US Palates and Brit Reviewers

The September issue of Decanter comes to subscribers with a supplement entitled California 2011. This represents a gallant effort by numerous British wine writers to come to honorable terms with California wine. Unfortunately, they can’t.

Oz Clarke tries hard. He confronts the problem head on. He wonders “if it’s a British disease, this need to go to other people’s countries and tell them what style of wine they should be making.” Margaret Rand is just as direct: “one simply has to accept that while Napa winemakers have adopted the language of the Old World, and can talk about finesse and terroir expression with great conviction, what they mean by these terms is not what we Brits mean.” As an example of this, she cites Tim Mondavi’s saying to her, “I never want to taste alcohol,” while she can taste alcohol all through his wines.

These articles and others like them prompted Guy Woodward to an editorial deploring the cultural divide – “Wine, after all, is about democracy, not dictatorship” – even as he honestly reaffirms its existence: “what to a British palate can seem elegant and refined can seem thin and weedy to a US taster.”

Woodward’s assertion that wine is a democracy seems contradicted by Clarke’s emphasis on the dominance of Robert Parker’s scores as the definer of success for California winemakers. Put aside the British wine press’s obsession with Parker, who for most of them is the bête noire of wine: If Clarke is reporting accurately what he was told and what he inferred from his California tour, then indeed California wine producers have elected Parker king and allowed themselves to be buffaloed or bullied into making the big, high-alcohol fruit bombs we think of as, depending on our palates, the epitome or the extreme of California winemaking.

And not just California winemaking either. I have been told by more winemakers than I can count, in Italy and in France, that the undrinkable, high-alcohol, over-wooded concoction I just spat out was not what they drank themselves but “what the market wants.” More specifically, “what the international market wants.” Most specifically, “what Americans want.” My pointing out that I am American and I hate that kind of wine never so much as ruffled an eyebrow: In every case, the winemakers remained supremely confident that they were on the right track and, by clear implication, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I wish I could believe that their serenity was the result of deep and thorough market research – but I really think it was nothing more than the complacency conferred by retaining a high-profile consulting enologist who promised them high scores in the Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator in return for a free hand in the cellar and a large budget for barriques.

That’s not all: comparable to Margaret Rand’s experience with Tim Mondavi, I’ve also had the displeasure of tasting with a producer who assured me that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – taste oak in his wines, an assurance he imperturbably repeated several times as I tried to tell him oak was all that I could taste in his wines.

What do I conclude from all this? First, that to cast the problem as British palate vs. California palate is an oversimplification – in fact, a distortion of the problem. For one thing, the British palate isn’t a single thing, nor is it infallible. For example, many Brits are by my lights way off the mark when it comes to Italian wines. It’s not just that a lot of Brits automatically classify all Italian wine as plonk, though many still do. But even MWs often find Italian wines hyper-acidic or too tannic or unbalanced: They don’t fit the pattern of the French and German wines that have been for so long “Britain’s own,” as it were, and which are the norm by which they consciously or unconsciously judge all other wines. Not a bad norm, I’ll concede – but hardly universal or exhaustive. For another thing, there are European producers and consumers, including a fair fraction of Brits, who like fruit bombs and new oak.

Then too, the US palate isn’t a single thing either. There are California producers and American consumers who have much more Europe-oriented palates than the mass-market or cult-market in the States would indicate. The US is not a single market, and the sooner producers begin dealing seriously with that fact, the better off we will all be. Just in the broadest terms, the Bo-Wash corridor (itself a string of separate markets with differing individual preferences) is radically different from, again in the broadest terms, the West Coast or the Southeast.

It makes more sense to me to see this whole palatal knot as, at least in metaphoric terms, a “generational” problem – and in these terms the so-called American palate serves as an illuminating example. It’s not that long ago – a generation back, let us say – that the US thought of itself as a beer-and-whiskey country, and wine was a very isolated affectation. In fact, the US then was, and to a large extent still remains, a milk and soft drink country, and the palatal learning curve to ascend from those two drinks to what Bordeaux and Barolo used to be is steep indeed. Another generation has been riding that road for some years now: Some folks got off at the Boone Farms station, some at Lambrusco, some went on to Napa Cabernet in the hugely fruited, soft tannin style (Parkersville or Spectatortown), while a few even worked their way in a different direction and ended up with traditional-style Rioja and Taurasi and Hermitage and Ridge Montebello Cabernet.

People drink what they are comfortable with, and what they’re comfortable with is, in most cases, what they’re used to (just like the British sailors in the Aubrey-Maturin novels). A better wine will eventually change most people’s palates – if they have a palate to start with (face it: most people don’t actually taste what they put in their mouths), and if we can get producers to make it and consumers to try it.

Big ifs – but Ridge and some other estates that break the California stereotype have been showing for years that it can be done profitably. Now is the time for those producers who currently tell us – or themselves – that they’re making the wine the market wants to drink to start making the wines that they themselves like to drink. (Believe me, I’m not speaking here just of California, by any means.) That, my friends, would indeed be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

*    *    *

It’s been a long, hard summer, and Ubriaco needs a nap. Look for my next post after the middle of the month — say around the 22nd/23rd. Thanks for your attention all through the heat, the earthquake, and the hurricane.

8 Responses to “US Palates and Brit Reviewers”

  1. Cynthia Davidson Says:

    I am a small acreage vinifera grower. I regularly attend grape and wine conferences. Most evenings there is a BYOB event and winemakers bring their latest. While a few are really good wines, some are utterly horrible. Chemical, oddly colored, hot concoctions in a bottle.

    What is the best way – the best words to use – to respond to these winemakers who ask you to try their wine. When they ask “How do you like it?” I try to find something positive to say when all I want to do is spit it out and yell “ick”. I am not a winemaker but have MANY industry friends who are. I want to be tactful but honest. If it were me, I’d want to know before I sent it out to the public. But people are so emotional about their “handcrafted product”. I would be too after all that time and expense! But really, some of it is just nasty. Please advise, thank you.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Cynthia: I know what you mean — as does every other wine journalist in the world. It is a real problem, when you know a person has put heart and soul into a wine that you find undrinkable. Most journalists I know try to be tactful, to say something positive before registering the problems. What works best is something on the order of “I can see this is a carefully made wine, but it’s just not a style I can drink with pleasure. Don’t you find the tannins (or acid, or fruit) too aggressive?” From there you can usually (though not always, alas) move into a rational discussion of the wine and the winemaker’s choices. Remember too that you are always entitled to your own palate, and any opinion that you couch in terms of your personal tastes is unarguable: the winemaker may not be pleased by it, but no one can tell you that it isn’t what you taste.

      There is no perfect solution for the problem: kindness, tact, and as much honesty as the situation will bear are the only guidelines. Good luck!

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Hi Tom:
    This article makes some very important observations. Apart from empiric statements about palates and critics, you nicely underscore what is at stake here: the very range and variety of wine and wine styles. I am reminded of a remark Hugh Johnson made about the scent of truffles on the nose and palate of a wine: it is what Burgundians note in burgundy and what Barolans note in Barolo. I suppose the point of this witticism is that terroir is in the nose and palate of the beholder, that tasters taste what they look to taste, that wine is as objective as it is subjective.
    But what is terroir if not the rapport among soil, topography, climate and taster? What do we glean from noting that the Brit sees elegance where the American sees weedy thinness, except that some Brits look for things in a wine that some Americans do not? Quite frankly, it is a matter of wine experience and knowledge. I cut my teeth on Barolos, Chianti Classicos and Chateauneufs from the 1960s and 70s, but also on Pommards and Volnays from those years. As a consequence of this experience, I have a greater tolerance for ‘difference’ than most of my younger co-tasters. While I could easily understand the pleasure in California Cab’s from the 70s and 80s, my younger colleagues would never understand a 1978 Borgogno or Fontanafredda Barolo.
    Nonetheless, it is perfectly clear that Parker has recreated wine in his own image (without touching a pruner, I might add). And, ironically, this is the single most important fact in the democracy of winedom: the field is flatter because all wines want those Parker points, which sell wine. Is anyone surprised that so many wines are fat, heady, jammy, oaked and overwrought? Terroir is lost in the democratization of the winery/cellar. It is just not safe for a wine that wants to be marketable to have a personality these days; there is comfort in likeness, at least for producers who must move a product.
    So, yes, Tom: it’s not about American vs. British palates, Californian vs. European wines or American vs. Brit critics. It’s about length and breadth, the usefulness of a variety of wines, the joys of tasting wines that want to make a difference, and supporting wine makers who want to make them different.
    Joe Calandrino

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Very eloquently stated, Joe. Vive la difference! It’s what makes wine so endlessly interesting: without it, we would all perish of boredom.

  3. VN MADE » What We’re Reading Says:

    […] Tom’s Wine Line: Are a Americans and a British distant not usually by a common denunciation though by their tastes in wines, too? Decanter pronounced as much, though Tom Maresca says that’s a sum oversimplification. — Eric Asimov […]

  4. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Yes- very well- written and well -reasoned but we do not have the same take on Ridge!

  5. Arto Koskelo Says:

    I find Ridge amazing. Geyserville is a superb wine, especially if you think it’s a blend full of notoriously high octane Cally Zin. Cheap stuff compared to all these silly Pinot soups. Let them score hornies sip what Suckling and Parker suggest. Suits a selfish cheapskate opportunist like myself fine;)

  6. Jonathan Levine Says:

    Well-written and ever more well-reasoned


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