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Nature, reflected

[eglise ste-hune]So, is everybody clear on the subject of natural wine now? Definitions intact? Categorizations certain? Personnel identified?

No?

One of the more amusing sidelights to saignée’s 32 Days of Natural Wine project was reading the parallel discussions elsewhere on the wine-soaked net. Where naturalistas roost, the response was mostly to the content of each new piece. That there was such a thing as natural wine was taken for granted. What a given entry said on the subject of natural wine, however, was often a point of hectoring debate.

Elsewhere, things were a little different. Braying donkeys of didacticism stomping their hooves and insisting that, in the absence of bright-line rules and double-checked lists of those included and excluded, the term was meaningless. Or – worse – inherently hostile.

This latter claim is rather easily dismissed as hair-shirted lunacy. If “natural” is not a claim but a marketing attack, then so is “ripe”…a word regularly employed by some of these put-upon anti-naturalists that can be interpreted in exactly the same aggressive fashion, should one wish to view the vitisphere from a position of agitated paranoia. Of courseripe” implies that other wines are underripe, just as “natural” implies that other wines are less so. But…so what? No one’s being accused of mortal sin here. If one is comfortable with the way one makes wines, one should keep making them that way. And the same is true of marketing. Who cares what someone else wishes to do, or to say about what they do, so much that it must become a battle for terminological supremacy rather than a simple divergence of choices? The angry, defensive crouch does little other than to suggest that its employer is, in fact, not comfortable with the way his or her wines are made and marketed, or is imbued with an unnecessary resentment over how others make and market. That seems like a waste of emotion, to me. Funnel that passion into your own wines, please.

As for the definition of “natural”: anyone who’s actually read all, or even most, of the series’ contributions (and those of the previous year) now must understand very well that there is anything but a definition of natural wine shared among its proponents. Or rather, that there what skeletal definition exists is of motivation and intent rather than practice. On the specifics and details, there is not only no agreement (even among those who appear to have agreed), but often an aggressively-pursued disagreement. And maybe it’s better this way.

Why? Well, another thing that might be learned from the contributions in toto, but perhaps even more clearly from the comments in response, is that many in the natural wine community are a rather contentious and cantankerous lot. Accord is unlikely at any stage just due to their inherent natures, and even were détente to be achieved at some point, it would probably collapse before the cheese course.

Unquestionably, the clearest example of this sort of natural contentiousness was the penultimate (and excellent) contribution from winemaker Eric Texier. If I may over-summarize his provocative argument, it was that “natural” doesn’t mean as much as it might without a more holistic commitment to lowering all agricultural and winemaking impacts, not just those that contribute to the character of a wine.

To this I have several immediate reactions. One is that here, laid plain, is one of the major reasons that there will never be an effective coalition of natural winemakers with clean and clear definitions of what they do and don’t practice: the concept is intimately tied up with philosophies, lifestyles, and even politics which will, inevitably, factionalize those practitioners. Texier’s suggestion that there must be an environmental component to natural practice is forcefully argued, but of course it’s just his opinion. Another producer might be into the notion of natural wines because they prefer the taste. Yet another might have faith-based motivations – as with the various levels of belief in and application of biodynamics – that trump either organoleptic or environmental concerns. Texier’s commitment to his stance (which is more thoroughly explained in the comments to his piece) is not to be confused with full accord, of which I doubt he’d find all that much.

[vulture]Second, there is, in his piece, a little too much “making the perfect the enemy of the good.” That is to say, dismissing the positive impact of worthwhile changes because those changes don’t go far enough for a given observer. If one agrees with the premise that overly-technological and industrial wine production is less desirable than more natural practices – and I’m not stating my own opinion here, merely suggesting that the natural wine cohort would almost certainly have to believe this – then here we have a rejection of that success in favor of waging an increasingly arcane war conducted wholly within the borders of the movement. Rather than lauding the achievement represented by an increased supply of (and knowledge about) natural wine, fingers are now pointed and judgments rendered for a lack of sufficient ideological purity.

This sort of internecine bickering is intimately connected to the philosophical, moral, and political baggage that litters the natural wine landscape; there are those that practice, and there are those that believe. And it’s all a little too Orwellian for my tastes, to be honest. Must we hold some sort of convocation to identify the purest practitioner of ultra-natural, zero-impact winemaking and then unfavorably condemn all others as failures for not achieving that standard? Sure, we can do that. But why would we want to? Isn’t “better” just that: better? Or is the only choice perfection or nothing? Because if there’s a desire to kill the concept and the movement from within, this is certainly the way to do it.

Having just argued against this sort of thing, let me employ it by offering my third reaction to Texier’s piece…which was really my first, but I wanted to get nuance and care out of the way before I took up the sledgehammer. In his essay, Texier argues pretty forcefully against the excess use of fossil fuels (especially those that increase as one transitions to less industrial methods of farming, which seems counter-intuitive but is often the case) and increased carbon footprint. OK, fair enough, but can we discuss the fossil fuel and carbon footprint involved in shipping heavy glass bottles of wine around the world by truck, train, boat, and plane? And (one hopes) refrigerating it along major stretches of that journey? I mean, I’m staring at a bottle of Texier’s Côtes-du-Rhône right now. And I’m in Vermont at the moment, not Texier’s home base of Charnay. There’s quite a footprint underneath that bottle, eh? Or how about his travels around the globe to promote those fuel-burning wines? One could continue along these lines, finding ever finer nits to pick. Provoke, stir…then reduce until absurd.

In other words, a self-considered true pursuer of purity (which I don’t think Texier considers himself) might look rather askance at Texier’s practices, in much the same way his essay challenges others’ practices. Why not, for example, sell only to locals, and – even better – only those locals who bring in reusable containers for refilling? Wouldn’t that use a lot less fuel, and consume a lot less carbon, than the global wine trade?

Sure, of course. Texier would make an awful lot less money, but what does that matter in the pursuit of ideological purity? And in fact, it’s entirely likely that there’s someone who, branding themselves an advocate of whatever they consider to be “real” natural wine, would wholeheartedly embrace this stipulation, and thus condemn Texier for shipping his wines to the furthest reaches of hither and the remotest corners of yon.

But that someone isn’t me. If a producer wants to employ less transformative farming and winemaking practices than they did the year before, that’s great. I applaud them for it. If another producer wants to examine and reduce their use of fossil fuels, that’s also great, and I applaud them as well. If a third producer wishes to do both…well, terrific. But as for a epilogue of disdain for the first two, who could only manage 50% of the change? Sorry. Not interested.

It was a dark & stormy night

[snowy tree]Passion & warfare

The contrasts of Italy can be striking. Nerve-jangling cities, pressed close and gesticulatory. Pastoral, ambered countryside as much Etruscan as modern Italian. Verdant beauty, industrial squalor, living history, the fleeting whims of modern fashion. But always, always, always overlaid with the intensity of the Italians themselves. Hands in flight, mach 5 language in simultaneous eruption, pressing any and every point until it has been flattened or pierced, and never, ever yielding. Faster and more intense there, more restrained here…the regional and cultural differences show…but if there’s any sort of national unity in this dubiously unified country, it’s this.

And it’s so here in the Piedmont, too. Parts of it almost impossibly beautiful, reclining peacefully amongst vine-covered hills. Wines both royal and common, as richly conceived a cuisine as one will find. History. And, it must be noted, wealth, which does not always factor into the Italian equation. Every predicate, it would seem, to a peaceful, self-satisfied existence.

But illusions are no less illusory for their patina of gentility. No face can hide roiling passions forever, and those passions are what define this tenuous national culture. The Piemontese may be slower to it, at least outwardly, but eventually it will out. All the argumentative, confrontational glory of those passions, unleashed. Perhaps first on targets external…but then, inevitably, turned inward. Not just because there’s disagreement and discord – though of course there is – but because no one is better at passionately-engaged disorder than the Italians. Why waste time bickering with lesser practitioners?

We’re in the Foro Boario in Nizza Monferrato for yet anotheranother? yes, another! – tasting. More Nizza-labeled wine, more pressing of an organoleptic point that seems increasingly elusive in the glass, but ever clearer when viewed cynically. That cynicism is, admittedly, helped along by the fact that this is a (beautifully) refurbished cattle market. Well, the cattle have arrived. Let the slaughter begin.

Outside, it’s snowing. A fluffy, blanketing snow. The din of the city is muffled. Peace descends. Piedmont is quieting.

Inside, amongst the cattle? Not so much.

Écrevisse rouge

After the tasting, there’s a speech. A long one, chockablock with grand statements of intent. Not unexpected, of course, but after a lunchtime speech that was drier but had actual oenological research to report, something that’s purely marketing-driven may contribute to pushing the cattle’s tasters’ moods into the reddish hues. There’s material – and perhaps it’s intentionally vague, but at any rate it’s unsatisfactory when paired with the organoleptic evidence we’ve just finished expectorating – justifying the existence of the Nizza sub-appellation, and a fair amount of satisfaction expressed at the style and quality of what we’re tasting.

This is a little odd, to be honest. It wouldn’t be had the day gone differently up to this point; one hardly expects that the producers, here to promote their product, would be anything other than enthusiastic. But immediately after a largely hostile post-lunch Q&A in which the clear dissatisfaction of some of the assembled has been communicated, a bland reassertion of the party line might be heard in a different context. Could that be a note of defensiveness that we hear? No? Well…why not? These are producers who were pretty harshly attacked, earlier in the day, and though most of them weren’t physically present at that event, the news has to have been communicated by now. Where’s the counter-argument? Where’s the preemptive defense? Where’s the passion?

