Wine Book Review: Jonathan Nossiter’s Natural Wine Manifesto

insurrectionJonathan Nossiter, Cultural Insurrection: A Manifesto for Arts, Agriculture, and Natural Wine. Other Press, 2019 (previously published in French as Insurrections Culturelle by Éditions Stock, Paris, 2015).

I learned about Jonathan Nossiter’s new book just as I was writing about wine’s tribes and the group that I have dubbed the Naturalists and the Natural Wine movement they represent.

A few clicks and a few days later, Cultural Insurrection arrived and I want to review it here not so much as representative of the views of Naturalists in general, but as a personal “manifesto” of a noteworthy figure in the world of wine.

Its a Wine World After All

I know Nossiter’s previous wine works pretty well. He is the director of the 2004 film Mondovino, which I wrote about in Wine Wars and used to good effect in my university class on “The Idea of Wine.” Mondovino was a manifesto of sorts, too. It opposed commercialization and globalization and cleverly used wine to engage emotionally an audience that might not otherwise want to think about these big things.  Nossiter is also the author of a 2009 wine book titled Liquid Memories. You can ready my review here.

Cultural Insurrection is at its core a celebration of the natural wine movement and a critique of commercialization and globalization, but that fact isn’t always obvious. Early chapters analyze ancient Greek theater (Nossiter majored in Ancient Greek, he tells us), film directors and their films, the power and abuses of finance, and the power and abuses of agricultural chemical businesses. We are teased by promises of natural wine while these varied and weighty packages are unwrapped.

Puzzled, I jumped to the back of the book where I found appendices that list the films cited in the text and the directors cited in the text, but not the natural wines and their makers. So it is perhaps natural to wonder what the book is really about?

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Natural Wine?

The key, which I initially overlooked, is in the Preface where Nossiter asks us to consider natural wine as a radical metaphor for culture, art, and politics.  Culture, art, and politics are all corrupted by money and greed, a fact that he tells us is shockingly apparently in agriculture (the original culture, we are reminded). So what we are talking about when we talk about wine is not just wine. It is, well, everything. Or at least everything that really matters.

Natural wine in this context is a reaction to the social, cultural, and economic issues just cited. It is, Nossiter says several times a concrete action in opposition to a corrupt system. This statement made me think how how the natural wine movement compares with the Slow Food movement, which I wrote about in my book Globaloney 2.0. Both movements are global and oppose commercialization and commodification by presenting attractive and viable alternatives.  Wine is part of the Slow Food universe, of course — there is such a thing as Slow Wine — but not all Slow Wines would make the natural wine cut.

An important similarity is that both Slow Food and natural wine rely upon global networks to cultivate local products. The Slow Food movement aims actively to harness a global market network to oppose the abuses of global markets, which is clever indeed. Nosssiter’s idea of natural wine relies upon global networks, too, but he is uncomfortable with the role of markets despite their power to spread both natural wines and the manifesto globally.

What Makes Wine Natural?

What does it take for a wine to be natural in Nossiter’s manifesto? At one point he seems to give us a production checklist. Natural yeast — check. Left to ferment naturally — check. With no chemical additives such as sulfur — check. Winegrowing should be natural, too, of course, but exactly how is complicated. Check.

These criteria are necessary but not sufficient, however. Nossiter eventually rejects the idea that there is any sort of checklist that determines that a wine natural.  Natural wine is cultural more than technical, produced by families, in relatively small quantities, with little concern for profits. Natural wine, in other words, is what natural wine producers make. This might sound circular, but in fact I think it applies pretty well in this case. Natural wine, like terroir, may be vague in the details, at least in Nossiter’s analysis, but you will know it when you see it or meet the producer.

Tribal Rivalry

I bought Nossiter’s book looking for a personal perspective on natural wine and I got that and a lot more. I was also looking for an understanding about why the tensions between natural wine’s tribe and the rest of the wine world are so intense.  I don’t claim to have found this just because I’m not sure every natural wine proponent would endorse all of Nossiter’s manifesto.

But there is this. Clearly Nossiter rejects wine that isn’t natural by his standards, and so he dismisses the work of a lot of people who might not like to see themselves thrown in a pile that includes the worst capitalist and agrichemical abuses. He is, in a way, like some critics who dismiss natural wines generally on the basis of one or two badly flawed examples that seem to use philosophy was an excuse for poor winemaking. Easy to see how terroirists and naturalists could back each other into corners. Too bad.

More Interesting Than Delicious

So what about the book? I’d say it is more interesting than delicious, which is the way I have described some wines. The mixture of the cinema, global finance, argi-chemicals, and wine doesn’t always work for me. And I still don’t understand the relevance Nossiter’s longish digression on the difficulty of “dolly shots” in film-making. Maybe I need to read that part again.

But I think it may be wrong to read Cultural Insurrection as a book like I did. Try to experience it as a film instead — which will require some imagination and maybe a dolly shot or two. Nossiter’s famous film  Mondovino shifted around in the same way as this book. Some of my students found Mondo to be disorienting, but others went along for the ride, picking out the messages that resonated with them.

Experience the book in this way and you will certainly feel Nossiter’s anger and his yearning. And you’ll appreciate his cautiously optimistic conclusion. Glass half full? I’ll drink to that.

Life Among the Vinos: Making Sense of Wine’s Rival Tribes

snowThe idea that society’s big open melting pots have been replaced to a certain extent by narrow, closed tribal silos is no longer novel, but it is very important. Are we becoming a culture of isolated tribes with fundamentally different beliefs and norms? If so, wine must have its tribes, too.

Snow’s Two Cultures

C.P. Snow’s observation that the intellectual world had  divided into two tribes was shocking in 1959. His essay on “The Two Cultures” (pdf here) argued that science and humanities were increasingly alienated, speaking different languages, thinking in isolation.

Each tribe could exist on its own, I guess, but what about society? How could an increasingly technological society survive if science is not tempered and informed by values and a deeper understanding of the humanity it is meant to serve?  How can the humanities be relevant without an understanding and appreciation of science and technology? These were relevant questions and they are even more relevant today as artificial intelligence advances.

“Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding,” he wrote. “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”

Mutual incomprehension — that sounds familiar. Today, of course, the incomprehension is compounded by digital technologies that permit and even encourage us to only interact with “friends” within our own tribe and to read only news that reinforces our tribal dogma. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.

Life Among the Econ

Axel Leijonhufvud’s 1973 essay on “Life Among the Econ” presented a serious critique of the economics profession and its tribes, the Micros and the Macros, in a satirical form. What if alien anthropologists stumbled into a university economics department, he asked? What would they see? What would they think?

The answer is not so much different from Snow’s two cultures and my idea of tribes, but Leijonhufvud focused on their beliefs or religions. The Micros idolize the supply-demand market cross and build worshipful totems (“modls”). The Macros have nothing whatsoever in common with the Micros except that they worship a Macro-cross (IS-LM) and build rather extravagant modls of their own.

“Some Econographers disagree with the bleak picture of cultural disintegration just given, pointing to the present as the greatest age of Econ Art. It is true that virtually all Econographers agree that present modlmaking has reached aesthetic heights not heretofore attained. But it is doubtful that this gives cause for much optimism. It is not unusual to find some particular art form flowering in the midst of the decay of a culture. It may be that such decay of society induces this kind of cultural “displacement activity” among talented members who despair of coping with the decline of their civilization. The present burst of sophisticated modl-carving among the Econ should probably be regarded in this light.”

historyLife Among the Vinos

Wine has its tribes, too, and many have observed that the divisions between them and mutual deafness among them are a growing concern.

I wrote about some of the Vinos tribes in my book Wine Wars.  I was inspired by Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in America. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist, and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less than superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Two Ideas of Wine

The tribes of Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them, but that’s how tribes sometimes works. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be an ardent Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the battle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.” So these tribal divisions have serious consequences for the wine industry.

Wagnerians and Martians are not the wine world’s only tribes. Come back next week for my report on the Terroirist and the Naturalist tribes.

Confessions of a Rookie Wine Judge

I have declined several invitations to serve on wine competition juries, but when Catalin Paduraru asked me to be be part of the International Wine Competition Bucharest I just couldn’t say no.

Sue and I had never visited Romania and there was much I wanted to learn about the country and its wines. Besides, Catalin (along with Lucian Marcu) had somehow managed to publish a Romanian version of my book Wine Wars. So we headed to Iași, Romania’s cultural capital, where this year’s competition was held.

Reservations? I had a few because of my lack of formal training in wine tasting and my rookie juror status, so I asked a few experienced friends for advice. It’s not so hard, one veteran juror told me. You know how to taste wine, just concentrate and focus. Taste them one at a time. A Master of Wine advised me to be generous in general, except when there were clear faults, and then to cut no slack.

Wine by the Numbers1mbc2

The wine competition was organized according to OIV regulations. We were grouped into three teams or “commissions” of five jurors each, three internationals and two from the home country Romania. We used the “Australian” system, I was told, where we could talk a bit amongst ourselves rather than sitting solo. As in the old days of figure skating scoring, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out for each wine and the three middle ones averaged.

The wines were evaluated on a 100-point scale divided into a number of different categories. The tablet-based OIV software made it easy to focus on thinking about the wine and my friend was right — if you think about one wine and one sensory element at a time the task is difficult, but not overwhelming.

The software gave each juror a report of his or her score for a wine along with the average score. Wines that received an average between 82 and 84.99 points earned a silver medal. 85 to 91.99 point wines were gold. 92 points and over received the Great Gold Medal. This is a pretty tough grading curve, but with many elements evaluated critically and individually, maximum scores are hard to achieve.

My team tasted 50 to 60 wines over the course of about 3 hours each morning for  three days in a row.  Lunch followed the judging and the wines were revealed, giving us an opportunity to see what labels were inside the closed bags.

60 wines in three hours does not leave much time for chit-chat and if you watch the video above you will notice how serious we all were. Staying focused for so long and moving through the wines so quickly was a challenge.

Rookie Mistakes

There were several aspects of the competition that took some time for this rookie to figure out. The wines were assembled by category not region (or country of origin) or grape variety. So a flight of dry white wines might include several different grape varieties and countries or regions of origin. It was therefore important to approach each wine with an open mind because the variation from glass to glass was sometimes dramatic.

Because the software reported both my score for each wine and also the team average, I was initially tempted to see the average as the “right answer” and try to think about what I must have missed if I was far off the mark.  There was a certain satisfaction when we all gave a wine exactly the same total score, but I’ll bet we differed in the details.

Eventually I realized that this second-guessing was another rookie mistake since there really isn’t a right answer.  Or, rather, it wasn’t my job to try to guess what the other jurors thought, but to provide my own careful judgement. The economists’ motto is degustibus non est disputandum!iwcb1

Mining Gold and Silver

Sue had the best view of the process. She and an official OIV observer sat apart from the rest of us. They got to taste the wines along with one of the commissions (not mine) and they could see all of the scores come in and follow the dynamics of the tasting. It was interesting, she told me when it was all over, to see how different jurors reacted to particular wines and how the individual scores were forged into gold and silver medals.

My fellow wine economists often criticize wine competitions in general because they make seemingly objective awards on the basis of necessarily subjective and sometimes inconsistent sensory evaluation.  The jurors I spoke with were aware of this problem and familiar with the research on the issue, but committed to the project nonetheless, which might account for the serious concentration and focused work ethic they all displayed. I was impressed.

Would I agree to serve on a jury again? It would depend on the circumstances. But I have already started to think about what I would do differently — how I would organize my scoring so that the final number better reflects what I sense in the glass.

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Sue and I would like to thank all the wonderful people we met in Iasi. Special thanks to Catalin and Lucian, of course, and to my fellow jurors Diana Lazar, Richard Pfister, Roberto Gaudio, and Carole Cliche. Thanks as well to Prof. Valeriu Cotea, who gently coached me through my rookie experience and to Cristian Ionescu, who kept the technology working efficiently and made life easy for all of us.

Sue took these photos at one of the post-jury luncheons, where the wines were revealed and we could finally see the labels behind our scores.

Money & Wine: Good, Bad & Ugly

cattivoWe are living in a golden age for wine, or at least that’s what many people (including Jancis Robinson, Matt Kramer, and Richard Hemming) have said. Never before have so many wine lovers around the world been able to enjoy so much good wine from so many places in so many styles at so many price points. If that’s not some sort of golden age, I don’t know what is.

The wine world isn’t a utopia, of course. And, like all golden ages, this one probably contains the seeds of its own eventual demise. But I think it is pretty clear that these are s good times to be a wine drinker, don’t you think?

Jefford on the Money Problem

So was I a bit shaken when I came across Andrew Jefford’s Decanter column on “Money & Wine.”  Jefford doesn’t see a golden age at all. Wine is sick, terminally ill, and the disease that is killing it is money. He writes that

“The biggest wine contaminant (far worse than sulphur) is money. I don’t know how to put it any other way. The contamination is growing worse all the time. The better the wine, tragically, the more money it contains. Fine wines are now brimfull of money.”

Ironically, having written about the devastating disease of money in Decanter on Monday, Jefford’s weekend column in the Financial Times was about a completely different devastating plague: grapevine trunk disease. Wow, wine is really sick, sick, sick.

