Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Grapes of wrath

With our supermarket shelves groaning under the weight of so many wines, why do they all taste the same?

Supermarkets don't want to muck around with a small grower here, another there, or waste time haggling with local wine co-ops.

by Joanna Blythman

The Ecologist (February 2005)

I was one out of a total audience of seven at a Friday night screening of the Palme d'Or nominated documentary Mondovino. That's the sort of reaction you get in the UK to a film that runs for two and a quarter hours, is subtitled for substantial chunks, and whose subject is wine - something that the great British public still feels inadequate to discuss, despite the best empowering efforts of Richard and Judy's new wine club. Indeed it suspects that anyone taking anything approaching a serious interest in wine is elitist and possibly ever so slightly pretentious too. In the UK and US, wine buffs have long been viewed as members of a strange sect, versed in the arcane and labyrinthine complexities of obscureforeign labels that dare to eschew the lingua franca of world trade - English - and which cling to antiquated grading systems such as the French Appellation d'Origine Controllee.

But director Jonathan Rossiter's thought-provoking documentary raises issues that should resonate with anyone concerned about globalisation and the homogenisation of taste. The film consists of illuminating interviews with winemakers and influential figures in the wine trade. What it flags up is an historic stand-off in the wine world. In one corner of the ring you have small-scale traditional wines from essentially family or co-operative-run vineyards. These unique and diverse wines are variable in quality, sometimes magnificent, other times disappointing. But they are not cloned. They have 'terroir' , that is to say they speak of geographic specificity, of different soils, climates and grape varieties. They reflect the eccentricities of their makers, the most dedicated of whom view wine as a vocation, a symbol of civilisation even. In the other corner is a new, homogenous, internationalised wine style, which is now spawning fast-maturing, easy-drinking wines with approachable Anglophone labels in countries as distant as Chile, India, Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Typical here are the wines produced in California's Napa Valley, where companies with multi-million dollar turnovers such as Mondavi turn out vast quantities of uniform wine from manicured, wall-to-wall vineyards that would not look out of place on The Truman Show. Their high priest is the American wine critic Robert Parker who is seen in Mondovino congratulating himself on what he sees as the American-led democratisation of wine drinking.

Parkers' palate is what you might expect from a country that has come late to wine drinking, a nation more inclined to partner food with milk, cola or soda than wine. Old World oenophiles are prone to see wine as more of a debate over style rather than rightness or wrongness. In Italy, for example, the celebrated Tre Bicchiere Awards organised by Slow Food and Gambero Rosso rely on a judging panel with several participants to reflect a range of views and tastes. Not Parker though. He is judge, jury and potentially executioner all rolled into one. His blousy tasting notes - 'outstanding ripeness, elegance and focus ... earthy floral scents ... packed with minerals, white flowers, pears and anise' - and verdicts (marks out of 100) are clear-cut, accessible and resound with certitude. This is why they appeal to people who feel bamboozled by wine.

Such is Parker's influence in the wine world, if he likes a wine, it will be blessed with commercial success. If not, it is fated to gather dust in some dank cellar - and not because it needs maturing.

Parker favours wines that are are deeply coloured, high in alcohol, heavily oaked, low in acidity and free from any challenging tannins. They have an in-your-face fruit pastille sweetness about them - he calls them 'fruit bombs' - which palls quickly and lack subtlety. Some of the wines he champions are generally well rated, others merely reflect Parker preferences. The most worrying thing about them, however, is that they are all terribly similar.

Parker has created a one-size-fits-all commercial wine style template that can be adopted anywhere. Its drip-down effect means that it is ever more likely that when you buy a wine from Europe it will ressemble a wine from South America or Australia or the US. The palate of younger generations of wine drinkers is becoming accustomed to Parkerised wines. So, unless they are content to cater for a minority of more sophisticated wine afficionados, winemakers are changing their styleaccordingly to suit the market trend.

There is opposition. Mondovino features winemakers like Hubert de Montille in Burgundy and Aime Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac in Languedoc who refuse to alter their unique winemaking philosophy and cultivation methods to accommodate what they consider to be US wine imperialism. Guibert, assisted by an incoming communist mayor, other vignerons and local environmentalists who objected to swathes of trees being felled to make way for easy maintainance industrial vineyards, succeeded in blocking the Mondavi Corporation's plans to move into the Aniane forest. Amongst critics, both Jancis Robinson and Michael Broadbent in the UK continue to question both Parker's palate and his hegemonic grip. In Mondovino, Broadbent says that he would rather take the chance of drinking a wine with faults than drinking a series of Parker-perfected wines that are all tediously alike.

But wine consumers may not get the chance to make that choice. Big Retail loves Big Wine. As with food, our supermarkets favour concentrating their purchases with giant wine brands who can afford to pay thousands of pounds as a sweetener to get their wines onto the shelves. Supermarkets don't want to muck around with a small grower here, another there, or waste time haggling with local wine co-ops. They can't be bothered with small quantities, annual
variations in the vintage and so on. This is why they love big brands like Gallo, Fetzer, Penfolds and Lindemans which can be relied on to come up with a standardised, Parkerised product with an unthreatening label in English. Scared of ceding even more territory to the supermarkets, a chain like Oddbins, once keen on quirky individual wines, is dumbing down its range accordingly. In this brave new world of wine democratisation our shelves now groan under the weight of an unprecedented number of wine labels. Unfortunately, not many people know enough about wine to realise that they are becoming pretty much the same.

Mondovino rings an alarm about this creeping monoculturisation of our wine-drinking habits. Watching it I felt a strong urge to go right out and buy wine from the small independent wine shops and wholesalers that remain pockets of diversity by listing wines too small, too diverse, too whimsical or immune to Parker-led, big brand fashion for the supermarkets and big chains to bother with. Post-Mondovino, every bottle of wine now strikes me as a profoundly political purchase.

Bill Totten


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