Yesterday my $800 Vitamix broke after two years of light use. A while ago, in the clutches of weak mindedness, I meandered through the aisles of Costco with less purpose than usual and stood mesmerized by a machine that promised to do my laundry and feed my dogs. (or, at least, that’s what it sounded like to me at the time!) So, I bought something that I didn’t need, gave away the appliances it replaced (A fabulous 20 year old Oster blender and 15 year old Cuisinart food processor that (a) worked, and (b) I abused frequently) so that I might, one day, make my own peanut butter or tomato soup puree.
We say it often enough, “Things aren’t made like they used to be”, usually while we are replacing defunct, albeit very expensive, technological breakthroughs of the appliance/clothing/automobile genre. I am normally more savvy, defaulting to the least moving parts after lessons learned. $1000 spent in one year for robotic coffee makers, three different models that all broke within three months, turned into a passion for french press ($24 spread out over the 6 years is a much better ROI). We all know that engineered obsolescence is a tight-rope walked by capitalists in the unerring pursuit of more sales, higher stocks and larger CEO salaries. However, at some point consumer faith and confidence is compromised. Unless they ALL play the same game.
Sadly, wine can suffer the same fate.
Unless a producer makes a conscious effort to make wines that are built to last, wines can be unstable and not cellar well. The industry throws around a tatty old stat to excuse our high pH fruit bombs; Americans consume most wine within 48 hours of purchase. We, Americans, don’t lay down our wine. We, Americans, drink it now. The solution to this? Make wines that require no aging, makes wines that appeal to an eager audience wanting to devour them now. Easy, right?
But these wines are not ageable. High pH, low acid wines with higher alcohol and sizeable tannins fall apart quickly. I have tried several 100 pt scoring wines that are muck after ten years in bottle. The alcohol takes over, the little acid in the wines precipitates with a high tannin level along with polymeric pigments and the wine loses fruitiness, becomes an astringent mouthwash.
I’m not arguing that these producers are engineering obsolescence in their wines per say. But I do argue that they are less mindful of parameters that produce ageable wines in the pursuit of scores and the yuminess factor found in wines meant to be drunk immediately. Proponents of the “drink wines now” school argue that wines don’t need to be laid down any longer. We can hang fruit until November and chemically alter juice with a vast selection of products to augment the wine to meet our formula for 100 pt scores. I would argue, however, that some consumers don’t want to buy these Frankenwiens. Some consumers want wines that are unaltered and true to the source of their creation; earth or the terroir from which they came, weather that capriciously bestows their endurance and timing, cultivation of the grower paying very close attention to the development of fruit, and the art of a winemaker listening to the grace of fruit while is whispers what it wants to become.
Wines are not made like they used to be because we have science and technology that helps us engineer drinkable wines now. We no longer have to hope that aging will produce a palatable vintage, we simply alter the wine to fit the market demands. But the poetry is gone, and wine is lifeless when we do not pay homage to the mutable character of wine over time. The mystery has disappeared and wine has lost its veil of secrecy.
Forgive me for borrowing from Nietzsche (in a particularly bourgeois argument), the wine gods are dead; and we have killed them, but some of us still believe. Pervasive ageism has insipidly ventured into the wine industry, while the boutique winemaker clings to the old school bastion of craft wines, unaltered, daring to showcase terroir and vintage. We chose to make wines that can hold up to time, and we have the courage to risk our reputations on the mutable nature of maturation.