I suppose there is a good reason why Jefford didn’t talk money to money, which he could have done by publishing his anti-money column in the FT instead of Decanter. In any case, it is clear that Jefford believes that wine is cursed. Golden age? Nonsense!

Masters of the Universe investors sweep up the best wines, pushing prices beyond the reach mere money mortals. Price becomes just a way to score the game and higher is better. Worse, I suppose are wealthy individuals who say that they are investing in fine wines but actually just want to lock them up and treasure them like Gollum’s precious ring. I have called their behavior “conspicuous non-consumption” with a nod to Thorsetin Veblen.

Jefford’s Lament

Jefford takes this whole money-wine syndrome seriously because, as a wine writer and critic, he feels that he is part of the problem. Once critics like Jefford have identified an outstanding wine, it becomes a target for those with money and pretty soon money is all that matters.

Worse, critics sometimes praise ludicrously expensive wines, presumably because they are really good, thus unintentionally reinforcing the notion that wine quality can be measured in dollars, euro, pounds, and yen. “I am guilty of this myself,” he writes, “and wholly complicit.”

One ironic result, Jefford notes, is that the wines that wine critics praise are sometimes bid up to such extraordinary prices that the critics can’t afford to buy them.

“They may briefly encounter great wines at a tasting, but they don’t own them, drink them, or develop a relationship of understanding with them in the way that wealthy wine-lovers are able to. This makes those writers, at best, outside observers of a world to which they will never belong …”

Don’t Cry for Me …

There is truth in this, I guess, but one thing that I have learned from personal experience is that pretty much no one feels sorry for wine writers. They taste wines that most people can only dream of sampling. That they cannot afford to own cases of them and have personal relationships with them doesn’t seem like a serious problem.

I am not an A-List wine critic like Jefford, but even a wine economist like me has occasional opportunities to savor great wines and have memorable wine adventures. I have learned not to speak too loudly about these experiences, however, and to write about them with care. None of my wine enthusiast friends would have any sympathy for me if I offered Jefford’s complaint as my own. Maybe Jefford’s friends are more sympathetic to his needs?

To DRC and Beyond

Tom Wark’s reaction to Jefford’s column (“Andrew Jefford and the Contamination of Wine”) acknowledged that there is a sliver of the market (fine wine, as Jefford defined it in the first quote above) where money is out of control. Top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy get lots of attention, but they are essentially irrelevant to the vast majority of wine enthusiasts. To generalize, even implicitly, from DRC and Petrus to the broader market is to misunderstand the impact of money on wine.

Robert Joseph’s Meininger’s Wine Business International column on “Is Money Ruining Wine”  broadens the discussion in several interesting ways while still retaining the fine wine focus. Yes, great wines cost more today than 50 years ago, Joseph says, but global wealth has increased at the same time. Maybe today’s doctors and lawyers can’t drink Petrus every night (or have a relationship with it, I suppose), but they can afford to taste it on occasions if they want and that’s not nothing.9781442234635

Joseph doesn’t mention it, but part of the money problem, in terms of higher price, is that interest in wine has spread around the world, so that affluent buyers in China and the U.S. seek their share. Price allocates the limited supply — more for New York and Shanghai means London gets less. That’s how markets work

It’s Complicated!

As a wine economist, I am supposed to know something about money and wine. The more I learn, the less willing I am to make bold statements as Jefford has done. There are just too many sides to consider.

That’s how I ended up writing my 2016 book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. I made a list of all the different ways that money could affect wine and then wrote this book to try to make sense of the situation. I ended up examining the good, bad, and ugly of money, taste, and wine. The book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, which is how I will end this column.

Money has many and varied effects on wine, just as it does on everything else. But wine is resilient and wine lovers are, too. Money and markets bring the world of wine to us, creating this golden age. Does the fact that the Golden Rule — he who has the gold makes the rule — is part of the golden age package (at least when it comes to fine wine) ruin everything? That’s up to you to decide.

It’s Not About the Wine

In the meantime, Jefford’s most recent Decanter column, Wine & the World, argues that money isn’t the world’s only curse — politics, culture, and environment are all being corrupted and society itself fragmented. If wine, with its privileged global status, isn’t part of the solution, Jefford argues, it is part of the problem.

The world is a messy place and Jefford’s goal seems to be to make you consider that fact and what you are doing about it with every glass of wine you drink. It’s not really about the wine, it is about you.

