Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Compromised Winemaking

In an earlier post, my co-blogger Jeffrey compares a Meursault-Genevrieres from Burgundy to a painting by Titian -- both aesthetic monuments demanding respect for their incomparable beauty, masterful execution, and uncompromising artistic ideals. Yet just as the art world has changed from the time of Titian, so too has the world of wine from the time of the monks. To take just one small facet of these seismic changes, the shift from artistic production for a coterie or a connoisseur-based audience -- the court, or landed gentry, or merely the very rich -- to production for a mass audience -- whether it be gallery audiences, or restaurant goers, or Napa tour buses -- has not been insignificant. In the case of wine, oenological science, particularly in the New World, has sought ways to compete with, and even improve upon, Old World tradition in the eyes of the marketplace. Aside from maybe the top three or four dozen producers worldwide, winemakers today are less like the Old Masters and more and more like Jeff Koons (see right).

This week's Grape Radio interview with winemaker Mike Trujillo (of Karl Lawrence and Sequoia Grove) provides uncommonly frank insights into the economic forces shaping the aesthetics of winemaking. While not exactly riveting radio in the vein of Gary Pisoni, the Trujillo interview paints a fascinating portrait of an upper-mid-tier producer struggling to navigate the demands of the contemporary marketplace and the taste of today's consumer. When asked point-blank if he makes compromises to accommodate the demand for wines that deliver instant gratification, Trujillo answers, "Yes." He admits: "If money didn't play a role in my career, my wines would be even more wound tight."

Trujillo also admits to embracing two controversial, interventionist techniques -- fining and filtration -- for the sake of delivering a reliable consumer product. (Fining is the addition of a substance like egg whites or skim milk to act as a comb to remove particles and clarify the wine. Filtration acts as a screen to remove bacteria and solid particles. Many winemakers and critics believe that both techniques strip wine of its character. Andrew Jefford writes that filtration "achieves stability at the cost of lost aroma and flavour" while fining "is rarely necessary after unhurried elevage.") "I'm a big proponent of filtration ... if it's done right," Trujillo says, as it serves to "polish up the wine, make it brilliant and make it real shiny and sparkly in the glass."

Now, admittedly, Trujillo has a more nuanced position, as he cites the need for sterilization and also argues that many winemakers who claim to produce unfiltered wines still use some method to achieve the same ends. Yet, as Jefford writes, almost all of the top domaines in Burgundy have long abandoned fining and filtration to no ill effect. It is interesting to observe, here, that it took the pressure of American journalists and importers like Robert Parker and Kermit Lynch to get producers to stop using these techniques, and many domaines produce special unfined and unfiltered cuvees for the USA market alone. Readers of Parker and Lynch have long accepted the gospel of unfined and unfiltered wines, while it is the European consumer who has lost sight of wine as an agricultural product and cannot bear the thought of a single, stray particle in the glass. Yet Trujillo either misreads the American market or is targeting a less sophisticated consumer when he says he needs filtration to deliver a sterile, stable product: "The customer is very important, and I need to deliver an expectation to this customer year after year after year."

While it is not exactly news that wines are being made in a more fruit-forward, consumer friendly style (or that artisans can and do compromise their ideals for market share), these trends do evoke an almost tragic sense of loss. If a Brian Loring says he makes wines in the super-ripe, high-octane style that he does because that's the style he enjoys and believes in, then more power to him. Let him stand or fall by his ideals. But there is something irredeemably sad about Trujillo's case when he says he cannot make the wine he ideally would produce.

And he is not alone. Even in Bordeaux and Burgundy, fewer and fewer producers are willing to make the old-school tannic beast that needs twenty years in the cellar to settle down and bring it into a remarkable balance worthy of the wait. The vin de garde may be becoming a thing of the past. And the true wine lover is in the position of the museum patron who, while recognizing that art must always speak to the present and that old forms need to be made new, nevertheless stands in awe before Titian's Europa and sighs: "Why can't they make them like this anymore?"

1 comment:

barefoot wine said...

As with all long-gone trades, traditional winemaking today faces extinction as more and more winemakers shift to "highly advanced" methods. Sadly, future generations might not be able to taste high-quality wines made only from traditional processes.