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Memorial Day 2005

Last year for Memorial Day, I pointed to the newly-opened World War II Memorial and posted a verse from Wallace Stevens.   For this year, I elect to roll us backward nearly a century and a half to that still-most-deadly American war, the one we fought with ourselves.

A few words for the occasion from Miss Dickinson

It feels a shame to be Alive --
When Men so brave -- are dead --
One envies the Distinguished Dust --
Permitted -- such a Head --

The Stone -- that tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we -- possessed
In Pawn for Liberty --

The price is great -- Sublimely paid --
Do we deserve -- a Thing --
That lives -- like Dollars -- must be piled
Before we may obtain?

Are we that wait -- sufficient worth --
That such Enormous Pearl
As life -- dissolved be -- for Us --
In Battle's -- horrid Bowl?

It may be -- a Renown to live --
I think the men who die --
Those unsustained -- Saviors --
Present Divinity --


[From Poets of the Civil War, J.D. McClatchy ed. (American Poets Project 2005).  The photo is of the crowd around the platform prior to the Address at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Nov. 19, 1863, and is the only one known to depict President Lincoln on that occasion; details here.]

So, Like, Now the Sixties Are Officially Over, Right?

In other legal news:

Nearly 36 years after a man was stabbed to death during a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, investigators have closed the case, dismissing a theory that a second Hells Angel took part in the killing.

For the young people, here's a refresher on the event.   Or you could always watch the prosecution's Exhibit "A".

Irrelevant personal note: The Altamont Speedway concert and related mayhem took place on my fourteenth birthday; I was still living in Michigan at the time and not to be numbered among the hip.

Drinkin' Wine and Bronco COLAs

DaumierAnd now, more adventures in Wine Labeling Law. . . .

In our last episode, we left Fred Franzia and the Bronco Wine Company on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, having just learned that the Court had declined their petition to review the California Supreme Court's decision that precludes Bronco from using wine brand names with the word "Napa" in them unless the wines in the bottles have some grapes from the Napa Valley in them.  Yesterday in Sacramento, the California Court of Appeal for the 3rd Appellate District rejected Bronco's remaining arguments and again upheld the Brand Name = Grape Origin requirements.

We are about to start a looong Memorial Day Weekend, so it is appropriate that the Court of Appeal has issued a looong opinion, weighing in at 75 pages.  Earlier, Bronco had urged that it had received COLAs [Certificates Of Label Authority] from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms permitting it to use brand names such as "Napa Ridge," "Napa Creek," and "Rutherford Vintners" without regard to whether any portion of the wine within was made from grapes grown in the Napa Valley or in or near the town of Rutherford, and that California's state statute should be invalidated because it conflicts with the federal approval.  That argument was rejected by the California Supreme Court. 

Nothing if not creative, on remand to the Court of Appeal Bronco tried and failed with several additional arguments, all invoking the U.S. Constitution.  In brief:

  • Free Speech:  Bronco urges that the restrictions on the use of place names violate its rights of free speech and free expression.  No, says the Court, the California statute is a valid regulation of unprotected "inherently misleading" commercial speech.  [Connoisseurs of this sort of thing may enjoy the discussion in footnote 20, distinguishing this case from one involving "Cajun" catfish from China.]
  • Commerce Clause:  Bronco argues that the California labeling law impermissibly burdens its sales of wine in interstate and foreign commerce.  No, says the Court, because federal law contemplates that California may impose stricter regulation on labels originating within its borders and because "the state's interest in protecting California wine consumers from misleading brand names of viticultural significance and in preserving and maintaining the reputation and integrity of its wine industry in out-of-state and foreign markets outweigh the effect . . . on interstate commerce."
  • "Taking": Finally, Bronco urges that the stricter California rule operates as an uncompensated "taking" of its property rights in the federal COLAs, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  No, says the Court, because the statute "does not bar Bronco from using its brand names under all circumstances" -- all Bronco needs to do is incorporate the required percentage of Napa-grown grapes into the wines to which those brands are applied -- "and because Bronco failed to establish the statute has destroyed the substantial economic value of the brand names."

