In the mid-1970s, David Darlington writes, “a whole generation of liberal arts-educated (and drug-seasoned) college graduates, faced with the prospect of locating a livelihood in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, were searching for some form of existence that (1) did no harm and (2) promised more enjoyment of life than the example of their parents.” Some found their way to California, “enrolled as grad students in pursuit of master’s degrees in enology or viticulture” at the University of California at Davis, and soon emerged to preside over a revolution in American wine-making.
“An Ideal Wine” is Darlington’s account of their rise and its unintended consequences. The American wine industry as it exists today bears little resemblance to what the young pioneers idealistically (and naively) had in mind back in the ’70s as they purchased their first vineyards and made their first wine. Beginning with the hope of making good wine and perhaps making some money as well, they found themselves drawn inexorably by the forces of the marketplace into a transition they had not foreseen, “from a ‘cottage industry’ to one run by big corporations.”
Darlington tells this story as it has been experienced by two men, Randall Grahm and Leo McCloskey. Himself a well-regarded writer on food and wine — his four previous books include “Angel’s Visits: An Inquiry Into the Mystery of Zinfandel,” now available as “Zin” — Darlington sees these two as representing “warring worldviews in the emerging dialectic.” Grahm, “the leading iconoclast of California wine,” gained eclat and commercial success as proprietor of Bonny Doon, then turned toward smaller ventures, while McCloskey, after leading Ridge Vineyards to comparable esteem and success, founded Enologix, “a business offering ‘metrics that assist winemakers in improving wine quality and boosting average national critics’ scores.’ ” The exceptionally articulate Grahm defined the philosophical difference between the camps in which the two reside:
“There are basically two wine businesses. Industrial and artisanal. An artisanal wine is largely, if not entirely, predicated on the quality of a particular vineyard site. That’s what makes it distinctive — it’s the site that’s special. Industrial wine can still be very good wine, but it’s not predicated on the distinctiveness of the site — it’s predicated on the cleverness of the winemaker as blender, so there are limits to how great that wine can possibly be. In the New World, we’re basically making wines on the industrial model. All of our sites are hit and miss, because we haven’t had time to determine what is a great vineyard.”
Grahm is a New World winemaker but an Old World guy: “In the wine industry at large, Grahm is still widely known as the Rhone Ranger, a title he secured in the 1980s by popularizing the grapes of France’s Rhone River valley — syrah, grenache, mourvedre, roussanne, marsanne, viognier, et al. — in California, whose climate he found better suited to those varieties than to pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, the totemic grapes of Burgundy and Bordeaux.” Darlington gives more or less equal time to both men, but there’s little doubt that his heart lies with Grahm and the artisanal approach, which emphasizes what the French call “terroir,” translated as “land,” defined by another California winemaker as “the right grape in the right soil with the right climate and the right winemaker” — wine that can only be made in a certain place in a certain way and can be identified, by people with highly educated palates, according to place, grape and winemaker, a subject explored two years ago by Neal I. Rosenthal in “Reflections of a Wine Merchant.”
There’s plenty of artisanal wine to be found in France, of course, and in California as well, but the wine that most of us drink is, like it or not, industrial, and plenty of it is indeed, as Grahm readily concedes, very good. More frequently than most of us probably would like to admit, the choices we consumers make in this vast industrial market are guided by the judgments of wine critics, most famously Robert Parker, of the Wine Advocate, and Jim Laube, of the Wine Spectator. As every serious wine drinker knows, their ratings are ranked on a 100-point system. I cannot think of another business — movies, food, television, certainly not books — in which a handful of critics exercise not merely influence but real and considerable power. Darlington writes:
“In this ever-more bottom-line-oriented atmosphere, wineries are desperate for any tool offering an edge on the competition. The primary leg up is a 90+ score, especially when conferred by Parker or the Spectator. And since this target is too crucial to be left to chance, an arsenal of aids — reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, spinning cone, artificial oak chips, cultured yeasts, commercial enzymes, superconcentrated colorants — is now available to enable winemakers to spin silk from dross, searching for a sweet spot in the public palate. Yet romance remains the industry’s stock-in-trade, with the result that vintners have come to resemble delusional sidewalk barkers, committed to convincing consumers and themselves that they’re doing one thing (gently shepherding nature’s urges in products that express a sense of place with respect for the vineyard and the earth) while decidedly doing another (employing state-of-the-art technology to create the vinous equivalent of supermodels, enhancing attributes and airbrushing flaws to fulfill the commercial ideal of something that will sell).”
Parker doesn’t exactly come off as a villain in these pages, although Darlington clearly is sympathetic with the view that “Parker’s ‘world’ is more about high alcohol and short-term tasting enjoyment than low alcohol and long-term aging.” It should be noted on Parker’s behalf, however, that his reviews often recommend that wines be drunk several years in the future. McCloskey, whose Enologix (with its “average yearly service fee of $20,000”) is designed to help winemakers improve their scores, insists that “Parker represents the public” and that if he is pleased, the public will be too. As Grahm says: “Why does Barry Bonds take steroids? Because we live in a highly competitive society. This is the reason why the Leo McCloskeys of the world exist — they provide a leg up, a service for people who want an advantage. We’re all complicit; you can blame almost everything on Parker if you want, but the whole world has brought us here. It’s the effect of globalization. It’s not just the wine industry — every industry is massively competitive.”
The world is big enough, of course, for both the McCloskeys and the Grahms, and the work that both do can bring pleasure to many people as well as profits in the till. If winemaking ever was a romantic undertaking — on its face a highly dubious proposition — it certainly isn’t one now. Yet people can still derive satisfaction from making wine — as do many of the other people who pass through these pages — so in the end what we are talking about is more a distinction than a difference.
Darlington has written what adds up to two books. The first is a highly technical account of how wine is or can be made, with much ado about chemicals and other matters that will come as mysteries to the lay reader; they certainly did to this one. The other is about the people and the business, and is immensely interesting. I liked the people, so in the end I liked the book.