In 2004, Jonathan Nossiter released Mondovino, the most provocative and controversial wine documentary ever made. True, it’s a category without much competition but, even so, let’s give Nossiter his due: he knew how to kick up a storm.
Mondovino suggested that winemaking traditions in places like France and Italy were imperiled because of Robert Parker’s influence and, more broadly, the growing American influence over wine. In Nossiter’s view, the United States was the Great Satan of wine, the avatar of globalization that was robbing the wine world of diversity and stamping out small, artisanal producers in favor of industrial wine production.
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It was a dystopian vision of wine’s future that turned out to be completely wrong. Rather than exerting a homogenizing influence, Americans have instead become stalwart defenders of the artisanal, the esoteric and the embattled. Far from being the Great Satan of wine, the United States has proven to be the Grape Savior.
Over the last decade or so, the American market has become a lifeline for a number of wine grapes and winemaking styles that would otherwise probably be headed for extinction. Sherry, Madeira, artisanal Beaujolais, traditional German Rieslings, traditional Riojas, traditional Barolos and Barbarescos – all of these might well be goners were it not for the dedicated followings they now enjoy in the U.S.
Terry Theise, an acclaimed importer of German wines, told me some time ago that the only reason the producers he represents continued to make traditional-style Rieslings – that is to say, Rieslings with perceptible residual sugar – was because those wines had found a very loyal audience in the U.S.; the “fruity” style had fallen completely out of favor with German drinkers, who now wanted their Rieslings bone dry. The same thing with Sherry: the Sherry industry, in a state of slow-motion collapse for decades, has been given renewed life thanks to the sudden cachet that Sherry has acquired among sommeliers and younger oenophiles in New York, San Francisco, and points in between.
Yes, in regions like Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, a number of producers “Parkerized” their wines. However, that was pretty much the extent of the Parker effect outside the U.S. Rather than exerting a homogenizing influence, we Americans have instead become stalwart defenders of the artisanal, the esoteric, and the embattled.
What accounts for this surprising twist? For one thing, Parker’s influence is waning and, due in no small part to the Internet, new voices championing a different aesthetic have emerged and found an audience. A lot of wine drinkers have also soured on the lush, strapping wines that Parker favored.
Economic factors have played a part, too: with the most acclaimed wines from Napa Valley and Bordeaux fetching astronomical prices, many consumers have been forced to look elsewhere for their tasting pleasures and, thanks to the globalization of the wine market, retail shelves are now full of charming obscurities from around the world.
But here’s the really critical ingredient: forgive the jingoism, but it turns out that Americans are the most curious, open-minded, and ecumenical wine drinkers on the planet. We are still fairly new to wine, and there is an adventurousness to our palates that sets us apart from consumers in more established markets and that makes us receptive to all types of wines and wine grapes. Sweetish Rieslings, Sherry, Madeira, old-school Riojas: we are game for just about anything.
What also sets us apart from more established markets is that we are increasing our wine consumption. In France, Italy, Spain, and other European countries, wine consumption is plummeting. In France, it has declined more than 50 percent since the 1960s and continues to fall. True, the French used to drink to excess but, between declining consumption and the bizarre neo-Prohibitionist tilt of recent French governments, France is turning its back on its own winemaking tradition, which is why artisanal producers in places like Beaujolais and the Loire have grown so dependent on the American market.
Recently the U.S. surpassed France as the world's largest wine-consuming nation, a statistical milestone that underscores the shifting balance of power in the wine world. Americans are drinking wine in ever greater numbers, and are drinking more widely than the French, the Italians, and the Spanish ever did.
I think there's one other factor at work, too – a particular form of snobbery (or vanity). Like any hobby, wine has an ample quota of self-styled sophisticates, who pride themselves on the refinement of their taste and who are anxious to stay several steps ahead of the wine-swilling masses. But with so many Americans embracing wine and becoming increasingly discerning in their wine choices, it is getting harder for the sophisticates to maintain that distance; thus, the embrace of obscure grapes (Poulsard, Mencia), avant-garde winemaking (orange wines), and castoff wines (Sherry, Madeira).
And now the ultimate irony: instead of pushing others to change their wines, our wines are changing. In California, there is a movement of young producers who are seeking to make Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs in an old-world style – meaning lower alcohol and with an emphasis on minerality and acidity, qualities typically associated with European wines, rather than opulently ripe fruit.
Not only that: some of those little-known European grape varieties that not long ago appeared destined to become globalization’s roadkill are suddenly turning up in the vineyards of California; grapes like Trousseau, Ribolla Gialla, Semillon, and Vermentino are now part of the state’s viticultural landscape and are yielding some of its most exciting wines. The orange wine fad has also crossed the Atlantic: a handful of reasonably good orange wines are now being made in California.
While it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that California had a homogenous winemaking culture a decade ago, it has now become an exuberant free-for-all. The same can be said of American wine culture in general. For those who cherish diversity in wine, the blossoming of the American market has, with all due respect to Mondovino, proven to be a godsend.