What’s in a Name: Places or Grapes?
January 17, 2021 by Tom Maresca
Tom’s Wine Line
Below is an excellent article by Tom Maresca that I would like to share.
Europeans say Bordeaux and Burgundy, Americans say Cabernet sauvignon and Pinot noir. That difference isn’t merely cultural – though no cultural difference is really mere – but in a sense ideological. It points to two different orientations to wine and the wine world.
I was reminded of this recently by an online article of Daniele Cernilli’s called “Beyond the Varietal.” This was not another rehash of stories about the meaning of terroir, but a reasoned argument about what matters in a wine besides its grape variety. Essentially, Cernilli argues that to speak of, say, Richebourg, as Pinot noir is to completely miss what is distinctive about that wine; and to talk only about, say, Nebbiolo, is to fail to understand what makes Barolo Cannubi great. Here, I’m less interested in that than in why the US makes so much of varietals.
There are complex reasons why Americans think of variety first, many of them deeply rooted in the brevity of our history with wine. As a nation, we have no tradition of wine drinking, save for a few exceptional individuals like Thomas Jefferson, who championed it. But such examples only tended to push wine drinking and wine knowledge further out of the mainstream and to isolate it as an aristocratic interest of the landed and wealthy.
This of course was intensified by the whole area of wine being so completely dominated, for so long, in the consciousness of English speakers, by French wines, all of which bore place names that conveyed no information, in a language that many Americans continue to find impenetrable and unpronounceable.
I think it is safe to say that wine in the US did not begin to take hold among the general population until non-aristocratic Italians and other southern Europeans began arriving here in significant numbers. We Americans who now love wine owe a huge debt to those once-looked-down-upon spaghetti joints, with their checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles. Those were probably the first wine bottles many Americans had ever seen. And drinking what had been in those flasks to accompany their “exotic” spaghetti and meatballs was probably the first experience of wine many of them had ever had. It’s important to remember that that world doesn’t lie very far in our past: It’s still relatively recent history.
The biggest part of American wine history of course belongs to California. How many of us remember when California produced Chablis, Chianti, Burgundy, and Rhine Wine – even Champagne? For a good many years, California marketed wines that way, until the fledgling European Union made ending that commercial appropriation of historic and important place names one of its chief goals.
That was when naming wines for the grape varieties that made them started to be the norm in America. It succeeded not just because it was the ethical thing to do, but largely because for a tyro wine drinking nation it was easier to learn and remember the names of a few grape varieties than all those European regional and town names. Varietal naming told you something about what was in the bottle that, unless you already knew a fair amount about wine, names like St. Julien or Chambolle-Musigny didn’t. And popular wisdom had it that connoisseur claptrap didn’t matter. Who cared who made the wine or where it was made? It was all Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir or Chardonnay, wasn’t it? (No prizes will be given for the correct answer to that question.)
That simplicity also greatly aided marketing, and it’s safe to say that marketing is king in America. You could order a glass of Chardonnay with your dinner, and for most people that was the end of it. You didn’t think about it, you had no opinion of it: It was safe and you hadn’t embarrassed yourself. Why complicate things by considering whether the wine was a good example of Chardonnay or not? What does that mean anyway? Besides, those who worried about whether they had gotten a good Chardonnay needed only to check its 100-point-scale score: Over 90 and you were gold.
You certainly didn’t want to complicate things further by worrying about where your Chardonnay was made: Napa? Sonoma? Paso Robles? Mendocino? North Fork? Finger Lakes? Where are those places? Who cares? My wine got 92 points from the Spectator and a whole paragraph of soft-core palatal porn from Parker: I’m good. So what if it’s from a plot of land that until a few years ago grew scrub oaks and mesquite, and from a producer who until a few years ago was a roofing contractor? This is a brave new world, that has such markets in it.
And that of course is the point: Marketing is what it’s all about. Americans are not challenged to go beyond varietal in evaluating a wine because varietal is marketable, and knowledge and taste and judgement are not – unless you can articulate them numerically. How do you assign numerical value for 800 years of continuous grape cultivation in a single spot, dating back to Cistercian monks, or for generations of family winemaking? How many points is it worth for an Emperor to have had his troops salute a vineyard as they marched by? (There will be no prizes for the correct answers to these questions either.)
I know this sounds snobbish, but the inescapable fact is that anything that involves knowledge, let alone knowledge and taste, is snobbish. Oh, it’s true that in this country, some kinds of snobbery aren’t snobbish: We’ve all been bored to tears by a baseball or football super-statistician, or a micro-brewery maven, or by the person who knows everything that can be known about the Grateful Dead. Those lore lodes don’t involve too many foreign names, so they sound comfortably American – and they certainly don’t seem to imply that “you think you’re better than me,” which is what wine snobbery is considered to imply.
At bottom, I think it is that implicit non-egalitarian threat that has kept Americans wedded to grape varieties as their passport to wine, despite all the limitations of that approach. This may be changing, as more Americans do become more seriously engaged with wine, and as Europe, despite the best efforts of the EU, succumbs more and more to the attractions of mass marketing. Small European cheese makers have already felt the chilling effects of this process. Can wine makers be far behind? Probably not, so be a snob and enjoy it, while you still can. We may live to see the day when, to be sold in the US, St. Julien and Chambolle-Musigny and Barolo Cannubi will all have to be pasteurized. Absit omen.