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When it comes to wine, weird is the new normal
TWO TELLING things happened in spring 2008: In March, JP Morgan acquired Bear Stearns for US$2 per share, to stabilise a Wall Street giant, and about a month later, a cohort of wine collectors gathered at Cru restaurant in New York for an auction that marked those swaggery days.
Laurent Ponsot, proprietor of Domaine Ponsot, one of Burgundy's most important domaines, appeared at Cru and stopped the sale of bottles from his property, claiming among other things a bottle of 1929 Clos de la Roche was fake, as the domaine didn't produce the wine until 1934.
Rudy Kurniawan, a then-wine collector accused of orchestrating this and other fradulent wine sales, would go on to be convicted of the biggest wine fraud in history.
Both these events were flashpoints of bigger storms on the horizon. Within months, the financial crisis had consumed a swathe of the economy. And wine collectors reluctantly began to accept that many of them had been had - that their cosseted world had been punctured. What superceded their fancy, status-fixated sphere was a new wine world, one far more democratic and diverse than what had come before.
A little more than 10 years later, it's clear 2008 provided catalysts for both shifts. It may be a matter of debate how much the Great Recession gave way to a stronger economy. But wine, I'd argue, would usher in its greatest transformation - for the better - since right after World War II.
In the late 2000s, we'd had nearly 20 years of big, score-grabbing wines with insane prices to match. That style was honed in the early 1990s, to service critics' preferences, none more than Robert Parker. By 2000, Parker was undisputedly, as Elin McCoy titled her 2006 biography, The Emperor of Wine. By the time writer Alice Feiring published a book three years later purporting that she "saved the world from Parkerisation," his ubiquity was almost a punchline.
In fairness to Parker, he also championed a lot of inexpensive wines and wanted to upend fusty old classifications. But if the changes weren't immediate - Parker's de facto retirement only came in 2016 - the stage for dramatic change was set at the same time the world economy was tanking. While I like to think today's more inclusive (if not yet inclusive enough) wine world was a question of new aesthetics, and the more nuanced tastes of a new generation, it could not have gotten there without economics.
How? As 2009 arrived, a lot of Very Big Deal people suddenly found themselves a lot poorer - or had decided to at least temper their conspicuous spending. The loss of that top tranche of the market prompted an exodus of a lot of these expensive wines from the United States, at least initially to China and elsewhere in Asia. (Bordeaux properties found themselves scrambling after China's anti-corruption campaign began in 2012.) With the mortgage delinquency rate peaking at 11.5 per cent, it became next to impossible to feel sympathy for the one per cent complaining about fake grape juice.
But as the rich made markets for collectible names such as Ponsot, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Comte de Vogue and others - often without the domaines seeing much of that money - it was inevitable the rest of us would have to shift our focus. The rich could keep their Musigny.
And thus appeared a generational opportunity. A new cohort of California winemakers was dissatisfied not only with cult cabernets but also the financial insanity they created.
The new cult winemaker would sell 500 cases of wine at US$40 a bottle, not US$400. The same with French wine outside of Bordeaux and Burgundy; places such as the Loire and Beaujolais spruced up their reputations to become a new must-have item for wine nerds.
Fine wines - the "best" wines - have hardly gone away. But they're now on the fringe of the conversation. Until the 1990s, the prospect of drinking grand cru Burgundy or first-growth Bordeaux was a reasonable splurge, a part of middle-class aspiration. Now they're tokens of irrational exuberance.
Earlier this year, the British trading firm Liv-Ex noted that its Burgundy 150 index, which tracks wine prices as an investment, had reached a level six times that in 2004, outpacing the growth of not only other wines but other investments. (If the Dow Jones industrial average had grown at that rate, it would be at 63,000.)
Increasingly, our obsession with the "best" was replaced by contentment with the very good, wines from regions like those above, with a bit less cachet but also a lot less guilt. If you couldn't afford Burgundy, you started buying Beaujolais, because its quality today matches Burgundy in many cases. Grower champagne, a curiosity at the turn of the century, became the new prestige choice.
These changes were dramatic and global. The styles of wine in nearly every region rapidly evolved. Not just the New California, but the New France, the New Australia, New Spain. Italy. Oregon. Greece. Austria. This shift was generational and aesthetic - children taking over estates and making wines they and their friends would drink. And, almost uniformly, these changes pushed wine towards the lighter and fresher. The French onomatopoeic "glou glou," a natural-wine totem for drinkability, is manifest today, perhaps too much so; some structure in my wine would be nice.
Speaking of natural wine, the concept has boomed in a way impossible to predict 10 years ago. We discussed "natural" in terms of minimalist winemaking, and the notion had risen in France by the 1980s. But "natural" of today, nearly a fashion trend, with restaurants offering natural-only wines, was still protean in 2008.
When Terroir opened in San Francisco a few months before the Great Recession hit in 2007, it was largely a novelty, and when Proof on G Street also arrived in 2007, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema concluded that sommelier Sebastian Zutant was "determined to make wine fun, and accessible."
Today, go to Dio and drink Chilean Cacique Maravilla's orange Vino Naranja, or to Primrose, where Zutant is still doing accessible with style, for a bottle of Lightwell Survey's cabernet franc from Virginia, and it's obvious: This world has nothing to do with wine as it was a decade ago.
Weird is the new normal: chilled reds, canned wine, orange wine, year-round pink wine. I remember being mocked by wine's more reactionary corners for all those things. Today? They're all trending.
This transformation came because 2008 and its aftermath reset the stage and paved a way for a diversity of tastes.
Today's young wine lover dwells in a world where she might well have never heard of Robert Parker, save possibly in a historical sense. But the idea of one person as a benchmark for taste? How quaint.
Today we have the wine equivalent of what media critic Ben Bagdikian once pleaded for: "multiperspectival news." A million voices, Instagramming their favourite bottles.
And is this sea change for the better? In a way, the question is irrelevant. It happened - and fast. While we think of wine as a slow, stoic industry, it can move with astonishing speed.
In retrospect, those of us dissatisfied by the wine world in the 2000s have gotten nearly everything we wanted - in only a decade. As far as wine goes, we're on a better path. Let's hope we never go back. WP
- The writer is also the author of The New Wine Rules (Ten Speed Press, 2017) and the upcoming The New French Wine (Ten Speed Press).