By Dan Berger
Today’s wine makers have it easy.
Whether due to global climate change, modern trellising methods, scientific “advances” in the winery, or some other tactical considerations, the fact is that the wines of today have little to do with the wines of yesteryear that took a lot of noodling, strategizing, and hours of work to craft.
Indeed, the word craft itself is more at play these days than is “artistry,” which is what wine once was far more about than it is today.
The problem we all face if we grew up liking the wines of the 1970s and 1980s is that we no longer have a template that wine makers respect. They no longer have to hit a mark, try for a balance of style. They are free to not only push beyond the barriers of the envelope, but they can repair what never was broken in the first place.
This is a very old theme for me, one that I have drummed on about for a decade or more, notably as I have seen the pendulum swing in one direction only, never swinging back enough to make much of a difference. And the end result is an awful lot of very same-smelling and –tasting wines that do little to inspire poesy or excitement. More, they reflect the fact that the template has been lost.
That template is based around the soil, weather, and other endemic considerations that wine makers can either make use of or ignore. And today we have this hands-off, laissez faire, free-form approach that aims squarely at the most common denominator: softness, lack of definitive structure, and a blandness that equates to sameness.
Think back, if you can, to the days when the paradigms were well established, and then could be broken if ever so slightly by creative minds with creative ideas. It was a time when we had greater numbers of choices, not only in styles, but in types.
We had Colombard, Pinot Blanc, and many more Rieslings and Gewurztraminers; we had more Carignanes, Barberas, and even a red Grignolino and more.
Today we have fewer varietals, and more similarity of form. Varietals have become like one another. Regions have become unimportant.
I can think of many parallels from other fields in which artistry plays a major role, but the art of painting has always been more interpretive than other forms of creativity. (I recall with fondness the story of the chimp who had “painted” a picture during one experiment at an animal preserve, and one of the clever keepers decided to send the painting into an art gallery for a showing of abstract art.
The painting, such as it was (little more than a series of random colors on a panel), was duly hung in the gallery and received much praise as a particularly apt example of a form of abstract painting, until the animal keeper dashed that notion by announcing that the “creative” artist who had done the painting was a chimp.
And, oh, incidentally, the painting, he pointed out, had been hung in the gallery upside down!
Besides that form of artistry there are numerous other forms, notably dance (classic, such as ballet, to interpretive to near-gymnastic modern and loads in between), to singing (choral to folk music, rock, rap, and hip-hop), and orchestral.
In this last genre, however, I find a very close parallel to wine. And it cauterized when I found an old book in an antique shop recently called The Victor Book of the Symphony (Simon and Schuster, 1935), by Charles O’Connell.
In a section describing the classic form of the symphony, the author writes:
“The size, equipment, and standard of musicianship in the orchestra of today are so far removed from and improved over those of the orchestra of Mozart’s or even Beethoven’s time that there is really little basis for comparison between them. . . The attitude of the audience of today is not that of music-lovers of a hundred years ago. Today we seek in the symphony the eloquent expression of passionate emotion; a century ago the audience was satisfied with a very indifferent performance of a well-built composition; its attention was centered more upon the structure of the music and its conformity with established standards rather than on its emotional significance and its sympathetic performance.
“Perhaps it is for that reason that the older symphonies are more sedate and formal in style, less richly scored and more repressed emotionally than those of more recent date. They are, nevertheless, fascinating musically, not by any means as merely the embryo of the modern orchestral work with its more than a hundred perfectly trained artists, and its more than a hundred instruments, but they are interesting in themselves, purely as orchestral music.”
O’Connell sets out in this early part of the book to describe the classic structure of the orchestral symphony, referencing the sonata-allegro form, and speaking about the rigid organization to which such pieces of music must adhere. Among these are the themes that make up the composition and allow it to be seen as a uniform work, not ragged and disjointed and/or disassociated from the rules of the game.
In many ways, this reminds me of the form we regularly witnessed in many of the world’s great wines over decades if not centuries. To be sure, there were some parallels between many of the reds. Classic (classified-growth) Bordeaux was rather concentrated, and usually a bit more intensely flavored than the majority of the Cru Bourgeois. And even Unico from Vega Sicilia, Tenuta dell’Ornellaia from Bolgheri in southern Tuscany, and other intensely flavored red wines all were dark, rich, and loaded with tannins for aging, but substantial fruit for that long journey.
That, however, doesn’t mean they were the same, any more than Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was the same as Brahms’ 3rd, or Mozart’s 41st.
The fact is that Mozart developed the symphony by strict use of the symphonic form and that Beethoven perfected the symphony (using intricate tone patterns that are anything but “hum-able”).
Just as these classical pieces of classical music were significantly different from one another, they worked for the music buff and the casual listener because they could be parsed, like a sentence, into their component parts, and they followed an established form. To have deviated from it was unthinkable.
Similar to the wines of the earlier era, most of the great ones reflected what raw material the wine maker had at his or her disposal, and then reflected what the wine maker did to achieve the final result that particular vintage, a kind of exemplar of the breed within the context of the vintage and of the types of fruit available.
Once decades ago, I was visiting Cathy Corison while she was still at Chappellet high in the eastern Napa Valley hills. We were tasting through some barrel samples of Chardonnay, and one of the samples Cathy drew was a unique, spicy, almost Muscat-y thing that was quite different from the remainder of the Chardonnays were trying.
