Browse Category

essays

Blood, sweat, & Theise

[wrestling]One of the worst consequences of the myth that those who sell wine can’t be trusted – the result of decades of trade-sliming from critics whose own monetary interests depend on you believing this lie – is that some of the best, most passionate, and most insightful writers on the subject are marginalized or dismissed.

This is a crying shame. Especially when one encounters someone like Terry Theise, whose annual catalogs have long been among the most enjoyable wine writing available. Self-interested? Yes, they are. Theise is, after all, trying to sell us something. It’s not like he hides it. But only a fool would thus conclude that the content of that salesmanship isn’t worth their time, for few know as much about their chosen subjects as Theise, and even fewer write about it as well.

Brevity may not always be Theise’s strong suit (take it from an expert), but he can turn a pithy phrase when the need arises. As, for example, this, which is as close to essential reading for oenogeeks as anything I’ve seen of late. Theise offers his take regarding an issue on which this blog has been harping for a while: categories are useful, philosophies are nice to have, but categorical dismissals are silly, and one can’t drink a philosophy.

Let me assert, before I begin to contradict myself at numbing length, that I wholeheartedly endorse most of what Theise writes in the linked essay. And even when I don’t, he makes an effective case for his thesis. That said, I do have some quibbles. And one of them is precisely what I’ve otherwise defended above: the way in which self-interest has the potential to deform one’s views.

[T]oo often aficionados feel the need to turn […] knowledge into intractable wine dogma. Then, when they encounter a wine that unnervingly threatens their new knowledge […] they spring to protect their theory. “All serious wines must be dry,” is a classic (and egregiously wrong) example.

This is an interesting opening example for Theise to use, considering the fair amount of pushback he has received – more of late than in the past – against his continuing defense of German wines with residual sugar. Among certain groups (German drinkers, for example), his position is increasingly the minority one. It’s not fair to say that Theise has always been against dry German riesling, but it’s eminently fair to say that he hasn’t always been its most enthusiastic supporter, either. The realities of German wine production have influenced his views on this point, both in terms of wine quality and commercial availability. But it’s amusing that the first category of wrong thinking that comes to his mind is so closely related to the exact reverse of the one of which he has most often been accused.

When we are insecure — we don’t think we’re knowledgeable enough, experienced enough, have good enough taste — we latch on to doctrine.

I don’t think this is entirely fair. There is more than one reason to embrace doctrine, and most reasons are not the result of insecurity. Some people really, truly, passionately believe in their preferences…organic vs. non-, local vs. non-, “natural” vs. industrial, terroir wines vs. branded wines, lower-alcohol vs. higher-, fruit vs. dirt, brett-free vs. not, and I could go on and on listing oppositional categories…for reasons that have nothing to do with insecurity. I have my own preferences, Theise does as well, and they’re not plucked from thin air nor mired in insecurity. They’re based on our experiences.

May they be in error? That’s not a relevant question; preferences can’t be wrong. Are they be subject to future revision as new data arrives? Certainly, and (as Theise argues), a wise taster is always open to such revision. Still, this is not the same thing as insisting that, faced with contradiction, a person must perforce abandon preference (or “doctrine,” as Theise puts it). It is both perfectly normal and eminently reasonable for someone to acknowledge that a given wine demonstrates an exception to one’s beliefs without modifying actions based on those beliefs. A continued refusal to do so despite overwhelming contradiction by data or anecdote is pointlessly stubborn and resembles religion more than sensibility, yes, but the question must be asked: so what? A counter-argument can only be made so many times. If someone won’t acknowledge it, sometimes it’s better to move on to those who truly don’t know, rather than beating one’s rhetorical head against those who have dismissed the possibility of same.

Even the wisest of tasters may fully acknowledge a cornucopia of caveats, exceptions, counterarguments, and counterfactuals, yet still possess firmly-held conviction as to the general utility of their preferences. Isn’t that what preference is, after all, once it’s backed by experience? It’s not black and white, X ≠ Y absolutism, but it is a trustworthy guide. When it’s not – if it repeatedly fails to guide – it’s not useful anymore, and the choice will not usually be the abandonment of preference, but the modification thereof. Choosing to term this doctrine rather than preference only burdens the concept with external judgment, rather than shedding light on the evidentiary basis for the choices themselves.

For instance, someone says that low-yield vineyards produce better wine, and it makes sense; the fewer grapes per acre, the more flavor each grape has. So you assume it’s true, until you taste a wine you really like, made from yields you’ve been told are too high. Now what? A reasonable person would throw out his assumptions about yield. But many will instead question their own taste.

There’s a whiff of straw hominid, here. Who are the people who’ve pursued the latter path? Are there actual examples of such?

Further, I don’t think a reasonable person would actually “throw out his assumptions about yield.” That’s an overreaction just as unreasonable as the alternatives of rigidity or mindless relativism. A reasonable person might prefer to conclude that yield is a complicated subject, that different grapes and different places have different relationships to yield, that what works for pinot noir on one patch of land may bear little relation to what works for riesling on a different patch of land.

Theise’s lurking point – that successful wines follow many different and often contradictory paths from start to completion – is an excellent one, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But this is a different argument than the one against holding too tightly to doctrine. One is an argument about a process, the other is a criticism of a person. And still, one may demonstrate that a belief is factually inaccurate or inconsistently applicable without successfully influencing personal preference. (The reverse is also true.) Fact-based deconstructions of procedure are worthwhile. Criticizing people’s preferences might be fun, but it’s not very enlightening.

In the wine world the newest and sexiest doctrine is the so-called “natural wine” phenomenon. […] Hearing what these (mostly admirable) producers do not do, we’re tempted to think the alternative must be unnatural wine, riddled with chemicals and fake yeasts. What’s the alternative? “Partly natural” wines? The very use of the word “natural” tempts us into an all-or-nothing position. Doctrine.

For years I’ve been reading this argument. For years I’ve been wondering at who it’s aimed.

Are there people who, abandoning sense and rationality, worship at natural wine’s fundamentalist altar? I’m sure there must be. I’ve met a lot of the people who make, sell, and drink so-called natural wines, and this applies to almost none of them, but for any belief one can imagine there is almost always a puritanical adherent. And maybe Theise is, hourly, oppressed by hordes of such fundamentalists, though he offers no evidence for it in this piece. But I have to say that I simply don’t know these people. Not even the loudest philosophy-thumpers of my acquaintance, the ones who sometimes defy commercial sense in pursuit of their beliefs, insist that there are only Natural and Unnatural, and that the line between them is impenetrable, razor-sharp, and inherently obvious even to the most casual observer.

Do I know a few people who are, for me, far too quick to start categorizing and prejudging wine? Yes. Do any of them have a strong public voice? Yes, though only a very few among the few. But that’s not restricted to the natural crowd, nor was hyperjudgmentalism invented by them, and in fact I see at least as much, and possibly more, dogmatism among the pro-intervention gang. Most often, however, this is a situational and transitory fault. I would accuse myself of falling into the trap from time to time, for example, and I’ve also heard the charge leveled at Theise. We all make mistakes, from which one hopes we learn.

In one sense, I again wonder: so what? Cannot the proverbial multiplicity of flowers bloom, each with their advocate?

The thing is, the case for rigid adherence to doctrine is almost never made by natural wine folks. Yes, they decry industrial process in vineyard and cellar (and so, incidentally, do many who would never attach themselves to the “natural” crowd), but the people insisting that we must have either tablet-etched commandments or babies discarded with bathwater are rarely the naturalistas. And I bet if we all agree to remove one (and only one) particular writer from consideration, examples to the contrary would be extremely difficult to find. What, then, is the overwhelming power and influence of this one writer that must be so aggressively resisted by both philosophical enemies and potential allies alike?

I’d point out that some of the answers suggest themselves. No one likes to be at a marketing disadvantage, and the gauzy appeal of the word “natural” is not easily countered. It’s mindshare, it’s commercial self-interest, it’s the never-ending war of marketing vs. marketing, and one does not have to grant the accuracy of argument or counter-argument to see this battle played out. On the other hand, sometimes the resistance to concept comes from theoretical allies, in which case it often takes the form of a Chamberlainesque ceding of ground to the “other side” before a disputed claim for that ground has been adjudicated. I don’t really know why this happens. Fear that if a perfect defense can’t be mounted, it’s better that there be no defense at all?

Natural wine doesn’t actually require a detailed defense. Everyone understands the fundamental, foundational precept of more vs. less natural, more vs. less interventionist. Everyone with a functioning neuron understands that wine does not actually make itself (centuries of winemakers blathering otherwise to the contrary) nor is it actually “made in the vineyard,” and understands that the entire categorical debate is a matter of degree, of a preference for not-doing over doing, that natural is no more than the amorphous cluster of producers and practice at one end of that motivational and philosophical axis. No one in the natural wine milieu is demanding fealty oaths. The insistence that this state of affairs cannot exist, that there must either be iron-clad definition or wholesale abandonment of concept isn’t an argument, it’s Asperger’s.

Does an importer of self-identified natural wines have a commercial self-interest in defending the concept? Yes. And to the extent that they may on occasion attempt same, a careful reader will hear their arguments and defenses through that filter. But the exact same sort of filter must be applied to those who commercially represent that which is in competition with the self-identified natural category. And Theise, while he represents a few producers who hover around the perimeter of the movement, falls into the latter group. In no way does this invalidate his arguments. But it does contextualize them.

Here’s the rest of the context, though: earlier, both Theise and I were suggesting what we thought a “reasonable person” might think in the face of contradictory information. My argument was that the most reasonable person might soon conclude that a practice that works in one place, with one grape, might not work in another place, with another grape. The core of Theise’s portfolio is German wine (mostly riesling) and Champagne. The latter can’t ever be “natural” according to any ultra-fundamentalist view, because it cannot exist without human meddling…though there are unquestionably producers who craft and hone less than others, and some of them are in Theise’s portfolio. As for the former, it’s worth observing that the techniques and anti-techniques of the natural set are virtually nonexistent in Germany. Since almost everywhere there’s wine, there’s a group of enthusiasts exploring oenological minimalism, and yet no one seems to be trumpeting their success with same in Germany, it might just be possible that the techniques don’t work there, or with the grapes common to Germanic wine regions. Certainly sulfur use alone, especially as employed with residually-sugared wines, would disqualify most producers from even the softest possible definitions of “natural.”

Again, is there someone, somewhere, who is arguing that because this winemaking path is largely unfollowed in Germany, that German wine can thus be categorically dismissed as qualitatively inferior? I don’t know of that person, but he or she might exist, and maybe Theise knows who it is. Most people of my acquaintance whose drinking comes largely from the natural world make an exception to their philosophical preferences for several styles of wine, and riesling (especially German) and Champagne often make up the primary population of those exceptions.

Let’s face facts: the natural wine movement, no matter how many zillions of words have been expended on it of late, is a micro-niche. These are ultra-small production wines, curated by a tiny number of commercial gatekeepers, and sold in not very many places to a passionate and loquacious, but extremely small, number of consumers. And I think, frankly, that a lot of the people along this commercial chain like it this way.

What they are, however, is competition for the attention of the relatively small group of wine consumers whose tastes are not informed by mass-marketing or by point ratings in major journals. The very group that Theise, Lynch, Rosenthal, et al have been selling to their entire careers. Does the emergence of yet another set of competitors for this finite market spell trouble for such importers? In theory, I suppose so. But no more than any other form of competition. If one is doing a good job of expanding the audience for such wines palate by palate – perhaps, and paradoxically, easier in these days of fractured wine media than it was when there were just a few editorial powerhouses – the net effect should be a wash.

Instead, we have this internecine bickering among niche entities, fortifying their little philosophical empires and lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other, further factionalizing the audience that they need to be expanding, not dividing. You know who benefits from this? Not Theise. Not us. Instead: Constellation Brands and their megalithic counterparts, whose sides would be splitting with laughter at such bickering if they amounted to anything more than a rounding error on their balance sheets.

