In 2016 Detroit we are surrounded by “bad boy” wine lists. Personally, I hope we have seen the saturation point of alienating terms like orange wine, pet nat, flor-aged, and txakoli. These perpetuate like waves in a pool, coming in and out of phase. Beautiful as ripples. Discouraging as choppy waves. (Admittedly, a wave of txakoli ain’t that bad.)
The interesting question is this: how well is your wine lingo backed up with good and large supplies? Multiply this by “vested interest” and you should be able to judge the life span of a buzzword.
Naturally, this applies to Muscadet as much as it does to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Natural Limits vs. Artificial Limits.
Modern humans co-evolved with wine. Each of us come with the sensory and intellectual equipment to discern very minute differences in a finished grape wine. These differences are a code, an articulated body of information revealing the state of the environment in which it was raised. This code is the point of contact between the production of inherent “goodness” and its limits.
Here are some examples of natural limits: geography, climate, weather, water, human resources, and microbial ecology. And there is one more, itself a smuggler of artificial limits: the market.
The market is intricately constructed of many artificial limits. Examples include withholding the sale of wine, brand proliferation, aroma branding, ratings, price fixing, state regulations, distribution deals, etc. And don’t presume to avoid it, because the market is that closing point on a loop which causes almost all wines to exist.
The good news is, here in the medium of digits on the internet, we amount to the market. We can alter its behavior. Our participation defines the narrative. It’s like a huge botanical video game.
Good News, Drinker
There is an intersection of curves on the big graph of wine. At some point, real limitations meet wine producing charisma, and a beautiful layer of wine appears locally, on lists and on shelves.
Sometimes it was something sneaking around in the market in plain sight.
Ability to see it correlates to diminished ideological commitments.
Waiter, May I Have a Glass of Kermit Lynch
The most clear example of how the market denatures wine – by ignoring natural limitations – is the call term. A consumer calling for Cabernet, to name a popular example, is invoking a bundle of restrictions on what might appear in his or her glass, many of which can be described as irrelevant or downright counterproductive to the pursuit of pleasure and enlightenment.
Cabernet has several meanings. One is a hard limitation – the botanical type of grape and the regions where it can be farmed. Another meaning is a median style, a platonic ideal. For me, Groth, Dunn, or Mayacamas Cabs typify this. For whatever reason, Cabs from Paso Robles do not, even if the best ones might be perfect as Paso Robles Reds. And considering alternatives, these are perfectly suitable for a line item dedicated to botanically correct Cabernet Sauvignon.
Why do we need Cab on every list? Doesn’t the very question violate the implied contract with the kitchen? Who’s in charge here, chef, somm, or consumer?
But anything can be a call term. Not only the biggies, like Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Noir, but also Natural Wine, Orange Wine, Kermit Lynch Wine, Pommard, Supertuscan. The utility of these terms are valid as long as supply and demand occur in some rough equilibrium.
Great orange wine, for example, is naturally limited to special sites and vine stock. When demand for it multiplies the supply must allow for inflation, shortcuts and, compromises which are obvious to anyone’s taste. In extreme cases this can kill demand – just see what happened to Merlot in only a decade. For that matter, see what happened to anything.
By the way, Merlot seems to me like a smart thing to drink now, especially with lamb.
This is a fashion cycle.
Catching a Call Wine
Among the most demanding tasks for a curator of wines is to join that which is offered to that which is demanded. The choices made in this process reveal many things, including the presumed leader of the experience. The Frankfurt School wishes to be invoked here.
Esoteric wine lists 1) serve notice about the presumed vision of the proprietor, 2) they alter the power relationship at the point of transaction, in favor of the house, and 3) they run the risk of turning some people off (problematic whispers can even be heard saying “those people.“) In this way the esoteric list serves as a tool in the selection of clientele.
Alternatively, there are wine lists that concisely embody all of the popular democratic call wines. These mainstream wine lists 1) risk outsourcing the vision of the experience to the consumer, 2) float in a medium of brand inflated prices, and 3) run the risk of turning other people off – in particular those who would easily pass through the filter of our esoteric wine list described in the previous paragraph.
This is segregation. It leads to a club mentality.
And since ideology is inescapable, why not decide to promote inclusion. (With the obvious corollary that this choice might be good for business. It’s called self-interest.)
Mudgie’s 2016 Winter Wine List
I submit to you Mudgie’s wine list. It is filled, albeit briefly, only with wines that pass my strict criteria for drinkability and enthusiasm. I also hope it can be considered an maximum example of unification. See Part 2 here.