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04.06.2005

Burgundy vs. The World: Matt Kramer Calls The Fight

I really like Matt Kramer. As far as I'm concerned he's the best thing that the Wine Spectator has going for it. For those who don't know, he writes an opinion column every month that is passionate, down to earth, and often funny. For my money he's one of the best wine writers in the business right now. Anyhow, a post on a bulletin board I belong to alerted me to an article he wrote today in the New York Sun about the Burgundy Empire and how, in his words, it is dying.

I know nothing that stirs the souls of hardcore wine drinkers more than Pinot Noir, and Burgundy in particular. Kramer frames his discussion around a conversation with a Burgundy negociant (distributor) and the particularly brilliant moment when he has this guy (who probably trades in $60 Echezeaux) drink a glass of Saintsbury Garnet. For those who haven't had it, it's one of the best quantity produced (10,000 + case) Pinot Noirs out there that is available at places like BevMo and Safeway, etc. As Matt points out, and his negociant buddy agrees (though there will still be people who argue with this), it is starting to be as good as a lot of 3rd tier and even 2nd tier Burgundy wines that cost three or even five times as much (the Saintsbury is about $15). Using this as a reference point and then pointing to facts like California alone (leaving out Oregon, Washington, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia) now has as much Pinot Noir acreage as Burgundy, it begins to look like the decline of the Roman Empire.

I always thought Bordeaux would suffer the most first because the aristocracy remains in denial the longest, but I'm now starting to reconsider.

It's a very nice piece, and is clearly the type of thing that the anti-globalization brigade loves to rail against. But I ask you this: is it really an evil conspiracy that must be stopped? Or is it evolution that can't be stopped even if we try?

Comments (36)

jassmond wrote:
04.06.05 at 4:21 PM

It is a winery that produces 55k cases a year. It does not warrant the attention of a critic, especially someone like Kramer who occassionally has something smart to say. It is safe to say that they, Saintsbury, employ technology that could make the wine taste any old way they wish it to. Should burgundy cost as much as it does? No, but to compare Saintsbury to most burgundy is apples to grapes.

no wine is worth buying if there are more than 15k cases produced. I say this not as a "collector" who wants only cult wines, but as someone who respects diversity in flavor and the importance of individual choice. So long as they don't choose industrial swill. ;) Let everyone find their own taste and keep industry out of agriculture.

Terry Hughes wrote:
04.06.05 at 4:27 PM

Kramer is terrific; I especially enjoyed his columns from his year in Venice,and I think he touched on this death-of-Burgundy topic then in WS. So right on the money.

I wonder if the waning of the old English wine culture (exemplified in a new and benign way by Hugh Johnson, no lad he--and, by the way, the guy who hooked me on wine with his first Wine Atlas)...Sorry, that was a long parenthesis. I say, old pip, I wonder if the waning of the old English wine culture hasn't something to do with the waning of the old wine regions' supreme reputations--think of the exalted rep "hock" used to have. German wines are fighting their way back into the mainstream, too, after all.

Maybe Burgundy needs to go the Michel Rolland route. He and Parker may be the object of their share of barbs, and some may be deserved, but you can't deny that they are helping revitalize Bordeaux. In a most unEnglish fashion.

Alder wrote:
04.06.05 at 4:37 PM

Jassmond,

Thanks for your comments! I think you perfectly characterize a very particular point of view in the wine appreciation world, and I thank you for expressing it so well.

If you read Vinography often you know that I also have an appreciation for and a desire to drink wines from small producers, but I have a hard time making statements (to myself) or to others like yours about the relationship between volume and quality. There certainly is one, but how is it really possible to draw a line? Would you really say that a wine made in 15,000 case increments is an industrial beverage, but one made at 10,000 cases is not?

I assume that you probably just threw out the number 15k as a way of making a point, but how do you really arrive at a number in that neighborhood? Is it an assumption based on the amount of grapes required to make that much wine (i.e. it's more than 50 acres and more than that is hard to keep the level of quality up) or is it based on the industrial processes required to just make that much wine? Either way, I'm sure someone (not me) could point you to respected burgundy producers who either farm that much acreage and/or produce the same number of cases (either of a single wine or of multiple wines) and therefore use the same types of equipment/technology that you're implying lead to non-artisan wines.

Anyhow, I think the comparison of Saintsbury to Burgundy is definitely New World vs. Old, and Big vs. Small, in many ways, and maybe even apples to oranges, but the reality is there's one supermarket now, with one bin in it, and that bin has got both types of fruit in it.

Nathan Arnold wrote:
04.06.05 at 5:12 PM

What lip service! If you truly respect diversity & choice, then you can't ignore the 'choice' of those who might like a tasty, $15 Pinot -- and couldn't care less how it was produced.