And so, here I am contributing to the problem, lobbing my own IEDs at an importer whose wines I adore and whose words I admire. Why? It was this paragraph right here:

I’m a wine importer, and a few years ago a customer, a sommelier, wanted to know what each of my 35-plus German producers did and didn’t do in the vineyards and cellars. So I asked him to design a survey, which I then broadcast. And thus commenced as bitter a moral outrage as I have ever witnessed among my normally peaceable wine growers. A cynic could have supposed they were annoyed that this organic thing wasn’t going away, which would now increase their workloads and expenses, besides which they didn’t give much of a rat’s ass about the environment. In fact, they found it arrogant that someone who didn’t make wine for a living would dictate such standards. A survey to determine how environmentally “pure” they were came across like a green pogrom wrapped in piety.

I feel like there’s a whole lot more to this story that we’re not getting. Did the sommelier say, in his survey, “your answers to these questions will determine your place in heaven and your worth as a person?” Or did he ask not because he wanted to pass moral judgment on the growers, but because he wanted to refine a wine list that reflected his own philosophy and needed information to make that reflection an accurate one? In the absence of any evidence of the former, I’d rather strongly suspect it’s the latter.

The reported reaction of the producers is emblematic of the laughable, borderline insane, overreaction I’ve been harping about for a while now. Just how powerful was this sommelier? Was he the beverage director for the Starwood Hotels chain or the buyer for Walmart, and thus of overwhelming commercial importance, or did he just craft the lists at a restaurant or two? If the latter, why the angst and acrimony? Is he not allowed to write a list that reflects his own sensibilities, his own philosophies, his own tastes? Isn’t that, in fact, what Theise himself does? One could argue that it’s deeply misguided of Theise to not stuff his portfolio full of industrial Marlborough chardonnay and goopy pan-Californian zinfandel even though those aren’t the wines he’s interested in, and even though they don’t reflect his preferences. But that would be to misunderstand what Theise does and why he does it. If Theise was the gateway through which all available wine flowed, there’s be a reason to carp. But he’s not. He’s one source among many, and consumers have freedom of choice.

I’m reminded of the constant whining and sniping aimed at Mark Ellenbogen…what a coincidence that his name should come up just now…when he was doing the wine list for The Slanted Door. The crime of having a point of view on both the wines and their utility with the restaurant’s cuisine was one for which he could never quite be forgiven by differently-minded consumers and producers, who would serially lambaste him for not carrying more California wines, more high-alcohol wines, more burly reds, and more familiar grapes. As if, in San Francisco, it was impossible to find Napa cabernet, or Cakebread Chardonnay, or super Tuscans, on any restaurant list in the city. As if the very possibility of a list without them was a crime for which Ellenbogen could not be excused. As if he was not allowed to actually make choices, but was instead required to satisfy the tastes of all potential customers…even though they were allowed to arrive with their own wine if they just couldn’t abide his choices. As if the job and purpose of a wine director is no actual curative job at all, but rather little more than receiving shipments, slotting bottles into bins, and checking for typos on the wine list.

These were asinine complaints, and to say so I don’t even have to make a claim about the sense or lack thereof of Ellenbogen’s choices. Maybe he was a genius with exquisite taste. Maybe he was ridiculous and wrong about absolutely everything. I have my opinion, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still just one guy, and one list. Those who didn’t like it were free to spend their money somewhere else.

And so, we have a similar-smelling outrage and existential agony from the producers who received this survey. I hope they’ll pardon me (as I continue to restock their wines in my own cellar, because they’re terrific) if I’m not particularly sympathetic. Can’t they answer a simple question or ten? If the response is really that they can’t, then return the survey uncompleted. Are they afraid to have their practices known? If so, that’s not particularly admirable. And if the core issue is that they’re proud of their practices but are afraid that they will be misinterpreted by the unknowing masses…well, then, do a better job of defending the practices. Arguing that we can’t know what a producer does because people who don’t know any better will get the wrong idea is ridiculously paternalistic, and helps neither us nor the producer.

But no, I suspect I know what actually went on in their heads. Last year, in the Piedmont, I listened to producer after producer lambaste everyone who was making different choices than they were, as if the choices weren’t just different, but a threat to their own existence. A few weeks later, in Alsace, I got to enjoy a repeat performance…my favorite producer’s winemaker calling ambient yeast advocates “idiots,” and another beloved winery returning the favor a few days later by labeling the previous producer’s wines “industrial garbage.”

Overheated rhetoric. And deeply misguided, since both producers make excellent wine. This is, it’s worth remembering (since I’ve been a little harsh on him over the last few thousand words), Theise’s core point: there is not One True Path to wine quality. But the thing is, despite his claims to the contrary no one other than Theise is saying that there is. So when Theise reaches the pinnacle of his argument, here:

It is a better world if 90 percent of growers are 90 percent organic, than if only 20 percent are 100 percent organic. If our natural wine doctrine only is all or nothing, too many people will choose nothing.

…again I wonder: at who is this argument aimed? The first sentence is so unquestionably, powerfully correct, it should be repurposed for deployment in every other wine-related debate. It is, after all, just a restatement of the old trope that the perfect must not become the enemy of the good.

But the second sentence? Natural wine advocates are not the ones insisting on all or nothing. It’s their detractors who are doing so, in much greater numbers and with much greater rhetorical force. And since they’re criticizing ephemera, one must again wonder at their motivation in doing so.

I don’t wonder at Theise’s motivation. I think it’s clear. He believes what he’s writing, and he has a commercial interest allied to his belief. The latter does not invalidate the former, but the former does not render the latter nonexistent, either. Theise wants us to accept that one can simultaneously embrace multiple and occasionally contradictory modes of thinking about quality wine. About that he is certainly right. This is, after all, why readers should accord him that same benefit, considering his words neither because of, nor despite, his commercial self-interest. But he might want to view that assertion in a mirror for a moment or two.

In fact, we all should.

What have you done for me latte?

[french café]French coffee sucks. Yes, I said it. I’ll pause here to let the vituperation and recrimination come to a boil…

(OK, everyone down to a simmering seethe by now? Let’s proceed.)

No, it’s not all bad. But it’s pretty bad nonetheless. The difficulty of finding a good tasse de Joseph in your average French café or restaurant has escalated beyond all reasonable imagining. This in a country that is, ostensibly, known absolutely everywhere for its café culture. The culture is just fine. It’s finding something to drink that’s the problem.

How did this happen? There’s a lot to it, but since this isn’t a coffee blog I’ll stick to the notes de Cliff: Robusta beans, bad temperature/pressure control, indifferent roasts, an obsession with the crema in lieu of the actual taste of the brew…those, and more, are the procedural reasons. But they’re not the reasons that matter.

What does? That the French like it, or at least have come to accept it, this way. Many whose backs were immediately up at the opening sentence of this essay felt that posterior elevation because, for them, French coffee most decidedly does not suck. And it probably wouldn’t matter to them if every other coffee-obsessed country in the world, or at least every self- and otherwise-appointed coffee expert, suggested otherwise

There’s more to this than the inherent subjectivity of taste. There’s a reason that one country’s coffee preferences might drift one way, while another’s will stand firm or drift in the opposite direction. And it’s that taste, while remaining subjective and contextually mutable, can be steered by external influences. Marketing works, after all. So do cultural nudges (witness the sales trajectories of domestic pinot noir vs. merlot post-Sideways). But easier and more likely than both is the organoleptic symbiosis between cause and effect. In other words: that which exists creates taste, and taste in turn creates what satisfies that taste. It’s a reflexive system.

(Reminding myself that this still isn’t a coffee blog, and since in no way do I want to wade into the syrupy philosophical murk of aesthetics – because I’m far from qualified, and if I was we’d be here all day – it’s probably time to turn this into a post about wine.)

That there are national (and regional, and local, and cultural) palates is patently obvious to anyone who sells wine to consumers. Oh, some people still object to this – no one wants to be stereotyped – but there’s a reason that wine lists in, say, Boston are very thin on West Coast wines when compared to West Coast markets, and it’s not because West Coast wines simply aren’t available to Bostonians. Again, it’s the aforementioned symbiotic relationship: tastes in Boston are more Europhile because residential origins in Boston are largely European (and Boston is, in general, a Europhilic city), a market to satisfy those tastes is thus created by how Bostonians spend their money, and that market in turn reinforces the Europhilic bent of Boston’s oenogeeks, because those are the wines that are more available than others. It’s the feedback loop of taste and consumption.

Bring an elegant, Old World-styled California syrah to a group of committed winos in France, and they will very frequently complain of excess size and alcohol, even if the wine is lauded for the lack thereof on U.S. shores. This sort of thing is only a surprise to those who don’t travel much, those who don’t drink far afield from their preferred styles, or those who believe that there are objective qualitative measures for wine (such True Believers are, alas, well-represented among the besotted rank and file). It’s just preference…the personal and cultural forms thereof intermingled…and the two can’t be as easily separated as some (many of them professional critics and winemakers with a commercial interest in insisting otherwise) would have you believe.

My cellar is populated by wines I prefer. My home coffee drinking is a daily encomium to my own preferences. And what I say about coffee, or wine, outside those preferences is inevitably colored not only by my own desires, but by the cultural milieu in which those preferences were birthed and educated. What I or anyone else writes about wine…or coffee…must be understood with that context. “In my opinion” is always the invisible coda, whether one agrees with that opinion or not.

This is, I think, an understanding that has devolved in recent years. Historically, professional criticism was accorded a sort of elevation; authority was more or less assumed, and respect paid to that authority. Without getting into whether or not this supposition of authority and concomitant respect were warranted or even wise, both have changed in this era of communal judgment, social media, and crowd-sourced opinion-mongering. Robert Parker can lose market share not just to Allen Meadows, but also to CellarTracker. Respect…or even the need…for a capital-C Critic issuing judgment has probably never been at a lower ebb. Again, we can debate whether this is an improved state of affairs or not, but it’s hard to deny that it’s our modern reality.

Despite this sea-change, culture – or more precisely, environment – still weaves its symbiotic web with taste. Communities of opinion form from communities of taste, as anyone surveying the various web fora on which wine is discussed soon recognizes, and those communities of opinion return the favor by (as described above) influencing the tastes of their assembled. But as more and more communication is conducted primarily within such communities, the increasingly unspoken assumption of shared values becomes a sort of rhetorical calcification, because those values are never challenged. Opinion can easily slip into orthodoxy.

This explains a lot of the tension one sees between different “camps” of wine lovers. It’s not just that tastes differ, it’s that when one spends most of their time drinking (and thinking) within a largely frictionless environment, actual friction is more than a bit of a shock. Disagreements and debates within a shared-value community tend to be about minutiae, not foundational assumptions. Encountering the words of someone with a different foundation can be more than jarring. Indignation is a common response, anger a frequent resort. More often than not, what’s questioned is not the opinion itself, but the very existence of the opinion…in other words, the “right” of its holder to express same. This is a profound misunderstanding of what criticism – professional or amateur – is, I might add. I often borrow the trope that everyone does not have the right to opinion, only an informed opinion, but the reality is that an opinion does not become any less subjective no matter how well-informed its monger.

This personalization of debate…a resort to ad hominem rather than concession of good intent…is an unfortunate consequence of the factionalization of taste, because we miss opportunities to learn from those with contrary views. But there’s another danger: the previously-described symbiotic relationship between consumer and product leads to this disruption in dialogue being reflected in the products themselves, and even those who make them. Indeed, there are clearly identifiable “camps” of winemakers these days, volleying accusations of cynicism, greed, scientific illiteracy, philosophical hogwash, and bad taste at each other. In what way does this help anyone actually attempting to understand the often-bewildering world of wine? It’s as if everyone much first choose a side, after which they will receive a customized set of answers to their questions. This is unproductive.

One of the easiest ways to identify the nefarious presence of this sort of epistemological closure is to look for short, sharp declarations that, on further examination, are actually no more than opinion wearing the frippery of authority. Like, for example, the opening sentence of this post. Does French coffee actually “suck”? I’ll reiterate that, to me, much of it does. But that’s a claim, not a proof. To many, many French people who drink and enjoy it day after day, it is very probable that it does not (or if it does, they’ve a much greater tolerance for masochism than I’d realized).

The problem, of course, is that aggressive brevity reads better. It’s much more suited to our current forms of media. It “sells copy,” to borrow an increasingly archaic term. And that, too, is why I led this post with an example of same. If I stuck all the properly-understood caveats about subjectivity and such in the opening sentence, immediately allowing for the validity of all potential counter-arguments, no one would finish the paragraph. It would be unreadable. Perhaps worse, it would be boring. This is why no one does it.

And so, the burden is on us – the readers – to mentally assume those caveats alongside any and all expressions of opinion. We should, I think, assume foundation and good faith even from those whose opinions seem shockingly misguided, unless their arguments demonstrate otherwise. Having done so, we can move on to a dialogue not about the validity of an opinion, nor the curriculum vitae of its author, but the reasons for and expression of that opinion. We can agree, disagree, or concede to a blend thereof. We can start to disassemble the impenetrable walls we’ve built…walls that we’ve come to believe describe our taste, but in fact only imprison it. And maybe we can do so over a cup of coffee or two.

In Italy.

The long & the short of it

[angkor wat]At my right hand: a cereal bowl-sized vessel of coffee, the first from my own press in nearly a month. (Just a few inches closer to my hand: the mouse. This is a digital still life, after all.) To my left, a frostbitten window streaked with postmodern art that will vanish with the dawn. The frozen streaks and whorls hide the haphazard piles of snow outside, piles that my shovel has yet to deal with in their entirety. I hope my neighbors will forgive me.

Just a few days ago I was marinating in sweat, wishing that I could change into shorts but unable to do so, because I was on sacred ground. Specifically, Angkor Wat and its many, many templed neighbors. Before that, it was Vietnam, cooler than Cambodia but with a humidity that escalated to broth-like levels as we moved south. Both were bookended by four surprising days in Hong Kong, a city so insanely hypermodern that one expects to see personal spaceships flitting about, even while inhaling a pile of steamed pork buns in an impossibly crowded 19th-century storefront.

This isn’t a travelogue, though. It’s a reflection. Despite a grueling schedule of tourism (reminder to self: next trip, plan some rest every three days or so) I had some time for such, because for the first time since 2005 I left the house without my laptop. Yes, OK, there was the occasional moment of weakness involving my mobile device, but not often. Not reading (except The Quiet American, and not on an e-reader either), but more importantly not writing (except by pen in an increasingly well-worn journal, and wow has my handwriting deteriorated). Just taking it all in, then using the waning moments of each evening for collation, contextualization, and free-association. You know, like we all used to do before the rush to get our every fleeting and 140-character notion into the grist mill of our personal self-publishing empires.

Did I drink any wine? Yes, rather more than I’d expected to, though this was somewhat a function of the ludicrously lavish hotels at which I stayed, or perhaps just as much the lingering influence of Indochine (the place, not the movie). None of the previous sentence applies to Hong Kong, of course, which needs no post-colonial help with its explosive wine culture. Wineries are right to turn their commercial attention eastward. And Westerners are also right to fear the effect this could have on the cost and availability of their favorite wines, related to which I have a hard truth: it’s not just pointy Bordeaux, folks. The cultish, the quirky, and the natural are quite available, and though Big Dollars aren’t yet being spent on those wines (we need, here, to conveniently ignore Japan, where they already kinda are), at the quantities vs. the populations involved, it won’t take much to reduce everyone else to strict allocations on wines for which we had to beg importers and retailers just a few years ago.

And yes, in case anyone’s wondering, I did drink wine with a snake in it. It was really quite good, actually. I wanted to bring some home, but one can’t always rely on Homeland Security’s well-known sense of whimsy and good humor when it comes to unexpected customs declarations, so I didn’t try.

While I’m not exactly thrilled about coming home to impenetrable winter, some of the comforts of one’s own hearth have greater appeal. I ate well – very well – on this trip, even convincing guides that yes, I really did want to eat the dubiously-sanitized street food elbow-to-jowl with shocked natives. But to be honest, I’m a little sick of rice as a constant companion, and I could probably do without a noodle for a while as well. And prawns, which I think I ate at least twice a day in Vietnam and Cambodia? Not for a while, thanks. Yes, I know most of the world subsists on little more than these staples, and I’m already whining after three short weeks. It’s pathetic of me, and I’m rightfully embarrassed.

It’s not about distaste. I like both rice and noodles, quite a bit. It’s about the comfort of the familiar. Landing at JFK, then stuck in the airport for six hours waiting for a much-delayed flight home, what I craved more than anything was something in the cheeseburger with onion rings genre. Normally, that would be the last thing I’d get at an airport, especially for breakfast (it wasn’t yet 8 a.m.), and yet the yearn was palpable. I admit, to my shame, that I succumbed.

There’s a wine component to this as well. Almost everything I drank on this trip was white. Yes, there was a plurality of seafood, but even the meat dishes went best with aromatic whites (as Mark Ellenbogen proved many years ago), and by the end I was craving a red. At home, my preferences usually run towards the elegant, the transparent, the lively, but what I want now – perhaps after the coffee – is something with brawn and burl alongside a nice, big, fat American-sized steak. (Probably followed, one fears, by a few hours of manly grunting and football watching.)

I often say that I crave difference, that I’m a relentless neophile when it comes to food and wine. I think this is mostly true, but taking me as far out of my element as three weeks in Southeast Asia did shows the limitations of this claim. Presented with the alternative as a norm, I started to wish for the familiar as the alternative. I did not, as I insisted I would before the trip, have phở for breakfast every morning, and Vietnam’s well-regarded skills with French pastry became more and more appealing as the days went on. I succumbed there, too.

(Note for the curious: phở and croissant are not a match made in fusiony heaven.)

This isn’t a paean to there’s-no-place-like-homerism, by the way. I cherish the opportunities I have to travel, to experience difference, to draw what I learn into a (hopefully) ever-expanding redefinition of my own self. It’s an essential part of what and who I am. But kicking that self halfway across the globe gave me the opportunity to turn around and look at the anchors left behind. There’s more than one, and maybe at some future point I’ll see the one I left in Southeast Asia, but they’re there. They, too, are “who I am”…not the branches of the tree, but the roots. Everything changes, but some things stay the same. Faced with the biggest chasm between the two I’ve yet experienced, I’m forced to recognize both.

Is there a point to all this navel-gazing? Yes, actually. As with most of my points, I’ve taken a meandering and verbose path to get there, but the destination is now in sight. Before the holidays, I posted something in haste. Something reactionary. Something hot on the heels of an event. And in the chillier aftermath, I didn’t like the result. I edited, trimmed, edited some more. I still don’t like it, and I’m going to take it down right after I finish this essay.

What I don’t like about it isn’t what it says, necessarily. Another version of its essential points will, I think, rear its wordy head in the near future. It’s just that, looking back at things I’ve written in heat and things I’ve written after consideration, I much prefer the latter. I look at the live-blogging I did from the barbera orgy in the Piedmont and the posts written after my return to the States, and I think the latter are better. More informative, more contextual, less full of the emotions of the moment and the best snark-laden zingers a few minutes of typing peace can generate.

I can do that sort of writing, and can churn out clean content on tight deadline as well as anyone, but it’s rarely my best work. What I do better – my comfort zone, my anchor – is reflection. Consideration. Taking the time to examine an argument from all sides. The slow, winding march to a conclusion, even if it’s the realization that there’s no single conclusion to be reached. Explorations of other forms are interesting and necessary, and they make me a better writer, but this is what I do and who I am. Would this blog be more “bloggy” if I cranked out dozens of shorter posts rather than the occasional novella? Certainly. But doing that is to send the author on a permanent vacation, cutting the anchors and losing sight of land and home. Shorter and alternative forms will appear when they can, and I cannot promise a future without furious broadsides written in haste that are later seen to be ill-considered by all (including the author), but the long, patient stuff is what oenoLogic is and always will be.

Meanwhile, my coffee is getting cold, and enough frost has receded that I can see the shoveling yet to be done, lest my neighbors arrive with threatening pitchforks and torches. A queue of ideas for future blog posts rests, in barely-comprehensible scrawl, amongst the pages of my travel journal. And a fat-bottomed red wine is settling on the kitchen counter, waiting for its beefy demise.

It’s good to be home.

Third place

Poke almost any subject long enough in a wine-savvy crowd, and the sticks and prods will eventually unearth a good old-fashioned terroir debate. I’m not sure how or why this happens, only that after having observed it over and over again, I’ve come to accept that it does. And while I’ve long known that there isn’t anything even vaguely approaching universal agreement on what terroir means, or even whether or not it’s important, I didn’t realize until a recent conversation the breadth of the definitional chasm.

(Clear a spare hour or two from your calendar if you choose to follow that last link, by the way.)

There are, I think, three broad categories of opinion on the subject of what terroir is: cultural, personal, and scientific. The first is, one might say, the traditional usage, because it’s how the term is often employed in its country of origin…though I should note that not all French oenophiles actually use the word this way.

Driving around the French countryside, all those produits du terroir signs mean a little more than a direct translation would suggest. Yes, “products of the land,” but also “products from here” where “here” carries a whole bunch of cultural and historic baggage in its marketable hands. In the traditional French usage, terroir means not only something transparent to the character of a place, but also representative of that place.

This is, incidentally, the reason that the oft-made charge of presumptive hierarchy leveled at terroir-endorsing French winemakers has some validity. When terroir is deployed in this fashion, there must be a history and culture, not just a polygon on a viticultural map. If a young site has only geography, then of course it has no terroir by this definition. Ill feelings on all sides would be diminished if the necessary corollary – “yet” – were appended, but I think that while Old World usage assumes that appendage, New World winemakers hear only the dismissal.

What does the cultural definition of terroir mean for wine? It means that it’s not just about site; in fact, anything but. It allows a great deal of human influence, because traditions are part and parcel of the concept. If an intervention, even a drastic one, is and has been routinely practiced, then that intervention is traditional and must be considered part of the terroir…even if, from an organoleptic standpoint, it interferes with the wine’s ability to express its site. In other words, terroir now embraces the thorny definitional dysfunctions of typicity. And terroir changes if the traditions change.

So there’s the traditional view. How about the “personal” alternative? This is the one that was new to me, until I encountered it in the above-referenced discussion. It has never been a secret that people have their own different notions of what terroir is and isn’t. What surprises me, however, is the extent to which this definitional incompatibility is not only acknowledged, but actively cherished by proponents of the personal.

An example: a definition proposed to me by one such adherent included what I would term “transient” effects. For instance, each vintage’s weather. Pests that may swarm and destroy one year, then absent themselves the next. Yeast populations indigenous to the vineyard, whether or not they’re different from vintage to vintage. Diseases and fungal infections (or the lack thereof). And so forth.

What this and myriad variations on the theme come down to, more or less, is a comfort in identifying wines that speak to one’s personal preferences as “terroir wines.” That seems dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. There is a natural and in fact unavoidable inclination towards preference in any definition of terroir that presumes it to be identified at the point of tasting, because…well, what is the terroir signature of the Oberhäuser Brücke? Who gets to decide? Dönnhoff? Critics? Do we put it to a vote? What if we can’t agree?

Since subjectivity is inherent when we’re talking about taste, there’s a measure of coherence to this approach. If the terroir of a site can’t be pinned down, nailed to the wall, and then etched in diamond (and from an experiential standpoint, it can’t), but is instead an individuated conversation between wine and taster, then what does it matter if we allow some transience and mutability in the definition? Probably not much.

The third definition is the scientific one, and it’s the one I prefer…irritating empiricist that I am. The goal here is to extract the maximum utility from the word, such that we may say “this is terroir, and this is varietal character, and this is vintage, and this is the winemaker’s hand,” and – while acknowledging that nothing will ever be separable by clean borders in the fashion I just suggested – advance the conversation about each in bounded and comprehensible ways.

