It’s a new month, it’s a new Wine Writing Challenge! As always, the theme was chose by the last winner, The Sybarite, and his choice was “Values”. I’m looking forward to reading what people will come up with, in the meantime, here is my entry. I hope you will excuse the very academic title, just a shout out to high school French students now taking their philosophy baccalaureat exam.
Values, tradition, and the value of change
“Values” is a tricky word, so many possible meanings… When in doubt, I like to start with a quote; it helps settle the issue at hand and give perspective. I think something important about values was formulated by an early 21st century philosopher, Seth McFarlane: “It seems today that all we see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely?” A good question if I ever heard one.
“Good old-fashioned values”– that sounds like something I can work with. Let’s just go through other possibilities: San Francisco values (too political), Addams Family values (too black and white), Risk-adjusted business value (too from my day job). You know what, I’ll stick with the “good old fashioned values.”
And it’s not because that expression contains the name of a great cocktail; I actually have things to say about the idea of good old-fashioned values in wine. Added bonus: this angle allows me to channel and use what is pretty much my only advantage against the other writers in the competition, the fact that I’m French. It’s kind of a dumb thing to leverage, but we must all focus on our strengths, right?
There is something in the French psyche that can drive me insane when I think about it too much: it’s the rampant, pervasive and maddening conservatism. To foreigners, a common French trope is the constant striking and demonstrating in the streets. This trope holds true, but what people don’t realize is that strikers do not ask for more, they just protest change and reform. There is entitlement here, but I think there is also a fear and rejection of change and evolution. Let’s continue to do things this way because that is the way we always did them.
French winemakers and French wine can have a tendency to hold on tight to those good old-fashioned values. I am not saying it’s a bad thing; I just have a problem when people do things a certain way just because it’s tradition without even considering potentially better ways.
To be fair, this reliance on tradition is more prevalent in Burgundy and Bordeaux, the two classical wine growing regions. Bordeaux wine still relies on a classification of Grand Crus dating back from 1855, with only one Chateau changing ranks (Mouton Rothschild moving from second to first in 1973). As for Burgundy, most of the terroirs were classified by monks in the Middle-Ages. As you can see, there is a premium on tradition here.
And to an extent, it makes sense, because tradition really is part of the brand. When you buy a bottle of Bordeaux, you pay not only for the wine but also for the name, the tradition, the aura of Bordeaux. That’s why things tend to move slowly there. And I’m not just talking about wine-making techniques; even marketing, sales channels and labels tend to emphasize tradition and old-fashionedness.
Bordeaux labels will depict the Chateau, and Burgundy labels will aim for an old-timey feel with cursive letters, family crest or even faux-parchment labels. Once again, those characteristics are part of what you pay for. They’re the cultural trappings of the wine. In a way, it’s akin to buying Apple products: you’re paying for more than just a phone or a computer, there’s a mystique you buy in, some turtleneck clad values you display to the world while making a purchase.
Maybe I’m overthinking this? You’re right, I’m totally overthinking this. Anyway, traditional winemaking values are being challenged in France, but you’ll have to explore less iconic regions to see it. It’s not very surprising: Bordeaux and Burgundy rely on their traditional, high value image, and they are shackled by restrictive and strict labelling laws. When you move down in the hierarchy of appellations, you have more freedom and you can have some fun.
Take the Loire Valley for example. It’s definitely an old region of France, and one with strong ties to French history, but its wine industry doesn’t overly play the old-fashioned card. In a way that wine region is less scrutinized than Bordeaux, and so producers can try things out, stretch boundaries and get away with it. Here’s one of my favorite wine labels.
Can you imagine a Burgundy producer going with something like that? That would shatter a painfully constructed image and go exactly against their commercial and advertising policy. The good old-fashioned values are part of wine culture, especially the French wine culture, and for the most part it’s a good thing. My problem is, sometimes those values can get in the way of fun.
And I like having fun. I mean, given the choice between having fun, being bored and feeling miserable, I will probably pick having fun 99% of the time. When I tell people I’m into wine, I sometimes feel that their minds race to words that start with an “s,” like snobby, stuffy or serious. Wine should be fun; you should be able to like a wine because the bottle looks cool, you don’t need to know the ancestry of a wine producer over the last twelve generations to enjoy his wine. The heritage, the values are part of what makes a wine, but if they are the only thing it has to offer, then, well, that does not sound appealing. I don’t like tradition for the sake of tradition but I don’t like change for the sake of change either.
I know I might sound like a hypocrite because I do write a blog dedicated to learning as much as I can about wine, about the winemaking, the varieties, the producers…. And I love doing so; it’s a significant and happy part of my life. I just don’t want it to come at the expense of enjoying wine for what it is, a fun way to get a few friends together. Here are my wine values, I don’t know if they are “old-fashioned,” I’m not sure if they are “good,” they are probably not “good old-fashioned,” but they’re mine. Now I just need to find a way to get a few more of that skull and bones bottle !