Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Classics

Via Big Red Diary, I see that the Financial Times has a special section on their web site called Wine Investment. Now, I ain't rich. So unless the fine folks at TIAA-CREF are investing in first growth Bordeaux on behalf of my 403(b) — and given the returns, I hope they are — the FT's mini-site is about as relevant to me as a web site on how to be an astronaut.

To me, wine is something to be experienced. As with music, the commercial aspect of wine is undeniable and not at all undesirable — artists, including winemakers, need to make a living — but it is when you experience something magical that all thoughts of commerce recede. Something else takes its place. The hoarders, the traders, they help drive up the price of certain wines and deny the rest of us the experience.

In this thoughtful and engaging new book Reflections of a Wine Merchant, Neal Rosenthal laments that the wine business has become "geared to extracting the most money in the most rapid fashion possible," arguing convincingly that this dynamic also enables the spoofulator, who cold soaks and reverse-osmosifies and oak-toastifies his wines to death in order to bring dark-colored, fruit-forward wines early to market.

And yet, Rosenthal implies that he doesn't merely oppose terroir-obliterating modern practices but also laments, or seems to lament, the passing of the old aristocratic order. The wine trade was once "a gentleman's business," and while these gentlemen (not ladies, of course) didn't turn wine like a trick, they (often) already had plenty of money and could afford "to respect the slow pace and leisurely rhythm of bringing wine to market." Moreover, Rosenthal writes, wine "started to move from its isolated position as one of the indicia of the good life, restricted to the well-heeled, the well-educated, and the older generations, to an expanded group of buyers who were perhaps less aware, and less respectful, of the traditions and rituals surrounding wine."

I know who the good guys are in that last sentence, and the sentiment makes me uncomfortable.

I don't mean to make too much of this. Rosenthal's written a fine book that conveys the richness of tradition, inveighs against false and falsified wine, and argues compellingly that each of us should allow wine the time to become what it should be. But while he invokes his early financial struggles as a retailer and importer, he doesn't really acknowledge how lucky he was to be able to drink all "the classics" as his way of educating himself. I consider myself lucky to be solidly middle class in income, to be able to afford a range of wines and occasionally splurge on them (no car = less carbon + more wine, a winning equation if there ever was one), but there's no way I can afford to drink top Bordeaux, or grand cru Burgundy, or most Hermitage.

Fortunately, the democratization of wine has paralleled the democratization of information and the rise of natural winemaking. We are, thanks to Rosenberg among many others, better positioned to discover the wines of the Jura, Saumur, and Gigondas and to understand why certain winemakers make certain decisions — to be more aware, more respectful. To place the proper intangible value on natural wine and then give it time, just as Rosenthal wants us to. And we don't even have to be rich to accomplish this. If it's sad that grand cru Burgundy is out of my reach, I am free to hear other voices, voices not heard by the wine investors. I am not beholden to the classics.

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