If you find yourself sitting next to your brother-in-law (let’s call him Andy) at some obligatory BBQ this summer, and he decides he wants to pick an argument, here are some of the topics he might present: The war. Gay marriage. The legitimacy of country music. Screw caps versus cork.
Ok, so the word “controversial” doesn’t often bring to mind a series of wine topics. But they are out there. And like the war, or gay marriage, or the legitimacy of country music, you’ll find plenty of people ready to debate the merits of both sides. Given that wine is a nonessential, pleasure-heavy product, it seems rather frivolous to come to blows with someone about anything wine-related. However, for winemakers and winery owners, retailers and enthusiasts, controversial wine topics often affect more than their sense of being right or wrong. Such questions can affect their livelihood. And that is always grounds for defense (or offense, as the case may be).
So what are some of the top controversies that spark debate amongst otherwise reasonable, rational people? A few to consider:
Robert Parker: This man single handedly changed the way scores of wine producers market their wines, and in many cases, the way they make their wines. If you’re a winemaker, you either love him (because he gave you a high score and therefore vastly improved your sales, reputation and credibility), or hate him, (because he gave you an embarrassing score, he’s ignored you completely, or you’re just philosophically opposed to his existence).
If you’re an average consumer, you are grateful for the way he’s made wine intelligible for the everyday guy who doesn’t have hours per week to devote to research, tasting, and/or earning those extra bucks to afford the great, rare, classic stuff. It’s much easier to quickly view a score, and aim for the A grade (and as we all recall from junior high school, that’s 90 + points).
Old World vs New World (or “outdoor vs indoor”): This one has emerged thanks in large part to the guy who’s residing at number one. Prior to the 1990s, “indoor” vs “outdoor” was not as severe a dichotomy, at least not in the wine world. Then, Bob came along and as his influence grew, so did winemakers’ proclivity to produce big “hedonistic fruit bombs” that his palate seemed to prefer. Such wines tended to show more lab time and human intervention than sunshine and soil type. Today, purists like to scoff at the “homogenization” of new world, indoor wines that often reside at the high end of Parker’s artificially precise rating scale. But consumers in general flock to these wines, because honestly, they taste good.
Oak: who knew that wood (as opposed to the cutting down of trees) could be controversial? Maple and redwood certainly don’t wear this badge. Of course, they’re not used to make barrels, and they’re certainly not chipped up for immersion in wine vats. The use of oak barrels goes back centuries and the benefits of aging wine this way – so they can soak up some flavor from the wood, and undergo slow exposure to air through the wood’s porous surface, are legitimate. The question marks have arisen in the last decades, as producers (especially California producers) have used oak more and more as a crutch, to produce or mask flavors for a consumer who seemed to adore the smell and taste of trees in their glass.
These days, winemakers can soak oak chips in their metal tanks of juice (wine barrels being expensive) or even infuse the liquid with ground wood.
Are these practices anything to be ashamed of? To date, many winemakers have not wanted to own up to using them, but this seems to be changing. Eric Asimov recently interviewed a few of them for an interesting article on the subject in the NY Times, and even the tradition-wed Frenchmen have become more accepting of oak chips in the last year.
Alternative Wine Closures: From synthetic corks to screw caps to crown caps (which beer bottlers have been fine with using for years, by the way), producers are experimenting with closure methods that help protect them from losing a certain percentage of their product to cork taint. Cork taint, of course, is that dreaded wet cardboard smell that can accost one’s nostrils from the poured glasses of between 1% and 7% of bottles per year. From a businessperson’s perspective, noncork closures can save significant dollars per year in tainted wine. So why don’t all producers transition from natural cork to fake corks or screw caps? On the one hand there’s tradition. And there are also arguments that non cork closures are too new, and unproven, when it comes to their performance over time. For wines intended for long-term cellaring, some experts have expressed concern that sealed screw caps may interfere with the wine’s natural aging process. Note however, that very few wines are intended for long term cellaring.
Between Bob Parker, oak, and screw caps, it seems likely that a casual wine conversation between two friends (or in-laws, as the case may be) could quickly spark some heated debate. In the interest of preserving family peace, it’s probably best to stick to politics and religion at that BBQ.