Before it all went wrong

June 20th, 2008

Young Anna Nicole Smith

Young Anna Nicole Smith.

In a post on his blog, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov says: “…too many American pinot noirs are simply too big, not so much in alcohol but in body and sweetness“.

Along with others, I have said that the trend of increasing ripeness in California wine has become a runaway train. But it’s not just ripeness and sweetness that are of issue to Asimov (and those of like mind). These wines go beyond rich, corpulent, full-bodied or bold. Some of these pinots are grotesque monstrosities. This is no coincidence or a product of the climate. It is a conscious and deliberate decision on the part of producers. Besides farming practices and harvesting decisions, cellar practices are employed by winemakers seeking to appeal to (or appease) the mainstream preferences.

The fairly common practice of “Hermitaging” wines (adding Syrah to Bordeaux or Burgundy wines) has been the savior of many a tough vintage in France, but I believe that in California, it is hardly ever needed. Still, it is quite common. This is “beefing up” of wines is not necessarily a practice unique to France and is not limited to the use of syrah – as the recent Brunello scandal demonstrates. California labeling laws allows for blending in other varieties so long as they do not exceed 25% of the wine. The official presumption here is that anything more would obscure the character of the variety on the label. But hermitaging is more than a philosophical taboo to pinot purists and (as Oregon pinot noir winemaker, Jerry D. Murray points out) blending in of other varieties does obscure the character of pinot noir and its terroir. I agree. It’s adulterating of the wine.

An ex-girlfriend of mine used to say that pets are like their owners. Could it also be said, then, that wines are like the people who produce or consume them? Do the things we make and consume define us? If wines are like the people who make and drink them, does the nature of California pinot noir reflect some sort of a gluttonous, “pack-in-as-much-as-you-can” mentality on the part of the consumers?

There is an uncanny parallel between rising obesity rates in the U.S. and the rise of “monster” wines. Smorgasbords may be a yellowed memory of the ’70s and ’80s, but it is undeniable that in our society, “bigger, faster, more” has become synonymous with quality and value. Our consumption has accelerated not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of density of content. American consumers seem to want more french fries per serving, more meat in their sub sandwiches and more “flavor” in their wines. “Extreme” is now king.

I don’t think that in the ever-maddening pursuit of bigger, more “extreme” anything (wine included) we’re trying to feed the child within us or fill some need or void. Well, we can blame others who, like attentive stewards, served our needs and catered to our egos, gave us what we asked for and validated our choices and opinions. But maybe it’s more realistic that, in the process, “a little got more ‘n more”.

We now want wines with “more and bolder taste”. There are only five flavors we are capable of tasting – even these “monster” wines. There is, however, mouthfeel which can be made bigger and denser through hermitaging. But it is the aromatics that give us the perception of flavor. So maybe in seeking more “flavor”, we just forgot to stop and smell our wine.

The sense of smell is linked very strongly to memory and emotion. Maybe if we take the time to smell the wine, we have a chance of recalling how it once was. Some time ago…


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10 Responses to “Before it all went wrong”

  1. Morton Leslie Says:

    In the beginning it was beer until someone discovered distillation and gave us scotch. In the sixties I’d split a joint with a buddy and get a little high. Today one hit and I’m a zombie. How did we get from chewing coca leaves to coca cola to crack cocaine? Bordeaux used to average about 11% alcohol, now its closer to 14. At one time it smelled like grape rather than alcohol, raisin and oak. This seems to be a natural progression. Human beings love to get high, like to get there quick, don’t know when to stop, and never look back.

  2. EnoGuy Says:

    I read Asimov’s article and agreed entirely with what he said. As a winemaker, I think that the reasons we do things is sometimes simply because we can. You have to keep in mind that the state of technology in enology and viticulture has improved by leaps and bounds since the 11% Bordeaux of the ’70′s. Thanks to advances in the vineyard we can get grapes much riper. Thanks to advances in yeast we can actually convert more of that extra sugar in the grape into alcohol than ever before. Even the quality of oak barrels and (especially) oak barrel substitutes has improved by leaps and bounds, allowing us to oak these alcohol bombs into some kind of submisision.

    The real question I think we’re trying to sort out here is: Just because we have these tools, does that mean we need to use them? I think that a lot of winemakers these days are trying to push things as far as they can go and now they’ve reached that precipice and are beginning to pull back. The wine writers and reviewers who were egging them on by awarding these wines with high scores and accolades are now criticizing them for being too over the top. Every major wine magazine has noticed this trend and a backlash is beginning. Although it’s easy to say that “bigger” and “more” is inherently “American” I think that many of us prefer to drink wine because of the subtleties and elegance that get lost in making big wines.

  3. Tish Says:

    Arthur, I agree with your analogy to the “bigger, faster, more” attutude now prevalent in our society. (And, by the way, that was an excellent response to Joel Stein in the LA Times.) I also think, however, that current-day markets in general are better able to deliver true diversity. While it may seem that the elegant wines are getting overwhlemed by the big boys, I think we are just seeing more of them because there is more of everything in today’s wine market.

    I disagree with EnoGuy about the “bigger” backlash… Yes, there are have been some catcalls here and there, but these magazines are chronic rewarders of bigness in their so-called buying guides. As long as wine magazines continue to give out ratings, we are going to see the highest scores go to high-alcohol reds.

