Notes from the Cellar: Turning brilliance to dreck
by Jeff Cox, Beer and Wine Merchandiser
This article was originally published in July 2010
Malbec is hot. It’s the new darling of the my-varietal-is-hipper-than-your-varietal set, one of just a handful of French words that’s still cool (and easy) to utter, and the wine world’s Next Big Thing. It’s to the “tens” what pinot was to the aughts, merlot to the nineties and chardonnay to the eighties.
Not that it’s anything new. Malbec has its origins in France, where it’s also known as côt, auxerrois or pressac. It flourishes in the Bordeaux region, where it’s one of the six traditional blending grapes in classic claret blends, and is the primary component in southwest France’s Cahors appellation, producing inky dark, tannic, intensely flavored wines.
But its rise to stardom owes to its success in Argentina, where it was first introduced in the mid-19th century, and where it renders wines that are characterized by their deep color, velvety texture and intense fruit flavors.
But that’s beside the point. Malbec is hot, and the greedheads are on the case. As the tassel loafer crew puts it, there’s significant traction in the category — and the corporate wine world never met a hot varietal or idea that they couldn’t somehow prostitute. Now, everyone’s got a malbec, and they’re all “reaching out” with “opportunities” for “brand building” with great “PTQ ratios.”
It’s the hot new thing — and the same old sales pitch: “… we’re introducing a malbec … new project … consulting winemaker … branding concept … used to work with Riccardo Cotarella … Wine Spectator … Michel Rolland … micro-oxygenation … great packaging … Parker …” Yada, yada, yada.
The result is predictable. From Beaujolais to merlot, the big players in the wine business have a remarkable propensity for taking a good thing and doing what big players do, be they coal, timber, banking or oil: exploit the resource for all it’s worth, leaving a trail of wreckage in their wake.
But the phenomenon isn’t limited to the wine business or the corporate world. It’s a cultural thing. What does western culture (the great melting pot) do when it encounters the exotic, the strange, the out there, the edgy, the racy or dangerous? It assimilates it, it sells it — and kills whatever threatening spark of genius ever ignited its brilliance.
It’s Led Zeppelin selling Cadillacs, middle-class white guys with soul patches, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as prime-time muzak, rednecks with earrings, tattooed Sunday school teachers and rap as a McDonald’s jingle, to name just a few.
The point? Merlot isn’t inherently insipid, Beaujolais isn’t the bastardized Kool-Aid that wears Mr. DuBoeuf’s logo and malbec isn’t a brand.
There’s a big difference between product and produce, content and substance or a sales job and the truth, and a person can never know the difference unless they ask the question and aren’t afraid to walk on whatever wild side the answer might provide. But that’s where the fun begins.