Plus c’est la même chose

romulusIt isn’t always necessary to choose a side. In fact, some would argue that the only path to wisdom is in not doing so. Others of a less earnest bent might feel that it’s at least better to retain devil’s advocacy as a rhetorical tool. I’d agree with both, depending on the subject, but add that the most common cause of a lack of surety is the experiential maturity to know what one doesn’t – or cannot – know.

This defense of hesitancy is a prelude to Yet Another Post on natural wine. I think my written record on the subject qualifies me as a vocal advocate, firmly on the “pro-” side (or at least very frequently witnessing for the defense), but that’s not a fully accurate characterization. I think that’s grasped by some who really are fully committed to the cause, who see through the support to the lack of surety within. I have, at times, been accused of a lack of sufficiently strident advocacy…as if this is a bad thing. (That said, I certainly draw more grief from the skeptical, though I usually find that their objections amount to an extended argument with things someone who is not me has claimed.)

It’s true that I do have…worries. Certain areas of non-commitment. And that really makes sense, for my goal isn’t to promote (or condemn) natural wines, it’s to drink better and, perhaps, participate in an open discussion of how natural wine both does and doesn’t fit into that pursuit.

So if it’s useful to have an essay extant in which I say bad things about natural wines to demonstrate my agnosticism, this would be it.

I’ve said this before, but one of the most distasteful things about natural wine — another is actually distasteful natural wine — is the often-messianic surety that surrounds it. And there are some angry messiahs, to whom everything and everyone else (even sometimes within the movement itself) is wrong…for reasons of insufficient purity, insufficient commitment, insufficient science, or a hundred other sensible and lunatic doctrines seemingly invented on the spot. In a way this shouldn’t be surprising, as the movement not only invites, but practically requires, a large percentage of cranks and anti-social, anti-most-everything-else iconoclasts. I mean that much more affectionately than it sounds, but listening to the loudest voices in the movement often requires a good deal of private eye-rolling. Natural wine could – and the irony is not lost – use a good finishing school, in terms of selling its philosophy.

(To which I know the response is going to be: yes, but we don’t care. Fair enough. But there are people who could be convinced, or at least persuaded, were the temperature turned down a little.)

Of vastly greater importance is that the whole issue of biological and chemical flaws is far too blithely handwaved as a matter of personal preference. Not because it’s impossible to enjoy wines with characteristics otherwise considered flaws, but because it’s not clear that they have to be there in the first place. Were all natural wines bretty, or excessively volatile, or ropy, then it would be obvious that this was just an essential condition of the category. But they’re not. There is a very large percentage — I have no idea if it’s a majority or not — of natural wine that’s clean, that’s pure, and (in some cases) ages perfectly well despite limited (or no) added sulfur. A lot of what is regarded as the common baggage of natural winemaking is instead just sloppy, often untutored, winemaking. Certainly this impression is not countered by meeting the winemakers whose wines are chronic sufferers, many of whom seem to insist on doing things at odds with the tenets of basic chemistry.

But there’s another side to the widespread embrace of flaws, and it ties into the third and most distressing problem with natural wine. To contextualize this, let’s step to the other side and consider natural winemaking’s philosophical opposite: industrial winemaking, the goal of which is to produce, via technological means, a thoroughly reliable, predictable, quality product. As bad or good as any given wine might be (for industrialism is practiced in the hallows as much as in the Gallos), the actual hallmark of industrialism is its sameness. This is true whether the wine is a $12 petite sirah littering gas station liquor shelves or a pricey Champagne produced in zillion-bottle quantities that remains inseparable from its own glitzy marketing beast.

One doesn’t have to taste more than a few hundred natural wines before it becomes clear that a rather distressing percentage of them are very, very close cousins. Biochemical “flaws” can be the cause of this — one brett-ridden explosion of volatility is much like another — but there’s a more fundamental sameness. On the red side, one tastes an awful lot of crisp, snappy Beaujolais…except that much of it isn’t from Beaujolais, nor even made from gamay. On the paler end there’s a bit more variety, but a flavor profile akin to Loire chenin dosed with a little skin-contact ribolla gialla is quite ubiquitous. And then there are the orange wines…

(Let me head off the complaints: I’ve tasted scores of orange wines together, and in that context their differences are clear…ish. But no one drinks them that way, and no one ever will. Considered in isolation, only the true outliers really shine through their copper-colored glasses.)

That so many of the reds should be Beaujolais-alikes isn’t all that surprising, considering the heavy imprint of semi-carbonic winemaking on the source material, but I think it’s worth asking: to what end? Do we really need Sicilian frappato, Roussillon grenache, Sierra Foothills syrah, and even Bordelais cabernet to taste like increasingly endless variations on the — admittedly excellent — Lapierre/Breton/et al theme? Where’s the individuality? (And I don’t mean the often excruciating label design.) What, exactly, makes the creative philosophy of all these nearly-identical natural wines different from their nearly-identical industrial opposites? Less frequent use of beard trimmers?

Natural wine is supposed to, among other things, be the ultimate transparency; letting the vine speak with as little interference as possible. It’s patently obvious that wines that taste the same no matter what they’re made of or where they’re from aren’t revelatory of anything except the winemaker’s imprint. That happens to be the core sin of industrial winemaking. There’s no need to replicate it.

How did we end up here? It’s my belief that a lot of natural winemakers and admirers don’t, in their subconscious liver of livers, actually like transparency nearly as much as the idea of it, whereas what they’re really after is the taste. And please, don’t tell me they don’t have a taste. (The exceptions are the stars of the genre, and there are many, but they’re not the subject of this essay. Also, many of their winemakers and importers agree with this complaint, though sometimes only privately.) I don’t mind the fetishization of that taste any more than it truly bothers me to see someone who really, really loves mass-market pinot grigio. Less appealing is the volume of the adoring peloton careening along a merry trail of sameness while all the while crowing about how fundamental and essential their preferred wines are.

So if the industrial fans prefer painstakingly crafted monuments to intention and the frequently-cloned natural wine aficionados crave indifferently crafted monuments to inattention, who’s holding the philosophical high ground? Could it still be the terroirists? The winemakers and drinkers who do in fact philosophically skew towards natural, but would be just as horrified by a Brouilly that tastes like a Morgon as they would a Chilean carmenère that tastes like one.

Is this a call to some sort of action? Not really, no. Natural wine is what it is; or, more accurately, natural wines are what they are, since there remains little agreement on a definition (and given the personal predilections of those involved, I suspect an unwillingness to conform is fundamental to the movement…which is why the easy acceptance of wines that very much conform is so baffling). Perhaps it would be most correct to say that natural wines are what they aren’t and leave it at that.

It’s neither my business nor my interest to tell people how to make, sell, or enjoy wine. To each their own gout…let a hundred brett infections bloom…whatever. But when I’m next accused of fence-straddling and unnecessary contrapuntalism regarding the claims of natural winos, I’ll have a document to point to that explains why.

First we take Manhattan…

[sandra bullock takes a sniff]A scientist, an artist, and an artisan walk into a bar…

…and order a cocktail. Because they can actually have a conversation about that. Wine? Impossible. On that subject, the three shall never speak, nor (even more tragically) listen.

The long silence of this blog has been accompanied by a significant personal focus on cocktails both in concert with and in lieu of wine. There are more differences than similarities between the two disciplines, despite both being founded on the pleasurable boozification of daily life, and one of the biggest is that in the cocktail world, analytic inquiry is not relegated to — or worse, dismissed as being the unseemly meddling of — industrialists.

Some of the very worst biochemical travesties in the natural wine realm come from those who not only avoid science, but are actively hostile to it and whatever lab-coated hyper-globalist monsters stand behind it. This while their case-stacking and exceedingly wealthy counterparts in the mass-market realm dismiss not only the raving unwashed hippies at the other fringe, but any notion of wine being more than a soulless recipe custom-fit to a receptive demographic.

Cocktail folk, to their great credit, aren’t afraid to poke these monsters with syringes and pipettes, to see how and why they bleed. Witness this analysis, for example, which questions whether or not there are actual recipes — golden proportions, if you will — that transcend ingredient identity. The wine community will see no similar effort, because the Olivier Cousins of the world would never read it, and because Constellation Brands has already profited from it.

There are a few exceptions here and there. Some winemakers are actual technologists, like Clark Smith. Some are disruptively interrogative pebbles in the natural wine machinery, like Eric Texier. Though they start with completely different philosophies about wine’s essence, and their products evidence relatively oppositional goals, in actual practice they don’t let results stand in the way of inquiry and testability. Sadly, such people are thin on the ground in the wine community, and when they exist they tend to be gobbled up by the megacorps.

This somewhat depressive muse comes not as a result of the above-linked article, but after reading this brilliant thought experiment on the intersection between aroma, sweetness, and sense. Go read it; it is eminently worth your time.

I’m somewhat hesitant to respond to this terrific essay in the manner I’m about to, because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in serious disagreement with it. I’m not. A great deal of its foundation is based on subjectivity (because it’s about taste), and with that there’s no fruitful argument. The rest is thoughtful, forceful, and challenging. I think it proposes some extremely penetrating notions, and even if they prove to be wrong or partially wrong (though I don’t know how one would “prove” such things), rarely is the starting point pinned so far, and so authoritatively, into the latter stages of the conversation.

Despite my now well-established cocktail enthusiasm, I don’t yet feel expert enough to respond to the spiritous specifics in the essay, so my responses there will remain general. Regarding the wine-related portions, however, I do have some reasonably-founded thoughts. This will be a somewhat scattered essay, on my part, but the source material filled me with knotty mental puzzle pieces, few of them neatly-knit into a cohesive narrative.

Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit:

This lesson was first mastered by port wine producers who created the 18×6 template. For port, 18% alcohol puts the wine at the minimum of preservation so as not to be a distraction.

I think it’s an easy but understandable error to attribute intentionality to such choices, at least with the confidence this essay implies. The fermentation-stoppage alcohol employed in the Douro has varied wildly over the years and across producers, with both innocuous and deformative effects on the organoleptics, the aromatics, and the perceived balance of the finished beverage. And it’s little use to speak of Port as a single entity, anyway; an aged Colheita and a baby-cheeked Ruby don’t express balance in the same fashion, nor do a White and a Vintage. It’s possible that there are known ratios for each category, but I submit that ratios are quickly superseded by house styles.

Further, Port is an interesting example in that its tinkering winemakers and marketers have (like their counterparts in Champagne) long exploited differing cultural responses to the beverage. Drier, more oxidative Ports are popular in one country, while tooth-decaying young-Ruby sweetness reigns in another. In a third, Port may be more or less unsalable as part of a wholesale rejection of “classic” sweet wines.

That said, Port is correctly identified by the essayist as, at its core, a procedural, “recipe” wine…in which category it is joined by Champagne and most other sparkling wines (save pet-nats), Sherry, and nearly the entire universe of fortified wines. To my knowledge, Port doesn’t have a Marco de Bartoli-style iconoclast (Infantado would be the closest I’ve tasted) working to reduce or eliminate all but the most necessary interventions and producing atypical yet incomparable results along the way, but it could. And then we might see whether or not the received ratios are actually all that golden.

Champagne, however, is currently littered with such iconoclasts, and what they’ve demonstrated amongst all the strict interventions and recipes is that there is a multiplicity of positive responses to the sugar/alcohol/non-sugar dry extract/ester quartet. In other words, subjectivity of form and response are a greater factor than the linked essay allows. Which is still very far from saying it’s wrong, only that if it indeed applies to cocktails, it still might not apply to wine. But if it doesn’t apply to wine, yet wine is being used to support the thesis…well, there’s clearly more work to be done.

Are there demonstrably successful ratios that fling wines from shelves into customers’ baskets? Maybe, but I’m deeply suspicious. I’m particularly uncertain that the market demonstrates the validity of such truisms. When’s the last time you laid down a case of Port?

