Or, Problems with Stereotyping
Wine itself is not terribly complicated. All the variables involved with wine make it a tall mountain to climb, though. The way we deal with it is to try to make it simpler, and this is the right thing to do. But the route to simplicity has been paved with generalizations and stereotypes. This is the easier way to go, I suppose...after all, we're taught to stereotype from a young age--German Barbie anyone? Ooh--I almost missed the obvious one: Malibu Barbie! Anatomical absurdities aside, do all girls from Malibu really look like this? If so, my inner Ken will be moving to California.
If not, as is of course the case, then such painful inaccuracies must exist everywhere we use stereotypes, and within the wine world, these generalizations are increasingly erroneous. For example, it would be insanely short-sighted of us to expect the people of a wine region to make wines in one general style, yet we do that very thing every day when we suggest that there is a specific "style" of California Chardonnay or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Those terms--especially "California Chardonnay"--have been in use for so long that anyone, at least anyone who has some wine experience, will know what you mean. It is certainly easier than saying, "a low-acid, milk and butter-flavored Chardonnay with new oak treatment of some kind and significant residual sugar," or something along those lines, but this stereotype is becoming obsolete. The breadth of variety in style is just too broad to justify this--just ask the people making Chardonnay at Lioco, Ridge, Hanzell, Radio-Coteau, Au Bon Climat, Arcadian, Ancien, to name just a few. The Chardonnays from these producers are as different from each other as they are from the California stereotype, so they are really problematic: they fall under the rubric of "California Chardonnay" but they are perhaps more accurately, if a little too generally, categorized as "French Style" Chardonnay. But neither do they taste like they came from France, and there we've stereotyped another category--two categories, actually: wines from France, and Chardonnays from California that are noted, not for their sense of too-muchness, but for their sense of site specificity.
This stereotyping of wine styles (and countries!) doesn't do much good anymore, and I'm not pursuaded it ever did anything other than make my job selling wine easier. Aussie Shiraz has been assigned a stereotype, but if you have a bottle from Yarra Valley or Margaret River, those wines will bear little resemblance to the stereotypical (oops!) Shiraz from Barossa, McLaren Vale, et al. Oh, but now the salesman in me feels the need to say what they ARE like! Is it easier to say that Yarra Valley is a cooler climate, so the Shiraz is less "ripe" (read: overripe) and sweet and is lower in alcohol than "other" OZ Shiraz? Or what if I said it is a more European-styled Syrah (it's the same grape, just a different name)? I'd argue that the latter is easier.
But that's all it is. It does no justice to the wine in the glass, nor as I have said, to the region in comparison. Besides, it supposes that you are already familiar with European Syrah, and if you are was it an archetypal European Syrah? What the heck would that be like anyway?
I know that we need to have a frame of reference to quickly process our experiences, but it is far more useful to simply describe the wine in question based upon its own merits. This has little to do with justice or fairness to a wine. It is, rather, an acknowledgement of the complexities of wine without oversimplification. Not only that--it also raises the excitement factor, because if you benchmark a particular Australian Shiraz against a counterpart from France, and the person you're talking to doesn't like French Syrah, then they'll lose interest. However, if you describe it on its own merits, the wine stands a better chance of providing enjoyment, which is what it is supposed to do in the first place.
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