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eric asimov

An inferno in the darkness

Concurrence and dissent. Identification and iconoclasm. On the one hand, but then again on the other. Is it true that, as Jeremy Parzen suggests, that “the English-language dialectic on Natural wine is misguided”?

No. And yes.

The natural wine conversation goes in cycles…for, against, for, against…and while I don’t expect this to change anytime soon, we’ve now moved into a more tiresome phase in which the subject is less natural wine and more how we talk about natural wine, or (worse) who talks about natural wine. On wine fora, we used to call this “talking about talking about wine.” It was considered the final stage of the entropic dissolution of any once-useful topic then, and it should be now.

(And yes, I’ve done my part to speed the decay.)

But when even the Solomon-like (Parzen’s characterization, which I think applicable) Eric Asimov is drawn into the debate, the heat-death of the natural wine universe is surely nigh. Must everyone now weigh in with an opinion on this issue? Scold and counter-scold?

Yet here I am doing just that. Again. I guess I can’t resist a good gathering, especially when there’s wine involved.

I must, with some regret, dissent with my friend Jeremy’s geographic characterization of the natural wine conversation. Ask Michel Bettane about natural wine. Get Pierre Trimbach and Jean-Pierre Frick in a room together (you might want to remove objects both blunt and sharp, first). Gather la famiglia Zanusso, Aleš Kristančič, and a regional industrialist of one’s choice at a lunch table, prime the conversation with a few bottles of friulano or rebula, and watch the radicchio fly in all directions. Or ask around in Germany, where you’ll likely be met by a formalized Teutonic variation on “why the hell would anyone want to do that?”

Nonetheless, there have been points scored on all sides. There actually is a fair bit of rhetorical nonsense flung from the catapults, the debris from which has damaged the entire conversation. To Asimov’s point that the relative scarcity of natural wine makes the volume and tenor of the response nonsensically hyperbolic…well, I’ve been saying that all along, so obviously I agree. In an ideal world, both the heat and quantity of argument regarding natural wine would instead be turned against the true industrialists, the chemical stews that litter supermarkets, and…if we must talk about talking about wine…the critics that unquestioningly support them.

Here’s where the pro-natural “side” (I dislike that term) has a point or two: the pushback against natural wine is, in the majority, commercially motivated. That the lawyerly (I adore Asimov’s term) need to pin naturalistas down to specific statements of practice so that they can then be battered into caricature is not born of a lifelong adoration for purity of principle. And if someone claims otherwise, and that person is in the wine business, I ask them to first offer fully-described and rigidly-bounded definitions of “ripe” and “balanced”…words I’m fairly certain they have not eschewed in their discourse. Then get back to me regarding the definitional haziness of “natural.”


No, it’s because natural wines aren’t cutting into Constellation Brands’ profits. They’re instead making a scalpel-sized incision – and really, no more than that – into the market share of wineries who sell not by capturing shelf space, but by capturing imagination. Their market is the person who might pick up a bottle of Inoculated Yeast Family Vineyards Syrah, but is instead talked into trying the Sans Soufre Père & Fils Saint-Joseph. Case-purchasers of animal-label shiraz are interested in neither.

But is this a legitimate fear? I doubt it. First of all, the actual supply of natural wines is miniscule at best, anecdotal at worst, and verging on mythical if one doesn’t live in a very small number of places with the market to support such oenological ephemerae. Second, just by their, uh, nature, natural wines aren’t going to appeal to everyone; the (over-hyped) accusations of biological and/or organoleptic eccentricity are not without merit. And third, natural wines aren’t, even at the extent of imagination, damaging the reputation or the commercial desirability of the most sought-after wines.

In other words, if you’re worried about sales, or worried about having to answer a few hard questions about how you make wine from a few interested consumers, there’s an easy solution: make better wine. Then you don’t need to care. Or, more charitably, you can let your wines speak for themselves.

On the other hand, there is an unpleasant level of religiosity to some of the pro-natural text. Finding winemakers who are so devout that they will spout scientific nonsense, call their neighbors’ wines “poison” not because of excess chemicals in the vineyard but because of minor differences of opinion in cellar practice…or worse…isn’t all that hard. (Nor is finding a neighbor that will call said high priest of naturalism an idiot, which I’m fairly sure doesn’t help smooth over the antagonism.)

Amongst the commentariat the failings are a little different, though the above issues are hardly unknown. One of the key skills any specialist writer has to develop – the earlier the better, but it takes all of us a while – is a healthy skepticism regarding cause and effect. There are many paths to quality wine, and none has unassailable historical or chemical legitimacy. Far too many writers on the subject of natural wine repeat and enhance the aforementioned scientific nonsense and religious doctrine, though whether it’s because they’re members of the sect or because they don’t know how to adjudicate the claims I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, as the effect is the same. Writing “this is what winemaker X does” is an essential contribution to a conversation. Writing “this is what winemaker X does, and this is the best way to make wine and express terroir” is a matter of opinion on which people can disagree. On the other hand, writing “this is what winemaker X does, because what winemaker Y does has the following deleterious effects” requires that the writer have their facts straight regarding both the winemakers and the science. Which, unfortunately, is not the case as often as it should be. If one is going to be an advocate, one must secure the lectern to its foundation.