I thought so.

Drinkers of dry wines complain that even alcohol contents as high as 15% can be distractions from aroma when there is not residual sugar.

That’s a massive simplification of an extremely vociferous debate, though I’m quite certain the author knows it. Response to obvious alcohol is variate and personal, but the crux is always balance-in-context. The most strident anti-alcohol ranters have likely tasted (for example) Ridge zinfandels far above their personal thresholds that seemed poised and appealing despite being only a few ordinals shy of actual Port. It’s almost never the number, though the number is a convenient whipping boy. It’s the imbalance and the entire set of corollary effects — fruit-sweetness to the point of overripeness, textural issues, structural abandonment — that form the entirety of the objection to high alcohol in dry wines.

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is an easily-manipulated response, manageable with tricks both crude and subtle. Clark Smith claims that “balance points” for a given wine exist at multiple alcohol levels, and while it is (or was) his business to use technology to bring wines to those points, I’ve no reason to believe he’s lying. But as the most volatile component of wine, alcohol can be trapped or shunted by a studied choice of tasting vessel. In fact, the entirety of the wine-tasting rigamarole is based around this and related concepts. Anyone who’s purchased a boozy domestic pinot tasted from a narrow stem and carted it home to their wide-bottomed Burgundy bowls knows what I’m talking about.

The more interesting consideration here is a utilitarian one. Is the wine being employed as a cocktail? Or is it a component of a food-centered ritual?

I submit that of all the differences between wine and cocktails, the greatest is that one is normatively intended to accompany food and the other is not. I say “normatively” because there is a very lucrative subset of wine consumers who do, in fact, drink wine as a cocktail. That they will perceive issues of balance, aromatics, and sweetness differently is immediately obvious.

Wine, even with residual sugar, can be (and in the majority is) intended as a companion. A supplement. An enhancement of the food, or itself enhanced by the gustatory accompaniment, but in any case only one element in a more complex work. Cocktails, however, are generally considered in isolation. To bend one context to the other, wine (as traditionally employed) is not the cocktail, wine is the vermouth in the Manhattan. (That vermouth is in fact wine seems massively apropos.) Whereas a Manhattan is not the wine, a Manhattan is the entire meal.

It follows, then, that wine-as-cocktail has a fundamentally different set of sugar/alcohol/ester relationships than wine-as-food-partner. I’d submit that the bifurcation of wine response is most profoundly expressed by that division. And thus, it inevitably follows that while the science of organoleptics and the personal art of sensorial response are theoretically the same, they are inevitably divided by utility. To speak definitively about balance in wine is to skip past the essential, first-principle “how.”

And perhaps also “where.” The structural theory of wine, as grounded by history in the Old World (and Older World), is based on a cuisine that increasingly exists as a cultural artifact and is fading nearly everywhere. Many of the truly paradigmatic wines, like age-worthy red Bordeaux, remain unconflicted only with the most restrained of dishes. The modern trend towards fusion-in-all-things and pan-national culinary polyamory has almost destroyed the traditions that support things like structure-driven cab/merlot blends, which is instead now a market almost entirely supported by icon-seekers in multiple cultures, and people whose diets somewhat inexplicably consist of steak after steak after steak. I don’t say this to criticize or judge — people should eat, drink, and buy what they want — but to point out how the field of play has shifted: the most dedicated wine consumers no longer consume a diet that supports most of the traditional assumptions about structure, aromatics, balance…and yes, sugar.

We have long been living in a gustatory world that should wholeheartedly embrace off-dry wines, as Asian influences permeate nearly everything we eat and even our driest, most animalistic dishes tend to employ some sort of sweet counterpoint. This while the Germans, who mastered the most brilliant wines to accompany this sort of eating, have fled such styles wholesale in the pursuit of magisterial dry rieslings (which they can now make with steady confidence, thanks to climate change). Certain umami wines, like Burgundy, have proven unexpectedly adept at marrying world cuisines, but there is an entire universe of bibulous assumptions that has been somewhat unquestioningly abandoned by the modern diner. To cheer or regret this movement is to miss the point; it is, and the wines must respond or be rendered antiquated.

But even as wine and food tastes bend inexorably to an unfamiliar horizon, is it possible that spirits confound this trend, falling into neatly predictable ratios that transcend the vicissitudes of the ages? Perhaps. And perhaps it is my natural cynicism that makes me doubt it. A moment in time is little more than a vivisection. Perhaps we can definitively characterize a given moment and support it with data, but I don’t know that our firmest conclusions will be of much use to the swillers of 2040. The very reasons for cocktails in their traditional forms have profoundly changed over the interregnum between creation and our modern revivalist fetishization. Their utility would be slightly more familiar, but even that cloth is fraying. Do I think that today’s answers will apply tomorrow?

Honestly, I don’t. They certainly haven’t in wine. It’s true that cocktails have a much more intensely-tended root system, and I think it’s entirely possible that the “core curriculum” of cocktails will be preserved for eternity, to be admired and learned and introduced by bartenders to curious stool-perchers until the heat-death of the universe. But is what I just described “cocktails” as actually experienced, or is that just a foundation on which many future and highly differentiated edifices will be built?

I don’t know.

The brash attentional nature of these Manhattans are thought to dispel anxiety and with that said we might have just found their motive. If the Manhattan simply becomes a vehicle for attentional therapy there quite a few ways to skin the cat.

In fact, this is where and how the wine world divides most neatly in twain. The largest cohort of drinkers most certainly seeks familiar and repeatable commodification. This is a hyper-competitive market obsessed with pricing, positioning, and marketing minutiae. The rest are the cornucopia of niches who must be micro-marketed to by a haphazard chain of producers, shippers, and outlets, but who consume the vast majority of labels and of media generated in service of those wines. The former are the wine industry as an industry, the latter are the the entire reason that the greater wine industry has persisted and blossomed for millennia.

Do people who order a Manhattan without modification want the edges pre-filed to fit neatly within expected parameters? That’s the assertion here, and it’s likely to be true for the mass of drinkers, but what of the enthusiast? Is the delicate propriety of a safe Manhattan what they’re after? Do they even order Manhattans? Or do they order something from a creatively-crafted list, or a more touchy-feely cocktail like a Sazerac? I can’t answer for the market, but I know that I prefer the latter; Manhattans I save for bars I can’t trust (a cruelty I bafflingly inflict upon myself given the pitiful “success” of the results) or home.

It may be that this is a significant difference between cocktails and wine, in that the creatively important segment of the wine market (in terms of sustaining interest in something other than a mere alcohol delivery system) is very much obsessed with “vehicles for attentional therapy.” Indeed, there seems little other reason for most non-commodity wines to exist. No one needs a hundred new natural wine labels any more than they needed hundreds of differentiated Burgundian lieux dits. But we have them, and we embrace them.

If our motive is to thwart complacency it might make sense to have a formula forced upon on us through random old school free pouring where we will just learn to love it. Many people enjoy this randomness, but we are quick to chalk it up to a lack of understanding their options. Free pouring and random recipes are cocktail movement blasphemy but they may not have been without positive effects.

…and this gets to the very crux of the issue. Historically, we have “learned to love” all manner of contradictory things. We would not now drink Port with steak and Sauternes with roast game birds, even though to do otherwise would once have been to challenge long-settled wisdom. We do not tend to drink hyper-sweet wines as apéritifs if “we” are Americans, fearing them destructive to the dry whites or reds that are sure to follow, but the French ritualize that very behavior. We do not love resinated wines, unless we are a certain sort of Greek traditionalist, and we have abandoned aromatized wines to the cocktail folk for their blending experiments…only to have them turn around and offer those wines unadorned as breezy, delicious alternatives to cocktails. Apparently, the simple act of adding a citrus peel transforms something that is very obviously wine into not-wine, a categorial exclusion that is based on shifting cultural appreciation of aromatics and approaches to balance. Why do we consider Dolin Blanc a cocktail beverage and Conundrum a wine? Because we’ve decided so, whether via choice, marketing, or acculturation. No better reason.

Whether or not we are naturally inclined towards any aspect of wine (like sweetness) or require assimilation (as we likely do with tannin), it’s fairly clear from the multiplicity of wine styles that we are a constellation of opinions regarding balance. The industrialists have chosen recipes (and there are many) that are, by and large, repellent to enthusiasts. A cloudy Riffault Sancerre is predictably shocking to a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc drinker, but it isn’t any more likely to appeal to a regular buyer of Vatan Sancerre. And what of the late-picking Cotats and their ilk, who occasionally lose their AOC privileges despite the historical precedent for off-dry Sancerre? Or the opposing camps in Marlborough: one favoring enzyme-enhanced pyrazines and the other off-dry fruit salad from their sauvignons, while a third wave skirts the perimeter with uninoculated, texturally dense alternatives? There’s a strong and opinionated market of enthusiasts for all these wines, and in fact it could easily be argued that “learning to love” not just what is, but what is developing, is a foundational motivation for a very large number of wine consumers.

I often think that this trend is almost exactly reversed in the cocktail realm. The “new/now/nextness” in the wool-vested world frequently comes from adulterating vodkas and whiskies that are almost entirely rejected by the cognoscenti. Want to get cocktail geeks excited? Resurrect a lost formula. “Unimprove” a modernized product, like Lillet. Convince the Amer Picon folks to export to the States. Want to bore a room full of wine geeks to tears of indifference? Tell them you’re going back to Hermitage-ing classed-growth Bordeaux, just like they did it in the old days. The deafening silence of crickets and empty bank accounts will follow. But tell them you’re kveri-fermenting and skin-macerating a white from some Latvian grape they’ve never heard of, and the wine nerds shall flock.

“Thwarting complacency” is the raisin d’être (sorry, I apparently never tire of that pun) of wine geekery. As for “randomness,” it’s the very essence of the natural wine movement. Is there a “lack of understanding their options” at work? Perhaps among some of the most indifferent True Believers, but the majority understand their options very well, and have specifically and deliberately rejected complacency in favor of its opposite.

Though I still don’t know if they’d prefer free-poured cocktails.

It’s fascinating to consider the intellectual and emotional tension between the two worlds, actually. That the scientific perfectability of a Manhattan could be seen as desirable makes sense from the perspective of my inner cocktail enthusiast. My longer-time companion the internal wine enthusiast finds the very idea tedious, at best. I wish I had a verifiable explanation for how these fields have arrived at opposite conclusions regarding irreducibility. I don’t. I can only speculate that the difference is that cocktails are, by design, multivariate complexity unified by craft, whereas wines are singularities that must express both authenticity and complexity with, preferably, as little resort to craft as possible. (Here, of course, I speak only of non-industrial wines.) But this is only a contention, not a demonstration.

Some of the most fascinating work in the linkedy essay revolves around the tension between aroma and sugar. For example:

Among people with well entrenched acquired tastes, when we flatten a path to olfaction by holding all the the other senses at their most innocuous (a sweet drink) the aroma presented must be extraordinary or the experience will be seen as unharmonic.

Again, there is a clear difference when the subject is wine rather than cocktails. Industrial exemplars of the category — Blue Nun, Apothic, and so forth — don’t really have any aromatic extraordinariness at all. The current vogue for moscato certainly highlights aromatic explosiveness, but are the painted-whore charms of muscat really extraordinary? Rarely. Industrial wines that rely on sugar to sell themselves, of which the once-triumphant Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and its usurper Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio are the exemplars, are severely aromatically muted compared to their non-industrial brethren.

Yet I definitely agree that an overtly sweet cocktail must work harder for my attentions…proportionally along a continuum of same… than a drier cocktail. If I’m to truly adore a muscat, I need more than sugar and a flower shop/fruit salad detonation, yet access to those organoleptic realms is only hindered by muscat’s lurid varietal signature.

