by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
My primary profession is law and there was a time largely but not entirely before my time when a glass ceiling existed in the profession. If you were a woman, it hardly mattered how good you were. Sandra Day O’Connor, who eventually served on the US Supreme Court, had a really tough time getting a job. It had nothing to do with capability. It had only to do with a perception that certain people (i.e. women) could never cut the mustard. Or maybe it was even worse than that. Maybe it was that the men who dominated the profession didn’t care whether women could cut the mustard or not. They just were not going to be allowed into the elite club.
Of course, that was a whole lot worse than the glass ceiling that exists in the wine world today, but it does not make the wine world’s glass ceiling any less excusable. Two posts that appeared this last week discussed this point and they are well worth reading. The first can be found at:
Dark Secrets of the 100 Point Wine Scale http://gargantuanwine.com/2014/09/different-drinking-styles-different-values/
The second is Steve Heimoff’s comment on the first, and it can be found at:
Is there a “glass ceiling” when it comes to scoring certain wines? (Hint: yes)
Both posts acknowledge that if you are a particular type of wine you can forget about achieving a high score. It really doesn’t matter how good a wine you are, or how much pleasure you impart. You had better be a Cabernet or a Pinot Noir or you need not apply for one of those uberscores.
I can’t begin to say how pernicious this is. One can make the argument that certain wines are innately superior and that other varieties are innately of lesser worth and quality. If you are one of the latter, albeit one of the best, you are still second-rate.
Except there is no objective basis for saying any particular variety of wine is entitled to those presumed laurels. Or, even more to the point, there is no basis for saying that some other variety, even at its best, isn’t as good as the really good varieties.
If you define wine quality as being Cabernet and Pinot Noir, to the exclusion of other varieties, then you have a tautology, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The second rate can never be first rate because it is, by definition, second-rate.
As anyone can see, this is a ridiculous state of affairs. Ridiculous, except for the fact that it in fact represents the state of affairs that exists in the wine world today.
Suppose you were a wine explorer, a Christopher Columbus of viticulture, and found in some obscure valley in the Caucasus a variety hitherto unknown, transplanted it to California, cloned it, planted a vineyard, and produced wine from. It could be the best wine ever made (assuming there were some objective way to come to that conclusion). For your effort, you would probably get an 88 and a few words of praise on some obscure page of some wine review publication which would then bestow 95-100 point scores on the latest California Cabernets.
Of course, my fantasy about a Christopher Columbus of the vineyards is just that. By if you are a producer of Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, or any number of other varieties, you are essentially locked out when it comes to the ratings game.
If you are a member of the clique (Cabernet farmer, winery, critic, etc.) that profits from the feeding frenzy that attends each new vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet, then all is good. But the end result is a perpetuation of the perpetual. It is not revered because it is superior–it is superior because it is revered.
I do not intend to cast aspersions against California Cabernet and Pinot Noir. They are wonderful grapes and produce great ones. But there is without a doubt a glass ceiling that prevents others from entry. It is not a ceiling that I see disappearing anytime soon.