I’ve hidden them from the main feed…because they’re the second least interesting way to talk about wine (points remain the absolute worst)…but the posting of tasting notes has resumed here on the newly rebranded and incompetently designed blog. They’re here. And I suppose I should offer a warning: while I do occasionally drift off into a list of ingredients, I’ve come to prefer experiential notes to iterative ones. If you need clearly replicable descriptors, I’m not your writer.
There comes a moment in every young wine writer’s life when they dabble at becoming Robert M. Parker, Jr. When knowledge of wines crosses the Rubicon into a vastly more satisfying (and self-satisfied) knowledge of wine, and the urge to proclaim their understanding suddenly becomes overwhelming.
With fair frequency, the very next moment in every young wine writer’s life is someone with vastly more knowledge explaining that they’re wrong.
I’m pretty sure my own era of ranting from a illusory mountaintops happened around the turn of the millennium; I was convinced I was on my way to being a Master of Wine (I wasn’t), I had done the work of tasting and study (but not nearly enough), I knew stuff (only some), and I had regular outlets through which to bestow my undoubtedly brilliant and precious insights on an eager audience.
Reading my work from those days is now a matter of silencing endless groans of embarrassment, and there are more than a few things I wish I could permanently expunge. But what I really wish is that I’d preserved the admonishments and corrections from (mostly) patient correspondents. I could make copies and forward a parcel to each new writer as they enter their own personal Enlightenment, accelerating the arrival of their own personal Disillusionment.
Most eventually pass through this boastful phase and move on to a truly satisfying era in which excitement and energy are drawn from unknowns, from yet-unsolved mysteries, from new horizons. An unfortunate few remain Parkeresque, driving anchors deep into their epistemological turf, cementing them into permanence, and screaming bloody murder at heathens and apostates who dare question their god-like authority.
And so it was that I prepared for the worst as the following pull quote scrolled past my not-quite-awakened eyes this morning:
Enough about sulfur already. More wines are ruined by filtration.
Wine is getting whiter. The ascendance of white wine as not only the most logical, but the default accompaniment to dining at any level is all but complete.
Sure, there are always exceptions. Some of them are establishment- or cuisine-specific, some of them are national or regional, and of course there are individual holdouts who find the thought of drinking anything they can see through utterly inconceivable. But in defiance of seasonality, and whether amidst gilded formality or tchotchke-littered casualness, wine consumed in quantity (that is, by the bottle) increasingly tends to be white. The reason: it makes a whole lot more sense as an accompaniment to the food.
The “moment” arrived about ten years ago. Perhaps earlier? Memory’s forever bent by the convex lens of so very many wine glasses. Nor do I remember where, or who…though I have some guesses. I do remember what, though. It was Lini, and as expected it came in red…but it also came in pink, and white. The rosso was disruptive and I wasn’t yet prepared to understand it, the rosato was pleasant enough, but it was the bianco that grappled with my attention.
“Lambrusco comes in white?”
In theory, I’d known this. I’d read the texts, eyes flickering over the allowed expressions in the hilarious anarchy of Italy’s DOCs. Mostly, aside from a very small handful of internationally famous appellations with vaguely restrictive codes (regulations that would be impossible for any self-respecting Italian winemaker to ignore), the “laws” seemed to be the same everywhere. Make it white, pink, red, sparkling, dry, sweet, fortified, aromatized, or really whatever you feel like doing…
But still. “Lambrusco comes in white?”
I drank a lot of that white, over the next few years. As a by-the-glass pour it metastasized all over Boston, where I lived and wrote back then. Why not? It was delicious, and — perhaps more importantly, on the commercial side — it was inexpensive. I occasionally dabbled in the rosato. But the rosso…the rosso…
As should be immediately obvious, oenoLogic is under an avalanche of destruction construction. And — funny story — it’s not even called oenoLogic anymore. I was the only person who ever liked that name anyway.
It isn’t always necessary to choose a side. In fact, some would argue that the only path to wisdom is in not doing so. Others of a less earnest bent might feel that it’s at least better to retain devil’s advocacy as a rhetorical tool. I’d agree with both, depending on the subject, but add that the most common cause of a lack of surety is the experiential maturity to know what one doesn’t – or cannot – know.
This defense of hesitancy is a prelude to Yet Another Post on natural wine. I think my written record on the subject qualifies me as a vocal advocate, firmly on the “pro-” side (or at least very frequently witnessing for the defense), but that’s not a fully accurate characterization. I think that’s grasped by some who really are fully committed to the cause, who see through the support to the lack of surety within. I have, at times, been accused of a lack of sufficiently strident advocacy…as if this is a bad thing. (That said, I certainly draw more grief from the skeptical, though I usually find that their objections amount to an extended argument with things someone who is not me has claimed.)
It’s true that I do have…worries. Certain areas of non-commitment. And that really makes sense, for my goal isn’t to promote (or condemn) natural wines, it’s to drink better and, perhaps, participate in an open discussion of how natural wine both does and doesn’t fit into that pursuit.
So if it’s useful to have an essay extant in which I say bad things about natural wines to demonstrate my agnosticism, this would be it.
I’ve said this before, but one of the most distasteful things about natural wine — another is actually distasteful natural wine — is the often-messianic surety that surrounds it. And there are some angry messiahs, to whom everything and everyone else (even sometimes within the movement itself) is wrong…for reasons of insufficient purity, insufficient commitment, insufficient science, or a hundred other sensible and lunatic doctrines seemingly invented on the spot. In a way this shouldn’t be surprising, as the movement not only invites, but practically requires, a large percentage of cranks and anti-social, anti-most-everything-else iconoclasts. I mean that much more affectionately than it sounds, but listening to the loudest voices in the movement often requires a good deal of private eye-rolling. Natural wine could – and the irony is not lost – use a good finishing school, in terms of selling its philosophy.
(To which I know the response is going to be: yes, but we don’t care. Fair enough. But there are people who could be convinced, or at least persuaded, were the temperature turned down a little.)
