Saturday, October 1, 2011

Squirrels and Woodchips: Autotune and the Over-use of Oak in Wine

“This is anti-autotune, death of the ringtone
 This ain’t for Itunes, this ain’t for sing-along
I know we facin a recession
But the music yall makin gonna make it the great depression”

Jay Z – D.O.A (Death of Autotune)

I am more a fan of indie guitar music, but Jay Z has a point in D.O.A – the proliferation of songs filled with autotune is not a promising trend for music, especially any musician aiming for some form of artistic credibility.

Personally, I see the overuse of oak in wine as the oenological equivalent to over use of (or in my view, 'any' use of) autotune in the production of music: if the fruit was top quality, the wine would likely be just as good with the oak turned down a few notches. If the fruit was poor quality, no amount of oak will ever fully mask this fact. As with 99% of autotune-heavy music, neither style of wine will live long in the memory, and if it does, it is likely to be for the wrong reasons.

For those not familiar with autotune, it is the computer voice tuning/pitch assistance program that enables even the tone deaf to sound bearable when recorded, and can be tweaked to create a ‘unique’ vocal effect. Musical sadists like T Pain and the Black Eyed Peas have embraced the software, and music has not progressed artistically one iota as a result. Luckily, in the years since Jay Z downloaded on autotune not many artistically credible musicians (across multiple genres) have embraced autotune in the same way as T Pain.

There was consternation in the wine cellar when cult contract wine maker Brice Dickenson suggested their wine could have used a little more new American oak.
Ironically, unlike music with autotune, the wine industry seems more inclined to drown a wide range of different wines - excellent, underrated, average and ordinary - in a layer of oak. Perhaps the lower incidence of death by autotune vs death by oak at the above average to elite level is due to the added production options when making music compared to wine.

The tragedy with overuse of oak in wine is that many wineries inflict it upon their best grapes: their reserve crop. If I had a dollar for every time I tried an estate wine that was far superior to the more expensive liquified oak tree reserve, I would be a millionaire (ok, maybe if I had $150k for every time). Somehow I cannot see Paul McCartney in the studio wanting to add an electronic autotune robot voice to the verses in Yesterday (noting  Yesterday was his Beatles, not Wings era), or Kurt Cobain insisting he have his grungy growl in the chorus of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' soar like a chipmunk as in Cher's horrendous autotune defining song, ‘Believe’.
Do you believe in wine without oak? I can taste some fruit in this glass,
but really can’t taste it strong enough”
I am not saying every winery does this –unless rudely oaked wine is their house style, the elite winemakers get it right more often than not depending on the fashion of the day. Furthermore, in some very lucky vineyards it is harder to make a bad wine than a good/great one. 

Unfortunately, I have had too many glasses of (relatively) expensive, cellared, over oaked wine; the fruit trying valiantly to peep through in its death-throes. In these situations, I cannot help but think that there are many similar wines out there that could have been timeless classics, were it not for too much tinkering with the oak meter.

For our non-Australian readers, the Australian wine industry has battled its oak (and acid) demons for some time now. You need only compare a late 1990's/early 00s (Parker Points aspiring) Hunter Valley Shiraz with their equivalents being made today to realise how much of a positive difference reducing the amount of new oak had made to the wines. The Region’s ‘voice’ is heard, unaccompanied and solo: infinitely more enjoyable and long lasting without the wine equivalent of autotune smothering it. This example is one I would love to see more often in some other regions.

The Black Eyed Peas inspect one of their many low-yielding, biodynamically grown Pinot and Riesling vineyards in between recording of their new autotune-lathed album.

At the lower end of the wine market, it is all out marketing and stylistic warfare. We have wine companies marketing non-vintage fruit and herb infused cooler as wine, low calorie fizzy alcoholic grape juice as wine, and the topic of this post, cheap, sweet, heavily oaked (chipped) reds and whites.

At this end of the wine and music market, the use of oak and autotune is not so much of a tragedy as a lazy lost opportunity. The $5-$15 wine segment is as much awash with sugary sweet wines as it is heavily oaked wines – most commonly in combination, though there are more than enough straight out sweet wines.

As with the lower end wine market, the music industry is overflowing with sugary sweet pop and RnB songs that chart one week and are forgotten the next. The music is generic, the style derivative, the attention span of the listener fleeting, and the cultural impact of the song, negligible.

Part of me would love to see smarter, well-crafted throw-away pop songs being produced, or a higher percentage of intelligently conceived, quaffable wines released.

One is, stupid, cynical, sickly sweet, infantile and supposedly attractive to the 25- 35 year old female demographic. The other is David Beckham
However, in this segment of the music and wine markets, autotune and heavily oaked wine is merely one of a multitude of problems facing both industries and the topic of a much longer conversation (to be held with a glass of oaky Cabernet in hand and the dulcet, autotune-affected tones of the Black Eyed Peas playing in the background. Not.)

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