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Butcher, writer, winemaker

Never watch sausage being made.

That few want to know what goes into sausage is, I suppose, taken for granted by those who don’t. But most food-enthusiasts absolutely do want to know…not just what’s in the sausage, but how it’s made. There would be dismay over poor ingredients, yes, but as much or more from watching good raw material mauled into something unrecognizable via sloppy practice or an excess of adulteration. Who wants to pay the premium for a wild boar sausage if it’s indistinguishable from plain pork? What’s the purpose of using a top-notch source of veal and then studding it with stale dried herbs?

(…transitions are for amateurs….)

The Lord of the Rings was, and is, an important book to me. The first time I read it, I was a little too young to follow more than the frontline narrative, and I suspect that’s part of why regular and enjoyable re-readings continue to this day: each time, I find something I’d glossed in the past. Such understanding has, admittedly, been greatly aided by also owning and reading the vast library of revisioning and background material that has gradually been made available by Tolkien’s son Christopher. Watching this particular sausage being made led to greater admiration for the result.

When the news first broke, years ago, of a live-action filmic version – I’d seen the fascinatingly muddled animated hack job back in the day – I felt the same mixed emotions as most long-time Tolkien fans. Emotions which were mostly borne out by the results, as the films alternated between painstaking recapturing and inexplicable revisionism. On balance, though, and with innumerable complaints small and large to the side, I was pleased with the results. It wasn’t always The Lord of the Rings, no, but it was a pretty good cover version.

As a fan and completist, it was only natural that I had to own the extended-cut DVDs when they came out, in all their lingering and bonus-materialed glory. But my fellow fanatics who’d sat down with them before I had offered a warning: don’t listen to the writers’ commentary tracks.

Perhaps inevitably, I failed to follow their advice. I wanted another trip to the sausage factory. And anyway, I’d already seen the results, hadn’t I? What they’d gotten right and what they’d gotten so spectacularly wrong? How much worse could it be? Well, I suppose I should have listened. Few of the perturbations to the original text were as infuriating as listening to how they came about, explanations which the writers were extremely eager to provide in detail.

Changes necessitated by a shift in media – book to film – didn’t bother me that much. The book, as written and without a word or scene altered, isn’t filmable. I’d understood going in that there would be shortcuts and additions made to pump up the action, to sharpen conflicts, to elevate emotional climaxes, and so forth. I didn’t even mind a little bit of alteration to better suit modern norms (which, I knew even before the movies were filmed, would mean bigger and better roles for women than are evident in the book, though much of this material could be mined from appendices and supplementary texts).

What set my teeth a-grating was how changes always begat more changes to “make up for” a now-insensible narrative that only existed because of the original changes. How disbelief in a character’s motivations (as written) wrought small changes early in the story, then required massive, deformative changes later in the story. How caricature-like inventions were defended as logical inevitabilities when the original alterations that required this logic weren’t necessary in the first place. Worse were the number of times regret was expressed at one of these later, cumulative alterations; as the filming progressed, the sense of closer fidelity to the text had frequently been seen and attempted, but was often rendered impossible by earlier, committed-to-film alterations. Thus requiring even more severe changes to return a story or character back to some vaguely-recognizable place.

(…transitions are still for amateurs…)

Which, of course, brings me to wine.

One of the more aggravating dances in the natural wine debate is the one over the word “intervention.” The standard comeback – “isn’t all wine a product of intervention?” – is true, trite, and deliberately obfuscatory. The latter because, as I’ve written at numbing length elsewhere, the debate isn’t a Manichaean choice between asceticism and the kitchen sink, but rather the purpose and degree of intervention.

Intervention springs from two sources: the urge to intervene, and other interventions. The former is something I’ve written about a lot, and so I’ll just summarize the argument here: there are those who prefer to not intervene unless complete failure is the alternative, there are those for whom intervention is an essential and inevitable tool, and there’s a vast spectrum of practice in between those extremes. But the important difference between those endpoints is real, and not dismissable by dull-witted clichés like “all wine is intervention.” The latter (“other interventions”) provides the foundation for many debates between the divergent camps. But it’s a foundation oft-unspoken, even oft-unrecognized. And it’s worth, amidst all this talk of sausages and epic fantasy, a closer look.

Everyone has different ideas of what constitutes balance in a wine. Everyone has their own ideals of taste. And there is no settling a debate that hinges on trying to find the “correct” expression of a wine (though that doesn’t mean the debate isn’t worth airing; there’s always much to learn). Thus, any examination of this idea will rest on personal preferences, and so here are mine. Others will begin with different assumptions:

  • One grape should not taste like another. The differences between grapes should be expressed rather than obscured. If this is not an important goal, then why use anything other than the cheapest, easiest-to-grow grape that can be wrestled into the desired frame?
  • One site or place, if identified, should not taste like another. The organoleptic differences collated and defined as terroir should be allowed expression. If this is not an important goal, then site designation should be abandoned as deliberately misleading marketing chicanery, and the cheapest serviceable blend should be found from wherever on the globe can supply such a thing.
  • The more interventions required in the vineyard, cellar, and bottling line to achieve the winemaker’s goals, the less suited the grape and site are for that winemaker’s purposes. It is then worth asking, if said winemaker continues to work with the same grape and site, why he or she does so. Because the inherent qualities of either are clearly not important.

And so, an example: a grape, famous elsewhere and with a historical reputation for quality, planted in a new place. Most years, it’s a struggle to get the grape to the ripeness that the winemaker seeks. Sugars aren’t high enough, acids are too high and of the wrong type, flavors are undeveloped. There exist many ways to encourage the various sorts of ripeness by manipulating the vine, and these methods have been employed with marginal improvement. Thus, the vaster array of winemaking manipulations have been employed – acid adjustments, targeted yeasts and nourishment for those yeasts, enzymatic treatments, chaptalization, and so forth…which doesn’t exclude the possibility of harsher interventions or flavor additions (of which time in new oak barrels would be the most common) from time to time.

The palatability of the result isn’t what concerns us in this thought experiment. Instead, questions of intent and identity are. Does this wine actually express anything of the grape from which it’s made? Even if the various techniques employed create a simulacrum of that character, I’d argue that it doesn’t. It’s no longer the grape, it’s a cover version thereof. An artist’s rendering.

So how about the site? Though a lot of attempts have been made to obliterate the site’s character, ultimately it’s unscrubbable from the finished wine because it’s that site’s interaction with the grape, filtered through the winemaker’s intent, that necessitates the cornucopia of interventions in the first place. That said, whatever the site may provide to the wine is no longer perceptually evident, so whether it exists in the finished wine or not is a purely theoretical question.

To summarize: it is, technically, a wine of its site. But there’s none of its site in it. And it is, technically, a wine of its grape and even has its grape in it, but no effort has been spared to hide this fact from the drinker. In other words, it’s a wine of neither grape nor site, but of intervention. Or more precisely, a wine of pure intent. And if intent could be fermented and bottled, rather than dealing with recalcitrant grapevines and laborious cellar machinations, I think everyone involved would choose to do so.

This question could be pursued down interesting philosophical lines for a while, but I’m more interested in the mechanistic ones, and to that end I’d say that one or more of three things are “wrong” – by which I mean inefficiently or mistakenly utilized – with this hypothetical product (which is, as we all know, far from hypothetical). One is that the grape is wrong for the site and intent. Two is that the site is wrong for the grape and intent. And the third is that the intent itself is misguided, a contention which can but does not necessarily depend on the other two: given the intent, the materials are unsuitable…a contention demonstrated by the number of tools necessary to manifest said intent.