Of vastly greater importance is that the whole issue of biological and chemical flaws is far too blithely handwaved as a matter of personal preference. Not because it’s impossible to enjoy wines with characteristics otherwise considered flaws, but because it’s not clear that they have to be there in the first place. Were all natural wines bretty, or excessively volatile, or ropy, then it would be obvious that this was just an essential condition of the category. But they’re not. There is a very large percentage — I have no idea if it’s a majority or not — of natural wine that’s clean, that’s pure, and (in some cases) ages perfectly well despite limited (or no) added sulfur. A lot of what is regarded as the common baggage of natural winemaking is instead just sloppy, often untutored, winemaking. Certainly this impression is not countered by meeting the winemakers whose wines are chronic sufferers, many of whom seem to insist on doing things at odds with the tenets of basic chemistry.
But there’s another side to the widespread embrace of flaws, and it ties into the third and most distressing problem with natural wine. To contextualize this, let’s step to the other side and consider natural winemaking’s philosophical opposite: industrial winemaking, the goal of which is to produce, via technological means, a thoroughly reliable, predictable, quality product. As bad or good as any given wine might be (for industrialism is practiced in the hallows as much as in the Gallos), the actual hallmark of industrialism is its sameness. This is true whether the wine is a $12 petite sirah littering gas station liquor shelves or a pricey Champagne produced in zillion-bottle quantities that remains inseparable from its own glitzy marketing beast.
One doesn’t have to taste more than a few hundred natural wines before it becomes clear that a rather distressing percentage of them are very, very close cousins. Biochemical “flaws” can be the cause of this — one brett-ridden explosion of volatility is much like another — but there’s a more fundamental sameness. On the red side, one tastes an awful lot of crisp, snappy Beaujolais…except that much of it isn’t from Beaujolais, nor even made from gamay. On the paler end there’s a bit more variety, but a flavor profile akin to Loire chenin dosed with a little skin-contact ribolla gialla is quite ubiquitous. And then there are the orange wines…
(Let me head off the complaints: I’ve tasted scores of orange wines together, and in that context their differences are clear…ish. But no one drinks them that way, and no one ever will. Considered in isolation, only the true outliers really shine through their copper-colored glasses.)
That so many of the reds should be Beaujolais-alikes isn’t all that surprising, considering the heavy imprint of semi-carbonic winemaking on the source material, but I think it’s worth asking: to what end? Do we really need Sicilian frappato, Roussillon grenache, Sierra Foothills syrah, and even Bordelais cabernet to taste like increasingly endless variations on the — admittedly excellent — Lapierre/Breton/et al theme? Where’s the individuality? (And I don’t mean the often excruciating label design.) What, exactly, makes the creative philosophy of all these nearly-identical natural wines different from their nearly-identical industrial opposites? Less frequent use of beard trimmers?
Natural wine is supposed to, among other things, be the ultimate transparency; letting the vine speak with as little interference as possible. It’s patently obvious that wines that taste the same no matter what they’re made of or where they’re from aren’t revelatory of anything except the winemaker’s imprint. That happens to be the core sin of industrial winemaking. There’s no need to replicate it.
How did we end up here? It’s my belief that a lot of natural winemakers and admirers don’t, in their subconscious liver of livers, actually like transparency nearly as much as the idea of it, whereas what they’re really after is the taste. And please, don’t tell me they don’t have a taste. (The exceptions are the stars of the genre, and there are many, but they’re not the subject of this essay. Also, many of their winemakers and importers agree with this complaint, though sometimes only privately.) I don’t mind the fetishization of that taste any more than it truly bothers me to see someone who really, really loves mass-market pinot grigio. Less appealing is the volume of the adoring peloton careening along a merry trail of sameness while all the while crowing about how fundamental and essential their preferred wines are.
So if the industrial fans prefer painstakingly crafted monuments to intention and the frequently-cloned natural wine aficionados crave indifferently crafted monuments to inattention, who’s holding the philosophical high ground? Could it still be the terroirists? The winemakers and drinkers who do in fact philosophically skew towards natural, but would be just as horrified by a Brouilly that tastes like a Morgon as they would a Chilean carmenère that tastes like one.
Is this a call to some sort of action? Not really, no. Natural wine is what it is; or, more accurately, natural wines are what they are, since there remains little agreement on a definition (and given the personal predilections of those involved, I suspect an unwillingness to conform is fundamental to the movement…which is why the easy acceptance of wines that very much conform is so baffling). Perhaps it would be most correct to say that natural wines are what they aren’t and leave it at that.
It’s neither my business nor my interest to tell people how to make, sell, or enjoy wine. To each their own gout…let a hundred brett infections bloom…whatever. But when I’m next accused of fence-straddling and unnecessary contrapuntalism regarding the claims of natural winos, I’ll have a document to point to that explains why.
…and order a cocktail. Because they can actually have a conversation about that. Wine? Impossible. On that subject, the three shall never speak, nor (even more tragically) listen.
The long silence of this blog has been accompanied by a significant personal focus on cocktails both in concert with and in lieu of wine. There are more differences than similarities between the two disciplines, despite both being founded on the pleasurable boozification of daily life, and one of the biggest is that in the cocktail world, analytic inquiry is not relegated to — or worse, dismissed as being the unseemly meddling of — industrialists.
Some of the very worst biochemical travesties in the natural wine realm come from those who not only avoid science, but are actively hostile to it and whatever lab-coated hyper-globalist monsters stand behind it. This while their case-stacking and exceedingly wealthy counterparts in the mass-market realm dismiss not only the raving unwashed hippies at the other fringe, but any notion of wine being more than a soulless recipe custom-fit to a receptive demographic.
Cocktail folk, to their great credit, aren’t afraid to poke these monsters with syringes and pipettes, to see how and why they bleed. Witness this analysis, for example, which questions whether or not there are actual recipes — golden proportions, if you will — that transcend ingredient identity. The wine community will see no similar effort, because the Olivier Cousins of the world would never read it, and because Constellation Brands has already profited from it.
There are a few exceptions here and there. Some winemakers are actual technologists, like Clark Smith. Some are disruptively interrogative pebbles in the natural wine machinery, like Eric Texier. Though they start with completely different philosophies about wine’s essence, and their products evidence relatively oppositional goals, in actual practice they don’t let results stand in the way of inquiry and testability. Sadly, such people are thin on the ground in the wine community, and when they exist they tend to be gobbled up by the megacorps.
