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A O no

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

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

They take their bureaucracy seriously in France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s fix it.

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

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

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

And for goodness sake, leave Britney Olivier Cousin alone.

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


[candle at aoc]AOC – Surprisingly big and quite a bit more formal-feeling than I’d have suspected based on concept; it self-advertises as a wine bar, and while it is that, I think pretty much everyone I can see – including us – is treating it as a restaurant. The clientele is dressier than I’d have expected, too, and I suspect there might be a slight tension between how this place was conceived and how it is being utilized. Well, one rolls the dice one is given.

Small plates are the thing here, and everything is pretty good. Yet I wouldn’t call anything inspired, and there are a few trips and stumbles – dry duck confit (which takes some effort to ruin), undersalted clams (which I actually enjoy, usually finding this particular prep to be grossly oversalted) – and some haphazard plating. Vegetarians are well-served, and dairy is used in such a way that vegans can pretty successfully reconstitute most vegetarian dishes to their preferences (yes, I am here with a vegan friend).

Service is fine and friendly when we enter a half-empty restaurant. By the time we leave a packed-to-the-gills upstairs room (a quarter what the equally gill-packed first floor offers), the service is clearly overwhelmed; plates are cleared with efficiency, but I never do get to order the glass of dessert wine on which I’ve my eye, and even getting the bill is a bit of a hand-waving chore. I think they’re about one person short on the floor, and since for all I know that might actually be the case this evening, I can’t be overly critical.

The wine list is really good, and I have to say this despite a fair – but not unreasonable – portion of it not being in my palate wheelhouse. The non-wheelhouse swaths make up the majority of the high-ticket entries, so noting that the list isn’t exactly priced to fly only really affects those with different tastes than mine. But this also needs mentioning: it is a persistent peeve when places labeling themselves wine bars offer a spectacular list of bottles and yet an anemic, uninspired handful of by-the-glass options. I can’t conceive of how a place can call itself a wine bar and do that, yet I find it happens again and again. Here, the opposite is very nearly true: the glass (and carafe) list is long and much more inspired and inventive than much of the bottle list. I find that commendable.

Graillot 2008 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (Rhône) – Really quite reticent, but the bones, shells, and raw almonds have a clean appeal. I find myself wishing for more, but the wine is unwilling. (11/10)

Swan 2008 Pinot Noir “Cuvée des Trois” (Russian River Valley) – Absolutely gorgeous, bringing lush New World fruit into a fine simulacrum of maturity even at this very young age; while past experience suggests that the wine will endure and morph for a while, this specific bottle gives me cause to question that norm. In any case, I see absolutely no reason not to drink this right now, because it’s delicious. Soil, baked plums, fall leaves, rich morels, and soft golden memories of old-growth forest and well-tilled earth. I could drink a case of this, and still be on my feet…Joni Metaphorically-speaking. (11/10)

Fèipu dei Massaretti 2009 Riviera Ligure di Ponente Rossese (Liguria) – Light, airy, saline, and somewhat insubstantial in the midpalate. The fruit that’s there is light in the fashion of, say, a Sancerre or Alsace rosé, but with less acidity and a softer expression. I almost like this, and in a less critical context I probably would, but the wine needs to exert more of an effort towards my affections. (11/10)

Tenuta Luisa 2008 Refosco dal Peduncolo (Friuli Venezia-Giulia) – Very, very, very restrained, almost to the point where I suspect TCA (but after long airing, I’m convinced it’s just the wine). Lots of structure (which is muted) and some black raspberry, as if there’s fruit-weight and firmness pressing against an impenetrable barrier, and I’m tasting the wine on the other side of that barrier. Just OK. (11/10)

To preserve & protect: a defense of the AOC

[storming of the Bastille]When the oft-benighted INAO denied Jean-Paul Brun the appellation for his 2007 Beaujolais “l’Ancien” (story here, follow-up here, and in French here), it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The lowest-quality French appellations – those that produce oceans of mediocrity – are notorious for this sort of thing, in which low-quality producers (often, but not always, cooperatives) punish their leading lights in order to preserve the notion that their own insipid products represent the “status quo.” Such actions, alongside inexplicably silly lawsuits against those who dare to tell the truth about the appellation, don’t exactly slow the steep decline in the region’s reputation.