The scientific view binds terroir not to the finished wine (it accepts that terroir may be identifiable in the glass, but considers it a separate field of inquiry and not what terroir is), but to the place itself and the products that derive from that place. Ideally, terroir would be identified by the chemical signature of the grapes from a single site, which would then turn their data back on the site to refine its borders. It does not embrace transient effects, considering them to be variables or noise vs. the constant provided by the site. And yes, it is a rigid, relentlessly utilitarian view that attempts to extract the maximum objectivity from a subject inextricably bound to its subjectivity.

Which is to say: even if the scientific view is pursued to its endpoint, and each terroir is identified by chemical analysis and defined to the maximum possible perfection as a consequence, we still go on to drink the resultant wines. And taste, no matter how much science or knowledge we heave in its direction, remains subjective. For though taste is observable by science, its practice is a blend of the scientific, the cultural, and the personal.

Just like terroir.

Varietal is not the spice

It’s “variety.” It’s almost never “varietal.” Stop using “varietal” unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing, and even then consider reconsidering.

Evidence on this blog to the contrary, there aren’t all that many things in the wine world that drive me to tooth-grinding agony. I argue, yes, but I do so from a position of peace and goodwill towards all. It’s the Summer of Love, every day, on oenoLogic.

(Um, what’s that? I’m full of what?)

Anyway, the errant conflation of “variety” and “varietal” is the burr in my craw, the stick in my saddle, the hazelnut and pumpkin syrup in my charred coffee. Herein, a brief tutorial, the better to save the oenologician from the grammatical chafing caused by burr, stick, and venti latte. Pay attention, now.

(No, really. Brief. What’s that? I’m even more full of what?)

Variety – This is the word you want when you’re referring to a grape. Pinot noir is a grape variety, which you may shorten to variety. It is not interchangeable with the word “varietal.” And if you think it might be, start swapping the words in situations not related to grapes and see how far it takes you.

“Starbucks offers a varietal of dessert drinks that may, once, have been in the same room with coffee.”

“There hasn’t been a good varietal show on TV since Hee Haw.”

“I’ve eaten deep-fried whale spleen five nights in a row; it’s time to put a little varietal back in my diet.”

See? Doesn’t work. “Pinot noir is a grape varietal” doesn’t work either. Don’t say it. Don’t write it. Don’t think it. (The oenologician waves his hand.) These are not the droids you’re looking for…

Varietal – The adjectival form of “variety.” It is very nearly the case that the only times you will need to use it are to modify the words “composition” and “character.”

“Sauvignon blanc grown on fertile plains, harvested by machine a month before everyone else and at industrial crop levels, then chaptalized, yeasted, and enzymed, probably doesn’t retain much varietal character despite the desperate attempts of global beverage conglomerates to convince you otherwise by putting cute animal drawings on the labels.”

“The varietal composition of a super-Tuscan is irrelevant in comparison to the speed-to-overcompensation ratio of the modified sports coupe driven by its owner.”

There are other uses along these lines that can be correct, but if it’s not explicitly modifying a word, it is very likely that you’re using it incorrectly.

The trouble comes with the other acceptable use of “varietal,” which is to refer to a single-variety wine, and in which the word can transmogrify into a noun. That is to say: if it’s 100% saperavi, it’s a varietal wine, a varietal saperavi – note that, in both cases, “varietal” is happily nestled in its comforting and familiar position of modification – or, in shorthand, a varietal.

This is the only use of “varietal” in which a missing word-being-modified is acceptable. The only use. (Unless, of course, I’m forgetting one. Which I might be.) The Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, for example, is a varietal wine, a/k/a a varietal pinot grigio, a/k/a a varietal, made up of the fermented pressings from P.T. Barnum’s soul. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, on the other hand, is only very rarely a varietal, but is instead almost always a blend. (Varietal Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be identified, in the absence of directly-sourced knowledge, by the mass of the bottle multiplied by the number of points the wine has received from critics who live in Maryland.)

It would, perhaps, help the ongoing confusion over these terms if even those who understand the differences would attempt to limit their use of the noun form of “varietal” and stick with alternative terms, like “single-variety” or “the first strike of a dumbed-down New World wine nomenclature that’s going to destroy centuries of European winemaking tradition unless we fight it tooth-and-bulldozer, and as long as we ignore that much of Europe has been using varietal designations on their wines for some time now with no deleterious effects for anyone.”

(See what I did there?)

Careful with that axe, Eugene

Thomas Matthews has an axe. And he is going to grind it. Observe:

Call me hard-hearted, or wrong-headed. But as I read the outpouring of admiration and love for Marcel Lapierre following his untimely death in early October, I thought of Georges Duboeuf.

Now, look: there are a lot of people who like the wines of Georges Dubœuf. And there are a lot of people who like the wines of Marcel Lapierre. I seriously doubt anyone other than Thomas Matthews has ever thought of tragedy afflicting the one and been reminded, immediately and with purpose, of the other.

Ah…but there’s the word: purpose. Matthews has a purpose. That, and an axe. And a grinding stone. (How does he have free hands with which to type?)

Lapierre [..] was an early and faithful adherent to a traditional, non-interventionist approach to grapegrowing and vinification. This made him a hero to the proponents of “natural” wine. And they, in turn, have positioned him in opposition to the wines they judge as industrial or even immoral.

Not exactly. Many have positioned him as an alternative to wines not made Lapierre’s way. Opposition is a loaded word, full of baggage that has arrived in the hands of Mr. Matthews; Lapierre was far more interested in “because” than he was in “rather than.” So already, Matthews is sliding off the track, attributing to Lapierre actions that he really means to attribute to commentators (whether they be winemakers or not). When he gets done grinding this axe, I bet we’ll be eyeing the necks of those commentators, not Lapierre. Anyone want to take that bet?

…oh, and as for his allegation of immorality: um, what? I hope he has a citation handy. I’ve heard Dubœuf’s wines called a lot of things. (I’d call them uninspired and unfortunately but consequentially popular.) But “immoral”? Really? Who said that? Whoever it was, they have a high-speed grinder and a tiny axe, but apparently a very poor sense of the target.

I’m going to edit & paraphrase for brevity here. (Hey, I can do it for others. Just because I can’t do it for myself…)

Eric Asimov: “[Lapierre] and a group of three other producers were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that Beaujolais had far more to offer than its often insipid mass-market nouveau wines.” And Alice Feiring: “There are stars in the world, leading men and women, ones that make a difference. You can smell them, see them vibrate … The saving of Beaujolais was mostly his heavy lifting in his quiet way … he left behind a legacy of commitment, [that] belief + action changes the world.”

Wow. Yes, just look at how many times they called Dubœuf immoral. Just look…hey, wait. They didn’t do anything of the sort.

Hm.

I regret to say that I never met Lapierre. […] I don’t know his wines well, either. Based on our reviews, I can tell they were exemplary […].

No one is requiring Matthews to have been fishing buddies with Lapierre, or to have consumed his wines by the truckload. But it’s not like he’s some hooch-swilling bumpkin who just fell off a navet truck and is now forced, absent knowledge or preparation, to make his first wine purchase. He has a rather major position in the wine assessment industry, with access to as many different wines as anyone on the planet, and he can certainly afford to travel. I suspect he has not lacked for opportunity in either regard. Moreover, the wines have been around, hyped, and laden with reputation and oenological importance (whether one is for or against that style of oenology) for rather a long while now. What, exactly, was he waiting for?

And also: what, exactly, are we to take from the above admissions? I mean, I’m happy he made them, rather than pretending an experience he didn’t have. But let’s try it this way: “reading musicians’ outpouring of adoration for bandleader Robert Fripp the other day,” (don’t fret, Crimheads, he’s not dead) “I thought of Britney Spears.” Well, great for you. What does one have to do with the other, other than they both make their money from music?

Oh, but see, I’m already going to be in Matthews’ ill graces here, because I’m implying all manner of insult against the brilliance of M. Dubœuf by comparing him with Mlle. Spears. Well, let’s all rest easy on that score, because I’m not implying anything. I’m stating my opinion outright: Dubœuf’s wines, which used to be manipulated in a most unfortunate way, are now merely somewhat manipulated and are qualitatively mediocre. In other words, the Beaujolais equivalent of eminently forgettable pop music. Hey, wait…there’s an analogy in that, somewhere…

[Matthews drinks a Lapierre Morgon.] Was it balanced, lively and refreshing? Yes, indeed. Was it transcendent, somehow on a different plane than other delicious Beaujolais I have enjoyed? No, I couldn’t really go that far.

Among those for whom Lapierre was a transformational figure, there aren’t that many who would disagree that the wines aren’t as transformational as those of others who’ve followed in his footsteps. Once, perhaps. Now, with so many alternatives, less so. And it’s important to realize that Lapierre wasn’t precisely a trailblazer, either. He built on the nearly-lost work of others, demonstrated its value, and spread the knowledge thus gained. That there is a core of natural, or at least non-industrial, winemaking in Beaujolais is almost solely due to his knowledge-sharing efforts, and that there is a groundswell of such wines around the world is, again, somewhat attributable to his success and his generosity with this knowledge. But transcendence? Has anyone made that claim? Lapierre himself would have been the very last, even under duress.

No, Lapierre’s “different plane” was in the philosophy behind the work…in the vineyard and in the cellar. The result would, he believed, take care of itself. And it did. His legacy is not one of a specific paradigm or practice, but a demonstration that – while accepting the premise that no wine actually makes itself – a philosophy of control and outcome-orientation is not the only way to make successful wine. There’s another. To the extent that anyone has even suggested such might be codified, that’s the genesis of the “natural wine movement.” But that wasn’t Lapierre’s purpose, and while I hope he was satisfied that he made an impact beyond his bank balance, he never seemed to be all that enthused about movements and labels. He’d have been pleased that Matthews at least tried the wine, happy that he liked it, and confused at the notion that it was supposed to exist on, or even represent, some materially elevated plane.

Matthews’ inability to derive a more useful and applicable conclusion from Lapierre’s work is not due to any insufficiencies as a taster. I wouldn’t speak to those even if I could, and I can’t. In any case, taste remains personal and subjective, and Matthews will either find something in the wine or he will not; others can point to what they taste, but only Matthews can taste what he tastes. No, the failure (as such) is the philosophy that understanding is to be found in the glass, and here arriveth the full-stop punctuation. An understanding that founds Matthews’ work. An understanding that is mis-.

Within the confines of the glass, Lapierre’s goal was to make a pleasurable wine. If there was understanding to be had, Lapierre intended that to be acquired well outside the drinking vessel. And there is, in fact, rather a lot of understanding to be had and dealt with in Marcel Lapierre’s work, whether one ends as a disciple, a contrarian, or an agnostic. “Understanding Lapierre” is not sniffed, swirled, spit, and scored. It is a story of how the wine was made, and an ever-evolving cornucopia of answers to the why of the wine. If Matthews is looking for that in a bottle over dinner, he’s looking in the wrong place, and his quest is bereft of hope. To find those, one must – as Matthews does not – know the wines. And that requires more than just drinking them.

I don’t fault Matthews for not having done this, though given the growing importance of the concepts behind Lapierre’s work, it’s an unfortunate oversight. He can’t, after all, know everyone and everything in the overwhelming universe of wine. But here he is nonetheless, opining on the wine, the context, and the philosophy. I would (gently) suggest that to do so from a position of knowledge would have mitigated some of the exasperation that this paean to Dubœuf is now generating.

But, as I suggested earlier, Matthews’ topic isn’t actually Lapierre, or even Dubœuf, which is how we begin at the rather absurd leap from one to the other and move quickly on to the sharpening of hatchets. Witness:

I imagine Duboeuf knew Lapierre, too, and knowing Duboeuf, I am sure he admired the principled vigneron from Morgon. I suspect he feels that much of the praise now being lavished on Lapierre is a veiled attack on him. I suppose you could cast the two men in a morality play that pits worldly success against traditional virtue.

I suppose one could, yes. Has anyone? Other than Matthews, I mean? Straw men are pretty, especially as the corn around them browns into an autumnal tangle and the crows realize their season-long error in judgment has left them tragically undernourished. But I rather think that most of the comparison between the two – typically utilizing them as icons for competing philosophies rather than actual personages – comes down to a discussion of homogenization vs. its alternatives. Dubœuf’s flattening effect was an all-too-easy target in the days of the 71B yeast and its overwhelming banana aromas. Now it’s thermovinification (unless my knowledge is out of date), which still has a homogenizing effect, and which is still a fairly easy target. No sensible observer misunderstands the commercial appeal of homogeneity. No sensible observer thinks Dubœuf is going to convert to Lapierre-ism (even were there such a thing, which there isn’t) in the 2011 vintage. But there is a clear and identifiable philosophical gap between the two, which leads to a clear and identifiable difference in practice, and which thus leads to a clear and identifiable difference in wine character. (Note: character, not quality. Quality in this usage is subjective, no matter how many times Matthews references his publications’ scores to assure himself otherwise.) And that is the script of the play, oft written and rewritten by observers, that stars the two in their metaphorical rather than actual roles. It is about what they do, not who they are.

(This is not to suggest that there isn’t criticism of Dubœuf aside from this basic contrast. There is, and not all of it is purely academic. For that matter, there’s criticism of Lapierre as well, and some of it is as personal and hostile as that directed at Dubœuf. But both are minutiæ compared to the much more important and vastly more common debate about how wines become what they are.)

Furthermore, are Matthews’ opposites really the only two choices? “Worldly success” vs. “traditional virtue”? I’d suggest not. First of all, Lapierre had rather a fair amount of worldly success, as have many that have admired his work. And moreover, it is manifestly incorrect to call what the dedicated non-interventionists do “traditional.” It is not. “Tradition” dictates that wine be brought successfully to market, conform (at least where such things apply) to the dictates of typicity, and not unduly rock neighbors’ commercial boats. What the non-interventionists do has deep historical roots, but it is not traditional winemaking, it is a deliberate philosophical distillation of traditional winemaking to its minima.

If what Lapierre did was actually traditional in Beaujolais, Dubœuf would stand accused of turning widespread regional succulence into a faceless corporate enterprise. In fact, that is neither the case nor an extant accusation against Dubœuf. While good “traditional” Beaujolais existed and was gradually rendered irrelevant during Dubœuf’s ascendance (I find it difficult, viewing the historical record, to blame him for it; people died and no one took up their oenological sword), it wasn’t and hasn’t ever been dominant. As everywhere else, swill abounded and still abounds…whether or not the producers of the region wish to sue me for using that word…and swill is not what Dubœuf produces.

No, the knock on Dubœuf remains homogeneity and the creation, though market dominance (which he undoubtedly possesses), of the expectation of same in both consumers and gatekeepers…critics, retailers, etc. Imagine making quality, individual Beaujolais of any style – not just Lapierre’s – and attempting to bring it to a market that responds with hostility towards your banana-scented products before having tasted them. Imagine trying to penetrate a market dominated by a single producer whose wines taste more or less the same and can be resupplied in nearly endless quantities, while yours are limited, different each vintage, and transient. Imagine trying to get people to pay attention, to open their minds, when someone else has convinced them through relentless example that there’s no more to understand. Imagine trying to convince an ennui-afflicted Beaujolais drinker that a wine of individuality, quality, and limited quantity may be worth more than what someone working in industrial quantities can charge. All those and more are the hurdles that Lapierre, his cohorts, and those that sold his wines had to overcome. (And to an extent did, it’s worth noting.) But that success came by chipping away at territory not only dominated, but overwhelmed, by Georges Dubœuf. Whether by intent or inertia, Dubœuf’s wines and the philosophies that bore them set those hurdles. When contrasts had to be made (and contrasts are necessary to sell wines of character), they had to be made with Dubœuf.

That those hurdles were fair-quality hurdles was, at least, a benefit to the Beaujolais name. That is, indeed, something for which Dubœuf can be justifiably praised. The need to resurrect a fatally diseased brand, as will have to happen one of these days in Chianti, was not the challenge faced by Lapierre. But one may be grateful for the success of white zinfandel in saving old zinfandel vineyards from the plow without the requirement of admiring the way in which the ubiquity of same inhibited the success of the red version (and it did, for a very long time), and in similar fashion one may be grateful to Dubœuf for preserving some semblance of saleable wine in Beaujolais without thanking him for associating that name with a bizarre, constructed wine bearing only marginal relation to unmanipulated Beaujolais. Put another way, one may thank Disney for keeping The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the public mind, but no aficionado of Victor Hugo need praise the way they’ve misrepresented the material.

My unsolicited advice to Dubœuf – and boy, is it unsolicited – would be to drop the thermovinification, demand the greatest possible natural diversity between his own wines, and thus leave as his legacy the preservation of a region and then, at the end of his commercial reign, an enthusiasm for and encouragement of the qualitative renaissance that has unquestionably come to Beaujolais. No one is going to challenge his commercial dominance for a long, long while, unless his children decide to dismantle his empire. But there would soon come a time in which no one would remember that his was once a problematic empire. That, far more than dozens of flower-laden labels, is a worthy legacy.

And my advice – equally unsolicited, but just as heartfelt – to Thomas Matthews? Look beyond the glass if you’re searching for saviors and transcendentalists in Lapierre’s work. And don’t set up false dichotomies that are no more than your own exaggerations and extrapolations from the arguments you believe others to be having with your own icons. Your axe, pointed at accurately-described targets, will be all the sharper for it, and you’ll even be able to drop it on occasion and enjoy a refreshing glass of Lapierre Morgon. Everybody wins.

The truth isn’t…

[“que es la veritat?” at sagrada famlia]It started off well enough. It started as a discussion of a (to most) arcane bit of cocktail-making technique. It turned into a barrage of sarcasm, curriculum vitae in place of arguments, insults, hurt feelings, and both participants more or less stalking off into the digital ether with a virtual huff.

So goes far too much online discussion, but this instance – with someone I’d called a friend and mentor, and still would were he willing to talk to me – was striking. Not because of the disagreement itself (we’re both stubborn and argumentative types), but because of the form of that disagreement. To elide all but the matter of immediate interest: there was an attempt to test a theory of mixology that ended in doubt being cast on the efficacy of certain other techniques. No problem, right? Just one more inquisitive step on the long road to understanding, no?

No. My interlocutor was having none of it. Science be damned, and in fact the mere notion that there might be reason to question or even test his beloved technique also be damned (or, more accurately ignored: I suggested he draw up a test, since he was so convinced of the inevitability of its result, and the suggestion wasn’t even acknowledged, much less accepted or rejected). My friend was a believer, and could not be gainsaid. Immutable surety was his counter-argument, and when that was questioned, along came the CV. (An impressive one, it must be said. But entirely orthogonal, especially to this mixology-agnostic.)

What struck me so much, especially in the aftermath, wasn’t that we couldn’t agree on the bona fides of the technique, or even whether or not it had been/could be tested by scientific inquiry. It was that we weren’t actually having an argument at all, despite appearances to the contrary. I was primarily interested in the questions, but he was so convinced by the answers (despite a lack of anything other than anecdotal evidence, weighty CV or not) that he was no longer interested in the questions. There was a riptide of hero-worship inherent in my friend’s angry rejection of counter-arguments, even of scientific counter-arguments, that I did not fully understand until the churning waves had receded. No; the matter had been settled, because a bartender – the object of my friend’s intense admiration – had settled it simply by saying so (the form of “saying so” here taking the form of a finished cocktail of, in my friend’s assessment, superior quality). That other practitioners with comparably or even more impressive CVs (than my friend, not the bartender) disagreed with said conclusion was deemed as irrelevant as the potential scientific arguments. The matter was settled, once and for all time, and a man had settled it by saying it was settled, and now another man was attempting to work the same dazzling rhetorical mojo on me. In other words, he was propheteering, if you’ll forgive the coinage.

That is, of course, faith. By no means am I prepared to speak for or against the power, or even the importance, of faith. But there’s a reason that the adjective “blind” so often precedes it. And guarding against that adjectival form – the supplanting of reason with faith – is one of the hardest but most important things to which a student of any subject can aspire. There’s room for belief, and for faith, but there can be no understanding without reason, and where reason and faith are in conflict and a test exists to settle the matter, the test does settle the matter. To believe otherwise is to abandon reason. But, alas…my friend, normally one of the most relentlessly inquisitive people I know, had been attracted by the gravity of, and had thus entered the orbit of, a guru.

Usually, when someone in the wine world starts warning against gurus, an attack on a wine critic (or perhaps wine criticism in general) is about to follow. Or it’s a wine critic issuing a similar warning about the rampant untrustworthiness of retailers and/or sommeliers. None of this is inherently wrong or right – people have self-interests on which they cannot fail to act, even if sub- or unconsciously, and even in the absence of any malicious intent it’s probable for each of these entities to see the others as competitors for mindshare and thus commercial importance. But I’m not talking about critics, retailers, or sommeliers. No, the guru against which I wish to warn is the one responsible for wine itself. In my friend’s case, it was a bartender that was the object of his admiration, but I think the same concern I have over admiration writ extreme applies to practitioners of the oenological art.

Talk to winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of certain practices. Talk to enough winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of absolutely opposed and entirely incompatible practices. The subject might be irrigation, it might be yeast, it might be sulfur, it might be clonal selection, it might be varietal composition, it might be anything, but the conviction will be firm and the defense (whether asked for or not) more or less passionate. But an argument in isolation does not a case make, no matter how convincing or lauded the source. There must be results, too. There must be wines to support the case. When there are, the first opportunity to leave the path of reason presents itself for both creator and consumer, for the widespread belief that “all that matters is what’s in the glass” applies not just to the misguided notion that wine has objective qualitative standards, but also to the equally misguided belief that a wine can settle an argument. As anyone who’s consumed even the best of wines long into the night with friends/acquaintances/enemies knows, after all, the opposite is much more frequently true.

Consider traveling to a destination. One may take the quickest route, saving time. One may take the easiest route, avoiding inconvenience. One may take the cheapest route, saving money. One may take the most scenic route, gaining more than just the destination along the way. Or one may take an entirely random route, and still arrive at the destination by happy accident. In each case, the desired result – getting to the destination – is achieved. But in each case, the path to that destination is different. It is possible to argue the inherent superiority of one path over another, and those with a strong preference may do so, but they will not be objectively correct…because no matter which choice is made, the destination is still attained. A successful result, then, speaks of a successful path, but not necessarily the successful path. No one who has achieved success via a different path would agree that any path other than their own was the one and only correct path, nor would anyone credit or laud the chosen path of the random arrival. So why should we respond otherwise when it comes to winemaking? In the absence of testable, repeatable evidence for claims, we often have little more to go on than that random traveler’s itinerary, no matter what a given winemaker says.

Winemakers who defend specific practices, even to the extent of decrying alternatives (which is often the case, especially for believers of more idiosyncratic theories), are convinced of the rightness their defense. They can show what they believe to evidence via the wines made with these practices. They may even have actual science to explain the efficacy of those practices, though just as often this is either not the case or the science, properly understood, tells a fuzzier, less certain tale. But while successfully-produced wine is an important component in a convincing-to-others argument, as long as successful alternatives exist it cannot be the answer. It can only be an answer, at best. And in the case of our random arriver, there’s no answer at all, only unaddressed questions.

Perhaps this point can be made more clearly by referencing practices that have, in whole or in part, demonstrably anti-scientific defenses. Biodynamism comes immediately to mind, of course, but it need not bear the entirety of the burden; there’s cosmoculture, crystal energy, divination, tidal forces, astrological calendars, the disallowing of women in the cellar (it happens; don’t ask)…a rich panoramic cornucopia of the semi-sensible to the entirely nutty that is embraced by some winemaker, somewhere, and which may nonetheless be passionately defended as the reason for quality wines thus produced. In the case of biodynamics, in fact, widely practiced, though somewhat less enthusiastically defended, by a large number of very successful winemakers.