This somewhat depressive muse comes not as a result of the above-linked article, but after reading this brilliant thought experiment on the intersection between aroma, sweetness, and sense. Go read it; it is eminently worth your time.
I’m somewhat hesitant to respond to this terrific essay in the manner I’m about to, because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in serious disagreement with it. I’m not. A great deal of its foundation is based on subjectivity (because it’s about taste), and with that there’s no fruitful argument. The rest is thoughtful, forceful, and challenging. I think it proposes some extremely penetrating notions, and even if they prove to be wrong or partially wrong (though I don’t know how one would “prove” such things), rarely is the starting point pinned so far, and so authoritatively, into the latter stages of the conversation.
Despite my now well-established cocktail enthusiasm, I don’t yet feel expert enough to respond to the spiritous specifics in the essay, so my responses there will remain general. Regarding the wine-related portions, however, I do have some reasonably-founded thoughts. This will be a somewhat scattered essay, on my part, but the source material filled me with knotty mental puzzle pieces, few of them neatly-knit into a cohesive narrative.
Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit:
This lesson was first mastered by port wine producers who created the 18×6 template. For port, 18% alcohol puts the wine at the minimum of preservation so as not to be a distraction.
I think it’s an easy but understandable error to attribute intentionality to such choices, at least with the confidence this essay implies. The fermentation-stoppage alcohol employed in the Douro has varied wildly over the years and across producers, with both innocuous and deformative effects on the organoleptics, the aromatics, and the perceived balance of the finished beverage. And it’s little use to speak of Port as a single entity, anyway; an aged Colheita and a baby-cheeked Ruby don’t express balance in the same fashion, nor do a White and a Vintage. It’s possible that there are known ratios for each category, but I submit that ratios are quickly superseded by house styles.
Further, Port is an interesting example in that its tinkering winemakers and marketers have (like their counterparts in Champagne) long exploited differing cultural responses to the beverage. Drier, more oxidative Ports are popular in one country, while tooth-decaying young-Ruby sweetness reigns in another. In a third, Port may be more or less unsalable as part of a wholesale rejection of “classic” sweet wines.
That said, Port is correctly identified by the essayist as, at its core, a procedural, “recipe” wine…in which category it is joined by Champagne and most other sparkling wines (save pet-nats), Sherry, and nearly the entire universe of fortified wines. To my knowledge, Port doesn’t have a Marco de Bartoli-style iconoclast (Infantado would be the closest I’ve tasted) working to reduce or eliminate all but the most necessary interventions and producing atypical yet incomparable results along the way, but it could. And then we might see whether or not the received ratios are actually all that golden.
Champagne, however, is currently littered with such iconoclasts, and what they’ve demonstrated amongst all the strict interventions and recipes is that there is a multiplicity of positive responses to the sugar/alcohol/non-sugar dry extract/ester quartet. In other words, subjectivity of form and response are a greater factor than the linked essay allows. Which is still very far from saying it’s wrong, only that if it indeed applies to cocktails, it still might not apply to wine. But if it doesn’t apply to wine, yet wine is being used to support the thesis…well, there’s clearly more work to be done.
Are there demonstrably successful ratios that fling wines from shelves into customers’ baskets? Maybe, but I’m deeply suspicious. I’m particularly uncertain that the market demonstrates the validity of such truisms. When’s the last time you laid down a case of Port?
I thought so.
Drinkers of dry wines complain that even alcohol contents as high as 15% can be distractions from aroma when there is not residual sugar.
That’s a massive simplification of an extremely vociferous debate, though I’m quite certain the author knows it. Response to obvious alcohol is variate and personal, but the crux is always balance-in-context. The most strident anti-alcohol ranters have likely tasted (for example) Ridge zinfandels far above their personal thresholds that seemed poised and appealing despite being only a few ordinals shy of actual Port. It’s almost never the number, though the number is a convenient whipping boy. It’s the imbalance and the entire set of corollary effects — fruit-sweetness to the point of overripeness, textural issues, structural abandonment — that form the entirety of the objection to high alcohol in dry wines.
Let’s get this out of the way first: this is an easily-manipulated response, manageable with tricks both crude and subtle. Clark Smith claims that “balance points” for a given wine exist at multiple alcohol levels, and while it is (or was) his business to use technology to bring wines to those points, I’ve no reason to believe he’s lying. But as the most volatile component of wine, alcohol can be trapped or shunted by a studied choice of tasting vessel. In fact, the entirety of the wine-tasting rigamarole is based around this and related concepts. Anyone who’s purchased a boozy domestic pinot tasted from a narrow stem and carted it home to their wide-bottomed Burgundy bowls knows what I’m talking about.
The more interesting consideration here is a utilitarian one. Is the wine being employed as a cocktail? Or is it a component of a food-centered ritual?
I submit that of all the differences between wine and cocktails, the greatest is that one is normatively intended to accompany food and the other is not. I say “normatively” because there is a very lucrative subset of wine consumers who do, in fact, drink wine as a cocktail. That they will perceive issues of balance, aromatics, and sweetness differently is immediately obvious.
Wine, even with residual sugar, can be (and in the majority is) intended as a companion. A supplement. An enhancement of the food, or itself enhanced by the gustatory accompaniment, but in any case only one element in a more complex work. Cocktails, however, are generally considered in isolation. To bend one context to the other, wine (as traditionally employed) is not the cocktail, wine is the vermouth in the Manhattan. (That vermouth is in fact wine seems massively apropos.) Whereas a Manhattan is not the wine, a Manhattan is the entire meal.
It follows, then, that wine-as-cocktail has a fundamentally different set of sugar/alcohol/ester relationships than wine-as-food-partner. I’d submit that the bifurcation of wine response is most profoundly expressed by that division. And thus, it inevitably follows that while the science of organoleptics and the personal art of sensorial response are theoretically the same, they are inevitably divided by utility. To speak definitively about balance in wine is to skip past the essential, first-principle “how.”
