Sorry to keep harping on about Rootstock (2013) – it’s just that it was such a bloody good event!
While I was there I was able to sit down with wine journalist and writer, Max Allen to discuss a few things which related to the the event itself: biodynamics versus conventional agriculture and the rise of (or should that be the return of) the real wine movement in the last few years. One of the things we hit upon was that there seems to be a current generation of people that have developed an ‘alternative’ interest in wine, who drink it free from a knowledge or consideration of the great estates, who prefer to explore and discover, rather than impress others, and who drink it, rather than invest in it.
Here come the wine punks…
People such as myself, my friends, many bloggers and tweeters about wine, and still many more people that taste wine at such festivals are free from, or don’t feel the need to subscribe to the traditional canon and customs of the wine world, and will easily make up their own set of rules in order to participate in the beautiful rabbit hole that is…
Max noted, and I agreed, that the first growths from Bordeaux, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s, the 1940’s Maurice O’Shea’s, the Penfold’s Grange, and so on ad infinitum don’t really matter to most. I don’t mean we don’t regard or respect them, or that they’re not nice wines, what I mean is that they are not used as a measurement of how serious our involvement is within the wine world. There’s no obligation to taste them, if at all, before making our minds up as to what we think is the best tasting wine in the world. We don’t need to reach for these old yardsticks every time we wish to participate in a discussion, attend a wine tasting, or judge at a wine show – in short, they are not relevant.
In truth, I have a feeling that they never really were. I see them as an extension to my ‘No Gatekeepers’ theory – that it’s now possible to achieve or do anything you want, master any discipline, create any piece of art, run a marathon, organise an event, cook Christmas dinner, or even write about wine. The only prerequisite you really need is passion and enthusiasm.
For Max Allen, growing up in the wine trade of the 90’s, the way in which to “breed a new generation of wine people was to sit them down, and make available to them a tasting of the great wines of the world so that they grow up with an in-built understanding of what the hierarchy is… that Burgundy is the pinnacle, and that you haven’t tasted great wine until you’ve tasted Domaine de la Romanée-Conti at the top”. This rather rigid hierarchical way of working doesn’t fit with the 21st Century sensibilities of my generation, and this is what Max was trying to get away from when he asked people to judge at the recent Organic Wine Show.
The remit was to embrace subjectivity, to judge wines based on feeling and emotion, on pleasure, and welcome uncertainty into the mix. Traditional ways of judging wine is usually based on a numerical system where 3 points is awarded for colour, 7 points for aroma, and 10 points awarded for palate – this is based on the 20 point system, but others include James Halliday’s 100 point system, where wines are judged on a 25 point scale from 75 to 100. What the remaining 75 points are used for, I don’t know, and detractors say that this way of judging only serves to highlight ‘fashionable wines’ that cater for the palates of high profile critics. Judging through feeling and emotion, those unquantifiable metrics, seems much more in line with the beauty and magnificence that is wine. You wouldn’t judge a Monet or Dali based on a 100 point score, would you?
Giles Phillips, owner of the Albertine wine bar in west London, considers that drinking wine has become “increasingly egalitarian since (he) started out in the business over 30 years ago,” especially with the advent of “more informal restaurants and then the introduction of New World wines with their different taste profiles”. He thinks that many of the new wine drinkers “have never heard of the great wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, possibly because of supermarket discounts and chain restaurants”, offering up the same wines everywhere you go.
Maybe the current generation are ignorant of the classics, because of this ease of access to good wines, and an over abundance of choice from supermarket wine?
I asked wine writer and Rootstock organiser, Mike Bennie what he thought of the concept of an ‘alternative’ wine crowd that disregards the traditional canon/hierarchy in the wine world, he said, “an ‘alternative’ wine movement is only as interesting as (long as) it stays alternative. Does this mean that when these alternative wines are accepted that they head towards time-honoured and established? It’s fraught with the same pigeonholing being afforded (to the) ‘traditional canons'”.
A point picked up on by Mark Davidson, from Tamburlaine in the Hunter Valley, who has “a personal aversion to terms like ‘non-conventional’ and ‘alternate/alternative’ because they are seriously misleading and (tend to) marginalise the better thinkers and artisans still in the industry, old and young in age.” He then went on to say, “there are ‘old guys’ in tweed jackets who can afford to only drink wines with reputation, and do not want or feel they need to experiment any more… (the) poor bastards”.
In many ways, the ‘alternative’ real wine movement, and the type of crowd it attracts can be likened to the punk movement of the late 1970’s. The established ‘dinosaurs’ of the 60’s and early 70’s, those prog-rock bands such as Yes, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd (who I personally consider to be one of the greatest bands of all time), were all creating gigantic long winded albums full of introverted self-interest – and then along came The Sex Pistols, who plugged in their guitars, hit the distortion pedal and just played music. It was raw, had energy, a sense of freedom, and vitality; sure it lacked a little clarity, and was sometimes pretty offensive… but it was DIY without the requisite permission and it was good… very, very, good.
The punk movement was an alternative from the mainstream, and it was labeled ‘punk’, which encapsulated the mood of the time, and allowed participants to differentiate themselves from other styles of music.
If you’ve ever seen the wine labels for Some Young Punks, from South Australia, you can see firsthand the direct ‘alternative’ influence that the current generation of oenophiles are exercising… it’s wine – regardless of if you’re making it, drinking it, or writing about it – with intensity, energy, passion and enthusiasm – it’s wine without obligation, and it’s different.
And that’s just what this real wine movement is all about – differentiation. Perhaps ‘alternative’ is the wrong word to use, but what else is there? Uncommon? Radical? Avant-garde? These words are too specific or too esoteric to capture the way in which today’s winegrowers, sommeliers and communicators are operating in.
Alternative embodies all these things, while evoking a sense of rebellion, solidarity, freedom, and the most important thing of all, progressiveness.
D// – The Wine Idealist