Those defenses are interesting, and the open-minded listener should attend to them. How could anyone blindly ignore the thoughts of someone who produces excellence? However, the requirements of an open mind are twofold: it must remain open, but it must not become a sieve. One should not discard reason and intellect because of a few convincing words and a fine glass or two. Moreover, one may fully appreciate the quality of a product while harboring the belief that the person who made it is right, wrong, sensible, or a lunatic on any given subject (and may be differently-situated with regards to a different subject). It is an essential separation of the thing that is made and the person that makes it. One may simultaneously love Huet Vouvray and think biodynamics are a load of hooey, and one may subscribe wholeheartedly to the superiority of biodynamic agriculture while thinking that Benziger’s wines are lousy. Despite what advocates, true believers, and prophets would have you believe, the technique is not the result, nor is the reverse the case, without a proven and repeatable link between the two.

When evidence – hopefully scientific – arrives that shows a given practice to be either supportable or unfounded, one should be prepared to accept that evidence. This is the duty of a critical thinker. Not to fail to question, ever, but to add answers to one’s understanding, the better to ask new questions and thus reignite curiosity. This is especially true if that evidence contradicts one’s previous understanding. That, after all, is how we learn and grow as thinking beings.

[sagrada familia under construction]Some winemakers – through force of personality, the excellence of their wine, or both – can be utterly convincing, especially to those unprepared with an equivalent depth of experience (and that would be most of us, unless we’re eminent winemakers ourselves). It’s all too easy to ally one’s convictions to those of the winemaker in question because what one is hearing “sounds right,” and isn’t the wine just oh-so-good? This is an understandable impulse – we all, at times, need something in which to believe – but it’s important to remember that it’s faith, not intellect, that motivates this impulse. By so choosing, one has abandoned the path of understanding in favor of the path of belief. Even the demands of politesse, in which one may wish to suspend open debate so as to not offend one’s host, can be met as long as critical thinking is only delayed, not abandoned.

The alternative, however, is how one participant went wrong* in the midst of the argument referenced at the beginning of this essay: the transformation of a personal faith into the means by which others are to be convinced of that faith. It goes wrong because one is not mounting a defense based on evidence available to anyone’s review, but rather asking others to share their faith through no more than an inevitably personal testimony…proselytizing rather than informing. For any who are themselves searching for a faith in which to share, that method of argumentation has efficacy. It works for religions, after all. For those who are not, it is utterly useless, and may even become offensive if pursued with enough vigor.

*The other participant – me – went wrong by not understanding this soon enough, and so snarking and sarcasm-ing my way into a debating stance in which my opposite number took angry offense. This was insensitive on my part, for which I can only mouth this defense: I was not prepared for irrationality from this particular person. Were a rewind button available, I’d conduct myself differently. This, by the way, is not to suggest that I don’t mean everything I just wrote about the dangers of gurus and belief over reason. I do. But I don’t want to leave the impression that I consider the entire mess someone else’s fault. I don’t.

For as we all know, it is easy for those immersed in belief to become so convinced of their rightness that the dissemination of that belief becomes as important as the belief itself, no matter how aggressive one must be to achieve that dissemination. Inquiry is no longer ignored, it is attacked. Dissension is no longer an unshared viewpoint, it’s a wrong that must be righted. The discourse devolves, and warring camps develop. On one side, one belief. On the other, another belief. And standing in between, suffering under rhetorical artillery from both sides, are those who would, retaining their intellectual curiosity, ask questions of both.

Obviously, this sort of “debate” does not lead to understanding, but rather hurt feelings and the general entropic decline of civility. Further, no one is convinced of anything in such a debate, except perhaps of the intransigence and unreliable intellect of those whose faith cannot be shaken by reason. This is also a danger, for it remains important to listen to those with whom one disagrees, and this sort of discourse breeds unwillingness to lend an ear. Deaf faith is no more admirable than the blind version.

It would perhaps be better, regarding most controversial winemaking issues, for there to be an inherent skepticism of anyone who utters any form of “this must be” or uses even the slipperiest version of “because I” (in which that pronoun is laden with self-importance) “say so” as a defense for a position. The more convincingly-argued a position on a controversial issue, the more suspicion should be applied as a buffer, unless and until scientific rigor follows on its heels. Winemakers are not required to adhere to any given philosophy (most don’t, and even many of those that do can be wavering and selective in their faith), but if they do, it does not follow that consumers are required to join that adhesion, even if they enjoy the wines thus produced.

Am I over-intellectualizing wine by insisting, over and over again, on the primacy of science over belief? Yes and no. After all, I am one who claims that wine is (or at least can be) about a lot more than just chemistry, to which a relentless and complete application of scientific rigor would reduce it. To this hypothetical charge, I would respond that I don’t believe embracing other fields of inquiry regarding the creation or appreciation of wine affects scientific inquiry one whit; one may romanticize, emotionalize, wax literate, or engage in whatever else inspires and derives from one’s passion for wine without negating a single datum. One may even choose to ignore science in its entirety, feeling that it interferes with a (perhaps) more appealing emotional response. But apathy is not the same as negation, and all the unscientific romanticism in the world does not invalidate the science, whether a given person chooses to engage with it or not. These responses and modes of interaction can coexist without conflict, because they do not address each other in the same language. When they attempt to do so, things often go ill.

For wines do, after all, make their own sort of argument for themselves. But it is an argument, not a conclusion, and wine’s responses to even the most careful questioning are ambiguous at best…suggestions rather than definitions, innuendos rather than proofs. Wine is difficult, confusing, contradictory, and yet wonderful not just despite, but in fact because of those difficulties. Wine is not about easy answers. Those who would attempt to convince you otherwise are not acting in their, or your, best interests.

"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it"

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Cliché? Yes. And yet, true. Ideally, a little knowledge sets one’s feet on the path to more knowledge. But in reality, for too many a little knowledge is simultaneously the beginning and the end of the journey. That one should wish to know more, to know better, never occurs. Once in possession of a fact that confirms one’s prejudices, no matter how decontextualized or debatable, sides are taken, barriers constructed, and rhetorical (or worse) defenses mounted. And thus is our ruinous public discourse conducted.

The cliché applies in other ways, too. Want to enjoy the broadest possible selection of wines, unfettered by moral ambiguity? Don’t get to know the people who make the stuff. Oh, it’s true that most folks who make wine are friendly and generous, some are unfriendly and generous, a few are friendly but grasping, and of course the rest – a pretty small percentage – are widely-acknowledged bastards of the first order. (Often, and refreshingly, they’ll be the first to proffer this acknowledgement.) But encountering someone in a vineyard, or in a tasting room, is not the same as knowing them. Did, for example, the smiling French vigneron that just offered you a gift of a cherished bottle from his cellar vote for the hateful Front national in the last election? Look at the voting totals for certain French regions. Chances are if he didn’t, one of your upcoming appointments did. Is it, perhaps, better to not ask? To not know? That very much depends on your taste for moral conflict.

Considering both of these manifestations of a well-worn cliché about “a little knowledge,” we are thus brought to the matter of Jean-Pierre Frick.

Frick is a grape grower and winemaker in Alsace. He has very firm and non-traditional (or, one might counter-argue, ultra-traditional…the best term of all might be neo-traditional) ideas about viticulture, winemaking, and the region’s wines and winemakers. Most of which devolve to the core idea that he is right and anyone who thinks or does otherwise is not. And fair enough, as far as that belief goes. Shouldn’t someone do what they think is right, and shouldn’t someone believe in what they do? People who think very differently than Frick have similarly strong views and beliefs in those views, and while they may think and act in opposition, the sum of the conversation is better for the strength of that opposition.

It is, however, true that Frick is a little more likely than many others to be outspoken about the rights and wrongs of the wine world (and especially the Alsatian wine world) as he sees them. In this, he joins a smaller subset of producers in his region who tend towards the demonstrative and, occasionally, abrasive. Some of that subset are producers that I and many fellow wine drinkers admire a great deal. Others are not, or are at least more controversial. Again, regional dynamism pretty much requires this, and rampant self-satisfaction is all-too-often a clear midpoint on the road to qualitative ruin.

(Here I think a personal disclaimer is well-warranted: I am not an admirer of Frick’s wines. There are certain exceptions, but in the main I think they are unreflective of, and in fact obscure, both terroir and cépage. I do not think they are made as well as they could be, and are more than occasionally flawed in preventable ways. I think they are, as one acquaintance derisively puts it, “wines of philosophy” rather than wines of pleasure or drinkability, and that philosophy has gained ascendance over the results to the detriment of both. There are, it must also be noted, some for whom I have immense respect who vehemently disagree with these opinions. And finally, to those who contend that I would not write everything I’m about to write were the winemaker in question someone I admire, I can only offer the entirety of my work, which is not exactly rife with caution and rectitude.)

So here’s the short version of a longer story: there were some genetically-modified vines at a research facility near Colmar. A group of anti-GMO activists destroyed the vines and then, as far as I can tell, turned themselves in…the better, given the inevitable legal action, to further publicize their motivation in doing so. One of those activists was Jean-Pierre Frick.

Now, let’s not mince words here: this was destruction of private property. Or it was destruction of public property; I don’t know the specifics of the research facility’s funding. In either case, it was destruction of property that did not belong to these activists. Worse, it also destroyed many years of hard work. Work undertaken by people undoubtedly just as dedicated to the pursuit of their vocation as Frick and his cohorts.

Frick, however, is unapologetic. “The neutralization of the 70 grapevines was an act of civil disobedience,” he claims. No. A protest is civil disobedience. A sit-in. A strike. A barrage of negative publicity and lawsuits designed to stop the research, its publication, or the application of its results. All of those and more would be civil disobedience. This was uncivil disobedience, it was in any sane jurisdiction a crime, and one hopes that the perpetrators – including Frick – will pay a price for their willful act of destruction.

“Il ne s’agit pas d’une destruction mais de la préservation de mon outil de travail,” claims Frick. (Roughly: “it’s not destruction, but the preservation of my work tools,” by which he means his vines.) Frick sees research into, even the very existence of, these genetically-modified vines as threatening to or even destructive of his own. Why? One can speculate, or one can read his own thoughts on the subject, but there’s no logic to the claim until proponents of genetically-modified vines demand that he uproot his own, and France is very, very far from that Monsanto-like state of affairs (.pdf). Is there good reason for concern, wariness, and conservatism about genetically-modified plants as promoted in the commercial agricultural sphere? Absolutely, unquestionably, 1000% yes. But this…this goes well beyond concern.

This was an attack on property, this was an attack on the owners and operators of that property, and (perhaps most dismaying of all) this was an attack on science. Science is neither the final nor sole answer to all questions agricultural, nor should it ever be while the hand of man still crafts our food and beverage to aesthetic ends, but to oppose its testable conclusions is problematic enough, and to oppose its very practice is unthinking and reactionary. There’s no apparent evidence that Frick possesses the science to oppose this project on factual grounds (though I’d welcome evidence to the contrary), which is likely why he’s resorted to a tantrum of breaking and destroying. But ending an argument is not the same as winning an argument. Frick has attempted the former, and in doing so has ceded any moral authority with which to achieve the latter.

But let’s assume, for the sake of that argument, that he’s right. Let’s say that the destruction of both property and work (and possibly livelihood, if the research is subsequently de-funded and the researchers must look for new jobs) is justified because it legitimately threatens something of Frick’s. What is the nature of that threat? Frick may cloak himself as a defender of biodiversity and a proponent of anti-globalist rhetoric, and he may even be right to do so in the Great Struggle against the over-application of science and commerce to agriculture, but that doesn’t explain Frick’s personal motivation in that struggle. No, Frick must himself feel threatened. In fact, he says so, explicitly, in the above quote about his “work tools.” The possibilities and dangers presented by genetically-modified vines are, in his view, a threat to his livelihood, to his way of working, and – it must be said – to his profits.