(It’s coming.)

Yet all this is still mere prelude. And had we moved directly from tasting and post-tasting speech to dinner, this post wouldn’t exist. As at lunch, the actual controversy-catalyzing event may be a more basic one: opening the floor to questions.

Matters start pleasantly enough. Here’s a Danish audient, well-pleased and happy to report same. “To be honest, I didn’t used to like barbera, but now it’s a truly interesting wine, and now I enjoy it.” To this there is some nodding from the producers, perhaps even a faint smile here and there, but far from universal approval. This is revealing because it betrays a clear and pervading sense that if some agree with this sentiment, some do not, or at least are on the fence about it.

Or, maybe, it’s that they found the old wines unsatisfactory for reasons other than personal taste. Could that be?

Near the end of the just-mentioned speech, we are treated to a fairly passionate defense of the current wines. What’s strange is that it comes not from the producers, but from a writer for Gambero Rosso. Not, it must be added, an unbiased source when it comes to championing the tools of internationalization, as their triplicate bicchieri have long-demonstrated. Moreover, it’s a very odd synergy of effort, like a Pentagon official handing the microphone to an allegedly disinterested reporter and asking her to defend a military decision. Shouldn’t there be some separation between the two camps? Is it really Gambero Rosso’s job to promote the wines of Nizza?

(This wouldn’t be particularly worthy of mentioning, except that it comes up again later.)

And then, the fun begins. Several things should be noted in advance. One is that much of what follows (though not all of it) is translated. Translation is a hard enough job to begin with, but translating heat – both directions – has to be draining. It is, as always, possible that certain nuances and senses have been lost in that translation. It is also worth mentioning that as tensions escalated, the translator’s tone took on a decidedly aggrieved tenor, at times seeming to do so without prompting; the clear sense was that the translator herself was getting her back up, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. This is fully understandable, given the tenor of the room, but it may have contributed to an escalation of tensions…adding a second layer of upset when, before translation, there may have been only one.

Another is that what follows is not all from the Q&A in Nizza. At times – and it will become obvious why – it seemed necessary to include words from other times and places. Those intrusions have been clearly noted, but it’s worth mentioning to head off potential confusion.

On with the show…

[row of glasses]Issues one and two: structure & alcohol

The first volley of contrarianism comes from an Italian attendee, apparently not on board with Gambero Rosso’s enthusiasm. The Nizza wines, he says, are “very structured but lose drinkability,” and in fact are “so structured it’s hard to drink [them].” He then suggests that they’re more like Amarone than barbera. It’s an on-point charge, especially as we’ve already visited a producer who uses an appassimento-like procedure, but the concentration and density of these wines is, I think, coming mostly from the more usual methods.

Now, I’ve noted before that, sometimes, the answers to questions asked of winemakers here (and elsewhere) can be confusing and contradictory. If I may presume to divine intent, I don’t think it’s usually because the producers don’t know what they’re talking about, or that they’re lying but not very good at it. Either is possible, of course, but I’m hesitant to jump immediately to the worst possible interpretation when more charitable alternatives exist. I think, instead, that the producers are themselves sometimes conflicted on these issues. Or if they’re not, they’re cognizant of debate with their peers over controversial matters; they “hear” this internal narrative of dissent and uncertainty while they’re trying to express a coherent philosophy. Not necessarily trained as public speakers, and sometimes attempting these formulations in languages other than their own, consistency can fall by the wayside. And there’s no blame in that.

But there’s also no answer in that. For example, one producer’s response to this initial challenge is that alcohol “is a problem with these wines,” but that producers are “trending towards” making more elegant wine. But then, he changes his mind. “I don’t see higher alcohol as being a problem.” (This is the same person speaking, remember.) He then finishes with a reiteration that “we do need to go towards more elegance.” So: alcohol isn’t a problem, but we’re trying for more elegance because it is a problem. Got it.

OK, so maybe there’s at least some agreement, from some quarters, that these Nizza wines have been muscled up a little too much, and that maybe their alcohols contribute to a sense of mass that doesn’t serve them well. But then, the answer moves to address another structural complaint, this one regarding a lack of acidity in these modern barberas.

Issue three: acidity

“The fact is that we’re moving into markets where this hasn’t ever been an issue.”

Note that the charge is neither refuted nor challenged; assent is inherent in this response. But that’s not what strikes me about the answer. What does hearkens back to Kermit Lynch’s brilliant Adventures on the Wine Route. In it, there’s an encounter (I may get some of the details wrong; this is from memory) in which a producer defends his decision to start aggressively filtering based on potential new markets in places like Africa. The reasoning is that these far-flung locales couldn’t handle the immeasurable shock of sediment (or worse, instability if the wine is treated poorly in transit), and thus the entire world must be subject to the shipping conditions and theoretical naïveté of one new – and probably very small – market. Those familiar with Lynch’s position on filtration can probably guess his opinion of this defense.

And so, here is the suggestion that if no one knows barbera used to be a high-acid wine, no one will miss the acidity. Well, maybe that’s true for these mysterious new markets (though I think pretty much anyone can guess who’s being talked about), but it’s a little insulting to everyone else. If, next year, barbera is sold to us as a sweet white wine because someone in Bhutan doesn’t know that it was ever otherwise, are we supposed to embrace that as well? Is no one listening to Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, the university researcher who presented our lunchtime lecture?

“Barbera, more than any other grape variety, owes its character to acidity. In the past, people have boasted – for not the right reasons – about this acidity. […] We can produce balanced and great-tasting barbera, [and w]e can do so while maintaining the defining character of barbera.”

[producers]Issue four: tannin

The fun – the real fun (by which, of course, I mean red-faced confrontation and controversy) – starts with the ever-cantankerous Belgians. No, really.

Bernard Arnould, taking the microphone, pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts. They’re not entirely unlike those of the Italian’s earlier challenge, but they’re presented somewhat more aggressively. And they’re certainly taken that way; tensions in the room immediately escalate and never entirely abate. Here’s Arnould:

“Why so much oak? Why so many uninteresting tannins? [My] quest is to find a wine with fruit, freshness, tannins that are interesting and not dry, and…if it’s necessary…a little oak. If you think that putting oaky barberas on the market is a good idea, [then you just] join the rest of the world in making big, oaky wines.”

There’s a low rumble from the assembled. And that’s just the attendees. From the winemakers and their representatives, there’s a matching hum in a darker tone and a simultaneous, many-handed grasping for a microphone. But Arnould hasn’t relinquished his, and finishes with a direct question that’s probably intended to be one of a series (he never gets the chance): “do you add oenological tannins?”

Yes, it’s aggressive. Confrontational. Even a little obnoxious. Candor is one path to the truth, no? But Lodovico Isolabella can take no more. Into a freshly-acquired microphone, he shouts (yes, shouts):

“Do you have any concept of wine? Do you have any idea what you are talking about?”

Now, maybe the answer is no. And maybe it’s not. But remember: this is a promotional event. The assembled invitees have not called the producers here to berate them over what they view as deformative practices (who would attend?). Rather, the producers have called the invitees here to teach them something, or to market to them, or at the least to support an argument for their grape and place with their wines. It’s true that they’ve paid for this event and all its trappings, and maybe they believe (or someone has led them to believe) that this will inevitably lead to enthusiasm, or at least mute assent, in return. Well, their mistake. But this sort of attack is very close to the least helpful of all possible responses. One that is echoed in tone and content, a few minutes later, by another producer, who sniffily insists that “to ever suggest that we’re adding tannins doesn’t deserve response.”

(Note, for the record, that in neither case does the response include any synonym of the word “no.”)

Now, a less even-keeled questioner, having tasted Isolabella’s wines and found them as lacking as I did, might have snapped back, “I don’t know. Do you?” But neither charity nor politesse are required. We can, instead, just listen. Here, for example, is the winemaker from l’Armangia, just a day earlier:

“The new [trend] is to say that [a] wine is not aged in wood…but fine tannins are added.”

One of them might be, as the euphemism goes, in error with respect to the facts. There might be a translation/transcription error. Or, more likely, one of the two just does not agree with the other. The latter seems more likely, and the evening’s ongoing contradictions will support this theory After all, we do get a better answer to Arnould’s question, eventually, albeit from a different producer: “there is enough tannin in the oak to make wine’s [overall] tannins what they should be.”

That’s the end of this, then? It’s just a simple divergence of opinion, right?

[hastae slide]Well, wait. Here’s a slide (pictured at right) from this afternoon’s Hastae presentation, backgrounding the wines that were produced to determine and demonstrate differences between pruning methods. The Hastae organization, remember, is suhbeaded by the names of its founding producers: Berta, Braida, Chiarlo, Coppo, Prunotto, and Vietti. So unless these are absentee directors…and they can’t all be, since Michele Chiarlo was most definitely present while this slide was being projected a few feet behind him…they are almost certainly aware what was done to the wines.

(For those who can’t decipher the slide, it reads: “both wines obtained from Guyot pruning and spur cordon pruning were treated by oak tannins [and] grape seed tannins.)

So here’s my follow-up question: does Lodovico Isolabella have any concept of what his peers are doing? Do they have any idea what they are talking about? Maybe he should direct his ire at them.