For those who want to heed the traditional weblog injunction to "read the whole thing," the Court of Appeal's opinion in Bronco Wine Company v. Jolly (May 26, 2005), Case NO. C037254, is accessible at these links in PDF and Word formats.

[Note: Links to the court's Slip Opinion expire approximately 120 days following issuance; the opinion should still be accessible thereafter by substituting "archive" for "documents" in the URL.]

Thorstein Veblen Conspicuous Consumption Award - Trial Tactics Division

From today's Los Angeles Times:  A touching fairy tale about two tailors enchanted or cursed by the prospect of producing, each day, The King of Pop's New Clothes:

Each day, [costume designer Michael] Bush wakes at 3 a.m. to drive the day's outfit — typically a colorful print vest and a suit with military details — from his home studio in Los Feliz up the 101 Freeway to Neverland Ranch.  There, between 6 and 7 a.m., he dresses Jackson, who always says 'Thank you' and gives him a hug, Bush says.  The designer returns by midafternoon, in time to help [partner Dennis] Tompkins put the finishing touches on the next day's look.  Tompkins makes most of Jackson's costumes with a single fitting.  The pair create his courtroom wardrobe using the 'Michael mannequin,' built to the singer's exact dimensions.

Perhaps what they are most proud of is that Jackson has never worn the same thing twice.

For Extra Credit: Plot your own course to Neverland -- steer clear of that second star on the right -- with the help of Google Maps.  [Via Lifehacker.]


  • L.A.-centric -- Critical Theory Edition:

Perhaps no one cares anymore what the Los Angeles Times has to say on cultural issues.  Perhaps no one is much aware that the Times finally removed its pay-wall from its arts and entertainment coverage.  Whatever the reason, I am quietly surprised to find almost no weblog commentary on Sunday's article by Scott Timberg, "Critical Condition, or, The Critic Vanishes," bemoaning the diminution or disappearance of those "once almighty arbiters of American taste."

'You gets arts journalists together these days,' says Doug McLennan, editor of Arts and a longtime Seattle music writer, 'and it's what they talk about: their declining influence.  They say Frank Rich was the last critic who could close a show.'  Most remember when Time and Newsweek had full rosters of arts critics.

What happened?  Besides the Internet and its rash of blogs, suspected culprits include the culture of celebrity, anti-intellectual populism, stingy newspaper owners and what some critics say is a loss of vitality or visibility in their art forms.  While many lament the situation, some think the decentralization of authority means the arts — and the conversation around them — will flourish without these stern, doctrinaire figures.

But many newspaper and magazine critics pine for a golden age when giants walked the Earth: When the imposing Clement Greenberg was shaping modernism in painting, the biting H.L. Mencken was exhuming the reputation of Theodore Dreiser, and the impious Leslie Fiedler found unsettling Freudian meanings in the novels of Mark Twain.

It is an aggravating article in many ways, not least in the way that it meanders about in search of a credible, or at least consistent, thesis.  The piece winds up being less about a decline of Criticism in general and more about a decline of the outlets - newspapers, wide circulation magazines - that once housed it.  Some random thoughts:

  • Why cite "The Critic" -- an animated series that no one in particular actually watched and that is in any case ten years old -- as an example of the current low state of the critical field?
  • As is often the case, the best quote comes from Dave Hickey:

Dave Hickey, an art critic best known for the book 'Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy,' doesn't think the Internet is the problem. 'But I do think that we're over,' he says.  "Being an art critic was one of those jobs like nighttime disk jockey or sewing machine repairman: It was a one- or two-generation job.'

For Hickey, art criticism lost its luster and excitement the same time art did.  'There was a sense that things had a forward tilt,' he says of American art after World War II, when it seemed to be moving toward a consummation.  'Jackson Pollock changed the way the world looked, Andy Warhol changed the way the world looked.'

        * * *

'I'm like Wolfman Jack,' Hickey groans.  'The times have passed me by.'

