Lost in Translation? Misunderstanding Old World and New World Wine

mv5bmti2ndi5odk4n15bml5banbnxkftztywmti3nte3-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_The idea that important things can get “lost in translation” holds true on many levels. Sometimes it is literally a translation problem, as Sue and I tried to switch between French and English on our recent trip to Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley. For someone like me, who doesn’t speak French so much as just try to say some French words, there is a lot of potential for misunderstanding.

That’s America for You!

But sometimes the translations are from one culture to another and it is the built-in stereotypes that are the barrier, not the language itself. At one point, for example, I was telling a British wine writer about a recent Wine Economist column on the Illinois-based Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant, which has a wine club numbering almost 300,000 members — probably the biggest wine club in the world.

“Well, that’s America for you,” my new friend replied. “Everything’s big.” Well, actually, that’s not true. America certainly is big in many ways — it is the world’s largest wine market, for example — but that’s not an explanation in this case. Cooper’s Hawk’s massive wine club isn’t typical of wine clubs in the U.S. or anywhere else. It is an exception and invites further study precisely because it is unique for the U.S. or any wine market. Viewing it through a “big America” lens doesn’t really help at all.

Which brings me to this: we were gathered in Perpignan for a briefing and tasting of some of the wines from Roussillon. The English/French translation was going pretty well, but cultural elements were still problematic. At one point one of the appellation ambassadors was explaining the rules of the local wine game. The wine grapes used in the AOP wines were specified and the proportions dictated too — no less than x percent and no more than y percent of this or that grape.

Everything’s Mandatory or Forbidden

An American journalist in the back of the room raised his hand and asked the obvious question. Why require these particular proportions of the specified grapes? The New World subtext was clear (I am fairly fluent in New World, so trust me about this): why make the particular blend mandatory?  To an American, the AOP system sometimes seems a bit like the old Soviet Union, where (according to an old joke) everything was either mandatory or forbidden. Why not just let the winegrowers be free to make the best wines that they can using whatever proportions they think best?

But that’s not the question that the local experts heard because they were steeped in Old World wine culture, where requirements like this are baked in the AOP cake and more blending freedoms comes with a lesser IGP designation. So they answered the Wine 101 question they thought they heard, which was why blend grape varieties at all and  talked about the benefits of blending vs single grape variety — not why require a particular grape blend. Needless to say, neither side of the conversation found the exchange very satisfying and happily everyone quickly moved on.

(The American journalist vented that he planned to write a column titled “Stupid French Wine Laws,” but I am glad to say that he didn’t.)

The problem is, in part, is a question of the importance of typicity. Making good or at least marketable wine is the aim in the New World, the idea of crafting the wine to be  typical of a  particular region is literally a foreign concept.

In the New World, in fact, “typical” is sometimes used as a put down — that’s so typical! In the Old World, however, typical often means true-to-type, satisfying a standard, and is a good thing. When we were in Carcassone, home of cassoulet, the thing I wanted most was typical cassoulet, not some fusion mashup, as good as it might be.

Old versus New World Regulations

AOP rules are meant to assure that designated wines are true to the local standard. American appellation rules,  on the other hand, are geographic indicators that have little to say about what’s in the bottle apart from where the grapes are grown and the wine itself made (the Cooper’s Hawk winery is in Illinois, for example, and it therefore cannot put “Napa Valley” on the label of a wine that is made entirely from Napa Valley grapes — it must use an American appellation).

I do not see much evidence that Old World appellation rules are invading the New World (although there are some who advocate greater regulation), but we met a number of Old World producers who are learning to think and speak New World. Sue and I have seen more and more emphasis on the less restrictive IGP wines, for example, and there are several reasons for this.

Lesser is More?

One reason for the move to IGP and other “lesser” designations is that many winemakers simply want to freedom to make interesting rather than typical wines and this can be a good thing. Don’t forget the influence Super Tuscan wines have had in Italy. Sometimes, as we saw in Valpolicella a few years ago, the IGP wines are produced to fill unexploited market niches.

Climate change is another reason for winemakers to look beyond AOP rules. Changing climate undermines the logic of winemaking rules established decades ago when growing condition might have been much different. We heard this discussed on our trip to France, but I can’t really tell how much it is driving this particular movement compared with market forces, which are surely very strong.

I am not sure there is much that can be done about the translation problem, but I am going to try a bit harder to see things from both the Old and New World sides, so that less  understanding is lost along the way.

5 responses

    • Based on a few conversations, I think it is the experience more than the wine. People I have spoken with enjoy visiting the restaurant/tasting room to pick up their monthly bottle. The wine itself seems to be secondary to the experience. Perhaps this is true about many wine clubs?

  1. Living in Illinois and stopping at some of the Cooper’s Hawks on the wine tours that we produce, I admire the model of the business and how they address their market.

    But for a sophisticated wine consumer, their wines are pretty middle of the road and aimed to appeal to a mass market. Nothing interesting of note with regards to an individual wine making style.

    The other this that is interesting about Cooper’s Hawk is that even though they have a restaurant as part of each location, the food is also not chef driven but more of a commodity (functional and middle of the road).

    So people are coming for something other than just wine or food. An overall experience with predictability and ambiance.

    What I find so interesting is that there is a real following for their wines and the total experience of what they are getting when customers go to a Coooper’s Hawk. And that experience is consistent at each location (similar to a MCD) so there are no surprises. It’s the same at each location that I have been to.

    While there is no real artistry in the wines themselves, the brand has elevated the profile of wine around Chicago and the Midwest. I think CHs are responsible for a heightened awareness of all things wine (especially in the suburbs where they tend to be located). So similar to Starbucks elevating the subject of all things coffee, CH does the same with wine.

    From the most recent posting in Crain’s Chicago Business publication, CH is still not profitable (most likely since free cash flow is being used for aggressive growth). It will be interesting to see how far this model can go and if it can be taken from the States into the Old World much as Starbucks has done in Europe.

  2. Re your “Lost in Translation?” blog post, while studying for the DNO (Diplôme National d’Œnologue) in Toulouse, I used to ponder the differences in U.S. and French wine regulations. In France, you are only allowed (within the AOPs) to perform treatments in the vineyard or cave that are authorized by the authorities. In the U.S., on the contrary, you can do anything that wasn’t prohibited by the authorities. The difference is subtle, yet important. Vive la différence.

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