[Warning: your earnest food-politics commentator is about to burrow headfirst into a wine rabbit hole. Follow him — it will be fun!]
In a micro-screed issued Feb. 13 on Twitter, wine’s most influential writer railed against what he called the “anti-flavor wine elite.”
Now, ours is a severely troubled world, and a tweet from a wine guy, no matter how eminent, is by definition an inconsequential event. But for those who love wine, mega-critic Robert Parker’s tiny rant indeed marked a watershed.
Let me explain.
For decades wine production has been globalizing, industrializing, and consolidating. Larger and larger operations buy and process more and more of the globe’s wine grapes. To keep up, wine-grape growers have had to get really big (and resort to chemical-intensive agriculture), sell out, or become niche players who make their own wine. Does the situation remind you of anything — say, the history of food production over the last century?
As the wine trade has succumbed to the pressure of corporate-led globalization, wine itself changed. Winemaking has always been, and remains, about fermenting grape juice. The fermentation process converts some of the juice’s sugar into alcohol, teasing out a range of flavors in the process. In the millennia-long history of wine, naturally occurring bacteria drove the fermentation process. Now most wine is made with lab-generated yeast strains — some of them, yes, genetically modified.
With these conjured-up yeasts, winemakers manipulate the flavor of the final product. “Our wine is made in the vineyard,” goes a hoary marketing cliche. But in “modern” wine production, flavor comes largely from the laboratory. A 2008 article from a wine-industry trade magazine tells the story. It focuses on Linda Bisson, a professor of enology at UC Davis, an enormously influential institution in the California wine trade. The article describes Bisson as a “renowned yeast geneticist.” Here is her message to winemakers:
You can tailor your product to reach your customer by identifying consumer preferences, the effect that a choice has on a customer, and its genetic composition.
And how, pray, can winemakers achieve this customization? It’s easy: “Once we’ve identified the flavor compounds, we can manipulate the taste. We derive flavors from the yeast, not the grapes.”
Designer yeasts aren’t the only way to jazz up wine. Modern winemakers are less artisans than mechanical engineers. Using a variety of gewgaws, they can add or subtract alcohol; increase or decrease tannins; and add various compounds to increase or decrease acidity; and more.
As a result, the world’s wines have homogenized; regional differences have flattened out. No longer tethered to the grapes and ambient yeasts for flavor, winemakers now exert tremendous control over how the final product tastes. And they’re choosing to make wines that taste disturbingly similar: “big” (i.e, high alcohol) and extremely fruity.
And this is where Robert Parker comes in. in the wine world, he owns the globe’s most influential palate. His wine career began in the ’70s as a kind of Naderite project — he wanted to establish honest, consumer-friendly wine criticism, free of the industry influence that had captured prominent critics of that time. He launched the Wine Advocate and innovated the practice of grading wines on a 100-point scale, a practice soon imitated by rival publication Wine Spectator. When you go to a shop and see a wine marketed with a two-digit number, that’s Parker’s doing.
Parker’s rise to prominence as a critic coincided with the wine industry’s industrialization and globalization. Over time, the industry got more and more tools for tailoring wines to customer preferences — and Parker gained more and more power to shape those preferences. By the 1990s, Parker could make wine fly off shelves; and his disdain or even indifference was enough to send winemakers scrambling to hire consultants to help them “fix” their product. Eventually, everyone from the makers of mass-market cheap stuff such as Australia’s Yellow Tail to prestige vintners in France and California began to strive for Parker’s approval. The goal: a high numerical score and a description that included some variation on the three-word descriptor that became Parker’s trademark: “jammy fruit bomb.”
That, it turned out, is what Parker likes: fruit-forward wines that, well, explode on the palate. Older readers may have noticed that, over the years, wines have gotten higher in alcohol. That’s because to achieve the level of fruitiness Parker craves, grapes need to be harvested when they’re extremely ripe, which leads to more sugar in the juice and more alcohol in the ferment. Over time, the high-alcohol trend congealed into a fetish, and now people actually expect wines at alcohol levels of 15 percent and above. Vintners are now actually adding sugar to the juice to raise the final alcohol level!
I have come to loathe the modern style of wine. I don’t want to swallow a bomb, even if it’s a jammy one carrying fruit. I want subtlety, depth, complexity. I don’t want wines that scream; I want wines that talk or even whisper. But this is not a rant against Parker’s palate. It’s about homogenization. I don’t mind living in a world where jammy fruit bombs exist; I just don’t want to live in a world where the only wines that exist are jammy fruit bombs. I don’t care if some winemakers use electronic contraptions and GMO yeasts to computer-program wine; I just don’t want all of them too.
And here is where we get to Parker’s “anti-flavor elite” remark. For years now, a small group of winemakers and critics have fretted about the globalization of taste made possible by modern technology — the idea that, in place of diverse flavors tied to particular regions, the wine world was moving toward One Big Flavor. Over time, the group coalesced into a loose movement under the banner of “natural wine.”
While it has been criticized for being a vague and ethereal term, I think “natural wine” has a pretty coherent definition. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov aptly describes it thusly:
In general, [natural wine] means striving to farm without using chemical pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. It means plowing fields, and harvesting by hand rather than with machinery.
In the cellar, natural winemakers allow the juice to ferment with indigenous yeasts rather than by adding yeast formulated in laboratories. In the cellar they generally do not add sugar to prolong fermentation or increase the alcohol content, nor do they add enzymes, acid, tannins, water or coloring to make up for what is lacking. They do not add sulfur dioxide to the grapes they harvest, which would kill the natural yeasts, and if they do add sulfur later on as a preservative it is in very low doses. They do not use reverse osmosis, microoxygenation, concentrators or any other technology that allows producers to mold the wine into their preferred final shape.
The movement’s major English-language cultural documents are Jonathan Nossiter’s idiosyncratic, excellent 2005 documentary Mondovino; and Alice Feiring’s acid-laced 2008 book The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (which i reviewed here). These works bluntly attacked globalized wine culture and celebrated the holdouts, the mavericks who ignore Parker’s palate and produce wine with minimal manipulation and a strong sense of place.
These ideas have percolated and propagated. Natural-wine temples now exist in New York City (the wine bar Terroir, the wine shop Appellation) and San Francisco (the wine bar Terroir, unrelated to the NYC one). Chapel Hill, North Carolina, boasts a terrific cafe/wine shop called 3 Cups, which zealously rejects “wines made with complex industrial processes” and seeks out those from “growers practicing the traditional cellar techniques of their homeland.”
I suspect there are many other natural-wine-friendly stores and bars across the country — and more to come still. The movement has become solid enough to have inspired a backlash, Asimov reported in Wednesday’s Times — the most famous manifestation of which is Parker’s now-infamous tweet. Let’s admire it in its entirety:
lots of top wine merchants are heavily discounting once very expensive Aussie shirazs..out of fashion among the anti-flavor wine elites,
As you’ve guessed by now, the “anti-flavor wine elites” are those who reject Parker’s jammy fruit bombs. Australia’s highly consolidated wine industry rose to prominence by producing Parker-friendly wines — and now the global market is evidently souring on them.
To me, Parker’s tweet signals the dawn of a new era in the wine world. While Parkerization has not been defeated and likely never will be, we seem to have been saved from it, to use Feiring’s phrase. When you’re served a glass of generic red on an airplane, at a bar, or at an art opening, it remains quite likely that it will be heavy on fruit and short on nuance. But finding interesting wines that reflect the glorious peculiarities of the globe’s wine-growing ecosystems, that get their flavor from the earth and not the lab, has gotten dramatically easier and will continue to do so.