Concept Wines: What A Concept

‘Science takes a giant leap… backward.’

That was a line from some old television commercial that aired when I was a kid; I can’t remember the product, but I do remember the tag line, which probably doesn’t say much for the ad agency that came up with it since their only justification on earth is to make twits like me remember to buy anything that the jingle tells me to.

1938 Phaeton

Anyway, it seems like every time I attend Detroit’s International Auto Show, which is every year they have one, which is every single year since I was watching black and white commercials on an RCA console, the crowd-pleasing concept cars just keep getting uglier and uglier—and I can’t figure out why.

2001 Scion Hako

I can figure out why, say, in 2012, every American small town is hideous to drive through, when—back in the Golden Age of concept cars; ‘40’s and ’50’s—they were quaint, lovely places where you wanted to move, marry a blonde calico-skirted virgin and raise kids named Buddy and Sis, but today, thanks to McDonalds, Taco Bell, Dollar General and Rite Aid, every small town in the United States looks like Dante’s Vestibule of Hell as you enter and a cross between Mordor and Malebolge as you exit, and worse, like they’re all made of ticky-tacky and were squeezed out of a giant municipal Play-Doh extrusion press.  But that’s cash-flow, tax revenue and for-a-few-cents-cheaper-than-Mom-and-Pop-can-do-it—nothing more.

1938 Lincoln Zephyr

But automotive design?  Why should it cost any more or less to design something sublime, cool, transcendent and beautiful than something atrocious, graceless, clumsy and crude?

That’s just it: It shouldn’t and it doesn’t.

Toyota HI-CT

So, even though this is a column about wine, the photos accompanying it will all be concept cars, some built, others not—the ones on the left from the previous century, the ones on the right from the 2000’s.

1948 Tucker Torpedo

You tell me if I’m off base here or if our favorite car companies would be better served hiring designers that can exercise that side of their brains dedicated to poetry, style and macho posturing rather than that the side of the brain dedicated to conceptualizing clunky earth-first dorkmobiles aimed at tasteless vegans.

But anyway, about that wine:

Conceptual Healing

Renault Espace FI

Volk’s Wagonload of Concept:  The fact that by his own admission the varietals he produces are ‘hand-sell marketing burdens in most channels’ doesn’t stop Kenneth Volk of Lodi’s Silvaspoons Vineyards (formerly of Wild Horse Winery) from barreling forward with such outré oeno offerings as torrontés, negrette and trousseau, which he further describes as ‘under-appreciated heirloom varietals’.  He reminds us, however, that he may in fact be a vino visionary since wines like viognier and syrah did not take off for a long time, and now are some of the most sought after new-wave wines in California.

1954 Mercury XM 800

You Can’t Quite Get a Handle on Randall:  Grahm’s cracker wines include the inimitable Le Cigare Volant and multi-grape Contra—which the Bonny Doon web site dutifully explains is pronounced ‘kon-truh’ for those of you who would otherwise pronounce it ‘schik-uhl-groo-buhr’—but none of his wines are so odd in concept as ‘DEWN’.  Referred to as a ‘Viognier Port’—even though international convention discourages using the word ‘Port’ on a wine not from Douro, Portugal, the world’s oldest regulated and demarcated wine region—Grahm does it anyway.  He pulls viognier from the Chequera Vineyard in Paso Robles, then halts fermentation with strawberry and peach eau-de-vie along with a little neutral brandy, and produces a toasty, nutty, hauntingly lovely cordial that weighs in at 8% residual sugar.

2003 Eliica

ASPCA—The American Society to Profit from Cruelty to Animals: You can sleep easily in the knowledge that $29 of every $30 you spend on Frenchie Napoleon wine will not be going to aid abused and unwanted pets, and that the buck that will go to the ASPCA is a highly promoted PR stunt.  Named for the bulldog owned by Frenchie Winery proprietor Jean-Charles Boisset, the Frenchie Napoleon label depicts said mutt dressed not as Napoleon from Animal Farm (known for his demagogical cruelty toward livestock), but as Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who suffered famously from ailurophobia—an irrational fear of felines—and is reported to have stabbed a stray one to death in his tent following the Battle of Wagram.

1969 Toyota EX-III

‘Fess up Parker: What’s In There?:  When the final sun sets upon the penultimate horizon—as it did for Daniel Boone in 1820, Davy Crockett in 1838 and Fess Parker in 2010—I think the wine gods will agree that a $14 blend of syrah, grenache, petite sirah, mourvedre, cinsault and carignane in which the winemaker Blair Fox refuses to divulge vintages is what we call, in technical jargon, ‘leftovers’.  Crazy like a fox, that Fox.

2001 Pontiac Aztek

Lose/Lose Wincarnis:  This odd ‘tonic’ wine, first produced in 1887, blends wine and malt extract with therapeutic botanicals like gentian root, mugwort, angelica root, balm mint, fennel, coriander, peppermint leaves, cardamom seeds and cassia bark.  It’s often mixed with gin to make a cocktail called a ‘Gin and Win’ and is hugely popular in Jamaica, home to another popular therapeutic botanical.