It is this third possibility with which the philosophy of natural wine, of the rejection of intervention, is based. A true interventional minimalist would do nothing to these grapes before or after they entered the cellar, other than what’s necessary to transport grapes from vine to winery and to turn those grapes into wine, and the result would be what it would be. For better or worse. They might accept this, or they might find the result undrinkable (though given the biological eccentricities of some natural wines one never knows). But the solution would not be to find out which additional interventions would be required to wrest palatability from the source material, it would be to find better source material. A more suitable combination of grape and place from which a wine not demanding such interventions could be produced.

The non-interventionist tries to, as little as possible, consider the question “what do I want?” The important question is “what do I have?” Restricting one’s interest to the second question, one is not overly confronted with the interventionist’s constant companion, “how do I get there?” To grapple with intent is to have already lost the premise, for the “intent” is to avoid applying intention.

A few years ago, a studio and its employees made something they called The Lord of the Rings. From a legalistic standpoint, it actually was The Lord of the Rings because they’d paid the proper people for the rights to the source material. And at many, many points, they achieved a transparent expression of that material; different, yes, as a wine is different from a grape, but an obvious filmic representation of the story as it is known.

But at other points, they didn’t want to make The Lord of the Rings. They wanted to make a different movie, one more in line with their personal preferences or the alleged demands of the marketplace. And so they added, they deleted, and they changed. All things that any filmmaker does. Except that they had to make their not-The Lord of the Rings movie – their collection of personal intentions – saleable as The Lord of the Rings, which meant that they had to stitch the divergent threads of film back together. Sometimes this worked, but mostly it led to the most bothersome and inexplicable adulterations, necessitated less by the original text or the writers’ intentions, but by the need to integrate the two. Not only did such alterations rarely make sense, but the heavy makeup required to hide them usually showed despite the effort. Change “usually” to “always,” and that was the effect of listening to the writers’ commentary tracks. Which I continue to regret.

The seams and makeup of interventionist wine are more opaque to those not already macerating in the debate, just as changes to a movie are non-obvious to anyone not familiar with the book on which it’s based. But they’re there, easier to taste once you know of their existence, and un-ignorable – not, by the way, the same thing as organoleptically obvious – once you’ve been walked through a specific wine’s sausage-making adolescence. At which point one begins to think about not just results, but process and intent. They are related questions, but they are not the same questions. This is how interventionism itself can be, and is, separable from a debate about the effects of an intervention.

Again, this is something that dedicated interventionists claim to not understand. Isn’t the only thing that matters how the wine tastes? Whether it’s good or not?

When the context is only that sort of gut-level, purely subjective consideration, then yes it is. But that’s a really limited way to view wine. I don’t mean that it’s bad, or wrong, to live contentedly within that limitation, but rather to insist that it’s equally valid to view wine through other lenses. One may, with justification, find certain (or most, or all) interventions philosophically distasteful simply because they are alterations to the original text, regardless of the palatability of the finished product. The inevitable corollary is that it’s perfectly reasonable to like a wine less (or more) once one knows how it’s made. Practice matters. Fidelity matters. Intent matters. Not to everyone, and not to the same extent, but that’s not a refutation of the concept. It’s yet another in a series of personal choices.

I can, and do, enjoy The Lord of the Rings as a movie. I can struggle with it as a work of translated art. I can dislike it as a dull-witted misreading of the source material. I can adore the faithfulness of the art design and the brilliance of the effects while decrying the faithlessness of the script. And I can have those feelings enhanced, damaged, or changed when the curtain is pulled back and the sausage factory is revealed in all its abattoirial detail. I don’t have to choose just one way to respond to the films, especially the most reactionary and simplistic – are they good or bad? – and I don’t have to respond to wines that way either.

Those who care about sausage…or film, or wine…do sometimes want, even need, to know how it’s made.

A O no

[suckling rome]A few weeks ago, the oenokerfuffle of online story and song was the Olivier Cousin debacle, and it had most of the naturalista wine world talking about it. I read along with a good deal of sympathy for Monsieur Cousin, but a fair bit of dismay at the tenor of the post-hoc debate.

In brief: Cousin, an iconoclast in the purest sense of the word, makes wines that don’t receive the officially-designated appellations they’d otherwise warrant. This is, more or less, by design. What he does, instead, is use various semi-confrontational means to indicate place of origin that run afoul of the humorless French and local wine bureaucrats. In response, they’ve decided to punish him for doing so, and the punishment is almost parodically severe: the freezing of his bank accounts, making it virtually impossible for him to continue to do his work, and the threat (a very real one) of jail time.

They take their bureaucracy seriously in France.

That the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime should go without saying. Cousin knows he is deliberately flouting the rules, yes, and a sensible response would be to force him to stop doing so by less abusive means (e.g. “do what we say or you can’t sell your wines in France”), not putting him out of business or behind bars. One hopes something similar will be the actual resolution, and that said resolution will come speedily enough that his livelihood will not suffer irreparable damage. There are, or were, even petitions (French and English) to assist in convincing the French authorities to come to their senses.

That’s all clear. What’s less clear is the path forward, once the current unpleasantness is behind us. Since Cousin is a darling of, and primarily known among, the natural wine set, most of the proposals were fairly predictable, and more or less amounted to “blow up the INAO” (not literally), or at least “do away with the appellation system.” I think this is woefully misguided. But I think the core problem is that the appellation system itself is woefully misguided. Or at least, woefully misapplied and mischaracterized.

I’ve written about this before, but all the problems stem from a division of opinion as to what a legally codified appellation system represents. At the legalistic level (at least as practiced in Old World wine regions), it’s a guarantee of geographical origin, ingredients, and practices in attempt to codify and highlight both terroir and tradition. Certain of these categories are more or less important depending on the appellation under discussion, but they form the foundation of the idea behind associating place, product, and name within the confines of the law.

It’s my belief that this remains a worthwhile structure. The customer can only benefit from a system by which information is communicated via labeling, and that’s what a properly constructed appellation system does. Yes, there’s a certain threshold of knowledge required to make good use thereof, but that’s true for any labeling nomenclature. Nonetheless, knowing the ways in which a Sancerre is different from an Hermitage, or a Roquefort from an Osseau-Iraty, is essential to knowing how and when to utilize those ingredients at the table or in the kitchen.

Of course, this is not what the appellation system represents to any number of entities. To many consumers, it represents some sort of promise of replicability (like a fast-food sandwich) and, inevitably, price point (which is why the very best Muscadet can’t sell for more than a wretched premier cru white Burgundy, even though this state of affairs is ludicrous). To critics, it represents a nebulously subjective paradigm to which aspirants must adhere or be judged as lacking. To some winemakers, especially the industrial ones who represent both the majority and the scourge of any appellation, it is a tool with which to secure their market advantage at the expense of those who would expose their mediocrity. And to bureaucrats, it has somehow come to suggest not just identity, but quality and the attempt to legislate a definition thereof.

All of these external expectations are damaging in one way or another, but it’s the last that’s the source of this particular controversy. The argument goes like this: the granting of a defined appellation (the top of the legalistic heap, in terms of officially-sanctioned labels) is a promise to the consumer that the wine will meet certain expectations, some of them qualitative. As such, we cannot allow wines that do not meet certain qualitative criteria to receive the appellation, for by doing so we would devalue the worth of the appellation system.

