"Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée" by Joe Dressner
There was one theme that came up at every vigneron I visited this past summer.
L' Agrément is literally the granting of the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée to a wine. Every year, in every region, there is a process by which the producers of each AOC judge the work of their peers and decide if it merits the name of the AOC. The origins of this system date back centuries in spirit, although legally it was formulated in the 1930s. The idea was that system defends the consumer -- it guarantees that the wine bought by the consumer actually comes from the region, village or vineyard on the label. It also guarantees that the wine is not flawed and most importantly that the wine is typique.
Typique means literally that the wine is typical. Typical in the sense that the wine expresses a terroir and typical in the sense that it conforms to the norms of the appellation. What exactly defines normative is the gray area that is being discussed all over France. Because, essentially, the aromatic and taste norms are being defined all over France by the majority in each AOC.
And here is where we get into a dangerous zone, the tyranny of the majority. If the bulk of Touraine's Sauvignons Blancs are overcropped, lean, acidic and bitter, then something richer and more interesting is automatically atypical and outside the norms of the AOC.
French vignerons tend to be a conservative bunch and intolerant of marginal characters. They also tend to be a close-knit and jealous lot. The Didier Dagueneaus who get four to five times the price of their neighbors by producing a wine that is perceived by the majority to be eccentric and made by eccentric viticultural and oenological practices quickly find that some of their wines are not accepted as typique and are declassified by the majority into Vins de Table. Same for Eloi Durbach, Jean Thévenet and so many more well-known vignerons.
Of course, these are the celebrities. Below them are a movement of vignerons who are working hard in their vineyards, who are harvesting by hand, producing low yields, working with wild yeasts, not concentrating, not enzyming and not spoofulating. They are simply making real wines, that in a better world would be the models for their terroir. Instead they have become pariahs.
Their wines are often eliminated from the AOC, or grudgingly accepted after several appeals, because, in the current context of mediocrity, they are aberrant.
Unfortunately for these vignerons, those who do not have the reputations of a Durbach or Dagueneau, a declassification into Table Wine or Vin de Pays can often have disastrous financial results. When Jean-Paul Brun is told that his beautiful Beaujolais Rouges are atypique and have to be declassified into table wine -- without vintage, without the name of the grape variety, without the name of the estate (restrictions that are obligatory for Table Wine) -- which of his customers are going to buy the wine?
The French vineyards have grown exponentially since the war and various AOCs have doubled, tripled or quadrupled in size. Many of them use high-producing clonal selections and mechanical agricultural work that, by definition, make a different product than the "mavericks" who are still making real wine based on the raw materials that defined that terroir in the first place. As sales go bad all over France, the tendency is for the majority to get even more intolerant and to apply more pressure to the marginals.
Perhaps the best thing would be to go the route of Italian wines and start declaring wines as Table Wines as an alternative to the AOC system. Because it is apparent that it is the producer and not the AOC that makes the difference. A Vouvray from B&G and a Vouvray from Domaine Huet are both from the same AOC but the regional indicator tells us nothing about the actual quality in the bottle.
As an American, it always amazes me that any real estate mogul can hire a consultant, buy grapes, start a winery in California and fetch $50.00 a bottle. But a Muscadet is a Muscadet is a Muscadet and no matter how good the work is, no matter how good the wine, a Muscadet ought to cost under $10.00. Maybe a top cuvée can go for $12.00. And, if you lose the AOC Muscadet because the wine is judged as being too rich, you are in VDP which has to cost $5.99 retail. Or less.
Each AOC in France has a range of acceptable prices that goes with the range of acceptable flavors and aromatics. Whether it be Gevrey-Chambertin Village or Cairanne. Occasionally, there is the Dagueneau and other wine celebrities who can transcend the built-in barriers. Sometimes, a rave review from Robert Parker or The Wine Spectator can also aid a producer to transcend their regional limits. But, on the whole, the wine trade and wine public are delighted to see normative price restraints hold sway. Even though the real estate mogul in California can get $50.00 a bottle for his first effort.
This sounds like a good system. Everybody is supposed to like lower prices and lower prices are to the advantage of the consumer. The problem is that costs are not equal -- the maverick vigneron who works at low yields and takes every expense to ensure the best possible grapes come into his cuverie and the best possible wine goes into the bottle has another level of expense than the neighbor who machine harvests and uses industrial winemaking techniques. There are no migrant laborers in France and labor is extremely expensive. Somewhere along the line, there has to be a financial incentive for vignerons to work harder and better.
