IF you drink bad wine long enough, will that eventually lead to drinking good wine?
No, I don’t think so. Still, a couple of wine writers have recently tried to make the case that bad wine should be tolerated, if not embraced. They argue that it can’t be entirely bad if it appeals to large numbers of people. Drinking bad wine encourages the love of all wine, and, really, nothing is harmful about bad wine, so why not live and let live?
I’m all for peaceful coexistence. I would never fault people for the wines they choose to drink, or for not making good wine a priority in their lives. But if you do care about drinking good wine, then you ought to take serious issue with these arguments, as I do.
Just as important, these articles suggest that wine critics should not make reasoned aesthetic judgments about good and bad. Instead, critics should encourage drinking wine of any kind on the theory that wine culture will ultimately benefit from the quantity consumed rather than the quality.
Aside from its patronising nature, such a position conflates the role of the critic, whose aim is to encourage judgment and discernment, with an industry mouthpiece, whose role is to encourage sales. Critics, and all wine journalists, should owe no allegiance to the wine industry, nor accept the notion that consumption of any wine achieves a sort of ultimate good.
The best way to improve the quality of what you drink is to think of wine as food. Simply applying the same aesthetic, medical, ethical and moral judgments to wine that many people do to food, as I suggested, results in drinking better wine.
Coincidentally, a few weeks after my piece, the Opinion pages of The New York Times published “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine”.
In it, writer Bianca Bosker made the case that wine lovers should not shun “processed wines”, products made of industrially farmed grapes, which are manipulated and tailored to fit predetermined specifications based on audience research.
“These maligned bottles have a place,” Ms Bosker wrote. “The time has come to learn to love unnatural wines.”
The piece was adapted from her entertaining book, Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste.
Ms Bosker argued that applying technology to wine has democratised it by improving its quality and making what she called good wine accessible to more people at lower prices.
“Thanks to pumps and powders, drinkers who can’t splurge no longer have to settle for plonk,” she wrote. “The gap between fine wine and commercial wine is shrinking as producers use chemical shortcuts not only to avoid blatant flaws, but also to mimic high-end bottles.”
This argument is wrong in almost every way.
First of all, additives and manipulation didn’t improve the general level of wine. Science did. For centuries, nobody understood how winemaking worked. Fermentation was largely a mystery, as were the reasons that wine spoiled.
Scientific breakthroughs revealed the role of yeast in fermentation and explained how bacteria converted harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid, which makes many red wines and some whites easier to drink. Science uncovered the pernicious effects of unwanted microbial activity in wine, the harm that comes from prolonged exposure to air and warmth and the benefits of scrupulous attention to cleanliness in winemaking. This all resulted in fewer flawed wines.
Technological improvements were beneficial, too. Refrigeration helped to make fresh, fruity white wines, as did the wide availability of stainless steel.
Yet the technology for manipulating textures and flavours, and for taking away alcohol, hasn’t improved wine. It’s just made it more formulaic, like soft drinks and other beverages, by streamlining production for consistency and stability. It’s like saying the development of Wonder Bread made bread better.
Advancements for eliminating flaws in wine, like volatile acidity, have not improved. Unpalatable wines are just less bad. There’s a difference.
Finally, the notion that manipulating cheap wine to mimic high-end bottles benefits consumers is laughable. Knockoff wines sell, but the American wine industry also craves critical approval.
Imitation high-end wines may satisfy many people, but they are commodities, no more worthy of applause than the imitation designer bags sold on Canal Street.
Esther Mobley of The San Francisco Chronicle tried to split the difference. The wine world is not divided between the extremes of processed “Frankenwine” and natural wine, which Ms Bosker’s piece called “the ‘it’ staple of trendy tables”.
Ms Mobley correctly made the point that between these extremes lies a multitude of wines that are all over the processing spectrum.
She suggests that people should not liken the additives in wine to those in food because they are not harmful to the health, certainly not on a par with eating chickens “jacked up on antibiotics their entire lives”.
She does not refer to farming practices though, which can leave low levels of pesticide residues in wine. The verdict is not clear on how harmful these might be to humans, though no doubt exists that such chemicals are harmful to the vineyard workers who must apply them.
Ms Bosker and Ms Mobley found common ground in their hope that processed, manipulated wines would serve as gateway bottles for the next generation of wine lovers.
This is a position that I have never understood. I don’t believe that the wine industry cares about “oenophiles”, a word that is as snobbish as it sounds. It doesn’t produce millions of bottles of bad cheap wine because it wants to develop knowledgeable, judicious wine drinkers. It makes junk wine because it sells like junk food.
I take issue with people who ought to know better, those who confuse the differences between bad and good wines, and critics and industry promoters.
Anyone who is in the business of examining wine critically needs to actually be critical, not simply validate consumer choices, and looking at wine critically means understanding the chasm between mass-produced wine products and wines that are an expression of a place, a people and an aesthetic.
About a month ago, Batya Ungar-Sargon, a journalist who was writing about this wine tempest for the VinePair website, asked how I would feel if the great wines of the world, often scarce and expensive, could be analysed by laboratories and duplicated in quantity.
I said I thought it would be horrible. Yes, wines that few people are able to taste would instead be widely available, their complexities sampled by many rather than a privileged few.
Yet such reproductions would completely change the experience. Good wine is, by nature, fleeting, mysterious, ever-changing, subject to the imperfect, unpredictable nuances of weather, place and human judgment. It changes continually, reacting to temperature and touch, food and mood, its years in the bottle and its minutes in the glass. It is beyond reproduction.
It’s the unknown that makes fine wine, not the elimination of flaws or the popularity of flavours.
Article first published on BusinessTimes
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