Our taste in wine has suffered in recent history. It starts where all our alcohol-related woes began: prohibition.
In our last installment, Generation wYne, we touched on how, in recent history, our relationship with wine has been transformed from one of life’s simple pleasures to a daunting menagerie of overwrought language and overpriced bottles, killing the mood for the casual but curious drinker. In this installment we’ll examine how our taste in wine has suffered a similar break from tradition. Let’s begin with an unscientific, over-simplified, and at least 80% accurate account of how this happened.
It starts where all our alcohol-related woes began: prohibition (ha, you thought I was going to say “a traumatic childhood” didn’t you?). The ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920 effectively gutted America’s wine culture. Millennia-old traditions brought over from the Old World and painstakingly adapted in our own—gone, before you could say “wait a second, this is a terrible idea!” The outlaw of booze begat the golden age of cola, and soda fountains quickly replaced saloons as the new social center. By the time prohibition was repealed, the mere handful of winemakers that survived found themselves facing a radically different demand. Giddy to get drunk again but with a palate weaned on syrupy sodas, the American consumer exhibited a new and overwhelming preference for sweet, high-alcohol wines.
The latter half of the century saw the rise of “New World” wine, with producers from California, Australia, South America, and elsewhere gradually eclipsing their traditional European (“Old World”) forefathers in popularity. One thing these new wine regions all had in common were warmer climates that yielded sweeter, more concentrated grapes. Consequently, the wine they made was dramatically more fruit-forward, robust, and therefore, more immediately marketable to the American public (which, by the way, still REALLY liked soda and had recently discovered how to make a sandwich using ice cream and two cookies).
Now if we were to pause it here, everything would still be OK, but in recent years, things have just gotten a bit out of hand. Big, modern wines have gone from being the exception to the rule, to the rule itself, while industrial, mass-production wine houses have engineered this “New World” ideal to unnatural extremes. These days the wine section in your typical grocery store is filled with products that resemble traditional European-style wine in the way a pizza bagel resembles a brioche. The outcome is a general populace that can’t recognize a good wine unless it punches their mouth in the face.
At this point, you (and my editors) must be wondering what all of this has to do with the topic at hand, Virginia wine. Well, pretty much everything.
In terms of both the conditions they face and the wine they produce, Virginia winemakers have more in common with their contemporaries across the pond than with their fellow citizens on the west coast. Depending on whom you talk to, you’ll hear Virginia’s viticultural conditions likened to France’s famed Bordeaux region, or the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. Some of our best winemakers hail from those areas, and sought out Virginia specifically because of these similarities. Others are Virginia natives who discovered them as they went along. Regardless, the result is a new crop of winemakers that champion a uniquely Virginian product while simultaneously reintroducing an ancient aesthetic—where structure, finesse, and food-friendliness are prized over sheer palate-crushing power.
“In winemaking if you are a smart producer, you have to follow what nature can give you,” says Daniele Tessaro, assistant winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards. “Most of the decision in making more European-style wines, [that emphasize] elegance versus concentration, comes straight from the quality we get from our grapes.”
The point of piece is not to stir up some East Coast/West Coast rivalry (with Gabriele Rausse playing The Notorious B.I.G. to Robert Mondavi’s Tupac Shakur) or to argue that one style of wine is inherently better than another. The point is simply to urge more of my fellow drinkers to question their prevailing “go big, or go home” predilections. For one, you’ll probably find that lighter, more elegant wines invite a greater spectrum of food pairings (beyond grilled red meat). You may even appreciate the fact that their lower alcohol level makes it possible to share a bottle with a friend, and not end the evening slurring incoherently through a mouth that looks a Mandrill monkey’s ass.
Open your mind and open up a whole new (traditional) world of wine. And discover how Millennia-old, European traditions can be reimagined by contemporary winemakers in your own backyard.