Chianti in the Baby Boomer Psyche

This italian red is as vibrant and relevant as it was 30 years ago. in fact, as our tasting panel discovered, it is evolving while remaining true to its roots.

At this stage in the development of America’s wine culture, it is members of the “baby boom” generation (born between 1946 and 1964) who consume the vast majority of wine. It is their growing awareness of grape varieties that has fueled the dramatic growth in consumption and interest in wine.

I often ask people of that certain age which imported wine names they know—not grape varieties, but regions. Naturally, the same names pop up often: Bordeaux and Burgundy being the top two. Ask them what they would have answered 30 years ago, when they were first exploring the world of wine, and you get entirely different answers, but with the same consistency: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Pouilly-Fuissé.

These are the names that they remember reading on wine lists during their formative years. Thirty-plus years ago, the two most important wine exporters to the U.S. were France and Italy. In the French pages of wine lists of that era, you’d find Châteauneuf-du-Pape, St-Émilion and, occasionally, Burgundy and Pouilly-FuissĂ©.

Representing Italy’s white wines was generally Soave. And the quintessential red was Chianti. Whether it was a pizzeria wine list on a chalkboard or a 10-pound leatherbound tome in a white-tablecloth establishment, Chianti was never absent. Chianti was synonymous with Italian red wine. It was a staple for those who enjoyed the most popular of all cuisines: Italian. Even today, when you ask people which Italian wine they tried first, whether they’re Emeril Lagasse or Hannibal Lecter, their answer will almost always be Chianti.

Chianti has changed dramatically; the wine that was once sold in straw-covered fiascos is now a sophisticated wine taking its place on the world wine stage. As our tasting panel discovered when they evaluated over 200 Chiantis for this month’s tasting feature, Chianti is now a reflection of the global wine scene, whether for good or ill. Wine consultants are being summoned to work for a large number of wineries. They are using sophisticated methods to improve wine quality in vineyard and winery. Some are even stretching the very definition of Chianti (in terms of how much Sangiovese is in their blends) to the same end. The result? Is Chianti suffering from internationalization? A loss of its distinctive character bowing to the pressures of the market? You be the judge, both by reading Tasting Director Joe Czerwinski’s report and by trying some of the recommended bottlings.

Also in this issue, you’ll find Paul Gregutt’s account of the new wine trails in Washington State. The changes that state has undergone in the past 10 years are dramatic enough to grey a baby boomer’s hair: Not only have the wines become world class, but the wineries have become aware of the value of eno-tourism. Tasting rooms are sprouting up everywhere, and around them restaurants, lodgings and great shopping. Now Washington, which is blessed with some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world, also has peaceful co-existence with a more modern approach to leisure and culture.

Some of the editors here have dubbed this the “touchy-feely” issue due to two stories you’ll find in these pages: A basic introduction to biodynamic viticulture and an account of the first decades of the Slow Food movement. Biodynamics, as you’ll learn from Roger Voss’s article, involves revolutionary, costly but basically sound agricultural practices seamlessly combined with what most of us would consider, shall we say, more eccentric practices. The Slow Food movement, which is based in Italy but has chapters all over the world, began some 20 years ago with a deliberately vague, mostly fun, agenda, but has grown up to tackle serious global issues of sustainability, nutrition, agricultural economics and more.

Let me close by posing a question to all my readers, but particularly to the baby boomers: What’s on your iPod? Or in your CD collection? Is it only the “standards” (the Beatles, the Temptations, the Rolling Stones) or do you have a smattering of Usher, Green Day and the Black Eyed Peas? The particular examples don’t matter so much (I can hear you groaning at one list, gasping at the other), the point is: the standards like Chianti and Pouilly-FuissĂ© are great, but it’s important to try the occasional Chenin Blanc, Gruner Veltliner and other varieties that might be unfamiliar to you. Growing old is inevitable, but growing stale is a choice.


Published on April 1, 2005