The 40th entrant we are publishing as part of our wine writing competition is Eric Brooks, who introduces himself as follows:
Male, age 54. For employment, I’m an IT Systems Analyst for a local government entity, but a passionate wine enthusiast at heart. I live in the small, Gold Rush-era town of Grass Valley, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California – about an hour north of Sacramento and two hours from Napa.
While in college, I had the fortunate pleasure of working for a premium wine shop and have had the good fortune of maintaining a close relationship with the owner (and his large collection) for over 25 years. I have wanted to write about wine for years, and now I have done it!
IS THAT CASUAL WINE COLLECTOR BECOMING OBSOLETE?
There is something magical about opening a special bottle from one’s wine collection. An interesting mix of emotion arises with this event: excitement, based on personal experience and published reviews of the wine; apprehension, as to how the wine will pair with the foods selected to be served with it; fear, will the wine live up to its reputation? And, let’s not forget the most important element: the sheer anticipation of experiencing something truly special.
Maybe this sounds trivial, but that’s what collectors do, right? We buy special bottles – from specific areas, producers, and vintages – and cherish them as they age until that moment arrives when the bottle is opened to (hopefully) reveal its much-anticipated glory. We collect for the experience.
The giddiness of this experience is something that only wine collectors understand. Once you feel it – this experience – you become addicted and begin a never-ending quest to build a collection that will provide even more experiences in the future. The experience fuels the research it takes to make selections, it eases the waiting required for wines to mature, and it typically offsets the cost of the wines and storing them.
But is the opportunity for this experience becoming a thing of the past for many of us?
For younger and middle-aged wine lovers, I fear the opportunity to experience the magic of owning, ageing and appreciating collectible wines is fading. This is not to mean these people cannot or do not enjoy wine – because they do. Many are selective in the wines they buy, just like collectors are, but they tend to purchase wines to be consumed in the near term, typically within days of purchase. A few other people may buy bottles to keep for special occasions, but very few people I know – even those with access to wine storage – have ever experienced what a first growth bordeaux or grand cru burgundy tastes like.
My point is that the time-tested, classic wines of the auction circuit – the Yquems, Moutons, Shafer Hillsides and Romanée-Conti’s – are becoming something only a select few will ever experience. Prices for these wines are increasing with each vintage, and these 'wines of experience' are becoming less and less obtainable for the middle-class wine lover. (Even worse, many don’t even know what these wines are or have ever heard of them; but that’s another subject.) Sadly, this is not only affecting the younger generations, it’s encroaching on my generation – the middle-aged, as well. Here’s my story, one that specifically reflects this dilemma.
I began collecting in the late 1980s when, in college, I worked for a fine wine shop. I was fortunate because the owner of the shop appreciated my passion for wine. Because of this, he extended me discounts or 'work for trade' opportunities so I could begin acquiring special bottles. He also provided a spot in his cellar so my treasures would be properly stored. As my collection slowly grew, he shared many wines from his collection with me – knowing that these experiences would fuel my passion for wine and also increase my desire to collect wines for the future.
After graduating from college and moving into the IT world I figured my modest, ten-case collection would begin to grow, along with my professional salary. However, with a family and a mortgage, the idea of spending discretionary income on wine was not a practical choice. A small consolation was that my collection contained wines that had matured, so I rewarded myself and select friends with experiences' from my collection: 1990 Lynch Bages (magical), 1985 Stag’s Leap Cask 23 (incredible on New Year’s Eve 2000), 1983 Yquem (I could write a column on this one).
These experiences, to no surprise, fuelled my desire to acquire more wines for the future. I began a quest to keep the collection in a state where I would have an 'experience' a few times per year. This meant I only had to obtain a few special bottles each year in order to maintain the size of my collection. Unfortunately, I had a tough time acquiring prestige bottles, even with a solid connection to a wine shop that carried them. To be more accurate – these wines became too expensive to buy.
With the turn of the century, the thought of acquiring first growth bordeaux became a fantasy as prices skyrocketed. In turn, prices of my other favourites – California Cabernets, Tuscan reds and red burgundies – followed suit. With fewer opportunities to replace wines I had consumed, my modest collection began to shrink. To complicate things further, some wines I bought for $100 were suddenly worth over $1,000! Now I faced a new dilemma, as the value of some wines in my collection had increased to a point where the thrill of an experience was being challenged by the temptation to profit from them.
A nice problem to have, right? That depends on what you expect out of your collection. For me, it’s not about investing for profit; it’s about investing for experience. You experience an evening savouring the glory of Chateau Latour, but quickly come to the sad realisation that the only remaining bottle in your collection will be your last because you can no longer afford to replace it. In this new age of premium prices, you are lucky if you can afford a third-growth Pauillac, let alone a first growth. At a time when I should have more celebrations that include special wines from my collection, I am actually beginning to hold back on my experiences. The market for collectible wine has escalated to a point where only the wealthy (or foolish) choose to purchase prestige wines.
So, let’s go back to our young wine enthusiasts. Sure, they are drinking well. There are many fine, reasonably priced wines on the market that can be enjoyed now or over the next few years. This is where I spend the bulk of my own wine-buying dollars. But what happens when one of my children or a close friend share the experience of a Leroy burgundy with me and then realise what it would cost to acquire such a wine? I seriously doubt they will ever pursue it. And this is sad. Sad for them – as the experience of fine aged wine will become a cherished memory (instead of an exciting pursuit), and sad for me, since each time I consume a bottle from my collection I will have one less experience to share.
WILL REGIONAL AMERICAN WINE FIND ITS WAY ON THE ROAD FROM FARM TO FORK?
