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Wine: Is The Romance Gone?

2012 February 2
by Mike

The Quarterly Review of Wines said this week that it is ceasing publication after 35 years. I wasn’t a regular reader of QRW, but it seemed like a good magazine, and its demise is a loss both for consumers and for wine writers, who now have one less outlet available to them. Unfortunately, QRW’s publisher and owner, Richard Elia, chose to exit on a distinctly sour note. He announced the magazine’s closure with a bitter missive entitled “Wine’s Decline”, in which he said that the wine world has basically gone to pot thanks to marketing, scores, wine kitsch (aerators, redneck wine glasses, etc.), the Internet, and restaurant music (yes, restaurant music).  “What initially attracted us to wine,” he wrote, “was the romance of it. Now this passion is spent…Wine became so commercially successful that romance was lost along the way.”

I don’t see much point in unpacking all of his claims. The article was clearly fired off in anger, and the anger is understandable: Elia’s magazine has folded, and that’s a tough blow. However, I do think his comments about lost romance are worth pondering. There is an element of truth to what he says. Wine has become a big business, and all the chatter about points and prices, about social media strategies and distribution channels, can be dispiriting. There is no denying that numerical ratings, marketing, and corporatization have taken some of the soul out of wine. They have surely taken the soul out of certain wines and wine regions (here’s looking at you, Bordeaux and Napa). If you want to focus on the negative, there is plenty to focus on.

But I hardly think the romance is gone from wine. Consider Burgundy; yes, the most sought-after wines are insanely expensive now, but it is still a place dominated by artisans and suffused with rustic charm. When you see the pickers clinging to the vertiginous hillsides of Germany’s Mosel Valley, working the same land the Romans worked, or listen to Jean-Louis Chave talking about his family’s 500-year winemaking tradition, how can you not be in love with wine and all that it represents? As it happens, I received a letter yesterday from Mauro Mascarello, thanking me for an article I’d written about a tasting of his Barolos. In the letter, Mascarello paid tribute to his late father Gepin, describing his tireless efforts on behalf of the estate, his commitment to quality, and the strong bonds he formed with area growers (“concluding deals with a simple handshake”). It is a wonderfully evocative, very moving note that I will keep and treasure—a reminder to me of what I adore about wine and the people who make it.

In his parting shot, Elia wrote, “We miss stories about winemakers, about their hard work and their purple hands.” Those stories are still out there, in abundance, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to find them. I’m sorry that QRW has folded, and there is much to lament about the wine world these days. But is the romance lost? Not even close.

32 Responses leave one →
  1. February 5, 2012

    David F, I think wine has unquestionably been demystified, but with people like the Chaves and Mascarellos still making wine and young, dynamic producers emerging all over the world, the romance is in no danger of disappearing.

    Madisonj, that’s interesting information re QRW, and disappointing to hear. And I agree completely about Parker; he set a very admirable standard, and the integrity he brought to his work was a critical element in his success.

    Bill, great point about the Moscato; by the time the alcohol kicks in, it will be too late! Yes, a high-octane CA red is probably much more effective in this regard.

    Jay, that is a seriously good wine; I had it a few years ago and loved it. I would have taken down that 1/2 bottle solo, too.

  2. mauss permalink
    February 5, 2012

    Very simple : at the beginning of this QRW, the world of wine was clearly a world of elitism, “entre soi”. Some people do not like so much this evolution, obviously.
    It is obvious that who is looking to winegrowers with earth under the nails, they still exist, with passion, a full respect of nature and a high level of modesty.
    They may be harder to find for the QRW, they are not as a sensible number in Bordeaux, but so easy to find in Burgundy, Alsace, Germany, Austria, Spain !

  3. Howard G. Goldberg permalink
    February 5, 2012

    If “the romance of wine” is gone or diminished, I partly approve.

    The reason hinges on a meaning of the word and its use. If we have in mind a conventional definition, “a love affair” — the No. 8 meaning in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fourth edition — and mean it, I have no objection to the word and its idea and application. But, dominantly, winedom’s marketers routinely use the word “romance” in their prose and conversation in a way that corresponds to the No. 7 meaning: “an exaggeration or fabrication that has no real substance.”