    The real backlash will likely come when (and I do not htink it’s an “if”) nutritional labeling comes to the wine industry. If the U.S., govt can make sure we see the ingredients on a bag of raisinets, we are eventually going to see the ingredients on a bottle of wine. ANd this is going to in turn reveal which Pinot Noirs are boosted, and it is going to draw some harsh new attention to the wide range of alcohol content in wines these days. Toss in the appearance of calories on labels and we may well see a swing back toward white wine.

  4. Nancy Says:

    I’m puzzled as to why “big” wines, fruity, dense, and flavorful (i.e., American) are considered somehow poorer than thin, sourish (European) wines. I understand that high alcohol contents are often unpleasant and unnecessary, and I understand that a light, delicate wine very much has its place beside many meals. But why the prejudice against flavor and the fact that “mainstream” wine drinkers (i.e., the plebs) like flavor? I wonder if, centuries from now, historians will simply write: vinifera made good wine in the Old World. But it made superb wine in the New.

  5. Arthur Says:


    Thank you!

    I kind of touched on the whole impact of marketing on wine in my post today: “Goodbye, Mr. Conductor”.

  6. Arthur Says:

    Hi Nancy,

    The only flavors we can taste are: sweet, sour, bitter and mineral/salty. So “more flavorful” usually means: less acid and more sugar. This is *not* “more flavorful” – it is a bigger mouthfeel with denser extraction, more alcohol and sugar.

    The problem with “big” wines is that they are like Baby Huey: big, awkward, oafish, simple and lacking finesse. They are made from over-ripe grapes and lack nuance, varietal typicity and complexity.

    With pinot noir, in particular, less power and extraction actually gives you more. No matter what lines about “California-styled” pinot noir you hear, producers invested in the variety ou a desire to emulate the best in Burgundy. In fact, the most lauded New World pinot noirs are valued for their similarity to the Old World versions.

  7. John Kelly Says:

    Arthur – the other night I ran across an interesting article in Gourmet of all places about the rapidly evolving science of taste. Bottom line – forget the “we only taste five flavors” dogma.

    Regarding the big Pinot conundrum, well, this ain’t my first rodeo. IIRC there were some Pinots in the ’70′s, ’80′s, ’90′s that were, um, rustic. There will always be somebody who will try to make a Cabernet out of Pinot if they can at all – that is their taste. What’s changed is what Carlin would decry – the 24/7 marketing. In less media-saturated decades these wines were not taken seriously.

    Today, because every taste is validated, and every winery is great, and every media outlet has some poor schmuck who has to turn out at least six column-inches on some “interesting” wine-related topic every week – these atypical, non-varietal wines are suddenly worthy of attention. And because winemaking has evolved pretty dramatically, these oak-loaded fermented raisin-syrup beverages are miraculously palatable.

    Palatable, but not enjoyable, to me at least. Let’s acknowledge that we were not all created equal (as Joel Stein bragged on himself) at least when it comes to our ability to taste and smell. I am not a “supertaster” but I am more sensitive than most and have always had something of a “smell-o-graphic” memory. I find these “big” wines – regardless of the grape, or country of origin – to be fatiguing to drink. But you know – de gustibus, non disputandum est (or is that aut bene aut nihil? Whatever.)

    I view these “international”-styled wines as the wine equivalent of the 1959 Cadillacs: big, floaty, comfortable symbols of excess, and whether you owned one (or wanted to) or not – you had to admire those tailfins.

  8. Arthur Says:

    Thank you for contributing to the discussion, John.

    Olfactory and gustatory research is very much the flavor of the day, it would seem.

    A read through this article seems to give no support to the notion that “blackberry” is a “flavor”. Most of the experiment and examples mentioned still seem to investigate the interaction of those “dogmatized” five flavors of sweet, sour, salty and bitter (+ umami, no studies mentioned).

    I have to remain a cautious skeptic here. There are still many facts missing.

    As for “rustic” pinot – isn’t that a term dependent on the times?

    As for taste – well, some do and some don’t…. Otherwise pink lawn flamingos would not sell…

    For whites, a winemaker related the term “blousy” to describe their, er… attributes – coined by another writer.

  9. John Kelly Says:

    Arthur – Though the Gourmet article leaves much to be desired, it did let me know that smell-taste research recently has undergone some sort of paradigm shift. I will be following up with an online visit to PubMed and FSTA to catch up on some of the advances in the field.

    Note on the use of the term “rustic”: the preceeding modifier “, um,” suggests that the following term is a satiric or snarky euphemism, in this case for Pinots which were/are atypical, non-varietal, oak-loaded fermented raisin syrup beverages (to which I could add over-extracted and over-processed). Just thought I should clarify.

    However it is interesting to me that “rustic” implies a temporal relationship to you. Applied literally to wine, I have always used the term to mean “unrefined” as opposed to “old-style”.

    And “blousy”? Well, wine has on occasion led me to come up with some fairly carnal euphemisms – usually after the third bottle. On one such occasion, a Greek enologist of my acquaintance working in Beaune described the wine we were drinking as having a “gran balcon” which suggests the concept is universal.

  10. Arthur Says:

    Thank you again, John.

    The temporal factor in the definition of “rustic” is an indirect and less than erudite attempt at pointing out that in the day of “atypical, non-varietal, oak-loaded fermented raisin syrup” wines, elegant, expressive pinots which scintillate with character and have structure are termed “rustic”.

    I share your opinion on the definition of the word. However, in the world where every taste is valid and every wine writer is qualified as an expert (…………) rustic seems to have multiple (personal) deifintions as evidenced here:

    Regarding the issues of research: I agree that much of any sensory modality is central, with a strong cognitive element.

    You might like to look at some interesting and relevant thoughts from Larry Schaffer here: