A Round Trip Ticket to Introspection

By Craig Camp
Friday, August 22, 2003

"I'd like a round-trip ticket, please. It's my fiftieth birthday and I'm treating myself," I announced.

"Ah, then you'll be wanting a ticket to Introspection," said the old ticket agent.

"Yes, please. How much does it cost," I asked?

"Your ticket is free," he said with a wry smile. "It's the other passengers that have to pay."

All aboard! Yes I have hit the big five-oh and it is time for of a bit of obligatory introspection on what has happened to wine in the 32 years since I discovered it. It's worth noting that for 29 of those years it was legal for me to drink it.

I'm sitting and staring at two glasses of red wine. Behind them are two large brown paper bags, each containing a bottle. I have been sniffing, swirling, tasting, and re-tasting them for about an hour and diligently taking notes. Finally, having decided that I prefer the wine on the left I remove each of the bottles and place them behind the corresponding glasses of wine. Behind the glass on the left is a large funny shaped bottle of Almaden Claret and on right a large funny shaped bottle of Almaden Burgundy. It is 1975 and I am starting to really get serious about wine, but this is not the beginning of my connoisseurship.

My first experience with "wine" comes during my first week of college. I don't think I've ever seen anyone consume a drop before except in the movies. One of my new dorm mates arrives on the floor with a case of Boone's Farm and (as our throats are extremely dry for some reason I can't seem to remember) we promptly consume the case. My buddies and I spend a good part of that night driving the porcelain bus. As I'm not impressed with this new beverage, I return to my beverage of choice at the time: Leinenkugel beer ($1.99 for a 12-pack of longnecks). For the next few years the only wines that I touch are the Mateus and Lancers Rose wines from Portugal that we buy for special dates and because the empty bottles make cool candle holders.

Then in 1974 I go to Europe to study for a semester and that changes all that. One night in a weinstube in Strasbourg convinces me that wine is something special and before you know it I'm staring at those glasses of Almaden trying to discern the differences in two bottles that probably contain the same wine.

It was so simple then. Everyone knew most of the good wines were French with a smattering of good German, Italian, and California wines thrown in. Everything has changed: the wines, the people selling them, and the people drinking them. Was it really the good old days?

There's no doubt that wine is, overall, technically better today. There are no more disaster vintages like 1972 in Bordeaux, except when vineyards are devastated by hail as La Morra in Barolo was in 2002. There's also no doubt that wines have less individual character now that producers use technical market research and the media to determine the style of wine they make. On the other hand because of the sheer number of people making wine today you can still find producers that are committed to making wines of character as compared to wines of technology. Fortunately for us, you can find these dedicated wine producers making wines loaded with personality in literally every important wine growing region in the world. No longer can any wine region be ignored by connoisseurs as in the past when the entire attention of the wine world was focused on a few regions in France.

The worst changes over the last decades have been skyrocketing prices. Even adjusted for inflation the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy were at least within range for occasional tastings. It is much harder and more expensive to taste the great wines of the world today.

Combined with rising wine prices, the increasing size and cost of glassware is making wine seem even more of an elite beverage for the chosen few. I'm getting a little tired of glassware that can hold an entire bottle. I've always associated using good glassware with having good speakers on your stereo system. Why buy a great stereo and then buy cheap speakers? This analogy no longer seems to hold true, however, as wine glasses are now larger than speakers. There was an old cartoon in the New Yorker where a man sat at a table with a giant glass of wine. In the caption he told the waiter the doctor had told him to cut back to only one glass a wine a day. It was funny then, but it is reality now.

Today there's a widespread belief that California is in its "golden age." I'm not so sure. As I go over my old tasting book and I read my notes and scores from the late seventies and early eighties, those wines sound quite delicious to me now. All the cabernet sauvignons hovered around 12% alcohol and were often aged in large redwood upright casks. They were graceful wines made by wineries like Krug, Martini, Parducci, Wente, and Mirrasou -- and they went well with food. A few were aged in barrique, some of them French and some of them American. No, these wines would not blow away the jaded palates of wine judges today, but they were balanced wines that developed nice complexity after a few years of bottle age. Stony Hill was there making lovely pinot noir and chardonnay while newcomers like Stags Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena joined the already great cabernet sauvignons that had been produced by Beaulieu and Inglenook for years.

In the early eighties the Heublein corporation had absorbed the BV and Inglenook properties and the accountants and MBAs were busily starting to destroy these venerable old names. During this time they hosted an annual charity auction and had a series of tastings in major cities to promote the event. During one of these events they offered vertical tastings of every available vintage of BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Inglenook Cask Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. There were over twenty-five vintages of each wine lined up on tables for you to taste and re-taste to your heart's desire. I spent an entire afternoon just tasting up and down the rows of bottles again and again. This was an extraordinary experience with extraordinary wines. The hotel ballroom was also full of famous bottles from the great chateaux of Bordeaux and these two California wines held their own without a problem. They charged at what in those days was the outrageous sum of $15 to attend.

France seems to have gone to into some kind of schizophrenic fit over the last decades. Thirty years ago French wine had attitude. It was cooler than everybody else and it knew it. The bottles seemed to give you the feeling that there was something wrong with you if you didn't like what was inside. Then in one fell swoop French wine lost its confidence. There was that tasting Steven Spurrier put on in Paris in 1976, which was swept by Napa Valley wines, and then there was Robert Parker and the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux. It was not long before the high extract, high alcohol style overtook terroir everywhere -- even Burgundy. Thankfully, France seems to be getting back its attitude and confidence. Burgundy is once again Burgundy and the wines there may be better than ever. Bordeaux is still getting its courage back, but is starting to show some of that old aristocratic attitude that we used to know and love. One of the benefits of all this change in France has been the improvement in the wines of many lesser appellations. Today France produces a more diverse array of excellent wines than it did in the past. Thank goodness, given the prices of Bordeaux and Burgundy today.

Germany was the entry-level wine for many people thirty years ago. Retail stores bought thousands of cases of Liebfraumilch and Piesporter Michelsberg. They were sweet, light, fruity, and the perfect starting place for palates unaccustomed to dry wines. Then white zinfandel came along and destroyed the German market in the USA. It took decades for the German industry to recover. The good part of this is that now the attention is on quality German wines. Not so many years ago wine lists ignored Germany, but today fine German estate wine is a part of every top wine list. However, German wines are still ignored and misunderstood by most even as many wine experts argue that riesling may produce the greatest food wines on the planet.

The wine producing giants Italy and Spain have been reborn. The wines from these two countries bear little resemblance to those of twenty years ago much less thirty. In the past the massive grape production went mostly into innocuous jug wines for local consumption. Today they are leading the quality charge with a range of bottlings and indigenous vines that bring a wonderful and unique character to their wines. Fortunately, their marketing savvy is improving along with their wines. Remember the famous Chianti bottle wrapped in straw? That straw wrapping is called, in Italian, a fiasco. The disastrous marketing of poor Italian wines in the past introduced this term to the English language. Certainly no other wine producing countries offer the huge potential for such a broad range of quality wines. Italy has a head start on Spain, but I don't think Spain is going to be left behind.

There are so many other changes: The explosion of Australia and the emergence of New Zealand, South American, South Africa, Austria, and other names we never even considered to be significant wine growing areas in the past. The growth of these regions, which are not tied to tradition, has fueled huge advances in the technology and philosophy of winemaking. Some of these changes have been bad and some have been good -- depending your own interests and perspective.

In the past the wines were intimidating, but today it is the sheer number of choices that intimidates.

The first time I order wine in a restaurant I'm nineteen (hey, I look older) and I'm trying to impress a girl. I request a carafe of the house red from the tuxedoed waiter. Upon his return he pours a bit of wine in my glass and waits for my pronouncement. At first I'm unsure what to do, but almost instantaneously my mind recalls some image from an old movie. With calmness and style I lift the glass, swirl, and taste. I look up at the waiter and announce my approval. I'm cool.

Unfortunately wine has become more swaddled in style and pretense than ever. You have to have just the right wine; with just the right food; in just the right glasses; at just the right age; at just the right temperature; made by just the right enologist; with just the right score. Perhaps everyone should start with Boone's Farm and a ride on the porcelain bus.

Speaking of scores:

- N/V Almaden Claret -- 16 points / $1.99 for 1.5 L.
- N/V Almaden Burgundy -- 15.5 points / $1.99 for 1.5 L.