What If We Didn’t Care About a Wine’s Authenticity?

In response to my previous column «Total Transformation,» various reader comments maneuvered around the subject of what caused the worldwide transformation of wines and winemaking styles starting in the 1970s.

No one disagreed that such a transformation occurred. Indeed, it’s pretty indisputable. But the cause of it is open to differing views. Some readers fingered the 100-point scoring system as a driving force in the worldwide change of wine styles.

For example, Jeffrey D. Travis submitted that «one influence, above all others, changed the way consumers evaluate and convey wine preference,» citing the 100-point scoring system. Interestingly, he further noted that it changed wines «irrevocably for the better.»

Everyone knows that the 100-point scoring system is the horse—dead or alive, it doesn’t seem to matter—everyone likes to beat. I’ll say flat-out that if you think that scores were the change agent, I respectfully beg to differ. Granted, scores have an influence, if only because they are so instantly and intuitively understood. You don’t need to know anything about wine—hell, you don’t even need to know how to read—to grasp that a taster considers the wine at 91 points to be better than the wine at 87 points.

Forget scores. They’re just the way the message is sent. The message itself is something much deeper. In the past 20 years—and especially in the past decade—what has really driven the changes in wines is the issue of authenticity.

I realize that invoking the term “authenticity” invites ire among some observers. It presumes a certain standard which, again, to some observers, seems fixed, rigid and arbitrary. While I understand this view, I don’t agree with it.

We live today in a fine-wine world that has been set up for us primarily by the wine producers themselves, who in turn have asked their respective governments to codify their declarations of self-definition.

Whether it’s controlled appellations in Europe, AVAs in the United States or comparable designations in Australia and New Zealand, the fact is—and it is a fact—that the producers themselves have determined that we have a right to expect certain features to their appellation-designated wines.

Consequently, there is such a thing as “authenticity.” And it’s more than mere legalisms. We are told by the very people growing and vinifying the wines what those wines are supposed to be.

Let’s get to the nub: What if we don’t care? What if I, as a professional taster, really don’t care if what I’m judging is or isn’t «authentic»? What if you, as an interested consumer, say that as long as it tastes good, you don’t care about «authenticity»?

I can hear you already: Who is to say what is or isn’t «authentic»? And how can anyone know? These are fair—indeed, fundamental—questions. Here we enter into the realm of the ambiguous. It’s obvious that there’s no single, definitive «authentic» in a particular wine. I’m not suggesting that there is. And I know of no producer anywhere in the world who suggests that the “authentic” could or should be so narrowly defined.

Rather, I am saying that the authentic does exist. And that it can arrive in different styles. We all know, for example, that Pinot Noir can be fermented for differing lengths of time, with or without stems, and so on. But the “authentic” quite reasonably requires that we—both critics and consumers—be able to recognize the wines as, at minimum, Pinot Noir.

Knowing the authentic is not dramatically difficult, although it does take time and application. There are such places as Howell Mountain and Stags Leap District, at least through the vehicle of Cabernet Sauvignon. With not a lot of study, you can distinguish these districts in the glass—assuming the wine is, you guessed it, authentic.

«Many of today’s shallowest, most facile wines are created by winegrowers—and sometimes celebrated by wine critics—who dismiss, disregard or are even contemptuous of authenticity.»

Take the Italian grape Sangiovese. It’s quite distinctive, typically proffering a dusty, wild cherry scent and usually displaying a bright acidity. Rarely is it especially dark in hue and, unless vinified in an extreme fashion, never is it an opaque black the way, say, Syrah can be.

Upon visiting producers and tasting numerous versions of Sangiovese, after a while you can get a pretty good handle on what is, in fact, authentically Sangiovese. Yes, it can occupy a spectrum of hues and tastes, but that spectrum does have inherent limits. A Sangiovese that looks and tastes like a Syrah is suspect—and should be.

