Sunday, March 1, 2015

And the Oscar Goes To...

Here is what I hope is my successful entry for this month's Monthly Wine Writing Challenge--#mwwc15.  (Learn more about the #mwwc here.)I have looked forward to writing this each month I have participated--successful or not--and I look forward to the other successful bloggers' entries.  Keep writing!


           The glitz and glamor of the Oscars--actresses dolled up in designer gowns, draped in thousands of dollars of jewels, and actors looking dapper in tailored tuxedo suits…the red carpet…the acceptance speeches!  This is the pinnacle of moviemaking, the ultimate sign of success in Hollywood.  Getting to take home one of those little gold men, Oscar, means one has really made it. 

Though there are numerous wine awards across the globe—all the way from state fairs to regional conferences to prominent magazine honors—because wine is so subjective, there is no one “Oscar” for the wine world.  There is no single way a wine would be considered successful.  In fact, the definition of success in the wine world probably varies depending on whether you make wine, market wine, or drink wine.

The Marketer
           The marketing and selling of wine might be the easiest area in which to gauge achievement. Obviously if a wine makes money, there is some level of success.  Two years ago I blogged about the top-selling wines of Wyoming in 2012 (read that blog here).  I would say that most people wouldn’t consider Franzia chilled red a “successful” wine; however, people drink it!  So some level of accomplishment must be given here.  Maybe the accomplishment doesn’t go to the wine itself, but to the technology that allows wine to be kept alive for weeks after opening, or to the marketing of these products to a multitude of consumers, or to the frugality of drinkers when choosing what to enjoy (which is what I finally decided when I was contemplating wine sales of my home state). 

Maybe judging the success of wine through sales is a bit complicated too.

The Consumer
Then let’s judge the success of wine through the wine drinkers, the people spending this money on wine.  One wineaux (AKA, wine lover) said that a wine is successful when a producer has met the quality to have people enjoy it.  True...but we just learned that people may enjoy a wine based more on price level than actual quality.  Another wineaux said, “When multiple bottles sit on a table surrounded by happy friends and family savoring and enjoying each sip.”  This is a more correct statement.  Here the wine is not being judged on price, but on experience.  The experience of enjoying wine is one of the most important aspects of wine, and yet, it is another intangible, another level that can not really be measured. 

Some of my favorite wineauxs enjoying the experience of wine!
Sommeliers and wine critics would be more objective about wine quality, but even these experts have subjective points of view. 
The Critic

I learned very early in my wine career that there were generally two sides of taste:  the Robert Parker Camp and the Jancis Robinson Camp.  (This camp seems to be expanding; it could also be called the Alice Feiring camp, or the Jon Bonne camp, or the Eric Asimov camp.) Parker has become known for loving big, fruit forward, heavily oaked, generally more robust wines with high levels of alcohol.  Are there many quality wines with these attributes?  Of course!  However, do all wines with these characteristics exhibit excellence?  No. 

The Robinson et al. camp supports more natural wines:  wines with less inference after harvest, more organic or biodynamic grapes, higher acid levels, and lower alcohol in the end product.   Of course, both of these are over-generalized statements about these wine authorities, really doing neither camp justice. 

The point is that even those who spend years researching and honing their crafts and levels of wine knowledge have specific tastes in wine, making the idea of success still unclear.

Alice Feiring et al. books on wine.
The Wine Maker   
Another group of experts in the field of wine would definitely be the wine makers.  They are uncompromising judges of what makes a wine successful.  True, they also want to sell wine, but (I am going to claim) the majority of producers genuinely care about the products they make.  According to two very dedicated winemakers, success starts in the vineyard, no matter where grapes are grown.  William Allen of Two Shepherds (of Sonoma County, California) and Patrick Zimmerer (of Huntley, Wyoming) use grapes grown in very different environments, but both state that wine starts with the grapes, and this is the ultimate deciding factor on the outcome of the final product.

Allen, who primarily works with Rhone varieties, knows that if grapes are grown to show the purest expression of the variety and vintage year, his job is then to do as little manipulation as possible to the fruit when turning it into wine.  The real work happens in the vineyard, deciding when to pull leaves, change the canopy, thin the fruit, and irrigate the vines.  All of this is before determining the precise ripeness through flavor, sugar, and acid levels after Mother Nature has, inevitably, made the decision to pick a bit of a gamble.  (Read more about Two Shepherds wines here).

Two Shepherds wines--success starts in the vineyard.
 Though Zimmerer grows hybrid grapes in an environment that could be considered almost completely opposite of Sonoma County, he echoes the thoughts of Allen.  He agrees successful wines happen in the vineyard, but his gamble with Mother Nature is even more intense.  Wyoming grapes always take a chance of whether they make it to ideal ripeness due to so many more natural weather obstacles.  Hail storms, mid-May freezes, September snows, an early or late frost, and a short growing season all hinder ideal picking conditions.  However, sun, water, and soil enable Zimmerer to be the steward to help the grapes along the way, finally ushering the fruit through fermentation to the bottle.

Table Mountain Vineyards--Wyoming vines and wines.
The Ultimate Test
            Even winemakers agree that to truly produce a successful wine, it is enjoyed with friends, a meal, or a special occasion.  The wine should reflect the year the grapes were grown, the weather, and the work it took to make the end product.  Sometimes even this level of success takes the same patience as waiting for the fruit to grow and the wine to ferment. Often a difficult vintage year where Mother Nature was uncooperative and yields were low can turn into quite a victory in the bottle if just given some time.  Allen says this is accurate of his 2011 wines, wines that will eventually delight consumers as one of his best years yet.  Zimmerer also states that each harvest, especially in Wyoming, is very extraordinary, but with special care and attention every step of the way, the final product can be celebrated as a success!

            Winemakers are probably the last people to want to dress up and walk a red carpet in the fanciest of clothes…and maybe this is a good thing since truly successful wines are so subjective and difficult to choose.  A successful wine isn’t necessarily one that gets the highest rating, or makes the most money, or gets the most accolades.  A successful wine is one that shows where it is from, not only the region, but the time and the weather.  It is a wine that was loved from vine, to bud break, to leaf, to fruit, to harvest.  It is a wine that is cared for deeply after picking, even if that care is shown by the least amount of intervention possible.  A successful wine may have to sit in the bottle while the winemaker patiently waits for it to be ready to show its true sense of time and place.  Then, this wine is enjoyed by consumers—genuinely and deeply enjoyed—maybe with special people, maybe at a special location, maybe for a special event.  Whatever the case, it evokes memories as well as creates them.  The Oscar would be awarded with a “Cheers,” a sip, and a smile.