And so does a system become self-sustaining and self-justifying for all the wrong reasons. For who decides on those “certain qualitative criteria?” Usually, the majority faction of a given appellation’s producers. And who are they? Of course: the cooperatives and the industrialists. At a stroke of the legal pen, the deck is stacked against anyone who would, via the quality of their product, demonstrate the widespread mediocrity deemed to be representative and thus “typical” of the appellation. And given this system, iconoclasts know they don’t have even a glimmer of hope…which is why so many opt out before they’re forced out.

But the rot goes deeper than externalities. For the worst possible purpose of the appellation system is self-preservation, a recursive and thumb-sucking whirlpool of bureaucratic onanism. And yet, this is what it has devolved to. Like so many other bureaucracies, its interests have all slowly but inexorably become self-interests. But haven’t I previously argued that the appellation is a good thing, at least in theory? Yes, I have. Properly-applied, it’s incredibly valuable.

In France – this is less true elsewhere – the obsession with the qualitative baggage of the appellation has created a system in which working outside it is immediately and often fatally damaging to one’s bottom line. But even in the absence of such rigidity, those who choose to follow their own muse are disadvantaged at every turn; a Sancerre will always sell to more people, more reliably and for more money, than a vin de table, and this is true despite whatever cult fandom may have developed around the latter. Only a high-profile critic’s point-laden and hyperbolic approval can change this…and outside the internationalized, Latin-named super-whatevers in Italy, this is something that can talked about only in theory, not in practice. Outliers must succeed on marketing alone, yet their avenues for doing so are deliberately curtailed by their own governments and neighbors. This is profoundly unfair.

So let’s fix it.

Cousin and his fellow iconoclasts should not, if they produce something grossly atypical of the appellation, be able to use the appellation. They should have to call it something else. The appellation should mean something useful to the consumer, and the existence of extreme outliers diminishes that meaning. But if such producers also want to make something within the expected guidelines of the appellation, they should be able to do so without consequence or legally-enforced disadvantage.

Qualitative leaders within an appellation must be protected from the mediocracy. The very last thing that should be allowed is producers voting on whether or not other producers with whom they are in direct competition are “typical” or not. Give this job to an external authority…say, panels of wine professionals tasting single-blind and within the narrowest possible peer groups…without the built-in financial incentive to act dishonestly. This will never be a perfect solution – no human judgment can be – but it will be less foundationally compromised than the current system.

Remove the barriers to commercial success that exist for those working outside the appellation codes. This requires more than fiddling with the law or label nomenclature. Wholesale and official enthusiasm must be accorded to the idea that such products are not definitionally better or worse, but merely different, than their in-appellation counterparts. The mindset must be created that both an appellation-endowed wine and a table wine from the same site are both authentic representatives of that place. This won’t happen overnight, but the foundation can be laid.

And for goodness sake, leave Britney Olivier Cousin alone.

If this doesn’t happen, the appellation system really will fall into irrelevancy, as it is already in danger of doing in so many places. Both iconoclasts and top producers will flee the system, rendering it not only far from the qualitative guarantor that it has mistakenly been asked to be but a vastly diminished reservoir for conservatism and mediocrity. And thus, a useful tool for the consumer will disappear.

This is the end

[moldy bottle]This is the last Thursday. The very last one. Here, I mean.

There will be a hotel my next namesake night, my home abandoned and swept clean of Me and Mine as it awaits its future partner, but it doesn’t count. It’s a hotel. It’s only a transition.

“Have you stopped blogging?” one correspondent asked. “Are you on hiatus?” queried another. No. I have definitely been bouchonné, in a sense (I love the broad utility of the French word for “corked”), because there’s a post I want to – no, need to – write, but I just can’t get through its abdomen, though the head and tail are long-finished. And in any case, I’ve been a little preoccupied.

Because the thing is, I’m leaving. Boston, you (and your dirty water, and your Charlie-swallowing M[B]TA) are no longer my home. As of eight days from now. And most definitely counting, as the ever-expanding, never-diminishing “list of things to do before…” stares back at my packing-reddened eyes.

Everything is, of course, fraught these days. Many decades of reminiscence. But I’m most struck, at the moment, by what cannot be reminisced. Places. People. Events. Things. Dishes. Drinks. None of them the path taken. All of those moments that I didn’t have in defiance of opportunity. And now, likely, won’t. Ever.

It’s not any given noun that’s set me on this path of…well, it’s not regret, exactly. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it. Reflection? It’s packing up bottles of wine, as any oenoanorak must do in preparation for a move.

Each bottle tells its own stories, long-acknowledged as one of the glories of the pursuit. But one of them – often overlooked – is the tale of its acquisition. The reason, the circumstance, the monetary pain a then-special bottle might have caused, the preferences – long-developed, or perhaps long-abandoned – that led to its companionship. So many years of browsing, of traveling, of savvy deals and what-was-I-thinking errors of quantity or quality. I could write an exceedingly poor-selling autobiography with just these bottles and their history.

As I said, everything is fraught. I can’t pack away a bottle without remembering then. Or there. Or why. Or who. The danger of being overwhelmed by something loitering at the intersection of Nostalgia and Proust is ever-present in these moments.

But this is what I wanted to say: these memories, these snippets of history, these moments that made me as much as I made them…they’re getting boxed up. Shipped. Reinstalled in a new setting, one in which new moments will be made starting from that very first installation. These bottles, heretofore ignored, will play a role in those new tales. And this is, I think, a fitting destiny for wine.

The story of a bottle is inseparable from its land, its grapes, its maker, and its history. It passes to a buyer with this story intact, whether the narrative is known or not. But then, a new epic is written. A story of an enthusiast and his or her wine. And that is a very, very different tale. Yet both make the wine what it is, and also what it will be.

So, Thursday. You’re actually Friday, now, as I finish this, and while I mourn your passing, I have hope. For downstairs, in more boxes than I care to count, are stories upon stories. A library of history, but also a library of the future. Each story familiar, each story new.

And some future Thursday – I don’t know when, but it will be soon – will not be a last. It will be a first. And the stories will begin anew.

The utility of "natural"

In the comments to the previous post, Thomas Pellechia makes the following assertion:

The word “natural” is the problem. “Natural” to apply to a movement or to a way of production was likely selected (by whomever, I don’t know) for its connotation and not for its accuracy. Maybe good marketing, but certainly useless information.

It’s not useless information. It means something. As much as “pinot noir” or “Chambolle-Musigny” mean something. None of the three terms tells you exactly what has been done and what you are going to get; far from it. But they’re useful, and helpful, and descriptive to the extent of their ability to be any of those three things. And they are all also, in their own way, “marketing.” We deal with this sort of definitional and intentional ambiguity all the time in wine, as I believe I just wrote a few weeks ago, and there’s no good reason other than sheer obstinacy that “natural” should be required to submit to unprecedented scrutiny in this regard.

When a winemaker utters the (in)famous “my wine is made in the vineyard” cliché, and putting aside the cases in which that phrase is used either cynically or with premeditated deception, what’s the most sensible reaction to an honest use of that phrase?

1) Start objecting that wine can’t actually be made in the vineyard, that there’s no fermentation vessel, that there are no bottle trees in the vineyard to catch the miraculously-fermenting grapes, and so forth.

2) Understand the conversation for which the phrase is long-standing shorthand: that the qualitative influences on the wine in question are preferentially agricultural.

I submit that the non-Asperger’s answer is #2. Anyone using the phrase honestly already agrees that, yes, they have to actually get the grapes into the winery and do stuff to them, or there’s no wine being made in or out of a vineyard. There’s no need to revisit the entire history and science of wine every time someone is trying to signal their intent with a helpful shorthand phrase, examining each assumption to make sure it doesn’t indicate wobbly doctrine. They know what they mean by the phrase, I know what they mean by the phrase, and I cannot conceive that any knowledgeable observer doesn’t know what they mean by the phrase.

