a business for him: he has a day job as a lawyer and writes about wine purely for recreational purposes, which makes his work all the more impressive), posted an item the other day poking fun at tasting notes and some of the more ludicrous phrases and clichés that are a standard feature of the genre. His riff about “literally” is especially funny, if a little wicked, and points up the fact that some of these guys are literally just throwing words at the page, with no thought to what they are actually saying.
I part company with Keith when it comes to the use of fruit descriptors, which he maintains are complete BS. Sure, the cherries and berries thing can be taken too far—it really doesn’t matter to me whether it was a Bosc pear or a red Anjou pear that a critic smelled in a chardonnay; just knowing that he caught a whiff of pear is sufficient. But Keith thinks wine critics should avoid fruit references entirely. “Cabernet sauvignon does not taste like currants,” he writes. “Pinot noir does not taste like cherries. Riesling does not taste like apples. They taste like what they are. Cabernet tastes like cabernet, pinot tastes like pinot, riesling tastes like riesling.” That’s a bit glib, and if you follow this line of reasoning to its logical end, you must conclude that it is a fool’s errand to try to describe wines at all. Judging by the 3580 tasting notes that Keith has posted on CellarTracker as of this morning (and I do hope he is billing his clients for the time), he clearly doesn’t believe that—he just objects to name-checking the specific fruit aromas that one detects in a wine.
But if a riesling has a pronounced green apple note, or a Chablis shows a lot of citrus, why not point that out? It can be useful information. Keith writes, “Nobody has ever bit into a cherry and remarked that it tasted like a Gevrey-Chambertin, a fact which ought to prove conclusively that any Gevrey-Chambertin’s resemblance to a cherry is so distant it’s barely worth noting.” Nobody has ever taken a bite of chicken and said that it tasted like frogs’ legs; however, it is certainly the case that frogs’ legs taste a lot like chicken, and this comparison can be helpful to people who’ve never tasted frog before and are wondering what to expect. Such analogies are of limited value, but they are not devoid of value.
At any rate, Keith’s post is well worth a read, and while I’m sure his intent was merely to give everyone a good laugh (mission accomplished!), perhaps his mockery will encourage a few spit-and-scribble types to pay a little more attention to the words they use.
Tasting notes are also the subject of Andrew Jefford’s latest Decanter.com column. Someone—presumably not Andrew—slapped a strange headline on the piece: “Wither Tasting Notes?” is an interesting question, but it is not a question that Andrew addresses in his article. Instead, he evaluates the tasting notes of some of the more prominent wine critics—reviewing the reviewers, you might say. He begins with the most prominent critic of all, Robert Parker. “Parker’s own notes seem to me to remain the gold standard,” Andrew writes. “They are lengthy enough to do justice to the wines he is writing about, and while not polished in any literary sense convey the character of the wine with great deftness, are internally coherent….and bubble with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can fire the reader into a purchase.” I completely agree, though I would put it more bluntly: Parker is a terrible writer who happened to have a knack for turning out compelling tasting notes. At their best, his tasting notes really did make you want to run out and load up on whatever wine he was praising. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Andrew goes on to assess the tasting notes of some other well-known critics. He contends that Jancis Robinson’s notes “can seem abbreviated, staccato, occasionally capricious and lacking in internal coherence, as if she grew a little bored or impatient as she wrote them.” I don’t know that I buy that, but if Jancis’s notes do occasionally betray some ennui, who could blame her? She’s a hugely gifted writer, and there is nothing more mind-numbing than pumping out 50 tasting notes in a single sitting. Andrew says that “Neal Martin writes lengthy, articulate, and coherent notes, but (like many European tasters) he seems to have an enthusiasm problem.” From this side of the Atlantic, that restraint looks like a virtue, not a flaw. Some American critics are so determined to get their scores and notes cited by retailers that they have effectively become shills, dishing out big numbers to lots of wines and stuffing their tasting notes full of superlatives (even wines that don’t get monster scores often receive lavish praise, creating a bizarre disconnect between the ratings and the tasting notes).
Andrew declares that “tasting notes are the kerosene of wine criticism; they have powered its ascent, and keep it aloft. If scores matter, they do so because they are a shorthand for the note itself, but it is the tasting note which builds a critic’s reputation, not the score.” On this point, I strongly disagree with him. In my opinion, scores are the kerosene of wine criticism, and they have come to serve that function in no small part because tasting notes are generally so crappy. Describing wine is not easy even for talented writers, and most of the “note-issuers”, as Andrew amusingly calls them, are not talented writers. Their tasting notes tend to be long on obscure descriptors and banal adjectives and woefully short on genuine insight. There is no doubt that scores are the first thing most people notice, and I suspect that many oenophiles, having waded through enough of these word salads, no longer even bother to glance at the accompanying tasting notes.
