06 October 2007

You cannot be serious!

[caged bottles]

I got into a discussion the other day about the word "serious" in relation to wine. The person who used the word was setting it in opposition to what he termed "quaffable"; specifically, Beaujolais was the latter, while Burgundy and Bordeaux were the former.

There was some objection to both characterizations on my part -- the best cru Beaujolais is hardly quaffable, while the worst mass-market Burgundy and Bordeaux are hardly serious -- but it got me thinking about how I might actually apply the word "serious" to wine, were I to do so.

The first, and most obvious, use would be a characterization of the wine in the glass...a stern, solemn wine that lacks any sense of joy, frivolity or fun. And indeed, many a top Bordeaux might qualify. This isn't to say that one can't derive joy/frivolity/fun from such a wine (drinking will to that to a person), only that the wine itself doesn't bring those characteristics to the party. Or any party. This sort of wine doesn't party.

But that's not what the person who originally used the word intended. He was talking about something else, a quality that might otherwise be identified as "noble" or "fine" vs. something more prosaic. I understand this use of the word, but I don't endorse it, because it smacks of faith in hierarchies over intrinsic qualities. While I might agree that, on balance and for my palate, certain wines regularly reach greater heights than other wines, I think to imply that the best efforts among that latter group are somehow "unserious" is to unwisely and unfairly denigrate their qualities. I'm not arguing for vinous socialism, nor am I embracing the often-abused refrain "all that matters is what's in the glass" as a way to take down the high and mighty of the wine world, I just think that to divide up the world of wine into "serious" and "unserious" categories is dangerously reductive thinking. The qualities of individual wines really do matter. "Serious" wines are to be found everywhere, not just where one expects to find them.

So if my interlocutor was using the word in a fashion I didn't like, how would I use the word? For me, a serious wine is:

  • A wine made to the highest quality possible given the restrictions in place. These include terroir, cépage, climate, typicity…any or all of which may or may not be legally mandated…and more external concerns like available money, etc. The wine would be made without marketability or price point as the primary consideration, though this is not to say that they can’t be strongly considered; winemaking isn't a charitable pursuit.
  • A wine that is “serious” in intent, made to be the best it can be and not something merely acceptable or only good enough for uncritical quaffing. This doesn't, however, mean that serious wines can't also be quaffable. For example, the best Bugey Cerdon or brachetto d’Acqui can be serious, if they’re made with maximum care and attention. Both are, obviously, “fun” wines. But they’re made with a seriousness of purpose and a laser-like focus on quality, not simply because winemaking is what Dad and Great-Great-Great-Grandad did for a living, or because any idiot can sell Central Coast pinot (not true, of course) given the success of Sideways, or because there happens to be a perceived market for a drinkable $10 Bordeaux and a supply of grapes to fill that market.
  • It's also important to note that these requirements say nothing about style. A serious wine might be resolutely traditional or employ every modernizing trick in the book. Again, it’s the intent that matters.

The opposite term -- unserious -- would apply to wines that are made with a primary consideration other than the highest possible quality. This would include price-point wines, wines made with compromises (which is not necessarily a value judgment) along the way, and wines made simply because they’re fun, or experimental, or in any non-qualitative way entertaining (e.g. Marilyn Merlot).

There's a need for both types of wine, serious and unserious, in our modern marketplace. Who wants to be serious all the time? But it's important to understand what seriousness really is. It's not a pedigree, or a shockingly elevated price, or a reputation, or a bunch of points, or even the chorused acclaim of the oenogeek masses. It's an expression of passion and skill, fired by intent, and given birth in a glass.


Jason A said...

The word serious can not be applied to the wine, only the wine maker. That said you can afford to drink serious wine all of the time.

Anonymous said...

Could it possibly be that the drinker can only take certain wines seriously? Might one look at the price tags?

thor iverson said...