  • The problem is that the newspapers are cutting back the space and number of critics devoted to arts coverage, except for those that are expanding it.  OR the problem is that there has been a great leveling, so that all of the traditional distinctions within an art (good/bad/better/best) are now necessarily invidious.  OR the problem is that the Cold War is over, so that there is no national priority to maintaining prestige in the cultural arena.  OR the problem is that any opinion is an expression of "bias," and we can't have that now can we?  OR the problem is that darned Internet, so that no one reads anything anymore.
  • OR the Internet will be the saving of us all.  The Critics haven't gone away altogether: they have migrated from the printed page to the pixelated one, and there is still a vital and vibrant conversation going on concerning matters cultural and artistic, all day and all of the night.  Of course, this being the Los Angeles Times, the article names several examples of worthy Web sites and weblogs, but does not link them or provide URLs for the curious in either the print or online versions.  Blasted Luddites.

  • I am also reminded of the Terry Teachout-inspired discussion here last year about weblogs and their potential to serve as an early 21st Century equivalent to the so-called "little" magazines of the early 20th Century.
  • L.A.-centric -- Happy Consumerism Edition:

    escapegrace runs a compare and contrast exercise on the relative virtues of her new home in Los Angeles and her former home in New York.  I can't argue with her judgments, though I am driven to ask:

"How can New Yorkers claim to be the center of the world when their nearest Trader Joe's store is in Connecticut?"

  • Musical Notes - NYC Edition:

    Still in New York himself, George Hunka is provoked to an iconoclastic outburst:

Let’s get one thing straight: Stephen Sondheim is a writer of Broadway musicals, and even if he’s good at what he does (which he’s not, particularly) it’s a limited talent.  His lyrics rarely express anything more than a self-pity filtered through crossword-puzzle-level Ogden-Nashian punnery and cleverness, his composition style is third-rate imitation Puccini and Prokofiev -- poetry and music for people who hate poetry and music.

  • Music Notes - Beyond the Infinite Edition:

    I secreted a reference to an old Donovan lyric in an earlier post.   [Careful with that link: Mr. Leitch's site comes with much music and no apparent "mute" function.]   Now, on the occasion of the reissue of several classic Donovan recordings, Professor Althouse offers an appreciation.

These many decades on, I suppose we ought to forgive and forget that in addition to such classics as "Mellow Yellow" and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," Donovan also gave us "The Intergalactic Laxative."

Frosted Poo-tee-weets

    I've finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun.
    This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.  It begins like this:
    Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

    It ends like this:
    -- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, Chapter One


I bought an iPod Shuffle back in February.  This was when the Shuffle had first come on the market, and there was a backlog of orders at Apple, so the process was stretched out over a period of weeks.  First, the docking attachment arrived.  A week or two later, the sturdy sports case.  March came in like a lion.  And after a delay near unendurable, I beheld my very own cute little Shuffle.  I am become most fond of it since it came into my clutches.

Mind you, the occasions I have to use it are limited.  I don't use it during the working day, though it has been seen plugged into my ears at the office on a Saturday.  I can't use the earbuds in the car, per an entirely sensible provision of the California Vehicle Code.  (Especially in Southern California, you wouldn't want a headset to interfere with your hearing the approaching sirens of a high-speed police pursuit.)  There is usually something else going on of an evening.  So, most often, I fire up my Shuffle as many others do: while working out at the gym.

I don't know what anyone else is listening to while they sweat, but I expect most of it has the sort of thumping insistence one associates with, oh I don't know, the soundtracks of advertisements for gyms.  I would have expected that sort of thing to be entering my own ears as well, but my Shuffle has driven my tastes in a different direction.  The aural world into which an iPod draws its user is so self-contained that I have drifted toward a combination of ambient electronica and earnest, intimate, acoustic-guitar-based neo-traditional psych-folk-country-alt tunes.  If you know what I mean.  All of these roads, and more, meet in the band who call themselves Sweet Billy Pilgrim.