In the current market, the vigneron who works well is harassed by his peers in the AOC and then forced to sell his wine at about the same prices as his neighbors who sell average, mediocre or horrible wine. Isn't it time that we in the wine trade try to motivate the public and motivate our customers to understand that there is a relationship between what the consumer pays and what the consumer gets in the bottle?
In touring around America, I notice that many of the younger people in the trade respect a meritocracy and not an appellation hierarchy. People new to the trade have been trained in California wine, not in French wines, and judge the producer, not the region. If a Côtes-du-Rhône is delicious, then it doesn't matter that it is not going to cost $9.99 retail. Hopefully, this trend will continue.
In France, they are still a long way off. The French drinking public still views their wines through the prism of the AOC and expects a certain fourchette of prices, often beginning at rock bottom. Enormous supermarket chains, selling at low mark-ups, dominate the French wine trade and encourage this tendency.
Let's be reasonable. We have a three tier system here. A wine that costs $9.99 retail usually leaves the vigneron's cellar at $3.00 to $3.50. A producer wants to make $5.00 and everyone in the American trade considers him a thief! So the inclination in the trade is to buy from the cheapest sourcing out there to keep the prices low in the market and to turnover inventory. OK, wine distribution is not a non-profit business and we are looking to make money. But isn't part of our responsibility to explain to our customers and to the public why it is worth paying something extra for good and great wine?
Hopefully, the time will come when the buying public buys a wine for the quality of the wine and not for the perceived reputation of the AOC. Until that time, the abuse of the majority will dominate the vineyards of France and restrict what we are able to get into the hands of consumers. Let's work together to try to turn this situation around.
"Spoof or Die" by Joe Dressner
From a post on joedressner.com originally titled A Christmas Spooftide Carol!
Spoofulation is a form of manipulation which takes wine away from nature and into the technological world of fake extraction, fake aromatics, fake flavors, fake density, fake acidity, fake tannin levels, fake color and fake sugar levels.
Basically, fake wines.
Unfortunately, much of the debate in the wine world is over "new world" vs "old world" wines, pitting "traditionalists" against "innovators." This is simply not a productive juxtaposition as the bulk of wine in the old world which aspires to go beyond plonk, much as in the new world, is being made for marketers rather than wine lovers. We're stuck in a vicious cycle where new consumers expect wine to be spoofed, buy spoof and spoof dominates what is available. Oenologists, consultants and winemakers, who are running businesses after all, have no choice but to spoofulate or they go out of business.
Spoof or die.
Wine is becoming less a natural product and more a manufactured beverage. McSpoof. This is as true in Burgundy as it is in Oregon as it is true in Napa as it is true in Australia as it is true in the Priorat.
Those who enjoy spoof often create a straw man argument that anti-spoofers are intellectuals who don't enjoy fruit driven and hedonistic wines. Whenever I taste these "fruit driven, hedonistic" wines that I read about in the wine press, I always have to wonder which fruits people have in mind. Certainly, nothing that grows in nature, nothing that comes from the ground. Most of these fruit bombs taste more like cherry cough syrup than any fruit I've put in my mouth. I never find it hedonistic to drink wines made in this style, a style that reminds me of the type of flavored medications my mother used to make me take when I was a child with assurances that "its good for you." Snapple based on fermented grapes is not my notion of wine hedonism.
Hedonism is about pleasure and what makes wine pleasurable and fabulous for me is when there is the balance, minerality, the fruit, the acidity, the structure, the sense of place and time that makes me want to empty my glass. I find it hedonistic when wine enlarges my senses, rather than when it is molded by someone else for their notion of market utility.
It ain't old world vs. new world. It ain't intellectuals vs. hedonists. It is real wine vs. spoof.
Granted, with some regretable simplification.
So, that's why I blog, to the embarassment of my loved ones and colleagues. Since the press does not have this view of wine, I have been active on my blog and in some of the wine boards for the past five or six years and have tried to talk up and popularize this notion of wine. Blogging and wine boards have given me a forum to present these ideas.
All this being said, I have nothing against people enjoying wine I find anti-hedonistic and anti-nature. I don't stop people in the street and rip the Coca-Cola or Snapples out of their hands. Some of my best friends like manufactured "fruit bombs."
