by Randy Kemner, Proprietor
Judging by last year's sales, Thanksgiving never happened.
And the annual precursor, the thumb on the pulse of the holiday to come, is the yearly release of Nouveau Beaujolais--traditionally the first wine of the harvest.
Nouveau Beaujolais sales were tepid in 2011. Our tasting room was comparatively empty last year, and though we sold out our annual allocations by Christmas, it was far longer than the week-and-a-half to do the same in previous years.
I had the sense that Thanksgiving (and Christmas for that matter) last year was more of an obligation than a celebration for our customers. The usual things bringing us down--the economy, political strife, uncertainty, Jersey Shore--took their toll on our collective psyche. People shopped all holiday last year in a zombie-like haze. Joy to the World was nowhere to be found in 2011.
And the fun surrounding the annual Nouveau Beaujolais release was met with a yawn instead of the celebratory clinking of glassses. That shouldn't ever be the case and I'll tell you why.
For those of you unfamiliar with this annual tradition, let me fill you in on a little background.
Around 1978, Beaujolais producers, led by entrepeneur vintner Georges Duboeuf, developed a festive and fun way to generate quick cash by bottling and releasing a lighter, fresher version of the soft, fruity red wine made from the Gamay grape six weeks earlier. Billed as a "harvest celebration", the Nouveau Beaujolais release, on the third Thursday of November each year, is timed to coincide with Amercan Thanksgiving Day, the country's biggest day of the year for wine consumption. Shipments are planned so that retailers and restaurateurs receive the wine on the same day, so the world's cafes and bistros can pretend to be Parisian for a day. Nouveau Beaujolais parties would spring up in homes, restaurants and wine shops, and chickens would be roasted to provide a delcious support for the bright, fresh-tasting first wine of the year.
Harvest wine is not new, nor is it confined to Beaujolais. Touring the Loire Valley during harvest time we once encountered a partially fermented Sauvignon Blanc near Cheverny called Bernache. It was cloudy, sweet and tart at the same time, and it refreshed us while we ate our Croque Monsieurs at lunchtime. We saw chalkboard signs outside many of the town's restaurants announcing the arrival of Bernache, signaling a local harvest tradition. I've since heard of similar harvest wines released in Italy and Germany. No one would argue that these wines are serious. They are seasonal treats, no different than strawberry harvests in May or peach hafvests in July.
The king of all harvest wines, at least for the past 35 years, has been Nouveau Beaujolais. Skillfully promoted, it is one of the seasonal delights we look forward to each year, and its popularity among wine drinkers the world over has simply been phenomenal.
Wine lovers would typically go to a wine shop to sample the new releases (this year it's November 15th), and then stock up for the holidays with a cartful of their favorites. The freshness of Nouveau Beaujolais makes it a very useful wine with all sorts of holiday occasions, including Thanksgiving dinner and any manner of holiday parties with their varying arrays of finger foods and appetizers. It can take a slight chill and still deliver the goods.
So why has interest in Nouveau Beaujolais waned in recent years?
I have a few theories.
First, Nouveau Beaujolais has a stigma. It is not as serious as regular Beaujolais, and certainly not as deep and characterful as the mighty Cru Beaujolais. Remember how popular white Zinfandel was until people learned it wasn't sophisticated to drink it? Well Nouveau Beaujolais suffers the same misplaced prejudice. (When was fun supposed to be serious?)
Second, the strength of the euro has bumped up the price of Nouveau Beaujolais during the past decade. It used to be less expensive than regular, more serious Beaujolais, and now the price is comparable. (The best Nouveaus taste as good as "serious" Beaujolais--really.)
Third, the biggest producers make some of the most inane wines, turning people off to the whole thing. (Avoid them.)
Fourth, Nouveau Beaujolais is not intended to be a serious wine, and American consumers conditioned to drink dark, heavy, potent wines simply don't understand it. (Stop being so provincial. Get happy. What is it about "joie de vivre" you don't understand?)
Fifth, French restaurants, once so dominant in America, have declined in recent years. There simply isn't the magic and excitement over French wine and food among younger consumers. (Don't you miss Chateaubriand with Bearnaise sauce? Coq au Vin? Blanquette de Veau? Foie gras?)
And finally, the flagging economy has caused wine consumers to be less frivolous with their money. Nouveau Beaujolais is an added pleasure that many house budgets simply forgo in order to purchase one's favorites instead. (But somehow we seem to find the money for lotto tickets and lattes at Starbucks.)
I would further respond to all of these fun-dampeners this way: rituals in life have meaning--even manufactured rituals like Nouveau Beaujolais. They help us mark time, they bring us together, they give us something to look forward to, and provide us a tangible reason to celebrate the season.
Just as important, not all Nouveaus are inane. Far from it. Over the years we've discovered a few smaller producers--Dupeuble from Kermit Lynch springs to mind--that year after year produce wonderful early release wines from their portfolio. While it is too early to judge the 2012 French harvest in its entirety, it'll be fun to preview it on November 15th.
I once heard some advice given to an unhappy person: try acting happy and see what comes of it. I would say the same about Nouveau Beaujolais.
Come visit us on November 15th, sample them all, buy a few of your favorites and start to celebrate the season. Even if you don't feel ilike your'e in a holiday mood, start celebrating with a glass or two of Nouveau Beaujolais and see what comes of it.