Of course, there is an ever-increasing list of very high-quality producers in Beaujolais, names like Lapierre, Coudert, Tête, Foillard, Desvignes…and yes, Brun…that are well-known to enthusiasts. Will they be next under the INAO’s guillotine? It seems likely. The difficulty in France is that unlike Italy, where marketable alternatives for wines that fall outside the DOC system have long existed (and in fact, have been strengthened by updated laws), the loss of a French appellation makes a wine virtually unsaleable. A certain measure of salvation comes from the export markets that know and love these wines, and a little bit more from the ultra-naturalist wine bars and shops that are so currently trendy in France (most of the leading lights of the appellation practice highly traditional viticulture and/or low-manipulation winemaking), but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a hard blow to farmers, most of whom are not exactly bathing in liquid diamonds.

While producers can and do run afoul of the INAO for actual violations of the appellation’s technical rules (grape type and source, alcohol level, residual sugar, etc.), cases like Brun’s are due to the most subjective step in the agrément (the granting of the appellation), the committee of a winery’s alleged peers that tastes wines to see if they conform to the appellation’s norms. One can immediately see the problem here: personal bias cannot help but enter the equation. Petty jealousies matter, especially between penny-scraping defenders of mindless tradition and successful quality producers, few of whom are known for tempered opinions regarding the former group. And especially in France, the showy, somewhat internationalized market in which a “star” winemaker plays often breeds resentment in those struggling to sell their grapes to the local cooperative at ever-decreasing prices. It’s a foolproof recipe for exactly what’s happened to Brun and so many others before him, and it’s somewhat of a surprise that it doesn’t happen more often.

It’s easy, and correct, to call such events a failure of the overly-restrictive theory behind the legally-defined appellation as practiced in France. Some think that the solution is to strip appellations of all non-geographic restrictions. Thus, a Beaujolais could be any wine that came from within the confines of Beaujolais, no matter the grape, color, or form. This would bring French wine law into accord with most New World laws, and let the market rule the future. Others favor less extreme measures, but still advocate the elimination of many restrictions and prescriptions in appellation law.

I think this is a mistake.

The problem is that many, perhaps most, people have the wrong idea about the purpose of a legally-defined appellation. Blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of generations of French winemakers who have promoted it as the top element in a hierarchy, or as a guarantor of quality. It is neither of those things (which makes Italy’s codification of this notion in their allegedly superior DOCG designation – the “G” stands for “garantita,” or “guaranteed,” – preposterous on its face).

A legally-defined appellation has nothing whatsoever to do with quality, and the only thing it guarantees is identity; that is, a product that carries an appellation must have the properties defined by that appellation, whether it be wine (Vosne-Romanée), cheese (Roquefort), or chicken (poulet de Bresse). The granting of a Bordeaux AOC does not mean that a given wine is good, it means that it satisfies a certain set of objective criteria that have nothing to do with subjective quality. It also does not mean that the wine is better than a vin de table, but worse than a Bordeaux Supérieur or a Pauillac. Yet that is what many people have been led to believe.

[INAO logo]Narrowly-defined appellation law could, and perhaps should, restrict itself to scientifically-measurable, objective criteria. Grapes, minimum (or maximum) alcohol, color, form (still/sparkling/sweet), harvest date, soil type, approved and disapproved viticultural and cellar techniques, etc….and eliminate the tasting panel. But would this solve the problem?

Yes and no. It would prevent inexplicable decisions like the one capriciously denying Burn the appellation for a sample of a wine already granted the very same appellation several times. But it is still a restriction, and a harsh one, on what Burn may or may not do. The question must be asked: why is it necessary to limit Burn’s freedom in any fashion whatsoever?

Libertarians and free-thinking New World winemakers are no doubt shouting “yes!” Here’s a counter-argument: because defined appellations have great value. Not so much for the producer, but for the consumer.

The proper way to think of an appellation is as an indication of typicity. That is, the way in which a wine satisfies expectations as to its character. There is nothing to criticize, and everything to praise, in a labeling system that gives the consumer information about the wine within. Of course, no labeling system is perfect, nor can this information be useful without a context of knowledge, but it’s certainly useful to know that, between a Muscadet and a Margaux, one is much more likely to be appreciated with oysters than the other. Or that, given a red Hermitage of recent vintage, there are consequences to opening the wine before it has matured, consequences (decanting, the right food to combat tannin) that must be dealt with to achieve the maximum possible enjoyment.