So, honestly, I don't see why the self-proclaimed hedonists are so keen to condemn wines made naturally for another sensibility. I always enjoy looking into the Robert Parker wine board, where you get the impression that Parker is a isolated voice in the wilderness being bludgeoned by powerful British wine critics. For Christ's sake (and this is the Christmas season, after all), the man wields incredible power and wants to present himself as a persecuted crusader. Similarly, many lovers of new world spoof feel they have to lash out at people who like harmonious, natural wines.
Blogging has been a way for me to get my message out there about another style of wine than what the industry, press and trade are pushing. As it turns out, there are quite a number of you out there.
Thanks for all your support and a Merry Christmas to you and all your loved ones.
And don't forget our Jewish friends out there.
"A Wine's Personality" by Joe Dressner
There's always a lot of debate about whether a wine reflects a terroir or the intervention of the winemaker. I've been too busy watching the Tour de France the past three weeks to participate in any of these debates. It was a great Tour, a superb Tour, and I will long remember the hard, hot days in the Alps and Pyrenees.
Getting back to wine: the only way to understand the personality of a wine is to get to know the personality who made the wine.
This is a lot of work and requires an investment of time, money and energy. Language skills are also required.
I drank a bottle of Paul Pernot Puligny-Montrachet Folatiéres 1986 for lunch yesterday. With a delicious Charolais veal roast bought from M. Bataillard of Azé.
Paul Pernot has a reputation in Puligny as being a savage who talks to no one and who wants no one to talk to him. He is in his late 60s, looks very much like a peasant who has spent enormous time in sun-drenched vineyards and remains an aloof recluse in his native village. He is also an important landowner, with the largest plot of Folatiéres 1er Cru, and has a formidable collection of motorcycles (he likes to ride Harleys) and antique Mercedes. He looks like an agrarian worker, but in truth he is a rather wealthy peasant.
We've been selling his wines for quite a number of years now. It took us about a year to get an appointment -- at the time he was heavily lauded by The Wine Advocate and simply was not interested. My wife would call and Pernot would refuse an appointment. More or less, he would hang up on her. Finally, Denyse (my wife) called and got Pernot's wife, who was perfectly polite and gave us an appointment.
We arrived, Pernot told us he was busy and only had five minutes, and somehow we managed to hit it off with the guy and he agreed to sell us wine. Pernot was extremely reserved during this encounter, but we walked away with a decent feeling about the guy.
About a year later (maybe in 1991), we came with a New Jersey retailer, the retailer's wife, and our daughter (who was about three years old). Pernot has a grandaughter the same age as our daughter. Our daughter got bored and had a fit on the floor of Pernot's cellar as we were tasting the latest vintage of Bâtard. Quite literaly, she rolled on the floor screaming and crying and demanding that we leave immediately. In perfect French though.
The retailer and his wife were horrified. They had been all nervous to go taste with the mythic Paul Pernot (he was getting 95s in Parker) and to be tasting a range of grandiose Burgundy appellations. Afterward, they told us that they had been horribly embarassed by our daughter's behavior in the middle of serious dégustation. Pernot smiled as we left and told us to come back at the end of August to taste the vintage after it was bottled.
Since then, Pernot always asks us about our daughter and discusses Alyce's fit in his cellar with great fondness. When we visit him, we invariably leave with gifts of old vintages to drink at our home in the Mâconnais.
As years go by, Pernot turns out not only to be friendly with us, but almost gushingly so. The man banters and tells small jokes as we taste, discussing old vintages, Puligny in the old days, and how Burgundy has changed over the decades. We discuss our children, his grandchildren and the future of the wine market. He gives us samples from other vignerons he has met, including a bottle several years ago of Bois de Boursan Châteaneuf-du-Pâpe, a bottle that turned into a phone call to the proprietor, that turned into a visit, that turned into a commercial relationship. Jean-Paul Versino who makes this delicious Châteauneuf aways tells us that Paul Pernot is his image of a vigneron. Versino likes to visit Pernot and often goes up to Puligny with a Belgian customer he shares with Pernot. For Versino, as for Denyse and I, the visits to Paul Pernot are immensely enjoyable, personal and gratifying.
The 1986 Folatiéres I drank today was incredibly fresh, forward, honeyed, rich and with a touch of botrytis. What an example of Chardonnay from a grand terroir! Seventeen years since it was harvested, it was almost painfully expressive and demonstrative. We truly regretted coming to the end of the bottle.