Issue five: oak

Of course, even the aforementioned polite response about oak tannin has its own problems. Tannin, not a significant natural variable in the barbera structural equation, absolutely is added to these wines. Just not necessarily in the packaged form Arnould was asking about. Instead, it’s added by the use of barrels, whether new or used…though of course, more and more often they’re new. Regarding this practice and its benefits, there is a certain discord:

“The use of wood is necessary” – Michele Chiarlo

“It would be uniquely stupid to try to sell wines that have imbalanced oak.” – another producer, this one of Dutch nationality but with a predictably impeccable command of English, and also the one who thinks that asking about oenological tannins “doesn’t deserve response”

“The use of wood can be compared to a beautiful woman; the clever use of makeup can be used to make a beautiful woman more beautiful.” – yet another producer, whose admission that new oak is as much a cosmetic as a qualitative element is welcome

“Some producers [use] barriques; this [is] a mistake.” – Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, earlier today

[glass of barbera]This is where the writer from Gambero Rosso reenters the discussion; not in person, but as an elevated authority whose opinion must necessarily trump that of our rebellious cohort:

“Someone” (the speaker points to the writer) “who tastes these wines on a regular basis says [our] use of wood is more elegant, and then you…with this opinion that there’s too much wood… [the thought goes unfinished, but the tone is fabulously besnotted] …obviously, wood is very popular.”

Ah, yes. “Popular.” As with our acid-ignorant new markets for barbera, which can only understand a grape by the products of today rather than of the past, the other standard by which we are to judge the quality and difference of these wines is popularity. Chiarlo insists that wood is “extremely popular” in his markets…and after all, as he noted over lunch and reiterates (with a minor clarification) this evening, “in commercial terms, a wine is a good wine when it sells.”

So who’s craving these woody barberas? I suspect most readers suspect who’s going to receive the blame, eventually, but the journey to and around that point is intriguing.

Issue six: the market

Here’s Chiarlo again:

“I’ve never made a wine for any market”

That seems like an odd thing to say when one is near-simultaneously moved to tout the extreme popularity of wood in one’s export markets. If one really isn’t crafting wine for the market, then the proper answer is some variation on “I make wine the way I want to make wine.” Whether or not it’s true, the needs of marketing are served and it’s difficult to gainsay.

An here’s our Dutch friend again, who I might mention is running away with the award for the day’s most witheringly sarcastic tone:

“we are infinitely aware that the consumers are seeking a well-balanced, fruit-forward wine”

Well, which consumers? As I suggested, I think we all know who’s about to be named. Dutch guy again, breaking the ice:

“American taste is ‘very different’ from Swiss or Belgian”

That’s right. It’s the Americans’ fault. Of course. By way of confirmation, here’s a winery owner from a few days later. A big, big, big producer and exporter of wine, and a master marketer. I won’t name him or the winery as I have been asked not to (for reasons that seem exceedingly silly to me, though I will detail them in a later episode) but I think anyone familiar with the region can probably guess:

“[W]e must make wines to compete with American-style wines. […] Of course, the German market is entirely different [and] wants wines with no wood. […] Sometimes it’s very hard for us to figure out what the market wants.”

Now, let’s go back to that earlier discussion regarding acidity, and why we’re told its diminution in these wines isn’t a problem. The markets being referred to can’t be Europe, because these wines have long been available there. And it can’t be the U.S., either, because they’re no strangers on our shores, either. Looking around the room at the attendees and the regions they represent, or just employing simple common sense, it’s clear who’s meant: Asia. It’s the Asians who, according to these producers, don’t care about barbera that lacks its signature acidity.

It’s not important to know, at this stage, whether or not this contention is true. It might be, and it might not. Asia’s an awfully big market. What’s important is that a market and its preferences have been identified. And now, over another issue, we have more geographical subdivision: successful European markets like Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium apparently prefer unwooded barbera. (To this one could likely add Scandinavia and much of the rest of Northern Europe.) And the Americans are believed to want fruit and wood.

So…are we sure no one is making wine for the market? Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that our anonymous owner is (and admits same) and that Michele Chiarlo isn’t. But there seems to be an awful lot of identification of market preferences going on, that by pure coincidence happens to coincide with a massive upsurge in new oak (and a concomitant downgrade of acidity), resulting in wines that by pure coincidence happen to serve the perceived preferences of those markets.

Me, I’m a firm believer in coincidence. But not appellation-wide coincidence.

[snowy night]Issue seven: the United States

I have a question, though. Are the producers of barbera right? Are fruity, woody wines what the Yanks crave?

Not so fast, objects Charles Scicolone, who is becoming somewhat of a professional Asti antagonist today. He has a problem with the idea that Americans like oaky wines; in fact, he counters, Americans are turning away from oak. “I’m tired,” he insists, “of hearing ‘we made this wine for the American market.’” He’s tired of tasting allegedly American-style wines at producers around the world, wines so heavily-barriqued that they’re “not the wines that locals want to drink.” He then gestures towards the row of bloggers of which I’m a part (six sevenths of whom are Americans) and points out that we’re obviously examples of Americans who do not, in fact, like big, fruity, oaky wines…and have been rather stridently saying so.

Scicolone is right, but it’s worth bringing some nuance to this issue to clarify the bounded sphere in which he is right. “Americans” is an awfully big, Hydratic market with a lot of different preferences. If the American market in question is the one that buys the lower echelons of the Constellation Brands portfolio (.pdf) and its Australian/Chilean/Argentinean/South African/etc. counterparts in supermarkets and corner liquor marts, then yes…that American market probably does want fruit-forward, oaky wines.

But those are also inexpensive wines. The barberas that live that price realm are not fruit-forward, oaky wines. They’re the steel or old-wood versions in all their traditionally lean, razored sharpness. In other words, the “classic” barbera that we’re alleged to not want. And this cannot really be otherwise, because new wood and other heft-inducing techniques in the vineyard and the cellar are expensive. Pricing that’s competitive with mass-produced, industrial wines is unlikely at best.

No, these wines carry a higher cost…in some cases, significantly so. As such, they are attempting to capture the interest of an entirely different market. One with a much greater diversity of options from pretty much everywhere in the world, and one that can afford to make stylistic choices based on that diversity. This market has fragmented, and anyone who was actually familiar with it would be quick to say so. Yes, there are those who prefer fruit and oak. But there are also those who crave fruit without oak, and those who prize elegance and austerity, and those whose preferences are more philosophical than organoleptic. There are lovers of high-acid wines and those that find acid shrill. There are embracers of conformity and adventurers after diversity. There is, in other words, no one market.

What, then, is the pitch to be made for these wines? For it is no easy task to grasp and hold the attention of consumers who have as many choices as any wine lover throughout history has ever had. And it’s even more difficult when working with somewhat-unfamiliar grapes from previously-unknown places…like, say, barbera from Nizza. If the pitch is the singular character of barbera, which those who know the wines’ history will expect and seekers of difference will require, then a deluge of wines that have been reconceptualized in an anonymously international style will be eminently ignorable. And if the pitch is that fruit-forward and oaky style, then what’s the compelling reason for a lover of such wines to divert funds from any of the dozens (hundreds?) of wine regions already making exactly this kind of wine? What does barbera from Nizza (or anywhere in the Piedmont) have to offer that’s unique?

The “American market” that loves and wants these wines exists, I’m afraid, only in theory. It may have existed fifteen or twenty years ago, and the Piemontese might have captured it then with the work they’re doing now. Or it might come back again; wine trends can, of course, sometimes be cyclical. But right now, absolutely the last thing one should be doing to attract a cash-strapped, ever-more-fragmented American market is to be making wine-a-likes in a style that is already fading from majority favor.

All this unsolicited (and, let’s be honest, potentially wrongheaded) strategic marketing advice aside, I’m less certain than the winemakers we’ve heard from that Americans and their quercal tastes are really to blame. I think the entire foundation of the decision to remake wines in this fashion comes from something else: an obsession with importance. Or, to write it in the reverent terms with which it is regularly employed by winemaker after winemaker here, IMPORTANCE.

But this is already far too long, and that extremely fraught issue will have to be left for another post. In any case, I think the perfect coda for this afternoon’s conflicts has been provided by the much put-upon Michele Chiarlo, who – after what seems like an hour of pushback and complaint from the audience – somewhat resignedly says the following. A direct contradiction of much of what he and others have said so far, but even more significantly a direct contradiction of the vast majority of what we’ve tasted:

“no one intends to pursue oaky wines for American market”

Were it only so, Signore Chiarlo. Were it only so.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Nizzagain

[bagged bottles]Outside, all is grey or white and soft. The snow falls, and it’s gentle, but it’s also persistent. It’s the kind of snow that will be with us for a time. It blankets the city of Nizza Monferrato with silence, muting the usual urban din but also suppressing the local urge to roam. Why not stay inside where it’s quiet, and enjoy the peaceful monochromic recasting outside the window? It’s going to be a beautiful afternoon and evening.

As for our little barbera band, reassembled in a bright, open space that seems to be nearly all windows, there’s a chance to do this. For a time. We listen to another lecture, this time on the meaning and intentions of the newly-designated Nizza subzone and its producers, while yet another tasting is assembled. To be honest, the information flow is a little dry, and largely the sort of procedural and rote stuff that wine writers have heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Besides, it’s so nice out. Can’t we go have some fun in the snow?

Oh, but we only need wait. If it’s cooling outside, it’s heating up inside. And it’s about to explode.

In the meantime, there’s a tasting to get through. It’s true that many of us find visiting producers a more interesting use of our time, but the organizers undoubtedly find what we’re doing now a more valuable use of our time. And hey, it’s their show, their dog, and their pony.