Critics need to address this market too, or they'll find themselves irrelevent.

There are two considerations that matter when it comes to drinking wine: is it tasty, and is it worth the price?

tom wrote:
04.06.05 at 5:25 PM

What Natan Said!

But also...It's been the dirty little secret for some time now that there are any number of wineries outside burgundy that are making Pinot and Chardonnay of the same quality at a lower price. To the terroiristas, the retort will be, "but it's not Buuuuuuurdundy". To which I am likely to reply, "Indeeeeeeed, which is exactly why I can afford 2 bottles of this find New Zealand Pinot."

Steve-o wrote:
04.06.05 at 5:30 PM

Part of the question is the very nature of the Burgundy region - mostly smallish plots, farming a very labor intensive grape. The resultant price - for anything reliably good (outside of the mass production wine) - is the very thing to keep people away from it. Pinot is such a fickle thing, I often hesitate before buying, even from a known reputable producer in a good year. Hell, you could buy two bottles of the same wine and have two completely different experiences with it - including bad ones, and not because a bottle was 'corked.'

These are real and serious barriers to entry in a growing marketplace with shifting demographics. Yes, there will always be a place for the connesuier and the finely made Burgundy with its risks and pricetag. But will there be a market for wines from all the current winemakers in Burgundy farming their small patch and charging the necessary price that comes with low yields and high maintenance winemaking? Not nearly, I expect.

It's a shame, as I love the occasional fine burgundy - it can be transcendant. But they're in a much more real bind than the rest of France, simply by virtue of the system they are in and the grape they grow.

It's all well to say buy no wine from an over 15K case producer (rings of 'don't trust anyone over 30' a bit, no?)*, but small producers are suffering simply because they can't afford to do what they do.

I probably drink 2 burgundies a month - they are special wines for me (I do my best to buy good burgundies because of the aforementioned issues); the rest of the world gets more of my attention(old world getting an edge, admittedly). I don't know many people personally who drink it as much as I do. Italy, Spain, the rest of France and the New World offer more reliability for the dollar for them, and it makes real sense to me.

As such, I'm not surprised that the current Burgundy model is in crisis.

Wow, I wrote WAY more than I meant to.

*in full disclosure, I rarely buy wines that are produced in such large quantities. But I don't deliberately exclude them.

Jack wrote:
04.06.05 at 10:00 PM

Great article! Thanks, Alder! (I still have 4 bottles left of 8 Saintsbury Garnet I purchased from Bottle Barn at $13.39 back in January '04. I've never liked earlier vintages of Garnet, but the 2002 really shines.)

Matt Kramer (once again) is right on target. The second/third/fourth tier wineries/growers in Burgundy and Bordeaux need to get out and see the real world. There's serious competition and they live in a closed-off part of the wine-world. France has few non-French wines in most restaurants/stores. Who has seen a Rochioli or Saintsbury Garnet there? Exactly. They don't have a clue.

It's hard-to-believe that the French STILL aren't even putting the varietal on their labels (yeah, except Alsace). Isn't this now the absolute stupidest thing in the world of wine? (Make your labels as mysterious as possible...and sales keep declining. Hmmmmmmmmmm.)

Taj wrote:
04.07.05 at 7:33 AM

As a retailer, I often suggest the Saintsbury Garnet to introduce novice customers to the idea of 'burgundian' vs. 'fruit bomb' domestic pinot noir, and I agree that, regardless of the amount produced, it is a worthy, well done glass of juice. In my part o' the world, people are very driven by value in wines, and for many who come into my store, it is the most important thing. If a producer can hit both value and good juice at the same time, then I say "Cheers!" ;)

Patrick Barnette wrote:
04.07.05 at 9:53 AM

It is, indeed, an interesting article. To me, though, the most important line was this one:
"Burgundy's new reality is as clear as it is challenging: It should make half as much wine (by lowering its excessive yields) and sell it at twice the price."

I don't have the pocketbook to often drink the great burgundies, but my experience with the cheaper stuff (below $50 or so) has been almost universally bad. "Thin-blooded," to borrow from Mr. Kramer, only begins to describe all that is wrong with most of the lower-end burgundies I have had. This isn't to say that the best burgundies can't be life-changing experiences, but to make the point that those non-millionaires among us who like Pinot must look elsewhere for good, affordable Pinot.

What amazes me about California, is how they make so many good wines that don't require a second mortgage. The Sainstbury is just one example of this. Even smaller-production Pinots offer great value. I'm thinking, particularly, of Windward Vineyard's Pinots from Paso Robles, which, to my mind, are really good wines at a very fair price. I guess California is just a sort of agricultural perfect storm.