Heal the world — that’s a lot to ask of wine, but the healing needs to be done and wine is as good a place to start as any.

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The Wine Economist will take a brief break for the end-of-summer holiday and return in two weeks.

How to Make a Small Fortune in Wine … Story-Telling Time in Napa Valley

Sue and I are in Napa Valley, California this week to participate in the 2016 Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Resort. The symposium is a project of Meadowood Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners Association and the Culinary Institute of America. The theme this year is “Taste Locally, Publish Globally.” You can read the program here.

No Joke: Writing About Wine Business

Sue is a career and writing coach and I am going try to convince the participants to think seriously about writing about the wine business as well as more conventional topics such as wine-makers, wine regions and wine tasting. My talk is called “How to Make a Small Fortune Writing about the Wine Business.” The title, as you have already guessed, it a variation of the world’s oldest wine joke, which begins “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?”

small fortune

(In case you haven’t heard the joke (which seems unlikely) I will provide the answer at the end of this column.)

The symposium takes place in rather regal settings. The Meadowood Resort looks like a fantastic place (I’ve not visited before) and we have classes at Meadowood, the CIA Greystone facility (the historic Christian Brothers winery) and local wineries.

I have taught in many types of classrooms around the world (ask me about the Communist-era blackboards in an old university classroom building in Prague), but nothing as elegant as this!

Wine and the Dismal Science

And we are in rather illustrious company, too. Hugh Johnson and Jay McInerney are the headliners, but really all of the speakers and coaches are headliners in my book. You can see names, faces and read bios here.  My talk is sandwiched between McInerney and the New York Times’s Eric Asimov. No pressure!

I am a little bit of a fish out of water here. I am not really a wine writer (I can see some of you nodding in agreement!). I’m an economist who studies and writes about the global wine industry and most of my talks are aimed at the industry audience. Wine and the dismal science — an unexpected pairing but a very interesting one.

No Complaints!

Don’t get me wrong —  I have no complaints about being included in this wine writer group. The perks of writing about the wine business are pretty appealing, including the chance to rub elbows with these wine celebrities and to learn from them and from everyone here like the student I hope ever to be.

I think everyone will have fun at the symposium but, returning to the theme of my talk, this is real business not a holiday junket. It is business to the participants, who make their living writing about wine. And it is all business for the organizers, too, who have a strong interest in nurturing wine communication.

Wine is all about telling stories, so how smart is it for the Napa Valley industry to invest in the story-tellers? Very smart and very forward-looking.

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OK, here is the promised punchline. How do you  make a small fortune in the wine business? You know the answer. Start with a big one!

Wine Economist Joins 2016 Professional Wine Writers Symposium Faculty

I’m pleased to report that Sue and I will be joining the faculty of the 2016 Professional Wine Writers Symposium, which will take place February 16-19, 2016 at the Meadowood Napa Valley resort. I will be speaking about the challenges and opportunities of writing about the wine business and Sue will serve as a writing and career coach, drawing upon her years of corporate communications experience and work as contributing editor of the Wine Economist.

We are honored to join this year’s distinguished faculty, which includes Hugh Johnson, Eric Asimov, Jeannie Cho Lee, Jamie Goode and … well the list goes on and on. Here’s how a press release describes the faculty.

Renowned British author and expert on wine, Hugh Johnson OBE, will deliver the industry keynote address at the 2016 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley to be held February 16-19. The Symposium is open to qualified wine, wine-food and wine-travel writers.

Other faculty members featured at the 12th annual gathering include Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for the New York Times; Jay McInerney, author and wine columnist for Town & Country; Jeannie Cho Lee MW, founder of AsianPalate.com; Ray Isle, executive wine editor, Food & Wine; Doug Frost, wine author, educator and one of only four people in the world to hold both the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier credentials; Jamie Goode, author, writer and founder of wineanorak.com; Virginie Boone, contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast; Mike Veseth, publisher of the Wine Economist; satirist Ron Washam, the HoseMaster of Wine; Esther Mobley, wine, beer and spirits writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot and associate professor at Colby College.

The full program for the 2016 symposium has not yet been announced, but participants can expect an intense set of lectures, meetings, discussions, writing exercises, and one-on-one coaching sessions — plus the opportunity to taste great food and wine and get to know some luminaries of the wine world. The program emphasizes three subjects: the craft of writing, career advancement and wine knowledge.