Another key skill for the writer is a healthy skepticism for the easy conflation of palate and practice. I am frequently dismayed at the narrow universe of consumption practiced by some of the most strident advocates for natural wine. (To be sure, a similarly-limited worldview is responsible for the major failings of nearly all wine writers…certainly including myself…but they’re not the subject of this essay.) One may certainly prefer natural wines for reasons ranging from philosophical to aesthetic. But when you’ve worked yourself into a position where you cannot understand, explain, or even acknowledge the affection for paradigmatic wines, when you must deride them for what they are or how they’re made without reference to how they actually taste, you have lost yourself in doctrine and have stopped thinking. Obviously, no one need like a given wine, or even restrain their criticism of a wine that they don’t like, no matter how acclaimed it is. But people with the most strongly-held and virulently-expressed opinions too often crawl inside their own worldviews, at which point they can no longer see outside them.

The rising volume of this wearying debate is why I have long advocated for a dissolution of divisions. There is a market for natural wines, and there is a market for everything else, and rarely do the twain meet. But why not? The context of natural wine is not other natural wines, it is wine. All wine. Natural, no matter how fuzzy the definition, means nothing without its counterpoint, and cannot be understood without a complete view of the spectrum on which it resides. And this is as true for the advocacy (or criticism) thereof as it is for the wines themselves.

More fundamentally, most people do not drink doctrine, they drink wine. As they should. One may be an enthusiastic advocate for natural wines as both a movement and a commercial product while still, in the majority, consuming wines that reside outside that movement. The failure to engage with this reality is an error endlessly repeated on all sides, though with more stridency from the natural wine commentariat, and it represents a lost opportunity. One cannot engage in a conversation about natural wines, especially the essential aesthetic one, if those wines will not leave the comforting embrace of their congregation, and that congregation will not leave the thick stone walls of its church.

But the ultimate failure, most certainly not restricted to the English contribution thereto, is that we talk far too much about right and wrong, about good and bad. We are strangely compelled to assign value, after which ranking and dismissal is all too easy. Instead, we should be talking about how, and we should be talking about why, and we should pause after each challenge to allow the universe of answers their space.

On the other hand, maybe the best solution of all is to stop talking. Because what advocate can make a better case for a wine than the wine itself? A wine, like all wines, of clarity and contradiction, but lacking the destructive human impulse to be right. That does not debate or criticize, but instead makes a simple claim: “here I am. Everything that I want to say is contained within in this bottle. The rest of the story is up to you.”

Holiday leftovers

[bungee jumper]In the comments section of the Eric Asimov article to which I linked a few days ago, there were some interesting responses. Most, it seems, agreed with the central premise that wine writing constantly revisiting the same ground is as tedious to read as it is to write. (NB: it’s much more tedious to write. Says the writer.)

Some, of course, disagreed. Journalists need to know their audience, and the audience is not knowledgeable…or so the argument runs. Since is this is the standard position taken by editors of wine columns, the argument is well known to writers, and to a certain extent the source of much of wine writers’ angst as they endlessly revise well-worn subject matter, decorating it with different adjectives and newer vintages, but still adorning the same steaming pile of tedium. (Says the writer, with more than a bit of whine in his voice.)

And then there was a middle ground, in which some tropes were indeed found to be tiresome, but others were worthwhile and even necessary. Here, for example, is Asimov himself defending one of them:

I’m with you — except on holiday columns. Have to distinguish between no-longer-relevant boilerplate and service pieces that readers continue to find useful. You would think, for example, that in the age of Google a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey would no longer be necessary. Yet people still want this, preferably a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. Same with the annual wine column. The trick is to find new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion, and perhaps new and different wines to recommend, though the wisdom remains the same.

My first instinct is to ask whether – “in the age of Google” – people still look to the pre-Thanksgiving newspaper or magazine for their turkey recipe and wine recommendation in anywhere near the numbers they used to. I rather suspect that those seeking a current newspaper or magazine (print or electronic) source are declining, while the number looking at Epicurious or just Googling is rather ascendant. So while Asimov’s argument may be true now (and may, for all I know, not), I see nothing to support the notion that it will be true much longer.

The second is to wonder what the “new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion” would be, having become cynical enough to think that we’re pretty much sold out of frames at this point. What we’re left with is recommending different wines, which Asimov has done, to the point where just about every wine that can be recommended to go with bird and bloating, has been recommended to go with stuffing and the stuffed. Is that really reframing the discussion, or is that simply narrowing the consumer’s choice to “everything”…in which case: how is this helping, exactly?

