by Randall Grahm

What if the Mayans were right?

According to the people who know about these things, the last Mayan calendar, which spanned a period of approximately 1,872,000 days, ended just a couple of weeks ago (Oct. 28th). Since the world seems to still be here, albeit a little the worse for wear, I thought I’d talk a bit about what the new calendar portends for the world of wine. I don’t wish to talk about the potential collapse of the world economy; for all intents and purposes that has already mostly occurred for those of us in the wine business. Rather, I’d like to share my vision about what the New Age might mean for wine; will we be looking at something so familiar to us in a very different way?

The “New Age” is said to be characterized by a greater sense of world connectivity; the key notions here are those of simplicity, unity and consonance. I correlate this, granted with a bit of extrapolation, to the idea that the wines most relevant in the future will be the ones that are the most transparent and true to themselves, i.e. vins de terroir. Vins de terroir are indeed the wines that deeply nourish us – aesthetically, spiritually and also physically, as well, I would argue. Consumers will have little patience for tricked up wines – they do not satisfy our deep longings. For one thing, everyone, winemaker for now and consumer sooner than later, will know, if they don’t already, many of the tricks of wine’s superficial charms; this fact is rather chillingly clear when you visit the Napa Valley and taste all of the very expensive Cabernets. At least to my palate, they all tend to taste rather the same. This is not a truly sustainable path by any reckoning.

It is my contention that so much “great” or “important wine” is presently consumed as a statement of social class or privilege, not out of real sincere interest, aesthetic or otherwise. In the future, we will certainly drink the wines that afford us real, sincere delight, but also wines that deeply nourish us – more about that in a minute. We will understand certainly that we are here to delight one another and of course ourselves.

What does it mean for a wine to nourish us? I’m sure that many of you have had the experience, as I have, of drinking a “great” wine and feeling something like a rush of inspiration or just an sense of unmitigated pleasure and well-being. Here’s my slightly radical take on this phenomenon: I believe that there are wines that above and beyond tasting great are in some sense “good for you.” The “good for you” bit is sometimes associated with “natural” wines and these carry of course a bit of baggage.

For now, there appears to be a bit of a dichotomy in how wine savants think about wine “quality.” You can draw all sorts of distinctions – between power house, “impressive” wines and wines of finesse, between “international”-styled wines or “traditional” wines. Alternatively, there might simply be a difference in emphasis of the taster on product versus process. There is a certain kind of product-oriented critic or wine taster who simply likes what he likes without deep reflection as to his own epistemological process, or to the larger cultural context of the wine. Many modern New World wine critics and New World wine drinkers tend to be primarily focused on the “wow” factor of a wine and as a result, wines of subtler charms may often be overlooked.

Then you have the idealistic wine critic or consumer, champion of unorthodox styles and lesser known grapes, defender of the “pure.” (I’m afraid that I myself fall pretty squarely in that class.) But, these sorts of critics or tasters can also be a bit ideological – the wine needs to be “organic” or “natural” or “orange,” or what have you. Somehow the “correctness” of the wine may somehow be more important than how the wine actually tastes. I do believe that there are some true believer critics who have persuaded themselves that they actually like the funky flavors of oxidized or microbiologically compromised wine.

I would suggest that in the future there emerges something like a new ground where the (possibly false) dichotomy between “natural” wines, flaws and all, and “important” or “great” wine will largely disappear. In fact, I would go so far to propose that new criteria of quality will emerge that transcends these distinctions. A great wine will certainly have to be unique (and that distinctiveness derives from its unique terroir.) A great wine cannot simply possess a formidable, blustery exterior or possess a dense texture or optical opacity; it must truly possess life-force down to its deep core, what is called qi in this part of the world. Life-force, which ultimately is the ability of a wine to resist oxidation and to live a very long time, will be the new value in wine, not point scores, which are merely epiphenomena. Coincidentally, wines that are rich in minerals, the sine qua non of wine’s qi – deriving from soils that are alive and rich in microbial life – are very likely the ones that are healthiest for us to consume.

“Heal yourself with wine!” the old French folk-wisdom proclaimed. In the New Age we will become far more sensitive to what we put in our bodies and its effects; we will perhaps most enjoy the wines that make us feel the best. As goofy as this may sound, while likely it’s no longer a vin de terroir, it may not be such a great stretch to imagine nutraceuticals – medicinal herbs, for example, in wine; heart healthy supplements in your Madiran, perhaps? This was the impetus to the creation of the great liqueurs and digestivi; perhaps there will be some sort of renaissance in this lost art.

The world will certainly be quite different. In the New World, possibly due to the disappearance of inexpensive irrigation water and ready financing as well, vineyards will become simpler, with less infrastructure – maybe no more expensive trellising and drip irrigation. Soulful head-trained, dry-farmed vines may flourish again. How will they survive the dry, bright summer sun in California, for example? There is an extremely interesting material called biochar, or activated charcoal mixed with compost, that enhances the biotic potential of soils – both in water holding capacity and in the microbial life that make soils “smarter”, more absorptive of minerals and more drought resistant; in a certain sense biochar can be thought of as a terroir amplifier, so very much to the point of enhancing distinctiveness. The material also sequesters carbon in the soil for about 10,000 years, thus very helpful in mitigating the root cause of global climate change.

I envision vineyards in the Next Age as not really looking much like the vineyards as we now know them, but rather more like gardens of mixed or promiscuous plantation, with fruit trees, flowering bushes and herbs interplanted amongst grape vines. The biological diversity and balance of this sort of plantation may well obviate the need for chemical intervention to control disease and pests. There is a most interesting fellow named Hans-Peter Schmidt in the Valais in Switzerland, who is doing great research in the application of biochar in vineyards, as well as formalizing rules for companion plantations in vineyards; you would all do well to take a look at what he is doing.

This may be a bit of a stretch, but it has been remarked that the vitis vinifera species of grape has undergone thousands of years of very little sex, that is to say, breeding outside its species, thus making it susceptible to all sorts of disease pressure from organisms freely mutating in the intervening time. Perhaps we will see the development of new grape hybrids, not GMOs, to be sure, but the results of old-fashioned, low-tech grape breeding. At the very least, it might also be amazing to also observe the results of truly heterogeneous field-blends.

Lastly, I’d like to suggest something that sounds maybe a bit Tory, or even reactionary. In a certain sense, we have all been enormously gifted with the great profusion of wine styles and wine brands available to us; it is truly breathtaking. At the same time, this overabundance has perhaps led to a certain kind of jadedness; perhaps we tend to effortlessly skim over surfaces and fail to achieve a great depth of appreciation of anything. Maybe the future will bring us a greater appreciation of simpler things, knowing fewer wines, but knowing the ones that deeply speak to us, that feed us in much deeper ways. This sort of Taoist immersion in the simple may in fact be quite liberating. Thank you.

This speech was given by Randall Grahm at Wine Future 2011 in Hong Kong on November 7th. 

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