And perhaps also “where.” The structural theory of wine, as grounded by history in the Old World (and Older World), is based on a cuisine that increasingly exists as a cultural artifact and is fading nearly everywhere. Many of the truly paradigmatic wines, like age-worthy red Bordeaux, remain unconflicted only with the most restrained of dishes. The modern trend towards fusion-in-all-things and pan-national culinary polyamory has almost destroyed the traditions that support things like structure-driven cab/merlot blends, which is instead now a market almost entirely supported by icon-seekers in multiple cultures, and people whose diets somewhat inexplicably consist of steak after steak after steak. I don’t say this to criticize or judge — people should eat, drink, and buy what they want — but to point out how the field of play has shifted: the most dedicated wine consumers no longer consume a diet that supports most of the traditional assumptions about structure, aromatics, balance…and yes, sugar.
We have long been living in a gustatory world that should wholeheartedly embrace off-dry wines, as Asian influences permeate nearly everything we eat and even our driest, most animalistic dishes tend to employ some sort of sweet counterpoint. This while the Germans, who mastered the most brilliant wines to accompany this sort of eating, have fled such styles wholesale in the pursuit of magisterial dry rieslings (which they can now make with steady confidence, thanks to climate change). Certain umami wines, like Burgundy, have proven unexpectedly adept at marrying world cuisines, but there is an entire universe of bibulous assumptions that has been somewhat unquestioningly abandoned by the modern diner. To cheer or regret this movement is to miss the point; it is, and the wines must respond or be rendered antiquated.
But even as wine and food tastes bend inexorably to an unfamiliar horizon, is it possible that spirits confound this trend, falling into neatly predictable ratios that transcend the vicissitudes of the ages? Perhaps. And perhaps it is my natural cynicism that makes me doubt it. A moment in time is little more than a vivisection. Perhaps we can definitively characterize a given moment and support it with data, but I don’t know that our firmest conclusions will be of much use to the swillers of 2040. The very reasons for cocktails in their traditional forms have profoundly changed over the interregnum between creation and our modern revivalist fetishization. Their utility would be slightly more familiar, but even that cloth is fraying. Do I think that today’s answers will apply tomorrow?
Honestly, I don’t. They certainly haven’t in wine. It’s true that cocktails have a much more intensely-tended root system, and I think it’s entirely possible that the “core curriculum” of cocktails will be preserved for eternity, to be admired and learned and introduced by bartenders to curious stool-perchers until the heat-death of the universe. But is what I just described “cocktails” as actually experienced, or is that just a foundation on which many future and highly differentiated edifices will be built?
I don’t know.
The brash attentional nature of these Manhattans are thought to dispel anxiety and with that said we might have just found their motive. If the Manhattan simply becomes a vehicle for attentional therapy there quite a few ways to skin the cat.
In fact, this is where and how the wine world divides most neatly in twain. The largest cohort of drinkers most certainly seeks familiar and repeatable commodification. This is a hyper-competitive market obsessed with pricing, positioning, and marketing minutiae. The rest are the cornucopia of niches who must be micro-marketed to by a haphazard chain of producers, shippers, and outlets, but who consume the vast majority of labels and of media generated in service of those wines. The former are the wine industry as an industry, the latter are the the entire reason that the greater wine industry has persisted and blossomed for millennia.
Do people who order a Manhattan without modification want the edges pre-filed to fit neatly within expected parameters? That’s the assertion here, and it’s likely to be true for the mass of drinkers, but what of the enthusiast? Is the delicate propriety of a safe Manhattan what they’re after? Do they even order Manhattans? Or do they order something from a creatively-crafted list, or a more touchy-feely cocktail like a Sazerac? I can’t answer for the market, but I know that I prefer the latter; Manhattans I save for bars I can’t trust (a cruelty I bafflingly inflict upon myself given the pitiful “success” of the results) or home.
It may be that this is a significant difference between cocktails and wine, in that the creatively important segment of the wine market (in terms of sustaining interest in something other than a mere alcohol delivery system) is very much obsessed with “vehicles for attentional therapy.” Indeed, there seems little other reason for most non-commodity wines to exist. No one needs a hundred new natural wine labels any more than they needed hundreds of differentiated Burgundian lieux dits. But we have them, and we embrace them.
If our motive is to thwart complacency it might make sense to have a formula forced upon on us through random old school free pouring where we will just learn to love it. Many people enjoy this randomness, but we are quick to chalk it up to a lack of understanding their options. Free pouring and random recipes are cocktail movement blasphemy but they may not have been without positive effects.
…and this gets to the very crux of the issue. Historically, we have “learned to love” all manner of contradictory things. We would not now drink Port with steak and Sauternes with roast game birds, even though to do otherwise would once have been to challenge long-settled wisdom. We do not tend to drink hyper-sweet wines as apéritifs if “we” are Americans, fearing them destructive to the dry whites or reds that are sure to follow, but the French ritualize that very behavior. We do not love resinated wines, unless we are a certain sort of Greek traditionalist, and we have abandoned aromatized wines to the cocktail folk for their blending experiments…only to have them turn around and offer those wines unadorned as breezy, delicious alternatives to cocktails. Apparently, the simple act of adding a citrus peel transforms something that is very obviously wine into not-wine, a categorial exclusion that is based on shifting cultural appreciation of aromatics and approaches to balance. Why do we consider Dolin Blanc a cocktail beverage and Conundrum a wine? Because we’ve decided so, whether via choice, marketing, or acculturation. No better reason.
Whether or not we are naturally inclined towards any aspect of wine (like sweetness) or require assimilation (as we likely do with tannin), it’s fairly clear from the multiplicity of wine styles that we are a constellation of opinions regarding balance. The industrialists have chosen recipes (and there are many) that are, by and large, repellent to enthusiasts. A cloudy Riffault Sancerre is predictably shocking to a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc drinker, but it isn’t any more likely to appeal to a regular buyer of Vatan Sancerre. And what of the late-picking Cotats and their ilk, who occasionally lose their AOC privileges despite the historical precedent for off-dry Sancerre? Or the opposing camps in Marlborough: one favoring enzyme-enhanced pyrazines and the other off-dry fruit salad from their sauvignons, while a third wave skirts the perimeter with uninoculated, texturally dense alternatives? There’s a strong and opinionated market of enthusiasts for all these wines, and in fact it could easily be argued that “learning to love” not just what is, but what is developing, is a foundational motivation for a very large number of wine consumers.