And the third is to ask something that I’ve always wondered: where’s Paul Krugman’s annual pre-holiday mutual fund gift article, which leads nicely into his annual tax advice column and his very popular “American companies to watch for July 4th” feature? Where’s George Vecsey’s fantasy football roster, his table tennis power rankings, his list of the ten most gut-busting YouTube videos of terrified cats on soccer pitches? I mean, certainly these articles are all very popular and perhaps even necessary for them to write, since they get written by someone over and over again, right? And shouldn’t they be writing gentle into that good column, for the novice who might know what a dollar or a base are, but might be intimidated or confused by talk of derivatives or slugging percentages, not to mention the completely impenetrable Austrian school or Moneyball?

Oddly, it seems that neither their audiences nor their editors think so.

For example, read this. Everyone follow that? Anyone lost at any point? Any terms that might have benefited from definition, references sitting there without explanation, assertions made without the entire history of economic theory appended as a supportive footnote? Yeah, I thought so.

Now read this. If you’re a devoted baseball fan, that probably all makes sense. If not – even if you’re seen a baseball game or ten – well, it probably makes only marginally more sense than this, an article on cricket.

So where is the push…from editors, the audience, or even the writers themselves…for repetition of themes, for simplified language, for an abandonment of jargon and expertise in favor of a theoretical common man’s understanding in any of these opinion pieces?

There isn’t one, of course. So why is wine different?

It isn’t. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

But, more on this later…in which it will be necessary to face up to and defeat the enemy of wine writing, the cancer at its heart, the bane of all it can and should be: the destructive and yet inexplicably popular compulsion to “demystify.”

Eric + Eric

Two great things today, elsewhere…one accessible, the other high-concept wine geekery:

Eric Asimov on what wine writers should leave unsaid.

Eric Texier on the theories of Jules Chauvet, hero of the no-sulfur movement. Which it turns out he maybe shouldn’t be.

The wines, like dust

[shriveled grapes]In a very good, but sure-to-be-attacked, article, Eric Asimov of The New York Times looks at the ever-roiling controversy over ripeness and pinot noir in California.

One of the key reasons it’s a good article is also one of the reasons it’s most likely to draw criticism: it’s mostly one-sided. Asimov talks to, and then agrees with, those pursuing less elevated ripeness and antagonistic to the modern search for more. But I think that much of the criticism will be misguided, for two reasons.

First, some will misunderstand Asimov’s role at the NYT. He is both wine writer and wine critic, sometimes within the same article. The latter job must, by its very nature, deal in opinion and subjectivity. He is, in this article, very clearly utilizing his critical voice, despite a wealth of supplementary information all too often (these days) abandoned by critics and left for writers. And there’s no mistaking Asimov’s position. Critics are, after all, paid to take a stand. That will, at times, necessitate choosing sides.

As for the potential argument that Asimov should, as a writer, be more objective, it’s worth pointing out that you’ll never, ever hear anyone issue this complaint when a writer agrees with them. Nonetheless, it doesn’t apply here; Asimov is rejecting the overworked modern quasi-journalistic dodge of “on one hand…but on the other hand” that passes for (and fails to be) analysis in our times, and his writing is better for it. Again, he’s a also a critic and working as one here, in which case he’s being paid specifically to act as a filter for his audience. He can’t do that if he fails to exercise his judgment.

Second, Asimov never claims that the lower-ripeness style is better. That would be a claim to objectivity, and thus misguided. Instead, he says he prefers it, which is a very different thing.

Third, Asimov addresses and dismisses one of the major complaints of New World pinot noir producers: that resemblance to Burgundy must be an essential mark of quality. It’s true that it pinot noir would usually benefit from being as good as the best Burgundy (after all, the French had a rather significant head start), but this is a very different thing than asserting it should be like Burgundy. The fame of Burgundy rests on several pillars, and one of the most important is site-specificity. If that fame has any value at all for New World producers (and I’m not arguing it must; winemakers should hold to their own qualitative goals), it should be as support for the idea that pinot noir is wonderfully expressive of place…and thus, there is very little reason why a pinot noir produced outside Burgundy should “taste like” any sort of Burgundy, unless the terroir is exactly the same.

Fourth, finally, and perhaps most importantly, Asimov gets to the core of the issue in a way few mainstream wine writers do. The ultra-ripe pinots and their less-ripe counterpoints, plus everything in-between, evince occasional differences in soil and mesoclimate, but their primary differentiator is intent. The producers of wines for which “syrup” is considered an organoleptic virtue do not have their hands tied by a terroir they cannot escape, they want to make wine that way. And the same is true for those who make lighter, crisper styles; it’s not that they’re prevented from making the other kind of wine, it’s that they don’t want to.

Now, one may legitimately ask: is this contrary to the previous assertion, that pinot noir is particularly expressive of place? It may seem so. But it’s worth taking another look at Burgundy and asking the same question. Is there style variance within Burgundy, even among producers of the same site’s grapes? If the answer’s yes – and it is – then site-specificity hasn’t been refuted. Instead, an old truism has been reasserted: whenever there’s conflict between the hand and the land, the hand always wins.

(Epilogue: well, that didn’t take long.)