While we might not be overly enthused about another procession of foil-wrapped bottles, it must be admitted that this one is admirably focused: all 2006, all barbera d’Asti, and all from the subzone of Nizza. Some of these wines are new, some we’ve had in a different vintage, and some are repeats from this morning’s Nizza tasting. This is, at least, purposeful blind tasting, which our forays thus far have not always been.

What might not be apparent to our hosts and the producers (who are represented in near-entirety), however, is that there are two concurrent purposes being pursued here. One is theirs: to demonstrate the character, style, and (dare it be mentioned?) terroir of Nizza. But the other is ours: to attempt to judge whether or not that purpose is being achieved. Does Nizza have an identity? A meaning beyond the simple marketing trick of differentiation?

We’re about to find out. Maybe.

Avezza Paolo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Sotto La Muda” (Piedmont) – Big purple fruit. Tannic. OK in its brutish style.

Bava 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Piano Alto” (Piedmont) – Garbage, stewed weeds, and sour acidity. Those of a younger bent might opine that this “tastes like ass.” I’m not sure I can get away with such phraseology, but they wouldn’t be wrong.

Bersano 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Red licorice Twizzler and unidentified Jolly Rancher. To wrest an old Texan saying: all candy, no cattle.

Isolabella della Croce 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Augusta” (Piedmont) – Supple. Solid purple fruit, but it’s all up front. New World in style, and good in that idiom for a few moments, but the finish is nowhere, and what’s left in the glass is much more akin to Chartreuse than it is barbera.

Giovenale 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ansema (Piedmont) – A soup of modernity. Very ordinary.

Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Canto di Luna (Piedmont) – Gritty, heavy tannin. The wine’s got good texture despite this. Very purple in both aspect and aspiration.

La Barbatella 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Vigna dell’Angelo (Piedmont) – Flat. There are a few mineral-enhanced soil notes, but otherwise this wine is dead. Dead nose. Dead palate. Dead finish. A shame. I don’t even think I can make the funeral. I never knew the wine that well.

Lana 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Sludgy cherry milkshake. Could be anything, from anywhere.

Garitina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Neuvsent” (Piedmont) – Brett, rosemary, and loads of tannin. Plus, some bonus volatile acidity. Ugh.

Coppo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Riserva della Famiglia” (Piedmont) – Sour, lactic, hard, and unpleasant.

Dacapo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – A wallop of fruit with a good, graphite-like texture. And then…it dies.

Erede di Chiappone Armando 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Ru” (Piedmont) – Big, ripe fruit dominated by strawberries and sour cherry candy. There’s a weird lactic note competing for attention, but overall this isn’t bad.

[bannered ceiling]Franco Mondo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bigna della Rose (Piedmont) – Hot, tongue-scalding fruit soup. Burnt powdered sugar. Very confected.

Gazzi 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Prajot (Piedmont) – Stale paper. Horrid. (Post-facto edit: I have reason to believe that something may have been wrong with this bottle.)

Guasti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Barcarato (Piedmont) – A friendly burst of fruit dusted with pepper. Pleasant enough.

La Gironda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Le Nicchie” (Piedmont) – Soupy fruit circling a black hole. In other words, not only is the center of this wine void, but that void is sucking everything else into it into nothingness.

Malgrà 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Mora di Sassi (Piedmont) – Massive mega-purple fruit. (For the record, I’m not suggesting MegaPurple™, but the descriptor is too evocative to eschew.)

Noceto Michelotti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Montecanta (Piedmont) – Sour and disgusting garbage aromas, weeds, milk and bitter chocolates. Mmmmm.

Chiarlo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “La Court” (Piedmont) – Sweet plum and even sweeter strawberry. Girly wine.

Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Preje (Piedmont) – Juicy, plummy fruit with good acidity. Fair.

Scrimaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ascè (Piedmont) – Fun fruit, with a gloppy texture. In its idiom, fairly pleasant.

Olim Bauda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Very sweet strawberry jam, but then taking a detour through a tar-producers’ convention hall. That’s both an aromatic and structural comment. Fruit Roll-Ups™, big and structured, but lacking any sort of finish whatsoever. Ugly. This is like drinking ittle Miss Muffet after she’s been beat up by a gang of roving thugs and left for the spider to find her, bruised and sobbing, beside her tuffet.

Tre Secoli 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Candy powder, pollen, cotton candy, and Starbursts™

Vietti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena (Piedmont) – Brett and sourness. Thankfully, it’s extremely short, so it’s all over quickly. But, like ripping a bandage off a scar, there’s still discomfort.

Villa Giada 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Dani (Piedmont) – Dominated by olatile acidity. Nasty, overworked fruit. Wretched.

Vinchio e Vaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Laudana (Piedmont) – Stale oils. Nothing else? No, not of note. Vile.

Whew.

Conclusions? One inevitable one is just how bad this sort of mass-production blind tasting is for both wine and taster. There were six wines that appeared in both the morning and afternoon tastings. Two of them have completely different notes, both organoleptically and qualitatively: the Gazzi, suggesting something wrong with the afternoon bottle, and the Guasti, which I hated in the morning session but was more receptive to in the afternoon, and didn’t describe as anything like the same wine. The other four match fairly well in qualitative assessment and less, but still forgivably, well along general organoleptic lines. One might think that two out of six isn’t bad, but of course that’s just over the wines common to the two tastings. If one extrapolates those results over the entirety of our blind/group tastings, that’s a lot of mistakes and inconsistencies. Too many. Whatever this says about a taster’s (or this taster’s) skill might be notable, but is really irrelevant in comparison to the level of unfairness with which a so-afflicted producer is burdened.

[expectant glasses]So how about Nizza and its signature characteristics? There’s absolutely no way to say, because the wines are too variable and, in so many cases, too tricked-up. I don’t mean actual fakery…because that’s an accusation I wouldn’t make without evidence…but modernizing, fruit-enhancing techniques in vineyard and cellar coupled with the increasingly nefarious influence of new wood. If they really want to showcase the Nizza terroir (if indeed it has one worth identifying), they’re going to need to show us the unoaked, “traditional” versions they seem to be hiding in their cellars as shameful, deformed cousins. Given this evidential set? Nizza means very close to nothing.

Of course, even if we can’t discern a terroir-based similarity, that’s not all an appellation can mean. Is there at least a typicity? No, decidedly not, outside a vague uptick in structure…though much of one structural element likely derives from the wood. How about a marketing advantage? Possibly, though of course it’s far too early to tell. The whole “d’Asti” designation is soon to be dropped on these wines, leaving just “Nizza” on the bottle; whether or not that will be a help remains to be seen, but certainly shortening label verbiage and simplifying wine identification is rarely a bad thing. (Are you listening, Germany?) Aside from the place name, there’s some tightening of standards: 100% barbera rather than Asti’s required 85%, for example. Excluding other, and especially international, grapes is at least a step in the right direction, if the goal is to produce something with an identifiable, individual character. And it’s still very early in the game. Ten years from now, such a tasting might provide a surprisingly uniformity of purpose. And maybe even terroir.

But really, the only arguments that can and will ever be made for this subzone are the wines themselves. And neither collectively nor qualitatively do they support the petition under consideration. I can’t go to the other extreme and call this a “vanity appellation” (even though Michele Chiarlo will say some things later that make me wonder), because there’s no way I can be in these producers’ heads. Still, this remains: if there’s an argument for Nizza, it hasn’t been made today…and any wines that are making the argument have been lost in the fog of techno-oenological war.

The order and outcome of that battle? Coming soon. Don’t miss the exciting conclusion!

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Paris, naturally

My submission for saignée‘s inspiring 32 Days of Natural Wine event, found here in its original form. Go read it there, and then read everything else in the series. You’ll be a better person afterward.

[nouveau ad]Paris may not be the heart of the natural wine movement… that and all the other vital organs reside in the cellars and the regions whence the wines emerge…but it’s almost certainly the head. It’s got a critical mass of consumers, from enthusiast to hipster (and wannabe-hipster), and a vibrant commerce that serves that mass.

Natural wine nirvana, right? In a sense. If there’s a bright, or even popular, future for natural wine, Paris is what it looks like in its ascendance. One can revel for weeks – perhaps even months – in the unsulfured and unyeasted with the right list of purveyors and a fat carnet, or at least sturdy shoes.

Except…I did that. Ate, drank, cooked, and shopped as naturally as I could. And the shocking (to me, anyway) takeaway was that I found it a little boring. What’s more, it made me realize something: not everything is lit with rosy natural light in La Ville Lumière. There are some shadows lurking on les routes ahead.

This is going to require some explanation, I suspect.

What can destroy a wine category these days? Lack of quality, certainly, but this is a slow actor; the general unsaleability of Mâcon or the turning away from Tuscany didn’t happen overnight, but over decades. What can kill it a lot faster, even from a position of apparent desirability, is the reality or perception of over-uniformity. Of externally-enforced conformity. Of cynical boredom. By way of example: remember when muscular Australian reds of both gravitational and evaluative endowment were the point-laden rage? Notice how, just a few years later, one can barely give them away? There’s more than one factor at work in that Icarian tale, but a major contributor is that the thermonuclear fruit devices that were so lauded by critics and consumers are available from just about everywhere on the planet (including Australia) at a much lower cost than those paragons of pricey (purported) pulchritude.

