Pinotgate: Sideways and Freedom Fries

sideways_wideweb__430x2551It all started here.

Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”

Miles, from the Oscar-nominated 2004 film, Sideways.

And so began the rush for Pinot Noir. Sales of wine made from Burgundy’s famous red grape surged in the States, while those made from Merlot – and guess which we grow here – dropped like a stone. E & J Gallo, with their newly developed French brand of wines sourced from the vast, loosely controlled Languedoc region, were perfectly positioned to exploit the trend. ‘Red Bicyclette’ already came in Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah flavours, so surely it would be possible to produce a Pinot Noir. Calls to a few brokers in the south of France were probably all that was necessary, even if it had been overlooked that Pinot “can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world.”

For the French, wine sales were falling, and export sales to the US in particular had plummeted since the so-called ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ had refused to support Bush and Blair and their 2003 invasion of Iraq. French Fries had been replaced by the Freedom variety. Faced with the choice of a huge sale or nothing, it’s easy to see how it got out of hand.

When we first arrived in France ten years ago, we were told that there are two sets of rules here. The first set of rules is the legal stuff, while the second set of rules are the ones you must follow to get around the first. Then there’s just a natural way of doing things. After his handball had broken Irish hearts by cheating them out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the highly respected Thierry Henri declared “The ball hit my hand, my arm even, the ball is right in front of me, I played it and the ref allowed it. That’s the question you should ask him.” In other words, it’s up to the authorities to get it right.

In a modern wine world that focuses on brand and grape variety, it’s easy to forget that the French authorities are obsessed with origin, not brand or grape – as long as the variety is permitted. If you asked a Co-op in Bordeaux to supply a truckload of Rosé made from Cabernet Franc, I doubt they’d worry too much about the inclusion of a large dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon or even Merlot. Mind you, it’s hard to believe that the volumes involved in the Languedoc scam, under Vin de Pays control, could have happened in an area that is covered by stricter Appellation Controlée rules, as the whole of Bordeaux is.

And under those rules, I really shouldn’t be growing that Pinot Noir I planted. But that’s another story.

For any wine zealots out there, let’s keep the faith by ending with Maya’s words from Sideways:

mv5bmtcxmtu3oty5m15bml5banbnxkftztywotm1oty3_v1_cr1030244244_ss90_1“I like to think about the life of wine. How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.

And it tastes so fucking good.”