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Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Location, location, location
I fully embrace the fact that New World vintners can grow whatever they want, wherever they want and however they want. The fact of the matter is, more and more oppressed Old World growers have flocked to the New, in search of democratic wine making creativity. I completely understand the rationale behind the A.O.C. and D.O.C. (or the even more scrupulous D.O.C.G. for that matter), but I think much is lost in the translation. These governing bodies were formed to ensure consumers of a quality standard in the interest of expressing the regional label w/ consistent excellence. For example, if the label is Italian and says 'Barolo D.O.C.G.' on it, the consumer knows it's 100% Nebbiolo grapes that had to be tended, fermented and aged in a particular way. That's nice, but does it mean that the wine will be any good? Not necessarily. The good conservatives of these wine governing bodies have adamantly chosen what grows best where and how the best way to grow it is. It has to be a 'classical' style to 'preserve tradition.' Granted, these Old World domaines have had hundreds to thousands of years of cultivating experience to learn through trial and error what succeeds and what fails, to an extent. Should it be heresy or criminal for a producer to chaptalize (add sugar) or add acid if the vintage dictates it necessary? Is it a vulgar act to blend a tiny percentage of a 'not allowed grape varietal?' According to these governing bodies, yes.
So they zap any ounce of improvization in the grape grower, making their jobs as textbook and routine as re-treading tires, as they are powerlesss to intervene w/ what mother nature decides to offer. Kinda sucks huh? If you create a great wine, it's only thanks to the vintage. If it's lousy, well it sure aint the grower's fault, right? These conservative rules are a bit of an exaggeration, but they remain obsolete regardless. How can the D.O.C.G. explain the thousands of diluted, bitter and amorphous Chianti Rufina and Chianti Classico bottlings that are cranked out each year? Well it seems the D.O.C.G. stamp of approval on a Chianti bottle only guarantees that when you buy it, you'll be guaranteed a piece of mass-produced sludge juice filled with plenty of debris. Save your money, there's a 6 pack of Schlitz w/ your name all over it (and yes, a guarantee stamp to boot).
There are no guarantees in wine. The more a wine maker's creativity and ingenuity is stiffled, the more lethargic they will become (and it will show in their wines). Todays wine world is full of critical accountabilty and big business. A Super Tuscan like Ornellaia doesn't need a D.O.C.G. stamp of disapproval on their bottle, the I.G.T. suits it just fine. Even though Ornellaia is chock full of unapproved varietial clones that are attached to unapproved rootstocks that are aged in unapproved fashions, I think they are doing just fine. The consumer will pay a lofty pricetag for these 'un-guaranteed' wines made in untraditional means because they are great wines. Do they undermine Italian wine authority? Yep, the wine police is definitely not making any apprehensions in this occasion. But do these wines fail to accurately transmit a sense of place and disrespect the Italian soils? Absolutely not. These wines, at their best, untraditionally bring medlies of aromas and flavors that linger for minutes on end, but maintain an underlying sense of modesty and character that can only come from an Italian terroir. At their worst, they are charred, coarse and dried up nausea bombs that don't merrit any positive attention.
There's nothing wrong w/ a regional structure or framework of what a consumer can generally expect from particular wine growing appellations. Should the grower be able to adapt to the hand that Mother Nature has dealt them? Of course, w/in reason. Should the grower be able to bottle different lots, varietals and blends? Why not? If it's good wine, people will buy it. If it's garbage, it will be discarded as such. Today's frenzy of legitimate consumers aren't in search of an A.O.C. or D.O.C. label, they are in search of a quality wine.
Having said that, the rationale for a governing body couldn't be clearer when I see some of the New World's liberties taken advantage of in such inappropriate ways. A prime example can be found in the winery of Rancho Sisquok, touting their Santa Maria Valley Cabernet Sauvignon as uniquely atypical. I had the opportunity to view one of their sales representatives present their wines, the Cab included. He was lauding the Cab for it's lack of green, weedy character. Yes, he was praising something because it didn't suck. Come on! I guess it's an accomplishment that the Cab didn't taste like asparagus, but it sure didn't taste like Cab either. Santa Maria is too damn cold to grow hearty varietals like Cabernet, quit trying!
Thankfully, I know MOST consumers in search of quality wines will not be buying any Santa Maria Valley Cabs anytime soon. But hearing tales of New World growers blatant disregard for enological research makes me feel like 'there oughta be a law against doing that!' Well, not really....but I do understand the 'framework concept' of the A.O.C., with a looser belt at least.
All of my rant on quality could be completely irrelevant if we didn't all agree on what quality is. Germany, for example, grades riesling quality soley on potential alcohol (or grape ripeness from sugar accumulation during the vintage). Well if that were the case, these 16 plus percent alcohol Paso Robles and Alexander Valley Zinfandels should be the creme de la cru! Granted, Germany is the most severe and northerly of wine growing regions, so sugar accumulation is a different animal there. That being said, even German producers are raging against their system of quality governance by de-classifying particular labels to 'Qualitatswein,' or QbA, to avoid distinguishing a sugar level. I think it's generally understood that wines of 9% alcohol can be of better quality than wines w/ 12% alcohol and vice versa. I'll leave it at that and save the 'quality debate' for a later post.
So where does that leave my position? In a very democratic place I suppose (must be my American upbringing). I think old-fashioned, ultra conservative wine law definitely stiffles the producer and shafts the consumer. I also think too much freedom is something of which humankind doesn't take too well to and only leads to abuse. With all our knowledge of growing grapes, we can draw lines in the sand about particular issues. Washington should be able to irrigate, central coast shouldn't grow hearty varietals that won't ripen (c'mon, even if the A.O.C. allowed Burgundians to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, would you want to drink it?), Napa vitners should have an acceptable alcohol range, etc. The one thing I would demand is that all of these 'rules and regulations' have to be ammendable. One thing I know, is that I don't know everything, or maybe it's just the George Washington spirit in me?
Philosophy classes in college did teach me one thing, that the most reasonable answers lie somewhere in the middle.
Anyone care for some German Shiraz?

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