Several years ago, I did some reporting for a story that I wanted to write about wine and how it’s advertised. I was interested in whether the wine industry would be able to reach the younger drinkers it ritually pledges to woo away from beer and liquor, so I lined up an interview with the head of an agency that had done some work for a French winemaker. He was completely no-nonsense about what the vast majority of wine drinkers are all about. Their two key concerns, he explained matter-of-factly, were to find something that tastes good and not get ripped off.
Neither of these books is written for the tastes-good, don’t-rip-me-off crowd. But they’ve arrived at a critical time for the wine business. Depending on whom you talk to, things are either great or grim. If you consider wine to be the final redoubt of breeding and discernment in a world gone hopelessly vulgar, then the drive to transform the beverage into a mass pleasure is ghastly. If, however, you think that wine needs to evolve–as it always has, since the time of Cistercian monks in twelfth-century Burgundy–to avoid becoming something that just a mandarin elite consumes, the dramatic changes of the past few decades are welcome, even if they mean that classic styles of wine, like classic fashions or tastes in art, might suffer.
Not “Wine for Dummies,” in other words. Both Echikson, a longtime contributor to various magazines–including, full disclosure, my former employer, Wine Spectator (though we never met)–and a resident of Europe for two decades, and Osborne, a New York Times Magazine contributor and author of books on everything from sex in art to obscure children’s ailments (more full disclosure: I’ve had dinner with the man on several occasions) are writing for audiences that have moved beyond Hearty Burgundy. Or for that matter, its modern incarnations–the easy-drinking, inexpensive “quaffers” cranked out by mega-wineries in Australia and California.
Echikson’s subject is the debate, history, culture and destiny of winemaking in Bordeaux, a region that, in the minds of most wine connoisseurs, is synonymous with greatness in the bottle. Mythical, poetic, hyperventilating greatness. Of all the wines produced in the world, none carry more cachet among the true vinoscenti than Bordeaux. Certain hyper-rare wines from Burgundy, as well as Napa Valley Cabernet and even some Spanish and Italian wines, give red Bordeaux a run for its money. But in the end, collectors counting on their wines to appreciate in value have always bet on Bordeaux from the Médoc. On the Left Bank of the Gironde River, the Médoc is home to some of the most celebrated wines ever created: Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, the “first growth,” or premier cru, chateaus in the Classification of 1855, a ranking of quality that has persisted unchanged–except for the elevation of Mouton in 1973–for a century and a half. These are the wines that professional tasters routinely swoon over. The auction market in fine and rare wines exists almost entirely on their account.
However, the times they are a-changin’ in Bordeaux, and Echikson has set out to chronicle the shift.
The Left Bank chateaus represent Bordeaux’s Anglophile aristocracy (Bordeaux was, for much of its history, effectively the vineland of Britain). Families who own and operate estates there don’t like change, and since speculation in their Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines took off in the 1980s they haven’t had to modify the rather arcane way they do business. (Wines must pass through several tiers on the way to market, and each step of the process adds cost to the final price; the best wines are sold as “futures,” two years in advance of release.) Collectors have been more than happy to shell out, as they did for the highly touted 2000 vintage, in excess of $100 (and often much more) a bottle for top wines. The Bordelais, after decades of ups and down before and after World War II, have become very, very rich.