Now, let’s be honest. There are those who drink for predictability. Who – though they would probably object to the metaphor – crave a certain McDonaldization of product, in which consistency and the comfort of the familiar are atop the pyramid of virtues. Rather obviously, those folk aren’t buying natural wine. At least not on purpose. The market that rejects the standardization of industrial viticulture and outcome-oriented winemaking is, by definition, counter- and anti-. This market seeks sensation, but the sensation it seeks is that of authenticity, of difference, of deviance. Among the principal appeals of natural wine are its unfamiliarity and unpredictability. Both of which are, as they must be, measured against the norm…which is, in this case, traditional (which is inclusive of, but not of necessity, industrial) wine. Without that contrast, much of what is unfamiliar and exciting about natural wine is decontextualized.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that without the alternative, natural wine would be less appealing. But then again, there’s probably a cohort of devotées that would experience that little twinge of dismay that all adherents to the alternative feel when their private affection goes mass-market. It’s true in music, and maybe it’s true in wine. That said, we’re talking about a nano-niche within a micro-niche here, so let’s move on to a more important conjecture…

My somewhat leisurely encounter with Paris’ natural wine scene delivered a lot of sensation, difference, and authenticity. No question. But viewed through the contextual lenses of time and post-facto consideration, it delivered something else.

Ennui.

It’s not that any given wine demanded this reaction. Mostly, I drank very well. Extremely well, actually. I could have gone many more months without repeating a libation, without going back to something a second time (though that did happen once, for which I must blame Jean Foillard’s uncanny skill with Morgon), without being forced to act not as an eager dabbler on the frontier, but rather as an actual wine consumer stocking up on quantities of favored bottles. That’s the wonderful breadth of potential natural wine experiences that Paris provides, and it’s unquestionable that had I been in Paris long enough, I’d have had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of wines that were otherwise no more than ephemeral dalliances. There’s great value in that, for sure, and I look forward to suffering that burden in the future.

No, it was the commercial face of my natural wine crawl that brought on the ennui. Wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant: the same list, the same selection, the same labels. Almost without fail.

The immediate objection – why is this bad, exactly? aren’t most of the world’s wine collections the same boring and industrial (or at least traditional) wines, over and over? – is both taken and acknowledged as correct. Yes, the sin of boredom is committed so much more frequently outside the natural wine world that it hardly bears mentioning inside it. But the special thing about Paris’ genre concentration is that it previews the consequences of a triumph of the alternative. And in that triumph is born a redundancy that looks an awful lot like all the familiar redundancies. I’d like to see natural wine avoid that fate.

The problem is self-segregation. Natural wines have…by the deliberate choice of their selectors but also by a somewhat surprising inertia…ghettoized themselves into a self-referential niche. It’s a reasonably successful niche, and the marketing advantages probably go without saying, but a niche it remains. I know there are some who prefer this state of affairs – there’s your alternative music analogue writ vinous, in which the magi of secret knowledge tremble in fear of the moment in which their favorite becomes known to The Other – but there is also a legitimate argument against this preference.

In various cities around the U.S., cities in which natural wine is decidedly alternative and hard-to-find, there are a few stores, wine bars and restaurants to which one goes to be guaranteed a selection from the genre. There might, for example, be just one “natural wine bar” in an otherwise wine-soaked metropolis, or a sommelier whose iconoclasm is rewarded by a dedicated but niche fandom. In that situation, rigid orthodoxy is a marketable virtue, and should neither be gainsaid nor challenged. In such locales, rigidity of concept is a virtue.

[mccafé]But in Paris, where it would seem to be thrilling that there are considerably more than a handful of such establishments, the effect is somewhat different. The wines are no longer hard to find, for the interested. What they are, instead, is gated within a neighborhood of like-minded peers, largely unchallenged by dissent from within or without. It’s an oeno-epistemological closure that just can’t be good for the category.

“Well,” one might ask, “why not?” Given that both the old and the modern ways have been dominant everywhere and everywhen, shouldn’t natural wines be allowed their own time in the sun? (Or rather, their time in a humid, slightly chilly environment in order to avoid the much-feared instability allegedly inherent to the genre?) Wouldn’t it be better if even more establishments went au natural?

No. That is to say: sure, I’d like to see a lot more natural wine, presented however a given establishment wishes, as long as that method gets it to my glass. But what I’d really like is, when forced to go to some standardized culinary purveyor of comforting mediocrity by out-of-town guests who’ve heard the chef’s name on the Food Network, to have natural wines on that wine list. I’d like to walk into a wine shop in Nisswa, Minnesota and be able to buy something that’s not industrial. I don’t want natural wine to be something one must go to Paris (or New York, or San Francisco) for, I want it to be part of the everyday experience of oenophilia. An equal voice in the conversation inherent in every glass. An accepted part of the landscape, neither feared nor a cranky curiosity, but just another typical geographical feature

That may be an impossible dream, since natural winemaking doesn’t necessarily scale all that well. Sure, OK, I get that. But if there are a lot of natural wines (and ideally, as time passes, there will be more), why not spread the wealth a little? Why not some intrusions into enemy, or at least unfamiliar, territory? If there’s a reason one loves natural wine – whether that’s taste, philosophy, or something else – then it’s hard to understand a lack of desire to see that taste/philosophy/etc. exert influence outside the fold. It’s great to welcome a new addition to the natural family. But wouldn’t it be more valuable if, say, Villa Maria abandoned inoculated yeast thanks to the influence of natural wine? If, for example, Drouhin and Jadot massively reduced their use of sulfur? If Wolfberger decided against chaptalization? No, it’s not a clear path to perfection, and the wines still won’t be “natural” by anyone’s definition. But the perfect – as the cliché goes – must not become the enemy of the good. Progress is preferable to the alternative.

That said, I don’t think industrial wine can go away. Nor should it. The demand for crushed grapes outstrips anything the natural set can provide, and especially so if I don’t mistake the generally anti-corporate inclinations of those in the natural wine cohort. Traditional wine can’t (and won’t) disappear, either. But I’d love a wine world in which the two éminences (pinot) grises were not the entire story, and in which natural wine was more than a brief appendix…or worse, a screwily-fonted footnote. To expand to chapter form, natural wines are going to have to expand the range of their thought and worldview. They’re going to have to deal with their competition. Face to face, vino a vino.

It’s easy to miss that they’re not doing this. Are you a Beaujolais booster? A Loire lover? A Jura junkie? You – and I – are in luck: the best of the appellation could very well be represented on the natural wine shelf. But what about Irouléguy? Bandol? Burgundy? The Rhône? Bordeaux?

My own personal oenopiphany of ennui occurred, I suspect, because I’m an advocate of Alsace. Now, it must be acknowledged that not many natural wine folk share my enthusiasm for the region. There are various and entirely supportable reasons why, and the whole “natural” ethos is just one of them. That said…looking at what’s on commercial offer within the category, who can blame them? Aside from Barmès-Buecher, the offerings are wildly inconsistent at best, and too often downright wretched at worst. And so, in store after bar after restaurant, the same labels appear. The same, awful wines. Or maybe the good stuff, but in any case that good stuff is still identical to the good stuff at the last place. And the place before that. And the place before that. Worse, in no sense are the pinnacles of the appellation – the benchmarks that define that potential for a region – represented. Alsace is hardly alone in this, but it is (for me, as a self-professed fan) a convenient stand-in for the complaint.

[le verre volé]Herein resides the gnarly core of the problem. It’s not that I care that much if Boxler, Weinbach, Josmeyer, Trimbach, or whoever one wants to name as their flûted standard-bearer is available in a given venue. But when they’re not available in any of them? And when the natural alternatives are similarly absent in the non-natural establishments, for reasons I dare not guess? I don’t want to overstate this as vinous apartheid, because that would be an abrasive and confrontational step too far, but it’s a separation that need not be, and the wines as separately-presented are most definitely not equal.

(A caveat: natural wines cannot always stand against alleged “benchmarks” due to the particulars of their élevage. If the pinnacle of a place is considered to be some forty-year-enabled wine, an unsulfured alternative is unlikely to be equipped to challenge that supremacy. And fair enough. But when comparisons are apt, they’re also quite valuable. Not because one should drink with winners, losers, and hierarchies always in mind, but because the qualities that make natural wine appealing are – as noted zillions of words above – most clearly defined by their alternatives. By not pointing directly at this distinction, natural wines are missing their…pardon the pun…raisin d’être.)

Natural wine needs to shed the yoke it has secured ‘round its own neck. The concentrated focus of its endorsers should continue, and should expand everywhere that is and isn’t Paris, but there’s so much more it could accomplish once it gains a firm foothold on the foundation. A full engagement with the marketplace of wines will engender a crucial, corollary engagement with the marketplace of ideas. As it stands, natural wine’s separatism allows – even encourages – a destructive factionalism. Here, for example, is a (representative, unfortunately) California winemaker on this very topic amid a recent wine forum debate about the word “natural”:

“[…] but if they say what they do is ‘natural,’ then that is a direct marketing attack on other wineries.”

To answer this: it’s mostly not (there are always exceptions), and the winemaker is being needlessly defensive, but he’s also expressing a widely-held opinion. What’s more important is that it’s a reflexive and resentful feeling that need not be. When natural wines self-segregate, they require the argument for their quality to be conducted solely with words, with philosophy, and with rhetoric. This is, necessarily, unequal to the task. Were the wines physically coequal with their otherwise-identified peers in the marketplace, the dialogue wouldn’t be one carried out in the strident, bickering, posturing tones of blogs, web fora, and print, but by the character and quality of the passion represented by each bottle. The wines would, perforce, speak for themselves.

