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Wednesday Warblings
SF Chron’s Five Trends for 2013??—Nah, Not So Much

By Charles Olken

I have always fancied myself as a bit of a futurist. In a funny way, it was why I became a professional economist long before I found myself immersed in wine and changed occupations. I like thinking about how things will evolve. What is coming down the road.

I love the new baseball season because it gives me days and days of endless fascination as a I try to noodle out the futures for my favorite teams. I love Presidential elections. I am a futurist junkie, and I read predictions by the serious players like Nate Silvers and I sit there at my desk and make my own and work out the possible pathways to victory.

Wine is a much more slowly moving, slowly evolving topic than politics or sports, but it too can have its changes, its movements, its comings and goings. Some of them are real and substantial, but so much of what we wine geeks think is significant has zero meaning in the real world. And some of it is just pure fantasy. I don’t care. I read them all.

Last Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle beat writer opined that there would be five significant moves in wine scene in 2013. Like all predictions, they are part futurist and part observation of the recent past. Trends do not come and go like the fog, and, with wine, they are frequently so slow-moving that what you think you see is more will of the wisp than reality. Or maybe it is just insider reality, when the rest of the world sees none of it.

That, unfortunately, is what our wine newspaper of record has given us. I apologize for looking like I am criticizing another writer. In fact, I applaud the attempt. One man’s future is as good as any other’s. One man’s Valdigue may taste like Domaine Romanee-Conti while another’s tastes like road tar. Still, I think it is worth looking at the predicted trends to see how real they are and what they mean. At one and the same time, both wisdom and fantasy lurk there—as they must also in my view of those predicted trends.

1. Changing Wine Style Hits The Mainstream

No matter how one looks at this so-called trend and the supposed arrival of “new”, it does not make a lot of sense. The “new” trend has always been with us. The lighter style of wine never disappeared, was not lost to some monolithic, overriding direction of all California wine that was universally too heavy, too sweet, too “boring”. Wineries like Marimar Estate, Gary Farrell, Pey-Marin, Dashe, Corison, Trefethen (and I could make this list five times longer without trying hard) are not new players. Cuvaison Chardonnay has almost always been an exercise in balance. And wines that are riper but beautifully balanced like Ramey and HdV Chardonnays, Ridge and Storybook Mountain Zinfandels, Williams Selyem and Dehlinger Pinot Noirs are not some new trend. They are the old trend that never disappeared. And folks, they are the mainstream because the mainstream is not monolithic but has always consisted of a variety of styles enjoyed by a wide audience.

2. Presence Of The Little Guys

Color me of mixed feelings here. This item is, in reality, just an adjunct to the point above. The writer has always scorned wine from large players. If it is made by Franciscan or Ravenswood or Etude, it gets lumped into a category called “big distributor crap”. The comparison offered is to the change in the beer world into which there are now hundreds if not thousands of microbreweries. And aside from some of my English favorite brews like Fullers and Sam Smith, which, by the way come from large volume companies, it is very true that the beer I drink now is never Budweiser or Coors. But is the same thing true of wine?

Not so much. I will admit that my presence in wine writing does not stretch back before 1970, my first collectible vintage (both French and Californian), but the wine boom of the 1970s, found its inauguration in the more modest beginnings of the 1960s. We don’t talk much about the 1960s in wine circles because most writers, including this old curmudgeon, do not remember it in detail. But let’s review the bidding. The “presence of the little guys” includes the following 1960s startups (all little guys at the time): Ridge, Heitz, Chalone, Spring Mountain, Freemark Abbey, Fetzer, David Bruce, Schramsberg, Chappellet (and this list can also be extended into next week, but I think the point is made). The little guys have always been driving forces. They bring new energy and new directions. Some look backward to the past to lost varieties and some are so avant-garde that their offerings are truly meant for the insiders and the hopeless “next big thing” seekers, of which I am proud to be one.

But, folks, if this is a trend, it started ages ago.

