Browse Tag


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.

[jean-baptiste sénat, dusty bottle]

To the Nth power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.