21 May 2010

Château the line

[dancing in the dark]If, as Eric Asimov asserts, the wine-soaked youth of America are giving up on Bordeaux, it’s perhaps not as interesting a point as it might, at first glance, seem. Trends and shifts in consumption are ever-present – who among us drinks as much Port as our great-great-greats did? – and today’s retreat may be tomorrow’s triumphant return. What’s interesting is the “why” of it.

A number of reasons are suggested by the article, one a quote from someone who admits to not even liking the major grapes of Bordeaux (and thus I’m moved to wonder why his opinion on Bordeaux would be deemed especially quotable), but no one really gets at the heart of what’s separating the younger generation from its Haut-Brion. Yes, all the reasons suggested by Asimov and others are part of the equation – price, a reputation for overt commerciality and luxury good positioning, a (deliberate) disconnection from the appealing narrative of a farmer and her land – and there are some others the article missed, including the rigidity of a structured wine that is not as agile as many others in dealing with the ever-increasing fusion of culinary influences, even in its modern, somewhat Californicated form. But Champagne suffers even more profoundly from some of the same issues, and the younger generation still drinks it. In fact, they might drink it with more enthusiasm than their immediate elders.

There’s a reason for that. What people of the age cohort described in the article (and I dislike the generational division therein; I think the dividing lines are more related to philosophy and preference than they are age) drink from Champagne are not the major brands stacked to the ceiling of every middle-of-the-road liquor mart. They drink the grower Champagnes, which range from solidly traditional to wildly experimental, and which have both a story not concocted by a marketing department and a price that reflects a lack of that same department…which is not to say that that price is always lower than the familiar names (often, it isn’t), only that it is more directly tied to the quality and/or reputation of the wine than the needs of a worldwide branding campaign.

So the anti-Bordeaux folk, apparently so hung up on price and prestige, still drink pricey wines from the one region even more afflicted by excessive prestige-ery. Given this, it’s unlikely that what’s really bending their necks about Bordeaux is either price or prestige. In reality, it’s marketing…a success in Champagne, contrasted with an abject failure of same in Bordeaux.

Why are these theoretically disaffected youngsters still imbibing in bubbly, even if they reject the widows and the monks behind the overly-familiar brands? Because they’ve tasted the wines. Yes, there’s a story and (usually) a connection to the land, but more importantly, the wines are out there in the market, year after year, being flogged by their importers – the tireless Terry Theise gets much credit for leadership here, but he’s far from alone anymore – to trade and press. And they’re poured for consumers, too. Wine bars, both hipster and less so, are encouraged to provide these wines alongside the more eclectic sparklers that are the “other” Champagne alternative, and at by-the-glass pricing, young tasters can experience and make up their own minds about these wines.

Not so for Bordeaux. The classified growths and their companions from across the river barely even see store shelves anymore; they’re ordered as futures, arrive as intact cases, and move directly from store basement to customer vehicle based on whichever critic the consumer has chosen to follow. No tasting there, unless you’re the critic in question. Those that make it to restaurant lists are priced in the exosphere, and thus both bottle and (rare) glass consumption are targeted almost exclusively at those who are already fans of Bordeaux and can support such elevated prices.

“But what,” an on-the-ground Bordeaux winemaker might argue, “about all the other wine we make? All the reasonably priced bottles that have nothing to do with luxury brands or lofty titles?”

These are indeed difficult times for the majority of the Bordeaux winemakers, the ones not blessed with a 155-year old classification or a modern equivalent. No one wants the wines, and even centuries of tradition can’t stem the receding tide. When there were few alternatives, the market for the “good,” “OK,” and “not bad” of Bordeaux was assured. Now, with flavorful offerings from nearly every winemaking country on the globe, that locked-in market is essentially gone, and probably for good. Bordeaux’s singular qualities are not, and have never been, those of the fruit-forward, generous wines that dominate the lower end of the market, and in a competition with those alternatives, Bordeaux will lose each and every time. Even in France, long a safe haven for Bordeaux, the sale is becoming more and more difficult.

There is, however, a middle ground. Small wines, perhaps without the grand ambitions of the crus, but which exhibit classic Bordelais characteristics. Wines that have their own stories to tell, as rich as any other. Wines that could speak to the same folk who are instead choosing refosco or Bierzo. These wines exist, and with very careful searching they should be locatable.

