We long ago settled the question of whether cigarettes are bad for you and whether seat belts save lives. While nothing seems more obvious now, it wasn’t always the case. When I was growing up in what is now settled science on these topics was still up in the air. Where it would come down no one could then say.
Just what we should be pointing to as the driving force conveying originality in wine isn’t a public health issue upon which lives hang – but it’s an intriguing question and, despite what you might hear, it’s still up for grabs.
What makes one wine different from another? One way to address the question is to appeal to the grammar of wine marketing. How is wine originality explained by people trying to sell it?
There are surely exceptions, but as a general rule the most basic sort of commercial producers find that identifying their wine by constituent grape varietal (usually restricted to a handful of the most recognizable, such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot) gains the most traction with the market segment they are appealing to.
This (mainly American) approach is in contrast to the European penchant for organizing and identifying wine based on place. In this scheme, wine is represented in association with a defined geographic area (Alto-Adige; Clos du Vougeot). It’s true that there are many rules that govern the production of what we can call appellation wine besides those that stipulate where the vineyards may be located- but from the consumer’s point of view these are largely opaque. It’s place that’s front and center.
A third way de-emphasizes both varietal composition and place as primary identifiers and instead highlights an individual property or, as is increasingly the case today, a single individual. Top Bordeaux estates are especially good examples of the former are; of the latter, Olivier Lemasson in the Loire Valley and Abe Schoener in California come readily to mind.
In this view, it almost doesn’t matter where the fruit is sourced or which cultivars are in play – their roles are overshadowed by the sheer force of the personalities involved and their (often well-deserved) reputations for making memorable wines of whatever materials they choose to work with (part of their genius, after all, is choosing well). Winemaker-as-artisan-hero on a quest to realize a personal vision isn’t without legitimacy as a partial explanation of what makes one wine different from another.
In fact, none of the partially alternative partially complementary explanation so far offered is illegitimate, per se. But each does suffer from a drawback common to all marketing grammar: simplification that risks falsification.
The stubborn and slightly embarrassing truth is that though we have some clues, a complete picture of how to account for wine and its multivarious permutations still eludes us. But should this really come as any surprise? We still don’t know what makes humans tick.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org