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.
Unless you have met an authentic Médocain, it’s hard to understand just how conservative, how devoted to tradition, the typical Right Bank vintner is. They favor elegant, English-country fashions (this is among the last bastions of costly tweeds and flannels), are almost all men (who rarely appear without neckties), are formal to an appealing fault (they make Prince Charles look like a cutup) and to a one–even if they would never admit it–both welcome and resent the influence of one man, the American wine critic Robert Parker Jr., whose newsletter The Wine Advocate sets the price of their wines each year, and whose love of the region has insured its fortunes. Although Echikson is less obsessed with Parker than other wine writers, “The Nose” from Monkton, Maryland, is nevertheless a major character in his book. This is because Parker recently began to anoint a new style of red wine as Bordeaux’s salvation.
Left Bank wines, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, are made to age; a bottle of Lafite Rothschild, for example, is supposed to be unapproachable in its youth. The tradition is to cellar it for a decade (or two, or three), then enjoy it in all its faded nuance once it has properly matured. Or to sell it once it has quintupled in value. Or just to pass it down through the centuries; bottles believed to be owned by Thomas Jefferson fetched the highest prices ever paid for wine.
That approach was fine when these wines were drunk largely by the English upper class, who favored many of the funky aspects that fine old “claret” could develop (bitter, astringent notes and age-defeated fruit to go along with the seductive tobacco and leather aromas). But wine has changed. Modern palates, for whom Parker is Virgil, crave sweeter, richer wines–so-called fruit bombs–that can be drunk right away. Enter the rebellious Bordeaux garagiste, a winemaker whose money is often new, whose grape is Merlot, whose stomping ground is the more informal and picturesque Right Bank of the Gironde, who wears Levi’s rather than Hermès cravats, and whose winery, quite literally, is a garage. There is no grand chateau. Production is small–much smaller than the 17,000 cases bottled each year by the first growths. “In the world of Bordeaux winemaking, the Right Bank is dominated by radical new winemakers bent on overturning many of the region’s traditions,” Echikson writes.
The jury is still out on whether these New Wave wines can match the old stuff for investment potential, and Echikson is careful to point out that prices, rather than tasters’ impressions (or Parker’s scores on the 100-point scale), were what determined the Classification of 1855 in the first place. Haut-Brion, for example, became a first growth because its wines had always commanded top dollar. But Parker is sold on the garagistes, and Echikson suggests that he’s promoted their wines precisely because he has become disgusted with price-gouging and slipping quality on the part of the Old Guard.
This is a book full of sturdy reporting and the skillful application of years of experience in the field. Echikson knows the players, knows the gossip and knows everything about the feuds and friendships that dominate the wine trade in this region, where it’s the very top tier in Bordeaux that commands the highest prices and brings in the most money from international collectors, especially Americans. But the New Wave in Bordeaux isn’t quite enough to carry the narrative, so Echikson has interspersed his saga of the garagistes versus the Old Guard with an engaging, if slightly dated, story about the battle for Château d’Yquem, the legendary producer of Bordeaux’s other collectible wine, sweet Sauternes. (Besides a neat pun, the “noble rot” of the title is a beneficial fungus that shrivels and desiccates Yquem’s grapes, making them naturally sweet and the wines made from them long-lived.)
Count Alexandre de Lur-Saluces, who for years ran the Yquem estate (often incompetently, according to Echikson), is depicted as the oldest of the Old Guard, a hidebound aristocrat who refuses to give in to the lure of global capitalism and in the process becomes a foil for everyone from luxury-goods purveyor LVMH’s Bernard Arnault, who bought Yquem in 1996, to his own family, whom the count has barred from Yquem for life. Hilariously, this nineteenth-century personality becomes a folk hero to antiglobalist activists in France. But in the end, he’s shouldered into a marginal role at Yquem, and Echikson offers his fall as a cautionary tale for the rest of Bordeaux’s tradition-bound reactionaries.
Of course, the picture is not universally rosy for the upstarts. An established chateau, after all, can ride out a few bad years. A garagiste, often over-leveraged and dependent on ascending Parker scores to justify high prices, cannot. One or two bad years can spell disaster, and Echikson, although optimistic about a garagiste future, ends his story on a somber note, with the weak 2002 vintage and the possibility that the revolution may have run its course.
