First, let me say that I have yet to read San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonne’s latest book, The New California Wine. I know what it’s about and I intend to read it very soon, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I apologize. I do, however, greatly admire Jon Bonne’s wine writing both in terms of form and content and consider him, along with the New York Times’ Eric Asimov to be the only major American wine writers to be speaking with any degree of intelligence, eloquence, and urgency about wine.
I also know that Wine Spectator’s James Laube is a dashing silver fox. And, given the seemingly ever-increasing size of his headshot in the magazine, Wine Spectator knows it too.
In a recent issue of Wine Specator Laube, an avowed and interested defender of both 100 point wine ratings and that “bigger is better” school of wine thought, reviewed Bonne’s book. The review was mildly complimentary before taking a shift and taking Bonne to task for not explaining why this new wines are better and why people should drink these wines instead of the rich, full-bodied California wines that Laube champions. He ends by stating that Bonne has not provided an argument as to why wine drinkers should turn away from “what they like.”
Laube’s use of this fundamental talking point–“people like what they like, why should they drink anything else?”–is one of the major refrains from the late middle-aged wine writing establishment and it fundamentally misses the point.
(Laube also suggests that Bonne doesn’t pay enough homage to the great accomplishments that have been made in California wine making. But why should a book called New California Wine dwell too much on the past? I think there’s another book that does plenty of ass-kissing already.)
Very few wine writers think that you shouldn’t drink what you like. What writers like Bonne and myself are trying to do is tell the story of these other wineries, wine regions, and vineyards, many of which are ignored or marginalized by magazines like Wine Spectator. By bringing more attention to these places, perhaps more drinkers will try them out, and more drinkers will add these wines to their repertoire. And perhaps, over time, these drinkers’ tastes will shift as they’re exposed to new wines, regions, wine makers.
That, I think, is what is of most concern. Despite generally warmer weather, we’ve seen a shift in the last half-decade away from the gargantuan manipulated red wines that hit their peak popularity in 2006 or so in favor of a more balanced–but far from restrained–style of California wine. These shifts, while not seismic, do result in small re-shuffling of the guard which means some flash-in-the-pan favorites or well-funded trend-chasing wineries fall to the wayside, resulting in some awkward conversations at the Bohemian Grove.
The inherent split between writers like Bonne and writers like Laube and their ilk is that one side wants to expand the conversation and bring more wineries, regions, and styles into the conversation while the other wants to circle the wagons and write the same articles about the same places and people year after year.