A movement in search of a cause

France has found a new tale of good and evil about which to make clever conversation. As usual the villains are capitalism and America, and 'globalization' is the bogeyman combining the two malign forces which have, in their paranoid vision, conspired to diminish la France. Ho hum.

The New York Times informs us that Parisian wine and film circles are abuzz with discussion of the surprise hit documentary Mondevino, which reportedly decries the 'globalization' and 'homogenization' of the world wine industry. Those under attack include Robert Parker, the American wine critic whose tastes have become the single most influential factor in determining the popularity (and pricing) of high—end wines, and wine industry consultant Michel Rolland, who is known for advising wineries how to tailor their products to receive Parker's blessings.

Now, I have not had the opportunity to see Mondevino, though I will do so when it opens in the United States, so my initial reactions are limited to what I have read in the NYT and on a few film websites. Anyone who expects to get an accurate and dispassionate account of any topic of political and cultural significance from the New York Times would be the worst kind of fool (an educated fool, for the record), so I will try to refrain from any comment on the film itself, and limit my comments to the issues raised by the accounts of it. Even so, I reserve the right to amend my views once I have seen the film.

But my initial reaction is that once again the French are searching for a set of circumstances with which to decry 'globalization,' and they will not let logic (or reality) interfere with their celebration of this silly, reactionary, and meaningless cause. There is no contradiction at all between the growth of global producers of wine on the one hand, and the flourishing of small, local, individualized producers of wine, on the other. America and many other countries prove the case.

There have never been as many individual wineries in America — now in all fifty states — and many of these new producers seek to express the unique character of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley or New Mexico or Idaho or Texas or Michigan. And some of them are making remarkably fine wine. So, too, with New Zealand, Australia, and many other countries, including especially Chile and Argentina. The main challenge these small producers face are governmental regulations, such as those which prohibit small wineries from shipping their products across state and international boundaries. the very sort of protectionism the opponents of "globalization" seek to foster.

The French wine industry, to be sure, has a lot of problems. The French are drinking less wine at home, and French wines are losing out in the export market to producers from other countries, many of them comparative newcomers to the market for fine wine. But the source of, and solution to, those problems lies within France, and has nothing to do with globalization in general or America in particular. France produces some excellent wines, but there is a lot of dreadful plonk there, too. I'd rather quaff Two Buck Chuck or Gallo Hearty Burgundy than most of what you find in a French supermarket at the same price.

I speak not just as a wine lover, but as a partner and (fairly unskilled) apprentice winemaker in exactly the type of winery the movie is supposedly defending. Our winery is deeply committed to producing wines which 'celebrate the distinguishing characteristics [of grapes] produced in differing regions and vineyards.' The fancy French word for this is terroir: the combination of soil, climate, geography, and other local characteristics (including fauna and neighboring flora) which lend grapes grown in one place a different character than those grown elsewhere. We also use a lot of traditional wine—making techniques, such as small batch fermentation (in half ton containers), rather than in big tanks holding thousands of gallons, to allow different yeasts to work their magic on different lots, resulting in more complex flavors when the containers are blended first for barrel—aging, and then blended together again for final bottling.

We also have found ourselves at the wrong end of Robert Parker's opinions, and the legions who read them as gospel. Our beloved Zinfandel grape, California's distinctive 'heritage grape' (it was widely planted in the mid—Nineteenth Century, when California winemaking moved beyond the mission vineyards growing sacramental wine), is a wondrous bearer of complex flavors. Its ancestor varietals never achieved distinction in Europe, but in the hands of enthusiastic Californian viniculturalists and vintners, Zinfandel has found fame and glory as a superb fine wine varietal.

But Robert Parker prefers his Zinfandel have a strong flavor of new oak. This can easily be produced by barrel—aging the wine in brand—new fresh oak casks. Use enough oak long enough, and your wine, too, will taste of oak, possibly even obscuring some of the flavors of the grapes themselves. Which is a good thing, if your grapes weren't that good to begin with.