The same is true for “natural.” I think, with the body of work and theory that exists, it’s three sensorially-deprived monkeys on a t-shirt to keep insisting that people who make and drink the stuff don’t know what’s being signaled and shorthanded.

Would I prefer to go back in time and Napoleonically order them to use “anti-interventionist” or some other similarly-questionable phrase? Probably, though I don’t think it would have saved much grief in the ensuing arguments, a rather large number of which are disingenuously presented by those whose economic interests are highly interventionist. There are some other terms I’d like to get rid of while I’m busy being the Emperor of Wine Terminology.

But that unbagged cat is already riding the barn-fleeing horse into the sunset. It’s the term we’ve got. And if you show me a Riffault Sancerre and a Bourgeois Sancerre and tell me that the former is a natural wine and the latter is not, what I expect based on those descriptions very much matches up with what I will actually get. The same is true for many such contrasting pairs, and I would love to hear from anyone familiar with both wines that thinks they do not have similarly differentiated expectations, because I suspect such a person doesn’t exist. That’s a demonstration of utility right there, and thus the term is not useless information. Insisting otherwise is baseless.

Anti-choice

“Why don’t you,” suggested an email, “offer your own definition of ‘natural wine,’ if you’re so sure everyone else has it wrong?” It’s possible that slightly different and marginally more aggressive words were used, and thus I’m paraphrasing for the sake of clarity, but this is a family blog I’ll stop at nothing in pursuit of a joke the paraphrase will have to do for now.

In any case, I pretty much already have. But OK: here’s a short* version. Laminate it if you wish. (Biodegradable laminate, please.)

*Why are people laughing?

Natural wine is the result of a winemaker given a chance to intervene and always choosing otherwise, except as necessary* to achieve a drinkable product recognizable as wine.

*And sometimes, not even then**.

**On the other hand, bad wine is bad wine, and incompetence is incompetence, and neither really invalidates the definitional divisions between natural and other types of wine. After all, a freely-intervening hand does not preclude biological instability, though it’s certainly true that that hand’s absence can make instability more probable.

What I like about this definition is that it doesn’t attempt to swim upstream against the currents of example vs. counter-example. While it’s true that I can’t think of a natural winemaker who adds cultivated yeast, the standard claim about few or no sulfur additions is rather fiercely challenged by one natural winemaker, who submits bottle after bottle of self-described naturalia to a test that finds most to have surprisingly high levels of sulfur. Thus, I can’t even adjudicate the truth or falsehood of one of natural wine’s core tenets. And pretty much all the rest is debate, argument, philosophy, and/or religion.

This definition also doesn’t require tiered value judgments. One needn’t weigh one intervention against another, trying to discern which is more deformative and which is less…an argument presented time and time again by the contrary and the disbelieving…because the point isn’t some inherently obvious anti-natural value to a given intervention, it’s the motivation behind and purpose of intervention itself.

That last bit is why I prefer a less-prescriptive definition of “natural wine.” It’s not a papal bull. It’s not even a recipe. There really isn’t a perimetered group of wines within and external to the category. There’s just a continuum between wines made with more or less intervention, and a vague and highly malleable circle drawn around the lower-intervention end of that scale encompassing what would be called “natural” by everyone, by most, and by some. There is not, it should also be reiterated, a wine at the endpoint of that continuum; insisting that there must be one is a straw man argument by the pro-intervention crowd, not something that any actual natural winemaker believes.

When debates get heated, I often think that I would prefer to talk about categories of “more” and “less natural,” rather than just natural as if it had a set meaning. On the other hand the word does mean something. To deny this is to attempt to win by semantic pedantry what one cannot demonstrate in reality. There are natural wines that are different in identifiable ways from other wines, and there are enough common denominators within that category that generalizations can be made.

And yet, the “definition” is nebulous. It pretty much has to be. Now, if someone wants to launch a Natural Wine™ certification program, they’re free to set rigid guidelines and commence purging the heretics and apostates. Until that grim day, we’re just going to choose to live with, and even embrace, ambiguity.

In other words, choose to not choose. Just like natural winemakers.

Nurture, not nature

I don’t care about natural wine.

So why do I write about it so much? Good question. Masochism? Or maybe, since by blogging I’m encouraging people read those words, it’s sadism?

Many people begin and end their wine experience with taste, and while that’s important, it’s not quite enough for me. I’m interested in all manner of auxiliary matters, including what happens to cause that taste. And while it makes little sense to the taste-centrics, I do appreciate certain wines more (or less) based on what they are, what they represent, and how they’re made.

I suppose what I’m really after, in this non-organoleptic realm, is authenticity. That is: wines that speak authentically of their place, of their raw materials, and of their category. To the extent that natural wine means anything to me, it’s in its alleged potential for this sort of transparency.

Of course, some natural winemaking is anything but transparent. Some of it is patently obscurative. Certain grapes and sites seem to emerge tasting recognizably akin to those made via more interventionist methods. Others are profoundly transformed, at the extreme tasting much more of each other than of their peer groups despite wildly differing raw materials and grape sources. The set of flaws that can all too easily afflict natural wines are a contributor, but even in the absence of flaws there is, at times, a sort of asymptotic “natural” aromatic and textural profile. Anyone who drinks a lot of natural wine knows what I’m talking about.

Ennui sets in when theoretically different grapes and sites end up tasting like minor variations on a single theme. Soon, that ennui is replaced by boredom. Eventually, I find myself wanting to drink something else. Something that tastes like something else. Of what it is or where it’s from more than how it’s made. That is, after all, the exact objection I have to industrial winemaking practice. Why should I laud a product just because it’s in philosophical objection to same?

It is here that I often find myself parting ways with the most dedicated natural wine fans. It’s not just about preferring different organoleptic profiles – that’s inherent between any two wine drinkers – but that natural wine soon ceases to appeal to me, except as a gustatory curiosity, when it obscures rather than reveals. In other words, I don’t enjoy natural wine because it is natural. I sometimes enjoy it because of how it makes wine tastes (and sometimes not). But the vast majority of my enjoyment comes it when it serves the greater aim of authenticity.

So why should I care about natural wine, as a category, at all? Because it’s my experience that I tend to prefer wines made with less intervention to those made with more. Exceptions abound, but it’s a useful generalization. It’s even more accurate not as a wine moves from interventionist to natural, but as it transitions from highly-interventionist to minimally-interventionist. The very existence of natural wine as a growing and much-discussed category exerts pressure against the urge to intervene. That is, for both my palate and my preferences, a good thing.

As for my apparently persistent desire to put hands on keyboard, there’s even more to it than the exertion of palate-pleasing pressure. About natural wine is written and spoken a rather incredible amount of bullshit, both pro- and con-. I’ve probably contributed my share of both, over the years. What strikes me about a lot of it is that it appears to coalesce around positions of wild-eyed extremism about which everybody argues and finger-points, but which positions vanishingly few people actually hold.

The thing is, among the cohort of people who drink and enjoy any subset of natural wines, one finds a lot less polemical rigidity. And those are just the vocal ones; the silent are likely even less doctrinaire. But while those who enjoy a good supply of both natural and interventionist wines far outnumber the zealots, their megaphones and klaxons are set at lower volumes. What cannot be overcome in decibels must thus be compensated by numbers. And maybe the chorus can, eventually, drown out the most narcissistic soloists.

Dispatches from Naturalia

A few weeks ago, an offhand dismissal of natural wine on Twitter (imagine that!) caught my eye. Paraphrasing, the tweeter mused: “still trying to decide if it’s all just marketing.”