I went to Europe for the first time last summer. As an accomplished cook and wine enthusiast, it was no secret that food and wine would be an important part of the trip. With a modest budget and not wanting to dine like a tourist, the goal was to find restaurants that best represented the areas I would be visiting with my family so we could experience the regional foods and, of course, the local wines. To use the American term, we were looking for that farm to fork experience. Eat local. Drink local. Be a local.
We began the trip in Paris. With my wife and younger daughter, we reunited with my older daughter and her boyfriend who had been travelling for almost a year. We celebrated that first evening at a crêperie, joyfully sharing our plates and drinking the vin de la maison, a lovely Provençal rosé. The next day, at a sidewalk bistro, I feasted on andouille sausage – with pommes frites, of course – accompanied by a delightful Beaujolais.
These meals were amazing. What made them so satisfying? Obviously, sharing time with people I loved in a beautiful place (Paris!) was the primary reason, but the addition of good food and wine made these moments better. Is that not the essence of life – making the best of each moment?
This sentiment of joyful contentment remained with us throughout the trip. Three weeks of sights and sounds, smells and tastes. We were not disappointed: In Italy, there was whole-roasted branzino paired with Vermentino, seafood risotto with Friulano, and there was no denying bistecca alla fiorentina in Florence, served on a carving board and paired with Chianti Classico.
Amazing as these pairings were, we were more impressed with the quality of the simpler meals and the joy they produced. With these we usually drank vino della casa, the regional house wine. These were most satisfying, not to mention incredibly inexpensive – and far better than those offered at most restaurants in America. We marvelled at the value as we frequently enjoyed refills. We kept asking ourselves, does it get any better? Then one day the discussion turned to why can’t it be this way at home?
Returning to America, the harsh reality of how far removed, culturally speaking, we are from our European friends is very evident. While farm to fork food culture is very much alive, the concept of simple, inexpensive and well-made local wine is almost unheard of unless you live in a recognised wine-producing region.
This is especially true in the area I live, a small community in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California, about two hours from Napa. Farm to fork is all the rage. I have friends who buy produce from local farms and bid on whole livestock at auctions. Dinner at their house is truly farm to fork. However, they also serve local wines – which are of poor quality and detract from the quality of the food being served.
Small villages in Europe produce delicious and reasonably priced wines. Why can’t the community I live in do the same? While the area is not known for its wines, the area’s winemakers have been attempting to gain recognition for years. They have a marketing plan, but they cannot agree on which grapes to grow and what type of wine to produce. Because of this, the varietal wines and artisanal blends lack consistent style, are terribly overpriced, and are created with chemistry, not craftsmanship. The wines have no integrity and they have no character.
While I appreciate my friend’s sense of community, I fail to understand why they place value on quality meat and vegetables but lower their expectation when it comes to wine. I try to educate them: I respectfully share my thoughts on local wines when I taste them or when friends ask for purchasing recommendations. These people are aware of my opinion and they are open to my criticisms. Beyond words, I make an effort to introduce them to domestic and imported wines that are usually half the price of the local wines – then wait for them to recognize the difference in quality and value. However, I cannot educate everyone, and this frustrates me.
As I began to write this column, I wanted to condemn local winemakers for my frustration. I wanted to blame them for producing inferior products and using deceptive marketing practices. I wanted the wineries to take responsibility for what my friends were drinking – bad wine. I was so caught up in blaming the winemakers that I (almost) missed the obvious: my reference point was wrong.
The issue is not with the winemakers, it’s with the culture. Unlike Europe, where the culture defines the people, American’s define their culture, and it’s typically controlled by the dollar. Like most American trends, the rise of wine has been driven by marketing. It worked for White Zinfandel, then Chardonnay. Even Merlot had a period of prominence. And let’s not forget about that two-dollar wine. Love them or hate them, these trends are good for the business of wine. The increased exposure leads to more interest and consumption. But does it lead to increased knowledge as well?
I think the answer, unfortunately, is no. The common factor in wine’s rise to cultural prominence has been the tactics used to get the American public to buy it. Most recently, marketers have discovered that an unknowing public can easily be swayed into buying mediocre wine by applying catchy names, edgy labels and shelf-talkers touting points and gold medals. Today, store shelves are lined with wine that has been manufactured with little concern for critical acclaim, cultural responsibility, or value.
When I began evaluating wine for a retail shop I was taught an important lesson: you cannot understand and appreciate something that is good until you also understand what can make it bad. Wine appreciation is about perspective. Since most wine drinkers simply accept a wine that is poured for them, or rely on marketing when selecting wine in a store, it’s easy to understand why so many of them opt to drink lower-quality wine. Most Americans lack the knowledge or perspective to discern good wine from bad, so they fall for the marketing ploys. Until there is a paradigm shift in the expectation of consumers, the idea of quality wine at a fair price will not be realised.
There is hope, however: the farm to fork movement. It’s rapidly becoming part of American culture. It’s changing the way people shop, cook and eat. It’s happening in my community and it’s happening nationally. It’s changing the culture – and the corporate side of the food industry is taking notice. National brands are changing their production and marketing practices to focus on this growing trend.
Will wine follow? I have hope. However, to make this happen, wine educators and wine writers need to convince Americans – especially the farm to fork followers – to have an expectation for simple wines, the ones offered at a fair price and made by local producers. Experiencing the uncomplicated joy these wines bring to the table in Europe opened my eyes to the possibility. If the American consumer can be convinced to expect this same experience, the wine industry will respond and provide them what they want
Eat local. Drink local. Be a local. Let’s get the farm to fork crowd to enhance their food with better wine.