And isn’t that what natural wines should do? Isn’t the fundamental philosophical purpose of natural wine to express without mask or interpretation? Without interlocution? Without filtering?

The Paris of my desire – and the stay will be longer next time, and much longer the time after that – should not be a carefully-constructed list of naturalia with GPS coordinates and hours of operation. It won’t be a parallel universe. It won’t be a matter of choice, of division, of convention vs. dissension. In my idealized Paris…and eventually, elsewhere…“natural” will no longer be separate, only, and first.

It will be…only natural.

Countdown

Cory Cartwright is doing a sequel. His 31 Days of Natural Wine was a watershed moment in the genre, and now he’s attempting to surpass it. Numerically, I mean. This year, it’s 32 Days of Natural Wine.

I’m not saying you need to love, like, hate, or be indifferent to natural wine, as a category or a concept. But this is as much of a wine bloggy event as can be conceived. It is, to the extent that anything is in the genre, “important.” (Though Cory would unquestionably twitch at that descriptor. And I don’t blame him. It sounds a little like a “very special episode of Blossom“) If you want a definition of natural wine…well, just read the series at saignée. If you still want a single, bright-line definition at the end of the series, you may have missed the point. (But that’s OK.)

Cross-promotion? Why, yes. Thanks for asking. My contribution goes up today, assuming Cory doesn’t reject it for confrontationalism. Or invented words. Or length. Though I can’t imagine it suffers from any of those three problems…

Château the line

[dancing in the dark]If, as Eric Asimov asserts, the wine-soaked youth of America are giving up on Bordeaux, it’s perhaps not as interesting a point as it might, at first glance, seem. Trends and shifts in consumption are ever-present – who among us drinks as much Port as our great-great-greats did? – and today’s retreat may be tomorrow’s triumphant return. What’s interesting is the “why” of it.

A number of reasons are suggested by the article, one a quote from someone who admits to not even liking the major grapes of Bordeaux (and thus I’m moved to wonder why his opinion on Bordeaux would be deemed especially quotable), but no one really gets at the heart of what’s separating the younger generation from its Haut-Brion. Yes, all the reasons suggested by Asimov and others are part of the equation – price, a reputation for overt commerciality and luxury good positioning, a (deliberate) disconnection from the appealing narrative of a farmer and her land – and there are some others the article missed, including the rigidity of a structured wine that is not as agile as many others in dealing with the ever-increasing fusion of culinary influences, even in its modern, somewhat Californicated form. But Champagne suffers even more profoundly from some of the same issues, and the younger generation still drinks it. In fact, they might drink it with more enthusiasm than their immediate elders.

There’s a reason for that. What people of the age cohort described in the article (and I dislike the generational division therein; I think the dividing lines are more related to philosophy and preference than they are age) drink from Champagne are not the major brands stacked to the ceiling of every middle-of-the-road liquor mart. They drink the grower Champagnes, which range from solidly traditional to wildly experimental, and which have both a story not concocted by a marketing department and a price that reflects a lack of that same department…which is not to say that that price is always lower than the familiar names (often, it isn’t), only that it is more directly tied to the quality and/or reputation of the wine than the needs of a worldwide branding campaign.

So the anti-Bordeaux folk, apparently so hung up on price and prestige, still drink pricey wines from the one region even more afflicted by excessive prestige-ery. Given this, it’s unlikely that what’s really bending their necks about Bordeaux is either price or prestige. In reality, it’s marketing…a success in Champagne, contrasted with an abject failure of same in Bordeaux.

Why are these theoretically disaffected youngsters still imbibing in bubbly, even if they reject the widows and the monks behind the overly-familiar brands? Because they’ve tasted the wines. Yes, there’s a story and (usually) a connection to the land, but more importantly, the wines are out there in the market, year after year, being flogged by their importers – the tireless Terry Theise gets much credit for leadership here, but he’s far from alone anymore – to trade and press. And they’re poured for consumers, too. Wine bars, both hipster and less so, are encouraged to provide these wines alongside the more eclectic sparklers that are the “other” Champagne alternative, and at by-the-glass pricing, young tasters can experience and make up their own minds about these wines.

Not so for Bordeaux. The classified growths and their companions from across the river barely even see store shelves anymore; they’re ordered as futures, arrive as intact cases, and move directly from store basement to customer vehicle based on whichever critic the consumer has chosen to follow. No tasting there, unless you’re the critic in question. Those that make it to restaurant lists are priced in the exosphere, and thus both bottle and (rare) glass consumption are targeted almost exclusively at those who are already fans of Bordeaux and can support such elevated prices.

“But what,” an on-the-ground Bordeaux winemaker might argue, “about all the other wine we make? All the reasonably priced bottles that have nothing to do with luxury brands or lofty titles?”

These are indeed difficult times for the majority of the Bordeaux winemakers, the ones not blessed with a 155-year old classification or a modern equivalent. No one wants the wines, and even centuries of tradition can’t stem the receding tide. When there were few alternatives, the market for the “good,” “OK,” and “not bad” of Bordeaux was assured. Now, with flavorful offerings from nearly every winemaking country on the globe, that locked-in market is essentially gone, and probably for good. Bordeaux’s singular qualities are not, and have never been, those of the fruit-forward, generous wines that dominate the lower end of the market, and in a competition with those alternatives, Bordeaux will lose each and every time. Even in France, long a safe haven for Bordeaux, the sale is becoming more and more difficult.

There is, however, a middle ground. Small wines, perhaps without the grand ambitions of the crus, but which exhibit classic Bordelais characteristics. Wines that have their own stories to tell, as rich as any other. Wines that could speak to the same folk who are instead choosing refosco or Bierzo. These wines exist, and with very careful searching they should be locatable.

But where? Effectively, nowhere. At least, not in the States. There’s no Terry Theise…there’s not even a Kermit Lynch…promoting these alternatives. Working the markets. Telling the stories. Getting placements in interested wine bars, restaurants, and stores. Proving – at a reasonable price to all – that Bordeaux is not just about Gucci handbags and Walmart schlock, with nothing in between. These wines need an advocate, and they don’t have one.

Viewed from the Gironde, it may be hard to see that there’s a problem. The wines are selling, are they not? And for ever-escalating prices? Well, maybe they are, though the markets are shifting eastward. And maybe they’re not, except through artful market manipulation and artificial scarcity. I’m not here to argue these controversial points, because what matters is that this speaks only of the classified growths and their point-laden brethren. Of the superstars. Putting aside low-cost dreckery like Mouton Cadet and its ilk, that still leaves the overwhelming majority of Bordeaux with neither a market nor a future.

What is Bordeaux doing to rebuild that future? Nothing. Without tasting Bordeaux, in any form, on a regular basis and especially in the crucial, palate-formative years, the only members of upcoming generations who will develop a taste for the region are those wealthy enough to dabble without consequence and those blessed with friends who have deep cellars and an enthusiasm for evangelism. That’s not enough to sustain a market over generations. And so, Bordeaux’s upper class fiddles, secure in their lucre, while the chai underneath them burns.

Bottle shock

I’d thought I’d lost the ability to be shocked. I was wrong. eRobertParker’s forums are closed, and going subscriber-only.

We are a small company with limited resources and, after months of deliberation, we’ve come to the conclusion that it is in the best interest of the people who count most – our subscribers – that we change our policy with regard to the bulletin board. On April 27, the entire Mark Squires’ Bulletin Board on eRobertParker.com will become a subscriber-only forum, open only to subscribers of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate or eRobertParker.com. […] Change is always difficult but, like this action, often necessary. We are sorry to say goodbye to those posters to Mark Squires’ Bulletin Board who are not subscribers, and who have made valuable contributions. We will miss you, but our overwhelming goal is more focused support and assistance to our subscribers, who are our bloodline of support and make all the fascinating features of the bulletin board possible. We look forward to better serving our loyal subscribers through a more focused effort on them.

As a “protect your power and image” move, it’s absolutely the right call. For 2005. And before. But now, in the social mediasphere, where collaboration is the value? Absolutely inexplicable. Everyone who is not the Wine Advocate wins big, starting…right now.

[jean-baptiste sénat, dusty bottle]

To the Nth power

What is natural, and what is Natural? As explained in the previous post, “natural” is a guiding philosophy, not a set of rules. It’s possible (and even probable, given the lack of control inherent in the category) that no two natural wines are alike, and even more certain that any given set of natural producers will disagree on details of viticulture and vinification. Thus, a rigid external definition of “natural” is unlikely at best, and misguided at worst. Yet another reason to prefer “more natural” as the implied synonym, rather than bicker about this or that process leading to disqualification and banishment from the category.

Capital-N “Natural” is a placard. It’s a printed t-shirt, a social media fan group, an “ask me about indigenous yeast” campaign button. It’s a public statement that one is following principles one deems to be natural, because it’s important to the person making that statement that others know this. It’s a form of marketing. It’s coming out. It’s not necessarily a movement, though it often looks that way as commercial entities coalesce around the term. It’s an open self-identification as much as a philosophy, and what others think (and how they react) is now a matter of importance, whereas for a lower-case “natural” producer all that need to matter are the process and, hopefully, the result. Once interest moves beyond that to the market (of ideas or commerce), it’s no longer just natural, it’s Natural.