I can answer that, actually. Yes, it is indeed marketing. So is “Gevrey-Chambertin.” So is “pinot noir.” And for the exact same reasons.


Inspired by the above, I admit continued bewilderment at a refusal to engage with ambiguity when it comes to the word “natural.” I’m glad that people have, from time to time, offered definitions, because it gives us something to argue about. But those are their definitions, not the definition. It’s quite clear that among both self-identified and externally-identified producers of natural wine, there’s little to no agreement on precise, regulatory-style meaning. And while a few ideologues are more than willing to fight about it, most are quite happy with the lack of rigidity. Alas that detractors (and advocates) can’t adopt the same attitude.

But aren’t “Gevrey-Chambertin” and “natural” different? Doesn’t the former have a specific definition? Yes it does, but it’s mostly about geography and content, a little about practice, and not at all about what the wine is actually like. “Pinot noir” is a specific grape, yes, but both a transparent blanc de noirs Champagne and an opaque hot-climate bruiser are pinot noir. The name is a datum, not a characterization.

“Natural” has no force of legal code behind it, but amongst its Gaussian distribution of producers that there’s a core set of practices that any hypothetical code would include (and practices it would exclude). And yet, this still tells us nothing about what the wines are like. A pretty little gamay for immediate slurping? A stately riesling made for (given sufficiently careful cellaring) long aging? Both exist.

In other words, there’s as much simultaneous meaning and ambiguity to the word “natural” as in many other wine terms. We embrace uncertainty elsewhere, using words that are not simultaneously prescriptive and descriptive. Why is it so hard with the word “natural?”


Perhaps it’s because the word – like so many others – gets entangled with value judgments. In this, “natural” takes up the burden that “terroir” used to carry. Some of the most passionate defenders of the concept can be regularly seen to have – maybe subconsciously, maybe not – entirely conflated the term with “wines they like.” When a wine comes along made exactly as they’d prefer, but far outside their stylistic preferences, they start protesting that it can’t be natural and looking for redefinitions that will exclude it. This is ludicrous. “Natural” is prescriptive, it has some limited ability to be descriptive, but it is not and cannot be qualitative. That’s not to say that one can’t prefer natural wines for reasons aside from the organoleptic. But “natural” is not a synonym for “good,” and it was never intended to be.


On a personal level, one of the biggest reasons I appreciate the growing presence of natural wine is the pressure it exerts on winemakers who’ve never met an intervention they don’t like. I don’t expect many of them to change, and certainly control-oriented industrialists never will. But others will. More might reconsider what they do, maybe making a little tweak here or there, perhaps experimenting outside the borders of “what they’ve always done” to see if quality can be achieved in a different way. The more important outcome, to me, is that producers are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about what they do. What did they add? What did they adjust? And why?

These very questions are themselves too often taken as value judgments. This, too, is ludicrous. I am in no way dismissive of the impulse and the frequent need to intervene, sometimes aggressively, to shepherd a wine from grape to saleable bottle. And some of my favorite wines are the result of intense intervention. But centuries of furtive meddling have served no one except the true industrialists, whose practices are thus fully legitimized. And the secrecy not only fails to increase knowledge, but leads to confusion and premature didacticism on the part of insufficiently educated wine folk…consumers, yes, but even sometimes those in the biz. If the obsessive focus on practice brought by natural wines serves to turn up the intensity of revelatory light, there’s not a single bad thing to be said about that.


Last year I penned an essay on the qualities and difficulties of the natural wine scene in Paris. I’m in the midst of another extended stay in that glorious city, and have as a matter of choice been rather immersed in the stuff. And so it’s been interesting to reexamine my former conclusions.

Has anything changed? Yes and no. There are even more natural wine bars and restaurants than before, which is a testament to their success (some of the old stalwarts have even expanded). That’s the first “yes.”

The “no” is that at such establishments, vinous apartheid more or less continues to reign. That’s a loaded term, so let me clarify that I mean it in a value-neutral sense. Natural wine lists mostly remain natural wine lists, full stop. If there’s a wine bar or restaurant that fully embraces naturalia yet allows their stock to be dominated by qualitative rather than definitional concerns, I haven’t seen it (which is not to say that it doesn’t exist; one can’t go everywhere, or at least my liver certainly can’t). And that, of course, is fine; I would no more criticize a restaurant for being exclusively “natural” than I would for specializing in crêpes. I still think an opportunity is being missed to broaden the concept, but I’m not a business owner.

It’s probably true that there’s more bad natural wine than there used to be. No surprise there. I don’t mean that the wines have gotten worse, I mean that there’s some trend jumping, and a quantity of product that appears to be more the result of fermented ideology than fermented grapes. It’s certainly true that there’s more similar-tasting natural wine than before, due to the leavening effects of semi-carbonic maceration and other asymptotic techniques. I like these cute, fresh little vins de soif, as they’re often called, but a steady diet of them across appellations and grapes gets repetitive and frustrating; I don’t want every grape, from every appellation, to taste like either gamay or pétillant orange wine.

There’s a second “yes,” however, and it’s a welcome development. It’s been a bit of a joke amongst wine geeks, over the years, that Lapierre has somehow found itself the sole representative of natural wine on hundreds of wine lists and store shelves ‘round the world. Good for Lapierre, and good for people who know and love the wines, but that’s no longer quite true. Major retailers here are now more or less compelled to feature natural wines somewhere in their square footage meterage. Good restaurants have more and more options from the natural side of things, and they tend to be the better examples of same. That’s the merging of preferences that I’d hoped for; that “natural” not be an exclusive end in itself, but just another choice among a diversity thereof. Because only then can it directly influence the conversation outside a small circle of oenophilic obsessives.


And yet, despite all the above, it remains true that natural wine is a niche. A micro-niche. Given that its practices are highly unlikely to be scalable to the mass market, that’s all it will ever be. There is so much written, pro and con, about natural wine that it would be easy for a causal observer to conclude that the market was awash in the stuff. It isn’t, and in places that aren’t Paris (or, I’m told, Japan), finding more than a token bottle is like seeking an unsulfured needle in a volatile haystack.

So to our introductory Twitter skeptic, wondering if it might all be just about marketing, it might as well be if the argument in their favor is not in rich physical supply. The wines can be hard to find, harder to transport, and even when present are often unwilling to be the lap cats of the vinous world, curling up for a few hours of familiar and unconscious comfort. They are difficult wines for (judging by some of their fans, including myself) difficult people. Their very difference can be both flaw and virtue.

Market that.

[pigtail]

Who are you writing for?

A mentor, and friend, died last week.

I choose the exceedingly unwelcome occasion of his passage to mount a passionate defense of the critical, of the unconstructive, and of the negative. (Yes, this is wine-related…to a point.)

Clif Garboden was not my first boss, nor was he my first editor. He wasn’t even, as a boss, my editor for the vast majority of our time working together. My early attempts at wine writing (oh how glad I am that most of them aren’t available on the web, and oh how I wish that I could choose which of the rest weren’t) were done for someone else, who was patient and excellent in his own way. But I did, on occasion, write for Clif on subjects non-vinous.

Clif was a journalist. A real journalist, of a type that’s very nearly extinct. He was also a crusader, which is all too common these days, except that crusading’s many, many practitioners usually lack the previous skill. In the alternative press, in which he spent the majority of his career, he was a giant. A towering figure. He had history, he had passion, and he had True Belief. In alternative media, where the hours are punishing, the pay laughable, and the positive outcomes an epic narrative of disappointment, only a True Believer could thrive as he did.

