Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Endangered Wine List in the New Millennium

Old man take a look at my life I'm a lot like you
There’s so much I want to say about what I have observed in the marketplace in the last two weeks. For one, it is the beginning of the O-N-D holiday selling season for the wine business. For another, the last two weeks we have had two, not one, but two Barones in from Tuscany and their estates in Chianti, working in the markets. And to have people whose families have been long committed to wine and Chianti, at that, has been a sobering experience.

Why sobering? One, because of the immense importance those two Barones represent in Tuscan wine life. And that, interposed with interactions with young buyers, the upcoming generation, has been just that; an exercise in which I have been, at times, taciturnly pronated. For in the rush to put together amazing wine lists, lists which the most advanced wine enthusiast, even a master sommelier, would be hard pressed to recognize all but a handful of wines. And lists across the state (and indeed the country) which I peruse and attempt to make choices, if only theoretically.

But there’s another perspective about this that I want to share. And it isn’t about the usual suspects that pop up on these new millennium wine lists.

The grief isn’t over seeing Ar.Pe.Pe on another wine list. Or Occhipinti. Or Cavalotto. Or Paolo Scavino’s “Bric del Fiasc.” It’s the disconnect between the “rediscovery” of wines like these and the blind spot for classic wines like Chianti Classico and Pauillac from producers who are iconic but also historical. It’s as if those wines, that have been venerated by generations of wine lovers and sommeliers, are being eradicated from the lexicon of wines once considered revered and, even more important, essential.

And while Chianti and Bordeaux aren’t the only ones on the endangered list, they seem have been singled out for their lack of edginess, for unsatisfactory coolness. They’ve been left out of the Instagram Generation.

Being a future watcher for as long as I can remember, this is puzzling. As everything under the sun usually falls within a cycle, perhaps the planet that we find ourselves on takes a longer time to rotate around this new sun. Perhaps this new age of wine lovers have studied with Cliff Notes and bypassed some of the longer lessons?

Those wineries aren’t disappearing. In Bordeaux and Tuscany, for example, all the classic places, Mouton, Lafite, Ricasoli, they all still exist. And thrive. So who is poorer for the lack of exposure on the hippest of lists in New York or San Francisco, or even down-tier markets like Dallas or Houston? In reality, there are no losers. But there is this striation in time that has jutted out in tectonic fashion. It’s as if a new mountain has been discovered, by only a few, who proclaim it to be higher than Everest. And hence, they choose no longer to climb it, preferring their own special peak, Mt. Matchless.

In a way it strikes me as a bit of wine folly. Is there fear that one’s list will look like another's? Aren’t some of these new age wine lists all starting to look a lot alike? Or maybe it is because some of these less desirable wines now belong to a larger, more corporate wine world, Big Wine? That could be some of it, a reaction to the big, so let’s find smaller alternative wines.

There is this notion of searching for one’s vision, one’s “voice,” when making a wine list, for an authentic experience that one can share with the diner, to show them where you’ve been, who you know, what you love, who influences you.

But what if in its doing, some of these magna opera are constructed as a labyrinth? What if while we’re turning the pages, looking into the heart of the wine director, we’re really trying to find a path, and ultimately, a way out?

This past month, traveling across Texas, I've been staring at an amalgam of wine lists. There were plenty of wines I recognized, although many that were way out of my budget. It was as if the game was to find a wine (or wines) suitable for the evening, that would marry well with the food. It was somewhat perplexing. Would time allow me to go through the whole lists (some were large, hundreds of wines) without putting our meal on hold while I found the appropriate selections? If those who had created the lists been available, might that have been a different story?

I know wine. And I have a good enough of a budget not to have to just buy the cheapest thing to get us through an evening. But in this exercise I found I was feeling annoyed. My time (and my guests time as well) was being wasted in going through this maze just for a bottle of wine. And that is when I had my Aha! moment.

I thought to myself, I want a wine list that doesn't take so much effort to choose from, so that I can get on to the real reason for the evening. The getting together and the sharing of a meal. Not to be dazzled (or blinded) by the wizardry of young somms on the Adderall of ambition.

I’m truly impressed by these lists. But it seems the most important person in the equation, the customer, has been forgotten. And while society points a narrow beam of light toward the young generation and humanity appears to be hanging on your every step (they also did it to the boomers), this is not about you. It never was. It’s about service. The duty of one in a service role is to serve. To deliver. The assist. To oblige. To offer succor.

Fortunately on the wine trail in Italy, the labyrinth isn’t at the dining table with a wine list. The maze is what comes from the soil of Italy and the hearts of those who toil in the fields. There is so much authenticity that one can gleefully surrender to a lifelong walk along a path for which there may be no escape. And hopefully some of the upcoming generations will find themselves, not in the elaboration of a well-constructed but inexhaustible tome, but in the gritty, chalky soil of Tuscany, as summer is ending and autumn approaches, with a light wind coming off the nearby sea, the sun high overhead. And visible and brilliant for all who want to see.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Marco said...

It might be that the curators of these wine lists got the order wrong. One orders food first and then wine to complement it. If the wine lists claim to be what you have elucidated, then it is time for a return to simplicity or the prima materia again. "taciturnly pronated" is a useful phrase for the future, new one on me.

Sarah May Grunwald said...

"But it seems the most important person in the equation, the customer, has been forgotten." So true. I am finding that many wine lists have zero context or relationship to the restaurant. While I am happy that I am seeing more and more wines from Portugal and "emerging wine regions" on wine lists, and I do love my Georgian wines, I am not always sure that the wines these young guys are choosing are appropriate to the venue. Sometimes a classic is all you need. And I agree about wasting time.
That said, I am so happy port wine is becoming more popular with the younger crowd. The world needs more of it.

dcloafer said...

Fair point, but you failed to touch upon what I think is the obvious answer here, at least as it relates to Bordeaux: Price. Those great, historical estates you talk about? Yeah, that's going to cost an unreasonable amount of money. Obviously this doesn't apply to super high-end places, where I would also hope to see some great Bordeaux on the menu. But in the "hip," mid- to high-end places I visit with trendy wine lists, a big focus seems to be on reasonable prices. You can get legitimately world-class wines from those "emerging" regions for a reasonable sum.

Now, the same argument doesn't apply as much to Chianti, so I'll grant you that.

Nat said...

You ask, "If those who had created the lists been available, might that have been a different story?" I wonder - are you talking to the sommeliers/wine stewards/whatever word a restaurant wants to use for the person whose job function it is to help you select a wine? Are they missing from the floor or do you not trust them? Because if either of those things is true, the problem is deeper than a long wine list.

Alfonso Cevola said...


Door #1. Not a matter of trust. thx

Diana H said...

Price is why you do not see a lot of Bordeaux and classic Burgundy on some of these lists. There is also some resistance to "Big Wine" - sometimes guests want the little guy. As a buyer sometimes working with Southern or Breakthru/Wirtz is not always feasible or desirable due to order minimums, delivery issues, rep turnover, etc. And, frankly, sometimes it just doesn't sell.

Alfonso Cevola said...

when all is said and done, employers are looking for successful and greater sales from their employees from the decisions they make.

If something well known sells, so be it. If something esoteric tears it up, ditto.

It's all about balance - and of course - the Customer seated at the table.

thank you

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