Again, I wonder at the reason for this separation. Wine lovers appreciate lavish aromatics, certainly — witness the rhapsodies writ with the ink of Burgundy or Barolo — but there is hesitation when it comes to overtly sweet wines. Instead, adoration usually only comes when the wines sugars have retreated; not in measure, of course, but in comparison to the maturing varietal, terroir, and winemaking signatures that blossom with age, rendering the wine “less sweet” to the palate. There are people who drink young Layon for the overwhelming sugar, certainly — most of them are French — but no serious aficionado reaches for their corkscrew until the decades-long process of drawing forth chenin’s elegant, earthen complexity has at least begun.

Here’s where I come around to a conclusion, of sorts, regarding the Boston Apothecary essay. Do I think there’s value in the search for a paradigmatic Manhattan? Yes. Immensely so. There may even be one, though I harbor more doubt than the essayist. But as is so often true, it’s quite possible that it’s the search that provides more value than the conclusion.

Mostly, I regret the lack of similar inquiry into the science of wine’s sensorium. Not because I want a One True Sommerberg Riesling, but because I think the people who would most benefit from a robust examination are leaving the questions (and thus the answers) to people who make wines they hate. Personally, I abhor artisanal wine’s too-frequent rejection of science, and hope for a day in which both the most vapid industrialist and the most committed naturalist can agree that biochemistry is an important tool.

And now I’m going to make a Manhattan. Because I’m thirsty.

The Pall & the proceedings

[clown art]Witness the urtext of lousy writing about natural wine.

Bruce Palling isn’t even trying.

(This is almost literally true. Be amazed at the lack of effort.)

The grand generalizations and profound ignorance — not to mention the errors — aren’t what makes this article terrible. Nor does it matter one whit whether or not Palling likes, or even understands, natural wine. What makes it legendarily, appallingly, brilliantly horrid is what has made millions upon millions of words of wine writing numbingly bad down through the ages.

Because this is what Palling has written:

“I tasted some natural wines and didn’t like them.”

No worries. More for those who do. At least the tl;dr edition doesn’t make everyone look foolish…for wasting the time reading it, but also for the more egregious sin of wasting the time writing it.

Twice.

Tiers of rage

[j'accuse]Sex or Kevin McKenna? Choose quickly.

Of the two thunderclouds that loomed over digital newsstands yesterday, it was the former that promised all the hail, but the latter that brought the actual tempest.

(The sex thing? Read it yourself. It’s a solid and thoughtful review of a thoroughly predictable bit of paleocultural juvenilia from natural winemakers.)

But it was McKenna, the eternally-unnamed partner of Louis/Dressner Selections, that — in one righteous and decidedly peeved essay — left the deeper marks.

More than a few eyebrows were likely raised at the mere existence of McKenna’s rant, for while he’s been the silent partner (in terms of his company’s name) for a very long time now, he’s also rarely been one to vent his spleen — or any other organ — in quite this fashion, at least not in a public forum. Mostly, he’s gone about his work with quiet skill, and along the way he’s gained almost universal respect for the quality of that work. (I pointlessly hedge with “almost universal” even though I’ve never heard anyone say an even vaguely unkind word about the guy. Certainly I wouldn’t.)

While there’s always more than one side to any story, I think McKenna’s complaints — that people are using and/or misrepresenting the reputation and the brand-building done by his company for their own commercial ends, and sometimes much worse — are entirely legitimate. The rise of micro-niche importers, while an extremely welcome development for customers and wineries alike, is inevitably going to lead to conflicts just like this. And while the three principal targets of McKenna’s ire seem to inhabit different tiers of offense, it’s not only about bad actors; even the well-meaning are eventually going to run afoul of someone. It’s the nature of a competitive business in which the entire sales pitch is about difference.

(This seems as good a time as any to issue the necessary disclaimer: I know and have bought a lot of wine imported by McKenna’s company, and I know and have bought wine — and may do so again — from the first target of his complaint.)

Anyway, it’s not my place to adjudicate the various beefs here. Potential customers can sort this all out for themselves, if they care. It would be nice, or at the very least polite, for tradespeople to eschew lying as a business tactic, but only a very delicate flower indeed would fail to recognize that it’s going to happen and one needs to be wary of it. The danger of the open internet that McKenna identifies aside, he does have that same recourse available to him…one which wouldn’t have been available to him a few decades ago. And judging by the number of times his complaint has been shared on social media, I think his point has been rather soundly reinforced.

The important core of McKenna’s argument aside, one minor detail struck me as somewhat ironic:

And sure, maybe I idealize the past or perhaps was a bit wide-eyed and naïve. Or perhaps I was not in a position to see the uglier side of things, which I am sure existed. But I still believe that for the most part, there was guiding principle to work with integrity, manners and mutual respect […]

As I’ve never heard anyone speak ill of McKenna, neither have I heard McKenna speak more than irritably about anyone else (again, I’m sure he has…I just haven’t heard it), which is part of why his anger here is so striking. But he certainly used to work with someone who was a frequent and sometimes relentless source of ugliness and ill-manners, and not just in his more common jocular fashion, towards other people in the trade. Importers included.

Once, as a very naïve and wide-eyed proto-writer, I made the mistake of bringing up McKenna’s company in the presence of a longer-established importer of considerable reputation. They shared, in those days, a few common producers, and I blithely assumed that they’d divvied up the geographical sales territory and all was well between the two firms.

Not so, if the twenty-minute barrage of invective to which I was treated was any indication.

Again: I don’t know the truth of the matter, felt far too bludgeoned to research it at the time (assuming anyone would have told me the truth, which I soon found was not something that most importers willingly did when it came to the hard facts of business), and in any case it scarcely matters so many years later. But it was the moment where I began to actually listen to the constant whispers and grumbles while navigating around the trade as both writer and customer. And what I found was just as much invective and ill-will as bonhomie, at all levels.

(Except one: winemakers, in general, were and are a pretty good-natured, laissez-faire lot. Yes, there are a few outliers. And no, they don’t always care for critics, but then why should they?)

Now, I’ve no doubt that given the choice between aggravating commentators and ankle-biting competition versus the decades in which the liquor business was run by you know who, most importers would gladly suffer the slings of WordPress and the arrows of Blogger. These days, no one is likely to die at the hands of the competition. But I’m not sure McKenna’s rosy utopia ever really existed in quite the way he perceived. I think that it’s more likely that, as ever, like-minded people coalesced around each other and — within those self-sustaining communities of preference and commerce — all seemed relatively frictionless. It always looks a little different from the outside.

Meanwhile, it’s worthwhile to concentrate on the vastly more satisfying conclusion to McKenna’s essay:

On a much happier note, last Sunday Louis/Dressner got together with Zev Rovine, Selection Massale, Fifi and PM Spirits to do a tasting together under the same roof. The energy was incredible, the crowd was great and the festivities went well into the night.

It doesn’t have to be ugly. Niche importers can, and in an ideal world should, band together. They can’t really fight the deafening roar of the behemoth mega-firms, but if they have to shout to be heard anyway, it would be better if they weren’t shouting at each other.

Living on the edge

Vivant Table“He’s played us. Don’t you think he’s played us beautifully?”

The setting was a Paris apartment. The “us” referred to a small gathering of folks who, mostly, work in or around the alcohol and media worlds. And the “he” of debate was natural wine evangelist and (at the time) object of intense media scrutiny over then-current events, Pierre Jancou.

Here’s the if-you-missed-it summary: a muckety-muck at a fashion mag hit up Jancou for a free meal at his restaurant Vivant Table. The dangled carrot was positive mention in Mr. Muckety-Muck’s publication. This sort of gross pay-for-play quasi-blackmail happens all the time, and most restaurants just bend over and take it, figuring the publicity is worth the cost. Jancou’s restaurant is tiny, perpetually overbooked (well in advance, too), and has zero need of such publicity. Given this freedom, Jancou said no. Hard words were exchanged over email.

Now, the tale could have ended there. Except that Jancou passed the story, complete with email proof, to a bunch of writers who were naturally inclined to be sympathetic to Jancou’s objection, and likely to spread the story. Which they did. And did. And did again. I arrived in Paris the day after the hullabaloo hulla-ballooned, and everyone (“everyone” being a self-selected cohort of folks, many of whom I count as friends, acquaintances, or trusted sources) was talking about it.

Naturally, the backlash – not much of one in comparison to the pro-Jancou outrage, but it was there – arrived soon after. Motives were examined. The question that seemed most prevalent was the most obvious: didn’t Jancou end up turning this into a giant PR victory by his own savvy use of the media?


A few months earlier, I’d seen this debate play out in different context. On two different wine fora, a drinker with a bit of a reputation for contrarianism-without-justification went after winemaker Eric Texier, essentially calling his participation on those and other fora no more than transparent publicity-seeking, and going on to suggest that anyone who fell for it was brainwashed. The issue, apparently, began with the drinker’s dislike of Texier’s wines, but from there, the conclusions – each darker and stranger than the previous – followed.

So what are Texier’s motives for participating on wine fora? He says, among other things, that they’re to provide information, often corrective, in discussions of wines and winemaking. Occasionally regarding his own work, much more often not. Since he very pointedly does not shill, openly or otherwise, for his own product, and in fact posts as his claimed motivation would suggest, I’ve no reason to think he’s lying.

So what about the accusation that Texier gets a publicity boost from this participation? Well, of course he does. If it damaged his brand, he’d be an idiot to keep doing it. I’ve seen winemakers, restaurateurs, retailers, and others damage – even destroy – their reputations through ham-fisted use of technology and social media. And Texier is no idiot. He uses his participation well. And yes, his reputation benefits as a result.

To suggest that this should not be is to suggest that either Texier can’t use the internet because he might gain from such use, or that he must use it less well. These are ludicrous positions to take, though that didn’t stop one finger-wagger from taking them. If Texier’s participation in a discussion works to his benefit because he adds value, and he in turn receives value from that participation, where is the damage? I see none. If Texier’s wines are bad (which, in my opinion, they most certainly are not), then disappointed consumers will sort that out for themselves, irrespective of Texier’s online musings.


The benefits stemming from Jancou’s media firestorm are somewhat more indirect. As noted, it’s not like he has empty seats to fill; perhaps a few more people could stuff themselves into his shoebox-sized wine bar, but only at tourist hours. Yes, there’s theoretical benefit to “Brand Jancou,” but since he’s not shown much inclination towards franchising or Vivant-logo mugs and t-shirts, all it really gets him is more regular quoting in the media…a mixed blessing to an evangelist for a category of which many remain skeptical. One thing that the attention does bring, however, is corollary illumination for the natural wines that Jancou promotes. Since his only direct financial interest in promoting these wines is if you drink them at one of Jancou’s establishments, which as I’ve noted isn’t all that likely unless you’ve planned well ahead, I again think it’s reasonable to take him at his word.

Instead, I submit that to the extent that there was promotional intent behind Jancou’s actions, it was less numerical than it was qualitative. Anyone who follows Parisian restaurant buzz knows that, especially since the installation of a new chef and a corollary upgrading of the kitchen’s ambitions (see below), Vivant Table is a “hot” reservation. In fact, there are few hotter. By getting his side of the story into the press, Jancou doesn’t do much to increase the number of potential diners – in fact, if anything he probably holds off some portion of the available pool by resisting those who want in simply to say they’ve been – but instead increases the likelihood that diners are there because they are sympathetic to his restaurant’s philosophy. Vivant is as much a statement as it is a restaurant, and that’s not the sort of thing everyone enjoys. Those who don’t now have reason to stay away, clearing the field for a few more of those who do.

Here’s another reason to take Jancou at his word. A few nights after the imbroglio, I was standing outside his wine bar with a mutual acquaintance, chatting with the man himself. Naturally, this was one of the subjects. He grew increasingly animated, and what seemed to enrage him most was when his free-meal-seeking correspondent suggested that Jancou was well-known as some sort of skinflint, as stingy, as someone who’d refuse a simple request due neither to principle or practicality, but basic meanness. (Needless to say he did not agree with this interpretation.) His agitation and animation while recounting this were quite obvious and I don’t for a second believe they were feigned.

