Artisan Wine Review
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Winemaking Styles

The middle of the 1980's saw the gastronomic awakening of the American consumer.   A culinary renaissance was taking hold across the land as the population's taste buds, which had gone unchallenged since the earliest days of Prohibition, started stirring from their multi-generational slumber.

To begin our story, we must start with the offspring of the European immigrants who passed through Ellis Island.

Those first-generation Americans formed their taste palates early on in life, for they were weaned on sugary, new-world favorites such as; hot-fudge sundaes, cotton candy, and salt water taffy.   At the movies, they would sip their Coca-Colas while they munched on boxed candy and buttered popcorn.   Even the local pharmacist would serve the kids root beer floats and banana splits.
Later on, their introduction to alcohol came not from the traditional brews that their fathers had grown up with, but from the insipid tasting, (3.2%) beers served to servicemen during the war.
After returning back to civilian life, they followed in the old world practice of drinking a glass of homemade wine with their family meals.   Their wine was a hearty, somewhat sweet tasting beverage made from native American grapes that their immigrant fathers grew on backyard arbors of each family's home.
The Baby Boomers, who grew up in this environment, were imprinted with the taste palate of their parents.   They ate the same, cardboard-tasting tomatoes that were picked extra early out west and shipped by rail back east to supply their local grocers.   The milk they drank was no longer delivered to their doorstep fresh each morning, rather it was homogenized and pasteurized and sold on refrigerated shelves in the back of the supermarket.   The chickens they ate for dinner were raised on farms that did not require any walking around, or scratching the ground on the part of the now, flavor-deficient bird.
Along with other changes in the Baby Boomers lifestyle, the newly completed interstate highway system brought about the emergence of economy-of-scale dining.   Neighborhood restaurants that served traditional meals geared towards local taste, were now forced to contend with lower-priced competition.   Those flashy, new, fast food places with their limited menus were opening up along the highway and they were luring away their customers.
This challenge led many of the local eateries to begin using ready-made soups, sauces and pies in an effort to cut labor cost and stay competitive.   It wasn't long after making those adjustments that these same local restaurants began to change their menus.
They quietly moved away from flavorful, local favorites to offering a more fat-laden, "ethnic-inspired" cuisine so as to increase their appeal to the broadest market possible.
In supermarkets, that same economy of scale purchasing brought on by the interstate highway system led to a food distribution model where shoppers were offered a narrower selection of lower priced, fresh ingredients to cook with.   White button mushrooms, Iceberg lettuce and green bell peppers became the cooking mainstays at the local A & P.
I didn't matter because convenience was the buzz word of the day.   Cake mixes, canned soups and stews, instant coffee, pancake mix, Rice-a-Roni, Spaghetti-O's, Shake and Bake, and Hamburger Helper all made preparing meals easier for the modern family on the go.
The downside of all that convenience was the decline of the art of dining as a social concept.   Going out to eat became something far removed from the old custom of Dining out, as the rituals of silverware, stemware, coffee and tea service were all pushed aside by modern society.
Things started to change: The affluence created during the go-go years of the 1980's created a new, mobile class of consumers.   Young business professionals would travel to far flung places across the globe and then return home after having been exposed to exciting flavors and aromas in the foods they ate and the beverages they drank.
These newly enlightened converts, having developed a taste for "regional cuisines", started asking their local cafes and grocery stores to begin offering these tasty new products.
During that same time period: The Baby Boomers were now hitting middle age.   People were beginning to embrace a new, more active, type of lifestyle
.   Health clubs, tennis, kayaking, jogging, and cycling were all part of the effort to get into shape and slow down the aging process.  
Wine was becoming an accepted alternative to drinking "heavier" beverages such as soda and beer.   As a result, both the established and emerging wine producing regions around the world, seeing the potential of the immense American market about to come on line, started feverishly planting vines in anticipation of the coming wine boom.
As is typical of all business booms, this tidal wave brought along with it an influx of Johnny-come-latelys, people with no farming or wine making backgrounds, but equipped with lots of money and business school MBA's.   These corporate run wineries immediately set out buying land and building pretty facilities for holding weddings & business conferences so as to maximize the cash flow on their investment.   Their wines were almost treated as an afterthought; for these business school types were not traditional artisans who worked all day with their hands, to them, making wine just happened to be where the action was.
They believed that they could use science to "help" their winemaking team produce wines geared for the broadest consumer appeal possible.   Their new battle cry was, "Forget about only drinking wine with a meal.   Wine should be consumed anytime you are drinking adult beverages".

