Cultural Evolution


Manifest Destiny was a cultural touchstone for Europeans exploring and conquering the New World. It’s particularly strong in the United States, where we have transformed this concept into American Exceptionalism, a view of the Old World, or the rest of the world, from the top of the world. Exceptionalism informs our culture, from the size of the cars we drive (we call them SUVs), to the monumental epics we watch on the big screen, to the ripeness of our cabernets. In Europe, I often hear people talk about the “American taste” in wine. As an American whose taste in wine differs from their expectations, I find myself trying to explain the difference between cultural manifestations and personal taste.

Randall Grahm, in his long and circuitous career, has explored facets of American taste that have nothing to do with superripe cabernet. His influence has ranged from popularizing Rhône varieties to interpreting German styles of riesling for the Pacifi c Rim. But as he tells David Pelletier in this issue, most California wine is derivative, a New World riff on Old World vines. Pelletier, who blogs as the Sommelier Fou of Quebec, examines Grahm’s latest project, the planting of vines from seed in an e ort to produce a distinctively American wine.

The Chinese make their own case for Exceptionalism, rooted in the longest—rather than the shortest—cultural history of any major world power. That culture has long included fermented beverages and distillates from grains, but wine as we know it in the West is a foreign language. Having studied Mandarin in college, I’ve had an ongoing interest in the contemporary opening of China’s culture, particularly in the development of the wine business. More than a decade ago, I stumbled on an online discussion in which Randall Grahm was questioning the origin of cabernet gernischt, one of the most widely planted grapes in China. The story went that a Jewish trader (there were plenty of them in Shanghai) brought cuttings of the vine and gave it a Yiddish name—cabernet “not at all.” More recently, cabernet gernischt has been identified as carmenère, the vine that was widely planted in Bordeaux before phylloxera, and the same blending variety responsible for some of the greatest wines from Chile.

So I took it as no coincidence when Wines of Chile announced they would move their annual competition from Santiago to Shanghai for this year, and I accepted an invitation to join the panel. My original goal had been to take some time before the judging to learn more about cabernet gernischt, but instead I was sidetracked by the remarkable evolution of the wine culture since my last visit ten years ago. Even as the moneyed class has grown, the bling surrounding famous brands has shifted to a more serious interest in the actual juice. And yet, it’s a completely different kind of interest than most Americans or Europeans take. Just as Mandarin seems to require a completely different region of my brain than any Romance language, learning to approach wine like my Chinese cohorts required some mental gymnastics. Worth the effort, perhaps, as China embarks on its latest goal to become the world’s biggest wine producer by 2050.