Interestingly, though, Oregon, which likes to think of itself as the next Burgundy, for example, has some great wines, but I haven't had much luck finding the type of value that some of the California wines represent.

An aside on the French not having exposure to non-French wines, a point mentioned by Jack: I went to visit an ex-girlfriend who was studying in France and offered to bring her host family some wine. She declined, saying that they probably wouldn't be interested in American wine. Of course, I followed her advice, and it was a mistake. The patriarch of the host family proceeded to spend our first meal together blathering on about how he has heard all about American wines and was hoping that I would have arrived with some. It would be interesting to see what the French would choose if they had the kind of open market we have.

steve b wrote:
04.07.05 at 12:57 PM

AAAAHHH the Burgundy question???? thankfully, jassmond presents us with the perfect foil!
despite claims of respecting diversity and individual choice, this oenophile would have it be more difficult for anybody without deep pockets and the right connections to get a decent Burgundy or pinot from the rest of the world. instead of let them eat cake... it would be, let them drink beaujolais...
obviously the purportedly other-wordly pleasures of quality pinot should be reserved only for the lucky or privileged few.
thankfully there are plenty of jassmonds in the world to continue complimenting the emperor's new clothes while the rest of us proles enjoy wine made with modern technology (god forbid!!!)that actually tastes good bottle after bottle, with minor corked exceptions.

i couuldn't agree more with jassmond in conclusion " let everyone find their own taste, but rather than industry, lets keep snobbery out of agriculture.

Alder wrote:
04.07.05 at 2:05 PM

Steve,

Thanks for the comments. And there are some good points in there. I want to make it clear though that this is a discussion about ideas rather than people. Some of your comments could be interpreted as being disparaging of Jassmond rather than simply critiquing his ideas, which is what I'm sure you intended. Ideally I want people to be able to disagree in the discussions here without getting snipey.

Ben wrote:
04.07.05 at 3:02 PM

I must admit that I am a little timid to jump into this discussion which sounds pretty polarized. But I will throw in my "quick" 2 or 3 cents.

1. I hate that Burgundy is so freaking expensive, however, I do believe it offers something different that the "New World" cannot replicate. It smells different. It tastes different. It feels different in your mouth. That being said, I won't attempt to argue it is worth the price, but I will argue that you can find a good bottle under $50. True you can get ripped off, but you can get ripped off with wine from California, they have their ridiculously priced Pinot's as well. I must say that I have had thoroughly pleasing bottles of Burgundy for under $50. No, they didn't change my life, but they made me happy that I bought the bottle, which I think is the only real criteria for whether the price is worth it. The world is overpriced if you ask me, but you just have to choose where you want to "waste" your money.

2. The whole debate about the varietal name on the bottle: I would just like to submit that although it may be confusing at first, the current labeling methods are very descriptiveof quality and style. Much more so than just labeling the bottle Pinot Noir. It's a little informational hump to get over, but once you do, the bottle really tells you quite a bit, just like those crazy Germans. For generic Burgundy, it does make sense to label it "Pinot," but people are already doing that. And if you're saying that you would have bought some Charmes Chambertin if it had the grape on the label, I would say I'm gonna ask somebody about $50 plus bottles that I haven't tasted, no matter what they say on them. I've tasted way too many wines from around the world that don't warrant their price tag to blindly try stuff I know nothing about. Plus, I'm poor. Did I mention that? Not dirt poor, but I've got debt, and if I get too crazy with the wine, I don't make the rent.

He's still writing?!

3. Just one more. I just started reading this blog recently, and I was glad to see that Alder stepped in to stop any further disparaging. It's funny cause the thing that most turns me off about wine AND internet communication is how mean people can get. I like to discuss wine with people who want to help each other navigate a world that is close to impossible to understand without the advice and shared knowledge of others. Opinions are great, but when it turns to bashing the side you don't agree with, I stop reading.

Besides that, thanks for enlightening my day off.

Alder wrote:
04.07.05 at 3:12 PM

Ben,

Thanks for throwing your timidity aside and voicing your opinion! Sounds like you've got more to say than you think. Your quick two or three cents ended up being about $1.10 by the time you finished, which is great.

If there are particular bottles that you know of or remember being particularly great in your price range, I and I'm sure many other readers would love to know.

Jassmond wrote:
04.07.05 at 3:14 PM

Steve B,

If you do not want to think about what you consume, and base your consumption purely on what makes you feel good, then perhaps you should down some isopropyl and auger the birds as to when the whole system will fold. Large production wines are easy and might taste good, but industry in wine, as in any form of agriculture, is not a good thing. I drink $10 wine on a daily basis, have a 12 bottle cellar that is comprised entirely of gifts, and still go to bed at night feeling good about where my wine, as well as my dinner, came from. I really don't think i am espousing any sort of snobbery here, just mindfulness.