I often think that this trend is almost exactly reversed in the cocktail realm. The “new/now/nextness” in the wool-vested world frequently comes from adulterating vodkas and whiskies that are almost entirely rejected by the cognoscenti. Want to get cocktail geeks excited? Resurrect a lost formula. “Unimprove” a modernized product, like Lillet. Convince the Amer Picon folks to export to the States. Want to bore a room full of wine geeks to tears of indifference? Tell them you’re going back to Hermitage-ing classed-growth Bordeaux, just like they did it in the old days. The deafening silence of crickets and empty bank accounts will follow. But tell them you’re kveri-fermenting and skin-macerating a white from some Latvian grape they’ve never heard of, and the wine nerds shall flock.
“Thwarting complacency” is the raisin d’être (sorry, I apparently never tire of that pun) of wine geekery. As for “randomness,” it’s the very essence of the natural wine movement. Is there a “lack of understanding their options” at work? Perhaps among some of the most indifferent True Believers, but the majority understand their options very well, and have specifically and deliberately rejected complacency in favor of its opposite.
Though I still don’t know if they’d prefer free-poured cocktails.
It’s fascinating to consider the intellectual and emotional tension between the two worlds, actually. That the scientific perfectability of a Manhattan could be seen as desirable makes sense from the perspective of my inner cocktail enthusiast. My longer-time companion the internal wine enthusiast finds the very idea tedious, at best. I wish I had a verifiable explanation for how these fields have arrived at opposite conclusions regarding irreducibility. I don’t. I can only speculate that the difference is that cocktails are, by design, multivariate complexity unified by craft, whereas wines are singularities that must express both authenticity and complexity with, preferably, as little resort to craft as possible. (Here, of course, I speak only of non-industrial wines.) But this is only a contention, not a demonstration.
Some of the most fascinating work in the linkedy essay revolves around the tension between aroma and sugar. For example:
Among people with well entrenched acquired tastes, when we flatten a path to olfaction by holding all the the other senses at their most innocuous (a sweet drink) the aroma presented must be extraordinary or the experience will be seen as unharmonic.
Again, there is a clear difference when the subject is wine rather than cocktails. Industrial exemplars of the category — Blue Nun, Apothic, and so forth — don’t really have any aromatic extraordinariness at all. The current vogue for moscato certainly highlights aromatic explosiveness, but are the painted-whore charms of muscat really extraordinary? Rarely. Industrial wines that rely on sugar to sell themselves, of which the once-triumphant Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and its usurper Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio are the exemplars, are severely aromatically muted compared to their non-industrial brethren.
Yet I definitely agree that an overtly sweet cocktail must work harder for my attentions…proportionally along a continuum of same… than a drier cocktail. If I’m to truly adore a muscat, I need more than sugar and a flower shop/fruit salad detonation, yet access to those organoleptic realms is only hindered by muscat’s lurid varietal signature.
Again, I wonder at the reason for this separation. Wine lovers appreciate lavish aromatics, certainly — witness the rhapsodies writ with the ink of Burgundy or Barolo — but there is hesitation when it comes to overtly sweet wines. Instead, adoration usually only comes when the wines sugars have retreated; not in measure, of course, but in comparison to the maturing varietal, terroir, and winemaking signatures that blossom with age, rendering the wine “less sweet” to the palate. There are people who drink young Layon for the overwhelming sugar, certainly — most of them are French — but no serious aficionado reaches for their corkscrew until the decades-long process of drawing forth chenin’s elegant, earthen complexity has at least begun.
Here’s where I come around to a conclusion, of sorts, regarding the Boston Apothecary essay. Do I think there’s value in the search for a paradigmatic Manhattan? Yes. Immensely so. There may even be one, though I harbor more doubt than the essayist. But as is so often true, it’s quite possible that it’s the search that provides more value than the conclusion.
Mostly, I regret the lack of similar inquiry into the science of wine’s sensorium. Not because I want a One True Sommerberg Riesling, but because I think the people who would most benefit from a robust examination are leaving the questions (and thus the answers) to people who make wines they hate. Personally, I abhor artisanal wine’s too-frequent rejection of science, and hope for a day in which both the most vapid industrialist and the most committed naturalist can agree that biochemistry is an important tool.
And now I’m going to make a Manhattan. Because I’m thirsty.
Bruce Palling isn’t even trying.
(This is almost literally true. Be amazed at the lack of effort.)
The grand generalizations and profound ignorance — not to mention the errors — aren’t what makes this article terrible. Nor does it matter one whit whether or not Palling likes, or even understands, natural wine. What makes it legendarily, appallingly, brilliantly horrid is what has made millions upon millions of words of wine writing numbingly bad down through the ages.
Because this is what Palling has written:
“I tasted some natural wines and didn’t like them.”
No worries. More for those who do. At least the tl;dr edition doesn’t make everyone look foolish…for wasting the time reading it, but also for the more egregious sin of wasting the time writing it.
Of the two thunderclouds that loomed over digital newsstands yesterday, it was the former that promised all the hail, but the latter that brought the actual tempest.
(The sex thing? Read it yourself. It’s a solid and thoughtful review of a thoroughly predictable bit of paleocultural juvenilia from natural winemakers.)
More than a few eyebrows were likely raised at the mere existence of McKenna’s rant, for while he’s been the silent partner (in terms of his company’s name) for a very long time now, he’s also rarely been one to vent his spleen — or any other organ — in quite this fashion, at least not in a public forum. Mostly, he’s gone about his work with quiet skill, and along the way he’s gained almost universal respect for the quality of that work. (I pointlessly hedge with “almost universal” even though I’ve never heard anyone say an even vaguely unkind word about the guy. Certainly I wouldn’t.)
While there’s always more than one side to any story, I think McKenna’s complaints — that people are using and/or misrepresenting the reputation and the brand-building done by his company for their own commercial ends, and sometimes much worse — are entirely legitimate. The rise of micro-niche importers, while an extremely welcome development for customers and wineries alike, is inevitably going to lead to conflicts just like this. And while the three principal targets of McKenna’s ire seem to inhabit different tiers of offense, it’s not only about bad actors; even the well-meaning are eventually going to run afoul of someone. It’s the nature of a competitive business in which the entire sales pitch is about difference.