    What too many producers and their agents want is a public and journalistic mindset that is soft-focus, uncritical and automatically accepting of the public relations fictions they spin. They succeed all the time. Thus, in one startling, memorable moment years ago when I was reading proof on a freelance article I found that an editor had inserted the word “acclaimed” before the word “wine.” I asked: Why is it there? Acclaimed by whom? Acclaimed where? Acclaimed for what? There was no answer, which I interpreted to mean that standard baseless automaton puffery was involved. Puffery of the kind that explains all the drivel found in fashion copy. At my insistence the word was deleted.

    In short, when “romance” is a smiley-face perfumed word intended to induce narcosis and desire in the reader and listener, as it is in, say, Champagne advertising, then I find it objectionable. The warm oozy feelings of cute teenage love affairs — of his-and-hers cow eyes — are prettily romantic, and that’s fitting for youngsters. But love affairs of adults — love of each other, of objects, of products — based on long-seasoned feelings and clear-eyed understandings are the real deal. I most trust wine figures who tell their stories and make their cases graphically and without push-button sentimentality. I prefer to appreciate, to like, to love their wines with both my heart and mind.

  4. Zack permalink
    February 4, 2012

    Has the modernization of wine sapped some of the romance? For sure. There’s nothing romantic about spending massive amounts on fancy grape juice or rummaging through more modest wines to find an adequate QPR. Money and bohemia are more seductive intellectually (or perhaps for the non-intellectual) than being actually romantic but people often confuse the seductive with romantic. Cloying 99 point trophy wines aren’t sexy. They are ridiculous and have all the romance of a strip club. Then again, I love screw tops and they aren’t romantic either.

    But to be honest I don’t care about the lack of romance. If romance was the reason you got into wine, then that’s sad. Just as sad as Parker’s false bravado. Wine just like all crafts is about plugging in to something, not zoning out. Romance is a very narrow aspect of this. It’s about focusing on your senses, socializing, sharing, and on rare occasions getting just a bit too tight for ones own good.

    Tom Noonan said it best when talking about going to the movies, “I don’t think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away.” I would say drinking and sharing wine is another way to get back into life and not avoid it.

    I liked the QRW just about as much as the next guy (which turned out to be not nearly enough) and it sucks that they had to close up shop. Aspects of the wine industry have changed, but life hasn’t. You have to build a place to plug back in to life.

  5. Chris Wallace permalink
    February 4, 2012

    I believe that romance exists within the person and is projected onto the event, not the other way around. People who have lost the romance for wine I suspect have lost the romance for most other things too. Poor Elia, I am sure that closing his magazine has taken an emotional toll, and quite possibly a financial one too. Not events likely to put someone in a romantic mood.

    Wine has not lost its’ romance. Yes, the industry has grown and there are numerous commercial aspects to it, and those aspects are hard cozy up to. But for the discerning consumer there are many wonderful wines and vignerons out there that make it easy to keep the romance with wine alive. Look for the good and you will find it; look for the bad and you will find that too.

  6. Jay S. Miller permalink
    February 4, 2012

    The one I drank solo was a 375 ml of 1959 Mouton Rothschild. My first part-time wine job was at a shop in Baltimore in 1977 and they had a couple of them at a price that now seems laughable. It was fantastic, easily the best wine I had up to that point. But after that, I made a promise to myself to only open a wine like that with someone else who would appreciate it.
    MrBigJ

  7. Bill Klapp permalink
    February 4, 2012

    Mike, I thought that I read somewhere that Moscato d’ Asti (or the domestically bottled version thereof) has replaced Champagne as the seduction beverage of choice among the young folk. Somebody really ought to tell them that Moscato is only 4-5% alcohol, and it may take a case over a very long night to get the job done! I think 18% Zinfandel and vintage port makes a lot more sense…

  8. February 3, 2012

    I agree, Claude. As I said, I understand Elia’s frustration, but it certainly warped his vision. The publisher could have used an editor in this instance.

