The headlines scream disarray.
“Public perception of French wine quality is dealt another crushing blow in the Re-Judgment of Paris!”
“Consumers furious over greedy price gouging on the part of the top Bordeaux!”
“The OIV appoints a (gasp) New World-er as President!”
Yet even as all seems lost for the French, a lone hero appears in the distance. Sun at his back and astride a shaggy yellow pony, a mysterious man cuts an imposing figure across the French countryside.
Never fear faithful Francophiles! Eric Asimov’s on the beat to save the day for the Gauls!
As an added bonus, watch as he skillfully wields the Broad Brush of Hyperbole against two stupefying straw men of his own creation, the dreaded New World Producers and their smarmy sidekicks, the New World Journalists.
Come with us now as we join our hero just paragraphs into his performance. Let’s watch as he builds up the strength necessary to vanquish these twin heralds of misinformation and boorishness:
New World producers and journalists like to jeer at the sacred French notion of terroir as a myth constructed to preserve French status in the industry, and they laugh at the rigidity of the French appellation rules, which dictate what French growers can plant, where they can plant it, and how they should tend the vines. The European Union’s recent decision to spend millions of dollars in an effort to diminish a European wine glut by digging up vineyards and turning excess wine into ethanol contributed to a confused perception of industry-wide crisis. The perception springs from an oversimplification of the French wine business, and no doubt a bit of wishful thinking.
The latest chorus of American gloating was heard around the time of the 30th anniversary celebration of the Paris tasting, even as many of these same gloaters were lining up to pay record prices for the heralded 2005 vintage of Bordeaux.
Ahh yes, our hero can lay it on thick can’t he? Substitute “their inherent everlasting superiority” for “terroir” in the first passage above and he may just be onto something. And as for the stultifying rigidity of the A.O.C. wine laws, well, we Americans aren’t above a healthy polemical jibe now and again, are we Eric? Ha Ha!
But let’s get back to the action.
Now he takes aim at a specific target. Let’s watch him unleash his righteous fury on the uncouth Americans hacking away at the San Francisco Chronicle and in Hollywood.
“SacrÃ© bleu! Make that red, white and blue,” Linda Murphy wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle, which can perhaps be forgiven for boosterish support of an industry in its backyard. In maybe the unkindest blow of all, Hollywood is apparently considering a movie version of the original event, based on the book “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine” (Scribner, 2005), by George M. Taber.
Maybe it’s payback for years of supercilious French sneering at the American wine industry. Or maybe Americans just need to lash out to pump themselves up with competitive energy, like football players pounding their lockers in an adrenalin-fueled frenzy. Any way you look at it, American wine partisans have got themselves a punching bag and they call it France.
At last Asimov reveals his single weakness; His kryptonite. It is one which he shares with some of those he has sworn to protect: skin thinner than a Pinot noir grape.
Linda Murphy’s fairly lame turn of phrase has pierced his amour, and just the thought of Hollywood making a movie about the historic Paris tasting, which incidentally changed an entire industry, leaves his blood cold.
Yet even as Asimov grapples with such willfully cruel behavior in the second graph, it’s clear that our hero is given over to his virtuous – even uncanny – ability to comprehend and empathize with all sides in a dispute. He concedes that the French have been, perhaps, a bit pompous in the past. But in doing so Asimov comes too close to the evil which he has sworn to vanquish.
He quickly recovers himself and deftly launches another attack on the brutish American wine partisans, John Wayne types really, safely protected by the Guise of Journalistic Objectivity.
Truly, this is a craftsman at work.
Unfortunately the heart of our hero’s argument is the rather mundane observation that there are different classes, levels of “quality” if you will, of French wine. Here even a man of his skill comes off sounding at once pedantic and defensive when shouldering such an obvious load.
What’s crucial to understand is that France has two entirely different wine economies, and one should not be confused with the other. The first produces oceans of cheap, occasionally palatable wine, sold for immediate consumption under lowly appellations, like plain Bordeaux or Beaujolais, for example, rather than the more prestigious and more specific St.-Julien or JuliÃ©nas. This industry is indeed in a deep crisis, with many growers hurting badly. Historically, much of this wine was for domestic consumption, and this segment has taken the biggest hit as the market has shrunk…
The other industry makes the middle to high-end wines, those sold around the world, consumed in restaurants and reviewed in publications like Wine Spectator. Producers like Sylvain Pitiot, who makes the seductive, voluptuous Clos de Tart, a grand cru Burgundy, are doing exceptionally well, regardless of how many gallons of French wine the European Union wishes to convert to fuel. Like Clos de Tart, much of the high-quality end of the business is prospering.
Aha! I think I see.
So there are really two wine economies, and, I want to get this right, one sells wine that is reviewed in a magazine called “Wine Spectator”, and does well. And the other, which makes cheap wine, doesn’t.
The mind reels.
At last, with this banal bedrock of reason underfoot, our hero moves in for the kill!
While a further decline on the bottom end of the industry will have a tremendous social and human cost in France, it won’t undermine the greatness of French wines. It’s possible to imagine that France will be joined at the top by countries like Italy and Spain, which produce distinguished, singular wines like Barolo and Rioja, and are working hard to improve the quality in distinctive regions that have long been ignored.
It’s harder to imagine New World countries like the United States and Australia reaching the same pinnacle. Their leading wines, whether made of cabernet, chardonnay, shiraz or pinot noir, will always be measured against the French, and regardless of the blind tasting here or there, few people really take seriously the notion that the New World wines will surpass the French reference points on a large scale.
And thus ends Asimov’s crusade, his Broad Brush dripping with the blood of his New World enemies. With nary a reason for his dramatic conclusion given, the implication seems to be that the inherent greatness of the Old World requires nothing so gauche as an actual affirmative argument for its supremacy.
As in the days of yore, wisdom is to be handed down to the masses from on high, and the dictates of our betters are not to be questioned. Humbled, we bow in submission to the conquering hero, the Champion of Champagne, the Bulwark of Bordeaux, Eric the Grape.