Chick Vit or What Do Women Want (in their Wine)
“What do women want?”
~ S. Freud
“Sometime a Cigare is just a Cigare.”
~ R. Grahm (with apologies to S. Freud)
“I mean, to put it crudely,” he was saying, “the thing you could say (Flaubert) lacks is testicularity. Know what I mean?”
“…Lacks what?” Franny said….
…He hesitated. “Masculinity,” he said.
“I heard you the first time.”
~ J.D. Salinger, “Franny and Zooey”
“I woke up this mornin’, my baby mighty mad.
Cause the lead in my pencil, it’s done gone bad
Lead in my pencil, baby its done gone bad
And that’s the worst old feelin’ that I’ve ever had.”
~ Johnny “Geechie” Temple, “Lead Pencil Blues”
“There’s a man in the house.”
~ Harlan Miller
My friend Amy recently told me, “Randall, you’re really missing the boat.” “Of course I am,” I told her. “The nautical conveyance and I haven’t been, shall we say, intimate for quite some time.” “No, you’re missing a great business opportunity.” “And, what pray tell, Amy, might that be?” “You make chick wine,” she said. “You should be marketing your wine to women.”
The technical difficulty of figuring out precisely how one might market one’s wine to women and the discipline in doing so notwithstanding, I was intrigued by what she was saying. It felt that she was perhaps on to something and I wanted to better understand what she meant. “Amy, assuming that what you say is correct, why do you imagine my wine is appealing to women?” I asked.
“For one thing, it’s soft, doesn’t have a lot of harsh, aggressive tannin, and the alcohol isn’t over-the-top. The highly concentrated, punch-you-in-the-face “statement” wines are very difficult for a lot of women. We just can’t deal with that much alcohol, that much structure. And your wines have a story – they’re about something. The labels are funny, non-threatening and beautiful, with a lot of attention paid to detail. Women like details.”
It seemed that certainly what she was saying about “chick wines” was true on a number of levels. The first thing I thought about was the whole notion of “trophy wines” – wines that are considered desirable in virtue of their great rarity, and whether they might somehow be akin to “trophy wives.” Both species tended to be very expensive, flashy, and with a number of obvious if somewhat superficial charms. (Non-trophy winemakers and non-trophy wives might well want to scratch out the eyes/pull out blonde hair by the dark roots of their opposing numbers.) One thing seemed certain. I didn’t imagine that women would likely buy a particular wine to impress other women; they might buy it because they liked the label or more likely because they were intrigued by the label and having tried the bottle once, rather liked the wine. There was certainly a lot more of a question of status, establishment of pecking order and demonstration of competence involved in a man’s decision to purchase one particular wine over another. It seemed to me that wine – whether it be its tannic structure or its usefulness as a fungible asset and investment vehicle, was for men, something that needed to be managed and mastered.
I have sometimes jocularly remarked about Le Cigare Volant, our flagship wine, that it differs considerably from ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, the southern French wine on which it is modeled, in that, being produced in Santa Cruz, where men are more in touch with their feelings, with their feminine side, it is decidedly kinder and gentler than its somewhat rustic, more broad-shouldered Gallic counterpart. You don’t have to go out and slay a large beast, drag it back to your lair and roast it on an open hearth to make an appropriate pairing with the wine. ((Though just for the record, the umami-intensive character of our red wines (owing in no small part to our diligence in encouraging yeast autolysis of the wine’s lees) make them very well suited to pairing with roasted meats.)) And while Cigare differs from ChÃ¢teauneuf, it is also, broadly speaking, quite a bit different from many if not most of its New World confrÃ¨res. Our wines tend to be higher in acidity, lower in alcohol and tannin than those of many “serious” New World wineries. ((Part of the problem here lies with the whole notion of “seriousness.” In the Old World, one’s real estate – that stunning terraced vineyard, originally planted 2000 years ago by the Romans does quite a bit to establish the legitimacy of one’s credentials. In the New World, credibility is a bit more difficult to vouch for, and for reasons too numerous to enumerate, concentration or density of a wine has become the proxy for “seriousness” or “quality.”)) While the proposition of more elegant, presumably food-friendlier wines is intellectually quite interesting, I think that it is also a bit confusing to a lot of wine writers and tasters. One way to think of our wines is that they are a bridge between New World and Old World. I suppose the question might be: Is the bridge leading anywhere or is it just a bridge out over the abyss?
