11 March 2009

The wines, like dust

[shriveled grapes]In a very good, but sure-to-be-attacked, article, Eric Asimov of The New York Times looks at the ever-roiling controversy over ripeness and pinot noir in California.

One of the key reasons it’s a good article is also one of the reasons it’s most likely to draw criticism: it’s mostly one-sided. Asimov talks to, and then agrees with, those pursuing less elevated ripeness and antagonistic to the modern search for more. But I think that much of the criticism will be misguided, for two reasons.

First, some will misunderstand Asimov’s role at the NYT. He is both wine writer and wine critic, sometimes within the same article. The latter job must, by its very nature, deal in opinion and subjectivity. He is, in this article, very clearly utilizing his critical voice, despite a wealth of supplementary information all too often (these days) abandoned by critics and left for writers. And there’s no mistaking Asimov’s position. Critics are, after all, paid to take a stand. That will, at times, necessitate choosing sides.

As for the potential argument that Asimov should, as a writer, be more objective, it’s worth pointing out that you’ll never, ever hear anyone issue this complaint when a writer agrees with them. Nonetheless, it doesn’t apply here; Asimov is rejecting the overworked modern quasi-journalistic dodge of “on one hand…but on the other hand” that passes for (and fails to be) analysis in our times, and his writing is better for it. Again, he’s a also a critic and working as one here, in which case he’s being paid specifically to act as a filter for his audience. He can’t do that if he fails to exercise his judgment.

Second, Asimov never claims that the lower-ripeness style is better. That would be a claim to objectivity, and thus misguided. Instead, he says he prefers it, which is a very different thing.

Third, Asimov addresses and dismisses one of the major complaints of New World pinot noir producers: that resemblance to Burgundy must be an essential mark of quality. It’s true that it pinot noir would usually benefit from being as good as the best Burgundy (after all, the French had a rather significant head start), but this is a very different thing than asserting it should be like Burgundy. The fame of Burgundy rests on several pillars, and one of the most important is site-specificity. If that fame has any value at all for New World producers (and I’m not arguing it must; winemakers should hold to their own qualitative goals), it should be as support for the idea that pinot noir is wonderfully expressive of place…and thus, there is very little reason why a pinot noir produced outside Burgundy should “taste like” any sort of Burgundy, unless the terroir is exactly the same.

Fourth, finally, and perhaps most importantly, Asimov gets to the core of the issue in a way few mainstream wine writers do. The ultra-ripe pinots and their less-ripe counterpoints, plus everything in-between, evince occasional differences in soil and mesoclimate, but their primary differentiator is intent. The producers of wines for which “syrup” is considered an organoleptic virtue do not have their hands tied by a terroir they cannot escape, they want to make wine that way. And the same is true for those who make lighter, crisper styles; it’s not that they’re prevented from making the other kind of wine, it’s that they don’t want to.

Now, one may legitimately ask: is this contrary to the previous assertion, that pinot noir is particularly expressive of place? It may seem so. But it’s worth taking another look at Burgundy and asking the same question. Is there style variance within Burgundy, even among producers of the same site’s grapes? If the answer’s yes – and it is – then site-specificity hasn’t been refuted. Instead, an old truism has been reasserted: whenever there’s conflict between the hand and the land, the hand always wins.

(Epilogue: well, that didn’t take long.)

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