If you care about the people that produce what you consume, make a few downgrades in your lifestyle: drink a $10 bottle of wine that might not be made from a grape enjoying popularity from a movie. Find something good, if not easily understood, from a producer trying to revitalize an indigenous variety.

In no way am I glorifying Burgundy, I can't afford the stuff. Let the people with deep pockets drink it and enjoy flavors I can only ever catch a passing glimpse at. My comments are based purely on the size of wineries and what people should be supporting with their budgets, whatever size they are.

Alder, I hope I am respecting the tone you wish to maintain here, and thank you for your comments.

Best Regards,
Jassmond.

Alder wrote:
04.07.05 at 3:39 PM

Jassmond,

First, thanks, your tone is fine, and I appreciate it. Second, I'm having a hard time reconciling what I think is a good and valiant effort you make to patronize small artisan producers with the realities of what happens to many of the really good ones over time.

In California, in particular, I know several wineries that started at production levels of just a couple hundred cases and have grown to the point that they’re now producing ten to twenty thousand cases per year. Same families, same dedication to quality, same grapes in many cases, same passion. With your point of view, are you saying that suddenly because these people have passed that 15,000 case boundary that if you were me you would stop patronizing them?

I bring up this case because I think there are a lot of producers at this size who have become that big because of the fact that they make great wine that people love to drink, and/or they are good at the business side of wine.

While it is easy to dismiss people who start off buying into the market at production levels that are enormous, I think there's a big grey area of producers that, like it or not, make up the realm of where most people shop.

Ben wrote:
04.07.05 at 4:12 PM

Yeah,

I'm not gonna get into the whole industrial wine thing except to say I do like to try to make sure that as much of whatever amount of money I'm spending is put toward making the wine. But who doesn't?

As for my recommendations, I would like to disclaim: 1. I can't afford to drink Burgundy all the time, but it has become a payday splurge for me. So I have found a few things that please me, but I have much more to explore. 2. I work in a wine store, so I don't think it's appropriate to recommend wine to people I don't know, on what should be a website for wine lovers, not advertisers. Maybe as I get to know the readers and posters here a little better, I will volunteer info, but for some reason I feel sleazy recommending wines from a place that pays me money. Even though I do think they're good.

That aside. I had a basic Bourgogne from Jackie Truchot from a recent "off" vintage, 2000 or 2001, that was great. It was lighter style, but man it was tasty, and it cost $20 at Whole Foods in NYC. I haven't had a lot of the Truchot wines, but I bought a 1er Cru Morey from 1999 based on that experience. I also bought a negociant Volnay Chevrets from Drouhin that may not have been the epitome of Volnay, but I thought it was damn good for $32. This was a year ago, so I wonder if my tastes have changed. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the uber-ripeness that makes some wines so charming isn't the only way to make good, interesting wine. Earth, mineral, and acidity are fun, too. Blah, blah, blah. I'll stop now.

Anonymous wrote:
04.07.05 at 5:58 PM

(forgive the redundancy, but there is something new towards the end)

Yes, it is hard to draw a line as to what is too large a production for a
winery. 15k is arbitrary in some regards, but it is mostly based on my
limited experience in visiting wineries. I would offer Felsina as a perfect
exception to my rule, and perhaps in describing why I like it, it will
illustrate what I expect to be inside the wines I prefer to drink.

Giuseppe runs Felsina but is not the winemaker. He is a former literature
professor who has taken over the management of his wife's family's winery.
He does not label his wines as organic, though in practice they are. I asked
him what his background in literature did for his new role at the winery.
"Well, it allows me to ask better questions when I am hiring someone. I am
used to talking to students and getting them to find what is good in
themselves. I like to see that in the people we hire." I was a little
confused by the answer, but another American I was traveling with, and who
had know Giuseppe for years, explained that when they hired someone they
were hiring them for life, and likely their sons, daughters and wife as
well. Giuseppe said yes, it was important to respect that lives change but
responsibility does not.

Bouncing through the winery in an old ford forerunner, he explained that the
farms absorbed after land reform had lain dormant for so many years, but it
was the project of him and his wife to rebuild them and offer them to the
families that worked for him. The surrounding non-vineyard land would become
theirs for growing whatever they wished, be it for personal consumption or
for the general market. "Look at this land. if we can respect it, we are
respecting those that have looked over it for years, and continue to respect
those that will look after long after I am dead.

In off vintages they scrap their best wine, sell juice to taverna and make
only what they can stand behind. they are a press favorite, but their wines
are not international, they taste like chianti. their igts taste like
Castelnuovo Beradenga, and the workers are respected.

