As a smallish wine blog operation (only 50,000 views yesterday – wait, which way do I move the decimal?), at some point I should rail against the globalization of wine, the homogenization that is slowly squeezing out the individual efforts and expressions of small wineries around the world. And I should decry the 100-point scale used by most influential eno-writers, urging my readers to toss aside their Wine Spectator iPhone app and discover new wines the old fashioned way…by selecting at random! Well, no, although closing your eyes and picking a bottle can be an interesting little game of wine roulette (“…a 2000 Léoville-Las Cases. Hmmm, might be good…”)
I’m not going to do that, though. First off, what is a flying winemaker? He or she is a consultant with a reputation for making quality wine (often as judged by the most influential wine critics) who travels the world, applying his or her expertise at great expense to the client. Flying winemakers have been credited with turning around declining operations and for getting small wineries on the map, usually with a favorable review from a wine critic. They have also been demonized for promoting “sameness” in wines around the world. Wineries who use their services are said to have lost their individual expression of place, or terroir.
Michel Rolland is one of the most famous, and notorious, flying winemakers in the world. Robert Parker is one of the most influential wine critics in the world. Rolland’s style tends to light up Parker’s palate, so wineries work to bring Rolland in to make a wine that will score the coveted 90+ point rating, a score that practically guarantees a vintage sell-out. Now you can imagine what happens when Rolland consults for a Cabernet Sauvignon in Chile and a Cabernet Sauvignon in Australia. They tend to taste rather similar. They might both get Parker ratings of 91, you buy them from your local wine shop’s over-90-under-$20 bin, and you think, “Wow, I really like Cabernets from Chile and Australia.” In truth, you like Cabernets from Michel Rolland.
Is this bad for the industry? According to California’s Wine Institute, per capita consumption of wine in the US has risen almost every year since the early nineties. And winemakers throughout the world’s most important growing regions continue eschewing the services of international consultants in favor of working to express the character of their land through their wine, even if it doesn’t impress a particular critic. So people are still enjoying wine, and wineries keep making quality, expressive wine.
I see parallels in this debate to another that pops up occasionally in golf. Many of the greatest golfers prior to the 1990s had very unique swings. Think Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Miller Barber, Seve Ballasteros. These were swings that you could match with the person even if you were only watching a silhouette. Many long-time golf fans lament the passing of an era in which swings were forged alone on the range over countless hours of figuring out how to make a golf ball do what one wanted it to do. These players were famous for doing things with the ball that the masses could only dream of doing.
Many of today’s swings are instead forged in golf camps and schools, taught by instructors who know the “perfect” golf swing in their head and work hard to make each student produce that image on the course. As the more-talented and more-dedicated of the players reach college, their swings are further honed by higher-priced coaches with essentially the same image. Eventually, the swings that make it onto the PGA Tour and into your home week after week look very much the same. The critics say that these players are very good at hitting the ball straight, but they lack the ability to shape a shot. They say that an essential piece of the game is being lost to the cookie-cutter swing that kids learn around the world.
Is this bad for the game? It’s hard to argue with the explosion of golf’s popularity in the US and throughout the world over the last 15 years. And nobody is being forced to bring a certain swing into competition. Allen Doyle had quite a bit of success in recent years on the PGA Champions Tour with a swing that could hardly be called run-of-the-mill.
My view is that if there is a demand, why fight the people that fill it? If it’s not your cup of tea, so to speak, you are free to avoid their product. If you want to swing like Happy Gilmore and drink an obscure Chardonel from Indiana, nobody can stop you. Perhaps the best thing to take from this post is the motivation to learn more about the wines you enjoy. Who makes them? How is the juice manipulated? But in the end, if your favorite golfer keeps winning and your favorite wines are made by the same consultant, does it really matter?