Click on Clif’s name in the third paragraph. You’ll pick up the style, the skill, and the inexorable, bulldozing passion right away. You’ll notice the humor. You’ll also see the unfiltered, often seething, occasionally boiling-over rage. He wasn’t just like this on the page or screen, either. Woe to anyone who ran afoul of Clif in person. More clever, incising, and precisely-directed acid I’ve rarely heard from any tongue.

The thing is, most people who worked for or with Clif loved the hell out of the guy, and respected him even more. So did I, even when he was yelling at me (which was not infrequent), because his venom was neither spiteful nor pointless, and it was never misdirected. The target was, each and every time, someone who disappointed him. Who let him down. Who wasn’t doing their best. Who wasn’t doing the right thing…which, for Clif, was not usually separable from the previous standard.

One of the longest things I’ve ever written – and regular readers of this blog may feel a certain measure of fear at that notion – was edited by Clif. It was for a single-subject supplement to the regular newspaper, which meant even lower freelance rates than the penny-pinching norm, more attempted interference from the sales department than usual (supplements were always stuffed beyond their gills with ads, and the constant tug-of-war between sales and editorial grew muscle-straining at such times), and as a result, a less-free hand at the keyboard than was afforded within the paper’s regular areas of coverage.

I wrote accordingly. Much sweat, much toil, and much second-guessing ensued. By the time I turned over the finished product, I lacked any sense of perspective on the quality of the piece. Not even a half-hour later – Clif could read faster than Watson – my phone rang. Could I swing by Clif’s desk?

“First of all, it’s good. Really good, especially for something this long.” I started to feel a warm suffusion of pride. “But…”

Uh-oh.

“There’s an incredible amount of bullshit. For instance,” he pointed at his screen, “you spend two whole paragraphs avoiding saying that this technology sucks.”

“Well…” I paused to muster a defense. What followed was weak, and I knew it as I said it. I think I offered some mealy-mouthed sauce about not wanting to bite hands that fed and so forth. He cut me off.

“Who are you writing for? Them?” The way he said “them” carried decades of withering scorn. “Is this a job interview or a newspaper article?”

“Uh…”

“I don’t care if they’re your friends. You’re a journalist. You’re writing for the readers. No one else. If you can’t stop bullshitting and get right to the point, if you can’t say something’s crap, if you can’t tell the harsh truth, then you shouldn’t be writing.” I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t. He was right. “Your job is the truth. You don’t go out of your way to be an asshole, but you can’t be afraid of calling somebody one.”

We spent the next two hours going over the piece. I’d say nine out of every ten comments were more or less identical to the above. I went back to my desk, chastened. After which followed a lot of soul-searching, deleting, and rewriting.

When I sent the piece back to Clif, it was so much better. Not because it was tighter, crisper, or any of those buzzwordy things that garner editorial style points, but because I was finally in the words. What I thought, what I felt. What I really wanted to say, once I dropped the filters and the evasions.

I won an award for that piece. I should have given it to Clif. I still would, if I could.


Say what you mean often enough, and someone will get angry enough to call you a name. It’s part of the package, the free-gift-with-purchase of the opinion-mongering membership card. For every name that you’re called to your face (actual or virtual), you can be sure that dozens of unheard imprecations have been uttered your direction.

This is normal. It’s how it’s supposed to work, frankly. People who cannot handle the rebounds shouldn’t be in the game, or at least shouldn’t be taking shots. Should the sting of a rhetorical slapback be felt? Yes, and even more so when a critique of a critic is on-point. Any good counterpunch, any blow soundly-struck, needs to lead to betterment. And if the damage is no longer sufferable, it’s time to cede the field.

Some writers really can’t deal with this sort of thing, and practice various methods of avoidance. For example, saying nice things or nothing at all, per the motherly advice we’ve all received. That’s a worthy, and socially graceful, way to navigate one’s life. But it should not, except in an impossible Panglossian world, be confused for telling the truth.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should be mean, or even that anyone should say exactly what they think regardless of the consequences. That’s an ideologically fundamentalist position that would result in a lot of bloodshed, both metaphorical and actual. Most people should be nice, most of the time.

But critics aren’t most people. Critics are tasked with saying what they think. It’s their job, and more importantly it’s their mission. As such, while they may prefer to be nice, that preference must submit to the necessity of being honest. While honesty does not mean one must be willfully savage, it also means that one cannot avoid saying bad things if bad things are what need to be said.

How much concern has been expressed, over the years, about the dangers of compromised judgment among critics? What most people incorrectly call bias (as if bias is avoidable, which it isn’t), but is actually an problem of entanglement vs. independence? Whether it’s insisting that all tastings must be conducted blind, or that a critic must avoid social contact with those who make or sell what they critique, there is almost no subject capable of getting wine consumers more exercised than the possibility that their critics are not giving them the straight story.

What this really boils down to is honesty. Whatever standards to which one insists a critic must hold, the shared foundational concern is that a critic is telling the truth. I’ve written, many times, that I think people get wrongly hung up on the minutiae of process when what they’re actually interested in is integrity. Does a critic have the personal integrity to call things exactly as he or she sees them?

(Even though I keep using the word “critic,” this question applies in equal measure to the writer, because bias is unavoidable and information is no less malleable via external influence whether or not one is engaging in criticism without trappings.)

If this is all really so frightfully important – and though there’s much disagreement on standards and practices, I think most of us agree that honesty and integrity are crucial – then why should we trust a critic who allows honesty to be filtered, even if it’s through politesse? I doubt many would trust a critic who took the opposite tack and held back commentary that wasn’t venomous. But because we like politeness, because we think we should be nice (and again, in most cases we should), we forgive the everything’s-sunshine-and-roses approach. Let’s be honest with ourselves, though: if we apply such a filter, if we file away at our most negative expressions, we probably don’t exercise corollary pruning of our most positive thoughts.

In other words, we put our fingers on the scale.

Where’s the integrity in that? In the real world of weights and measures, there are punishments for doing this sort of thing. In many judged sports, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out before a final tally is reached. Would those results be improved if we only threw out the two lowest scores? Of course not. So why should critics be encouraged to do exactly that?

Posit a critic who, working with an alleged point rating scale that runs from 50 to 100, only publishes scores above 85, or 88, or some other arbitrary cutoff of superior quality. Do people appear to find this to be serving their interests? Or do they complain about the deliberate holding-back of information they feel they can use…knowing, for example, whether a product was judged inferior (and why) or was simply not encountered by that critic? People are up in arms, of course. They don’t like the imbalanced scale, the unrealistic skew towards smiley-faced positivity. They want the whole picture, blemishes and all. And if that’s what they want, critics are the ones who are supposed to give it to them.


So maybe negativity is not only defensible, but necessary. Maybe it’s the only truly honest way to approach commentary. Still – some will object – do critics have to be so negative about it? Can’t they at least be a little more genteel as they slip a stiletto into the already-bleeding guts of a critical victim? A little less mean?

Here’s an example. A little while ago, someone in the industry accused me of expressing myself in an “antagonistic” way.

There’s a certain truthiness in that. The accusation does not go unacknowledged. It also does not pass without some regret at its applicability, because only sociopaths really like being mean. Especially…and this finds great application in the genial wine world…to people one likes.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Mostly, because it’s untrue: there is never an intent to antagonize in what I write, so anyone who sees antagonism is in error. As I wrote earlier, someone willing to dish out commentary both constructive and un- must be willing to receive same with generous spirit. Thus, I could see this very accusation as antagonistic, but I don’t. Aggressive? Pointed? Sure. But I’m not antagonized, and since I can’t read the mind of the person who uttered the criticism, I can’t accuse him of being antagonistic either. Merely wrong.