But where? Effectively, nowhere. At least, not in the States. There’s no Terry Theise…there’s not even a Kermit Lynch…promoting these alternatives. Working the markets. Telling the stories. Getting placements in interested wine bars, restaurants, and stores. Proving – at a reasonable price to all – that Bordeaux is not just about Gucci handbags and Walmart schlock, with nothing in between. These wines need an advocate, and they don’t have one.

Viewed from the Gironde, it may be hard to see that there’s a problem. The wines are selling, are they not? And for ever-escalating prices? Well, maybe they are, though the markets are shifting eastward. And maybe they’re not, except through artful market manipulation and artificial scarcity. I’m not here to argue these controversial points, because what matters is that this speaks only of the classified growths and their point-laden brethren. Of the superstars. Putting aside low-cost dreckery like Mouton Cadet and its ilk, that still leaves the overwhelming majority of Bordeaux with neither a market nor a future.

What is Bordeaux doing to rebuild that future? Nothing. Without tasting Bordeaux, in any form, on a regular basis and especially in the crucial, palate-formative years, the only members of upcoming generations who will develop a taste for the region are those wealthy enough to dabble without consequence and those blessed with friends who have deep cellars and an enthusiasm for evangelism. That’s not enough to sustain a market over generations. And so, Bordeaux’s upper class fiddles, secure in their lucre, while the chai underneath them burns.

3 comments:

Christian Miller said...

"classified growths and their companions from across the river barely even see store shelves anymore; they’re ordered as futures, arrive as intact cases, and move directly from store basement to customer...Those that make it to restaurant lists are priced in the exosphere, and thus both bottle and (rare) glass consumption are targeted almost exclusively at those who are already fans..."

I think you hit the nail on the head here. And this also accounts for the fact that consumer research shows great respect but modest experience and purchasing of Bordeaux, which as a regoin is associated with high quality and higher prices. Bordeaux's distribution channels have become extremely narrow, but I see neither hip importers nor muscle-bound big brand distributors with an interest in broadening them. The region desperately needs several equivalents of Terry Theise or KJ

saignee said...

Thor,

Eric asked me about Bordeaux wines I liked and bought and I told him a few. Unfortunately the wines never made it into the piece, and I think it suffered for that. It's true that I don't much care for the primary grapes of Bordeaux, but I can tell you that during my time selling wine I never had a single person who wasn't either much older or Russian (seriously) request a Bordeaux. Top burgundies are also mythically expensive and rare but people were chomping at the bit to get burgundy. I think the aricle provides a good starting point as to why this is.

- Cory

ps. As for champagne, it has always had a primary purpose (celebration) that is quite apart from wine. Even in wine geek circles it has this, so it continues to be drunk in this capacity.

thor iverson said...

@saignée: right, but as Christian and I were both wondering, where do you ever taste Bordeaux? I mean, you might for the same reasons we might: you're in the biz and are surrounded (both socially and professionaly) by wine dorks who might open some. If there had been some theoretical shift in Bordeaux towards a new style -- whether you liked it more or not -- where are you going to find out for yourself? No one pours the wines. No one has the wines. Unless you go visit the producers, you're probably out of luck unless there's some addled, crank importer willing to specialize in the category. Which, given the weird nature of Bordeaux's trade, is even less likely than it would be elsewhere.

You're right about the celebratory use of Champagne as an overall category, but that's a tiny percentage of what's driven the success of the RMs. Most of that is people who drink Champagne in lieu of another wine they might have opened, not because their sister-in-law just gave birth. Again, those wines have succeeded because someone (several someones) went out, door-to-door-, and made them succeed. An as wines, not as trophies or Hallmark moments.

And Burgundy isn't a great comparison for one simple reason: the desirable bottles are, mostly, made in quantities that wouldn't permit shelf appearances, tastings, etc. Scarcity helps drive demand, and the pricing model -- while certainly not entirely forced by supply/demand ratios -- is also nowhere near as artificial as it is in Bordeaux, which supports a notion of "expensive but worth the search" that is different from Bordeaux's "expensive because it suits our image." Bordeaux is made in industrial and near-industrial quantities in many cases, while precious few wines are actually made in quantities that would limit access in the way Burgundian quantities limit access. The wines are available, should anyone wish to feature or tout them. But no one does.

The Bordelais have become adept at inventing an illusion of scarcity because it helps their pricing model, but they haven't applied that evil genius to selling the unranked and/or unscored wines that would actually sustain the living brand.