Again, I find myself thinking about polarities, specifically tradition versus progress. It shows up everywhere – certainly in politics right now. There are – and have always been – two very distinct groups channeling two very distinct concerns. The traditional seeks to maintain the status quo. The progressive seeks to push beyond boundaries to make room for new possibilities. Both have their place.

Tradition is familiar and secure, and humans need it. Progress is full of possibility and creativity, and humans need it as well. Whenever one is privileged over the other, losses and gains ensue. Reckoning with those is the hard work of dancing between the polarities and living well.

The same division shows up in the wine world, evident in the New World/Old World dichotomy. Exceptions exist, but in this column, I’ll hold that stereotype because it will bring my thoughts into definition.

When I speak about the Old World, I am referring mostly to a handful of countries, including France, Italy, Germany and parts of Spain. In these countries, whole complexes of legally binding regulations dictate how wine should be made. I am most familiar with the French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Côntrolée) system.

Take for example Sancerre, an appellation in the Loire Valley, which has some of the strictest regulations in France. Which kinds of vines can be grown (sauvignon blanc and pinot noir), where those vines can be planted, how many grapes per acre can be grown and how and when these grapes can be harvested are laid out in great detail.

No matter how much a winegrower wants to plant chardonnay vines in the Loire and make wine from them and call it Sancerre, she isn’t allowed to. She can grow chardonnay, bottle it and sell it, but not as Sancerre. That wine would have to be called vin de table and would typically sell for much less than a wine designated Sancerre.


Sounds like a legal straitjacket, eh? Before you don your Che Guevara T-shirts and fly to France in protest, consider this: For hundreds and hundreds of years, the farmers in the Sancerre region have culled the wisdom that sauvignon blanc (and some pinot noir) are the grapes best suited to the soil and climate of the region. Future generations needn’t reinvent that wheel because the wheel is working pretty darn well.

Also, think about the security these laws provide for the consumer. Ever dropped some money on a California zinfandel only to discover that it tasted nothing like the previous bottle of California zinfandel you bought?

Very few of us want to risk a significant financial investment in a bottle we might not like, but that’s a pitfall present in a wine system that doesn’t regulate, at least to some degree, the quality of wine from particular regions.

You might not always like a particular Sancerre, but you can expect a reasonable amount of consistency from one producer to the next.

The risk to the consumer is reduced, in theory, by holding all producers to the same standards of viticulture. If tradition is nothing else, it offers consistency, and human beings crave consistency.

Until they don’t. Consistency can become suffocating.


The New World – the United States, Australia and, to some extent, South America – occupies the progressive end of the polarity. These countries have regulations, too, but they are less stringent.

Quick: How much pinot noir needs to be in a bottle of California pinot noir? 100 percent? Nope. 85 percent? Guess again. Only 75 percent of the wine in that bottle needs to be made from pinot noir grapes. The rest can be an admixture of any other varietal(s) the winegrower likes. Ever seen a really dark pinot noir? Something else is probably mixed in.

Similarly, if you buy a bottle labeled “Napa Valley,” you rightly assume that the wine came from Napa Valley. You’d be kind of right. Three-quarters of it did. The remaining 25 percent could come from Sonoma. Burgundians would cringe at the mere thought of blending the grapes of other regions into their wine.

Sounds a bit chaotic, doesn’t it? But before you traditionalists threaten to secede, consider this: The pioneering ethos of the progressives has its upside. It encourages experimentation and the development of an entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve drunk many atypical blends myself – the kinds that are, at least implicitly, discouraged in the Old World – that have been both delicious and thought-provoking. A more progressive wine system allows for such maverick experimentations. And we all like it.

You know you do. Think about the last time you were jolted out of your business-as-usual way of being by a brand-new experience that blew your expectations to pieces … in a good way. Progress offers the thrill of creativity, which humans crave.

Until they don’t.


If consistency can become suffocating, then creativity can produce anxiety. Luckily, you don’t have to choose. If you desire consistency and security, seek out a traditional winegrower.

When I’m looking to get exactly what I’m looking for, which is usually a Côtes du Rhone, I go with a traditional producer. National Distributors carries the wines from Chateau de St. Cosme, and their “Les Deux Albions” red is always spot on for my tastes.

When I need to get myself out of a rut, I’ll seek out a New World producer. One of my favorites is Sean Thackrey from California. SoPo Wine distributors carries his products and, in particular, his “Pleiades” red blend. The cepage, or blend of grapes, is kept secret every year (it’s a mixture of white and red grapes) and has never failed to challenge and thrill me. It’s a dance.

Bryan Flewelling is the wine director for Big Tree Hospitality, which owns three restaurants in Portland: Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw.


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