    Frank, that’s a very interesting analogy. As Claude indicated, terrific artisanal wines and talented artisanal producers are virtually falling off the vine these days. It’s a pity QRW folded, but it sure wasn’t for lack of compelling stories.

    Jay, sharing a good bottle with friends or family is one of my life’s great pleasures. Wine is about enjoyment, it is about conversation and reflection–it serves so many terrific purposes, and that surely hasn’t changed. So just out of curiosity: what was the great bottle that you drank solo?

  9. madisonj permalink
    February 3, 2012

    I will not miss QRW in the least. I never subscribed, but frequently found it on the nightstand in various hotels I’ve stayed at over the years. I would read it to kill time (e.g., while waiting for my wife to get dressed for dinner) and found myself perplexed by high scores given to bottom shelf wines and other producers I’d never even heard of. Lo and behold, as I’d turn the pages, there would be full page ads for the very wines given glowing reviews on the previous pages. Sheer coincidence, no doubt. Riiiiight.

    Say what you will about the influence of Parker, but to me QRW symbolized everything his Naderesque approach to wine criticism was (rightfully) rebelling against.

  10. David F. permalink
    February 3, 2012

    I agree with Jay and Jack – I think every fond memory I have of wine involves at least one other person, often a group of friends. The romance of the experience of drinking wine is, I think still alive and well. But the romance in the production of wine may be lessened. Perhaps because we know more about how it is made, sold, etc. (i.e., we can see behind the curtain now) and perhaps because the production and sale is more commercial than ever before.

  11. February 3, 2012

    Vinologue, that’s a good point–wine is a quotidian pleasure now for many Americans, and while I’m not sure that that drains it of romance, it makes it perhaps a little less special. But like you, I think the fact that wine is becoming an everyday thing in this country is just an amazingly positive development.

    Bill, I understand the faded part; it’s not my view, but it’s easy enough to be turned off by the prices, the points mania, etc. I can’t speak for Elia, but I mean “romance” more in the sense of special–the ability to conjure a sense of place, to connect us with people, to take us back in time, etc. As for seduction–well, I guess there’s always Champagne.

  12. Jack Bulkin permalink
    February 3, 2012

    I have to agree with Elia that to me, the thrill of wine is gone. Like Big Jay stated above my love of drinking great bottles was in sharing them. My circumstances are unique in that I became a single parent at 55 and have far fewer opportunities now to open great bottles. I have consumed dozens of prized bottles the past five years at home with my son without sharing them and they were revealed to be just what they are; well made fermented grape juice. Except for a private tasting of 27 vintages of Ausone with some friends that are members of Commenderie de Bordeaux several years ago, I have not had a bottle that moved me like the 89 Haut Brion or 45 Moton in over ten years. Many wines are too high in alcohol for my taste. There are many great bottles but without the social contact attached, few great wine experiences.

  13. Ryan permalink
    February 3, 2012

    I remember some travel writer saying that if you insist on avoiding “touristy” places (say, Venice) you’re missing out: tourists often flock to those places for good reasons. I feel similarly about wine. The romance is real – there’s something captivating about the whole process – even when it isn’t pure.

  14. Jay S. Miller permalink
    February 3, 2012

    I don’t think romance is quite the right word. We have booty call wines for that (that’s a joke people).

    To me wine is a common denominator for friendship. Some of my favorite times are meeting up with a group of friends for a dinner at Bern’s in Tampa. Only once in my life did I ever open a great bottle just for myself. It had to be with like-minded friends.

    The purpose of life is to enjoy it. Nothing works better for me than a good glass of wine.

    MrBigJ

  15. Frank permalink
    February 3, 2012

    The analogy with the auto industry is a good one. I’m sure there were lots of people who bemoaned the loss of the romance in motoring (Stutz Bearcat, anyone?) when Ford made the Model T. More people were able to get cars, and they became commodified.

    Same with wine – more people are drinking it, and that leads to commodification. On the other hand, the mass market phenomenon also creates a market for the romantic wine, in the same way that the Model T led to the Corvette and the T-bird, even the Tesla. We’ll have better mass market wine (Chevrolets, Model As, and Oldsmobiles), which in turn will create a distribution mechanism for the distinctive or individualized wines.