Further, for something to be effectively antagonistic, it must be written with self-assurance that antagonism will result. Deliberate untruths will usually do it, but active dishonesty is so easy to spot that this is rarely attempted. Another is to critique motives or intent (especially imagined versions of either) rather than a work, which is at best a logical fallacy and, at worst, a sleazy way to spread insinuation in lieu of argument.

The latter is something I’m sure I’ve done, at some point. It’s wrong, and I shouldn’t have. I try, as one should, very hard to make the only important pronoun in a commentary the first-person singular. I almost certainly fail, at times. But the effort and intent are there.

Do I like saying unkind things? No. I doubt anyone does (and if they do, I have concerns for them that go well beyond the ethics or practice of criticism). Do I have special sadness for relationships damaged or lost as a result? Yes, absolutely. A few seemingly irreparable breakages are a source of ongoing regret; some now linger well over a decade or more, others glisten with fresh ink.

Still, I accept this as one of the costs of offering honest commentary. “Who are you writing for?” asked the most influential crafter of my motivations. Were I writing with no hope of dissemination and no interest in response, the answer might be “me,” and then I could legitimately trump the demands of integrity with a desire to be thought of with kindness by as many people as possible. But no published commentator can do this with their honesty and integrity fully intact, and this is true whatever the subject of commentary, and whatever the grandiosity and remuneration (or, more likely these days, the decided lack of either) of the dissemination.

And yet, despite this, I and most other commentators continue to have friendly relationships with many, sometimes even most, of the subjects of our commentary and criticism. Why?

Respect.


The opposite of love (goes the cliché) is not hate, but indifference. I wonder if the same might be true for respect…that its true antonym isn’t just oppositional disrespect, but the greater disrespect of apathy. The ultimate act of disrespect is thus to ignore, rather than to criticize.

This leads to another anti-negativity argument, though perhaps it could be more generally characterized as an anti-criticism argument, that hinges on the issue of respect. It claims that to be negative can demonstrate a lack of respect for a work. With this I could not disagree more strongly, and the major reason is contained within the previous paragraph: an actual lack of respect is demonstrated by deeming something unworthy of response. The very act of criticism is to, in some sense, accord respect.

To address this complaint properly, however, one must ask: respect for what? There are four entities that may be an object of potential respect: a work itself, a work’s creator, the effort behind a work, and a creator’s feelings about a work.

Respect for a work is inherent in bothering to craft a critical response to it, so that can’t be it. Conflating a work and its creator is a logical fallacy. Emotions? Well, what if the creator hates a work and I love it? Would I be disrespectful for me to say so? I doubt most would think so…in fact, I suspect many would think it an act of kindness. After all, we generally applaud the value of supportive words when a more honest assessment might be negative. Since this is the case, concern about feelings really boils down to the same old argument about whether or not we should say negative things, which has already been addressed (a few thousand paragraphs upward) and can be summed thusly: concern yes, dishonesty no.

So it’s the third entity that’s under examination, and the assertion is that it is disrespectful to criticize a work because of the effort that went into that work. Most often, the complaint is one about proportionality…that the duration or blood/sweat/tears that go into the crafting of a work are not met with a critical assessment reflecting similar effort. As, for example, criticizing a wine with a several-sentence tasting note.

It’s true that wine has a rather long temporal existence before it’s even available to be criticized, if one counts time from grape to glass. One might also consider vine age, a winemaker’s lifetime of experience, even generations of inherited knowledge to be creative factors. Viewed through a narrower lens, the production of a wine is considered “harder” than the production of critical responses to that wine, especially as most will come in the form of tasting notes.

To this there are several possible responses. One is that unless the producer of the note is a complete novice, both history and effort are no less involved. This may include decades of learning to use words in a competent and stylish fashion, a breadth and depth of tasting experience necessary to write better and more contextualized notes, actual training in the science and history of wine, and so forth. The notion that a tasting note is somehow effortless is demeaning to its author. No, tasting and typing isn’t anywhere near as “hard” as the often backbreaking work of making a wine. But do all winemakers write well? Are all wine professionals’ evaluations eagerly sought by consumers? Clearly not. Good criticism requires a different set of skills than winemaking or salesmanship, but it does require those skills. I don’t seek to elevate them above their value, but to dismiss them is offensive.

A second is to wonder if respect is really the right way to think about this. Posit an industrial wine, made with craven commercial intent from the cheapest possible materials. A critical response proportionate to the respect demanded by such a wine would be minimal, at best. (One could easily argue that to treat such a wine to a long, careful analysis would be disrespectful…not to the aforementioned industrial wine, but to other wines that are the result of greater effort, and especially to a reader who’s time is being wasted by serious consideration of a decidedly unserious effort.) By this standard, the respect due other wines would thus be proportional to the effort expended in their production.

But is this wine criticism? No, it’s not. It’s effort criticism. It’s not the letter grade on a report card wherein a student’s actual work is evaluated, it’s the secondary grade wherein the teacher rates effort, judging (by whatever purely subjective standard they choose to apply) the relationship between results and ability. Is little Johnny working up to his potential, or is Jane slacking off? And if they’re both getting an A in the class, which grade matters? Moreover, is effort vs. potential really what we want critics to be judging? “Well, Françoise, I liked your wine, but I think you could have done better if you’d just exerted a little more effort in the vineyard, whereas Michel is a complete incompetent who just made his best wine ever, so even though I like yours more I’m going to spend most of this article praising his.”

The thing is, that sort of effort- and intent-evaluation is exactly the sort of critical arrogance that drives winemakers and their commercial representatives nuts, especially because it’s oh-so-easy to say from the removed comfort of a tasting note, and far less easy to do when one’s ability to pay the utility bills is at stake. Also, it’s ultimately useless, because critics are never going to agree on what efforts should or shouldn’t have been expanded to improve a wine. More or less oak? A later or an earlier harvest? More acidity, or less? Is this climat red-fruited by definition, or is blackberry within the acceptable range? Should a Beaujolais-Villages be built to age for several decades or should it give its best at release?

This isn’t to say that commentary on intent and effort isn’t welcome. It certainly can be, if treated with the right balance of clearly-identified reportage and subjectivity. But as the object of criticism, rather than a context for it? The notion is as misguided as intuiting nefarious motivation in a critic just because one doesn’t like what that critic said.

A third response is to ask if longer-form criticism is actually more desirable. Is, for example, this an inherently superior form of criticism to this? Why? According to who? Opinions certainly vary, because people consume criticism for different reasons and in different ways.

Furthermore, how does one measure respect by length? There’s a wine book on my shelf, written by Jacqueline Friedrich, that treats noted Savennières producer and leading biodynamicist Nicolas Joly to several pages of detailed commentary, finally concluding that he’s lost in ideology and doesn’t actually like wine. Is that “respectful” at any length? Does Joly think so?

Personally, I’m much more interested in whether or not it’s right. For Friedrich it is, for others it might not be. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Friedrich on Joly & ideology, though I wouldn’t wish to comment on his regard for wine.) But she could have reduced her commentary to a single line, as I just did, and still been just as right or wrong. So how did the addition of so many more words make her conclusion more respectful? Maybe there exists some objective and measurable scale of proportional effort. If this is true, a critic must first assess (or divine) the amount of effort that went into a work, and then craft a proportional response. But in that case, an author’s conclusion that Nicolas Joly doesn’t care about wine nearly as much as he cares about ideology would result in a proportional criticism amounting to an indifferently-delivered one-liner; only criticism of his ideology would deserve the “respect” of length.

