While we will never know where Sigmund Freud might have stood on issues such as sulfur additions in wine and Pinot Noirs in excess of 14.5 percent alcohol, it can reasonably be assumed that he would see the fierce debates triggered by these matters as prime examples of a condition he termed "the narcissism of small differences."
Freud coined that brilliant phrase in reference to conflicts between nations, but it can just as easily be applied to all the Sturm und Drang over natural wines, alcohol levels, and the use of new oak. These are debates over notions of excellence; over minor distinctions between wines that are fastidiously made and generally high in quality.
Here’s the thing: we live in a golden age of wine, in which more good reds, whites and rosés are being made in more places and in a greater variety of styles than at any time in history. Things are so good, in fact, that we’ve been reduced to beating the crap out of each other over what amounts to the fine print.
As an occasional combatant in the rancorous debate over natural wines, I am certainly aware how easy it is to lose perspective. We flatter ourselves (that’s the narcissism part) that the stakes couldn’t be higher. Some segments of the wine world, notably natural wine advocates, have a vested interest in sowing alarm: it galvanizes support, sells books and subscriptions, etc.
But when you find yourself debating whether wines have become too clean, you know you are living in prosperous times, and so we are. Sure, there is still plenty of plonk around, but with regard to the kinds of wines that interest the kinds of people who make a habit of, say, visiting Wine-Searcher.com or wading into online discussions about micro-oxygenation, excellence is the norm now, not the exception. What we’re left to quarrel about are questions of personal taste.
This is a pretty dramatic change from the norm just 50 years ago. Back then, many if not most of the wines that emerged from even the most acclaimed regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc. – were thin to the point of emaciation, and they were often riddled with flaws if not downright dirty. Sure, some monumental wines were produced in the 1950s and '60s, but they were vastly outnumbered by a yearly tidal wave of rotgut.
Things began to turn around with the proliferation of new technologies, notably temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, and with huge advances in wine science. Thanks largely to the influence of wine consultant and researcher Émile Peynaud, cellar hygiene became a priority. Old, bacteria-infested barrels were replaced by newer, cleaner ones, which resulted in better wines. Another major factor has been improved viticulture. Smarter, more scrupulous farming has been instrumental in raising overall quality. Without getting into the complicated issue of climate change, it is fair to say that work in the vineyard has been greatly helped – in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway – by more favorable growing conditions over the last two decades.
The emergence of Robert Parker and the advent of consumer-oriented wine criticism was another key element. Say what you will about late-era Parker, there is no denying that he was a force for good when he started out. His willingness to name and shame underachieving estates, no matter how famous or pedigreed, was instrumental in raising winemaking standards in Bordeaux and other regions. Parker led the fight for greater quality, and in the process, he also educated a generation of wine consumers to be more discerning and demanding, which added to the pressure on winemakers to raise the quality of the wines coming out of their cellars.
For all these reasons, wine lovers have never had it better than they do now. But you wouldn’t know that, judging only by the endless feuding among wine journalists, sommeliers, importers, and others over natural wines, rising alcohol levels, and so on. Put aside the fact that these debates revolve around matters that fall under the heading "First World problems." There is seldom any acknowledgment that these are really disputes over differences in taste (and sometimes ideology) and that, ultimately, there can be no losers because, well, we are all winners now. This quality revolution, which has spread to pretty much every corner of the wine world, has given everyone, from fruit bomb fanatics to natural-only pedants, lots of compelling wines to choose from.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t important issues still to be explored. There are plenty of questions that lend themselves to spirited, edifying debate.
But the bottom line is this: all the shouting over inoculated yeasts, optimal Brix levels, and other contentious matters shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging that we are living in a golden age of wine.