(This seems as good a time as any to issue the necessary disclaimer: I know and have bought a lot of wine imported by McKenna’s company, and I know and have bought wine — and may do so again — from the first target of his complaint.)
Anyway, it’s not my place to adjudicate the various beefs here. Potential customers can sort this all out for themselves, if they care. It would be nice, or at the very least polite, for tradespeople to eschew lying as a business tactic, but only a very delicate flower indeed would fail to recognize that it’s going to happen and one needs to be wary of it. The danger of the open internet that McKenna identifies aside, he does have that same recourse available to him…one which wouldn’t have been available to him a few decades ago. And judging by the number of times his complaint has been shared on social media, I think his point has been rather soundly reinforced.
The important core of McKenna’s argument aside, one minor detail struck me as somewhat ironic:
And sure, maybe I idealize the past or perhaps was a bit wide-eyed and naïve. Or perhaps I was not in a position to see the uglier side of things, which I am sure existed. But I still believe that for the most part, there was guiding principle to work with integrity, manners and mutual respect […]
As I’ve never heard anyone speak ill of McKenna, neither have I heard McKenna speak more than irritably about anyone else (again, I’m sure he has…I just haven’t heard it), which is part of why his anger here is so striking. But he certainly used to work with someone who was a frequent and sometimes relentless source of ugliness and ill-manners, and not just in his more common jocular fashion, towards other people in the trade. Importers included.
Once, as a very naïve and wide-eyed proto-writer, I made the mistake of bringing up McKenna’s company in the presence of a longer-established importer of considerable reputation. They shared, in those days, a few common producers, and I blithely assumed that they’d divvied up the geographical sales territory and all was well between the two firms.
Not so, if the twenty-minute barrage of invective to which I was treated was any indication.
Again: I don’t know the truth of the matter, felt far too bludgeoned to research it at the time (assuming anyone would have told me the truth, which I soon found was not something that most importers willingly did when it came to the hard facts of business), and in any case it scarcely matters so many years later. But it was the moment where I began to actually listen to the constant whispers and grumbles while navigating around the trade as both writer and customer. And what I found was just as much invective and ill-will as bonhomie, at all levels.
(Except one: winemakers, in general, were and are a pretty good-natured, laissez-faire lot. Yes, there are a few outliers. And no, they don’t always care for critics, but then why should they?)
Now, I’ve no doubt that given the choice between aggravating commentators and ankle-biting competition versus the decades in which the liquor business was run by you know who, most importers would gladly suffer the slings of WordPress and the arrows of Blogger. These days, no one is likely to die at the hands of the competition. But I’m not sure McKenna’s rosy utopia ever really existed in quite the way he perceived. I think that it’s more likely that, as ever, like-minded people coalesced around each other and — within those self-sustaining communities of preference and commerce — all seemed relatively frictionless. It always looks a little different from the outside.
Meanwhile, it’s worthwhile to concentrate on the vastly more satisfying conclusion to McKenna’s essay:
On a much happier note, last Sunday Louis/Dressner got together with Zev Rovine, Selection Massale, Fifi and PM Spirits to do a tasting together under the same roof. The energy was incredible, the crowd was great and the festivities went well into the night.
It doesn’t have to be ugly. Niche importers can, and in an ideal world should, band together. They can’t really fight the deafening roar of the behemoth mega-firms, but if they have to shout to be heard anyway, it would be better if they weren’t shouting at each other.
The setting was a Paris apartment. The “us” referred to a small gathering of folks who, mostly, work in or around the alcohol and media worlds. And the “he” of debate was natural wine evangelist and (at the time) object of intense media scrutiny over then-current events, Pierre Jancou.
Here’s the if-you-missed-it summary: a muckety-muck at a fashion mag hit up Jancou for a free meal at his restaurant Vivant Table. The dangled carrot was positive mention in Mr. Muckety-Muck’s publication. This sort of gross pay-for-play quasi-blackmail happens all the time, and most restaurants just bend over and take it, figuring the publicity is worth the cost. Jancou’s restaurant is tiny, perpetually overbooked (well in advance, too), and has zero need of such publicity. Given this freedom, Jancou said no. Hard words were exchanged over email.
Now, the tale could have ended there. Except that Jancou passed the story, complete with email proof, to a bunch of writers who were naturally inclined to be sympathetic to Jancou’s objection, and likely to spread the story. Which they did. And did. And did again. I arrived in Paris the day after the hullabaloo hulla-ballooned, and everyone (“everyone” being a self-selected cohort of folks, many of whom I count as friends, acquaintances, or trusted sources) was talking about it.
Naturally, the backlash – not much of one in comparison to the pro-Jancou outrage, but it was there – arrived soon after. Motives were examined. The question that seemed most prevalent was the most obvious: didn’t Jancou end up turning this into a giant PR victory by his own savvy use of the media?
A few months earlier, I’d seen this debate play out in different context. On two different wine fora, a drinker with a bit of a reputation for contrarianism-without-justification went after winemaker Eric Texier, essentially calling his participation on those and other fora no more than transparent publicity-seeking, and going on to suggest that anyone who fell for it was brainwashed. The issue, apparently, began with the drinker’s dislike of Texier’s wines, but from there, the conclusions – each darker and stranger than the previous – followed.
So what are Texier’s motives for participating on wine fora? He says, among other things, that they’re to provide information, often corrective, in discussions of wines and winemaking. Occasionally regarding his own work, much more often not. Since he very pointedly does not shill, openly or otherwise, for his own product, and in fact posts as his claimed motivation would suggest, I’ve no reason to think he’s lying.
So what about the accusation that Texier gets a publicity boost from this participation? Well, of course he does. If it damaged his brand, he’d be an idiot to keep doing it. I’ve seen winemakers, restaurateurs, retailers, and others damage – even destroy – their reputations through ham-fisted use of technology and social media. And Texier is no idiot. He uses his participation well. And yes, his reputation benefits as a result.
To suggest that this should not be is to suggest that either Texier can’t use the internet because he might gain from such use, or that he must use it less well. These are ludicrous positions to take, though that didn’t stop one finger-wagger from taking them. If Texier’s participation in a discussion works to his benefit because he adds value, and he in turn receives value from that participation, where is the damage? I see none. If Texier’s wines are bad (which, in my opinion, they most certainly are not), then disappointed consumers will sort that out for themselves, irrespective of Texier’s online musings.