After so much time in cloistered Bordeaux, it’s refreshing to pick up Lawrence Osborne’s globetrotting foray into a world that he clearly admires but can’t quite figure out–either as a journalist or a wannabe connoisseur. Osborne has done something here I’ve never seen in wine writing. He has professed an inability to taste, then proceeded to drop himself down squarely in the middle of wine’s oldest debate, which just happens to have a question of taste at its core: Should you try to bottle the best possible wine, regardless of what it takes (technology, blending techniques, shortcuts, sleight of hand, outright lawbreaking, etc.), or should you take what the vineyard gives you and, through minimal manipulation, bottle the result, as a quasi-spiritual expression of the soil?
In the “authenticity versus quality” debate, the authenticity side tends to identify with the esoteric concept of terroir, which means “land” in French, but really signifies an idea of wine as a cultural expression of place. The quality side prides itself on delivering consumers a wonderful product, year after year. The neurotic though often breathtaking wines of Burgundy are the best examples of what the authenticity camp covets; the reliable wines of Champagne, blended from various vintages and expressive of a house style, are nirvana to the quality boosters. Bordeaux, if you’re keeping score, sits somewhere in between, as do red wines from Napa.
Osborne wants to believe in authenticity–one of his heroes is the prickly (and sometimes preposterous) American importer Neal Rosenthal, who along with gadfly Berkeley merchant Kermit Lynch is probably the most outspoken American opponent of soulless “techno wines”–but he’s not sure he can actually nail down what all the fuss is about. When drinking wine, “a sinister little hunch always creeps into my mind,” Osborne confesses. “I do not trust my own taste.”
This lack of confidence leads Osborne on a wide-ranging tour of vineyards from Northern California to Tuscany; as he sips, he tries to determine how wine as an international product is influencing the way people think about taste. In California, Osborne seems largely bewildered and dismayed by all the super-confident go-go personalities. From there he moves on to France, only to be perplexed in Bordeaux by Echikson’s garagiste movement and alternately charmed and repelled by the “Trotskyite” vintners of the south (who ran the California interloper Mondavi right out of a venture in Languedoc). He’s a self-doubting enophilic Diogenes, wandering the vineyards in search of an honest winemaker who will finally give him the straight dope.
Osborne is supple and erudite on the page, and a better taster than he imagines. But where he really triumphs is in getting some true Big Kahunas to speak with the sort of candor they rarely offer the wine media. His chat with Piero Antinori, an immense force in the revitalization of Italian wine, is flecked with elegantly weary asides on the decline of Florence. (Echikson would approve of Antinori, a Florentine nobleman who saw the writing on the wall in the 1970s and radically reinvented his family’s business.) In California, Paul Draper of Ridge and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon are true to form: The former “apostle of terroir” meanders his wind-whipped Santa Cruz vineyard making immutable statements about the validity of an American terroir; Grahm calls himself the “agnostic of terroir” and rolls his eyes at terroir-istic statements made by…Paul Draper.
The pleasure is in the journey here, as it should be in a quest narrative in which the curious author seeks the counsel of winemaking wise men. Osborne lacks Echikson’s rubbed-into-the-grain knowledge, but he more than makes up for it with a series of head-turning insights and offhandedly learned observations. A photo of Rhône winemakers before the arrival of modern technology reminds him of a “gathering of anarchist bomb makers loitering in a sooty cave.” He likens Mondavi’s second wife, Margrit, to Leni Riefenstahl (and the “lusty” Mondavi to Henry Miller), calling her “coquettish and dominant.” They clash, according to Osborne in one of many uproarious passages, “like a pair of toy triremes.” And it gets better. A bearded Napa vineyard manager has the “Homeric helmsman look.” This is what happens when a professional journalist and worldly, detached amateur–as opposed to the cheerfully anti-intellectual wine press (Echikson obviously excluded)–spends a year in this navel-gazing subculture. He dismantles it, but in the process makes it seem as if it matters more than ever.
Still, Osborne is not in the business of drawing conclusions, and anyone looking for a grand payoff–a synthesis of the disparate strands of his theory of taste–won’t find it here. By the time he gets to Italy, where both life and wine are gloriously uncomplicated, he peters out, somewhere in the vicinity of Puglia. But it’s a good place to peter out, with a simple glass of wine in hand and a libertine’s, rather than a connoisseur’s, motto on the lips, courtesy of the Colossus of Maroussi: peace to all men and life more abundant. Obsborne gives up, but he goes down drinking.