11/09/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Taking the Mask Off of Wine: How Wine Follows the Lead of Cuisine


Wine and food have been intertwined throughout history. In more recent times, trends have taken some curious turns. The culinary path of fine restaurants, with a movement started in France in the 1970's, had a reaction to covering inferior proteins, with heavy sauces. Their reaction spawned Nouvelle Cuisine. Nouvelle Cuisine showcased the primary feature of the dish, with accompaniments of sauces, vinaigrettes, salsas, chow-chows. Showing off unique and superior local ingredients was a primary anthem to the movement. Let the star ingredient shine.

Today, the wine trade is facing a similar reaction. High alcohol levels, overuse of highly toasted wood barrels, commercial planting of grapes that are not conducive to where they are planted, industrial yeast, sanitizing flavors with winemaking techniques, and worst of all, making a product that chases the styles of the influential reviewers (at the top of the list are Robert Parker and The Wine Spectator). They both score wines by the scholastic 100 point grading system.

Both publications have helped to popularize higher alcohol, bigger being better types of wines, that move further and further from wines that comfortably pair with food. One might initially be charmed by the power of their flavors, but they have become homogenized, where they are referred to as "International wines," a kind of code for: I don't have a clue where this wine is from. You might ask how deeply these two publications have changed the wine trade. Deeply, is clearly the answer.

Here are some ways it seeps through the mentality at all levels of the trade. A winery is looking to get noticed. They know of a consultant that has been successful with another winery, sometimes from a different part of the world. That consultant is hired to create a wine that will gain attention. That consultant isn't necessarily hired to make a great wine that fits the regional style, but rather that consultant was hired because of an international reputation created and perpetuated by the same critic they are hoping to have to have review the wine again. The winemaker, or the flying winemakers, become more important than those who have understood and worked in a particular place for their whole career. Subtlety, balance, and harmonious flavors that demonstrate a specific region's uniqueness, play a secondary role to a consulting winemaker's style. The winemaker becomes more important than the vineyards.

Ask any winemaker what they need to make good wine and they will tell you there are three answers; good grapes, good grapes, and good grapes. When you have a unique wine, from a unique place it would seem intuitive to show off the great grapes; with very little camouflage.

There are movements within for reform. Organically grown grapes has become as important as the movement toward organically grown food. Wine's movement lagged far behind the movement with other food products, as there have been many influential spokespeople within the wine trade that have insisted that organically grown grapes are not inherently better than non-organically grown grapes. That thought process has changed. Biodynamic wines, wines following the philosophical principles of Rudolf Steiner, are even more stringent than organic grape growing. The problem is that neither addresses winemaking techniques that could obscure the perfectly well treated grapes. Over oaked wines, wines with out of balance alcohol, mechanical harvesting, misuse of sulfur, are all contributing factors to re-addressing the wine production phase.

There has been a more complete combining of grape growing and winemaking in the "the Natural Wine" movement, whose sensibilities are certainly in the right direction, although there is no legal definition of a natural wine. The public will still have great difficulties picking up a "natural wine" from a wine retail store, unless the retailer is very dedicated to the cause. Still, many retailers have dedicated organic sections, or wines denoted as being organic or biodynamic.

I remember visiting Lolonis Vineyards in Mendocino County many years ago. I asked the owner, Maureen Lolonis, about the treatment of the grapes. At the time, she had no particular feelings about organic or biodynamic grape growing making better (healthier) wine. They would not put "organic" or "organically grown grapes" on their label for fearing they would be categorized as an inferior wine. I asked her if they used sprays and pesticides. She answered me that they did not. She explained to me that their children played in the vineyards. That was all I needed to know.