She said that this wine was from a small planting of what she called a musqué selection of Chardonnay that yielded a most distinctly different sort of wine. I liked it a lot. Cathy said it added a nice spice note to the rest of the Chardonnay she harvested each year.
I asked what would happen if she bottled up about 75 cases of the wine (there were only about three barrels of it at the time), and sold it as a unique offering, such as “Musqué Selection.”
“Well, it would be interesting,” she said, “but it wouldn’t be a Chappellet wine any more.”
I thought the idea sounded compelling, but Cathy was right. A regular Chappellet buyer back then might possibly have misunderstood the wine as atypical and might not have liked it.
Back now to our musical parallel. Beethoven was considered the master of the symphony and his nine compositions, concluding with what some consider his masterwork, represent the state of the art as it then was perceived. So much less in recognition were Johann Joseph Rosler and Friedrich Witt, contemporaries of Beethoven, whose compositions were appreciated at the time, but later were almost lost to history. Musical historians have relegated them to the backbench of the period (the late 18th century).
This doesn’t mean that everything Beethoven wrote was classic. When I was singing in the UCLA a cappella choir in the 1960s, we sang the U.S. premiere of a then-recently discovered vocal opus for chorus by Beethoven that we were told by conductor Roger Wagner was called the glorious eye-blink. I later learned it was Die Glorreiche Augenblick, Op. 136. Wagner said he was honored to perform this piece, but proclaimed it to be horrid music!
Indeed, as many of the old masters’ works are seen as “war horses,” such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, many musical pranksters have performed spoofs of them.
Among them is Peter Schickele’s gem, Beethoven Symphony Sportscast, the innumerable Victor Borge take-offs of music by dozens of composers (notably his intentional ruining of Claire de Lune), and perhaps the funniest of all, Gerard Hoffnung’s “Concerto Popolare (A Piano concerto to end all piano concertos.” In this superb parody the orchestra comes prepared to play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto and soloist Yvonne Arnaud is certain she is to play the Grieg Piano Concerto. The result is a riotous mess – a battle between the orchestra and the soloist.
It is especially hilarious for those who know both piano concerti and can see how the soloist and the orchestra tangle with one another to try to dominate the performance, with each gaining the upper hand at various points. And the final chords are deliciously contentious with each side attaining a measure of satisfaction.
With wine, it’s almost as if the grower and the wine maker are at each other’s throats. The long-time grower notably has a major stake in the outcome of the wine. He wants to deliver sound, ripe but not over-ripe fruit to the winery so the wine maker has the flexibility to make a great wine. But the wine maker may have another view, especially these days when high scores sell wine and when leaving grapes on the vine for many extra days not only gives the wine maker the chance to make a powerful wine, but also costs him less because of desiccation (loss of water weight), which can be put back into the fermenter with the use of a $10 hose.
This contentious relationship is likely to end unhappily for the grower these days, since the grower needs to sell his fruit, and the buyer holds the checkbook. The result is a conscious decision to make a wine for the points that, alas, must by virtue of the current mode of things ignore the terroir to a degree.
The wine maker may be considered the soloist in a concerto, and to continue that analogy, I looked back to the Victor Book of Symphony and found something fascinating about the concerto form.
Author O’Connell says that the concerto always features a cadenza – “a flourish, brilliant, indefinite in structure…” And that, “Coming at or near the close of a movement, it made it possible for the executant to astonish and delight his hearers with a demonstration of musical pyrotechnichs…”
He adds that the composer thus was allowing “the solo player to extemporize the cadenza, interpolating ideas from the concerto itself, but virtuosi frequently abused the privilege by bringing in wholly unrelated material merely for purposes of display.” (Emphasis mine.)
The freedom to extemporize the cadenza was already, by Beethoven’s day, seen as a pernicious autonomy that was so abused that Beethoven, Schumann and others wrote out the entire cadenza that was to be played, “in order to prevent executants introducing extraneous material.”
Note that the freedom to create, both by the soloist performing a concerto and the wine maker crafting wine from grapes, can easily be abused. What we have seen in the last decade are levels of alcohol, over-ripe flavors, volatility, and oak flavorings that are simply beyond the scope of the classical template.
It’s one thing to improvise; it’s another to push the envelope every year in quest of someone else’s approbation, even when the wine maker knows full well that doing so compromises not only the grapes, but also the relationship with dedicated growers (most of whom are no rubes fresh off the turnip truck).
But there are damned few growers who have the right to demand that their fruit be grown in a particular manner and picked at a particular moment. Wine makers expect to have that call, yet I know of growers who would love to make serious suggestions that might help make a more balanced wine.
Thus have we seen an end to the old template for each of the varietals, and especially as these templates relate to the various terroirs to which we supposedly pay homage. Wine makers see sales directly tied to a style of wine that is not connected with a recognizable form that we once had for each varietal. Now all forms have become one: big.Imagine if Saint-Sains sounded like Buxtehude, if all concerti were played at the same tempo and in the same key. Imagine if all violin music was like Sarasate wrote it.
Give the greatest American wine experts a glass of almost any red wine, blind, and tell him it got a score in the 90s. Then ask him to identify the varietal or where it came from. Chances are he can’t do it. That’s because we have ignored the old paradigms in favor of a powerful sameness that overrides any need to have regional or varietal distinctiveness.
Reprinted from the California Grapevine, October 2006