So did Jancou take an irritating encounter and turn it, via a willing media, to his benefit? Sure, but I submit that it doesn’t really matter. Yes, his case was amplified and abetted by interlocutors. But it’s a good case, or at least it’s the case he wishes to make for his restaurant and his passion. He has other methods of publicizing what he does, but why should he fail to make the best use of the sort of gift publicity provided by this incident? If he’s being duplicitous or is, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle…well, as with Eric Texier and his wines, disappointed diners will sort that out for themselves. And I haven’t noticed reservations at Vivant Table getting any easier.

For instance…


blood sausageSecuring a table at Vivant Table is far from the hardest thing I’ve ever done, restaurant-wise, but it’s no destination for last-minute deciders. In my case, five weeks of advance notice are required for a late seating, the hour of which is changed several times by the restaurant as the night approaches (though at the restaurant I can’t tell if the time-shifting has accomplished anything…maybe a very late third seating for someone?) I do note that more than a few people are turned away during the first hour of my meal, even a few who claim to have reservations, though I’m not eavesdroppy enough to assess the details.

In any case, it’s a tiny room in which one can be sure that most everyone who’s there wants to be there, or at least is accompanying someone who does. And it doesn’t offer much in the way of negotiation: the choices are a set menu, or a set menu with matched wines. This sort of restaurant-dominated approach, which I think many places would like to try but don’t, has been given a healthy lungful of oxygen by the ideologically-driven natural wine movement, and such places now litter Paris and are popping up in other cities, in Europe and elsewhere. There’s been follow-on benefit to non-natural places who, given tiny kitchens and limited seating, would like to shift the point-of-view to that of the kitchen rather than of the table, and I’m enthusiastically behind the movement.

Of course, I can say that because I’m an omnivore. Consecutive courses of sweetbreads, blood sausage, and multiple takes on venison do require somewhat of an open palate. This is aggressive, frequently brilliant food that takes the ingredient-focused cooking for which the restaurant was previously known and enlivens it through some very accomplished, almost swaggering cooking. There are some chances taken, and not everything succeeds (the blood sausage, for instance, is easily the most brilliant version thereof I’ve ever tasted, and finds a sweet counterpoint in an autumnal squash purée, but is paired with an utterly pointless bit of octopus…perfectly cooked, yet akin to a tuba player joining an in-progress violin quintet). But more than enough does succeed to make this one of the more interesting menus in Paris. Love it or not, if anyone is bored here, they are jaded beyond repair. It’s also extremely rich food, of course, and one will want to arrive with not only an open palate, but an open belly.

Despite a pretty good familiarity with natural wines as they exist on American shores, and many visits to other French covens of naturalia, Jancou’s explorations litter his shelves and his lists with a fair number wines I’ve either never tasted or have never even heard of. Not wanting to miss out on the latest and quirkiest, I do something I rarely choose to do and give myself over to the restaurant’s suggestions. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control (and no fault of the restaurant’s, either), the evening comes to an end before I can get a written version of the wines – almost all unfamiliar to me – so what follow are the only two names of which I’m certain. But there’s also a dark orange “white Burgundy” that’s not, as far as I can tell, actually an orange wine, several spiky reds (including one from sangiovese), and other highly individualistic offerings that sometimes range far beyond the borders of “mainstream” natural wines.

Do some of them taste like cider, white ale, lambic, distant cousins to vin jaune, or really almost anything but what one conceives of as “normal” wine? Yes. (Some don’t, and in fact taste quite familiar.) Some of them are good matches for the food and others are far too demanding of attention to coexist. I wouldn’t want an unending diet of such experiments, even the good ones. But to have one’s assumptions so aggressively challenged is both an intellectual and an emotional thrill-ride, and this is why I don’t choose between natural and traditional wines, but instead drink both. Yes, sometimes, one wonders why anyone would let certain fates befall otherwise defenseless grapes. But that’s exactly the point of natural wine as a philosophy, isn’t it? Risk is inherent in the genre. Universal pleasure is not.

Georges Laval Champagne Cumières 1er Cru Brut Nature (Champagne) – Foam, intensity, and the stench of brettanomyces. Not so much that it’s invalidating, but it’s there, so be warned. Otherwise, I like the wine a great deal, but this is a bit past my personal twitchiness point. (11/12)

Le Coste “Litrozzo” (Veneto) – Like drinking fizz without the usual trappings of wine that the fizz delivers. It’s pretty interesting, actually; if one considers bubbles or the sensation thereof to be a structural element, then this wine is all structure. What it really is, though, is all texture. (11/12)

Vivant Table’s room is somewhat uncomfortable, despite the quirky retro brilliance of the décor (rescued from the room’s previous incarnation), yet the slightly edgy discomfort matches the culinary and vinous experience on offer, and thus makes a certain amount of sense. Service is brusque in the very familiar French manner, which means you’ll get careful attention when someone’s at your side, but it’s best to not wish for things while they’re not. That said, at the end of our meal there’s an issue that requires a bunch of staff attention – again, nothing that’s the fault of the restaurant – in the face of which they couldn’t be kinder or more briskly attentive.

I read back over this review and see far more ambiguity and hedging than I really feel. There’s a perpetual debate amongst those who assign ratings to things and those who don’t, into which someone inevitably drops the cliché that the only rating that matters being whether or not one would repeat the experience. I don’t rate things, but I’ll answer the cliché: I’d go back to Vivant Table in a second. No matter how many weeks it takes to get in. Moreover, I love the restaurant, and part of that love is accepting that I will not love everything at the restaurant.

No, not accepting. Embracing.


wine & stairs at vivant caveI’ve a friend who complains that almost none of the wine bars that litter Paris are actually wine bars, but instead are restaurants with a lot of wine by the glass. I don’t really grasp the rigor of his definition, which seems to preclude either everything-but-charcuterie or seats (I forget which, possibly because I’m making fun of him), but I’d be tempted to draw the dividing line between places that feel like restaurants – sit, chat, graze in your own space – vs. places that feel like bars, in which one elbows up, through, and away, maintaining near-constant physical contact with one’s neighbors, or if seated feeling like a passel of them are hovering overhead and wishing you’d give up your seat. By that definition, Vivant Cave is very nearly a true wine bar; there are seats at the bar and a few around teetering tables at the back, but it’s…let’s call it physically convivial. The food – a few products-on-plates, a constantly-changing short list of quick assemblages – is inconsistent, though locals tell me the menu has gone through a fair number of changes since the bar’s (recent) opening. On two occasions, an octopus salad is vibrant and perfect, a stenchy andouillette is fine, blood sausage – which I’d find hard to believe is the same as served next door, though if it is they’re capable of mistreating it – is just OK. Two different preparations of burrata are magnificent.

Wines come from a short list of open bottles (though I suspect there’s almost always something else open, whim to whim), or from an elaborately-stocked case right at the wine bar’s narrowest point, the location of which makes for a lot of shoulder-jostling browsing. And unless one is completely steeped in the arcane nether-realms of natural wine, there’s going to be a lot here that’s unfamiliar, even to people who think they know the genre. As in: I’m offered a patently oxidized Loire gewurztraminer. (I pass.)

Fleury Champagne “Fleur de l’Europe” (Champagne) – Vibrant and lavishly present, with a tinge of oxygen-derived fullness and an ever-expanding sphere of sun-infused pastry. This is a wine for which the overused term “mouthfilling” might have been invented, even though that word is rarely applied to Champagne. Incredibly good. (10/12)

Courtois 2008 “Lard du Vin” (Loire) – Brett, check. Volatility, check. Sweaty naturalia, check. Structurally, it speaks of sauvignon blanc, but aromatically it’s on a different planet. I’ll say this for Courtois’ wines: they’re never boring. (10/12)

Piccinin 2009 “Bianco dei Muni” (Veneto) – Chardonnay & durella. This is the most tannic orange wine I’ve ever tasted, with a fierce chomp from sharp, razored incisors. Fruit-wise, I’m thinking blood orange and raspberry, but it’s that tannic saber-whip that truly marks the wine. (10/12)

Blanchard “Le Grand Cléré” (Loire) – Sauvignon blanc. Salted honeydew melon, pit sweat, and the bitterness of underripe almonds. It leaps and hops for attention, but it’s not great at holding same. (10/12)

Ducroux 2011 Régnié (Beaujolais) – Pomegranate. Vividly acidic, with a diagonal hack-slash of thin tannin and a long, crisp tail. I’m not entirely certain it has anything to do with Régnié, though as it airs the more muscular aspects of the cru do begin to peer from dark corners, but it’s pretty delicious anyway. (10/12)

Sénat 2011 Minervois “Mais où est donc Ornicar” (Languedoc) – Tasting this in an ultra-naturalista wine outpost is a bit strange for me. The wine, which I first tasted years ago (obviously from a different vintage) in Sénat’s cellar, seems almost shockingly conventional in this setting, surrounded as it is by the whimsical, the ideological, even the downright insane. In the context of its appellation it’s strikingly approachable, yet it retains the structural baggage and density of its source. Meaty, herbal, somewhat dark-fruited, but largely about muscularity and the weight of long-eroded, sun-drenched history. What sets this apart from other wines of the appellation, and the rest of Sénat’s wines, is a sense of space and air that can be penetrated by a palate unassisted by animal flesh or its analogues. I don’t always love this wine, finding it somewhat imbalanced in certain contexts, but either the vintage or the setting are very much working for me in this one. (11/12)

Henri Milan 2011 Vin de France “Le Papillon” Rouge (Provence) – Brittle, its acids volatile in the physical rather than chemical sense (though it has those too). It’s an old TV on which someone is twiddling the hue knob between red and violet, with no lack of static and that tactile electrical-field hum. Or perhaps it’s like a nouveau with structure. Or one of those push-up fruit-syrup freezer candies. It’s all those things, and it’s wine as well. (11/12)


Disclosure: in conversation with Pierre Jancou, I inquire about the availability of an older Overnoy Vin Jaune, an expensive and very difficult to obtain wine. It’s made clear that the deciding factor is not money so much as an understanding that the purchaser will properly appreciate the result. I am eventually able to buy the wine (not at a discount), so to the extent that this is special access deserving disclosure, I’ve now done so.

This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place. Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

Curtains for Oz

Louis XVI & Marie-AntoinetteThat the end was approaching for Robert Parker and The Wine Advocate has been clear for years. It has long been no more than a matter of time. Thus, today’s signposting of that end, which is still clouded by contradictory statements and may be overtaken by further clarifications, doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

But this sort of end? Robert Parker giving up and selling out – and that’s absolutely what he has done – with one giant middle finger pointed squarely at Robert Parker himself? Advertising? Paid advocacy, in the form of seminars, of wines that are otherwise under review? No, I didn’t expect that at all. Robert Parker, the young firebrand Naderite with a wine newsletter, would not have been pleased.

I suppose I really should have seen this coming, though. Parker has gradually given up even the illusion of his own claims to independence over the years, defending and justifying each (or, at most, offering a slap on the wrist of policy and then changing nothing). Still, I always felt that he at least had convinced himself of the illusion, and that he would cede the field with that conviction intact.

I don’t, by the way, blame Parker for grabbing the lucre when it’s offered. He’s worked hard, he deserves a well-funded semi-retirement (he’s still going to be reviewing his favorite regions). I don’t say that with the slightest hint of sarcasm. Whatever I may feel about the content of his criticism, he built a wildly successful brand from scratch, and that’s to be admired.

At the end of Felix Salmon’s Reuters article, he writes, “The idea that a 95-point wine is always better than an 85-point wine is an idea which deserves to die.” This is true, and one hopes that this will, indeed, be one of the outcomes of the erosion of The Wine Advocate’s brand, though there are no lack of alternative publications offering the same false sense of objectivity.

