The time is right for the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California.

Above: The western edge of the Santa Ynez American Viticultural Area. The Pacific coast lies just a stone’s throw away.

Perceptions of gastronomy’s cultural value have changed radically since the Slow Food international movement was founded in the late 1980s in Piedmont, Italy as a champion of traditional foodways threatened by Italy’s growing appetite for fast-food. As a wide-eyed undergraduate student in Italy on my junior year abroad in 1987, I was keenly aware of the controversy sparked by the newly opened McDonald’s at the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps. It was that year that I first heard the name Carlo Petrini, the essayist and political activist who had founded Slow Food the previous year. In 1989 he would publish the Slow Food Manifesto, a battle cry for an emerging generation of Europeans who saw their culinary traditions being eclipsed by the march of industrialism and the growing popularity of Coca Cola and assembly-line pseudo-sustenance.

“Speed became our shackles,” he wrote. “We fell prey to the same virus: ‘The fast life’ that fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes, forcing us to ingest ‘fast-food’… In the name of productivity, the ‘fast life’ has changed our lifestyle and now threatens our environment and our land (and city) scapes [sic]. Slow Food is the alternative, the avant-garde’s riposte.

(Click here for the complete manifesto and click here for a Slow Food timeline.)

Borrowing from the fencer’s lexicon (with his “riposte,” the sport’s return thrust, made after parrying a lunge), he underlined the urgency of his cause and mission.

Back in the U.S., we were still naively parsing the differences between “northern” and “southern” styles of cooking that still passed for “Italian” here. The dark age of our culinary awareness would soon come to an end. But many years would pass before Slow Food would have a perceptible impact on the lives and meals of Americans.

It wasn’t until 2002, when local and organic food champion Alice Waters became the vice president of Slow Food International, that the movement and its local-chapter “presidia” became firmly established here and were genuinely embraced by America’s mainstream.

But Slow Food’s latent influence had already touched many of our lives by that time. In the decades that followed the manifesto, Slow Food had became a major commercial publisher in Italy. And its advocacy for local foodways gave visibility and voice to myriad small-scale artisanal food producers who would have gone otherwise unnoticed by an American bourgeoisie in search of the Tuscan sun.

By the late 2000s, with the growing interest in artisanal wine production, it was only natural that Slow Food would expand its scope to include wine. The 2010 publication of the first Slow Wine Guide was a watershed for Italian wine lovers on both sides of the Atlantic. And it marked a bold departure from the cultural hegemony of score-based and tasting-note-driven wine reviews. As the editor-in-chief of our new Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California and the Italian Slow Wine Guide Giancarlo Gariglio noted in a previous post, it was the first vade-mecum to abandon the baroque tasting note paradigm and focus on the grape-farmers and winemakers themselves.

This week, with the online publication of the Slow Wine prizes, I share Giancarlo’s vision that the Slow Wine model will help to raise awareness of California wineries whose values align with the Slow Food movement: Respect for the environment combined with a will to produce wines that express the places, people, and history of the land where they are grown, raised, and bottled.

The arc of the Slow Food movement has undeniably shaped my own gastronomic adolescence. From a 19-year-old U.C.L.A. undergrad on his first year abroad in 1987 to a father of two who’s well into his midlife… there’s no doubt in my mind that a Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California is long overdue.

Jeremy Parzen
coordinating editor
Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of California

  • tomwark

    So, I have an honest question about the vision for California Sloe Wine: How do you identify a wine that expresses the “people, and history” of the land where they are grown? I always believed that every wine expressed the vision of the people that made them. In fact, I’m not sure of a circumstance in which they don’t reflect the vision of the people that produce them?

    As for the “history” of the land, don’t you mean the history of the history of the “civilization” that existed on the land? The history of the land itself is rather static. For example, Atlas Peak has been Atlas Peak in its current form for many thousands of years.

    I’m looking for more explanation.


    • jparzen

      Tom, thanks for being here. It’s great to read your comment.

      Your questions are broad. And they veer soundly into the epistemological.

      I agree and I believe that my fellow editors would agree as well: All wines reflect a vision of the people who produce them. But do they reflect the ethos of the people who inhabit the land where they are farmed and raised? That’s the question Slow asks. Do the people who produce those wines take into account the culture that produced them (i.e., the farmers and the winemakers)?

      For sake of example, consider Drew Barrymore Pinot Grigio. It’s farmed in Trentino and then trucked down to Mantua where it’s vinified and bottled. I can’t imagine that she’s ever even visited the farm or the winery. Her vision is to cash in on her celebrity. And her wines were created for and are sold exclusively in the U.S. And it’s a clear-cut example of a wine that isn’t Slow.

      Compare with a wine like Scarbolo Pinot Grigio. It’s grown just a few miles away from Valter Scarbolo’s winery in Friuli where he was born and raised and it reflect a long-established viticultural tradition.

      Both wines are “visions” of the winemaker, yes. But the former is self-aware, conscious of the culture that produced it. The latter is a wine created in the abstract, with virtually no connection to the culture that produced it.

      We could argue the meaning of vision until we are rosé in the face. But more to the point, the editors of Slow are looking for wines with a meaningful cohesion to the place where they were grown and the people who made them (including the farm hands and not just the name on the label). Barrymore’s wine has a superficial connection to the land and people. Scarbolo’s has a meaningful connection that adds to the intrinsic value of the wine.

      Regarding your second question, “history” is intended here not as geological or geographical history but rather cultural history. I’m confident that Rombauer’s wine does reflect the culture (the “place” as the terroirists like to say) where it is made. But is the wine self-aware beyond being a commercial product? Does it have commercial _and_ cultural value? Barrymore’s wine has commercial value. Scarbolo’s has both.

      Your points are well made and well taken (and space and time limit the epistemological discussion here). I’m sure you have much more to say about this and I’ll look forward to our discussion. (And I’ll devote a post to it.)

      Thanks for being here and your support.

      Jeremy Parzen
      coordinating editor
      Slow Wine California

  • tomwark

    Thanks for the response.

    I’m thinking about the culture and history and traditions of the people, winemakers and growers who preceded today’s winemakers in Napa and Sonoma.

    There is a a tradition primarily of varietal diversity. There is a history and culture of embracing viticultural and winemaking technology. There is a history of bothe low alcohol and high alcohol wines that track closely withe the introduction and use of different types of genetic material.

    Additionally, history has shown that the vast majority of wines have been produced my small, family owned producers.

    Finally, if you want to go back far enough we see significant influence by Italian, German and Portuguese people.

    I’ll be very interested to learn of what criteria is used to identify which types of CA wines track with its regions’ cultural heritage and history of its place and people.


    • jparzen

      Tom, as I wrote in my last response, it’s so great to read you here and your observations and reflections are spot on.

      When the Greeks first colonized Italy, they were astounded by the sophistication of Etruscan viticulture. When Spanish, Germans, and Italians arrived in California, they came upon a viticultural tabula rasa. They were like the Romans who began to colonize northern Europe. Think of Julius Caesar who (figuratively) planted the first vines in England. Where does tradition begin and where does it unravel?

      Honestly, we didn’t consider sweeping questions like these for the guide. We looked more closely at sustainable growing practices, sustainable economic models, and where the systems aligned to produce wines we liked. In case you haven’t seen it yet, take a look at the post we’ve already published on our methodology.

      The editors of Slow Food publishing are currently working on their Slow Wine manifesto. I can’t imagine that I won’t be the one to translate it into English. I’ll look forward to discussing it with you.

      Thanks for being here and the insightful comments.