Parker's entitled to his opinions, of course. But we beg to disagree. We would rather taste the grapes than the barrels. So, we make our Zinfandel with just a touch of new oak flavor, and age most of it in neutral (used) barrels, which impart only a subtle flavor. As a result, Parker has never given any of our Zinfandels a score in the magic 90+ range, although we have come very close with Zinfandel others have judged superb. Not enough oak, you see.

But just because Parker has a different vision of Zinfandel, and many choose to pay attention to him, doesn't mean that we are the victims of a globalist American juggernaut. It simply means that we must market our Zinfandel wines to those who rely on their own preferences rather than those of a critic. It also has meant that we find other varietals to produce, rather than focus primarily on Zinfandel. As it happens, this reliance on marketplace feedback has had happy consequences, as we have discovered that producing a California wine of delicious and distinctive character from Barbera  has led to both critical and commercial success.

Film maker Nossiter, a man whose father was the United Nations correspondent of the New York Times, and who grew up  in France, Italy, India, Greece, and England (how globalist can you get?), seems to have an underlying agenda with this film. He himself terms the film 'militant' and is quoted by the Times as follows:

"If you'd made a wine film in the fourth century B.C.," he said, "you would have observed the end of the Greek empire and seen the Greeks trying to colonize their last, Iraq—like gambit in the Sicilian expedition at the end of the Peloponnesian War — planting vines, making war. Act of civilization, act of imperial power. I think this is still true today.'

The mind nearly boggles. Iraq (presumably the American occupation thereof) is apparently the end of an empire. And empires plant grapes as an expression of their power. So, growing wine in America, New Zealand and Chile is a bad thing? The artisanal winemakers in places 'from Sardinia to Argentina' who receive 'lyrical treatment' are actually imperialist remnants?

I must be confused. But so, I suspect, is Mr. Nossiter. When the movie becomes available for me to see, I will report further.

France has found a new tale of good and evil about which to make clever conversation. As usual the villains are capitalism and America, and 'globalization' is the bogeyman combining the two malign forces which have, in their paranoid vision, conspired to diminish la France. Ho hum.

The New York Times informs us that Parisian wine and film circles are abuzz with discussion of the surprise hit documentary Mondevino, which reportedly decries the 'globalization' and 'homogenization' of the world wine industry. Those under attack include Robert Parker, the American wine critic whose tastes have become the single most influential factor in determining the popularity (and pricing) of high—end wines, and wine industry consultant Michel Rolland, who is known for advising wineries how to tailor their products to receive Parker's blessings.

Now, I have not had the opportunity to see Mondevino, though I will do so when it opens in the United States, so my initial reactions are limited to what I have read in the NYT and on a few film websites. Anyone who expects to get an accurate and dispassionate account of any topic of political and cultural significance from the New York Times would be the worst kind of fool (an educated fool, for the record), so I will try to refrain from any comment on the film itself, and limit my comments to the issues raised by the accounts of it. Even so, I reserve the right to amend my views once I have seen the film.

But my initial reaction is that once again the French are searching for a set of circumstances with which to decry 'globalization,' and they will not let logic (or reality) interfere with their celebration of this silly, reactionary, and meaningless cause. There is no contradiction at all between the growth of global producers of wine on the one hand, and the flourishing of small, local, individualized producers of wine, on the other. America and many other countries prove the case.

There have never been as many individual wineries in America — now in all fifty states — and many of these new producers seek to express the unique character of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley or New Mexico or Idaho or Texas or Michigan. And some of them are making remarkably fine wine. So, too, with New Zealand, Australia, and many other countries, including especially Chile and Argentina. The main challenge these small producers face are governmental regulations, such as those which prohibit small wineries from shipping their products across state and international boundaries. the very sort of protectionism the opponents of "globalization" seek to foster.