But what I hope is a good deal more fundamental: that the long, oft-times slow, but now firmly-accelerated demolishing of the Parker model of criticism will lead to people realizing how poorly that model serves them.

When wine’s universe was smaller, it was perhaps useful for a lone voice (or a tight collection of same) to offer comprehensive assessments. That is now an impossibility. Within discrete categories of wine, there’s still a measure of utility…especially if one is purchasing for reasons of investment or prestige as much or more than personal taste…but the task Parker set himself is no longer achievable.

It’s not just that the world of wine has sprawled, though that’s certainly a major factor (note, for instance, that the publication will now cover Asian wines. Asian wines.) It’s that the market has sprawled along with it. There was a time when sought-after names were easily available, though still for a price, via a long-term relationship with a retailer with his or her own long-term relationships. Now, there’s skyrocketing international competition – some of it completely unknown even a decade ago – for desirable wines. And not just the blue-chip brands, either; even the cultish, counter-cultural, ultra-natural stuff can be both impossible to locate and impossibly expensive. Anyone tried to buy Overnoy Vin Jaune lately?

The days of the ranked shopping list, which was always what Parker’s work boiled down to, are almost over, except for – as mentioned – those with unlimited funds and time, who will continue to derive great value from them. But for everyone else? Even at the speed of online dissemination, a moment’s hesitation (whether temporal or monetary) cedes the market to someone else. Only wines produced in truly industrial quantities – supermarket dreck, négociant Champagne, classed-growth Bordeaux – will be available to all, albeit at a price, and even then the latter is crumbling under the weight of a worldwide demand that even the counterfeit market cannot sate.

From now on, most wine lovers will have to be content with getting only a little of what they want. The future of wine, as with everything else, is the niche. Obviously, the future of wine communication must, of necessity, also be niche. Even Parker, in his limited fashion, saw that when he hired a handful of collaborators, but he saw it too late and from too high a perch. In any case, fractionalization brings a more important change: the inexorable demise not just of the comprehensive critic, but of criticism as we know it.

This isn’t to say that critics will cease to exist. They’ll continue, and to the extent that they can live up to the ideals that Parker once claimed to exalt (what limited measure of independence is actually possible or desirable, a conviction to tell the subjective truth no matter the consequence), they might even succeed as long as their fields of interest are sufficiently narrow. But the future is in narrative. In insight. In the deep rather than the broad.

In other words: writing, rather than pure criticism. (Or video, or whatever else; it’s not the medium that matters, it’s the message.) A personal relationship with a merchant. A trusted intermediary in the biz. And so forth. It’s no accident that what’s succeeding in the wine world right now, in a way that it didn’t during a long interregnum, is the micro-business. A tiny wine bar focused on just one category, with so few seats to fill that there will always be a demand. A B2C importer with a firm point of view and very little wine to sell. Direct winery sales, even where such things were very recently unknown (like Burgundy).

And the era of false claims of independence, which was never actually possible, and even more ludicrous claims of objectivity, is also drawing to a close. More and more consumers see through the marketing of this pernicious falsehood, and realize that depth of understanding comes on a continuum in which one can only pay for that understanding by relinquishing independence. The only actual independence is that of thought and action. And there is no objectivity, only fairness.

I don’t know if Parker could have changed enough to meet the new paradigm. I suspect he couldn’t; one does not abdicate the Emperor’s throne to develop a deep working knowledge of the vineyards of Elba without a fight, or at least a large measure of self-denial. Of which we’ve seen an awful lot from Parker in recent years.

I will not be sad to see him go, no matter how long or sullied the goodbye. It would be foolish to deny his success, and equally foolish to deny his influence on both the market and wine itself…the good and the bad. But his time has passed. Even if he still only sees it through a glass darkened by hyper-extracted syrah.

The stars, like dust

dinner paintingWhile the world’s culinary landscape flows swiftly on to unknown horizons, the lords of French cuisine laze enthroned in their mountaintop fortresses, trapped by tradition and (at times) arrogance, kings of only that which their ancestors surveyed.

At least, that’s the conventional narrative. Like any such narrative, there’s some truth to it. An awful lot of French restaurants are more than content to rest on laurels that have long dried into aromatic irrelevancy. Meanwhile, the center of culinary gravity darts about the globe: Cataluña, Sydney, Hong Kong, Osaka, Chicago, the Basque lands, Copenhagen…even London, for heaven’s sake.

But there’s falsehood, as well. Yes, effortless diners will eat a lot of effortless cooking (I don’t mean that in a good way), and there’s a truly depressing conformity even among places that should know better. But, especially in the cities, there’s life, too. Starting with a return to ingredient-based cuisine – and France, though sometimes it seems to have forgotten, is laden and lardered with incredible ingredients to fill the famished – and moving on from there to the same sort of multiple-input experimentation that has energized dining all over the world.

One category of French restaurant, however, is unusually hobbled by resistance to change: the Michelin-starred. What should, by one standard, be the pinnacle of a nation’s deservedly famous edible narrative is, far too often, merely a vastly more expensive way to eat the same dishes available everywhere else, though with better knife-work and brilliantly-gilded tableware. Only infrequently are dishes less than exceptional works of craft (though it does happen, and it most certainly shouldn’t at those prices), but often that’s all they are. The time when French chefs’ creations were regularly on the tip of diners’ postprandial tongues is now decades in the past. And even when they’re referred to, it’s either a tribute band plodding its way through a hoary classic of yesteryear (like Alinea’s tournedos Rossini, painstakingly authentic and retro by design) or a well-worn yet affectionate quote from a literary master (like Manresa’s “Arpège egg”).

I feel little sympathy for French restaurants who care so little that they coast through mindless repetition of their alleged hits, even if that repetition is reasonably edible. But I do feel some sympathy for the starred, for their temples must sometimes feel an awful lot like prisons. A constant flow of well-heeled tourists and internationalites (as for better or worse, that’s who fills the seats) expecting the pinnacle of French dining, but also expecting it to be French and classic through whatever preconceptions they view those terms. Further, the cost of culinary risk-taking is higher than elsewhere; no one who’s traveled all the way to France and laid down a well-fed AMEX platinum wants the chef’s mid-afternoon dalliances and fleeting notions on the plate. They want the tried and true, but they want it better…well, actually, they want it perfected. That’s a tall order for any restaurant, and unfortunately it’s also the same order, over and over again.

There are several paths out of the trap. One is to give up the yoke of the system, and some chefs have done that…abandoning their stars, toques, and so forth to run focused places with limited menus (and limited seating). That is, in fact, where much of the most exciting French dining is to be found these days, and as a concept it sits comfortably aside the other trendlet: return-to-the-roots caves à manger, which offer the foundational traditions from which so many hidebound restaurants have strayed, but free of trappings and expense, and letting those great French ingredients speak for themselves.

Another is to reject the system on its merits (or lack thereof). Like a winemaker dropping an appellation to which they’re entitled working with strange grapes or techniques, giving up both the help and the restraint of guidebook or critical approval can be the first step on the path to the fullest expression of a chef’s passion. Michelin has learned some lessons outside France (and failed to learn those lessons elsewhere), but in France it remains a rigid defender of Michelin’s France.

The third is to cultivate a reputation for risk-taking from the very start. This is how Adrià, Redzepi, Aduriz, Achatz, and all the rest get away with their high-wire acts of culinary adventurousness, in which only the unwary and unprepared actually expect every dish to be a success. One attends their restaurants knowing one is paying for the performance, not just the script.

But here the French are at a disadvantage, because given their rigorously formalized path of advancement within kitchens, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone could rise to the top of the system without many years of predictable tasks, churning out the classics in very familiar trenches; tasks and classics that would suck the energy from even the most determined. French chefs simply don’t move from the line at Momofuku Ko straight to the top job at Le Grand Véfour, whereas talented risk-takers could easily make the jump from latter to the former. And to attempt to stay the course is to become every more firmly lodged in the vise. It’s a beautiful, gilded trap, but it’s still a trap.

There are escapees, however. The barriers are not impenetrable. There are chefs, even among the most renowned and étoile-laden, who push against boundaries both real and imagined. No, I don’t think there is an El Bulli analogue in the DNA of any French Michelin three-star of whom I’m aware (though its worth remembering that Adrià often credited the most creative of his French peers for inspiration), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t movement.


rabbitIn 2011, I had a double helping of Pierre Gagnaire. The first course was at the fascinating Forum des Images in the in-progress ruins of Paris’ Les Halles, a repository of individually-viewable films and video of all sorts. My French, alas, is not always up to vocal expressions of the native arts, but there was a short documentary about the culinary maestro, and it made for interesting and (more or less) comprehensible viewing.

The takeaway: Pierre Gagnaire is nuts.

Oh, he’s not crazy in the sense that he wanders naked down streets muttering about the aliens living in his brain. At least, I presume not. Rather, he’s the sort of “nuts” common to a lot of ultra-creative types, in which the relentless need – far beyond an urge or even a desire – to create leads not just to obsession, but obsessive dissatisfaction. An obsession that actually keeps him out of his kitchen during service, because his fiddling, nervous presence makes it impossible for his team to execute his dishes.

And this nervous energy, this relentless double-branched drive towards More and Different, is on every plate at his eponymous, lavishly-praised restaurant. At least, every plate I see. If there are restrained Gagnaire classics somewhere on this menu – and there might be – they pass neither my eyes nor my lips. More revelatory is the fact that there’s not only more than one idea on a plate, there’s almost always more than one dish on a plate. Sometimes a half-dozen or more. “Tuna” becomes a mezze platter of notions and whimsy around the core ingredient; whereas a modernist might cause the diner to wonder what they’re getting, Gagnaire leads one to wonder if there’s anything they’re not getting. It’s exciting, it’s overwhelming, and it’s bound to dissatisfy many as much as it thrills others.

The food at Gagnaire is all over the map. I don’t mean qualitatively – everything I try is extraordinary, and that isn’t a universally-shared experience of this restaurant, even among friends whose palates I usually trust – I mean stylistically. If there’s a center of gravity to this food, other than Gagnaire’s feverish flux, I can’t find it. There are obvious global influences, and Asia is referenced with some frequency, but little is geographically specific. Yet it’s not really “fusion,” either. More like a fan-spread glitter-shower of ideas, visually captivating but feeling refined only to the extent that at some point, someone arbitrarily stops the twiddling and adornment and expels some sort of product from the kitchen. I suspect that in the mind and kitchen of Pierre Gagnaire, little is ever “done.”

What about the ancillary matters? Service is what one wants from this type of restaurant, with more than a bit of cleverness when warranted. Décor is a little on the modernist power-broker side, but still within the expected range. The wine list is long enough and itself a bit modern, but I’ve no trouble finding wines worth drinking (which isn’t always the case at highly-starred establishments…see below).