This year’s symposium marks a transition toward a fully funded fellowship model (in place of the tuition charge of previous years) thanks to the generosity of Meadowood and the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Applications for  the 30 fellowships are now being accepted with a November 1, 2015 deadline. Learn more at WineWritersSymposium.org.

Founded by Meadowood Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Vintners Association and supported by The Culinary Institute of America, the symposium brings together wine book authors and editors, wine magazine writers and critics, newspaper wine columnists, bloggers and other editorial wine content creators. Special thanks to Jim Gordon for inviting us to join the faculty for 2016.

Silver Anniversary Celebration: How Wine Has Changed Since 1989

Robert Parker, Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide (New Edition 1989-1990). Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Our friends were married in 1989 and recently celebrated their silver anniversary with a dinner party where almost all of the wines were 1989s from their cellar (plus a few bottles from their children’s birth years). What a treat! I’ll paste a photo of some  of the wines we enjoyed at the end of this post to give you an idea of what a great time we had.

1989 and All That

To paraphrase a famous football coach, wine isn’t like life, it is life, so wine and life’s celebrations are natural partners and our very small gift to the happy couple was an autographed copy of the 1989 edition of Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide.  I hope that what the book says about how wine has grown and changed over the last 25 years will inspire them to consider how their relationship has deepened and matured like a great wine!

I couldn’t part with the book without looking at it myself — just a quick glance to see what Parker wrote about and how — not the detailed analysis of the individual winery and wine entries that would yield the greatest insights. Here’s what I found.

What’s changed since 1989? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that prices have done up. Parker rates each wine with a point score out of 100 (his signature rating system) and an alphabetical price indicator. A = Inexpensive (less than $8) to E = luxury (in excess of $50).  The 1984 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon receives 96 points and a D ($25-$50) for example. The Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab cost only C ($15-$25) — I should have put some of that away!

It is interesting to see how the world wine map has broadened in 25 years. The sections on the Wines of Western Europe is very complete, as you would expect, with France, Germany, Italy Spain and Portugal well represented.  A section on The Best of the Rest includes Australia (of course), and briefer discussions of Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Lebanon, New Zealand, Switzerland,  the UK and Yugoslavia.

It would be hard to make a list like this today without including Austria, South Africa and China. Brazil, India, Israel and several other countries would also claim a place in the lineup.

American Wines Everywhere

What about North America? Well it is there, of course (sans Canada, alas), wedged between Europe and the Rest, with about 250 pages of text compared to nearly 550 for Europe. That’s not a bad page count ratio when you consider how much more wine the Europeans produced then and how tiny the US industry was by comparison.

California got 210 of these pages followed by Oregon with about 30 pages. Parker has a particular interest in Oregon wines and is a partner with his brother-in-law at Beaux Frères (Parker does not review these wines because of understandable conflict-of-interest concerns).

I was interested to see what Parker had to say about Washington wines back in 1989, so I turned quickly to the chapter on Other American Viticultural Regions (other than California and Oregon that is). Connecticut, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, — the list goes on, wine seems to be everywhere in America  — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and then finally Washington!

Washington: Lingering Doubts, Encouraging Signs

“While I still have doubts about the overall quality and potential for Washington state wines,” Parker writes on page 843, “there are some encouraging signs …”.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but probably how many wine people saw the situation at the time. California was obviously important. Oregon, too, because of its Burgundy-like prestige.

Washington? Still needed to prove itself, which I think it quickly did. Washington is now the nation’s #2 wine producer in quantity and challenges California in many areas in terms of quality and reputation. But not in 1989.

In a very brief guide to the state’s best wines, Parker found no Outstanding Chardonnays and just one excellent producer (Hogue). Arbor Crest, Columbia, Chateau Ste Michelle and Zillah Oakes made the cut as Good Producers of Chardonnay.

The best Cabernet Sauvignons? Chateau Ste Michelle’s post-1983 Reserves earned them an Outstanding recommendation. The Chateau’s regular bottling was rated Excellent along with the Columbia “Red Willow” Cab and wines from Latah Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon. Six wineries received the Good score, including Quilceda Creek, which is since earned cult wine status.

While we know that Parker thought the 1985 Pinot Noir Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon was worth an 89 score and cost a C amount, we have no numerical rating or tasting note data on any individual Washington wine at all.

Much has changed since 1989 as Parker’s book  makes clear, but a lot has stayed the same, too. Many of the great wine producers of the world have aged and developed as gracefully as the 1989 wines we had with dinner. New wineries, regions, styles and varieties have emerged. Wine was great in 1989, as Parker’s guide tells us. It is even better now, don’t you think!

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