The wine critics led the way: They reviewed each of the wines they tasted without the benefit of food, for they did not want their judgments influenced by placing the wine in the context of a meal.   They wanted a glass of wine to stand alone as a beverage, just like any other cocktail.   The critics boldly declared that the old world ways of thinking about wine were passé.   They preached that both winemakers and wine consumers must enter a new era of enlightenment.
These new, MBA-run wineries coveted the critic's scores as being the holiest of the holy sacraments.   If a wine critic gave a high sugar, high alcohol, over-oaked wine their blessing, well then, "our winery must direct all of our efforts to copying that wine so that we can receive high scores too".
Their reasoning was that owning a winery is really not about the wine; it is really about moving as many cases of wine out your door as quickly as possible.
Business school had taught them that when competing against the old world names with their hundreds of years of tradition behind them, celebrity branding is the best way to reposition the status quo.   Public relations firms were brought in.   They would sign a slew of "A-List", Hollywood stars to endorse casual wine consumption in numerous lifestyle magazines as well as on hit television shows.   This deliberate strategy of marketing personality over substance elevated the humble winemaker to first, celebrity, and later, to an almost cult-like status.
After all, as anyone in the know, knows, it's more important to buy a bottle of wine based on the name of the person who made it, than it is for the quality of the wine itself.
They also entered their products into numerous wine competitions with hopes of touting the results in the media.   However, there were two ugly rumors associated with these competitions that continued to be whispered in wine circles throughout the 1980's & 1990's:

  • Certain wineries were supposedly paying the promoters a slotting fee in order to secure favorable tasting positions at these "prestigious" events.
  • Wineries were allegedly entering special bottles of their wines into these competitions, and that the bottles sold to the general public did not taste quite the same.

Logic dictates that the less a wine exhibits a sense of place, the more open to rumors it will likely be.
And so it continued, each time the wine critics awarded a big score to some juicy, over the top wine that tasted good because of its lack of restraint and subtlety, dozens of these new breed wineries would quickly adjust their sails in order to follow that new compass point.
A new, derogatory term began to emerge in the wine trade, "International Style".   This referred to wines could have been made from grapes grown anywhere around the world. The wines had no sense of place, unlike the wines that were made in the old world style.   They were just generic copies of generic copies of wines that received high scores from the press.   And as long as the average consumer continues to buy a wine today based on the score it received and not on its context of use, there are many wineries around the world that will continue to pursue that style.

A seismic shift is coming
: When American consumers go to the market today, they see anywhere from six to twenty different types of lettuce available.   Mushrooms? They have up to a dozen varieties to choose from.   Plus, there is a large assortment of cheeses, olives, tomatoes, legumes, onions, potatoes, and ethnic seasonings available at the local supermarket, that is true even in the grocery stores located far away from the big cities.
As consumers continue to discover the foods and flavors of other cultures, they will slowly learn about and embrace some of their customs, including the old world practice of pairing wine with a meal.
The signs are there: The art of leisurely dining has been quietly making a comeback, and having a glass of red wine over dinner is reported to be good for one's heart.   In many restaurants, the idea of Slow Food is gaining momentum, and people are starting to notice the difference in eating locally sourced foods where product freshness has a tangible vibrancy all its own.
Oak has been the first victim of this paradigm shift: Many consumers are starting to feel that their wines are too heavy and too oaky tasting to serve with their crab salads and steamed sea bass.   Several new world winemakers started responding to market changes by introducing "unoaked" versions of their Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs onto store shelves and buyers have been responding in a positive manner.
We expect that the next casualty of changing consumer wine taste will be alcohol content.   High alcohol is certainly an important factor in helping a wine with full, concentrated fruit flavors stand out in a wine tasting competition.   In fact, high alcohol levels can numb a judge's palate, making a few of the more delicate wines that follow it seem to taste "dumb" and "somewhat boring".
The truth is that high alcohol in a wine doesn't do well when one wants to taste the more subtle flavors of the foods on their plate.   The good news is that we've already started to hear some rumblings on the problems of high alcohol levels  from a few of the more influential voices in the wine media.
We would be somewhat remiss if we did not at least make mention of the popularity of cooking shows on television for their contribution in getting people comfortable with the idea of adding new ingredients to everyday meals.   They have helped to let the genie out of the (wine) bottle and showed consumers the magic in discovering new culinary taste combinations.

Prediction: The American wine market is huge and still growing.   It will continue to evolve over time as people's palates change.   However, if there is one thing of which we are most certain, it is that the entire wine industry will be following the trends and producing the wines that satisfy consumer taste, wherever those taste may be headed.



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