Yesterday, after arriving at the Newark, NJ airport from Milan, Italy (where I admired a statue of Leonardo da Vinci across from the famous Scala opera house), I headed straight to the bar in the United Airlines terminal and asked my Jamaican barkeep for a long tall glass of beer. When a well-dressed older lady sat down next to me, I was reminded of how the power of aggressive wine marketing in our country has shaped our palates.
"Do you have a Chard by the glass?" she asked.
"We do," answered a barman (my barkeep's colleague).
"How much is it?"
"$15 a glass."
"What else do you have?"
"Cab, Merlot, Pinot, and Sauv Blanc." (Egad! sahv-blahk, the worst of them all!)
And while it's thrilling to know that we've come a long way from the days of Hearty Burgundy and California Chablis, it's sad to think that late-20th-century wine marketing in our country has conditioned us to think of and order wine in mono- and bisyllabic grunts when we cozy up to the bar. Just as you know that a Big Mac is going to taste the same in every American town, you know that you can plant your tush in nearly any U.S. airport bar and order a glass of "Chard" that will taste fruity, creamy, and oaky, with nearly no acidity -- no matter who the winemaker is.
I was reminded of a wine that we recently opened in our home, Educated Guess 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay from the Roots Run Deep Winery in Yountville, California. With its brilliantly eye-catching label and its ingenious approach to quality-to-price ratio, this under-$20 wine (also available in Cab and Pinot) represents one of the most successful marketing campaigns in recent wine history.
The "label was designed," write the authors of the winery's website, "to tell the story of how you can make an educated guess in winemaking, not to give you nightmares about your high school chemistry class. It shows you actual winemaking formulas that are either induced or naturally occur during a specific winemaking process."
Educated Guess is the brainchild of California wine industry veteran Mark Albrecht, who realized some years ago that he could maintain extremely low costs in production if he acted as a négociant instead of paying overhead for a brick-and-mortar winery. In other words, he buys fruit from top growers, contracts one of the industry's top winemakers on an hourly (as opposed to yearly) basis, and makes the wine in a rented facility, thus not having to support the myriad costs associated with a conventional winery. Ingenious marketing and well cultivated network of contacts throughout the country have made this extremely affordable wine one of the best-selling labels in the U.S. today. (Mark took home the top prize "Champion Buckle" at the 2009 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition for his 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.)
And while Mark would surely claim otherwise, he has managed to sell Americans yet another oaky buttery Chardonnay through his incredibly deft hand in marketing -- at a remarkably affordable price (I'll give him that).
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The authors of his website write that this wine is "no 'stick of butter and a 2 x 4" Chardonnay'." And they boast: "We were able to retain the delicious tropical fruit flavors, while also giving the customer what they have come to love in Chardonnay -- creamy notes, toast, spice and vanilla."
Since when does Chardonnay express itself in "tropical fruit flavors" unless it's been doctored using cultured yeasts? And wow, the flavors we have come to love in Chardonnay? Creamy, toast, spice, and vanilla?
And how does the wine come to achieve this flavor profile? According to the site, malolactic fermentation in barrel (that's what removes the acidity and makes the wine taste buttery by converting malic acid into lactic acid) and 12 months aging in "Burgundy French Oak Barrel."
If that ain't buttery, oaky Chardonnay, then grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry, and Leonardo's Mona Lisa was a man!