Let’s get specific. Brunello di Montalcino should be 100 percent Sangiovese. Italian wine law says so, further noting that it must be composed of not just any Sangiovese, but of a strain locally called «the little brown one» (brunello) which is recognized as creating a wine that is longer-lived and more deeply colored than some other clones or strains of Sangiovese. Remember, it was the local growers themselves who promulgated this, not outsiders.

What happens when producers of Brunello di Montalcino start blending in other grape varieties, such as Merlot or Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon? You know the answer: The wine is not authentic. (You also know of course that just such a scandal—that’s the only word for it—has occurred.)

No less an authority than Ezio Rivella, the former winemaker for Banfi (a large producer of Brunello di Montalcino) and today head of the local Brunello producers consortium, acknowledged in a recent interview with an Italian journalist that “Eighty percent of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese” and that adding “3 percent to 5 percent of grapes other than Sangiovese” was “widespread” and “commonly accepted” among Brunello producers. Others submit that the percentages of unauthorized grape varieties are significantly higher than what Mr. Rivella suggests.

I do not flinch in saying that critics play an outsize role in establishing matters of authenticity and, consequently, in setting a standard. A fellow critic once said to me, «If I like it, it is good.» I was floored by this. One’s preference is hardly a benchmark for goodness.

Brunello di Montalcino became mired in deception because, in part, too many critics either didn’t know or didn’t care whether what they were tasting could plausibly have come solely from the Sangiovese grape variety. This lack of interest in—and lack of demand for—authenticity actually encouraged producers to pursue a deviant course. After all, if the critics didn’t care, why should the producers? (The parallel to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports is obvious, I would think.)

This is hardly confined to traditionalist Europe. Did you know that in California a wine with an AVA district name such as Oakville or Stags Leap need only be composed 85 percent of wine from that district? Out of a standard 750ml bottle, that’s about 4 ounces, or a half-cup of wine; if it were missing, the partially filled bottle would be what auctioneers call a «low-shoulder» fill. Why is this allowed? Because it makes life easier for the producers—authenticity be damned. (It also saves money, increasing profits.)

The same, er, flexibility, applies to vintages as well. In Champagne, for example, a so-called vintage Champagne can contain as much as 15 percent of wine from a vintage other than that designated on the bottle.

Is it so much to ask that our wines come entirely from the place they’re proclaimed to be from? And entirely from the vintage designated? And that they’re composed of what they’re supposed to be made from? In short, that they are demonstrably and perceptibly «authentic» in their origin of grape(s), place and vintage?

The authentic in wine is not a matter of an unvarying prescription. Rather, it’s a contract between what growers and winemakers themselves say we should expect and what, in fact, we’re handed. After all, we consumers are not the ones who created and defined, say, Stags Leap District, insisting, à la Gertrude Stein, that there’s a “there there.” It was the producers who said it was there both in the land and in the glass.

Authenticity is rooted in honesty. Is a wine authentically 14 percent alcohol in ripeness when, in fact, it’s been picked at the equivalent of 17 percent alcohol and «watered-back» by diluting the juice, or been run through a spinning cone to lower the alcohol?

The authentic in wine is not an abstraction. Quite the opposite. The fine-wine transformation of our time is rooted in seeking the authentic, from the vines to deferential winemaking to the glass. It’s a matter of recognizing that there is indeed a real deal—and getting it.

Authenticity is the transformative force right now. The best wines made today—the most persuasive wines—come from the regions, the zones and, above all, the producers and consumers where the demand for authenticity is strongest.

Conversely, many of today’s shallowest, most facile wines are created by winegrowers—and sometimes celebrated by wine critics—who dismiss, disregard or are even contemptuous of authenticity.

Those who refuse to acknowledge authenticity—either as producers, critics or consumers—are certainly numerous. But look around: Are they convincing anyone? Growers who use reverse osmosis and spinning cones to deconstruct and reconstruct their wines are furtive, not evangelical, while those who pursue authenticity are winning the proverbial hearts and minds and, not least, palates.

Today’s transformation of fine wine is rooted in authenticity. Because without a belief in, and an adherence to, authenticity, why bother?

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