So, what with the end of the Oughts nearly upon us, I’ve been of course thinking of a way to wrap 2009 things up on the blog, and I have to thank Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast for providing a rather excellent mechanism by which to do so; in the December 31 issue of Wine Enthusiast, Steve writes a column entitled “Wine Online in 2009,” in which he lays out his candidates for the Top 10 Issues that most captivated the wine blogosphere this year.
Given that Ridge and myself are proud participants in said blogosphere, I wanted to make sure I offered at least two cents worth of perspective on each of these ten items. So here goes!
The Big R. Of course it’s been a topic of conversation, and we’ve all been analyzing the effects and repercussions from all angles. Conventional wisdom in the world of wine seems to be that, while people are certainly having to tighten their belts, the recession isn’t keeping them from drinking wine per se, but rather, it’s forcing them to purchase wines at a lower price point, and do so “directly,” as opposed to in restaurants.
While Ridge wines aren’t what myself or anyone else would probably consider to be entry-level priced, I do think that judged on a price-break-to-quality ratio, we consistently offer a tremendous caliber of wine for the money. But that doesn’t change the reality that our prices may be above the level below which wine purchasers are currently looking for offerings. And while we accordingly have certainly seen some challenges on the wholesale and export side of the equation, our direct-to-consumer sales have actually been notably solid.
Which brings me to the issue of buying “directly.” I think that, while the recession has certainly been a factor, there is something else at work here as well, the ever-increasing confidence, sophistication, and knowledge of the American Wine Drinker. Combining personal experience with unprecedented technological access (are you too seeing more and more diners in restaurants using IPhones and the like to look up wine ratings as they peruse the wine lists?), the American Wine Drinker seems to be feeling progressively more and more able to make informed wine choices themselves, without relying on wine lists, sommeliers, or shelf talkers in retail shops. So why not come directly to the source?
And this returns us to the recession. What better way to engage in a “staycation” then to spend a day picnicking and wine tasting? I think what he have on our hands is potentially a new model for wine consumption in our country. It’s less expensive, yet more involved; more engaged, yet less confusing; and it’s more educational, yet more fun. It begins with some time spent perusing some favorite wine blogs (no subscription costs!), then heading off to a favorite tasting room or two (an excellent opportunity to taste before you purchase, and learn before you taste!), stopping only to pick up supplies for a picnic (cheaper than a restaurant!), and ending on the grounds of a favorite producer’s vineyards, with a lovely bottle of wine (no restaurant mark-up!), great food, and great company.
If that’s somewhat transparent, so be it! Of course I’m describing an afternoon spent at our Lytton Springs and/or Monte Bello Tasting Rooms, but in all honesty, I think the experiences we can offer are a perfect antidote to the recession, and I hope we’ll be able to welcome every single one of you at some point in the not-too-distant future!
The 100-Point System
I have to say, this hasn’t been of much concern to us here at RIDGE. While we’ve of course been fortunate to receive some lovely scores from many reputable wine critics and commentators over the years, RIDGE is a producer that has always favored philosophy over facts, and in the end, while the point system may function as a handy sort of shorthand, my feeling is that the best reviews are potentially the longest, and certainly the most insightful, and most expressive. Writing about wine is potentially just as much an art as is creating it, in that, like all art forms, one is essentially trying to express the internally inexpressible in some external fashion, and while it’s by definition never wholly possible, the wine writer who is able to inspire us by their words to experience anew the artisanal gift of a fine bottle of wine has done an artist’s job, point system or no.
Blind Tasting vs. Open
While it would certainly be easy to agree with the vast majority of people who favor blind tasting, I think I’m going to take the rather more controversial road here, and offer a vote in favor of open tasting. Why? Because blind tasting removes something from the tasting experience that I believe to be vital in assessing the character and quality of a wine; the INTENTIONS of the winemaker!
For example, let’s say you taste a wine blind, and you note it to be reasonably light-bodied, not overtly complex, pleasantly fruit-forward without being notably opulent, and not overtly structure-forward, featuring fairly soft acidity and only mildly chalky tannins. Your summary? Maybe you’d classify it as a spring-summer sipper, to be enjoyed in its youth. You judge it to be very pleasant, and give it a good, if not great, rating. Ok, fine. But what if the winemaker’s intention was to craft a wine with substantive cellarability virtually written into the wine’s DNA? With all the attendant complexity and sophistication such a wine must exhibit? Wouldn’t you have to consider the wine a bit of a disappointment, if not an out and out failure, if this was the case? But you wouldn’t be able to do this, because you wouldn’t know anything about the winemaker!
Speaking from the Ridge side of things, and as noted above, we’ve always been about philosophy as much as facts; art as much as science; agrarian traditions as much as technological ones, etc., and accordingly, intention is a big part of what we do. I’m not sure one can truly and properly assess a Ridge wine without some degree of understanding about WHY it tastes the way it does; WHY it was made the way it was made. The problem with blind tasting is that it assumes tasting is only that, tasting. But taste isn’t all that makes a wine unique.