3. The Importance Of Old Vines

You will get no argument from me that old vines frequently give off very good, deep and complex wines. You will also get no argument from me if you point out, as some like Ridge have done, that old vines are a treasure. We have known about old vines, and that is all good. I am not sure how “Old Vines” could become a trend except in the few cases where they increase diversity in our wines because someone finds a stand of one-hundred year-old Cinsault in Lodi and all of a sudden we have a chance to add a splash of history to our bottlings. It is just that we have been celebrating these older vines for as long as I can remember. The hoary, twisted vines in Lodi, in Napa, in Sonoma, in the Sierra Foothills are widely celebrated on wine labels. So much so, in fact, that there is now a robust debate about how old a vine should be before someone can put the words “Old Vines” on the label.

On a more interesting bent to me personally is the maturation of vines planted thirty years ago when the industry had to replace Phylloxera-diseased vines with newer plant materials. Those vines are, in fact, getting older, but does that mean that the wines they produce are getting better? Not so sure that we can see “better” in older Russian River Pinot blocks than we saw in them twenty years ago.

Nor do I know what to make of this celebration of maturity in plant material. It strikes me as a little too close to label worship as opposed to taste worship. Sorry to be snippy about this, but the only way to judge wine is taste it.

4. Diversity Gets More Diverse

Now, we are talking my language. Bring on the Ribolla Gialla. Bring on the Blaufrankisch. Bring them all on. Just remember that if you want to taste Arinto, you will need to call around to the most avant-garde of the avant-garde restaurants to find it—because all this diversity, which we wine geeks love and on which our imaginations and curiosity thrive, are like one rain drop in a deluge. And while it is absolutely true that this diversity continues to expand and to make our insider’s world more diverse, my neighbors will still blithely be sipping their Chardonnays and will know no more about Arinto than they know about the minor league baseball players who will be their new heroes a half decade hence.

And by the way, in 1960, there was not enough Chardonnay in California to count in the annual grape acreage survey. Indeed, back in the day, it was lumped in under “other reds”. Hard to believe, but Chardonnay was once part of the California diversification program.

5. Rewriting Our Wine Language

This is a topic that no wine writer should ever touch lest we go back and pull out his or her flowery phrasings and hold them up to the harsh light of clear communication. There have always been writers whose word choices could be described, as they were some forty years ago by Leigh Knowles, the crusty head of Beaulieu at the time, as belonging to the “prismatic luminescence” school of winewriting.

Every writer, at some time, gets carried away with the search for the well-turned phrase, and, that is as true for the SF Chronicle’s beat writer as it has always been for all of us. So when I read words like “perhaps 2013 is the year when we start to worry less about trying to impress our friends and more about finding ways to honestly exalt what’s in the glass”, I cringe just a bit for his lack of self-awareness. If you doubt me, go read his descriptions of Barolos in last Sunday’s paper. He is, after all, a winewriter, trying to write soaring words about wines he likes. And, in that, he joins us all in occasionally drifting into the “prismatic luminescence” school.


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Heartily Agree
by Chris Martin
Posted on:1/16/2013 3:56:22 PM

I heartily agree with your comment that the little guys are the driving forces of the wine industry.  They aren't as dependant on the mass consumer and have the ability to experiment and play with various varietals and blends.  And another point was indirectly made - the little guys can become the big guys but THAT DOESN'T MEAN THEY'RE BAD.  Let's look at Chandon. Yes, they're HUGE and are mass distributing maybe not the best bubbles, BUT if you go to the winery, you'll find the "little guy" still there.  Their Etude collection (although pricey) is stellar and they only distribute it to wine club members - reinforcing the "little guy complex" shall we say, Napoleon? JK :)  

Taste Matters
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/16/2013 6:16:41 PM

Thanks, Chris, for chiming in. Not only is Chandon a big winery, so too is Ravenswood yet its Zins are spectacular. Ridge is corporately owned and its wines have never been better.

It is the wine that counts, and that is the giant flaw in the "only the new thing" matters.

Prismatic Luminesence
by RayG
Posted on:2/9/2015 9:32:52 PM

IIIRC, that term was actually used earlier by Charles McCabe of the Chron in a send-up he wrote after a particularly frothy column by the Chron's wine writer of that time.  I periodically search for McCabe's original column but without success.

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