My arbitrary line of 15k is easily bumped up if the circumstances behind the
wine match with my understanding of how people, land and history should be
treated is met. Likewise, here in Oregon, there are a number of small
producers who irrigate, spend no time in their vineyards and still pay by
the ton rather than the acre. I choose not to support their wines.

As far as my smug remark about people needing to embrace the diversity of
wine, so long as they choose from a select set...well that's the conundrum I
am trying to figure out. I think tyson chicken, fast food, non-organic
agriculture etc. are killing the planet, human beings and the diversity of
human experience. I grew up on a dairy farm that was put out of business by
the consolidation of distribution systems and the lack of support for small
farms by local communities. I became involved with wine precisely because it
is a means for small landowners to add value to their product and sustain
themselves from their own product. I do not want to judge people simply
because they do not shop with local groceries, buy local produce, eat what's
in season and make sacrifices in their diets just because a favorite food is
not available from the local market, yet I do. I think it is unconscionable
that small business owners are constantly folding because of Safeway and the
like. I think there is a direct correlation between wine and every other
form of agriculture and I need to take a stand in the one small corner of
the industry I have an influence in.

That said, when a winery takes off, I don't think i need to publicly support it anymore within the small circles that i have influence. So long as they remain true to minding their own vineyards, supporting their workers at a living wage, treating the soil well, not manipulating the wine....well, god bless them. I drink their wines, I bless their land. Hell, I promote them the best I can, but not before I mention someone else who is just getting started and needs all the help they can get.

my humble experience has shown me that it is difficult to do this beyond 15k a year, but there are exception that I will admit. The line i have drawn is not in stone, and the only reason I draw the line in the first place is that those of us in the industry, and those consumers that should be for their dedication, should pay a whole lot more of attention to the fact that our choices have a lot of impact on the world we live in. I implore you, please, do not make the easy choices. Realize that from the top down, our decisions affect a market that is rooted in the soil. I like to like where i stand, and I hope that everyone else does too.

Sincerely,
Jassmond

Terry Hughes wrote:
04.07.05 at 6:34 PM

Wow. Jassmond, you make me almost believe that the world isn't going to be swallowed up by megamultiomniglobality, that there is a glimmer of hope in a more humanly scaled world of endeavor. It may be a quixotic vision of things, but it's beautiful and ought to be cherished. And where better than in the potently symbolic world of wine?

Thanks for this last wonderful post!

T. H.

steve b wrote:
04.08.05 at 9:48 AM

What a wonderful discussion, and to think all of this started with a discussion of wine. Being a part of a small, locally owned restaurant where we try to do most of our business with local farmers and producers, and when we purchase outside of our area, we try to support organic and sustainable porducers when we can (deep run-on sentence breath), I couldn't agree more with the rising sentiment of being careful with how you spend your dollars.

One of our missions at the restaurantis to expose these kinds of products to more and more people and to do it in an affordable manner. Being the food and wine geeks that we are, of course we love flavor, and all of it's intricacies.We love the way the richness and slight funkiness of smoked lamb leg can bring out the ripe fruit flavors and underlying spiciness of an otherwise slightly austere and shy syrah. The combinations and therefore the possibilities are endless.
Before i can get one of our guests to try the lamb and the syrah however, they have to be open to drinking wine in the first place. The first step on the path is to get something that tastes good to the customer and yet is not so pricey as to scare them away. putting that first glass of wine in that persons hand, and earning their trust is what makes it possible for us to put the bottle of small production, organically produced wine on the table the next time that person visits. Sometimes, it takes a 50,000 case production winery's bottling to do just that. As much as i wouldn't personally drink any of the almost infamous aussie animal wines, i am delighted with the thousands of people that have discovered the pleasures of drinking wine becauuse of these wines.

steve b wrote:
04.08.05 at 10:04 AM

Sorry, i hit post rather than preview on the last post...so the necessary grammatical corrections are missing.

I will wrap it up quickly, as I have probably run on long enough...
The most interesting thread for me throughout this entire discussion is that it has started and continued because of our passion for wine. the more people that discover wine and become passionate about it, the more opportunities we have to convert those same people to supporting the smaller conscientious producers. If these people never start drinking wine because of cost or unapproachability, then they will never have a chance to support the growers and producers that we all cherish.
It all starts with a simple glass, but that simple glass can lead to so much more.

stuart wrote:
04.08.05 at 10:26 AM

With all due respect, I wonder how many of you out there actually have worked in a winery making wine? I'm not saying that to invalidate what other people's opinions are, but sometimes people get an idea into their heads that doesn't seem to mesh with what actually happens in a winery. I think alot of people's opinions would change with that experience, and not just at some bucolic 10 barrel winery, but at one mid-sized winery as well (say 50,000 cases). Many, many good wineries are in that range (as well as some larger) who get shafted by those who don't know what their commitments or winemaking philosophies are.