Making Wine More Accessible To A New Generation
I’m actually going to run with a thread Mr. Heimoff himself touches upon in his article, and ask the following: does anyone else out there find it somewhat condescending the extent to which people seem to think that reaching a younger generation of potential wine consumers has to mean simplifying things? While I of course can recognize that some of the review and discourse models out there are crafted in the spirit of puncturing the oft preponderant pomposities that have historically surrounded the wine industry, many of the new wine blogs, wine shows, wine articles, etc. out there that have touched on this issue seems to be obsessed with the idea of, as Mr. Heimoff writes, “making wine simple,” of “taking the mystery out of wine.” Why? Are younger wine consumers incapable of grasping complexities? Are younger wine consumers incapable of appreciating, pursuing, and unraveling mystery? I am going to essentially agree with Mr. Heimoff on this one, and argue that a new generation deserves the same respect as any preceding generation, and accordingly, all of us who work with, and write about, fine wines should give younger people interested in wine the benefit of doubt, and assume sophistication on their parts. The words may be different, the slang different, the colloquialisms different, the methods of information transference different, but that’s no reason to assume the content is any less complex.
The issue here, in terms of it being a hot-button topic, seems to be the question of who has the right to speak on wine, and who should be listened to. Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that it’s a battle between the old guard (print media, Robert Parker, etc.) vs. the new guard (wine blogs, Gary Veynerchuk, etc.), with the old guard maintaining that their experience, skill, knowledge, and seriousness of purpose equates to a solid rationale for their continued dominance in the oenologist’s marketplace of ideas, and with the new guard maintaining that it’s a new world out there, a digital democracy, and the dinosaurs are dead and need to realize it.
In the end, I think the whole debate is pretty silly. Credibility, to my way of thinking, comes with accountability, which comes with scales of exposure. For example, if you write a wine blog, and no one reads it, then there is no one to check your facts. You could write alot of really inane things, and pass it off as gospel. Accordingly, it’s not likely your blog should be recommended to those looking to expand their wine knowledge. Alternatively, if you write a wine blog, and hundreds of thousands of people read it, chances are you’re going to get caught out if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Accordingly, it’s probably a pretty safe recommendation to send a viticultural mendicant looking for salvation your blog’s way. Credibility comes from accountability. The greater your scale of exposure, the harder you have to work to make sure you’ve got your s$%t together. Remember, Robert Parker started out with a direct-mail newsletter that no one had ever heard of …
Not entirely sure why Mr. Heimoff made this a separate category, as the issues are essentially the same as the “younger generation” topic, that is, what’s essentially at issue is the question of whether wine needs to be “simplified” in order to generate interest. So I’ll skip repeating what I’ve written above, and instead offer a tangential defense of complexity over simplification; take classical music. To the uninitiated or uninterested, it can all just sound like a bunch of stringed instruments screeching along to no apparent purpose. But as you start to learn about it, you start to be able to, for example, identify different instruments (oboe, flute, viola), or different sections (allegro, scherzo, rondo), different composers (Beethoven, Dvorak, Ives), even different performances (Mahler’s 5th, with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted my Michael Tilson Thomas); in short, your understanding deepens, and your appreciation grows. Put another way, with knowledge comes pleasure. Wine is no different. Deconstruction in the service of understanding? Certainly. Deconstruction is the service of simplification? Why?
Oak, Extraction, and the International Style
Well, I’m very proud to say that I think Ridge is an American producer that falls on the right side of this equation. While there are certainly those out there who may not be fans of our wines, I think it’s pretty rare that we’re accused of over-oaking or over-extracting, and our wines have consistently remained at alcohol levels far below the current averages. Accordingly, I think my personal stance is pretty clear; I’m here at Ridge because I believe in Ridge; what Ridge does, and how Ridge does it.
I will add one more thought though, somewhat in keeping with my perspectives above as regards a sea change in the character of the American Wine Drinker. If for no other reason than perhaps the incessant proliferation of food shows on television, I think we as a country are starting to finally get our heads around food and wine pairing, and accordingly, fruit and alcohol are slowly retreating to the back seat, while things like acidity, spice, and herbality are edging closer and closer to the driver’s seat. Traditionally, and probably as recently as 10 years ago, wine in this country was unqualifiedly an alcoholic beverage; nothing more and nothing less. I look forward to the coming day, growing ever closer all the time, when we, like much of the “international” world, come to understand wine as but one component of the meal. A vital component, certainly, but a food item all the same. As the perfectly made sauce makes the entree, so the perfect wine completes the meal.
Mr. Heimoff notes in his article that more and more wine bloggers are experimenting with video. Well, all I can say is that my video on this blog of how to use an Ah So Cork Puller is one of the most regularly visited posts yet offered on 4488: A Ridge Blog. So there. Whatever that means.
And that’s it for ’09, and that’s it for The Oughts!
All the best of the holiday season to you and yours, and may the new year bring happiness and safety to us all! Cheers!
p.s. a special thank you to Steve Heimoff and Wine Enthusiast, for providing the architecture upon which to hang this little house of words …