The French wine industry, to be sure, has a lot of problems. The French are drinking less wine at home, and French wines are losing out in the export market to producers from other countries, many of them comparative newcomers to the market for fine wine. But the source of, and solution to, those problems lies within France, and has nothing to do with globalization in general or America in particular. France produces some excellent wines, but there is a lot of dreadful plonk there, too. I'd rather quaff Two Buck Chuck or Gallo Hearty Burgundy than most of what you find in a French supermarket at the same price.

I speak not just as a wine lover, but as a partner and (fairly unskilled) apprentice winemaker in exactly the type of winery the movie is supposedly defending. Our winery is deeply committed to producing wines which 'celebrate the distinguishing characteristics [of grapes] produced in differing regions and vineyards.' The fancy French word for this is terroir: the combination of soil, climate, geography, and other local characteristics (including fauna and neighboring flora) which lend grapes grown in one place a different character than those grown elsewhere. We also use a lot of traditional wine—making techniques, such as small batch fermentation (in half ton containers), rather than in big tanks holding thousands of gallons, to allow different yeasts to work their magic on different lots, resulting in more complex flavors when the containers are blended first for barrel—aging, and then blended together again for final bottling.

We also have found ourselves at the wrong end of Robert Parker's opinions, and the legions who read them as gospel. Our beloved Zinfandel grape, California's distinctive 'heritage grape' (it was widely planted in the mid—Nineteenth Century, when California winemaking moved beyond the mission vineyards growing sacramental wine), is a wondrous bearer of complex flavors. Its ancestor varietals never achieved distinction in Europe, but in the hands of enthusiastic Californian viniculturalists and vintners, Zinfandel has found fame and glory as a superb fine wine varietal.

But Robert Parker prefers his Zinfandel have a strong flavor of new oak. This can easily be produced by barrel—aging the wine in brand—new fresh oak casks. Use enough oak long enough, and your wine, too, will taste of oak, possibly even obscuring some of the flavors of the grapes themselves. Which is a good thing, if your grapes weren't that good to begin with.

Parker's entitled to his opinions, of course. But we beg to disagree. We would rather taste the grapes than the barrels. So, we make our Zinfandel with just a touch of new oak flavor, and age most of it in neutral (used) barrels, which impart only a subtle flavor. As a result, Parker has never given any of our Zinfandels a score in the magic 90+ range, although we have come very close with Zinfandel others have judged superb. Not enough oak, you see.

But just because Parker has a different vision of Zinfandel, and many choose to pay attention to him, doesn't mean that we are the victims of a globalist American juggernaut. It simply means that we must market our Zinfandel wines to those who rely on their own preferences rather than those of a critic. It also has meant that we find other varietals to produce, rather than focus primarily on Zinfandel. As it happens, this reliance on marketplace feedback has had happy consequences, as we have discovered that producing a California wine of delicious and distinctive character from Barbera  has led to both critical and commercial success.

Film maker Nossiter, a man whose father was the United Nations correspondent of the New York Times, and who grew up  in France, Italy, India, Greece, and England (how globalist can you get?), seems to have an underlying agenda with this film. He himself terms the film 'militant' and is quoted by the Times as follows:

"If you'd made a wine film in the fourth century B.C.," he said, "you would have observed the end of the Greek empire and seen the Greeks trying to colonize their last, Iraq—like gambit in the Sicilian expedition at the end of the Peloponnesian War — planting vines, making war. Act of civilization, act of imperial power. I think this is still true today.'

The mind nearly boggles. Iraq (presumably the American occupation thereof) is apparently the end of an empire. And empires plant grapes as an expression of their power. So, growing wine in America, New Zealand and Chile is a bad thing? The artisanal winemakers in places 'from Sardinia to Argentina' who receive 'lyrical treatment' are actually imperialist remnants?

I must be confused. But so, I suspect, is Mr. Nossiter. When the movie becomes available for me to see, I will report further.