Julian Barnes writes an interesting essay in the Guardian on Stoner, the surprise 50-year-old bestseller about an American academic who remains stoic in the face of disappointments. It’s a wonderful book (I’ve just bought half a dozen copies for Christmas presents), written in a minor key. The opening sentences set the tone – ‘Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now…’ – it’s rather like a Victorian watercolour, all washed greys and delicate greens, but no less striking for that. But back to Barnes: he makes the point that the novel’s success in Europe (it was published in 1965 and has taken off in the last six months or so – I bought it when I happened to catch Ian McEwan on the radio praising it) is not matched in America. The short story writer Lorrie Moore patronisingly calls it ‘a terrific little book...but minor’, (pretty rich since it’s vastly better than anything I’ve read of hers). Barnes quotes the novelist Sylvia Brownrigg saying its ‘reticence seems very not American… we’re such a country of maximalists’.
It makes me think that the much-touted ‘style change’ in California, given momentum by the cool and difficult 2010 and 2011 vintages (I’ve written about it as much as anyone else), is never going to take hold. The reasons Americans like the big, fruity style are so much more than Robert Parker, and Jim Laube in Wine Spectator, championing it in the 80s and 90s. Yes, California can and did produce elegant wines. I've had Spring Mountain Vineyard 79, Inglenook 61 and Newton 81 (all Cabernets) that weighed in at 13% or so, were vibrant and fresh and had many years ahead of them. But were they the norm then? Surely their peers were as hot and opulent as they are now, and the reason we don’t see them is because they’ve fallen apart, or indeed were drunk within a few years of being made?
For the style change to become widespread, so much else is going to have to change. American food, for one. I’m not talking about the rarefied Michelin top levels but the mid- to high-end $20-30 main course sort of operation. Ingredients are of the very highest quality but they are so made and each dish is such a cacophony of flavours that a wine has to shout to be heard.
I had a rainbow trout the other night that I imagine was delicious – it was beautifully cooked – but it came smothered under a pillow-sized heap of fried vegetables, carrot and bean, cashews, six different kinds of squash, a riot of taste and texture. Anything short of the 15.5%-proof Parador Tempranillo we were drinking would have been swamped.
Brownrigg describes the character of Stoner as passive, and suggests that’s what Americans find difficult. So too with wine – the big California style is active, bold, even strident, the wine shoulders its way onto the table in a bottle that demands attention with its weight and heft and a punt that swallows your fist entire. The contrast is restraint, acidity, structured tannins, austere fruit. Wines that don’t shout.
But. ‘There are always old boys down in Texas that like the big style,’ a Napa winemaker said to me. To paraphrase Julian Cope (talking about a band improbably called Tight Bro’s From Way Back When), ‘These guys don’t do low’. Indeed – and not only Texas. If your wine has a healthy domestic market, why on earth would you change its style? Doug Shafer intimated at a London tasting this year that perhaps to his personal taste the Hillside Select would be more pared-down, but every vintage sold out, so he’d be stupid to do anything different.
Reticence and maximalism are held in the balance; the scale might tip a degree here and a degree there but it’s going to take a lot more than a couple of cool vintages and some quietly striving winemakers to have any noticeable effect.