Enthusiast's Corner March 2006

Labels go from Mild to Wild: Producers who prefer traditional wine labels shouldn't feel threatened by the wave of irreverent art.  But they can learn from the phenomenon.


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Back-to-back great vintages of California Chardonnay? Or the crazy wine label phenomenon? We had a tough decision this month as to which of those two stories to put on our cover. We were excited by the tremendous achievements in Chardonnay in California over the past three (and more) vintages; Steve Heimoff does a fine job in explaining why this is happening. But there was just something irresistible about the crazy labels appearing on wine bottles these days.

Read the article by Paul Franson for a thorough listing of the labels featuring critters, celebrities, puns, young women in cheesecake mode as well as images too abstract or vulgar to be easily, or politely, described. Think of the traditional style of label: the elegant, refined script typefaces; the understated color schemes; the family crests and other simple, traditional symbols not meant to catch the eye, but rather to soothe it: tradition, quality, dependability. Such labels are also, of course, associated with wine's elitist image in the minds of the new wave of wine enthusiasts. Certain European wine labels, particularly the French and German ones, are perceived as being inscrutable, and meant to put wine on a pedestal, unreachable by the common man and woman.

If that's so, then wine, at least New World wine, has come a long way. It's climbed down from its pedestal and is running around the gallery like a crazy person. The epicenters of this phenomenon are Australia and California, parts of the world often associated with a profound delight in tweaking authority. The trend has rippled to reach just about every corner of the wine world, as producers strive to create a unique image in a very overcrowded market.

The timing is good for them to create an eccentric image, because younger consumers of legal drinking age are turning away from beer and cocktails to wine, and these crazy labels have clear appeal to them. Not for them, the Old World elitism. At the same time, wine enthusiasts in the older demographic persist in seeing themselves as young, even though there is evidence to the contrary (the calendar, the scale and the mirror). Fifty is the new 30, apparently, and buying patterns bear this out.

Personally, I'm enjoying the new wave of wine labels, but I hope that the Europeans—as well as New World producers who adhere to Old World elegance—don't abandon their traditional labels entirely. As I've stated in this column before, they can be more successful in marketing their wines to the world if they made their labels just a bit more informative. At the same time, there are New World producers who are pouring so much creativity into their labels that they are neglecting what's in the bottle. And that's what matters: Quality will win in the end, no matter what's on the label. 

Which brings us to Chardonnay, the classic white wine that will easily outlast the Anything But Chardonnay bandwagon naysayers. Steve Heimoff has found that the 2002 and 2003 California vintages of Chardonnay were two of the most outstanding in its history, or at least since Steve has been tracking the state's performance in that stellar variety. And the 2004s, some of which have been released, are quite good, too. It's a great time to enjoy Chardonnay.

Also in this issue, Michael Schachner examines Chile's widespread experiments with Carmenère and Syrah.  Once a mainstay of French viticulture, Carmenère has found a new home in Chile. Many Chilean winegrowers are also trying Syrah in order to help diversify the Chilean red wine portfolio.

In our Proof Positive story, F. Paul Pacult explores a world he knows and loves well: the golf courses and distilleries of Scotland. It's a small world, indeed: A golfer can easily play 18 holes at one of Scotland's justifiably famous courses, and then drive a few miles to a world-class whisky distillery and try a few drams right at the source.

In our Pairings section, we're proud to have television personality and author David Rosengarten review some of the food-and-wine-match classics. Do the classics hold up in view of modern cooking and winemaking? Do some still work and others no longer have validity? I think you'll enjoy Rosengarten's take on the subject.

The traditional and classic versus the new, the experimental. It's a dynamic so old that it's…well, classic.

Cheers!

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