The whole idea of a Natural wine movement seems strange to oenophiles in many countries. Yes, there are importers and wine bars that trumpet “natural” as a guiding principle, but the majority of wine is not “natural” except in a very denuded sense of the term. (Nor, it should be stressed, is it ever likely to be.) There are natural and Natural producers everywhere, but the movement as a Movement – there’s that upper-case signification again – really lives and breathes in France. Especially Paris, where there are dozens of bars and restaurants that embrace, promote, and…after a fashion…are the only identifiable manifestation of Natural (vs. natural) that many will experience. There are establishments elsewhere in France, there are wine fairs and gatherings, there is a vocal and ever-growing base of media and fan support (and corollary hostility), and of course there are the producers at the heart of it all, but to really understand what Natural means and how it differs from natural, one needs to be on the ground in France, visiting both producers and their commercial advocates.

Any broadly-tasted observer of the natural scene might choose this moment to object, noting that an awful lot of the wines that fit into and in fact define this category come from Italy, despite a general hostility towards the concept in mainstream Italian wine circles. But the center of gravity remains in France. Why? Because it’s not about natural, it’s about Natural. Italians have managed to cobble together a few natural wine fairs as alternatives to VinItaly, but the seemingly genetic Italian antipathy towards organization and conformity makes the likelihood of a true national movement extremely unlikely. Even those Italian natural wine events exist mostly because they’re the nonconformist alternative, rather than an establishment position. If natural wine ever became a Movement in Italy, I suspect it would fall apart at the seams. (In fact, since there are competing natural wine fairs, in a way it already has.)

I and others like to joke that the French are terrible at marketing. In some ways, this is true. In others, it’s most decidedly not – what, after all, is the appellation system if not marketing codified into the very law of the land? – and when it comes to natural wine, producers seem to understand what I’ll call “marketing the minority” quite well. Capital-N Natural thrives because the alternative is the vinous majority, and there’s always something to position one’s self against. If that’s not marketing, what is it?

The odd thing is, France – for many wine drinkers – is already the alternative. Isn’t the Old World model of traditionally-made, structure-forward wine the philosophical opposite of the fruit-forward, low-structure, texture-oriented wine that has come to prominence elsewhere? Aren’t the legendary forms of French wine the very definition of one side of the traditional/modern dichotomy?

Yes, perhaps. But traditional/modern isn’t the same division as natural/interventionist. In some ways the practices of the naturalists are thoroughly modern, in that the rejection of control is based on a sound fundamental knowledge of the chemical consequences of each action. In others, they’re a modern freedom to market to a philosophy rather than live from sale to sale or bet one’s future on the reputation of one’s history and one’s neighbors’ histories, which is how the appellation system functions. But of course, the naturalists are in essence the über-traditionalists, rejecting not only the clever manipulations of modern winemaking, but also the tried-and-true manipulations of traditional winemaking. A naturalist, for example, might reject chaptalization even though it has been practiced by seven generations of her forebears, and even though it would allow a thoroughly traditional way of working and marketing the results.

One may work quietly but naturally and reap benefits anyway. A surprising number of producers do this, based on reputations already made and ensured by the quality of their wines or the fame of their sites. But others – especially the previously-unknown, whether they be newly-splintered growers who used to supply a cooperative, or young turks eager to prove their mettle – want and need a hook. Especially, in France, given the inherent (and arguably desirable) conservatism of the AOC system. That hook? Natural…capital N intact and, in this case, necessary…winemaking.

The thing is, a marketing hook inevitably leads to marketing-speak. And sometimes, that blather can be aggressive and hyper-critical, selling an old/new category of wine not on its merits, but solely on the points of difference and denigration that can be applied to the alternatives. Difference quickly becomes superiority, and superiority soon becomes a rhetorical target on which opponents of the Natural crowd can hang their objections.

“This wine is better because it’s natural” is a nonsensical statement, and yet one hears it a little too often from producers who should know better, but either don’t or feel that the marketing advantage still works to their favor. A wine is natural because it’s natural (apparently it’s made from late-harvest tautology grigio), but it’s better because it’s better, and the quantified twain ne’er shall meet.

Here’s the important exception: for some producers, tradespeople, and drinkers, “natural” may be a desirable characteristic all by itself. People make philosophical choices about their purchases and their foodstuffs all the time, and why should wine be exempt? For such people, a natural wine does have an inherent advantage over a less natural one, because of what it is. But let’s not conflate concepts: an increase in desirability due to naturalism is not the same as a purely qualitative advantage. One may, given a certain philosophy, reasonably conclude that a natural wine is more desirable than a less natural wine even though one thinks that the less natural wine is, by some personal standard of quality, “better”…just as (for example) one might choose local agricultural products over transoceanic products for environmental and philosophical reasons, even though this means a net loss in the quality and/or variability of available ingredients. Choosing natural is a very different thing than saying natural is, by definition, better.

Advocates of naturalism engage in their own bad faith when they merge the two concepts, whether they’re just plain ignorant or because they perceive there’s a marketing advantage to be had. A producer or consumer may honestly believe that natural wines are qualitatively better for any number of personal reasons, but they cannot demonstrate this to others beyond doubt or counter-argument, nor can they prove a correlation between nature and quality. Even in the most amenable of universes, one in which natural is a widely-recognized cause quality (and that is not necessarily our universe), there would still be those who preferred alternatives. In that universe, “manipulated” (or “Manipulated”) might be the same sort of marketing hook that “natural” is now.

(By the way, cards on the table: I tend to prefer, all else being equal, “natural” wines for philosophical and organoleptic reasons. I think that diversity is generally enhanced when adjustments are minimized, and I greatly value diversity. I think terroir is obscured when changes are wrought to a grape’s intended expression of itself and its site, and I very much value both varietal character and terroir. I tend to dislike some of the common vine and wine manipulations – primarily those that elevate alcohol, limit structure, and create or encourage specific flavors – that very often go hand-in-hand with an interventionist philosophy. There are qualitative exceptions to my philosophical preference in each of these cases, however, and that is why I can’t cast my lot with the Natural crowd, but can and do support the generalized goals of the natural set.)

So yes, there’s bad faith on both sides. That said, let’s not over-equate those sides. Natural (capitalized or not) producers represent the thinnest possible wedge on the pie chart of all wine philosophies. They are a “threat” to no one except the incomprehensibly insecure, and are an actual threat to no one at all, because they’re only an alternative, not a theocracy. How can the existence of one style of winemaking hurt any other style of winemaking., absent legislation (from which natural winemaking could not be more remote)? It can’t, of course. If the varying and competing styles of are qualitatively appealing , there should be room for everyone at the table. What there probably isn’t room for is pointless sniping over who can and should use which term, or who has the right to a concept, or whose philosophy is “better.”

[netted grapes]

It’s only natural

“This wine is red.” Say it out loud. Do any wine geeks within range raise immediate objections? No, unless they’re completely soused and apt to object to their own names unless supplied in song form. But is the wine actually red? Probably not. It might be magenta, purple-hued, infused with a pale salmon color, or bricking orange-brown at the edges. It might be nearly opaque, or it might be a faint tint in an otherwise transparent liquid. What it probably is not is plain-and-simple “red,” nor is exact correspondence with a specific wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum necessary in order to employ the term. It’s not white, pink, or orange? Then it’s red.

How about “this wine is dry”? Residual sugar can be measured and quantified, certainly, but sweetness is an organoleptic response, powerfully affected by factors beyond a quantifiable measure. And the seemingly crucial fact that very few wines are actually entirely free of any and all residual sugar probably won’t enter into this discussion, because “a dry wine” doesn’t mean “zero residual sugar,” and wine folk understand and accept this as part of their shared language. There might, if there’s to be any debate at all, be a discussion of apparent sweetness as experienced by different tasters, but that will probably be the extent of the controversy.

So let’s try another short, easy-to-understand, and useful phrase. “This is a natural wine.” Quickly now: cover your ears, lest you’re deafened by the escalating responsive din. “Natural wine doesn’t exist,” you will be told, with impatience and, sometimes, actual exasperation. “Wine doesn’t make itself.”

Yes, because that’s exactly what “natural wine” means to those who use it: grapes that ferment themselves, fall into a bottle that’s sprouted from the ground, acquire both label and closure thanks to the charitable works of passing insects, and then walk (on newly-sprouted bottle feet) to the nearest port for transport and eventual sale. It is then purchased by fairies and leprechauns to be consumed at the Midsummer feast while conjuring unicorns.

(Why isn’t there an HTML sarcasm tag? Or is it better to just assume that the entire internet is enclosed within one instance of the tag?)

This increasingly tiresome debate continues along these lines, unabated, as more and more wines self-identify as “natural.” But a lot of the arguments are in bad faith, because people insist on a strict definition for “natural” that neither corresponds to reality nor is demanded elsewhere within the language of wine.

Imagine that, hypothetically, there are exactly one-hundred things that a winemaker can do between and inclusive of vine, must, and bottle that will change the nature of the wine: additions, subtractions, and transformations. A winemaker might do four of them, or all 100 of them. Which of those wines is less a product of nature and more a product of human ingenuity? That’s an easy question to answer, and unlikely to be debated. So why does identifying the opposite condition lead to such indignant rhetoric? If the latter wine is less natural, what’s wrong with calling the former wine more natural? Without even digging into the marbled meat of the matter, but instead as a matter of language, it should be clear that these disparate reactions don’t make a bit of sense. If one pole exists, so must the other.