Krug Champagne Brut “Grande Cuvée” (Champagne) – Rich and heady, but really not all that complex or interesting. It’s like gilding and jewel-encrusting a turnip, frankly; yes, it’s all shiny and sparkly, but what’s the real point? It’s still a turnip, and doesn’t want to be gilt. The wine’s elegant, and maybe the point is that one should feel elegant while one drinks it, but that’s really much more about the drinker than it is the wine itself. (4/11)

Boxler 2009 Riesling Brand (Alsace) – A little sweet, a lot heavy, a fair bit alcoholic. There’s still plenty of honeyed minerality and bronzed musculature, with the stone fruit and gold of the site evident, but it’s just too boozy for my taste, and I’m not sure this is a quality one will want to live with for long. I’d say I was surprised by this result, but a legendarily hot vineyard in a big year…unfortunately, I’m not surprised at all. Dismayed because of what it portends for globally-warmed Alsace. Disappointed that this came from an extremely reliable producer. But not surprised. (4/11)

Darroze “Domaine de Rieston” 1990 Bas-Armagnac (Southwest France) – Armagnac turned up to 11, or maybe even 12, in darkly-oaked intensity laden with succulent dried fruit. Showy and rather fantastic. It is not, I think, designed to appeal to lovers of older, more reticent and well-matured spirits, but it’s impossible to ignore and, frankly, very difficult not to like. (4/11)

The verdict? I’ve certainly had more adventurous meals in more freewheeling locales. I’ve had better meals in the sense that perfection seemed within their grasp, even from this exact type of restaurant in this very country. But this is without question the most interesting three-star meal I’ve had within the borders of France, and as I leave I’d describe the experience not as satisfaction, nor even as admiration, but instead as an overwhelmed variant of happiness tinged with fatigue.


rodin sculptureAs noted earlier, there are other ways to rattle the shackles, and one of them is to offer a jovial middle finger to tradition while remaining inside it. This is more or less what Alain Passard and his long love affair with vegetables have done at his minimalist, reductive Arpège. To maintain, even escalate, three-star pricing yet serve a meal consisting primarily of roots, flowers, fruits, and leaves takes a sizable pair of something Passard would probably not serve at this restaurant.

For years, the primary complaint I heard from dissatisfied post-Arpège diners was, “this much money for vegetables?” I take the point on its economic merits, and Arpège is breathtakingly expensive, but never agreed with the assumption behind it: that there is something inherently unworthy about vegetable cookery, that the heating of flesh is self-evidently more valuable. One doesn’t spend three-star money for ingredients, which – with rare exceptions, and (somewhat ironically) Arpège provides a number of them – a little work could procure for any home cook’s use. That three-stars tend to lay on the truffles and fattened liver rather thickly is, again, not something one needs three-stars for. Rather one pays a stratospheric tariff for the skill with which those ingredients are utilized. And it has rarely been said, even by his detractors, that Passard can’t cook.

Just a few steps down the street from Arpège is the Musée Rodin, filled with nakedly passionate revelations of the essential, in which that revelation animates qualities unknown to the medium without the intervention of the artist. That describes what a fair number of chefs do, as well. Were Arpège a museum of sculpture, it’d be filled not with recognizable objects, or even chips and shavings, but with the undefiled rocks and stones whence they came.

Passard remains a gracious host, and any chef this famous willing to sit in an empty corner of his restaurant during service and graze, slurp, and smile at departing patrons has a refreshingly comforting notion of what it is that he does; it’s fairly apparent that he sees himself less as a performance artist than as a cook. And that, whatever flaws he may or may not have, an inability to relax is not one of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if the fact that, by the time I finally make it to his restaurant, animals are back on the menu reveals some slight diminution of focus. Every truly great dish I encounter is either entirely or in the majority comprised of plants, while the most disappointing bites are those in which plants play little to no role. Case in point: a plate in which nothing other than an array of seasonal vegetables, each cooked differently but with a perfection beyond perfection, is one of the most extraordinary statements of pure essentialism I’ve ever encountered. On the other hand, turbot – my favorite swimmer, and a fish that can be breathtaking in its singular complexity – is drowned in a gloppy cream and vin jaune sauce that utterly obliterates the fish (and doesn’t do much for the sauce, either). A you-can-read-through-it beet nigiri is an exquisite, naked pair of two perfect flavors (the beet and the rice), a beet “merguez” on the aforementioned place of vegetables is so good I fail to repress a gleeful laugh at the audacity of it, but chunks of poularde with another mélange of plants are nothing special and completely overshadowed by the continuing excellence of the vegetables (and, in this case, fruit).

The nadir is a chocolate mille-feuille that tastes like a pile of stale ashes and, aside from its wet core, is almost completely inedible. I have no idea whether this is a failure of intent or execution, but a failure it is. In fact, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.

The décor is really nothing at all, I’d suspect by intent. Service is on the casual side of what one might expect, which I think reflects the chef, but does no disservice to itself. The wine list is somewhat of a disappointment in that it shows neither the deep bench of classics some diners will expect, nor much interest in new directions in wine. That said, not “much” is not “none,” and there are a few dabblings with natural wine. Still, if one isn’t prepared to shower coin on still-too-young Names, drinking here is not as rewarding as it might otherwise be.

Laurent-Perrier Champagne Brut Cuvée Rosé (Champagne) – Pink, and tastes of it. Sharp, fruity, clean, soon dead. Next. (11/12)

Alexandre Bain 2011 Pouilly-Fumé “Pierre Précieuse” (Loire) – Sweet, flabby, and more than a little bit insipid. I get that this is natural, but it’s horribly boring as well. Maybe it works as an apéritif. But it doesn’t even have the nervosity to be a German riesling stand-in. (11/12)

Comte de Saint Victor “Château de Pibarnon” 2000 Bandol (Provence) – Halfway to excellence, but the halfsies are evident in the disjointed structural imbalances, which are slightly stewy and tending towards the fluffy at the moment. That’s not, I think, where this wine will end up. Otherwise, there’s blackened meat liqueur and herbal tincture…a pretty classic Bandol signature, with a rocky underbelly seemingly characteristic of this house. Wait on it. (11/12)

Lhéraud 1973 Cognac Petite Champagne (Cognac) – Forcefully classy. Like drinking fine pastries, with a boozy core. Is it as complex as an Armagnac of similar age? No, but it’s silkier. There’s your tradeoff. (11/12)

I want to love Arpège. I do like it, the disaster of a dessert excepted. But of course, a restaurant at its externally- and internally-imposed level – and here I mean both reputation and price – doesn’t retain the freedom to just be liked. It needs to be loved.

And that is also part of the trap.


This and other travelogues encompass multiple temporalities, for the blog format does not easily accommodate imposition of timeframes other than its own rigid sequentiality. That is to say: if I’ve visited a place on three separate occasions, posts arising from those visits will not be kept separate. All future travelogues will thus be undated, with only the dates that always follow wine notes indicating when they took place (or, when there are no wine notes, an alternative indication will be provided). Travelogues from the past are in the process of being unshackled from their own temporal moorings.

We will sell no wine before it’s crime

tour de france sculptureIt turns out that there’s only one wine scandal, endlessly repeated. Each time in different form, but few who’ve engaged in criminal oenophilia have ever thought far outside a very narrow box. Sure, there’s been the occasional arson, a few instances of thievery (aside from the kind that extracts samples from barrels), but pretty much every other instance of nefariousness has been deception.

Wine claiming to be from a certain geography, grape, or year when it is something entirely different? As old as winemaking itself. Adulteration beyond the zillions of already legally-acceptable forms thereof? Common. Subverting the spirit, if not the letter, of the law? Widespread. Quantities that don’t quite match the availability of source material? Otherwise nonexistent or limited bottlings that impress critics or competition committees but don’t reach the public in identical form? Both old and ongoing news.

It’s almost certainly true that counterfeiting existed during the days when goatskins stood in for bottles, but only of late has it become the scandal de jure (no, I don’t apologize for the pun), moving from a story that worries a few lavishly-heeled collectors to something that isn’t just shaking up the wine world, but draws the intense attention of folks with guns and subpoenas. Caveat: I’m not going to re-detail the ongoing Rudy Kurniawan conflagration, nor the somewhat similar Hardy Rodenstock errantry that preceded it, on this blog. Those interested in a good tale can read this, obsessives with an eye for the numbing detail (like me) can go directly to the constantly-developing source material.

What fascinates me most about this story are what this scandal – and it is certainly that – says about what has become of wine culture cultists (see below), but also what it suggests about our collective palates. Both are questions that should concern not just the merchants and consumers directly affected by Kurniawan’s alleged chicanery, but any of us inclined to make even the vaguest claim towards understanding wine.


Wine culture cultists – those who are exceptionally self-possessed regarding the symbiotic relationship between their wine, their culture, and their status – should be cringing with humility right about now. (Not that, in general, anything of the sort has happened, except perhaps in private.) Because if Kurniawan and his enablers and un- or semi-coconspirators are guilty of what’s claimed, they could never have gotten away with it without a self-sustaining, endlessly self-referential, backslapping fraternity – and I use the gendered word deliberately – of self-appointed masters of the oenoverse. And here I don’t mean just those of extreme wealth who bought, traded, and made great show of extravagant drinking what may have been a veritable ocean of absurdly prestigious yet fake wine, though they certainly bear a large portion of the blame. I mean, also, the experts…many of whom are far from self-appointed, but who’ve built reputations for depth of knowledge and whose livelihoods rest on a reputation for integrity. For they, too, have been routinely and relentlessly used in this scandal,…and yet, they have also used in return, building their knowledge and fame in houses of what are far too often seen to be nonexistent cards.

Honest mistakes? One only need be charitable to think so, and yet the damage isn’t done on a bottle-by-fake-bottle basis, but by the easy cohabitation in which experts – like their moneyed brethren – were inevitably drawn into circles that should have surrounded them with suspicion rather than avarice. The lures, perhaps, are too great (though some seem to have resisted anyway), the rewards too appealing…but isn’t that the very motivation for crime in the first place? This is all very easy to say in retrospect, of course, but perhaps a change of heart is now possible. Perhaps the next Tasting of a Lifetime will be vetted in advance with more than a winking-and-nudging “because I said so.” Though given the generalized disclaiming of responsibility and transference of blame, or even outright denial, this seems sadly optimistic. The number of interested parties who’ve publicly embraced the full extent of their embarrassing responsibility for enabling accused forgers numbers far fewer than the digits on a single hand.


reflection in poolPerhaps the greater scandal affects not the top of the acquisitive pyramid, but all of us who do more than mindlessly consume. For the greater unanswered question of the various fake wine scandals isn’t which bottles are legit and which aren’t, but what’s actually in the fraudulent bottles that fooled the foolhardy and snowed the sophisticated in near-equal measure.

Any of us who pretend to professional status have likely tested our ability to identify things, formally (as in the various wine education programs) or just out of semi-morbid curiosity. Even non-professionals routinely make a game of blind-bagging wines. We’re all wrong often enough, certainly, but sometimes we’re right…a rightness that commingles with confidence as our experience grows. Some writers, merchants, and winemakers are legendarily accomplished tasters. Though it’s worth noting in caution: so, according to his friends, was Rudy Kurniawan. (And for what it’s worth, maybe he was. It would be a valuable skill to have, if he’s guilty of what’s accused.)

But what does it actually mean to be an accomplished taster? We tend not to award the credit for an ability to coax iterative nuance from a wine – Granny Smith vs. Gala, etc.– but to those who can contextualize a grasp of those nuances within their experience and say more definitive things about a wine: how it’s made, what its structure and aromas reveal, perhaps even what it is and where it’s from.

We should have learned the corollary danger of this sort of analysis from the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting and its various restagings. But, as above, the important lessons are obscured. That some in California made wine of a quality competitive with the best of France was, in the seventies, a revelation to many, but that was a conclusion that mattered most to others: winemakers (in both places), merchants, and consumers. Those tied to the incisiveness of their palates, who before the tasting almost certainly would have believed otherwise, should have focused on the thing that mattered more: French or Californian origin? They couldn’t tell. Despite few of the tasters doubting, before the tasting (and also after), that they could, contrary to the record.

There are, let’s acknowledge, exceptionally gifted tasters who can, given a fairly-selected sample, do very well at identity-sorting. But what about when the sample isn’t fair? What about when the wines are deliberately chosen to confound expectations? Even the best tasters end up with misidentified egg on their faces, as tasting after tasting has demonstrated.