Arbitrary case production limits that sound absurd when aplied to all wineries, phrases like "industrial winery" or even "artisan winemaking", are under-defined and over used.
"Pay by the ton rather than the acre" sounds nice, but I don't know how that could ever work much less what that would achieve.
Without any specifics forwarded, how can there be any meaningful discussion? It's like two people talking about "fruit", while one person assumes and responds to questions as if they talk about "pears", the other does the same yet about "bananas"...it's not really the same conversation.

Anyway, I think Alder had it right. If someone is making good wine, and grows due to that fact, I don't think they should be penalized for it by less support...especially if it's only due to some arbitrary case count limit.

Jassmond wrote:
04.08.05 at 11:49 AM

Stuart,

For what it's worth, there are a number of winemakers that pay by the acre rather than the ton. The first Italian co-op to do so was produtorri del barbaresco back in the 30s/40s. By ensuring the individual growers of a set return, the co-op was able to get them to reduce yields and increase the quality of the fruit.

Here in Oregon there is a group called the deep roots coalition that encourages the same practice. By ensuring the growers will make a decent return regardless of the yield, conditions can be set on how the grapes are farmed. That is, yields can be reduced, organic farming methods employed, and irrigation can be completely ruled out.

I agree that 'artisan winemaking' is overused and under-defined, but I don't think the same is true for 'industrial winemaking'. Yield altering additives in the vineyards are a first step in that direction, as is irrigation. manipulation of the wine to then overcome the negative effects of high yield is the next step. Roto-fermenters, reverse osmosis, the addition of flavor and aroma essence to mask faults. Wood-chipping and tannin manipulation through non-traditional technology. Number crunching to determine the best way to earn more than 90 parker points, and then the use of technology to make it happen, regardless of the vintage, place or variety. These are the examples that come to mind. To bring it back full circle, it was actually Kramer's Making Sense of Wine that brought these practices to my attention in the first place.

Best Regards,
Jassmond

HugeJ wrote:
04.08.05 at 1:37 PM

"...A thread full of sound and fury..."

Those of us charged with putting food on the table every day have long-since realized that, while its great to make works of art (be they wine, paintings, what-have-you), please don't complain when your "art" doesn't feed the family.

Alternatively, if someone chooses to make a profit at something, why go out of your way to disparage them? Respecting the land has little to do with the size of your winery's production. Hell, Fetzer (a 3 million case brand) is moving its grape suppliers to organic. How do you reconcile that?

In addition, my experience with wine shop owners is that their own arrogance toward "commercial" wines is just as capitalistically oriented as the motives of those "commercial" wineries that they disparage. Why? - because wine shop owners' stock in trade is in wines you can't find in a supermarket. Of course they are going to disparage the competition!

Does your employer not buy more wine (if offered) so that he can stay below a certain level of profit? "I personally don't like to buy from wine shops that sell over 1,000 cases, they lack a certain commercial integrity" (doesn't really make sense, does it?)

Set up "commercial" vs. "artisan" in a blind tasting....be fair and be honest. You will be surprised at the results. Dismissing something before you really know it is prejudicial and arrogant.

/huge

Patrick Barnette wrote:
04.08.05 at 3:53 PM

At first, I was going to offer an anecdote about a wonderful couple of hours I spent with Ted Seghesio at a wine tasting and suggest that exceeding 15,000 cases hadn't made him a monster, but something mentioned here has been bothering me all day:

"explained that when they hired someone they were hiring them for life, and likely their sons, daughters and wife as
well... The surrounding non-vineyard land would become theirs for growing whatever they wished, be it for personal consumption or for the general market."

Am I the only one who thinks this sounds uncomfortably close to sharecropping? I guess I'm just skeptical of paternalism.

That this made me think of sharecropping led me to think about commercial agriculture in a broader sense. I realize now that it is fashionable to believe that agri-business is killing family farms and dramatically changing long-standing customs and traditions, but I am not sure I buy it. More bluntly, exactly where and when was this Eden of family farms? Was it in Medieval Europe, when serfs were tied to the land and subserviant to either nobility or the Church? Was it in Colonial America when English nobility carved up the colonies and created large plantations to grow cash crops for export back to England? Shogun Japan? The Antebellum South? I minored in History in college and I probably only learned one thing - things rarely change as much as the current generation believes they have.