An appellation as an indicator of character is as clarifying as the knowledge of the consumer allows it to be. The novice may well find that the Muscadet/Margaux differentiation is enough for their satisfaction, while the aficionado may enjoy the fine-grained differences between Chiroubles and Régnié, or Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. If the appellation is stripped of restriction and meaning, however, such indications cannot be. A Margaux that is, today, a blend of (mostly) cabernet sauvignon and merlot cannot tomorrow be a sparkling viognier, and after that a late-harvest gewürztraminer, without hopelessly confusing customers. Just look at the minor chaos created by simpler confusions, like the level of residual sugar in “dry” Alsatian wines, and multiply that confusion a hundred-fold.

Further, appellations preserve diversity. It is true that not all appellation-preserved wines can currently be assessed as worthy of preservation, but it’s important to remember that things change. As they have, for example, in Beaujolais. The dedicated French supermarket shopper may despair of finding anything worth saving from the region, but the savvy oenophile knows that there’s quality to spare if one knows where to look. That upsurge in quality is, for the most part, a fairly recent occurrence. But had the authorities given up on Beaujolais, no matter how justifiably, and demoted it to vin de pays or worse, would we know the names of the qualitative revolutionaries? Almost certainly not.

[yin yang symbol]In a trend-chasing wine world, appellations codify tradition (which is, after all, what typicity attempts to express). They don’t necessarily preserve quality tradition, but that’s situational; in regions where quality is the tradition, Brun-style problems don’t occur. Appellations mandate the use of grapes that would, in the face of the pure market, be ripped up for ever more endless acres of cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir, and the few other well-known, seemingly infinitely-saleable grape varieties that already litter our shelves. They preserve the sharp brine of Muscadet, the delirious spice of Furstentum gewürztraminer, the rocky heights of the Scharzhofberg, the fierce brood of Taurasi, and the rustic smile of Bugey Cerdon, without all of which our world of wine is diminished

So, appellations must be preserved, just as they preserve that which we would otherwise lose. But what they must not be – and this is the critical point – is the final appeal. The crime against Brun is not that he made a wine that the INAO (rightly or wrongly) found atypical, it’s that this finding damaged him. Brun should be allowed to “opt out” of the appellation system and its implied promises of authenticity and identity without suffering economic harm. Current French law doesn’t allow him to do that, but it should. In an ideal world, Brun may choose to make wines within the appellation system, and thus benefit from the information that those designations provide to the consumer, but may also choose to make wines outside that system…wines that are merely Beaujolais by another name, or wines that are as fanciful as his imagination allows (and Brun has quite an imagination). Thus, Brun gains immunity from the jealousy and petulance that would do him economic harm.

One might ask: why a potentially confusing dual system, rather than simply scrapping the most problematic aspect of the agrément, the tasting panel? The argument for the panel’s preservation is that for appellations to have value along the lines that I’ve indicated, they must actually identify typicity. And I don’t know of any way to assess typicity besides tasting. The potential for problems could be greatly mitigated by ensuring that tasting panels are not composed of one’s immediate peers; for example, no one who makes Beaujolais should sit on the Beaujolais panel. This will require some means of assessing qualifications, but certainly France and other countries that grant similar appellations have enough qualified tasters to suffice.

The appellation system has both good and bad aspects. Scrapping it (or hobbling it) is an enticing course of action, but benefits producers (who gain freedom) at the expense of consumers (who lose coherence). And fixing it, in a country as conservative about its traditions as France, seems a venture doomed to failure…or, worse, repair that exacerbates the problem (look at Germany’s attempts to update its own wine law, for example). Instead, why not a minor tweak to the foundation, plus the addition of a worthy counterpart that does not in any way damage the unquestioned marketing power of the AOC? One which heightens the value of the appellation to the consumer and preserves tradition, but which sets the producer free to benefit from both tradition and unfettered experimentation? Everyone benefits. And our world of wine is enhanced.