  16. February 3, 2012

    No romance with all the areas long overlooked now blossoming forth with superb wines and producers who are make them out of love and passion, not interest in getting rich: Muscadet, Jura, Rheinhessen, Südpfalz, Sicily, etc., etc., etc.? The charge is about as bad a case of sour grapes as I’ve ever seen.

  17. February 3, 2012

    Paul, I obviously agree with you; it is an incredibly rewarding time to be a wine enthusiast, and it is unfortunate that Elia couldn’t see beyond his own disappointment to recognize what a terrific moment we are living in. Yes, there are problems, but I would say those problems are far outweighed by all the good things that are happening.

    David, Bordeaux has always been the most commercial of wine regions, but I think there was some romance there, and some would argue that there still is; on the periphery of Bordeaux, away from the Medoc and the classified growths, there are hundreds of small producers truly working as farmers. But certainly, the classified growths and the big guns of the Right Bank have become so corporatized and so bound up in prices, points, and bling that the sense of romance has certainly diminished.

    John, thanks for stopping by, and for the details regarding QRW. It sounds as if it is not a great loss from your point of view. And your line about romance in wine is terrific, and spot on: it is still out there for those who want to find it.

  18. Bill Klapp permalink
    February 3, 2012

    Mike, not gone for you and Matt Kramer, but fading for the rest of us! (:

    Something hinted at above I believe to be so, which is that wine seems to inspire passion and passionate debate in Europe, but not romance per se, unless employed in the context of seduction. In the latter case, it enjoys no greater romantic cachet than, say, truffles, oysters or caviar. The notion of wine romance being discussed here seems uniquely American to me…

  19. February 3, 2012

    It has a great deal to do with the fact that wine is starting to (finally) become an everyday item in the US so yes, it is less “romantic” in that it’s approachable to more people, which is a welcome change. There are those who will grimace at wine being treating in the same way as beer, but as you point out, it’s really just farming. If the US were to truly switch to Metric someday, I’m sure similar people would bemoan the loss of our idiotic yards, acres, and teaspoons as a romantic age that has passed.

  20. February 2, 2012

    I subscribed to QRW for the past couple of years and from my point of view, it was nothing more than a bundle of winery profiles that appeared to me to be nothing short of advertisements with some copy. I enjoyed reading the news in the front, but it seems as though twitter and RSS feeds serve that purpose more expeditiously. However, articles written by MWs such as Clive Coates will be missed. As for romance in wine – for those of us disinterested in scores and other rating systems, romance is what encourage me to drink, learn and educate others and will continue to inspire me to find gems throughout the the wine world going forward.

    -jk

  21. David F. permalink
    February 2, 2012

    Was there ever romance in Bordeaux? Hasn’t it always been known as a very commercial region?

    I ask because I think the idea that at one point in time, wine was all romance lacks any factual basis (or, if you want, is simply wishful thinking). Wine has always been had a commercial element and a romantic element. That was true 100 years ago and is true today.

    A good comparison might be food. Most meals in restaurants lack any romance in any sense of the word (as does most food bought for the home) but no one would deny that there is still romance in food (and great writing about food too).

  22. February 2, 2012

    Jon, thanks for stopping by. You are absolutely right about California, and (trust you don’t mind me dropping some praise here) you have done more than anyone to call attention to these small producers who have brought so much dynamism to the wine scene there in recent years.

    As I said, I wasn’t a regular reader of QRW, and that’s very interesting about the turn the magazine had taken in recent years. And, no, the small fry can’t afford to sponsor junkets and to hire fancy PR folk; they need journalists and critics to find them, but that requires a level of due diligence that a lot of writers are plainly not interested in performing. Much easier to have trips planned and paid for.

  23. February 2, 2012

    Rick, you make some excellent points. Yes, the vast majority of wines made and consumed in the US are “industrial”, commodified products. But as you say, there are more people now in more places producing artisanal, distinctive wines than ever before. It is an incredibly exciting time. With all due respect to Elia, what he sees happening with wine is clearly not what you or I see.