The bulk of the known wine counterfeits have been legendary bottles, or at least bottles that can pass as legendary. They’re often of an age or price that makes the number of potential expert tasters vanishingly small. (Doing away with a common objections: it is not – despite the braggadocio from certain quarters – necessarily true that the ability to afford a sufficiently large sample creates expertise, if the bulk of that sample is fake. One will have an expertise, yes, but it will be in the falsehood.) That’s a lot of pressure on a few palates…pressure to be Right, to make The Call. Heretofore, all the pressure has been behind that call being in favor of authenticity, a situation in which everyone wins: the pourer or seller of the wine, those who acquire or drink it, and the expert whose reputation is concomitantly enhanced by an ability to embrace that wine within their portfolio of experience. There hasn’t been, until very recently, any value in calling foul, and even now it’s only valuable to those whose business it is to do so, for everyone else loses money or reputation. One can immediately see how the motivations lean towards encouraging a blind eye to the potential for misdeeds.

So what of those trained experts, with decades of experience? Well, they were fooled, over and over again (and sometimes — albeit rarely — they weren’t). They’re undoubtedly still being fooled. As a result, there’s been no small amount of crowing, baying, and finger-pointing from the masses, seizing their opportunity to unclothe the emperors. Schadenfreude, they call it in German. Tall poppy syndrome, they call it Down Under…and more accurately, for the satisfaction in seeing the supposed elite taken down a notch is rooted in a desire for self-elevation at others’ expense.

We should be careful, though. The pointing finger curls around, almost reflexively, and can just as easily point at the rest of us. What were the secret recipes that made so many believe in a ’47 this, a ’29 that? We have a few pieces of the puzzle, but far from all. The fact remains that slipping counterfeit wines past our trusted organoleptic gatekeepers was awfully easy. And if it was so easy with rare wines of historical reputation, why wouldn’t it be even easier with wines of deliberate ubiquity? How hard would it be, really, to slip several million cases of fake mass-market wine past an indifferent public who has no real mechanism by which to know better? Is any drinker of (to pick on a much-abused target) Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio so intimately aware of its exact form that they’d immediately reject a fair approximation? Or climbing up the ambition scale yet still mass-market, the yellow-label Trimbach Riesling? Check off the boxes – dry, crisp, hints of iron, etc. – and who could tell where the grapes came from? The label’s not that complicated, either.

Or – here’s a thought to keep the naturalistas awake at night – how about wines in which extreme variability and the acceptance of what some term flaws are considered emblematic, even virtuous? How hard could those be to fake?

The question we all – from expert to novice – have to ask, in the wake of these scams, is: what are our palates really telling us, and can we rely on those words? If we can generate paragraphs of rapture about a retirement-age grand cru Burgundy that turns out to be mediocre négociant Burgundy ‘roided up with a little Santa Rita Hills pinot, for (theoretical) example, what useful information have our palates provided us? Only the rapture. Not a bit of data.

In other words: only the subjective stuff. Our palates continue to be excellent at telling us what we do and don’t like, and perhaps even why, but struggle mightily with the questions of who, where, when, and how. As ever, our surety about objective analysis falls flat in the face of reality.

And since much of this essay has talked about how the lessons learned from wine fakery should lead to greater humility, here’s the specific subset aimed directly at all of us: be less sure. Loosen your grip on doctrine. Attempt to know, for there’s great reward in the seeking, but don’t worship at the altar of your own knowledge. Being sure is not the same as being right, especially as “right” may not even be an option. And taste critically, with joy and skepticism in equal measure. Against wine crimes and misdemeanors, the palate has few defenses. But a defensive palate is a crime in itself.

Sarondipity

vineyardThere was a time when I had to know it all, or at least try. (Or, one might more accurately say with the benefit of hindsight, be able to pretend well enough to convince others.) That time was during my studies with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and, later, what was supposed to be my preparatory work for the Master of Wine examinations. I planted and harvested much of the former, but never did more than scratch and scuff the ground for the latter. Once the project had been abandoned I…went off in search of another metaphor, because I’m already heartily sick of this one.

My point is: once, I tried to stretch my arms (and my palate, and all too often my wallet) around the entirety of the world’s wines. Assyrtiko or albalonga, Mudgee or Merlara, I had to be ready for any and all of it. I was an enormous vacuum for datum and trivium. If it existed, and someone within my sphere of acquisitiveness knew of it, then I probably knew of it too.

On the sacrificial altar, of course, was depth. I could afford one or two limited specializations, but there simply wasn’t time to know, rather than know of, aught else. So when my rewarding but ultimately fruitless attempt to know it all ended, the counter-reaction was natural. I dropped nearly all the threads within my hand, concentrating on one or two at a time…enthusiasms that flowed with my palate’s eddies, and that often coincided with places I’d recently visited. When one immerses, however, one loses contact with the wider world.

Still, it’s rare for something – especially when it suits both my interest and my palate – to completely pass me by. So when I first heard about Clos Saron, not all that many years ago, I figured (especially based on the sources invoking it) that it was one of the growing number of hipster/naturalista/counter-cultural startups springing up in California, and that I’d check it out when it was a little more established.

Anyone who actually knows the winery knows where this is going. Clos Saron has been around for a while, its winemaker for longer, it’s not at all what I’d assumed, the wines were available in my previous home and were long straight up my aesthetic alley, and…well I have no good excuse for inattention, really. It just slipped through my ever-widening mental cracks. Based on a brief tasting with the winemaker over dinner, and then a somewhat more expansive overview a few days later, more’s the pity.

Winemaker Gideon Beinstock traces his journey from Israel, via France, to – of all places – the Sierra Foothills. One is, he says, in search of “a certain lifestyle” in those gold-emptied hills, and unless some great yet unforeseen leap in ease of conveyance is just around the corner, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. There’s plenty of convention and coasting in the region, from some, but it’s also an exceptionally good place for someone who wishes to work outside the boundaries. Or at least to create their own.

But boundaries help a writer contextualize, so how to draw a perimeter around the wines of Clos Saron? To employ a distinction I’ve used I the past, they’re natural without being Natural: made towards one end of the anti-intervention continuum, yet tasting more like high-quality examples from the more conventional set. They seem like the sort of wines one would identify as terroir-expressive, though lacking sufficient experience with their specific sources I can make no more than a guess at that. The reason I’d hesitate to call them capital-N Natural is that they lack the biochemical ephemerae – both good and bad – that mark so many products of the genre. These are wines one could slip into any tasting of exemplary representatives of their peer groups without anyone knowing that there was a naturalist interloper in their midst.

So there’s data for those who drink philosophies. Those who care about details of agriculture and winemaking can go to the winery’s web site and look them up; I have, over the decades, developed an extreme fatigue with thousands of nearly-identical paragraphs about how a winery moves their product around in harmony and contravention of gravity and thermodynamics, and tend to restrict commentary to anything out of the ordinary. Thus, of particular note is that the vines tend to be own-rooted (though there are exceptions, like cabernet sauvignon grafted over to pinot noir), and – by intent – grapes spend their birth, life, and death in group marriage. That is: they’re grown, harvested, and co-fermented together.

And they need age. Or at least the reds very obviously do, the winemaker claims the rosé does, and the white that I taste is somewhat of a special case (see below). Or, as Beinstock puts it:

Wine is not a one-dimensional thing. It’s not a snapshot, it’s a movie. It has a whole life. We think we understand this wine…but we don’t understand this wine.

I stress that word “need,” because these aren’t wines that just soften from one appeal to another with time, they transform. And not, based on what I’ve tasted, all that quickly.


cellar doorOver dinner at Vedge, Philadelphia’s excellent and ambitious vegan restaurant (if one can trust the word of this committed carnivore), we taste a few wines in their youthful, underdeveloped forms while the soft-spoken Beinstock attempts to be heard over the din. Eventually he just gives up and goes from table to table, which probably better-reflects the ethos of his wines, anyway. For while the wines certainly don’t lack body, they’re themselves essentially soft-spoken, and in this they reflect their guiding hand.

Clos Saron 2010 “Tickled Pink” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah and cinsault. Bony and forgettable. But the a new bottle arrives, vastly more generous than the previous, and while there’s still a parched, desert butte quality on a bed of minerality ground slowly down from gravel to sand, it at least makes one take notice. The notion that this ages well makes sense when one compares it with the bleak starkness of another rosé known for its ageability: that of R. López de Heredia. The organoleptics are different, though.

With roasted root vegetables and baby leaves, charred onion, and pistachio:

Clos Saron 2011 “Carte Blanche” (Sierra Foothills) – A little out of the norm for this wine in that the grapes for this blend were purchased from Lodi. A crazy-quilt blend of albariño, verdelho, chardonnay, and petit manseng…the varietal equivalent of what my Minnesotan family used to call “leftovers hotdish.” It takes a while to get up to speed, with sweet lemonade aromatics and a bubblegum texture, but eventually the full mass of the wine (and it’s surprisingly, if adeptly, large-boned) makes its impression. Juicy yet brooding, there’s an eventual sharpening to the finish worked by the etching qualities of the wine’s acidity. Finishes long and very dry, despite all the initial dalliances with sweeter notions.

With a lightly-curried gold lentil and Kabocha squash bisque and a fresh heart of palm fritter:

Clos Saron 2008 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard (Sierra Foothills) – Very earthy, sweaty, even a little swarthy, its soils seething in unrest. Pillowy tannin hardens towards the finish, while the wine dabbles in aromatic exoticism. Long and exceedingly interesting.

With smoked eggplant braciole, crushed cauliflower, and an Italian salsa verde:

Clos Saron 2006 “La Cuvée Mystérieuse” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, merlot, grenache, and roussanne. Big, galloping purple fruit with morels. Gorgeous, rich, extremely aromatic. So seductive for such a big wine, whirling and helixing as it finishes.

With roasted maitake mushroom, smashed turnips, leeks, and a porcini sauce:

Clos Saron 2006 Syrah “Heart of Stone” (Sierra Foothills) – There’s a dollop of roussanne here. Very strong. Leather, blackberry, and a forbidding wall of dried fruit adhering to a currently-impenetrable wall. Broadens a bit as it pushes against that wall, but there’s little point in drinking this now.


leavesAbout a week later, at a trade tasting in New York, Beinstock showed some of the same wines (which, in the service of efficiency, I skipped) and some additions, but more importantly opened older versions of more than a few of them. More than anything anyone could say, this exercise made his ageability argument clearly and definitively.

(As is almost always the case with trade/press tasting notes, these come from briefer scribblings than are my preference, and the notes are thus proportionally shorter and more abrupt.)

Clos Saron 2006 “La Cuvée Mystérieuse” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, merlot, grenache, and roussanne. Black and blue berries (and yes, a little bruised), strappy, with pink peppercorns adding their odd prickle here and there. A bit of a cudgel at the moment.

Clos Saron 2002 “La Cuvée Mystérieuse” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, merlot, and viognier. Developing nicely, a surprisingly pretty face somewhat obscured by swirling dust. Very long, and eminently promising.

Clos Saron 2006 “Black Pearl” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot. A rutting beast a-swim in fruit syrup. Not to say that the wine’s sweet, but it’s sticky, dense, and eventually turns quite hard as it finishes. Full of stuffing, but it’s going to take a really long time to abrade its wrapping.

Clos Saron 2001 “Black Pearl” (Sierra Foothills) – Syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. Dark purple stains on peppered leather. Still very tannic, and showing more structure than I’d think was ideal. Then again, it’s possible this is just in a difficult adolescence, and generosity will reemerge.

Clos Saron 2006 Syrah “Heart of Stone” (Sierra Foothills) – Co-fermented with a little roussanne. Bell peppers dusted with black pepper. Gorgeous and expressive right now. There’s some jerky, or perhaps dried leather, late that is usually an early indication of age in syrah, but the wine’s actual future remains to be seen.

Clos Saron 2002 Syrah “Heart of Stone” (Sierra Foothills) – Weedy and starting to unravel. Lots of gravelly minerality, held together by tar.