I guess it was probably Steinbeck (who
I love, BTW) who introduced commercial farmers as the bad guys, but I'm not sure it was any more true then than now. Sure, some of the mass-produced wine is terrible and I'm sure that some of the wineries are less than generous to their employees, but I don't think they are all monsters and I definitely don't think all of them become insensitive to the quality of their wine. I'm with HugeJ - taste comes first.

One aside, irrigation has been around about as long as recorded history (Archimedes Screw, anyone?), so I will stick with tradition and not raise too much of a fuss if winemakers use it if necessary.

HugeJ wrote:
04.08.05 at 4:21 PM

Patrick:

I bow in your general direction.
Superb post, sir.

stuart wrote:
04.08.05 at 4:26 PM

"By ensuring the growers will make a decent return regardless of the yield, conditions can be set on how the grapes are farmed. That is, yields can be reduced, organic farming methods employed, and irrigation can be completely ruled out."

We get the same job done here in California using something called a "contract"...specifically an "Estate Contract" where Vintners detail the conditions (viticulture) to be used by the Growers. Limits are placed on tonnages, and quality, with penalties (including getting your contract yanked) for not complying. It may not have become fashionable yet up in OR, as it's a new-fangled way of doin' bizness...and it sounds like most all things new (viticulture) must be forbidden in OR...

I'm not sure why you feel rotary fermentors are such a curse...as far as "the addition of flavor and aroma essence to mask faults" comment, again I'm not sure what you're referring to. The SA Sauv Blanc scandal of last year? Certainly that was an isolated incident...
Please think of interning for a harvest or two, I sincerely believe it would open up your eyes to a whole new world & level of appreciation for wine.

(BTW, isn't the 'hired for life' model one of the things that's contributed to the weakening of Japan? Seems like a good way to kill a lot of the drive in your employees...)

Nice post Patrick B.

Ben wrote:
04.10.05 at 7:16 PM

Progress is inevitable, so we should probably embrace it as such, but we can also make value judgements on what is efficient progess and what is simply eliminating quality in the name of profit. I won't despair that supermarkets are experimenting with automatic checkouts that will eliminate cashier jobs, because the job isn't fun, and I doubt there will ever be a shortage of crappy jobs for those who are replaced by technology. I do think that fast food is unhealthy, and it makes me feel funny, so I eat in restaurants who try to give a little love to their food.

Ben wrote:
04.10.05 at 7:18 PM

Although if they served up a nice Burgundy at Burger King, I'd prolly get some fries as well.

john bossy wrote:
04.11.05 at 12:18 PM

No one can win this debate. It all depends on what you look for in a glass of wine. Big producers are consistent and often very good. The small guy is erratic, occasionally sublime. Maybe you were raised on fruit juice and coca cola, and now like your wine fruity and nice. Or maybe you prefer the experience of soil smouldering in your glass.

JB

Sherise wrote:
04.12.05 at 3:26 AM

I have to say I disagree with much of the commentary on this column. I am an American currently living in France who is fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time in Burgundy visiting the winemakers and tasting their wines. My verdict is that there are, in fact, quite a few very good Burgundies at very reasonable prices. The problems with Burgundy lie in the small quantities produced (which is hard to avoid given the small plots of land each winemaker owns) and lack of accessibility to the the exporting system. Unfortunately, it really only is the large wine makers who manage to get their wines to large markets such as the US and UK. In fact, when I go to the US and see the French wines on offer in general, it is horrifying how poor the selection, quality, and value is (that being said, I think most good Calif. wines are consistently overpriced as well). I don't think you can fault the Burgundian (or other French) winemakers for this. It really is the overly regulated wine industry who are to blame (driven by both the US and French local and national governments). When I ask the small winemakers if they export (this is consistent throughout France, but particularly in Burgundy), they resoundingly say no. They'd love to, but either can't afford to or have no knowledge of how to navigate the complicated bureaucratic process.

As for the grape on the label, yes, this is how many people around the world buy wine now. I would say, however, this is most important when consumers enter wine. Once they become more educated about wine, they develop a greater appreciation for the history, terrior, region, etc. of wines (and I think this is consistent around the world). In France, however, as most of you are probably aware, there is an AOC system in most regions that strictly dictates what can and cannot be put on a label. So, once again, the winemaker really has no choice here. I'm not convinced that this alone will 'save' French wine (I think fixing the regulatory issues/market restrictions first would be the best place to start). However, perhaps overtime this will change and they will move to including the grape on their label...regardless, this is going to take time.

To sum up I'd say the problems really lie in the bureaucracy and the sub-standard quality and/or ridiculous prices of French wines that make it to large markets in the US, not with the Burgundian producer.

