[please don't feed the hippies]

Butcher, writer, winemaker

Never watch sausage being made.

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

(…transitions are for amateurs….)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…transitions are still for amateurs…)

Which, of course, brings me to wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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