Exception to prove the rule: Loathsome 1920 Audi

When is a Pinot Noir not a Pinot Noir?  When it’s 24% mondeuse, apparently—just ask Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, who responded to the clarion call for an under $20 California pinot with his Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir.  Now, I thought that for an appellation wine to carry a varietal name on the label, it had to be 85% that varietal, but evidentially Santa Barbara County—listed as an appellation in Appellations America—gets a pass.  In any case, whereas he has indeed kept his pinot beneath the ceiling price, he may have missed our point: The wine is supposed to taste like a pinot noir, too.  Mondeuse is an interesting enough grape, believed by some to be a genetic parent of syrah, but one thing is clear: There’s a sound viticultural principal behind its usual blending companions, shiraz and cabernet.  That is, it tends to be big and brambly and can—and in this case does—overwhelm the subtle majesty that true pinot-philes crave.

Exception to prove the rule:  Savagely cool 2006 Daedelus

Louisiana Wine:  The quaint, oft-repeated fact that ‘wine is now produced in all fifty states’ fails to take heed of another important fact: Just because it can be produced everywhere doesn’t mean it should be.  Take the Bayou State.  Yeah, yeah, I know—Louisiana has historic cultural ties to France and Spain and is the gastronomic capital of the bloody galaxy, but dudes, Louisiana is a big humid swamp where even the heartiest hybrid and most long-suffering labrusca grape comes down with downy mildew and Pierce’s Disease quicker than a Lance Armstrong doping denial.  Four commercial Louisiana wineries are now producing about 20,000 gallons of AVA wine per year, mostly from the unremarkable cynthiana, muscadine and blanc du bois varietals, but fortunately, that quantity barely satiates Mardi Gras reveler for twenty-four hours, so none is left to foist upon the rest of us.

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14 Responses to Concept Wines: What A Concept

  1. Hi Chris, are you in New York? I’m giving a reading there on October 25th (CHAMPAGNE: The Farewell) at Mysterious Bookshop and sure would be great to meet you.! Janet (www.janethubbard.com)

  2. Chris,
    In California, the variety listed on the label only needs to make up 75% of the wine, much as Clendenen himself is 25% absent. Also, I had a long chat with Carole Meredith about Mondeuse, and she informed me that Mondeuse is Syrah’s uncle. (She also told me that the vast majority of the Mondeuse in Caifornia isn’t actually Mondeuse, so Jim’s wine is actually Au Boner Climat.) Not sure of the definition of “uncle,” since I had many around my house after my mom got divorced, but according to Carole (and who would know better?), Syrah is a cross between Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza, so Mondeuse Rouge is Syrah’s uncle. Now there’s a concept.

  3. SUAMW says:

    Kenneth Volk “of Lodi”?
    How informed of you.

  4. SUAMW says:

    Because Ken (one of a long, ever-evolving list of consulting winemakers at Silvaspoons) lives in the Santa Maria area (last I checked), has his eponymous winery there and makes much more interesting wines (some, “concept” wines) under that label.

    • intoxreport says:

      Well, I’d do a big mea culpa retraction if, in fact, I said Ken was from Lodi. But I didn’t; I said that the winery was. http://www.lodiwine.com mentions Silvaspoons more than a couple times. But if Ken wants to contact me, I’d be happy to write him up in a different context.

      • SUAMW says:

        How about just knowing some basic facts?
        Silvaspoons is in Lodi… which is a waaaaays from southern Central Coast…..

  5. SUAMW says:

    Correction: Has his winery in SMV – between Cambria and Byron (actually, Byron’s old digs) and lives in the general vicinity, but not Lodi. He, like many others, consults to labels far and wide.

  6. SUAMW says:

    With all the blather out there about wine writing (and wine blogging – which is not writing) being about educating the reader, why are the readers educating the writer here?

    • intoxreport says:

      Are you sure you haven’t been dipping into the cooking sherry, SUAMW? Or didn’t recently get hit on the head with something brick-like? Who said anything about Central Coast other than you? My entire piece on Volk was 94 words long and the only thing I wrote that seems pertinent to your whining is that Silvaspoons is in Lodi, which you seem determined to confirm over and over. Thank you, but it really is unnecessary.

      Now, if you have a bug up your ass about wine blogging, so be it–you have my heartfelt permission to fuck off and stop reading wine blogs.

  7. rhodiesTNWT says:

    About your statement: “20,000 gallons of AVA wine per year, mostly from the unremarkable cynthiana, muscadine and blanc du bois varietals” You are almost correct in stating this about Louisana wines, but do not under estimate the power of the Norton [Cynthiana] grape and its wines. 264 Norton wineries in 25 Southeastern and mid-western states now provide wines from this true American grape. I like how Doug Frost, a Kansas City wine writer and Norton fan, describes this wine as “powerful, muscular, crazy intense in malic acid and capable of staining teeth or even wineglasses. [The wine is] probably something most drinkers have to learn to love, with its rough and rustic personality often evident. There are an increasing number of Nortons that taste modern, clean and even sleek.” After tasting over 120 Norton wines, we have found several exceptional examples. I really like how Kim , a Madison, WI journalist stated an introduction to Norton wines as “I love the way [Norton] wine becomes an example of what it means to be American, a symbol of a country and a culture” after reading Todd Kliman’s The Wild Vine.

    • Thanks for the update. I love Norton, and grow it in my yard and make a few gallons every year up here in Michigan. I think it has potential to be a truly great varietal, even without the ‘Honeymooners’ connotations. Seriously good wine, done
      right.

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