Eric Asimov helped me feel old, out of the loop, and crusty today simply because I prefer Bordeaux. Please do not crucify me en masse, and allow me to cling to a hard earned 51-year-old point of view that many of the world’s finest wines are products of Bordeaux as you join me on a visit to his small corner of the New York Times, “The Pour”, where Asimov declared Bordeaux “irrelevant” and “downright unfashionable”. Sadly, for this quintessential wine region and an entire younger generation of wine aficionados busily hooking themselves on substitutes, he is absolutely right.
The anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly supportive of Asimov’s thesis. The great young wine writers I follow and know are focusing on regions and varietals I am only now discovering and getting comfortable with after 25 years of accrued wine experience and knowledge. Their palates are impeccable as they dissect minerals and acidity from Vouvray and Muscadet instead of cassis and cedar from St. Estephe and Margaux. They ignore Bordeaux as if it never existed. Young wine freaks and their trained senses are reveling in Assyrtiko from Santorini, Mencia from Bierzo, and Godello from Valdeorras the way I romanticized dreamy encounters with 1986 Cos D’estournel or 1989 Pichon Baron. Beyond my small window on market and demographic trends, it is easy to understand the shift by absorbing this overwhelming evidence of a deprived generation of wine drinkers that Asimov presents:
In 2009, 1.29 million cases of Bordeaux wine were imported, accounting for 0.46 percent of all still wines, domestic and foreign, distributed in the country. While this percentage rises and falls year to year, it is still a far cry from its highs in the mid-1980s. Bordeaux shipments accounted for 1.69 percent of all still wines distributed in the United States in 1985, for example.
In his report, there are four illustrative themes that highlight the drivers of a “lost” generation.
1) The high cost and luxury image of Bordeaux is counter intuitive and counter cultural to younger wine drinkers:
Not so long ago, young wine-loving Americans were practically weaned on Bordeaux, just as would-be connoisseurs had been for generations…..Bordeaux, some young wine enthusiasts say, is stodgy and unattractive. They see it as an expensive wine for wealthy collectors, investors and point-chasers, people who seek critically approved wines for the luxury and status they convey rather than for excitement in a glass.
“The perception of Bordeaux for my generation, it’s very Rolex, very Rolls-Royce,” said Cory Cartwright, 30, who is a partner in Selection Massale, a new company in San Jose, Calif., that imports natural and traditional wines made by small producers, and who writes the Saignée wine blog. “I don’t know many people who like or drink Bordeaux.”
2) The trade, in turn, has lost interest in the category as an emerging young consumer marketplace demands alternatives:
The more troubling sign for Bordeaux is that it has largely lost the loyalty of people like sommeliers and neighborhood wine shop proprietors, who can help build an audience for wines. The high-end, big-name wines will always have a market, but the less expensive, less familiar names, the natural points of embarkation for young wine explorers, may not fare as well without the support of those crucial intermediaries.
“I don’t know any young sommelier who I’ve encountered in the last 15 years who is a Bordeaux hound,” said Paul Grieco, an owner of the restaurant Hearth as well as two innovative wine bars, Terroir and Terroir Tribeca, all in Manhattan. Mr. Grieco has been a mentor for many young sommeliers. He himself learned about fine wine by drinking Bordeaux. Nonetheless, at his wine bars, he serves 50 wines by the glass, and not one is a Bordeaux. His shift has left him with mixed feelings.
“I think, ‘I’m a history guy, how can I not revere Bordeaux?’ ” he said. “If even one person came in and said, ‘I want a glass of Bordeaux,’ I might think I really have to serve a Bordeaux. But not one person has said that. Not one! That’s pretty sad.”
3) Bordeaux is big business and impersonal, making it harder to fashion and dig up the authentic human story behind the wines’ creation:
Unlike Bordeaux, where many of the best-known chateaus are run by corporations or wealthy absentee owners, Burgundy is full of estates, including many of the leading ones, that are essentially small businesses. Dealing with Bordeaux often requires working with middle management and marketing specialists. It’s much easier to visit a Burgundian estate and find the one person who has dirt on the boots, wine on the hands and a name on the bottle.
