The romance of wine is spent.
Richard L. Elia
On November 1, 2011, when we ceased publication of the Quarterly Review of Wines, not a few people wondered why an otherwise healthy wine magazine like ours would cease publication after more than 35 years. Beyond the usual explanations — upcoming retirements, the magazine world is in perilous shape, advertising is down, the digital age is king, out-of-state wine delivery problems — what initially attracted us to wine was the romance of it. Now this passion is spent. Gone are charming tales (mythic or otherwise) about wine, about enjoying wine, about iconic wine characters (charismatic Andre Simon, charmer Alexis Lichine, pioneer André Tchelistcheff, gentleman Julio Gallo, all stuff of legends). We miss stories about winemakers, about their hard work and their purple hands. The wine world changed, evolution was inevitable. Wine became so commercially successful that romance was lost along the way.
Technology, Numerical Ratings, Merchandising, and Wine Toys
Wine’s romantic decline may have started for us several years ago when we were dining at a Boston restaurant. The couple next to us asked the wine steward about a wine. The steward said little, making no attempt to describe or romance the wine; he merely pulled out his cell phone and showed the couple the numerical rating it received. That was it. They were pleased. What was equally startling was the couple’s utter lack of romance: they spent much of the evening staring at their cell phones and paying no attention to each other or to the wine. It was a lonely digital romance. What was a startling experience a few years ago is now a common restaurant occurrence.
Today, wine is often dominated by marketing and finance people, who measure their interest by numbers — cases sold or numerical ratings given by the wine press. The incredible power of numerical ratings and the advent of things digital are the two biggest factors that started wine’s unromantic decline. What added to the demise was the entrance of powerful corporations and consolidations, especially in the United States. There is little that is engaging about a monolithic corporation bullying their way into the wine market, demanding more from their distributors, and selling lots of wine, much of it plonk. In “Wine Is Life,” M.F.K. Fisher saw the marketing of plonk as early as 1984, when she wrote, “Of course there will be shoddy bottles forever, because of the shoddy men forever born to fill and market them.” And she saw the demise of wine’s romance as well: “perhaps it has lost some of its mystery and luster in its new availability.” The consolidators (some of whom are now selling alcoholic spirits blended with wine) push out the smaller and often finer wineries, and the distributors accept it because they’re given attractive incentives. Smaller wineries have no such largesse at their disposal. Consequently, the world has another ocean, an ocean of wine. For us, nothing speaks to this ocean better than the recent statement by the San Francisco Chronicle, which said it had a record “5,500 wine entries” for their upcoming wine competition. And this was only for American wines.
Wine used to be dominated by winemakers and owners who prided themselves on knowing their vines, and on prizing the smell of their wine cellars. For them, wine was made in the vineyards. Family wineries like Caymus and Shafer and dozens of smaller Napa/Sonoma wineries understand this. Now corporately owned wineries — some of whom are new entrepreneurs or investors playing wine barons — offer intimations that wine is made in the marketplace. Numbers make the wine. Vineyards seem secondary. Fewer things are as unromantic or as unpoetic as wine ratings. Robert Parker’s enormous success with wine ratings added to the romantic decline. (Saber metrics did the same for baseball.) When owners and marketing people are not boasting about their ratings, they’re touting their new wine tasting rooms, selling us merchandise — everything from T-shirts to tote bags to towels.
Further, there is the matter of wine toys. The first step toward decadence is usually frivolity, where style matters more than substance. Wine aerators, electric corkscrews, redneck wine glasses, plastic beaded wine covers, and leopard skin wine bags are just some of the frivolous kitsch, which, like it or not, have become a way of American wine life. We were invited recently to lunch with someone who “needed our advice” about a credit card which had an embedded chip, which aerated wine faster, “making cheaper wine taste better,” he said. We asked if it could make better wine taste better. And what was the matter with a few swirls of the glass or with decanting which could aerate wine in minutes? Was this, we asked, a placebo-like effect, where if you’re told it will work, then it will? Our advice was no longer needed.
We learned over the years that many people don’t want wine education, perhaps because there is too much of it. With the web, anybody can be a wine writer, regardless of expertise, and wine blogs are proliferating at a meteoric rate. Perhaps the public doesn’t want wine education because there is too much pretense in it. Pretentious wine notes don’t help consumers, who, in fact, frequently mock them. Consumers see most wine notes as formulaic nonsense, as a comic turn-off, written for wine aficionados, not for them. Further, a passion for wine and food education takes time to develop, and the newer wine drinking generation doesn’t appear interested, despite the ironic fact that they watch wine and culinary shows, which grow exponentially on cable television. They want facts, stats, and information instantly.
Wine educational societies in this country educate other wine educators more than they educate consumers; they have become, like other academic societies, educators speaking to other educators, not to the public. Their knowledge and scholarship have not been made necessarily sociable, and many have managed to make wine dull. Wine has charm, but their writing and lecturing are rendering it graceless. Wine education is given over to sommeliers eager for wine degrees and other letters after their names. The public, however, usually doesn’t need the sommelier: they have enough wine knowledge on their i-phone and other apps. And the public is not especially interested in reading encyclopedic and pompous wine lists, which like the loud music in their restaurants, can constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Nothing has contributed to wine’s romantic deterioration more than restaurant music. Trying to concentrate on a wine amidst this din is hopeless. The same applies to food. Serious chefs can’t be pleased that their culinary preparations are tasted indifferently by diners who are besieged by restaurant noise and music, which prevents them from thinking about aromas and flavors of the dish. These patrons are eating not dining. Looking for a romantic table with a bottle of wine, a bit of candle light, quiet conversation, and a little culinary euphoria? Perhaps you’ll see it in style magazines, but you won’t find it in most restaurants. No doubt, loud music and deliberately jolting acoustics contribute to higher alcohol sales. There used to be, however, a joy in quiet. Romantic restaurant mystique, conversation, a wining and dining experience worthy of the big bucks we just placed on our credit card are virtually gone. Maybe what’s needed is for life to imitate art yet again, for a successful movie to mock restaurant music, the way “Sideways” mocked mundane Merlot. No doubt, movies, media, iPhones, iPads, and the multitude of apps deliver more wine and culinary education than books, magazines, and educators ever could.
So it was time. While something has been lost in the present, QRW thrived in the past, reveling in some of wine’s best history. It isn’t sentimental to think that this often soulless industry could use a resurgence of romance, which encompasses civility and speaks sincerely to the quality of life it provides. Too often, wine is handled by people who have little feeling for it. So we left it. It was too much. We wanted a time made simple by passion, for a wine world that once understood that it was passion for and about wine that made it great.