The Grass is Always Greener

Winemakers the world over complain of governmental interference, and are convinced that the competition has it easier.

The hotel elevator door slid open. Before me stood an athletically built, distinguished gentleman in his late fifties, dressed in tennis whites. My first thought was that I was having a Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall sighting here in Bordeaux. The next thing I knew, that fellow was talking to me.

“Adam,” he asked, “how are you?” I suddenly realized that this man was not a famous Aussie tennis player—he was a famous Spanish vintner, Catalonia’s own Miguel Torres. He suggested that I join him for a run. Not one to miss an opportunity for a little exercise (especially after a week of spectacular—and filling—chateau dinners), I agreed to run with him. After all, this was Vinexpo, the world’s most famous wine event. I needed my strength.

We jogged around the beautiful lake that adjoins the exposition hall in which miles (literally) of wine exhibitors were displaying their wares. The sun was shining on a long and narrow hall in which thousands of people were clamoring to taste and purchase wines that would eventually be shipped to all parts of the globe. Outside the exhibit hall were temporary restaurants (large exotic tents, really) with cuisine from eight different countries. Inside these tents, deals that would impact what wines your local wine purveyor would carry were being sealed with chateaubriand and foie gras.

Miguel has had enormous influence on the great leaps in quality that Spanish wines have been making—he led the trend of modernization in winemaking in his home country. The Torreses are members of Primum Familae Vinum, an organization of the world’s greatest wine families, which includes the Antinoris, Rothschilds, Mondavis, Pol Rogers and Hugels. Miguel is stylish and charismatic—a perfect asset to the group.

As we ran, Miguel spoke of the advantages and disadvantages of contending with European traditions. In many ways, he said, the rules that govern winemakers in the Old World are archaic and antithetical to progress in fine winemaking. Government regulations prevent him from expanding his vineyard land and growing his business. Miguel added that this type of interference was not confined to Spain alone. Other members of his group, such as the Antinoris, had to contend with similar issues in Italy. In France, inheritance taxation is so oppressive that chateau owners find it impossible to pass their businesses on to their children, and are instead compelled to sell their wineries to international conglomerates. Miguel mentioned how much he admired the American vintners, and their freedom to grow their businesses.

While I listened to Miguel’s woes, I contrasted them in my mind with the many conversations I have had with American winery owners who have looked with longing toward Europe. Recently, one California vintner commented to me about how puritanical America’s view of wine is—in Europe, he said, wine is considered a food, but in America it’s a “controlled substance” (and regulated, of all things, by the bureau that oversees tobacco and firearms). “Ah, to be as lucky as those European vintners are,” lamented my American friend.

As Miguel and I ran over the plush lawns that surrounded the lake in Bordeaux, I was reminded that the grass always looks greener on the other side. Based on the thousands of people who attended Vinexpo that week in June, I couldn’t help but think that, despite their individual woes, vintners all over the world are fortunate to be associated with such a marvelous and popular product.

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In this issue, we examine the phenomenal popularity of Merlot in light of the unevenness of quality found in the bottles. From their perspectives in France, Washington and California, Editors Roger Voss, Paul Gregutt and Jeff Morgan debate the merits, demerits, marketing and agricultural quirks of this intriguing variety. Glen Putman takes us on a tour of some of the most elegant wine cellar dining rooms in the country. Restauranteurs are starting to notice what many wine enthusiasts already know: Food tastes better and life is sweeter surrounded by wine bottles.

Also in this issue you’ll find Terry Robards’s fond tour of the restaurants of Alba, the charming city that serves as his base of operations when he is in Piedmont. And if you’re looking to expand your Bourbon horizons, Gary Regan categorizes the top bottlings according to flavor profile, so that you can find other whiskeys that have the characteristics you enjoy. For wine and spirits enthusiasts, “the grass is always greener” is usually not an issue. We just like to expand our horizons.


Published on September 1, 2001