4) Today’s Robert Parker never emerged, and instead the stories and products are discovered by diligent and passionate importers primarily focused on building their portfolios with creative, undiscovered winemakers:
Another significant barrier between young wine drinkers and Bordeaux is the absence of a charismatic advocate for the wines. The audience for Mr. Parker and the other leading wine critics tends to be older and more established. Meanwhile, boutique wine importers and distributors like Kermit Lynch, Neal Rosenthal and Louis/Dressner, who have won passionate followings, do very little business in Bordeaux, which has long been the domain of big companies.
The modern wine market is loaded with excitement where honest wines manage to find their way to welcoming consumers and fans further from the wines’ villages of origin than many of those producers, or their ancestors, ever dreamed could be possible. But, it is all a giant shame that market dynamics forced an entire generation to sacrifice their yet to be discovered magical experiences with Bordeaux.
Just recently I tasted a flight of 2000 Bordeaux and swooned, followed days later by a dinner flanked by the ethereal 1982 La Mission Haut Brion and 1982 Ormes de Pez in celebration of our good fortune and patience to lay these down. Just a month before we tasted 1985 Lynches Bage next to 1985 Chateau Montelena and the 1985 Lynch Bages “smoked” the Montelena by all accounts. And the privileged, but rare, tasting experiences like the Latour vertical my friend Jay organized out of his collection, featuring those magical first growth wines from the 60’s, 50’s, 40’s, 20’s, all the way back to 1907 are testimony to the pinnacle position this region holds on the world wine map. No region offers the consistency in ageworthiness that Bordeaux has proven to deliver for centuries.
Is it price escalation that deprived a full generation of wine drinkers? Well, last year in this post I illustrated the sucker punch thrown at the wine market where negociants acting like heroin dealers hooked collectors on magical wine experiences for short money, only to raise prices and gouge their loyal customers who lost their minds and contributed to the problem as they paid whatever it took to get the wines they wanted, all the while turning off the next generation before they ever had the chance to feel the magic. Here is an excerpt from that last post illustrating the divide between Bordeaux sellers and a new generation of wine aficionados:
Taking things one step further, I took eleven wines from the report (there is no magic to the number 11 and the wines are mixed top and bottom classified growths) and tracked the case offering prices in the 2006 futures market for the outstanding 2005 vintages of the following wines: (1) Cheval Blanc (2) Ausone (3) Cos D’Estournel (4) Haut Brion (5) Lafite (6) Margaux (7) Mouton (8) Latour (9) Pichon Lalande (10) Rauzan Segla (11) Vieux Chateau Certan. This is what the investment comparison looks like if you bought these 11 cases of wine from these three vintages on a futures basis in 1983, 1991, and 2006:
Vintage 11 Case Futures Price
While Asimov supports his thesis well, he leaves out a really important and related market development at the same time. Compared to California Cabernet, big name Australian Shiraz, escalating South American name brands, and big name Rhone wines, Bordeaux can be a relative value in today’s market, with more consistency in quality and unquestionable dominance in the cellaring and ageability department. If you work the en primeur markets correctly, tread lightly in hyped vintages, and buy wisely without exclusively focusing on big first growths and super seconds, then the problem spotlight needs to necessarily shift away from Bordeaux and young consumers should be boycotting some of these new world wines that are priced at levels that are totally unsupportable and products that pale in comparison. They will be glad they did ten and twenty years from now when they are sipping silky wines that have been graced with predictable secondary flavor and aroma development.
There is a place in the market for new and old wine regions to emerge with offers of quality and low price points. But making room in the market for overpriced, expensive wines of questionable purity and varietal expression to exist alongside exciting new and old Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, and Loire wine regions at the expense of dreamy Bordeaux is a mistake. What do you think?