What say you? Do you think tasting notes are the cornerstone of contemporary wine criticism, or is it the scores? Words or numbers? Jefford or Steinberger?
Fifty years ago, you would not have seen a headline like that—that’s because headlines were generally more circumspect, and also because the French didn’t need any encouragement to whip out a corkscrew. A half-century ago, they drank wine prodigiously. In 1965, France’s per capita annual wine consumption was 160 liters, or 213 bottles for every man, woman, and child. That’s a lot of Fleurie and Bourgueil in a year. Did France have a drinking problem? Perhaps, but the country was prosperous; indeed, 1965 was the height of Les Trente Glorieuses, the 30 fat years that France enjoyed after World War Two.
But in the late 1960s, French wine consumption started to drop, and it hasn’t stopped falling. In 2010, per capita annual consumption was down to 57 liters, a 65 percent decline from the mid-1960s. Initially, the trend was driven by changing lifestyles and social mores (no more wine at lunch). The introduction of harsh drink driving laws in the early 1990s helped accelerate it. The laws were surely necessary—France had a high incidence of drunk driving fatalities—but they also reflected a a bizarre, neo-Prohibitionist tilt in French public policy. The French government began to actively discourage alcohol consumption, and it also stopped distinguishing between wine and other alcoholic beverages. Wine used to be treated differently because it was regarded as integral to France’s cultural patrimony, but that is no longer the case. Even more worrying, younger French appear to have little interest in wine; they see it as an old fart’s drink, something for grandma and grandpa. They prefer beer and spirits. The story of France’s fading wine culture was discussed at length in a magisterial book chronicling the decline of French cuisine generally. I can’t remember the author’s name, except that he was American and fabulously erudite and witty (handsome, too, I hear), nor can I recall the book’s title, except that it was very clever.
But just because this strange, sad tale has been told before doesn’t mean that it can’t be told again, and the BBC ran an excellent feature last week about the precipitous drop in French wine consumption. It reported that only 17 percent of French adults drink wine on a daily or almost daily basis now, and nearly 40 percent don’t drink wine at all. The BBC correspondent suggested that the diminished thirst for wine was a sign that perhaps the French were losing their art de vivre. That is a depressing thought for anyone who cherished the French way of life and was influenced by it (my hand is raised). Sure, French habits of the table, and a French sensibility in general, can easily be found outside of France these days, which is testament to the power and appeal of the French example. Even so, I’d still rather get my Gallic fix at a moody café in Paris, not Park Slope.
However, the biggest concern I have about the relentless decline in French wine consumption is what it might mean for wine production in France. It has already had a pernicious effect in some parts of viticultural France: the Languedoc, Beaujolais, and the periphery of Bordeaux have all been mired in economic crisis for the last decade due in large part to falling domestic sales. True, la crise viticole, as it is known, has mainly affected winemakers turning out plonk, and even if French consumption continues to plummet, it is unlikely that the finest producers in Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone, and Champagne will feel any pinch; foreign demand for their wines can readily compensate for any decline in domestic demand.
But the fact that fewer and fewer French are drinking wine, and that wine is losing its prestige in France, could have other onerous consequences. If the French no longer feel any particular attachment to their viticultural tradition, that makes it a lot easier for politicians to do dumb things—like, say, building a railroad or highway tunnel underneath a grand cru vineyard. If you don’t care about wine, if you never touch the stuff, what do you care if some bureaucrats get the bright idea to carve up a hillside in Gevrey-Chambertin? This is why the effort to get UNESCO to recognize the climats of Burgundy as a World Heritage Site is so important; it can protect these vineyards even if the French public is largely indifferent to their fate (winemakers in Germany’s Mosel Valley are kicking themselves because they neglected to seek similar recognition for their fabled vineyards, which are now threatened by that monstrous bridge being built across the Mosel River). But even if the Côte d’Or is granted World Heritage status, there are plenty of special vineyards in France that could fall victim to “progress”.
In that riveting book I mentioned earlier, the author talked about the effort to save lait cru, or raw milk, Camembert, which was at risk of extinction. He noted that the French public seemed unconcerned about its fate, which was no surprise: by the mid-2000s, most French knew only industrially-produced, pasteurized Camembert, so what did it matter to them if the raw milk variety disappeared? It’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the point: it’s hard to make people care about things that are not part of their lives, and as the French continue to turn away from wine, one can’t help but worry about what this might portend for Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the rest. Ultimately, the best protection for these regions is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable domestic consumer base. Bizarre as it is to be writing this sentence, the French really must start drinking more wine.