The benefits stemming from Jancou’s media firestorm are somewhat more indirect. As noted, it’s not like he has empty seats to fill; perhaps a few more people could stuff themselves into his shoebox-sized wine bar, but only at tourist hours. Yes, there’s theoretical benefit to “Brand Jancou,” but since he’s not shown much inclination towards franchising or Vivant-logo mugs and t-shirts, all it really gets him is more regular quoting in the media…a mixed blessing to an evangelist for a category of which many remain skeptical. One thing that the attention does bring, however, is corollary illumination for the natural wines that Jancou promotes. Since his only direct financial interest in promoting these wines is if you drink them at one of Jancou’s establishments, which as I’ve noted isn’t all that likely unless you’ve planned well ahead, I again think it’s reasonable to take him at his word.
Instead, I submit that to the extent that there was promotional intent behind Jancou’s actions, it was less numerical than it was qualitative. Anyone who follows Parisian restaurant buzz knows that, especially since the installation of a new chef and a corollary upgrading of the kitchen’s ambitions (see below), Vivant Table is a “hot” reservation. In fact, there are few hotter. By getting his side of the story into the press, Jancou doesn’t do much to increase the number of potential diners – in fact, if anything he probably holds off some portion of the available pool by resisting those who want in simply to say they’ve been – but instead increases the likelihood that diners are there because they are sympathetic to his restaurant’s philosophy. Vivant is as much a statement as it is a restaurant, and that’s not the sort of thing everyone enjoys. Those who don’t now have reason to stay away, clearing the field for a few more of those who do.
Here’s another reason to take Jancou at his word. A few nights after the imbroglio, I was standing outside his wine bar with a mutual acquaintance, chatting with the man himself. Naturally, this was one of the subjects. He grew increasingly animated, and what seemed to enrage him most was when his free-meal-seeking correspondent suggested that Jancou was well-known as some sort of skinflint, as stingy, as someone who’d refuse a simple request due neither to principle or practicality, but basic meanness. (Needless to say he did not agree with this interpretation.) His agitation and animation while recounting this were quite obvious and I don’t for a second believe they were feigned.
So did Jancou take an irritating encounter and turn it, via a willing media, to his benefit? Sure, but I submit that it doesn’t really matter. Yes, his case was amplified and abetted by interlocutors. But it’s a good case, or at least it’s the case he wishes to make for his restaurant and his passion. He has other methods of publicizing what he does, but why should he fail to make the best use of the sort of gift publicity provided by this incident? If he’s being duplicitous or is, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle…well, as with Eric Texier and his wines, disappointed diners will sort that out for themselves. And I haven’t noticed reservations at Vivant Table getting any easier.
Securing a table at Vivant Table is far from the hardest thing I’ve ever done, restaurant-wise, but it’s no destination for last-minute deciders. In my case, five weeks of advance notice are required for a late seating, the hour of which is changed several times by the restaurant as the night approaches (though at the restaurant I can’t tell if the time-shifting has accomplished anything…maybe a very late third seating for someone?) I do note that more than a few people are turned away during the first hour of my meal, even a few who claim to have reservations, though I’m not eavesdroppy enough to assess the details.
In any case, it’s a tiny room in which one can be sure that most everyone who’s there wants to be there, or at least is accompanying someone who does. And it doesn’t offer much in the way of negotiation: the choices are a set menu, or a set menu with matched wines. This sort of restaurant-dominated approach, which I think many places would like to try but don’t, has been given a healthy lungful of oxygen by the ideologically-driven natural wine movement, and such places now litter Paris and are popping up in other cities, in Europe and elsewhere. There’s been follow-on benefit to non-natural places who, given tiny kitchens and limited seating, would like to shift the point-of-view to that of the kitchen rather than of the table, and I’m enthusiastically behind the movement.
Of course, I can say that because I’m an omnivore. Consecutive courses of sweetbreads, blood sausage, and multiple takes on venison do require somewhat of an open palate. This is aggressive, frequently brilliant food that takes the ingredient-focused cooking for which the restaurant was previously known and enlivens it through some very accomplished, almost swaggering cooking. There are some chances taken, and not everything succeeds (the blood sausage, for instance, is easily the most brilliant version thereof I’ve ever tasted, and finds a sweet counterpoint in an autumnal squash purée, but is paired with an utterly pointless bit of octopus…perfectly cooked, yet akin to a tuba player joining an in-progress violin quintet). But more than enough does succeed to make this one of the more interesting menus in Paris. Love it or not, if anyone is bored here, they are jaded beyond repair. It’s also extremely rich food, of course, and one will want to arrive with not only an open palate, but an open belly.
Despite a pretty good familiarity with natural wines as they exist on American shores, and many visits to other French covens of naturalia, Jancou’s explorations litter his shelves and his lists with a fair number wines I’ve either never tasted or have never even heard of. Not wanting to miss out on the latest and quirkiest, I do something I rarely choose to do and give myself over to the restaurant’s suggestions. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control (and no fault of the restaurant’s, either), the evening comes to an end before I can get a written version of the wines – almost all unfamiliar to me – so what follow are the only two names of which I’m certain. But there’s also a dark orange “white Burgundy” that’s not, as far as I can tell, actually an orange wine, several spiky reds (including one from sangiovese), and other highly individualistic offerings that sometimes range far beyond the borders of “mainstream” natural wines.
Do some of them taste like cider, white ale, lambic, distant cousins to vin jaune, or really almost anything but what one conceives of as “normal” wine? Yes. (Some don’t, and in fact taste quite familiar.) Some of them are good matches for the food and others are far too demanding of attention to coexist. I wouldn’t want an unending diet of such experiments, even the good ones. But to have one’s assumptions so aggressively challenged is both an intellectual and an emotional thrill-ride, and this is why I don’t choose between natural and traditional wines, but instead drink both. Yes, sometimes, one wonders why anyone would let certain fates befall otherwise defenseless grapes. But that’s exactly the point of natural wine as a philosophy, isn’t it? Risk is inherent in the genre. Universal pleasure is not.
