Some weeks, everything seems to come together. I’d just got back from giving a presentation in Romania, was editing an article on Rioja by David Schwarzwaelder, researching for a panel discussion this week in Switzerland, dealing with responses to a piece I’d written on English wine and giving a brief keynote to the Australian Society of Viticulture & Oenology - ASVO - at 3 am my time. And then there was the release of the latest James Bond movie.
And in one way or another, all of these - including the movie, as I’ll try to explain in a moment - touched on the issue of typicity. The Australians and Romanians were wondering about their hallmark wine style, a question that’s been raised by the Swiss (Chasselas? Really?). Producers in Rioja, as Schwarzwaelder wrote, are now making an increasingly and confusingly diverse range of wines and, in England, a small number of wineries have broken ranks by offering cheaper Charmat sparkling wines rather than the highly-priced, traditional method fizz with which this new wine industry has made its name.
How much does any of this matter? Does Romania have to have a ‘signature’ grape or style. And isn’t there a trap in being like Argentina with Malbec or Austria with Grüner Veltliner or New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc, being seen as a one-trick-pony? Wasn’t this the problem Australia had with its big buttery, oaky Chardonnays?
I haven’t seen No Time to Die yet, but nor have I been able to escape the barrage of media that has surrounded it, and the learned and not-so-learned analysis of the success of a franchise that began with Dr No in 1962 when Kennedy was still in the White House.
Setting aside the hype, the fact that the latest of a string of 25 movies still has the power to be seen by cinemas as their saviour in the struggle against TV streaming, is pretty remarkable. And the reason lies in a canny combination of reliable predictability and constant refreshment. Of course, the producers haven’t always got it right, any more than the producers of that other successful franchise, Star Wars, but they’ve got it right enough. And that has involved a formula - or a set of formulae. Each movie has a shape, just like an opera or a symphony. Or a three course meal. And every element, from the ‘Bond girls’ to the near-omnipotent villain and the huge fight-finale, and even the theme song, also conforms to some kind of evolving pattern.
The secret behind the song
This struck me particularly, when I read - in the Financial Times - that Paul Epworth, Adele’s cowriter on the Oscar-winning Skyfall theme, had watched all 13 of the first Bond films and deconstructed the best of their songs to discover what made ones like Diamonds are Forever and Live and Let Die so successful. (Apparently, as musicians and musicologists will understand better than I, the secret lies in using “a minor ninth as the harmonic code”).
Like other animals, human beings famously dislike change, but unlike those other creatures, they also get bored quite easily. And that’s the challenge for the producers of anything, from a movie to a car, to a mobile phone. Or from a Michelin-starred chef to a winemaker.
One of the reasons Italian restaurants and Haagen Dazs are so popular is that you know you’ll find pasta and maybe pizza in the former and vanilla and chocolate ice cream in the latter. But the owners of the trattorias know they need to freshen up their decor and introduce new sauces, just as Häagen Dazs keeps trying out novel flavours.
With wine, it’s trickier. Back in the old days of strictly applied AOCs, the rules were clear. If you used new oak for your Pouilly Fumé (as Didier Dagueneau did) or made a late harvest Mâcon Villages (Jean Thevenet), you were effectively expelled from school - or not allowed to use the appellation. I used to disagree with this attitude, especially as there was no Vin de France-style designation to fall back on. Now, I’m not so sure.
Today, in Rioja and elsewhere, the mood is not quite ‘anything goes’, but it’s heading that way, with the encouragement of many, including some unexpected voices among the community of Masters of Wine who question, for example, whether there is a ‘correct’ colour for Provence Rosé.
Outside the confines of European appellations, of course, these questions are more academic. If a Marlborough Sauvignon winery like Dog Point wants to make a Sauvignon Blanc (Section 94) whose toasty, savoury character is quite unlike most of this region’s efforts with this variety, no one is going to raise much of an eyebrow.
But what happens when a country or region goes bipolar as is happening in Australia where a revival of old-school Chardonnay - such as 19 Crimes aimed at the US market - coexists with lean, mineral modern versions? Or in the Charmat/Method Trad-divided UK? Will the existence of one jeopardise the other by confusing consumers? Does the colour - or sweetness - of Provence Rosé matter?
The difference between James Bond and any wine region or country is, of course, that in the case of the movie, decisions are made by a small group of people whose overriding concern lies in the long term sustainability and growth of the brand. With wine, it’s every domaine or negociant for themselves. If it suits them to conform to a style that might be seen as a national or regional signature, that’s what they’ll do. But when it doesn’t, they won’t.
In other words, if the wine world were producing Bond movies, this year would see the release of countless versions of No Time to Die, some of which would have gay Bonds or female Bonds, or ethnically-diverse Bonds or 80-year old Bonds-in-wheelchairs. All of which would doubtlessly delight the critics if they thought like wine writers, but drive many consumers in the direction of the nearest Bourne or Marvel movie that’s going to deliver the experience they expect.
I’m quite conflicted on this. I love innovative winemaking and diversity, but I understand the fear and confusion consumers feel when confronted with a shelf full of bottles or wine list. And I see the benefits in giving people something they feel they have a right to expect rather than an ‘interesting’, surprising experience.
So, for regions where the horse of consistency hasn’t already bolted, I recommend giving a bit of thought to the James Bond model - in particular the response that’s being given to suggestions that the next 007 should be a woman.
No, the actors and writers are saying, that’s not the way to go - but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t create a successful new female-led franchise under a clearly different brand.