Sweet Billy first came to my attention through this post at The Stypod on the subject of longish (6 minutes-plus) songs, holding up the band's "Stars Spill Out of Cups" as a good example of a song that puts that length to good use.  "Stars Spill Out of Cups" is no longer downloadable, so far as I know, but a streaming too-short sample can be found here.  The plinky haunted banjos of the sample eventually give way to a sort of pilgrims' chorus backed by sustained Robert Fripp-ish guitars before wandering moodily back into the mist amid tinkling xylophones.  Wonderful stuff.  It is available for purchase on a 3-song CD (£3, plus shipping) from the band's site here

There is no Sweet Billy Pilgrim album yet, though such a thing is apparently planned for later this year.  Several full-length examples of the band's work are freely and lawfully downloadable here.  I recommend all four: "Ain't No Jesus In Here" has the most straightforward surface, although it sounds as though it was recorded in a country-western bar somewhere beyond Andromeda; the pensive "Experience" is my personal favorite of the group, though my loyalties could easily shift to any of the others on a whim; "God in the Details" is an angular waltz in a style crossing Kurt Weill with a demented music box; and "Forget to Breathe," which will not appear on the eventual album, features one of the best string arrangements I've run across lately, spiced with a judicious dollop of feedback.

An entry at the wonderfully named Spoilt Victorian Child weblog provides the only clear description I have found of who and what comprises the Sweet Billy Pilgrim entity.  The band also maintains its own weblog, Pilgrim's Progress, where they have occasionally (and temporarily) posted examples of music that they particularly like and/or have been influenced by, ranging from Fred Frith to David Sylvian to Ralph Vaughn Williams.


Dog Fight, or, This Court Knows Jack Russell About Terriers

Every so often, I come across an opinion that has nothing to do with what I do, but that opens the window on an unsuspected bit of human carrying-on.  Here is the opening sentence of such an opinion:

We must decide whether a complaint alleging a national dog club’s policy banning members that register their dogs with an alternative club raises cognizable claims of group boycott pursuant to the Sherman Act.

Who must decide?   The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, that's who.   Eventually, the Court determines that the answer is "No," for reasons best left to antitrust specialists.   In the process, the Court's decision tells you all that you might want to know about the origins of those adorable Jack Russell Terriers, and rather more than you might want to know about the behavior of Pedigreed Zealots.  More from the opinion:

Jack_russell This case arises from a philosophical disagreement between groups of well-intentioned people dedicated to a breed of dog, the Jack Russell Terrier.  A preliminary historical note is illuminating: Jack Russell Terriers were first bred in the south of England in the mid-1800’s to hunt European red fox, both over and underground, for the sport of kings.  The breed got its name from a renowned Nineteenth Century British huntsman and breeder, Parson John Russell, known as 'The Sporting Parson,' whose passion for fox hunting and working terriers was legendary.  Russell developed and bred the particular strain of white-bodied 'fox' terriers now known as Jack Russell Terriers to emphasize their working and hunting abilities.

The JRTCA [Jack Russell Terrier Club of America] is a national breed club and dog registry with standards aimed at preserving the working-dog characteristics and heritage of the Jack Russell Terrier. Formed in 1976, the JRTCA is the largest organization and registry of Jack Russell Terriers in the world, and derives a substantial amount of income from interstate and foreign commerce in the Jack Russell Terrier. . . . 

ParsonoldageUntil recently, the Jack Russell Terrier was not a breed recognized by the AKC [American Kennel Club], the well-known umbrella registry for almost all types of pure-bred dogs in the United States.  Consequently, unlike other breeds recognized by the AKC, there was no AKC registry of Jack Russell Terrier breeders or an AKC-breed certification by which potential owners could verify the authenticity of prospective dogs.  Aiming to remedy this omission, in 1991 a minority group of JRTCA members asked the AKC to recognize the Jack Russell Terrier as an official breed. They formed a 'foundation stock' of dogs to stand as a base for a AKC dog registry and to be used to trace the pedigree of offspring. The AKC accepted the Jack Russell as an official AKC-certified breed in 1998.

