The era of wine arrogance is over. It was slowly dismantled by a chorus from the ether. Unlike the recent past when an ex-attorney could anoint himself the palate of America, a new generation of wine professionals seized control by embracing the Old World discipline of the sommelier. Since they are young and cool, they call themselves Somms. The good ones take their craft seriously and have developed finely tuned BS meters. Instead of a singular voice, they talk amongst each other in public internet forums, at wine seminars and gatherings. They challenge preconceived notions, kill sacred cows, encourage, question, prod … but the biggest difference between the new communal voice of wine and the past wine critic is that these professionals rose through the ranks of cuisine and service. Their loyalty is to their patron’s palate and, hopefully, not their own ego.
Wine Comes to America
...the biggest difference between the new communal voice of wine and the past wine critic is that these professionals rose through the ranks of cuisine and service. Their loyalty is to their patron’s palate and, hopefully, not their own ego.
A brief history of American wine is needed for perspective. At one time, wine was utilitarian. Fermentation was a way to preserve fruit while creating a safe beverage free of the water-borne pathogens that plagued pre-chlorine civilizations. As new frontiers were settled, John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, planted apples for hard cider while missionaries planted grapes for sacramental wines. These beverages were fermented in wood vats with no refrigeration. They were riddled with harmless bacteria that imparted a gamut of non-fruit flavors from mustiness, to leather, to horseshit. Though safe to drink, they would never be confused with fine beverages. They satisfied the need for calories, sated thirst, cured boredom and killed pain … and every once in a while, the weather would cooperate and someone would make a sublime wine—but that was the exception. In the mid-1800s pioneering winemaker Agoston Haraszthy, a man considered the father of California viticulture, imported hundreds of varieties of European vinifera (or grape vines) and attempted to make wine on par with the great beverages of the Old World. But, in doing so, he inadvertently created the first known infestation of phylloxera (a microscopic louse that feeds on the roots of grape vines thus killing the plant) in California that proceeded to wipe out his Sonoma vineyards, and even traveled all the way to Europe nearly destroying all the vineyards there as well.
As wineries recovered from this blight, they struggled to make drinkable wines let alone fine wines. But what nature couldn’t completely destroy, puritanical law attempted to finish off—prohibition almost bludgeoned the wine industry to an inch of death.
The Rise of the Critic
After repeal, American wine was disrespected. Most was made in volume at the lowest cost per unit and was bottled without barrel aging (small French and American oak barrels did not come into wide use until the '60s and ‘70s). Other than a few outliers, most California wine was unrefined compared to its European counterparts and suffered the perception as cheap plonk. Simply put, great wine was imported and inferior wine was domestic. The only way out of this negative perception of American wine was to position it as exclusive and elitist. Wine producers began to emulate the image of the European wine snob with classical music playing in the background. Wine was served by monkey-suited, tastevin swirling, arrogant a-holes whose wine opening rituals were more about intimidating or making consumers feel like ignorant neophytes than educating or expanding the fold. The message was clear: wine was for the privileged elite while beer was for the masses. This confused messaging created a void where a consumer advocate was needed. In walks Robert Parker Jr. with his simplistic 100-point scale used for judging wine in his newsletter, The Wine Advocate, which garnered attention after he reviewed the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux, calling it excellent in light of many critics who held opposing views. Now, instead of learning the nuances of variety, region, or vintage, the wine buyer was armed with a definitive guide. This wine was better than that wine because it scored more points.
Parker’s Wine Advocate publication came at a perfect time. People distrusted wineries but were insecure with their own palate. American wine, unlike Old World wine regions, evolved separate from other agriculture and devoid of local culinary traditions. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was no locavore movement. Wine came from one place and food came from another. At the time, American wine was judged as if it were an athletic event—by which wine grabbed one's attention in a blind tasting and not by how well it paired with cuisine. Technical prowess and ripeness reigned supreme in place of the traditional ideas of terroir, typicity, complexity or deliciousness. Elegant, subtle wines were passed over for bombastic powerhouses.