Clos Saron 2009 Syrah “Stone Soup” (Sierra Foothills) – There’s a touch of viognier involved, too. Huge and thick. A rhombus of a wine, structurally, with chunks much on which to chew. Tannins are, texturally, powdery. Observe that I haven’t mentioned fruit anywhere in this note; it’s not devoid, but it’s certainly not prioritizing any at the moment.

Clos Saron 2000 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard (Sierra Foothills) – Forest floor and maturing (though far from absent) tannin, lingering antique pie aromas. Gorgeous. Wow!

Clos Saron 1999 Pinot Noir Home Vineyard (Sierra Foothills) – Rough, bold, and chewier than the 2000, still with a heft wallop of tannin and a gritty texture. This may just be in an awkward stage.

(All images © Clos Saron)

A real teat

romulusSo here’s the pitch. The name of the writer, included in a letter that its author has cast hither and yon into the wine trade sea, isn’t important, so I’ve left it out.

I would love to be added to your mailing list for sample bottles. I can GUARANTEE an online review of any bottle you send me. I realize that there are many wine bloggers out there and you must be inundated with requests, but I don’t know how many bloggers can guarantee a review (along with any descriptive info you send along). If a bottle is flawed or oxidized I will email you before I write anything about it. […] I can guarantee a review on a website that is almost always on the first page of natural search results on Google when someone searches for a particular wine.

I have to say, I admire the shine on those giant brass balls; this is like taking a full-page ad in Variety announcing that you intend to prostitute yourself and giving the exact dates and times at which you are available for whoring. It’s not just anyone who lacks sufficient shame to attempt something like this. And so, from that perspective: kudos.

Then again, the pearl-clutching horror with which this message has been received by some is awfully naïve. Years ago, when I started typing about wine, there were innumerable writers – even a fair number publications – for whom this was the entire business plan. Some of both are still around. And let’s be frank: it was, and is, one of the surest paths to (monetary) success. One of the absolute best at it back in those days, a local colleague who never once met a press release or one-off tasting that couldn’t be rewritten for publication, is now an editor for a venue for which I have repeatedly been asked to write…for free, of course. (And probably should anyway, in these dim-venued times.) The wheel turns, and Astroglide helps ease its passage. Nothing new under the sheets the sun.


So is this elephantiasic pitch actually problematic? In one sense, absolutely yes. It has nothing to do with brazenly soliciting samples. It’s not even really the promise of coverage, as long as the promise doesn’t pre-characterize the tone of that the coverage. It’s the explicit deal whereby the subject of the “review” can vet said review before publication.

The issue isn’t that such prior consideration is unethical by journalistic standards. The writer of this fantastical pitch isn’t (to my knowledge) claiming to be a journalist…one hopes…so those standards don’t apply. The issue is that if one is going to claim authorship of content (and he is), one must be its final arbiter. But in this case, he’s ceding a measure of control over both to the subject of commentary. That’s inherently untrustworthy…which is not, please note, the same thing as claiming that it doesn’t happen all the time. It does, but it’s called marketing or public relations. Anyway, the other side of this transaction – managing relationships with content providers to get the coverage a client wants – is exactly what many PR agents do, and if they didn’t succeed frequently enough to achieve their clients’ aims, they wouldn’t exist.

In any case, what he’s attempting to do will create inevitable limitations and restrictions. Good and/or small-production wineries are probably not going to be making their product available for his consideration unless he becomes spectacularly famous and powerful. Which seems unlikely, though it’s true there are some pretty blatant panderers and panhandlers who’ve done quite well for themselves. This, incidentally, is no different from how wineries usually parcel out their limited quantities of free product to “real” journalists: a judgment is made as to popularity, then filtered through a stylistic assessment (only the overcapitalized will send an oaked-up fruit bomb to someone who mostly writes about natural wine). Our pitchman will only acquire a certain type of wine with this approach – mass-market, industrial – and his audience will, in turn, be limited by the same stylistic restrictions.


On the other hand, I just can’t bring myself to care all that much, no matter how distasteful or naked the appeal to quid pro quo. I’ve written endless commentary on the difference between the appearance of ethics, actual ethics, and real trustworthiness, so I won’t revisit all of it here. The précis is this: it’s much better, from the perspective of a consumer of information, that a writer be right, good, or useful than to say high-minded things in the fine print yet produce incorrect, poor, or useless work.

A bit of amplification: not long ago, some folks on one wine forum wondered why (now former) Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller was being criticized for doing something that his colleague David Schildknecht did without public condemnation. Yes, from the standpoint of rigid universal ethics that’s patently unfair. But the actual answer is completely obvious: the people offering the criticism trust the content of Schildknecht’s work more than they trust Miller’s. Were Miller’s work beyond reproach to those critics, he could act with greater impunity. But it’s not, and so he can’t. (Well, couldn’t.)

Or look at it this way: wine is, among other things, a product. Whose product criticism is considered ethically pure and nearly beyond reproach? Consumer Reports, certainly. And they’ve actually done some wine criticism over the years. Does anyone respect it? Does anyone who knows anything about wine find it anything other than laughable? Not that I’ve noticed. And the reason is not that CR struggles with ill-considered ethical lapses, it’s because ethics are not only not the same as skill or utility, they don’t even function as a fair replacement, either.

So if ethics don’t make one a good critic, what does? How about being a good critic? You can replace “critic” with “writer” or “journalist” and the statement remains true. Being a good critic requires knowledge, it requires skill in both assessment and communication, and it can be argued that it requires an audience. Note: ethics were not on that list.

This isn’t to argue that ethics don’t matter. They do. The reason they matter, however, is not their self-referential importance, but in how they – or their lack – affect the quality of the work. If unethical behavior leads to untrustworthy or useless work, then ethics matter, and that’s why attention must always be paid. If the work is poor despite pristine ethics, however, then they didn’t matter at all. Again, what really matters is the work. The rest is worthy of consideration, but it’s a secondary consideration.

“Oh,” someone is now objecting, “but with far more wine commentators than anyone can actually follow, it’s necessary to judge ethics to help sort them out.” Really? If that’s the case – if we’re filtering critics by their ethical practices – then we’re back to a wine world in which Consumer Reports sits atop the pyramid of utility. Do they? Again, I know of no one who thinks so. We can (and should) talk about ethics, but in the end our primary consideration is always going to be the quality of the work. It’s similar to how one may have all the admiration in the world for a winemaker’s overwhelming swellness as a human being, but the decision to buy his or her wine is based primarily on its quality.


All that said, I can understand wariness on this point from consumers. With so many voices, most of them largely unknown, and limited money to spend on what is, after all, a liquid frivolity, doesn’t a precondition of apparent trustworthiness help? Sure, of course. Consumers are wise to at least wonder about ethics. Further, the existence of as-pure-as-possible commentators acts as a necessary check against those more compromised, because they can shine a light on the worst (or the best-hidden) practices.

But the thing is, a lot – probably the majority – of the carping about ethics these days isn’t coming from consumers. It’s coming from the trade. This would be laughable were it not so hypocritical.

vultureCan’t – in this age of the hyper-fragmented, many-to-many marketplace of information – wineries, importers, and retailers bypass what used to be the gate-keeping press filters and funnels, and just put their own message out there? Yes, absolutely. Many are in fact doing exactly this, and well.

After all, who knows more about a wine than its maker? Who knows more about a peer group – wines of a single region, wines of a certain ethos, and so forth – than importers with a point of view (of which there are now many)? Who knows more about what their customers actually want than retailers? No journalist, no matter how ethical or skilled, can hope to provide information of this granularity at better than second-hand, once-removed distance. Third-party commentators have other skills and freedoms, and there are ways they can contextualize and criticize that are not usually open to those in the trade, but what they offer is a view of the source material, not the material itself.

In other words, what makes a winemaker’s or importer’s words valuable has absolutely nothing to do with ethics (except in the case of an unalloyed charlatan). No, it has everything to do with their inextricable connection to the product. In fact, they cannot be “ethical” by journalistic standards because they cannot separate themselves from personal and financial interests in the subjects on which they are commenting.

It seems to me that someone in the trade who wishes their own voice to be heard, yet complains about the ethics of writers, is trying to have it both ways. If a writer is compromised by a lack of distance, certainly that writer is far less compromised than the person selling the product. Wouldn’t we, by that standard, be much better off ignoring anyone who makes or sells wine? Or if this very lack of separation is why we should listen to those who make and sell wine, why is a lesser version of same still unforgivable from a writer? One cannot have it both ways.

There are those in the writing cohort who beat a “the trade is inherently untrustworthy” drum, and have for many years. I’ve said before that I think this is ludicrous, because it stupidly ignores some of the greatest potential sources of knowledge and insight about wine. Moreover, most often this mantra is chanted by those who stand to gain, financially and in terms of reputation, from consumers turning their eyes and ears from the trade and towards the commentator doing the complaining. It’s mercenary at its heart, though no less so than a tradesperson leveling a similar charge against a commentator.

Or maybe, despite the hypocrisy, the trade thinks they have something to gain by shouting down the commentariat with charges of inethics. Let me suggest to them that they’re being dumbasses, if so. In case no one’s noticed, traditional media aren’t doing so well. A lot are already dead and buried. It’s not impossible that the rest are doomed. Which, if so, means that the old ways of getting one’s wines noticed are awfully thin on the ground. One does not have to view that which is replacing traditional journalism with love and respect to see that it is, at least for now, close to all there is.

So there are three paths the trade can follow. They can embrace the current state of affairs, and in fact it doesn’t much matter if they do it with arms wide open or while holding their collective noses. They can ignore the whole thing, and trust that the winds of fate, chance, and word-of-mouth will put food on their table…which, given a sufficiently small amount of wine to sell, can actually work under certain limited circumstances. Or they can whine, cry, and stamp their feet, demanding an ethical purity that they cannot actually produce themselves.

The funny thing is, they could actually have that last thing, if they really wanted it. So could we all. If…


if we were willing to pay for it. Not directly, as in the sort of wine-for-coverage deal in the nakedly avaristic pitch above But…well, an example. Allow me to quote an importer (one I like and respect) on this very subject:

There is a journalist I sometimes drink with who won’t take a single thing. He insists on paying for every little thing, even if you only offer him a taste. I doubt there is a single blogger out there who can claim the same thing.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it probably is. Let’s posit it’s so. It is, frankly, almost unique even among actual journalists operating under actual corporate-imposed ethical strictures. I’m pretty sure I know who this is, and while I’m going to mention neither his nor the importer’s name (because it’s not germane to my point), I do hope our unnamed importer helps pay our unnamed journalist’s salary by subscribing to his publication and going out of this way to patronize its advertisers. If he doesn’t, then he’s being a leech, and a self-entitled one at that.

Look, I know it’s a confusing time. A few somewhat compromised but familiar voices have given way to a hurricane of unknowably compromised voices, and it’s hard to know who to trust anymore. The average wine communicator is less informed and less experienced than ever, though there’s an inverse gain in niche expertise. We know there are paid shills working the commentary and social media circuit, but openly and in the shadows. And while all this has been going on, the contraction of the bulk of wine commerce into a few mega-corporations has produced the inevitable backlash: a luxuriant and largely unexplored jungle of personality-driven sources and outlets, who – in the face of the marketing power of the megaliths – need every bit of coverage they can get.

But some limitations are built into the system. To spread news about a wine, a person must taste said wine. One way or another, the wine has to get from the trade’s hands to a communicator’s glass. Someone is going to have to pay for that transaction. Either the trade does it directly, as used to be the norm, or they do it indirectly, as paying consumers of information; “free” all too often being worth what was paid for it. The alternative is that all communication is left, as it was long ago, to merchants. The most thoroughly compromised entity possible.

It’s an imperfect and probably imperfectible system, to be sure. But it’s not one that benefits from thoroughly self-serving hypocrisy any more than it benefits from undisclosed compromise. Flaws are a part of wine, but they’re also a part of those who make, sell, and write about them.