Greg P. wrote:
04.16.05 at 1:59 AM

Jassmond,

I know I am late to the thread, been pretty busy in the past two weeks, but would like to hear your opinion on production levels of all the Bordeaux First Growths? According to your statements they are all plonk with no soul? Do you think owners of these properties would agree with you? How about Phelps producing over 10,000 cases of Insignia every year? Is this industrial plonk as well?

What car do you drive, one produced on a conveyor line or built by hand? If the latter, my hat is off to you, you live what you preach. The rest of us will have to do with what we like and can afford even if it is produced by industrial means.

My hat is off to Sainstbury, I wouldn't know where to start if I had to make that many cases of one wine, having my hands full with 4-5 ton lots is enough of a challenge for me. If you think it takes little effort to make wine, consistantly, from year to year, in such big quantities, I recommend you try it.
.
.
.
.
Also, I see some references, one even by a retailer, that suggest every CA made Pinot is a "fruit bomb", I seriously disagree with this statement and assumption. CA, as any other region making Pinot, Burgundy included, makes Pinot in a good number of styles, some can be in that "fruit bomb" style, yet there is a whole bunch that are not and a great match to ANY Burgundy out there. Taste a '96 Calera Mills and let me know what you think. Older Marcassin were superb. Track down a bottle of current release Copeland Creek, I don't think anyone will be disappointed, it is a very delicate Pinot Noir through and through effort.

Greg

Jassmond wrote:
04.16.05 at 5:33 PM

Greg P.,

I dropped out of the thread because it really wasn't much in the way of a discussion, but your post brought me back for a minute.

If you read my posts you will see that I am simply not interested in stocking or drinking wines from large wineries and I would encourage people to at least think about why it might be a good idea to follow suit.

I am always dubious of these wines from the ground up, but I am often proven wrong about the quality and sometimes the ethic that goes into their production. I laud the large producers who can both maintain a large volume of production, and the standards that I feel are necessary both for their land and their workers. That said, I still don't feel it necessary to consume them or place them on the shelves. There are too many smaller producers who deserve my attention, and lord knows there are plenty of wine shops that are happy to stock these other wines. I will continue to encourage my customers to think about what they drink as much as they do about their food.

I simply don't drink Bordeaux so I cannot offer an opinion.

The auto analogy is inapt, but I'll dive in anyway. I ride my bike when I can. I take public transportation. I own a scooter that gets good mileage but may have been made by slave labor for all I know. On nasty days I drive my car, which happens to be maintained by some dorks who are about as 'micro' as a local mechanic can be. Is any of this ideal? No, obviously not. Maybe after people have been making cars for 3000 years or so they'll be able to do it without all the nastiness, just like with wine.

And finally, the thread on the Parker board that Alder mentions is worth checking out for those involved in this thread. It would be nice, as someone there laments, if this could be a conversation rather than simply another thread of old v. new opinions.

Best Regards,
Jassmond

Donald Baumhefner wrote:
04.21.05 at 4:49 PM

Greg P,
Thank you for the kind words concerning my Copeland Creek Pinot Noir. I, too, have become bored by alcoholic, fruit bomb Pinots. Mine is 13.5% alcohol. I think it is one of the lowest alcohol Pinots on the market. One must remember that if the label says 14.1%, it legally can be anything up to 15.6%. If it says 13.9% it can be no higher than 13.99%, but may be as low as 12.4%. This is due to the Federal regulations which give a label a one and a half per cent leeway plus or minus, as long as it stays either below or above the cutoff point of 14.0%. The tax rate changes at 14%. This is the most important fact to them. Wouldn't it be nice if a label had to actually tell you what the alcohol was, instead of making you guess?
I think more and more winetasters are beginning to appreciate the fact that only lower alcohol wines actually pair well with food. The difference between an 11% wine and a 13% wine is tremendous. The difference between a 13% wine and a 15% wine is even more amazing. The scale seems to be like the Richter scale for earthquakes(geometric).
Thanks again, Don

Alder wrote:
04.21.05 at 6:06 PM

Donald,

Thanks for the comments! Very insightful. I knew there was some fuzziness with regards to alchohol labeling but I didn't know the exact regs.

Barb wrote:
11.02.06 at 12:43 PM

I'd worry more that global climate change is going to eradicate the grapes that the French once grew. I think it is fortunate for the world of wine that the skill of winemaking is being diligently exercised worldwide. If the climate changes, but there is someplace on earth that can still let Pinot Noir vines shine, somebody will find it.

In that case, the French may feel fortunate for having exported some of their expertise. The main thing is that there is every reason to believe that, come what may, wine drinkers will be able to find a worthy Pinot Noir being made somewhere, even if not back home.

Anonymous wrote:
11.02.06 at 12:46 PM

Oooops. Didn't see the age of this thread. A little over the hill, to say the least.

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