A Perfect Storm
As the 100-point system was rising in popularity throughout the 80s, a bug was also rising … the dreaded phylloxera (the same root louse that almost destroyed the wine industry in the 1800s) mutated to attack modern vines. In our arrogance, winemakers decided a hybrid of vinifera with native American rootstock could thwart the louse, but nature has a way of destroying a monoculture and, since everyone was planting this hybrid grape rootstock known as AXR1, it provided a perfect environment for the louse to adapt and mutate. This led to a mass replanting of California vineyards in the late 1980s and 90s. Normally, a winery would take cuttings from vines that were well adapted to the area, but now winery owners had a model to shoot for based on the new style of wines garnering the highest scores. Nurseries started supplying "French" clones of varieties that ripened earlier in the California sun and developed more sugar than the old "heirloom" selections. These vines created more powerful wines and, as more wineries were rewarded with higher scores, more of these varieties and clones were planted.
Though the intention of the 100-point system for rating wine was based on the idea of advocacy for the consumer, it had the opposite effect.Though the intention of the 100-point system for rating wine was based on the idea of advocacy for the consumer, it had the opposite effect. The new wine scoring methodology led to homogenization as wineries planted varieties and clones deemed more likely to score higher points, adopted tech-driven winemaking methods or hired consultants that could achieve the style of wine Parker liked. Retailers started selling wine based on score and price instead of their own palates. Sommeliers were no longer needed, or were distrusted, as their customers consulted the guide at the dinner table.
A new cynicism developed as consumers began to notice a sameness in expensive wines no matter where they were grown and wineries relied more and more on score to sell their bottles. Certain wines became formulaic where what mattered was if a vineyard hired the right winemaking consultant and if he/she used the right "recipe" of ultra ripe fruit and ample new oak. The high scoring wines were so "good" in their ripe, sweet, alcoholic bigness that one couldn't even finish a glass. They became too much of a good thing. Score lost its meaning.
Enter: The Sommelier
Not only are there more Master Sommeliers, but there are more people aspiring to become Master Sommeliers ... It is a profession that is finally getting respect.
The traditional idea of a wine merchant or a sommelier is to taste and find wines that they think their customers will enjoy. Like any profession, some are scumbags that will take advantage of the naive, but most are professionals who love what they do and want to select the right wine for the purpose. They are the arbiters of taste whose job it is to fill the void between winery and a customer’s particular palate. Their responsibility is to ask questions to figure out what the customer likes and to suggest wines based on the food served. Most don’t realize that there are more Master Sommeliers in this country than at any time in history. Not only are there more Master Sommeliers, but there are more people aspiring to become Master Sommeliers by taking advanced classes in wine. It is a profession that is finally getting respect.
So, for those who have become tired of over-the-top, sweet, ripe, alcoholic 98-point wines and want to try something else, how does one communicate this to the wine professional who could potentially have a conflict of interest by also taking your money? A good Somm isn’t there to tell you what they like, but to listen to you and figure out what they have that you will like. But you need to level the playing field so both parties understand the rules. The best way to do this is to pick a wine you already know and ask the Somm to describe it. If their description matches what you know about the wine, then you are golden. If they describe it in terms that make sense to you (like level of oak, brightness/acidity, Old World or New World style etc.), then talk about the food you are having, your mood, if you want to go long or if there is a price comfort zone (and by the way, it’s not tacky to tell a Somm you want something in a certain price range). Then let them make suggestions. A good Somm will not sell you the most expensive wine, but the most exciting wine for the food and the price. A great Somm will take you on an unexpected journey by suggesting unknown wines that pair with the food in front of you. This is what they are paid to do and this is what gets them excited. To tell them you only want a wine with a high score is a buzz kill.
The new Somm is the up and coming rock star of the culinary world. They are much more casual than the caricature of the arrogant stuffy sommelier of old, but don’t let that confuse you. Even though they may be dressed in lumbersexual best, take advantage of their skill and let them lead you on a journey to wine lands less travelled.