I somewhat agree that "serious" applies more to the winemaker than to the wine. Certainly, as I wrote, intent is everything. Though I wonder if someone can't make a serious wine by accident; if it's equivalent in quality to an unquestionably serious wine made by another producer, is it not serious? I don't know the answer to that question. I guess I'd answer "it might be."

Price has nothing to do with seriousness. I'd agree that they often parallel each other, but price carries too many externalities to be synonymous with seriousness. To return to the example of Bordeaux, a Dourthe "Numero Uno" is as unserious (that is, made for reasons other than the best possible quality) as wine gets, but it gets a pricing benefit from being Bordeaux. Meanwhile, a producer may be toiling away in the Côtes du Roussillon, making some extraordinary but unsaleable-due-to-market-invisibility wine that sells for half the price of the Dourthe. I'd call the latter a much more serious wine. So how did price help us determine seriousness? It didn't.

Or, take the example of California pinot, which can sell for two, three, even four times what a California barbera might sell for. Is pinot noir thus two, three, or four times more serious? There's no way to answer that question without looking at the wines themselves. I've had very serious barbera from the Sierra Foothills, and much more expensive pinot noir that was clearly an exercise in Sideways bandwagoneering. Again, price told us nothing. Just as importantly, the grape's reputation also told us nothing. We have to look at the actual wines to make a determination of seriousness.

As I said: externalities. If we take price as a representation of demand or perceived demand (as most do), and demand as a function of acclaim (as many do), then why do we need yet another word -- "serious" -- to apply to the exact same concept? Shouldn't it mean something different? I insist that it should.

However, for me, this is exactly why the term is problematic. To call a wine serious by my definition requires divining motives as much as it does understanding the potential of the terroir, grape(s) and winemaker. But the alternative definition is merely saddling another, perfectly useful word with the burden of "seriousness." Again, why?

As for what the drinker can or cannot do, obviously that's up to him or her. My definition of seriousness doesn't have to be shared. Though I'd say that it would be a shame were a drinker unable to take a wine seriously for any reason other than dislike.

Jason A said...


I have to disagree on your classifying “fun” wines as unserious wines. “La Pépie”, a fun wine I enjoyed this weekend produced by a various serious winemaker, Marc Ollivier. I am sure you place Ollivier’s Muscadets in the serious camp and I have to believe that this falls under the “A wine made to the highest quality possible given the restrictions in place. These include terroir, cépage, climate, typicity…” definition of a serious wine.

I stand behind my original statement that the term serious can not be applied to a wine but only to the winemaker. I think it is time to drop the term serious as it apples to wine, though I am in certain agreement with you on those beverages labeled as wine produced solely for financial gain.

Now the “La Pépie” described in terms of “purity’ or “complexity”, that’s another story.


thor iverson said...

I have to disagree on your classifying “fun” wines as unserious wines.

...except that I didn't do any such thing. As I thought I'd gone to certain pains to explain, for me "serious" is a matter of intent. Fun is more a matter of outcome. (I did say that, were I to use "serious" as an organoleptic descriptor, it'd be in opposition to "fun" in the way that, say, Champagne is more "serious" than moscato d'Asti...but I don't particularly favor that usage either, because it inevitably leads to this very kind of controversy.)

I stand behind my original statement that the term serious can not be applied to a wine but only to the winemaker.

I can only agree with you in part. Seriousness, as a matter of intent, does come from the winemaker, but I think that if one must use it in the first place, it can be applied separately to the winemaker and to the wine. For example, a winemaker could be serious but dramatically unskilled, which is unlikely to lead to wines that anyone would label "serious." (I suppose one could argue that seriousness inherently involves preparedness and rigor, but that's still stretching the definition of the word beyond any reasonable boundaries.) Or a winemaker can parcel out "seriousness" depending on the wine; a Piedmontese producer might apply a great deal of seriousness to a Barolo, and very little to a moscato d'Asti...and in both cases, by design. The existence of one or the other wine doesn't make the winemaker serious or unserious. For that, one has to look, separately, at the winemaker him- or herself.

And, FWIW, I assume you mean "Pépière," right"?