How Wine Became Modern: Wine and Design Since 1976
From Land to Brand: the Demise of Geography and the Rise of Aesthetics.
Prior to 1976, wealth produced wine, and wine produced “taste” or a refined aesthetic. Thus the moneyed classes of Europe were tightly bound to the production of aesthetics in global viniculture. The culture of terrior reinforces this cyclical relationship between the aesthetic palate of wine and the moneyed class that produced and controlled it. The notion of terrior includes everything from the soil type, to drainage, slope, orientation, precipitation,climate, even the location of nearby roads and other industries. By subscribing to the notion of terrior, one assumes an ideal (often traditional) flavor for each varietal, and that this flavor can inherently be produced in very specific locations under certain locations as grapes naturally reflect the specificities of the conditions under which they were grown. With the unchanging definition of an idealized flavor, whomever controlled these specific locations was embodied with both continued wealth and power in the industry and greater society. In France (and other European nations) wines were named and labeled by their location, further reinforcing the relationship between aesthetic and location. With only certain varietals allowed to be grown in each region by law,the primary role of the label was to identify (as specific as possible) the origin of the grapes from which the wine was grown, and thereby the type and quality of wine could be discerned. Ideally, this was one specific vineyard, ora series of vineyards from a section of town. The broader the geographical description, the lower the quality of wine. Since only the wealthiest families could afford the best and priciest pieces of land, “terrior” ensured that their wines were consistently held in high regard, and that the family name was associated with a refined aesthetic palate.
“The Judgment of Paris” in 1976 marked the beginning of a shift of thinking about terrior, and by extension aesthetics, that are still being felt today. Intended to honor the influence of French viticulture in the New World, the blind tasting by authoritative French critics put some of France’s best wines against a selection from California. Though only widely publicized once the Americans took top honors the impact was immediate.
The notion that American wines could simply taste better than their French counter-parts when judged by French “standards” was indeed shocking. However, this “shock” was eventually accommodated into the traditional status quo by simply expanding the territories that needed to be included under the concept of terrior. Eventually it came to be understood that there were multiple locations that could geo-physically nearly replicate the ideal conditions for the various varietals.Thus what was once cheap California farmland soon became dotted by very expensive chateau, often owned by the local moneyed classes, though now the names are extremely likely to be French as well.
While the cultural biases of terrior still define the framework of wine-production, in the New World unlike Europe, the legal codes that defined wine production did not. This is most easily identified in the differences in labels, where appellations are secondary to winery and varietal information. In fact, names such as Burgundy,Chablis and Champagne are used on American wines as descriptors, in flagrant conflict with the laws of Europe.
Since the legal rules of American appellations and thereby the enforcement of terrior did not come into being until years after 1976, the direct correspondence between land and aesthetic quality were not established. Moreover the cavalier American attitude of not being bound by tradition enabled younger, less financially to-do, to begin to produce wines of great quality through experimentation and direct connections to area farmers.
At first, most American wine-making involved immigrant experienced winemakers from Europe, and a traditional location based, estate focused approach continued. However, oenology and extension programs from the distinctly American higher-education system at the University of California, Davis (and to a lesser extent, Cornell University’s New York State College of Agriculture) enabled the subsidized training of a new generation of oeneologists, no longer bound to traditional methods and without long standing relationships to existing estates or wealthy families. These “young turks” have slowly affected the culture of wine production in the United States which since1976 has had a global effect.
With their estates far from the up and coming Napa and Sonoma counties, the inclusion of Chalone and Ridge Vineyards as some of the premier American wines included in the Paris tasting of 1976 established that there were a large number of excellent growingregions in California alone. This had far greater implications than was understood at the time. As the proliferation of lands increased so did the possible expression of terrior. This slowly expanded the possible palette for each varietal, and with it the idealized aesthetic for each wine type. It slowly became more and more difficult to associate specific lands with wines of distinction. As the market became saturated very quickly with high quality wines, geography has become less important of a factor. California’s diverse micro-climates enabled varietals with distinct climactic preferences to be grown in extremely close proximity to one another, further confusing the traditional association between geography, varietal, and style. While geographic proximity historically affected the flavor of wine by limiting the varietals available to blend, California's diversity and modern transportation methods made that regional blending conventions obsolete. With the inaccessibility of the European system to the “geographically challenged” American consumer, all of these factors led to a increasing reliance upon non-geographical approach to wine selection focusing on the winery.
Immediately after the Paris tasting the name recognition of the top scoring American wineries soared, and remain some of the most well-known names in wine. Simultaneously, Robert Mondavi’s focus on making wine at a lower price-point and naming that wine according to its corresponding French region, in lieu of it’s American one, further destabilized the focus on correlation of wine and geography to the American consumer. Mondavi’s mass-marketing also devalued the traditional associations with French convention. Marketing became paramount over location in the establishment of quality, and with it the development of the winery as brand.
As branding increased in importance and the necessity of geographical knowledge decreased, additional wine producing areas were able to gain access to the global market. These regions in Latin America and Australia radically decreased the price-point of wine, allowing an even less viniculturally or geographically educated consumer access. These new consumers relied heavily on varietal and brand recognition and were unfamiliar with the notions of terrior.
As these New World consumers’ interests in wine grew, their focus was either on an expression of wealth or as specific interest in flavors and trends. Thus began the increasingly noticeable varietal trends (where one varietal becomes unusually popular for several years before cycling out of fashion) and the increased focus of wineries on name recognition and price point.
With branding and marketing now paramount in the crowded wine marketplace, aesthetics (both graphic and palate) begin to dominate the distinction of wines over the traditional value of terrior. With decreased reliance on pricey real estate, it is increasingly the palate of both the winemaker and the image-maker that determine the success of a winery. Wineries in new regions such as Canada and Australia for example increasingly on firms such as Brandever and MASH respectively to enable recognition for their wines since they cannot rely on geography. With the increasing rates of per capita consumption in the New World and the increasing importance (wealth) of the American market, even traditional European vintners are increasingly turning to branding and design to hurdle the language barrier, and gain access to these valued consumers.
As reliance upon marketing has increased and the importance of terrior subsides, brand consistency becomes increasingly important. The traditional concern over location and corresponding vintage (whether year X was a good one for location Y) has diminished. As a branded product the wines must be the same as similar as possible between vintages. To accomplish the task the winemaker must increasingly turn to different vineyards in disparate regions, and different combinations of varietals to generate the same flavors. This has continued to further erode the importance of terrior in favor of the aesthetic of the winemaker. If this consistency is not achievable, the trend has been to employ the services of a graphic designer in generating a new product within a consistent branding framework so that the consumer does not expect the product to match past vintages. Therefore even the American system of using the varietal as the secondary identifier after the winery has become increasingly less important in lieu of the sub-brand (ie. different vintages of the same varietal are sold under different names, but with a consistent graphic identity).
This phenomenon has now resulted in a new type of wine-producer, the “non-estate” producer. These “virtual wineries” such as Redhead Studios and R Wines simply consist of the palette of a talented wine-maker together with the aesthetic recognition of a well developed brand. Completely free from the tradition of terrior, these vintners are free to source their grapes from any location in the world and produce them at the location of their own choosing. Freed from the constrictions of needing to express terrior, winemakers now design flavor, and graphic brands are devised to market these palatable designs. The traditional relationship of wealth and land ownership in the definition of taste has increasingly been replaced by one of innovation, design and creativity.