I believe that the style of our wines tells only part of the story as to why they are (if they are) putatively attractive to women. Without getting too New Agey about it, I find that our wines are somehow more “sensitive” to their surroundings, ((There may be any number of reasons for this, from the somewhat straightforward and slightly banal – a less filtered wine, with more colloidal mass (fine particulates) will possibly be more variable under differing barometric pressures – to the more esoteric, i.e. considerations of the wine’s “life-force,” or ability to tolerate oxidative challenge, which in chemical terms may be a function of the particular minerals present in the wine, as well as the complex interactivity of its entire set of oxygen sensitive elements. Presumably the more complex the chemistry, the more unpredictably the wine will behave, the more “sensitive” it might be to its surroundings.)) more mutable, subject to greater changeability, based on the climate, both meteorological and emotional. ((There is no question at all that the experience of a wine, whether pleasurable or not, is partially based on the qualities inherent in the wine itself, but equally is a function of the physiological, emotional and psychological state of the taster himself. The character of some wines (like some people) is more or less immediately evident, but in most instances, really requires a lot of unpacking. Critics don’t write about the enormous amount of subjectivity (and variability) that is brought to the tasting experience because this would undermine their basic stock in trade, which is dependability and replicability.)) They are wines not immediately accessible to the imbiber at first sip – they are typically quite closed up at first approach, and demand some patience and understanding. But once they begin to emerge from their shell, they are ready to engage in a long and meandering conversation with the food. In short, they are chick wines. ((It occurs to me that another word that would well describe the style of our red wines is “Burgundian” or even “Pinot Noir-like.” The difference of course is that no one expects Burgundy to be a massive wine that will make its point in a stentorian fashion and there is (generally) a rather different set of expectations when one tastes the wine. This actually brings up the interesting dichotomy between Bordeaux and Burgundy. Bordeaux could well be considered “Apollonian” and Burgundy “Dionysian,” that is to say that Bordeaux appeals to the head, and Burgundy to the entire sensorium. Burgundy is truly the most feminine wine, one that seduces with its wiles, draws one in, until all resistance is futile.))
Now, here is where I think it gets interesting, at least to me. If my wines are particularly interesting to women, might the converse be true, i.e. might they on some level be not so interesting to men? Lately I have been getting a fair amount of press, partially from the new book and partially due to my rather vocal and public plans to produce a vin de terroir, a wine intended to express a sense of place, from a new vineyard site, as yet to be planted. I am, of course, very pleased to have garnered so much public attention, ((My primary character disorder is an insatiable need for infinite public approbation.)) but what has me a bit vexed is that while some very astute writers are quite willing to vigorously cheer me on in the pursuit of this new vineyard in its audacious aspiration, with but a few exceptions, they seem to be rather less convinced about the brilliance and uniqueness of our current line-up (especially the reds). ((Maybe I am overthinking this a bit, but I have the idea that one can never quite experience a wine (or anything else for that matter) without a set of assumptions and preconceptions about that wine, without implicit (and often unconscious) standards of quality, signifiers of merit or defect. Certainly wine writers have quite a bit to learn from phenomenologists as far as learning how to look into the enormous set of factor already brought bring to the tasting experience before a wine touches lips. Matt Kramer and Eric Asimov have both recently written about their experience of “orange wines”; their work in looking at their own set of prejudices and prejudgments in considering these wines might make them more open-minded in considering wines from a more normative range.)) They just can’t quite “get” the wines, are not quite ready to thoroughly embrace what I am proffering as an aesthetic; I suspect that they are troubled by the fact that the wines are to them, somehow neither fish nor fowl. ((There is nothing but anxiety of influence when it comes to winemaking and by extension to wine criticism. A producer of Syrah in the New World has the unenviable choice of either rebelling against the elegance (critics might say wimpiness) of Old World Syrah and thus producing the bold monstrosity of SAE 40-weight motor oil Shiraz, or alternatively, producing a derivative “French-style” Syrah, which will likely be excoriated by the influential wine press and shunned by real wine mavens, who would likely prefer the Chave “Offerus,” which sells at about the same price.)) ((A New World producer who produces a “lighter” Syrah, at least has the Platonic template of CÃ´te-RÃ´tie, which helps to create a range of defined normative expectations for Syrah. A New World southern RhÃ´ne blend, which is loosely modeled on the powerful wines of ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape does not immediately create the same universe of expected possibilities, a sort of imaginative pre-tasting, if you will.)) Maybe there is too great a disparity between my protestations of esteem for “somewhereness” and the nowhereness (or geographical indeterminacy) of the current line-up that just bugs them. ((I recently had the experience at a winemaker dinner of sitting next to a woman, whom I presumed (and of course, I am merely presuming) was a transsexual. (She was well over 6 feet, stocky, with a rather booming baritone voice.) Apart from my desire to not say something inappropriate, I just found myself uncomfortable with her “ambiguity,” which of course was a function of my own need to have the world neatly sorted out.)) Maybe it’s the hubristic grandiosity of my project – the creation of a vin de terroir – and instinctively, not wishing to become disappointed themselves, they are being a bit harsh on the wines in the hopes that I will try just that much harder to attain this worthiest ideal. ((Having just written this, I realize that it is patently false, and maybe just an indication of narcissism in the extreme – no one out there really does (or should) care that much.))
