War of the Words
The English think we're number crunchers; we think they're snobs. Why can't we all just get along?
George Bernard Shaw once wrote that America and England were two nations separated by a common language, an observation that has only been given more credence with the coming of the international wine boom. Both nations are top markets known for energetic and thoroughly eclectic wine consumption, omnibibulous (we'll drink nearly everything available) but sailing on a vinous lake from such opposing directions that it's a miracle we haven't already collided in mid-pour.
The biggest gap between Brits and Yanks may be in our wine literature, which reflects our cultural differences. (As an American living in London for several years now, I've had a lot of those differences pointed out to me, usually in a way that let me know the British custom was superior.) In England, it's considered bad manners to be clever or overly confident; it's all right to be noticed, as long as you don't seem to be trying. To quote A. J. Liebling, England is "the only nation in the world that habitually boasts of its own modesty." Which means that if you ever visit a stately home, you can be sure that the fellow who looks like the gardener and seems a bit lost is the owner of the place. On the other hand, I have been confronted with fidgets and numb stares when I've explained the way, say, computer software or fermentation works--for nothing marks an American more surely than really knowing something, rather than just having an opinion about it.
Given the divergence of the two styles, there's no way the British will allow their approach to wine to be seen as aspirational (that would look American), nor will a British wine writer tell you in any detail what a wine tastes like--he or she will assume you know. (If you don't, goes the corresponding assumption, you'll find out, somewhere, and then come back.)
British wine writing, as befits a tradition that began in 1568, tends to be allusive, metaphorical, leisurely, often chatty and somewhat presumptive rather than factual. If the writer is male, he will sometimes, without a hint of contrition or coquettishness, describe a wine as masculine or feminine. A handful of adjectives may be tossed out (dark, full, rustic, astringent, lovely) or a flat declaration made ("A cool, sweet figgy flavor quelled by good acidity"), followed by a metaphor ("The actress's makeup was wearing off," said of a wine that has faded in the glass), and that's about it.
Not for these critics the American-style tasting notes they deride as "fruit salad" (blackberry, cherry and cola flavors ... a hazelnut accent to the pear flavors ... smoky, toasty, guava and nutmeg aromas), nor, for most of them, numerical scores, about which they tend to be thunderingly snide. The difference, one writer (whose nationality I will not reveal) pointed out to me recently, is that the British want to be considered enthusiastic amateurs and the Americans want to be taken for serious semipros: they stroll, we strive.
A few months ago, I found myself in a tale of two cities that further dramatized the point. I was in New York for a short visit and was shopping for wine in a fairly typical Manhattan superstore. There were the requisite floor-to-ceiling racks of bottles, cut cases stacked everywhere and little shelf cards with mini-novels scribbled on them. From the next aisle, I overheard an intense conversation that seemed to be mostly numbers: "89. 90, a better value." "Look, a 94--gotta have." All wonderful vintages, I thought and peeked around the corner. The two men were, it turned out, reading the numerical scores from various newsletters posted alongside the wines.
Back home a few days later, I was in a venerable wine shop, a London classic a couple of centuries old. There were about six bottles on display in the oak-paneled room, quite a few books and a tasting table. I was looking at one of the books and overheard, "Really quite voluptuous, good body, not overblown--elegant, quite feminine. Lovely." What man wouldn't look around? All I saw was two elderly gents smiling at glasses of wine, just as certain of their parameters as the two guys in New York.
One reason for the different approaches is, of course, that the Brits have been at the game a lot longer: they've been importing wine for nearly two thousand years and have never really gotten over the fact that beginning in the 12th century they ruled Bordeaux. After that, every time they were having a war with France (which was often) they'd go off to another country, buy the wine and change its style to suit themselves. (It's the British who were responsible for the creation of port, sherry and Marsala and for the change in the original style of Champagne, from sweet to very dry, or brut.) Then peace would come and they would turn back to Bordeaux, like errant husbands returning home.
This pattern explains the English combination of provincialism and haughty self-assurance that Americans sometimes misinterpret as sophistication. We Americans, after all, have always been the newcomers, the awkward rubes in the world of wine, with a long history of gaffes. There was the very public failure of Thomas Jefferson's attempt to produce a drinkable wine at Monticello; the embarrassing fact that our best 19th-century wine came from Ohio (and inspired one of Longfellow's worst poems); and the devastation of phylloxera--the plant louse that in the 1860s destroyed most of Europe's vineyards--which we gave the world. Later we inflicted Prohibition on ourselves for 14 years, and then we made wines like cold duck and Boone's Farm our country's best-sellers. With this history, of course we've tended to tread lightly around the British!
And if we don't, we are reminded to. One night an American friend of mine found himself alone after dinner with one of the more formidable members of the British wine trade. He tried to make conversation with her by praising the range of Twenties ports he'd been tasting. "Was that the 1820s or the 1920s?" she inquired sweetly. My first elegant dinner party in England began with a 20-year-old Champagne and featured a similarly aged Chablis and rather older Bordeaux, followed by an ancient port. If I'd been as tired as those wines, I'd still be in bed. My hosts told me that the wines had been specially chosen in my honor, "because you Americans drink your wine too young--we thought you'd like to know how they are when they're mature."
The implication is obvious. We'll always be the new kids on the block. But so what? Here's another thing I've noticed over the past two years: young British wine drinkers have taken in a big way to the U.S.'s one true triumph, Zinfandel, and to California's Rhône-style wines. We may be headed for a meeting of the minds after all, and in a very American place--outside tradition.
Brian St. Pierre is the author of A Perfect Glass of Wine (Chronicle Books) and a contributing editor at Decanter, a wine magazine in the United Kingdom.