Continuing under the sake-of-argument assumption that he is justified in his actions based on these beliefs, what are the natural conclusions to draw? One obvious one is that those under similar threat from equally revolutionary or counterrevolutionary methods are justified in taking similar action. Say, for instance, a grower of more typically-treated vines (that is, using chemicals and industrial farming techniques) and producer of quality wines whose livelihood is threatened not only by the commercial competition from Frick, but from the pedagogical din emanating from Frick’s oft-used lectern. Frick is not shy about saying that others are doing wrong, nor that their ways are insufficient to the cause of quality wine as he perceives it. Could not that be considered a threat to the livelihood of those who think and proceed differently? Could not the very existence of his wines constitute a threat in themselves? Could these entities not be free to act in the defense of their livelihood, their way of working, and their profits? And if it’s not his neighbor the winemaker in this role, how about a producer of farm equipment? Of chemical fertilizers? Of stabilizing chemicals or inoculated yeasts? Are their “work tools” under threat from the ascendance of Frick’s ideas? Undoubtedly so. What, then, is their allowed recourse?

Were Frick to wake up tomorrow and find his vineyards “neutralized” by a different set of activists who feel themselves under threat (and let me be clear: I fervently hope that this does not come to pass, because it would be no less criminal or morally offensive), would he consider their actions justified? One hopes so. Because otherwise he would not only be a destroyer of property and work that does not belong to him, he’d also be a hypocrite.

And so, there’s a little knowledge. It’s still a dangerous thing. Knowing of these events changes one’s opinion of Frick’s wines, whether in enthusiastic support or horrified repulsion (I’ve seen both, browsing the commentariat on this issue). And what is that shocked consumer to do? Boycott? Dump any wines already in the cellar down the drain? Refuse to visit or write about the producer in the future? Confront Frick in person? Confront Frick from the safety of an English-language blog he will probably never see?

Or perhaps just go out and wreck a bunch of property? That should solve things. Shouldn’t it?

How sweet it is

Alsace might be getting it right. For a change.

Faced with disastrous sales — a recent visit included a lot of producers’ shrugs and “our American market is dead”-type laments — and an increasingly sugary regional identity, the time has apparently come to do something about it.

Rémy Gresser, a forward-thinking winemaker who doesn’t share the ludicrous fetishes of some of his peers and is now in a position of regional influence, thinks there should be sweetness indicators on bottles. He’s absolutely right. Because aside from Zind Humbrecht’s indice, there’s no way to know what one is getting unless one knows the stylistic preferences of the producer (and even then, it’s easy to go wrong).

Global warming has a lot to do with this; look at Alsace’s varietal range and then look at where else those grapes are planted. In almost every case, Alsace is the hottest and driest member of the club, and it’s not exactly getting cooler or wetter. But there’s a lot of blame to be assigned to ripeness-loving critics and writers, as well. The desire for the gargantuan points (and prices) achieved by Zind Humbrecht or Weinbach has led to a lot of long-hanging viticulture without corollary concentration or the sense of balance occasionally achieved by the former and more regularly achieved by the latter, and that means a lot of wines that aren’t pleasantly off-dry or easy-to-drink soft, but instead are just sugary and leaden. This has been a disaster for the region, as sales demonstrate.

Sweetness labeling isn’t going to save Alsace, but it certainly won’t hurt. What’s more, I suspect it will have an unintended effect: faced with the prospect of labeling nearly everything they produce as sweet, more than a few wineries are going to rethink the absence of dry wines in their stable and (re)start producing some. This, too, can’t hurt.

(It’s possible that this isn’t actually an unintended effect. Gresser may very much intend this exact outcome. Good for him, if so.)

I fear that, over the long run, Alsace — like many other regions — may be forced to consider rethinking their traditional varieties in favor of something more climate-appropriate. How much sweet gewurztraminer and sweet pinot gris does the world really need, after all? But in the meantime, this represents unquestionable progress. I only hope the producers heed the message of the market and join in.

What the hell are we flighting, flor?

[flor, © Arnaud 25 via Wikimedia Commons]It’s all about context.

Oxygen is the enemy of wine. Open a bottle and it starts to die, right then and there. The demise may take minutes or long, lingering days, and there may be some interesting…maybe even salutary…effects along the way (certain components kick their respective buckets faster than others), but the fact is that exposing a wine to oxygen is signing its death warrant.

This is as true in the winery as it is in the bottle, and a lot of modern winemaking is about going to elaborate lengths to keep wine and oxygen as far apart as the Montagues and Capulets. The failure to do so turns out about as well as that literary pairing did, albeit without quite so many balcony dramatics. Careful pumping from one container to another, topping up barrels the instant they show a little airspace, bottling under a blanket of oxygen-repelling gas…it’s all part of the basic repertoire.

Sure, there are a few ambered-in-time wine styles – colheita port comes to mind – in which a little bit of oxidation can be expected, but what in the distant past used to be the norm is, today, little more than a historical artifact. These days, when someone mentions oxidation it’s almost always negative…as with the vexing scourge of prematurely-oxidized white Burgundies. And oxidation isn’t the only worry. For in the cellar, oxygen also encourages the growth of unwelcome micro-beasties that will work their own nefariousness on the wine.

Ah…but it’s all about context.

One of the colonizations encouraged by excess in-barrel oxygen is yeast…or at least, a certain type of yeast. Finished with the busywork of turning sugar into poisonous (to them) alcohol, they retreat to the surface, lay back, and commence as much of a sunny post-work bask as yeast cells can enjoy within the darkened confines of a wine barrel. Their cousins join them, pulling up a very tiny beach chair and cuddling close. And soon enough, there’s an enveloping film of recumbent Saccharomyces doing what the winemaker could (or would) not: separating wine from oxygen. Oh, those poor unicellular Romeos and elemental Juliets, they just can’t catch a break…

And then…a bunch of chemical stuff happens. I’m not going to bore anyone (least of all myself) with the details, especially since I’d just be cribbing others’ barely-comprehensible work, and I’d still probably get it wrong. The important thing is that, under certain controlled conditions, this layer of yeast – one that in most situations would mean liquid refreshment for the winery drain – leads to something particularly interesting. The geographical center of such controlled conditions is the region of Spain in which Sherry is made. There (and in other Spanish regions practicing similar techniques) the yeast is called flor, from the Spanish word for “flower.”

But the flower doesn’t just bloom in Spain. It’s also embraced in the Jura region of France, in which vin jaune (yellow wine) is the most famous name amongst a varied, yeast-enveloped genre. There, flor is called voile, which means something like “veil,” “shroud,” or “curtain.” And then there’s Sardinia, with its vernaccia di Oristano, and…well, no need for a complete dossier on flor’s worldwide peregrinations. Enough to know that it’s not just restricted to Jerez and its neighbors.

The French term for the yeast in question raises an interesting question however: what is flor’s role in varietal and site expression? Like fortification, botrytis, bubbles, sans soufre winemaking, and the extended macerations of the orange wine set, is what it adds to the organoleptic palette subverted by its masking, equalizing effects? Do flor-affected wines achieve an asymptotic similarity, or do grape and site still shine through? Perhaps flor itself differs from wine to wine?

These are provocations that can’t be argued into submission, but rather need to be explored by tasting. And the Impresario of Orange, towering (literally) New York wine eminence Levi Dalton – the man responsible for last year’s orange wine bacchanal – is just the man to do it. It is thus that a group of wandering seekers after a babe in swaddling yeasts assemble at Alto, Dalton’s swanky new Manhattan restaurant digs, to find out. Florty-nine wines…each one flor-affected, flighted and sequenced in a controlled setting which will highlight what they do and don’t reveal from behind their veils.

It’s all about context, after all.

Oh…and there’s food. Selected from some of the hits of the flor repertoire but taking a few chances, filtered through Alto’s northern-Italianate leanings (more or less; note the cheesy interloper at the end), and mostly highly-restrained and low-impact, which serves the wines – if not always the food – well.

canapés
sausage-stuffed olive, branzino tartare, spiced marcona almonds

capesante dorate e agrodolce di uva
seared scallops, toasted marcona almonds, golden raisin agrodolce

garganelli amatriciana
hand-made pasta quills, pancetta, slow-cooked tomato ragù, basil

sgombro alla griglia
lightly grilled mackerel, fava purée, hen of the woods mushrooms

comté

And so, flortified and sustained, we forge florward…into a walk-around tasting of finos and manzanillas.

El Maestro Sierra Fino (Jerez) – Very salty and fierce, slashing and hacking away at the already well-infused remains of a raw olive pit. Bitter. With food, this is pretty exciting; without it, there’s hurt. (8/10)

Gutiérrez Colosia “Juan Sebastian Elcano” Fino (Jerez) – Dirt, sand, sourness, and rancidity. The worst wine in the room, and by a fair measure. The real first man to sail around the world deserves better than this, doesn’t he? (8/10)

Perez Barquero “Gran Barquero” Fino (Jerez) – Nuts and old citrus oils, with a molten candle-wax texture. Smooth and elegant. (8/10)

Toro Albalá “Eléctrico” Fino (Jerez) – Bitter green olive and lemon pith. Rectangular in form. Not very interesting, but OK. (8/10)

Dios Baco Fino (Jerez) – Perfumed, elegant, and somewhat feminine in form. Flowery. Fills out and lengthens on the finish, though the alcohol becomes more pointed. (8/10)

Lustau “Jarana” Fino (Jerez) – Sweet watermelon and strawberry. Kind of a fluffy fruit bomb. Not what I want. (8/10)

Lustau José Luis González Obregón Fino del Puerto (Jerez) – Flat-textured. Sand and gravel in planar form. A little weird, but there’s complexity in that weirdness. (8/10)

Valdespino “Inocente” Fino (Jerez) – Lavish, complex, and well-seasoned with various salts and peppers, yet elegant at the same time. Earth-driven, in a grey-toned way. Very impressive. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 15” Fino (Jerez) – Starts texturally lush but quickly turns solid, its dark metals ending in squared-off edges. Seems not to be all it could be. Good but disappointing, I’d call it. (8/10)

Fino is sort of the poster child for flor-influenced wine, and so here is an early demonstration of something that will become increasingly clear as the tasting continues into other regions and realms: while it’s not really possible to mask flor’s influence, the extent to which it’s pushed into a supporting rather than leading role has a lot to do with how positively I respond to a given wine. I should note that come to this tasting with an unfortunate disposition against Sherry – I can appreciate it, but I very rarely love it – and I wonder if someone with more affection for the genre might feel differently, preferring more equilibrium between yeasty and grapey elements. On the other hand, here and in the flight that follows, my favorite wines are those that I’d expect to favor based on reputation, so maybe it’s less an issue of picking the most interesting wines than it is properly appreciating the more typical, middle-of-the-road expressions.

La Cigarrera Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Rusty seawater, thick and chunky. Moody and dark. Difficult to like, or even to approach. (8/10)

Argüeso San León Clásica Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Bright lemon rind, salted stones, and riesling-like metal shards. An inner light lifts this into the realm of refreshing. (8/10)

Pedro Romero “Aurora” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Very fruity (seriously: raspberry and peach, not typical manzanilla descriptors, at least in my experience). Decidedly different and somewhat giggly. (8/10)

Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Direct and overtly fruity, melding stone fruit and Rainier cherries with peaches and just a little bit of minerality. The training wheels need to come off, and soon. (8/10)

Dios Baco “Riá Pitá” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Structured and full-bodied but beaten down by overt sourness and what appears to be light oxidation. Lifeless, really. (8/10)

Lustau “Papirusa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Leafy and barky, with an omnipresent snowflake shower of apricot skin. Medium-toned and average. (8/10)

Valdespino “Deliciosa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Spiced berries and dark fruit dominated by minerality. Complex and rather fantastic, albeit showy. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 16” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – The bones are evident, but that’s appealing here, as the plump intensity draped about the skeleton just adds interest. Long, spicy…and dry, dry, dry. Really excellent. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 10” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Heady, dark fruit edging towards cherry, with a saline structure and thick, persistent intensity on the finish. Very impressive. (8/10)

The manzanilla-fest starts slowly, but more approachably than the finos, and then pretty quickly builds towards the same qualitative conclusion as the last flight. I know which producers will be on the shopping list: the same ones that were before the tasting. But a few have dropped off in the interim.