And “more natural” is really the full extent of what “natural” means in common parlance. With one caveat: a natural wine is more natural than an arbitrary less-natural alternative, while (here’s the caveat) remaining within some arbitrary and personal threshold whereby deformative manipulations have been eschewed to the extent possible. (In other words, Kendall-Jackson can’t sensibly claim itself natural because they use two fewer techniques than Gallo, but seventy more than Edmunds St. John.) It’s not a boast that no human has participated in the process, it’s not an assertion that the grapes were magically transformed into wine by the wave of a wizard’s wand, and it’s not an insistence that absolutely no agricultural or technological measures were undertaken. It’s a philosophical approach to the craft of winemaking in which the myriad opportunities for control tend to be ignored rather than taken, and in which most choices remain unmade. That’s tend to be, not must be. Enforced naturalism is fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is not natural winemaking, it’s religious winemaking. In fact, it goes against the principles of naturalism in that it, too, is a recipe, insisting on rather than allowing specific choices during the winemaking process. This matters because far too many observers incorrectly conflate fundamentalism with naturalism, and in fact the insistence that “natural” can only mean one single (and impossible) thing is to insist that naturalism is a synonym for fundamentalism. Which it most certainly is not.

The other problem with a debate being conducted along lines in which “natural” is not allowed to have any meaning beyond fundamentalist purity of practice is that both it and all related and opposed terms become laden not with meaning, but with inferred (not implied) value judgments. But this need not be the case. The employment of the term “natural wine” does not inherently presume an opposing category of “unnatural wine” (which is certainly a laden phrase), it simply places natural wine near one end of a range of practices and guiding philosophies. To pretend that that range does not exist, and is not represented by many producers at each point along its length, is ludicrous. And yet, this is what deniers of the concept of “natural wine” claim to believe when they insist that the term is without meaning; if one end of the range doesn’t exist because it can’t, then the other doesn’t and can’t either, and thus all wines are essentially the same in both intent and result. Which they unequivocally are not.

Some posit that the problem is the word “natural” itself, claiming that it does imply an opposite, unnatural practice. But if the popular counter-argument to natural wine is that all wine is inherently unnatural, existing only as the work of man, then why object to “unnatural” at all? If this is the case, “unnatural” must be assumed as a synonym for the word “wine,” in which case “natural” has no meaning at all. But didn’t our objectors just decide that “natural” is a synonym for fundamentalism? Clearly, they cannot have it both ways.

Obviously, the actual problem with “unnatural” is that it’s not a particularly marketable word (to say the least), and the fear is that customers will reject it as a result. In reality, then, this set of definitional objections aren’t about definitions, they’re about positioning product in the marketplace. And that’s not a linguistic, scientific, or a philosophical debate, is it? This is an clarion example of an argument being undertaken in bad faith. The problem isn’t “natural,” the problem is the fear that it makes selling the alternatives more difficult.

So how about the alternatives? “Less interventionist,” “less manipulated,” and so forth. Better? No. In general, the same people object, and for the same reasons: how does one sell “more interventionist” and “more manipulated” in a wine market in which endless bullshit about the natural gifts of a pastoral, vine-covered countryside is peddled by the most industrial and mindlessly commercial wineries in the world, with fake jitneys, fake overalls, fake dirty fingernails, and depictions of moldy barrel rooms miles from the glistening tank farms of reality?

But here’s the bald truth: some wines are more manipulated, more interventionist, and so forth. Honest producers will tell you why and how they manipulate and intervene, and will be both proud and explicatory as they declaim their thoughtful justifications for each decision. The desire for control, or in a more comprehensive sense safety, are part and parcel of a directed, goal-oriented philosophy of winemaking, one in which the myriad opportunities for meddling tend to be embraced rather than ignored. This is not bad. Let me repeat: this is not bad. A huge percentage of the greatest wines of history have been made with this philosophy, and great wines are still made this way. There are many paths to beverage brilliance, and naturalism is not the only one.

That said, a given producer, importer, seller, or drinker may choose – or prefer to choose – wines in just one mechanistic category, for reasons that seem good to them. This should not be viewed as an opportunity for opprobrium, as it so often is by winemakers (nor their fans) who manipulate more rather than less. Rather, it should be emblematic and celebratory of the diversity provided by a modern, scientific understanding of winemaking that allows, rather than forces or narrows, decisions in the vineyard and cellar. Natural winemakers who are not just following the recipes of yesteryear – and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that path, either – are able to make a philosophical rather than practical choice because they have a fair idea of what will happen as a result. This is not really a rejection of the technology that their neighbors employ, but rather an embrace thereof for the purposes of rejecting its use. That’s an important difference.

Those who grow virulent at the mere mention of the word “natural” are ignorant at worst, but at best perhaps understandably tortured by the baggage the word has been forced to carry. The virulence is even more amusing when one understands that natural wines are a tiny percentage of all available bottles, and that the strength and volume of the objections are far out of proportion to the market presence of the wines that actually self-identify as natural. This, too, is explained not by an earnest desire for linguistic precision or rigid taxonomic categorization, but rather by resentment and hostility over the implications – though I rather suspect inferences are actually at work – of the terms for wines not categorized as “natural.”

So that covers the bad-faith arguments by those who oppose naturalism. What about the other side? For they and their arguments draw hostility from many who are not part of the natural crowd, and not always unjustifiably.

Well, there’s another category of natural-ness that’s not just a matter of less intervention, and I think it causes much of the artificial hue and industrial cry over the term. My personal shorthand for this category is Natural, as opposed to natural. And what does that seemingly insignificant capitalization mean?

That’s for part two.

The moment of preconception

[reflected fortress]I wanted to break up the barbera-blogging with something about identity, or maybe authenticity. Perhaps essentiality. You can already see how carefully- and narrowly-conceived this thought was, and how a successful, highly-convincing argument was already virtually assured.

However, it turns out that I’ve already written that post. With, I note, my usual brevity. (There cannot be a wine writer alive who benefits more from the lack of an editor…or a writer’s audience who suffers more from that same lack.) So anyway, I don’t have to repeat myself. There will be some additional thoughts on what barbera is, isn’t, and should be in a wrap-up narrative that should be happening, oh, any week now.

Instead, as I head into another blizzard of notes, followed by a very difficult and convoluted, but important, story about Barbera Meeting 2010’s day of angst and agita, I’m going to share a few thoughts on the aforementioned identity…not as it affects the drinker, but as it affects the taster.

The biggest problem with expectations, of course, is that they encourage prejudgment. While I stand firmly among those who insist there is no such thing as objectivity (nor has the concept any real value) when it comes to criticism, there are forms of subjectivity that one does better to avoid. And prejudging an entire class of wines is one of those forms.

To enter into a tasting of barbera with one’s biases intact is fine, and natural, and in fact unavoidable. To enter into that same tasting with a determination to judge each and every wine against a subjective “ideal” barbera is as easy and natural as it is entropic. An intelligent taster must know they are going to be shown not only different takes on a familiar idea, but also new ideas based on entirely unfamiliar assumptions. To fail to respond to this with an open mind, at least initially, is not only a failure to capitalize on the potential for broadening one’s knowledge, but also – and this is where it matters to everyone else – unhelpful to anyone but the taster. A taster that is writing a long series of notes that amount to no more than “this is 2% closer to my ideal barbera than that one, so I like this better” is writing notes on the mirror. It’s arguable that this is all notes ever are, but then why exert the public effort of sharing them with anyone else?

The above is one of the many reasons I find points and other scoring systems unsatisfying. Yes, they’re a shorthand for a hierarchical ranking, in which some find value. But they absolutely enforce the sort of thinking I’m criticizing in the previous paragraph, in which one identifies – or constructs, if an actual example doesn’t exist – some sort of Platonic ideal of a wine and then ranks everything by its qualitative proximity to that ideal. That seems awfully narrow-minded to me, but beyond that it seems a little hostile to the audience…essentially demanding that they embrace the taster’s preferences before they go on to make use of those rankings. Certainly there are both more utilitarian and more expressive ways to communicate preference to another. Like, for example, the text of a note.

The thing is, a determination to avoid this sort of preferential trap doesn’t, as a rule, last long in the face of the actual tasting experience. First, one’s experience of wines will change due to the influence of the other wines in the same tasting (a contextual effect). Then, as one adds to an accumulation of organoleptic data, new conclusions will coalesce around that data (an observer effect). Ultimately, one will start to judge wines based not necessarily on preconceptions, but on reconceptions born from within the process itself.

So it was with the barbera tastings. I approached them assuming two styles: sharp, biting little numbers that I considered “classic” barbera; and slick, modernized versions layered with the individuality-numbing, internationalizing effect of new wood. I left having found not only three general categories (traditional, internationalized, and a middle-ground style in which the fruit and acid had been modernized but the wine is not overburdened with barrique), but a different fulcrum point for the two known categories.

I’ll expand on that to (much) greater length in the aforementioned wrap-up post, and I’ll also note that there were good, bad, and indifferent wines within each category. And I certainly have my thoughts on which I prefer, but also which I think will and won’t bring the barbera producers of the Piedmont success on the international market.

The important lesson, however, was that – despite my preconceptions – there was something both new and unexpected to learn about the wines, both individually and taken as a group. And not just the things for which one might hope, like vintage characteristics or each sub-zone’s terroir signature. Instead, it was the how and/or why of the various possible stylistic choices, the role the grape does (and doesn’t) play in those choices, why barbera (rather than another grape) was chosen for this experimentation and marketing effort – for that is, at the heart, what Barbera Meeting was – and, finally, the tension between how the producers see their work and how their potential markets see that same work.

And yes: “tension” is the right word, for more reasons than one. For it turns out that the preconception-laden approach isn’t just a danger for wine tasters. The producers themselves have some issues along these lines…