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How to speak wine bar now

Posted by Stephen Meuse  May 15, 2012 02:44 PM

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We'll admit to being a little in love with the analytic tool known as the quad chart.   There's something attractive about the way it gives clarity to certain kinds of ideas one struggles to achieve by other means.  A neatly designed quad is particularly good at illuminating how perceptions shift as you move from one position to another along notional axes.

The quad below is result of our interest in a phenomenon we've been watching for a few years now:  the fashion among younger wine enthusiasts and the retail shops and sommeliers who cater to them away from well-known wine producing regions and international varietals toward lesser known regions using hyper-local cultivars and a naturalist approach to winemaking.  It's been clear for some time now that what once was a modest outpost of wine counter-culture is migrating to the normative -  not at your local Abe & Louie's steakhouse certainly, but in smaller, independent and mostly urban restos/wine bars with a claim to have their fingers on the pulse. In this world, the height of cool is the bar where you don't recognize anything on the wine list and whatever is there can say (with a degree of plausibility) that it pretty much made itself.

As in all fashion systems, the goal seems to be for insiders to distinguish themselves sharply from outsiders by creating barriers to comprehension. In other words, you can't join the club without cracking the code. The quad that follows attempts to show how the code operates in this particular instance. It also suggests how reflecting on the means we use to conceptualize wine offers insights into what we choose to drink and why.

The y (vertical) axis represents the degree to which the grape variety used to make a wine is (geographically) either widely or narrowly planted.   The axis represents the degree of technical intervention in the vineyard and cellar applied to producing the wine. The assumptions are that the hierarchy of hipness in wine now runs along these lines: high prestige wines derive from the most localized grape varieties treated to the least manipulation in the vineyard and cellar, while low prestige wines have exactly the opposite profile.

Hurrah for Michel Gahier, then, whose wine is made from a grape (trousseau) found almost exclusively in the Jura, the region in eastern France where Arbois (a delimited growing area in France's appellation d'origine controlee system and rather obscure in its own right) is located. One could argue about just how far out on the x and y axes Gahier's wine deserves to be  (he is a noted advocate of the naturalist approach). But let's not quibble, pairing a hyper-local varietal with a minimum of technical intervention constitutes a twin killing (quadrant 1). Score it Exceedingly Hip, at the very least.

But boo, hiss for Kendall-Jackson Vinter's Blend Merlot, relegated to quadrant 4 for combining one of the world's most widely planted and widely recognized grape varieties (merlot) with relentlessly technical winemaking. Your 25 year-old sommelier with the skinny jeans and the narrow-brimmed fedora wouldn't give it so much as a sniff - not even for purposes of appearing ironic. On the plus side: your mother might like it.

We relegate Georges Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau to quadrant 3 because although its constituent grape, the gamay noir, isn't an everyday varietal, it's far from what would qualify as exotic and so doesn't get us too far on that score. On top of that,  Duboeuf's ocean of Nouveau is first sourced from hundreds (?) mediocre-or-less vineyards, then tortured into humdrum consistency via a punishing degree of technical manipulation, pushing its x coordinate deep into the 'most worked' red zone.  Can't do better than quadrant 3, I'm afraid, Georges.  Come back when fashions change . . . for the worse.

Coturri's Maclise Vineyards Merlot presents something of a dilemma, too, but shifted to a different axis.  The Coturri brothers are celebrated as uncompromising practitioners of naturalist winemaking in California - a stature that assures them a gratifyingly remote position far out at the 'least worked' end of our x axis. They lose cred for working with the hackneyed merlot, but my guess is that in terms of grading the cool, a naturalist approach trumps a trite varietal every time.  There would be extra points if Tony Coturri shaved his lavish beard down to a soul patch and replaced his overalls with jeggings, but we put them firmly in quadrant 2.

Exactly why we privilege one kind of wine over another at a given point in time isn't entirely clear, but as with most things, there are rules at work and a quad chart is often a good way of sussing it out.  Feel free to use it in your next visit to one of those puzzlingly ironic wine bars.

But if you get arrested for impersonating a hipster, you're on your own.


Stephen Meuse can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com


Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

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Read more of Stephen Meuse's columns at www.bostonglobe.com

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