The JRTCA opposed the AKC listing of Jack Russell Terriers, believing that an alternative all-breed kennel club standard and registry was not in the best interests of the dog.  The JRTCA emphasizes the working-dog characteristics of the breed, and believes that any kennel club standard would over time change the dog into a show breed, bred for form not function. The JRTCA undertook a campaign to discourage its members and the public from participating with the AKC . . . .  As part of its policy, JRTCA members who registered their dogs with the AKC had their JRTCA membership terminated and were not permitted to participate in JRTCA dog shows.

You can see where this is leading: straight to court.  If you are deeply curious concerning the outcome, the complete opinion in The Jack Russell Terrier Network of Northern California v. American Kennel Club, Inc. (May 17, 2005), Case No. 02-17264, is accessible through the 9th Circuit's official site at this link in  PDF format.

[Terrier photo by Bethan Hazell, via stock.xchng.]


UPDATE [05/21/05]: The "02" in the Court's case number indicates that this matter had been pending before the 9th Circuit on appeal since sometime in 2002, i.e., at least two and a half years.  In that time, it appears that the term "Jack Russell Terrier" has become outmoded.  The AKC, in keeping with the British practice, now refers to the breed as "Parson Russell Terriers."  The Parson Russell Terrier Association of America gives the details:

The Jack Russell Terrier Association of America (JRTAA), originally the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (JRTBA), was founded in 1985 to help restore and breed to the original Parson Jack Russell Terrier breed standard.  The JRTAA standard was based upon the Heinemann standard and was written to represent the Parson Russell Terrier as a working terrier to red fox and red fox alone.  With the specified 12" to 14" standard height range, the JRTAA breed standard defined a terrier that could perform the dual functions required of Rev. Russell's terriers, to follow the fox both above and below ground.

In January of 1990 the breed was recognized on the 14" standard in England by The Kennel Club as the Parson Jack Russell terrier, a working variant of the fox terrier.  The Parson Jack Russell Terrier Club of Great Britain (PJRTC) was composed of working terrier people who felt the breed was seriously endangered by the practices of those who advocated a 10" to 15" standard, and they took the breed to Kennel Club recognition to protect the original standard.

In July of 1997, the Board of Directors of the American Kennel Club unanimously accepted the Jack Russell Terrier into its registry, effective November 1, 1997.  On January 1, 1998 the breed became eligible for competition in all AKC events, including conformation participation in the Miscellaneous Class at all-breed shows.  The breed was accepted into the AKC Terrier Group on April 1, 2000.  On April 1, 2003, the name of the breed was changed from Jack Russell Terrier to Parson Russell Terrier to differentiate the true Parson-type terrier from little generic terriers casually referred to as "Jack Russell". The Jack Russell Terrier Association of America club name was changed to Parson Russell Terrier Association of America (PRTAA). The Breed Standard was revised effective September 29, 2004.

In honor of the name change, I have added the photo of "The Sporting Parson" above. 

I have no word on how the Blair government proposes to respond to the mass unemployment of Parson Russell Terriers brought about by the recent abolition of fox hunting.

"Bottled Poetry"

That's the phrase Robert Louis Stevenson famously used to express his appreciation for the wines of the Napa Valley, which he sampled on his honeymoon.  There have been wine posts and poetry posts lately on this weblog, but no posts combining the two.  To remedy that condition (before moving along to some other topic), I take yesterday's Supreme Court decision on interstate wine shipment as an excuse to reproduce this poem by Yvor Winters, which serves to capture in words what I have long maintained: that winegrowing is the most aesthetically pleasing form of agriculture I know.

In Praise of California Wines

Vineyards_paso_robles_by_mooncat_smallAmid these clear and windy hills
Heat gathers quickly and is gone;
Dust rises, moves, and briefly stills;
Our thoughts can scarcely pause thereon.