    John Trinidad, that is just a perfect summary of what is taking place today in the wine world; many thanks for it.

  24. February 2, 2012

    I’d be upset if I had to fold up my tent after that long, but I wouldn’t take it out on the subject matter.

    I think there’s never been a better time to be engaged in the wine world; there’s more information available, more (free!) education available, more varied opinions available. Blogs and apps and whatnot are great things and can make the enjoyment of wine an interactive thing not just with those in the same room, but with people around the world.

    Sure, ratings are a bit of an issue, but I think people are capable of enjoying wine while ignoring them. I also think they help point out that wine is about YOUR palate; finding a wine I love that’s not rated 90+ points, or finding a wine I pour down the sink that is rated highly makes for lively conversation and is another great way to learn how subjective the subject is.

    All anyone needs to do to see the romantic side of wine is to visit a wine region and visit wineries. Sure, there are the big commercial places, but there’s little cooler than visiting Silver Oak or Corison and tasting a few wines and talking to the people there.

  25. February 2, 2012

    It’s truly sad to see QRW go away — one of the publications that always tried to serve as loyal opposition.

    But romance gone? Whatever. Even California is enjoying a new boom in small producers who are still charmed enough by the romance to put endless miles on their cars and stains on their hands.

    What’s odd about the romance-is-gone sentiment is that, in recent years, QRW had gravitated to writing a whole lot about the big, corporate wineries of the sort that seemed to be the target of this swan song. If Elia’s interpretation was that the romance of wine had vanished, it wasn’t because it no longer exists. It’s because its proponents can’t necessarily afford junkets and white-shoe PR.

  26. February 2, 2012

    Mike – I feel sad for anyone that believes that the romantic side of the wine industry is gone. Last year, I had the good fortune of meeting young, up and coming winemakers in Burgundy, and work with a small, two person winery in Healdsburg that is making some of the best wines coming out of California. These are not people who fled to the vineyards with millions of dollars to start up some vanity project. These are people that think of themselves first and foremost as farmers, as shepherds of the vines. People who want to get their hands dirty in the vineyard, move and clean bins, have purple stained callouses for months on end. There is no large monetary pay off at the end of the day and know illusion of some sort of glamorous “wine lifestyle” (whatever that term means). These are people who truly do it out of love.

    I don’t mean to separate the small producers from some of the most revered estates. I appreciate your story re Chave and Mascarello. I found the same sort of dedication to quality and sense of purpose in visiting Jamet, Allemand, and Clape in the Rhone; Bernard Baudry in Chinon; and Anselme Selosse and Raphael Bereche in Champagne.

    There is plenty of romance to be had. There are older producers who have always sustained it, new producers who have embraced it, and a broadened awareness among consumers that wine at its best should not be a mass-produced commodity.

    Cheers,
    – John

  27. February 2, 2012

    The vast majority of wine sold in the U.S. is just a commodity, such as pork bellies, corn, sugar, ethanol and all the others. Despite this; I feel there are more true artisanal, passionate vignerons now than ever before. For me there are more interesting wines than at any time in the last forty years. They may be from regions less well known, but are intriguing non the less. The consumers are more willing to try new regions now, and are generally pleased with the wines they try. “Romance in wine” for me is exploration and excitement from new experiences!

  28. February 2, 2012

    I agree, Scott; it’s still here, in abundance.

    I see it differently, James; if you are talking about truly artisanal wines, it seems to me that the demand is increasing. I think people are looking for authenticity, for soulfulness, etc. I believe this goes a long way to explaining why Burgundy is so popular nowadays and why all those dime-a-dozen Napa cabs are gathering dust on retail shelves.

  29. February 2, 2012

    Sure, there’s STILL wine romance out there. But, the folding of QRW is another remimder that the audience for these type of wines has been rapidly shrinkimg for quite some time.

  30. Scott Radtke permalink
    February 2, 2012

    Amen. I can understand his anger, but the romance of and for wine is as abundant as ever.

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