Perhaps a less convoluted explanation is indicated. Maybe in some of my wines the standard signifiers of “quality,” if not missing, are at least perhaps a bit occluded. ((The issue is made even murkier (somewhat literally) by our use of screwcaps, which creates a slightly different redox milieu for the wine – the same old cast of vinous characters – fruity esters, tannins, organic acids and the like – but ever so slightly altered as to be not quite recognizable, a bit like the voice-altering technology employed in witness protection programs. When the wine becomes completely saturated with oxygen, a more normative or expected tasting palette re-emerges.)) What actually is “quality” in a New World wine? I think that one would be hard pressed to insist that it is authenticity or trueness to its Platonic essence, because likely there is no such Platonic essence, especially if the wine does not come from a singular vineyard, and that vineyard is not farmed in such a way to optimally express its unique character. I believe that all of us hold some sort of template in our brains as far as what constitutes “quality” and what provokes our interest in a particular wine; likely we respond to wine in ways analogous to other sensual stimuli. Perhaps wine affects us a bit like music does, though its balance and logic does not have the same kind of temporal sequencing. With wine the elements are initially apprehended all at once in a sort of trumpet blast and then slowly, almost imperceptibly they shape-shift and unfold with time. Most people, at least us Westerners, are attuned to tonal music, with a recognizable structure and a predictable, inevitable logic; there is satisfaction and resolution when the melody returns to the tonic, a harmonic resonance of a few key elements. In wine maybe these elements are wood, fruit, tannin and minerals (though nobody really knows what this last category really means). Withal, I would suggest that these flavor elements cannot simply be present but they need to be organized in such a way that suggests that they represent something. Put another way, in a vin de terroir, the unique qualities of the site are driving the bus, in a vin d’effort, a winemaker with a strong stylistic vision is driving the bus. But somebody’s driving. And that there are some strong scenic elements on the way to observe: “Look, there’s that Russian River cherry fruit!” the helpful wine-guide/critic points out.
Critics – wine critics, movie or art critics – are always looking for some sort of explanatory hook, revelatory lens, if you will, to explain to themselves and readership what is most interesting and worthy of approbation. It can be the relatively obvious tic – the eucalyptus note found in older Heitz’ Martha’s Vineyard Cabs, the soft structure and caramel/vanilla of the early Silver Oaks, the iodine of La Mission Haut-Brion, the pencil lead of Latour, but there is something that tells us that this wine is different, and maybe, by extension, that there is A Plan of some sort. I’m not sure whether it has been my lack of imagination or maybe lack of will to make a wine that makes a strong statement. It is hard to think of “Balance!” “Elegance!” “Harmony!” as incendiary, revolutionary slogans that one shouts, or more accurately, murmurs at the ramparts. ((I’m not precisely sure what ramparts are – just certain that, like lees, they are only found plurally.)) It seems that all too often, absent a strong organizing thema of a wine, (pre-understood by the taster/critic), it is tactile imminence/presence on the palate that is the default measure of quality. Meandering, elegant wines that change and evolve, and whose qualities take time to emerge, maybe are not so convincing.
I am left to conclude that in the New World we are still frontiersmen, that we must hew our way, leave an indelible trace, if we are to be taken at all seriously. Perhaps at the end of the day, in virtually every arena, including wine criticism, there is something like an implicit contest of wills, at least between men. Male wine critics and perhaps testosterone-infused female ones, are always gauging the power, the will of the winemaker, trying to divine the measure of his (or her) intention, and how well that intention has been met in the final product. I have spoken my piece in rather measured and modulated tones; perhaps it will be necessary to come down an octave or two.