The new world is everything France is not. Its the over-ripe, over oaked youthful hipness of California. Its the sometimes chaotic terroir of New Zealand. Its the post apartheid globalization politics of South Africa and the screw capped mass produced success of Australia. For wine makers of the Old World, New World youngsters must seem as crazed as the early rock and rollers (and as financially successful). They have however also successfully challenged (since the ’70’s) the wines of the Old World, sometimes causing the greatest wine connoisseurs to mistake a California red for a classic Burgundy or Bordeaux. The new world seems to have it all, despite our penchant for Budweiser and Coors – the soda pops of the alcohol beverage world. It was good to be home…please pass the chips and dip.
It was about at this point when I think its fair to say I was completely indoctrinated in to the Sommelier certification process. Having survived France I now had something to prove. I was also re-discovering the art of studying. The youngest of 3 kids I was the perpetual underachiever. Not difficult to do in a family where your Dad has not one but two Phd’s and your brother and sister maintained a 4.0 throughout their K-12 education. Working a full time job, commuting to class and trying not to drive my wife too crazy all required that I get organized about my education.
By the time I showed up to class I had that evenings learning objectives pre-printed on 3 x 5 cards. I was ahead in the reading and was programming all of my tasting notes from class into a nifty database I built. Finally my computer geekiness would come in handy! I was even wearing my 10$ Ross neck ties with pride.
Of course the more involved in the process of learning I got, the less involved in the process of enjoying wine I was. In the history of wine and other fermented beverages its apparent that these elixirs have served many purposes for many different peoples. They have fueled conquests, sustained Czars and Popes, served as libations for Gods and Goddesses and preserved valuable crops. Wine for me will always be about family and community. My Mother adopted anyone who walked through our doors, her cooking was the pride of my father. My kitchen and my dinner table are my most treasured appendages. Wine always feels a little lonely without lively conversation and at least the expectation of home cooking. Dressing up like Doogie the door to door wine salesmen and memorizing cryptic wine facts is for me the opposite of wine.
I was discovering the work of bringing wine into the world had little to do with its celebratory, sensuous nature. Wine production is a business, it can actually be big, corporate business. Countries with struggling economies like Argentina, or countries with great wine ambitions like Greece have organized nationally to join the global wine market as real players. Australia is a great example of an organized wine effort. Who hasn’t been handed a glass over-flowing with Yellow-Tail? Isn’t it strange you know I mean wine and not the fish? Thats because of an effort by companies in Australia, supported by their government to challenge America as the big New World youngster on the block. And we’re quite the youngster to challenge. The large wine behemoths of America are almost to numerous to mention. Its been a Gallo world for too long.
If it weren’t for the prohibitionist Americans would have been producing fine wine for perhaps a century. Early immigrants were planting the Santa Cruz mountains around the late 1800’s. There may still be a few old vines left in an overgrown nook or cranny. What started out auspiciously ended with a whimper at the hands of Federal prohibitionists. It is for that reason we are talking about superior California wines from the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. If it weren’t for our puritanical bent we might be celebrating the 50th anneversary of the Oregon Pinot Noir that really challenged Burgundy.
Today it seems to a dunce like me that the New World has the upper hand. We have not yet created regulations determining what can be grown where. We’re ready to make mistakes, take chances. Why not plant Sangiovesse in Central California? Argentina might go places with Malbec. The only shortcoming I see is one that is endemic to all gold rushes – strip mining – or in this case strip growing.
Quick success means the madness of hungry investors. Once one varietal shows itself to do well at a small, well schooled vineyard its likely someone with big money will move in next door, buy land and over-plant that varietal. Often the results will be mediocre, but who cares – sell for less and you can still say you’ve had a Pinot Noir from the Willamette valley. It doesn’t matter what grew there before, or what pesticides or soil enhancement will be required. For every acre of lovingly tended grapes, there are at least 10 more developed to provide the consumer with a pretty good facsimile of what a real wine tastes like. We still have a lot to learn about the deeper meaning of terrior.
* There are some amazing wine makers in the New World
* I love a good New World curve ball of a wine. I’ll drink anything once – so long as I can spit.
* Wine growing and thoughtful land use HAVE to go hand in hand.
* We grow too much crappy wine, perhaps its the new alternative fuel.
previous chapter: “A Note About Tasting ~ next chapter: “104 Wines Of Italy”