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September 2, 2015updated 02 Nov 2022 10:26am

Arts of persuasion
David Schildknecht

A prominent wine grower recently remarked, “We haven’t changed our approach but instead remain true to our family’s style.” The grower pursues a style in red-aggressive tannic extraction and prevalent new barriques -that many colleagues and critics consider passé. But if it were just a matter of following fashion, why criticize a grower for refusing to? And if a style -albeit unfashionable, even anachronistic-still has a committed if dwindling audience, as is the case here, why shouldn’t that audience be served? The only adequate answer is a claim that what is at issue is quality of wine-the nuanced complexity, say, or textural refinement that could be achieved by modifying one’s methods-and that tasters offered an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the resultant wines will eventually, if not immediately, come to recognize their superiority.

One way in which stylistic persuasion often appeals to an aesthetic force more powerful and authoritative than mere fashion is when it’s suggested that a mature taster will “outgrow” earlier preferences. It might, for instance, be claimed that jam-like fruit, alcoholic strength, and a confectionery overlay of caramel and vanilla from new oak are characteristics that appeal to those relatively new to wine-a newness that not only applies to every consumer at some point in life but arguably also to entire generations, as well as to emerging growing regions and estates. A comparable claim is that the appeal of sweetness is outgrown by a mature or savvy taster-a claim whose application to white wines in Germany has been so successful that residually sweet Rieslings of a sort for which its growers were once renowned are widely deemed unworthy of serious discussion, much less widespread consumption. As these examples make clear, what counts as an acceptable, much less cogent, appeal to “growing up” will be contentious.

In considering the appropriateness or effectiveness of arguments for stylistic change, it is important to bear in mind that some wine growers are discerning tasters; others taste well except when it comes to their own wines; and others really aren’t skilled tasters. To treat the last group first, while consistent failure to recognize outright flaws would certainly imperil a grower’s success, there are abundant examples of reliably good, sometimes even exciting, wine emanating from cellars in which the regimen of an earlier generation, the recommendations of an enologist, quantifiable test results, luck, or some combination of these serve as guides. As for an inability to judge one’s own wines with the same care or clarity as others’, this falls under what German speakers call Betriebsblindheit, a familiar psychosocial phenomenon of being blind to faults or failings in one’s own shop.

It can confidently be posited, though, that only a vintner capable of astutely and critically tasting his or her own wines will be amenable to an appeal for stylistic change that’s based on sheer aesthetic quality as distinct from fashion or maturity. And one can also nowadays presume (though perhaps such a presumption would have been riskier 50 years ago) the presence behind most of the world’s best wine estates of an owner-vintner who routinely relies on that capability, correcting course as he or she deems prudent. This is not to suggest that such a grower will therefore remain unmoved by appeals to fashion, let alone by market realities. But changes of course in stylistic terms are often accompanied by growers’ accounts of how their own taste or convictions about taste have changed.

Gerard Gauby disassociates himself from the far riper, higher alcohol and more robust wines he favored into the 1990s-wines that secured his reputation as Roussillon’s quality leader. His changing taste was accompanied- as has been that of many prominent vintners in this new millennium-by a conversion in viticultural regimen of quasi-religious, as well as agricultural, nature. Central California vintner Adam Tolmach, in changing stylistic directions after a quarter-century of positive recognition, went so far as to call his earlier work a betrayal of his own palate. And many a vintner has, in younger years than Gauby or Tolmach, undergone far more than just stylistic gear-changing. (However, because a wine grower’s handiwork is bottled and disseminated within two or three years, none enjoys the “luxury” of emulating such stylistic trailblazers as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins or composer Harry Partch who, at ages 22 and 29 respectively, burned the manuscripts and thereby consigned to oblivion the contents of their entire juvenilia.)

Claims that a “new” style better reflects one’s taste or one’s vineyards’ potential typically exhibit the same sort (if not degree) of motivation as routinely prompt incremental tacking in the course of wine growing, vinification, and élevage. Sometimes, though, growers will tell you that they came to perceive their wines or their vines’ potential so differently as to call into question the cogency of their former preferences. In this, they may sometimes have been influenced by professional critics, whose tasting notes and recommendations reflect attempts to get their audience to perceive wine in a new way and to recognize that certain preferences -whether because more vividly conceived and articulated, more carefully considered, or more lastingly satisfying-have greater validity than others. If a grower is influenced by a critic because the latter’s influence is so pervasive, that’s motivation by the market. But a critic’s, or any astute and articulate taster’s, aesthetic persuasion of a vintner (or vice versa) can be more subtle and benign.

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