Depending on your taste, some dispiriting news out of Bordeaux: Château Figeac has hired Michel Rolland as a consultant. Figeac is one of Bordeaux’s most venerable estates, and also produces one of its more distinctive wines: Although Figeac is located in St. Émilion, the wine includes an unusually hefty share of cabernet sauvignon—around 35 percent—to go along with the merlot and cabernet franc. Figeac has also stood out in recent years by being one of the few wineries to resist the Parkerization/Rollandification (it has been a pincer move) of St. Émilion, Starting in the 1990s, there was a dramatic stylistic shift in St. Émilion, and brooding, lush, very oaky wines became the appellation’s signature. Rolland was a consultant to a number of St. Émilion estates and prescribed the practices (longer hang times, extended macerations, micro-oxygenation) that yielded these hedonistic fruit bombs, to use the vernacular. It was a change that thrilled Parker, who was effusive in his praise for the New Wave St. Émilions.
But Figeac’s late owner, Thierry Manoncourt, a revered figure in Bordeaux, abhorred these inky, jammy wines. Under his watch, Figeac continued to turn out elegant, classically proportioned (read: modest alcohol) St. Émilions that, thanks to the large percentage of cabernet sauvignon in the blend, were utterly sui generis among Right Bank wines. Although Parker was fairly bullish about some recent vintages of Figeac—he gave 90 points to the 2005 and 93 to the 2000 (though he later downgraded the latter)—he complained that the château was inconsistent and wasn’t realizing the full potential of its terroir. It appears he stopped reviewing Figeac after the 2008 vintage, which he slammed, giving the wine just 81 points; he definitely became more biting in his criticism of it. Perhaps there was a “frank exchange of views” and Parker either decided to shun Figeac or found he was no longer welcome there.
Manoncourt passed away in 2010 at the age of 92, and last year, Figeac was passed over for promotion to Grand Cru Classé A, the highest classification in St Emilion’s hierarchy of estates. However, two Rolland clients and Parker favorites, Pavie and Angélus, were elevated to the top rung, joining Cheval Blanc and Ausone. The Manoncourt family evidently decided that resistance had become futile and called in Rolland. Yet, the timing of this move strikes me as a little odd. It would have made much more sense 10 or 15 years ago, when Parker was at the apex of his power and all the buzz was about the revolutionary happenings in St. Émilion, But Parker is now 65, his influence is waning, Rolland appears to have lost some clout, too, and the radical changes in St. Émilion are yesterday’s news. While I don’t know that old-school clarets à la Figeac are poised for a comeback, it would seem that the cost of holding out against the modernist trend is not as high now as it was a decade ago.
Figeac fans are in various stages of grief over the news of Rolland’s hiring. The outpouring of dismay and concern elicited a typically blustery response from Parker. Writing on eBob, he said that he had recently spoken with Manoncourt’s widow, who told him that she had hired Rolland because she “wanted to return Figeac to a position of greatness.” He enumerated some of the ways in which Figeac had allegedly fallen short (underripe fruit, excessive yields), predicted that its performance would improve dramatically under Rolland, and suggested that the ignorant masochists lamenting the changes at Figeac look instead to the Loire Valley for “diluted and vegetal” wines. Ever the sweet voice of reason….
I don’t doubt that Figeac generally tastes “diluted and vegetal” to Parker and to people whose preferences align with his. The debate over the changes at Figeac is illustrative of something that too often gets overlooked or forgotten in these debates: no two palates are the same. Thank you for stating the obvious, Mr. Steinberger! I am stating the obvious, but it is a point that has a way of getting lost in all the sturm und drang. I attended a Figeac vertical in Paris in 2007 at which they poured the greatest hits from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, along with more recent vintages. The greatest hits were indeed great, but wines like the 2005, the 2000, and the 1986 all struck me as worthy successors to gems like the 64 and the 59. The 98 Figeac is a terrific wine, too. I adore Figeac for its restrained opulence (an excellent and very apt phrase that Neal Martin invoked at the Paris tasting) and its freshness—the ripe but not overripe fruit, the brisk acidity. I also like the green note that the two cabernets impart to the wine. But to Parker, that green note is a flaw, not a virtue, and what I perceive as fresh and elegant strikes his palate as thin and insipid. It’s a Mars. vs. Venus thing, you could say. To this point, Figeac has catered to ignorant masochists like me; the decision to hire Rolland suggests it will henceforth cater to Parker. As I said, it’s a move that would have made perfect sense a decade ago; it will be interesting to see if it pays off now.