Montagut “Mendall” 2007 “Vinyes Arrencades” (Cataluña) – Apple and honeysuckle. Mead-like. Or maybe it’s dandelion wine? There’s a bit of skin to it, so perhaps it’s neither. Quite interesting. (8/10)

Vevi 1954 “Golden” (Castilla & León) – Spanish speakers would know this as the “Dorada” bottling (why it was so arbitrarily and Ibérico-handedly translated I don’t know), done in solera and made from verdejo (with cameos from viura and palomino) in the Rueda. Sweet and short, blowing itself out early in a soft burst of bronzed banana. Fun and very appealing…while it lasts, which isn’t long. (8/10)

Strictly speaking, the Vevi probably would have been better nearer the end of this meal, alongside the vernaccias, but that would have orphaned the Mendall. Perhaps they’re better left here, as an interesting interlude or a palate reset before delving into much narrower and more directed realms of flor – or rather, voile – expression. Florward march, voilenteers…

Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” (Jura) – Pointedly volatile but otherwise shy, aromatically; it could be that the reticence highlights what would otherwise be submerged volatility. Peachy, pretty, and rounded. Very fresh. If there’s flor influence here, I can’t detect it, despite being assured by all involved that there is. In a tasting of non-sous voile Jura whites, this wouldn’t stand out. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. (8/10)

Bornard 2005 Côtes du Jura Savagnin “les Marnes” (Jura) – Forward fruit and huge acidity. Very juicy, with a gummy texture despite all that acid. Shouldery. (8/10)

Puffeney 2005 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Here’s an interesting twist: mint, lily, apple blossom. Intense, balanced, and unreasonably long, turning more orange-ish and succulent as it lingers. There’s some volatile acidity to deal with, but it’s manageable. (8/10)

Puffeney 2003 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Dusty and dense, with both the texture and some of the form of an orange wine, but also with the fatness of the vintage. Thick, spicy, and shocked with electric tangerine that – alas – doesn’t make up for insufficient acidity. Direct, and yet holding something back. This is good for a 2003, and (as the lengthy note indicates) it’s hardly without interest, but it’s neither typical nor qualitatively above-average. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois Savagnin “Cuvée l’Oubliée” (Jura) – Stone fruit and copper with a beautiful texture. Incredibly interesting, with depths and hidden hollows in that depth, then crannies in those hollows; the finish is almost Mandelbrotian. Gorgeous. It is not, one must caveat, representative of normal Arbois savagnin. It’s special. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois “Cuvée Christelle” (Jura) – A deft but somewhat acrid nose soon loses itself in flowers, mold, and volatile acidity. Powdery. Too weird for me. (8/10)

Here endeth the first flight, in confusion and disarray. A slow start, a peaking middle, and then a jumpy trio of eccentricities. As for enveloping mold characteristics, they’re too voileatile to pin down in this set of wines. Onward…

Macle 2006 Côtes du Jura (Jura) – Almond and metal-armored apple in its woody, post-ripened stage. Deep and rather thoughtful. With that apple, steel, and a (contextually) brittle acidity, it almost seems to have spent some time in riesling’s classroom, learning a lesson here and there but rejecting a more encompassing imposition of form. It’s…different. (8/10)

Ganevat 2005 Arbois “Cuvée de Garde” (Jura) – Windy and difficult on the nose, but the palate makes up for it with an excess of expression. Wet metal, walnut (without bitterness, though), and stones. Angular. (8/10)

Ganevat 2002 Côtes du Jura “La Combe” (Jura) – A little stewed and short, with the alcohol out of balance and to the fore. I ask a few fellow tasters who’ve previous experience with the wine (David Lillie is one, so it’s not like I’m asking random passersby) if this seems to be an intact bottle, and they assure me it tastes as it has. In the absence of that assurance, I’d have thought something was wrong with this bottle, and that something was heat-related. Whatever the cause, it’s not very good. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2001 l’Etoile “Cuvée Spéciale” (Jura) – Lots of acid and even more metals, haphazardly piled atop one another with flash but without cohesion. Vibrant and piercing. It’s a very particular wine, and it will leave you a little breathless along the way. “Good” isn’t really applicable. It’s liquid iconoclasm. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2005 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Very flor-dominated, with a complex stew of high-toned quivering and a waxy interior. Mineral, long, and linear. There’s not much else to it, but I wonder if it’s not just too young to strut. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2004 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Gravelly, moldy, and bitter, with obvious volatile acidity. Short, twisted, and difficult. What happened here? (8/10)

Another pause for us to collect our breath and scrape our tongues. Again, the wines are all over the map both stylistically and qualitatively, but some common threads are starting to appear in the weave. First, the acidity, which is affected by yet manages to stand somewhat apart from varietal influence: here and in other wines it’s a planar, nearly impenetrable, and yet paper-thin wall of zing rather than an integrated partner in the structural framework. Second, there’s a tendency towards volatility that might escape notice for the non-freakishly sensitive (which, alas, I am). Third, and perhaps most relevant to the subject of our study, there’s a way in which flor seems to grasp the wine’s aromatics and structure in a loosely-gripped fist. In return, there’s a payback of textural complexity, but the wine has to work to earn everything else. Some can’t escape the clench and end up dominated by that external envelopment. But those that do seem more alive and in-motion as a result of the energy required for the escape.

The next few wines are a bit of an interlude, starting on-topic but soon darting afield.

Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin (Jura) – Buttered bronze, deep copper, empty silver. I can’t quite get past the midpalate void, but the perimeter is certainly shiny. (8/10)

Loye 1989 Arbois (Jura) – Salted nuts. Simple, forward, and fruity. Kind of a yawn. (8/10)

Campadieu “Domaine La Tour Vieille” Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille “Memoire (d’Automnes)” (Roussillon) – A gorgeous texture (is that oak, though? it does a good impression if not) with cinnamon and nutmeg (again: wood?) plus other spices deeper in the blend. Stands a little too apart in this crowd for proper analysis, I think, but I’d welcome another go in a different context. (8/10)

Causse Marines 1996 Vin de Table “Mysterre” (Southwest France) – More conformity to INAO edict would make this a Gaillac, I’m told. Powdered salt, mixed citrus rinds and skins, and a weird Styrofoam finish. Too bad…it was just getting strange. (8/10)

More glasses are added, until we’re all protected behind a solid wall of glittering crystal fortifications, and then the most focused and relentless assault of single-notion wines commences. It will be quite educational, if not necessarily enlivening.

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Deep, with brittle acidity and a hard, sandpapery texture. There’s a sort of lingering nothingness to the finish. Closed, or just not very interesting? (8/10)

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2001 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Despite a pillowy aspect to what “fruit” there is, the acidity is razored. In fact, I mention the acidity three times in my scribbled notes, so it must have impressed me. What appears to not have impressed me is anything else about the wine, because the acidity is all that I write about. So: the acidic pillow. It might be a great band name, but it’s not a great wine. (8/10)

Macle 2002 Château Chalon (Jura) – Pine-Sol™ and waves of acidity, both traditional and volatile. Frankly, this is actively repellent, though some of that is my personal issue with VA. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2003 Château Chalon (Jura) – Grapey but otherwise subtle. Reminds me of a smoked apple tart. Interesting. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2000 Château Chalon (Jura) – A goopy froth of diffidence. Small and short. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2000 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Pear and metal with big acidity and persistent intensity. A diagonal wine. Hard to ignore, but you must tilt your palate in the correct direction. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 1999 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Sweet with acrid intrusions. The finish is bitter. Weird and old-tasting. I’d be tempted to ascribe this generalized failure to the bottle in the absence of a second sample. (8/10)

Puffeney 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Intense, with great balance. Metal, pear, and layers of compressed leaves. Striking and sophisticated. Very, very good. No…brilliant. My absolute favorite of all the non-Spanish wines, and by a significant margin. (8/10)

Puffeney 2000 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Powdery to the point of being toothsome, with a quinine aroma and a complex, amaro-like bitterness (that is, melding bitter/sweet/herbal components). More interesting than good, though it’s certainly not bad. (8/10)

Puffeney 1996 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Weirdly ashen with spiny acidity. Difficult. I feel like I’m missing something that I might have noticed were my palate not fatigued by this point, but maybe I’m not and there’s just not that much here. (8/10)

I normally count myself a fan of both vin jaune and Château Chalon, albeit I rarely get to taste the latter due to cost and general non-availability. As a result, looking over my collection of notes comes as rather a surprise. Palate ennui? Perhaps, but I don’t notice in the text a devolving reaction to the wines’ similarities, which would be the usual fatigue effect. Instead, there’s an increasingly persnickety spotlight on various flaws and imbalances, and to say that those flaws and imbalances aren’t – to my palate – present is not right either. Without extensive retasting, it’s hard to say much more. I only like three of these wines, and truly love only one. But wow, do I love that one.

In retrospect, I wonder if the serving order doesn’t negatively affect these wines. Not the order within the flight, but the fact that they come after the less-reputed gaggle of wines in the last flight. Reputation doesn’t always equal greater size or concentration, and in fact the previous bunch certainly features more showmanship and overt statement-making. These wines, while largely of a piece within their respective appellations (my notes elide some of the similarities), are quieter…while, at the same time, in more congenial agreement with each other. It is ever the “curse” of such wines that they do less well the more peers they are forced to converse with, and I do suspect the combination of breadth and serving order is at least partly to blame for my dissatisfaction with the lineup.

As for veils, curtains, and shrouds, there’s certainly a consistency to the wines in terms of the acid/volatile aromatic relationship. If that’s the voile, then it’s most definitely on display here. But while my favorite wine in the group is (again) the one that layers the most on top of that shroud, I also like a few wines that attempt more playful, interpretative, contrapuntal dances with their veils.

The dinner’s finale is a somewhat amusing one, as our chief server (not Levi, it should be noted) attempts to tell us that the Comté in front of us is Italian and (he thinks) from Puglia. I’m all for his nationalistic boosterism, but…seriously, now. (He does return later, someone red-faced, to admit that it is, in fact, actual Comté. It’s also more than a little wan and flavorless for a Comté, but that’s a separate issue.)

Contini Vernaccia di Oristano “Antico Gregori” (Sardinia) – Honeyed Pink Lady apple cider and pollen. Ripe. Appealing. (8/10)

Contini 1987 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – Restrained. Pine nuts and a brittle, snap-crackle honeycomb character. Very pretty. (8/10)

Contini 1985 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – White chocolate-covered mandarin oranges. The finish is a bit abrupt, which might indicate progress down the path of lingering demise. (8/10)

These are delicious, though they don’t have the seriousness of purpose or complex subtlety of many other wines I’ve experienced this evening. They taste – it might be more accurate to say that they feel – more like regular dessert wines than they seem part the yeast-enveloped category. But they’re a nice way to finish the meal.

And so, did I learn anything? Did I florge a new understanding, pull back the veil, open the curtains? More importantly, did I make enough stupid jokes and puns utilizing the subject of the tasting?

The answer: yes, I learned something. I learned that, no matter how good the wine, I’m still not a Sherry aficionado…though I have even more confidence that when I do purchase the category, I’m looking for the right labels. I learned that I like the flor show (NB: that’s Levi’s pun, not mine) more in isolation and counterpoint than I do en masse…a lesson not dissimilar to the one I learned at last year’s orange wine festival.

And as for flor? What strikes me in retrospect is not so much some ineffable commonality of aroma, but of structure. With the expected exception of the hotter years, there’s a very brittle and unstable, yet inexorable, character to these wines’ acidity that really marks them…across places, grapes, and categories. It’s not the high and full-throated acidity of (say) an old-style riesling, but it’s nonetheless impossible to ignore. More than the aromatic and textural changes wrought by the veil, it stands as a sort of signature.

A signature, signed with a florish.

Disclosures: none that matter. The Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin and the Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” were supplied by me and purchased at a friendly discount from The Wine Bottega in Boston.