Georges Laval Champagne Cumières 1er Cru Brut Nature (Champagne) – Foam, intensity, and the stench of brettanomyces. Not so much that it’s invalidating, but it’s there, so be warned. Otherwise, I like the wine a great deal, but this is a bit past my personal twitchiness point. (11/12)
Le Coste “Litrozzo” (Veneto) – Like drinking fizz without the usual trappings of wine that the fizz delivers. It’s pretty interesting, actually; if one considers bubbles or the sensation thereof to be a structural element, then this wine is all structure. What it really is, though, is all texture. (11/12)
Vivant Table’s room is somewhat uncomfortable, despite the quirky retro brilliance of the décor (rescued from the room’s previous incarnation), yet the slightly edgy discomfort matches the culinary and vinous experience on offer, and thus makes a certain amount of sense. Service is brusque in the very familiar French manner, which means you’ll get careful attention when someone’s at your side, but it’s best to not wish for things while they’re not. That said, at the end of our meal there’s an issue that requires a bunch of staff attention – again, nothing that’s the fault of the restaurant – in the face of which they couldn’t be kinder or more briskly attentive.
I read back over this review and see far more ambiguity and hedging than I really feel. There’s a perpetual debate amongst those who assign ratings to things and those who don’t, into which someone inevitably drops the cliché that the only rating that matters being whether or not one would repeat the experience. I don’t rate things, but I’ll answer the cliché: I’d go back to Vivant Table in a second. No matter how many weeks it takes to get in. Moreover, I love the restaurant, and part of that love is accepting that I will not love everything at the restaurant.
No, not accepting. Embracing.
I’ve a friend who complains that almost none of the wine bars that litter Paris are actually wine bars, but instead are restaurants with a lot of wine by the glass. I don’t really grasp the rigor of his definition, which seems to preclude either everything-but-charcuterie or seats (I forget which, possibly because I’m making fun of him), but I’d be tempted to draw the dividing line between places that feel like restaurants – sit, chat, graze in your own space – vs. places that feel like bars, in which one elbows up, through, and away, maintaining near-constant physical contact with one’s neighbors, or if seated feeling like a passel of them are hovering overhead and wishing you’d give up your seat. By that definition, Vivant Cave is very nearly a true wine bar; there are seats at the bar and a few around teetering tables at the back, but it’s…let’s call it physically convivial. The food – a few products-on-plates, a constantly-changing short list of quick assemblages – is inconsistent, though locals tell me the menu has gone through a fair number of changes since the bar’s (recent) opening. On two occasions, an octopus salad is vibrant and perfect, a stenchy andouillette is fine, blood sausage – which I’d find hard to believe is the same as served next door, though if it is they’re capable of mistreating it – is just OK. Two different preparations of burrata are magnificent.
Wines come from a short list of open bottles (though I suspect there’s almost always something else open, whim to whim), or from an elaborately-stocked case right at the wine bar’s narrowest point, the location of which makes for a lot of shoulder-jostling browsing. And unless one is completely steeped in the arcane nether-realms of natural wine, there’s going to be a lot here that’s unfamiliar, even to people who think they know the genre. As in: I’m offered a patently oxidized Loire gewurztraminer. (I pass.)
Fleury Champagne “Fleur de l’Europe” (Champagne) – Vibrant and lavishly present, with a tinge of oxygen-derived fullness and an ever-expanding sphere of sun-infused pastry. This is a wine for which the overused term “mouthfilling” might have been invented, even though that word is rarely applied to Champagne. Incredibly good. (10/12)
Courtois 2008 “Lard du Vin” (Loire) – Brett, check. Volatility, check. Sweaty naturalia, check. Structurally, it speaks of sauvignon blanc, but aromatically it’s on a different planet. I’ll say this for Courtois’ wines: they’re never boring. (10/12)
Piccinin 2009 “Bianco dei Muni” (Veneto) – Chardonnay & durella. This is the most tannic orange wine I’ve ever tasted, with a fierce chomp from sharp, razored incisors. Fruit-wise, I’m thinking blood orange and raspberry, but it’s that tannic saber-whip that truly marks the wine. (10/12)
Blanchard “Le Grand Cléré” (Loire) – Sauvignon blanc. Salted honeydew melon, pit sweat, and the bitterness of underripe almonds. It leaps and hops for attention, but it’s not great at holding same. (10/12)
Ducroux 2011 Régnié (Beaujolais) – Pomegranate. Vividly acidic, with a diagonal hack-slash of thin tannin and a long, crisp tail. I’m not entirely certain it has anything to do with Régnié, though as it airs the more muscular aspects of the cru do begin to peer from dark corners, but it’s pretty delicious anyway. (10/12)
Sénat 2011 Minervois “Mais où est donc Ornicar” (Languedoc) – Tasting this in an ultra-naturalista wine outpost is a bit strange for me. The wine, which I first tasted years ago (obviously from a different vintage) in Sénat’s cellar, seems almost shockingly conventional in this setting, surrounded as it is by the whimsical, the ideological, even the downright insane. In the context of its appellation it’s strikingly approachable, yet it retains the structural baggage and density of its source. Meaty, herbal, somewhat dark-fruited, but largely about muscularity and the weight of long-eroded, sun-drenched history. What sets this apart from other wines of the appellation, and the rest of Sénat’s wines, is a sense of space and air that can be penetrated by a palate unassisted by animal flesh or its analogues. I don’t always love this wine, finding it somewhat imbalanced in certain contexts, but either the vintage or the setting are very much working for me in this one. (11/12)
Henri Milan 2011 Vin de France “Le Papillon” Rouge (Provence) – Brittle, its acids volatile in the physical rather than chemical sense (though it has those too). It’s an old TV on which someone is twiddling the hue knob between red and violet, with no lack of static and that tactile electrical-field hum. Or perhaps it’s like a nouveau with structure. Or one of those push-up fruit-syrup freezer candies. It’s all those things, and it’s wine as well. (11/12)
Disclosure: in conversation with Pierre Jancou, I inquire about the availability of an older Overnoy Vin Jaune, an expensive and very difficult to obtain wine. It’s made clear that the deciding factor is not money so much as an understanding that the purchaser will properly appreciate the result. I am eventually able to buy the wine (not at a discount), so to the extent that this is special access deserving disclosure, I’ve now done so.
This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place. Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.