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Thoughts on Sparkling Wine
If you stick your nose in the air, you’ll miss some good ones
This incredible quote from wine writer Alan Richman in the December issue of Bon Appetit seemed to demand comment:
“Say what you will about California Sparklers – which are to French Champagne what paddlefish eggs are to beluga caviar – they will not transport you to a fantasy world, unless you are enthralled by the Napa Valley wine train. Sparkling wines that are not Champagne structurally lack finesse, enologically they lack bouquet, and sentimentally they lack ostentation.”
I know that all people who write about wine, myself included, are all wine snobs of one sort or another – but I'm sorry, I just can't let that piece of utter balderdash stand. The true Bordeaux snob believes that Cabernet grapes were meant to grow in places with inconsistent growing seasons and not enough sun just because Bordeaux is where it was first planted. And they are no different than the foolish Mr. Richman, who seems to believe that since the cool Champagne region typically produces underripe grapes, then all sparkling wines should be lean and acidic.
Whenever I hear someone as pretentious as Mr. Richman wax on about how "only Champagne is Champagne," I have to wonder if they realize that it puts them at the same ostentation level as the people dumb enough to order Roederer Cristal for $600 a bottle in New York hip-hop clubs.
All Champagne is sparkling wine made through the "Methode Champenoise." But not all sparkling wine is Champagne. True Champagne can legally only come from the Champagne region of France. Having said that, I think that Northern California produces rich and exquisite sparkling wines that more than rival those of France. And, if you look at the names on the bottles, the French do too.
The French have literally colonized the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The brand-name sparklers being produced in California reads like a "Who's Who" of French Champagne families. Mumm, Piper Heidseick, Roederer, Chandon – even the Spanish have gotten into the act, with the famous Freixenet family owning Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma.
After my tirade about Richman's Champagne article was published in our weekly newsletter, I received these comments from Manhattan-based wine writer Bill Marsano:
Cher Wine Guy:
You are right but a little too kind: Alan Richman’s outburst of pomposity reeks strongly of his having won – and placed too much stock in – too many James Beard awards. In this case his opinion would probably embarrass Beard, who did not much indulge in snobbery. Richman is a food writer, not a wine writer. I don’t say that only wine writers can speak on wine but do suggest that his credentials are perhaps just a bit weak. But be that as it may what is beyond the pale here is that part that goes “sentimentally they lack ostentation.” In short, they don’t cost enough. Anyone who moves that close to saying wine must be expensive to be good is perilously close to the jackass end of the scale.
I don’t object so much to “transport you to a fantasy world.” It too is balderdash, poppycock and fol-de-rol, but it is more or less harmless except in the cases of wine beginners who expect such claptrap to be true and so may be permanently disappointed. Let all remember the only two things anyone needs to know about what others say about wine:
1. It is never as good as they say.
2. It is never as bad as they say.
Did you see the ‘never’ in there? I 'm not kidding.
Richman’s blather stands in opposition to a pair of other opinions recently expressed by wine writers on the same subject. One come from Wine Spectator's Matt Kramer, who was delightedly surprised by Gruet Blanc des Noirs NV. He didn't say "not bad for New Mexico." He didn’t say "not bad for non-French." He said "this stuff is amazingly good."
The other opinion came from the Wall Street Journal’s regular husband-and-wife wine writers. They reported going to a party at the Park Avenue apartment of someone who could afford to buy the best without thinking or blinking (as if they could not, since the WSJ pays for all their test wines). Anyway, for that reason they expected to have some really terrific wines, and that they did. When they showered their host with compliments on his bubbly, he took them aside, showed them the bottled and crowed, “$9.95!” The conclusion I draw from this is that the WSJ’s team doesn’t know expensive Champagne for beans. Instead they know good Champagne at any price, and are not afraid to say so. Here’s to ‘em.
You may be wondering what’s going on here. It’s simple. There’s a backlash that aims to restore snobbery to its noxious place in wine. The economy’s back up and those profiting from it are back to spending much more. Since all they have to preen themselves on is the price they pay, they have to say it’s better and will occasionally find a Richman or two to support their desperate need. At the same time there’s a cosmic convergence or outflow of feng shui or similar tosh in the air. It’s this: An awful lot of people are showing resentment at the continuing democratization of wine – its growing popularity, its continuing decline in price. Its resolute unpretentiousness. People oh-my-gawd are paying under ten smackers a bottle! They are drinking Twin Fin and Charles Shaw and Yellowtail and Riot Grrrl and Dog House and who know what-all else and enjoying it! They are drinking from screwcaps and tetra paks and bags in boxes! Heavens to Betsy! (as my Mom used to say).
Back in the day, wine snobs used to be able to get away with their poisonous crap, but they’re losing their grip. Globalization is killing them because the net effect of globalization is more good wine and better prices more easily available to more and more wine drinkers. Not very many of whom are willing to put up with class distinctions.
Here endeth the Lesson!
December 28, 2005 & January 4, 2006