With pale bright leaf and shadowy stem,
Pellucid amid nervous dust,
By pre-Socratic stratagem,
Yet sagging with its weight of must,

The vineyard spreads beside the road
In repetition, point and line.
I sing, in this dry bright abode,
The praises of the native wine.

It yields the pleasure of the eye,
It charms the skin, it warms the heart;
When nights are cold and thoughts crowd high,
Then 'tis the solvent for our art.

When worn for sleep the head is dull,
When art has failed us, far behind,
Its sweet corruption fills the skull
Till we are happy to be blind.

So may I yet, as poets use,
My time being spent, and more to pay,
In this quick warmth the will diffuse,
In sunlight vanish quite away.

Not really a Great Poem, but certainly a pretty good one, its stray archaisms notwithstanding.  And it goes well with the red, white or rosé of your choice, preferably to be enjoyed in good company.

[Photo by mooncat (Erika Thorpe) -- whose uncle's Paso Robles vineyard it is -- via stock.xchng.]

Wine Makes Strange Benchfellows

"From wine what sudden friendship springs!"
    -- John Gay (1685-1732), The Squire and his Cur

Good news for winemakers and wine consumers: The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its decision in Granholm v. Heald, and has overturned state laws that permitted direct shipment of wine to consumers within a state by that state's wineries while outlawing direct shipments into the state by out-of-state wineries.   The opinions are available here [PDF].

This is yet another 5-4 decision from our often closely-divided Supreme Court, and displays an intriguing split among the justices.   Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion, which is joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and, in the unusual role of "the swing vote," . . . Justice Antonin Scalia.   The dissenters are Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Stevens, O'Connor and Thomas; Stevens and Thomas contribute written opinions in dissent.

The entire package of opinions comes to 73 pages, and I have not begun parsing it in detail.   More commentary to follow.


UPDATE [1305 PDT]: Unsurprisingly, Professor Bainbridge has a slew of worthwhile insights on his main weblog and on his wine weblog.   He provides other useful links here.

Apropos of my title for this post, Professor B notes just how unusual the line-up of justices on the two sides of this case really is.   Let's do the numbers:

The 5 justice majority had never voted together in a 5-4 case once in the last 10 years.

It just goes to show how unusual were the ideological and doctrinal issues presented by this case. You've got federal judicial power lined up against state legislative authority. You've got the original text of the constitution (albeit a principle extracted therefrom mainly by negative implication) versus an amendment tacked on validly but motivated by the worst sort of rent seeking. And so on.

I have to agree with the Professor's analysis of the limited basis for the majority's decision: essentially, what the Court disallows is the discrimination between in-state and out-of-state wineries under the direct shipping laws under consideration.  One "remedy" available to the affected jurisdictions is to treat the two classes of winemakers similarly by prohibiting all direct shipment of wine, without regard to whether the point of origin is inside or outside of the State's borders.  I suspect there would be a unanimous vote of the Court for the proposition that the 21st Amendment authorizes that sort of regulation -- just as it would authorize a State to go completely "dry" if it so chose.  We should learn soon in which of these States there is a sufficiently strong neo-Prohibitionist sentiment -- or a sufficiently strong lobby for the entrenched wholesaler/distributor interests -- to close the door that the Court opened this morning.

OF RELATED INTEREST:  So you say you want to buy the wines of the wineries who brought this case to the Court?  Here are links to the winemakers mentioned in the majority's opinion:

  • Domaine Alfred Winery -- successor to Chamisal Vineyards, the first wine property in the Edna Valley in California's San Luis Obispo County.  [The Edna Valley is one of those places that instills a recognizable character in the wines produced from its grapes.  I happen to dislike most Edna Valley wines because I dislike that character; many others, however, hold a more favorable opinion of the area.]
  • The Lucas Winery -- located in Lodi in California's central valley, producing mostly Zinfandel.  [I have no personal experience of the Lucas wines.]


If You Think That's Bad, Wait Till You Hear What They're Doing With Loaves and Fishes

Anyone interested in the inner flywheels and clockwork of the California wine industry should follow the link (via Tom Wark's FERMENTATIONS weblog) to a fascinating article from The Economist, "Water into wine".   