Note, too, that this assumes one has correctly assessed the effort involved in a work; if one has not (or cannot), a respectful criticism is impossible, except by luck. ESP seems like a high bar to set for any critic, and that doesn’t even begin to address what happens when people disagree about how much effort was actually involved.

And here’s yet another problem. Let’s say there is counter-criticism of the original critique. Who gets to judge the critic’s effort? Critics of critics? By what standard? And must their critiques also be proportional? One can see how this reduces to absurdity in short order. Everyone’s trying to judge effort and intent, usually based on woefully insufficient data and often on utter guesswork, when what they’ve been asked to judge are works.

Then again, the possibility is that this isn’t actually about proportional respect at all. Because I think a survey of the complaints regarding same will not yield a plethora of examples in which too much respect and positive commentary, verbose or otherwise, has been expended on unworthy efforts. No, it’s exclusively about negative criticism.

Now, does this seem probable? That if the true issues are proportionality or respect, that every single example of alleged failure in this regard should just happen to be negative commentary about something beloved of the complainant? If it does, I have a Mr. Ockham here that would like to sell you a bridge in Atlantis.

And so, we’re back to no one appreciating criticism of their work, or work they admire. Not artists, not artisans, not craftspeople, and certainly not critics. But unless we’re prepared to reject evaluation in its entirety – and it’s possible some would like exactly this, though they’re in for a rude awakening regarding human nature – we can’t live in that alleged utopia. So the complaint is really no more than it was before: that we shouldn’t say mean things. Which, again, may be both admirable and a way to accumulate friends, but requires an acceptance of dishonesty if one intends to be a critic.


The assertion that work deserves respect is an unassailable one. (It can be questioned, but there’s no standard by which to adjudicate the matter.) The assertion that any given criticism is disproportionate or disrespectful to the works being criticized is by no means unassailable without more knowledge of intent and effort than anyone non-deified possesses. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s true. What, then, is the solution?

It’s not to be found by tinkering with the components of criticism. If the time span of agriculture, knowledge, culture, and effort that go into a wine can be measured in decades (which is quite reasonable), a proportional criticism of that wine might also take decades, or at least years. How is that even possible? Obviously, it’s not. And as I’ve already explained, we can’t avoid negativity without fudging numbers and suppressing honesty. So we’re going to have criticism, it’s going to be generated faster than much of what it evaluates, and some of it is going to be negative. You can fight these truisms, but you will not win. They’re fundamental to the act of criticism.

We can wish for, or even demand, certain words over certain other words. But isn’t this a just a cleverly reversed version of a critic telling a creator how they believe the latter should perform their job? It’s really no more admirable for someone to tell a critic which words they should and should not use than it is for a critic to tell a winemaker which tools they should and should not use. If winemakers object to the latter – and they have a legitimate claim to their agitation on this point – then critics should object to the former.

But this all misses the true answer, I’m afraid. The actual “solution” to the problem of critical negativity was provided by my much-missed mentor. Ask the following: who is it that’s complaining about negativity, proportionality, and lack of respect? Winemakers and the people who sell wine. The very people whose work is being critiqued, whose monetary oxen are being gored. And is it their judgment that we wish to triumph in this debate? Do we really want Universal Studios deciding which film critics can say what about their movies, Atlantic Records telling music critics that they need to be nicer, Todd English hectoring restaurant critics about respect?

If you are the creator of a work being critiqued, by all means speak up. Correct. Defend. Counter. You are as welcome to the marketplace of ideas as anyone…more so, in fact, since you have specific and relevant expertise. But understand the limits of your role. You have control over what you’ve created. You do not have, nor deserve, control over what the critic creates. They don’t work for you.

And if you’re a critic, ask yourself who you’re writing for. It’s a question that must ground every critic’s work, every word from their pen, every judgment from their mind. The answer must never be those who create or derive monetary benefit from the works being criticized, unless they actually sign your checks. The answer must always be the consumers of both the works and your commentary. If one is critiquing subject to the preferences of the targets of that critique, one has already sacrificed their integrity and their honesty.

Or just listen to Clif, who was always good at getting right to the key point: “You’re writing for the readers. No one else.”

No one else.

Color me surprised

[mosaic]So here’s a fun thing. Excerpted from Twitter, but with the graphics, etc. removed. It’s a dialogue between Evan Dawson, a journalist and spare-time (where does he find it?) wine writer from New York, and the auto-estimable James Suckling. Let’s count the evasions and logical fallacies, shall we?

Evan Dawson
If sunlight is best way to view color, why judge color indoors like you do?

James Suckling
Isn’t that sort of a dumb question? Tasting outdoors doesn’t work1. You know that.

Evan Dawson
Right. But 15% of the wine’s score is color, and you admit you judge the color in sub-optimal conditions.

James Suckling
What do you do2? Do you have anything better to do today3…or is it a slow news day?

Evan Dawson
Just honestly curious. If a wine’s color is 15% of its score, why judge in conditions that don’t let you see it optimally?

James Suckling
May be you use your daylight flashlight when you visit cellars to taste4? Can [I] get one?

Evan Dawson
Ha! That would be great. But perhaps another reminder that assessing color for points is questionable.

Evan Dawson
And yes, I confess that I think it’s strange to put so much weight on a wine’s color. But your mileage may vary!

James Suckling
But just to be polite and answer your question. I have been tasting for 29 years5. I know how to judge color6.

Evan Dawson
A wine can go from 92 to 89 pretty easily all because you judged the score in artificial/lesser lighting. That matters!

James Suckling
Giving points for color works for me7, UC Davis8 and lots of people9.

So…by my count, that’s four evasions and five logical fallacies (though to be fair, some of the latter are reiterations of the same fallacy). I’d suggest that this is some sort of record, but then I remember that I’ve read/heard/seen political commentary more than once over my lifetime…

Since Mr. Suckling won’t actually answer Mr. Dawson’s (excellent) question about color – his defense of his self-alleged inerrancy, by the way, goes against science in the field – I’m free to opine.

Identifying color is fine, especially if it is any way unusual (opaque pinot noir, young wine not made from nebbiolo but with significant bricking, orange wine) but it is, to me, the least important category of descriptor. Why? Because it is so rarely useful in the note’s afterlife. I often mock the fruit-salad tasting notes that writers (including me) tend to fall back on, because I doubt anyone has ever gone into a store and asked for a wine that tastes of “slightly bitter Rainier cherry skins and crisp, lemony acidity,” but even if that’s not true, I’m sure no one has gone in with an electromagnetic frequency range between which they wish to restrict their purchases. “No, sorry, that aglianico is just a bit too magenta for me.” Please.

But scoring color? Especially, as Dawson points out, in variable and sub-optimal conditions? Ludicrous. Of course, conditional variability can be a reason to suspect all components of wine scoring, but I’ve a pledge to myself that – the anti-scoring rant being well-worn territory – I won’t repeat what so many others have said on the issue, and yet here it’s especially damning. Unless the light source is being frequency-controlled across all wines in a peer group, it is impossible for wines tasted in different lighting to be scored for color in any reliable fashion. Especially when the color component forms as significant a portion of a total score as it does in Suckling’s methodology.

Why didn’t Suckling answer Dawson’s question, except with complaint, evasion, and logical fallacies? Because, obviously, he can’t. No one can.

(Yes, yes, I linked the word “science” to a Wikipedia article. I’ll do penance in the afterlife. It was the best gateway to the actual science I could find in fifteen seconds of Google-fu.)