The story focuses on the semi-hush-hush practice of "watering back," i.e., adding water in order to reduce Insanely High alcohol levels to the Merely Ridiculous.  Recent wine-related films are mentioned, both Sideways [an unexpurgated rendition of Miles' market-flattening aspersions upon Merlot opens the piece] and Mondovino [there is fretting about the creeping sameness of wines].  The article concludes:

[T]he real danger for California’s wines is one shared by wine-lovers the world over -- the standardisation of taste and the loss of individualism.  As giant corporations buy up one winemaker after the other -- for example, Constellation’s purchase of Robert Mondavi in 2004, or the acquisition of the Chalone Group by Britain’s Diageo earlier in 2005 -- the risk is that a wine’s marketing will count more than its terroir.  It is certainly true that labelling wines by their grapes has demystified the appreciation of wine (even French winemakers are now adopting the habit).  But what happens if one cabernet sauvignon tastes much the same as another?  What happens if giant winemakers, imposing standardised methods of production, put consistency ahead of character?

The answer is that Paul Giamatti’s character Miles will be very disappointed.  So, too, will any other wine connoisseur.  They should all take seriously the warning of Jonathan Nossiter in his polemical film 'Mondovino': 'Wine is an expression of civilisation, but it is also an expression of power.  It was the Romans who introduced wine to the Mediterranean basin, and for them it was part of their mission to civilise. Today, the picture is paradoxical.  On the one hand, never have so many people taken seriously the notion that their place of origin and identity have meaning and are worth preserving.  And yet, never has the world been under such threat from the forces of homogenisation.'  That, one would have thought, was a much greater threat than watering-back.

The trend to producing high alcohol wines, and the impact on grape growers when wineries insist on longer "hang time" -- that the grapes remain on the vine to maximize ripeness and sugar levels -- are issues on which Tom Wark has been expressing strong opinions of late.  A comment by Craig Camp to Tom's post leads to a post on the weblog of Anne Amie Vineyards in Oregon's Williamette Valley, in which Craig opines persuasively that the rise of higher alcohol wines has a lot to do with winemaking techniques that have shifted the centers of the winemaking world from cooler locales such as Bordeaux and Burgundy to sunshiny places such as California and Australia :

Historically, the greatest vintages were always the ripest vintages, in other words: more alcohol.  However, in most vintages alcohol levels were lower due to weather conditions.  In the past, great wine regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy felt lucky to get three excellent vintages out of ten, but modern vineyard and winemaking techniques have changed this to eight or even nine vintages out of ten that produce wine of excellent quality.  That means more vintages with higher alcohol levels than in the past.

Also, there has been a shift in the sources that provide most of the wine consumed.  Bordeaux, once the major supplier of the worlds better wines in all price categories, has experienced a disastrous commercial collapse of sales in the moderate price category and all of those 12 to 13% cool climate wines have been replaced hot climate wines from California, Australia, South America and southern Italy.  Wines from these sun drenched regions regularly, and easily, surpass the 13% level.

As Craig says in his comment: "In Oregon, with pinot noir, longer hang times is know as ripening the grapes."  His post goes on to remind that alcohol levels cannot be considered as the sole criterion for wine quality: what matters is how the alcohol balances with the other aspects of the wine and whether the totality is a harmonious one, particularly in the company of food.

Not every winemaker in California wants to receive those hyper-ripe, alcohol-engendering grapes.   Some -- Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat is a leading example -- make it an article of faith that grapes can be fully "ripe" for winemaking purposes without excessive sugar levels, and work hard to produce wines of charm and longevity at and below the 13% level without post-harvest tinkering.  Huge producers may insist that their growers provide those longer hang times, with the result that the average alcohol level in the mass market is likely to remain high for the near future -- perhaps until the Great Consumer Rebellion of 2007 foreseen by Tom -- but there is still opportunity for small and mid-size wineries, particularly those that grow their own grapes, to buck the trend.