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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.

This is the end

[moldy bottle]This is the last Thursday. The very last one. Here, I mean.

There will be a hotel my next namesake night, my home abandoned and swept clean of Me and Mine as it awaits its future partner, but it doesn’t count. It’s a hotel. It’s only a transition.

“Have you stopped blogging?” one correspondent asked. “Are you on hiatus?” queried another. No. I have definitely been bouchonné, in a sense (I love the broad utility of the French word for “corked”), because there’s a post I want to – no, need to – write, but I just can’t get through its abdomen, though the head and tail are long-finished. And in any case, I’ve been a little preoccupied.

Because the thing is, I’m leaving. Boston, you (and your dirty water, and your Charlie-swallowing M[B]TA) are no longer my home. As of eight days from now. And most definitely counting, as the ever-expanding, never-diminishing “list of things to do before…” stares back at my packing-reddened eyes.

Everything is, of course, fraught these days. Many decades of reminiscence. But I’m most struck, at the moment, by what cannot be reminisced. Places. People. Events. Things. Dishes. Drinks. None of them the path taken. All of those moments that I didn’t have in defiance of opportunity. And now, likely, won’t. Ever.

It’s not any given noun that’s set me on this path of…well, it’s not regret, exactly. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it. Reflection? It’s packing up bottles of wine, as any oenoanorak must do in preparation for a move.

Each bottle tells its own stories, long-acknowledged as one of the glories of the pursuit. But one of them – often overlooked – is the tale of its acquisition. The reason, the circumstance, the monetary pain a then-special bottle might have caused, the preferences – long-developed, or perhaps long-abandoned – that led to its companionship. So many years of browsing, of traveling, of savvy deals and what-was-I-thinking errors of quantity or quality. I could write an exceedingly poor-selling autobiography with just these bottles and their history.

As I said, everything is fraught. I can’t pack away a bottle without remembering then. Or there. Or why. Or who. The danger of being overwhelmed by something loitering at the intersection of Nostalgia and Proust is ever-present in these moments.

But this is what I wanted to say: these memories, these snippets of history, these moments that made me as much as I made them…they’re getting boxed up. Shipped. Reinstalled in a new setting, one in which new moments will be made starting from that very first installation. These bottles, heretofore ignored, will play a role in those new tales. And this is, I think, a fitting destiny for wine.

The story of a bottle is inseparable from its land, its grapes, its maker, and its history. It passes to a buyer with this story intact, whether the narrative is known or not. But then, a new epic is written. A story of an enthusiast and his or her wine. And that is a very, very different tale. Yet both make the wine what it is, and also what it will be.

So, Thursday. You’re actually Friday, now, as I finish this, and while I mourn your passing, I have hope. For downstairs, in more boxes than I care to count, are stories upon stories. A library of history, but also a library of the future. Each story familiar, each story new.

And some future Thursday – I don’t know when, but it will be soon – will not be a last. It will be a first. And the stories will begin anew.

When push comes to chèvre

There exist more ways to get what one wants, in the mercantile realm, than ever. For many – especially in the most electronically developed countries – this is the lifting of a burden. One can have almost anything, from almost anywhere, free of the time-consuming friction of face-to-face interaction.

Elsewhere, this is viewed less positively. French feet rest heavy on so many cultural brakes that it’s sometimes difficult to see how, amidst epic and often completely arbitrary contrariness about just about everything, these deliberate pressures can lead to desirable outcomes.

Please forgive the tangential subject-skipping in those last two paragraphs, but there’s a point to it. For I am now going to talk about cheese.

At my Parisian apartment’s nearest supermarket, which is generally dismal and harbors a persistent odor of garbage, cheese is behind a rope and requires the beneficence of staff to acquire. Meat? Fish? Sure. But cheese? The stuff is, mostly, already boxed and wrapped. Why must there be a person between me and my brie? I suspect it’s because, to the French, cheese is too important to be left to the proletariat. Also, because that’s just how cheese is sold. Remember: “arbitrary.”

And if one seeks good cheese – the wheels, wedges, and three-dimensional polygons on which the fame of French cheese is justly built – one must go to a specialist. A merchant and affineur, yes, but also a guardian of tradition, a hyper-knowledgeable guide, and a meddling interferer with consumers’ best-laid plans. The thing is, one does not just buy cheese at such an establishment. One enters into a storied negotiation, the outcome of which is not certain until one is standing on the sidewalk, holding a parcel that emanates lusty aromas of biologically active dairy products. Which might be entirely different from what one intended to purchase at entry.

It’s possible to purchase food and drink from French merchants with minimized interpersonal interaction, but the qualitative sacrifice is enormous. To get the good stuff, one must build a relationship…and I use that word deliberately, because the process is not unlike dating. The complexity of the interaction goes well beyond the boundaries of an “I would like”/“we can sell you” exchange of supply and demand. There are interrogations for which one must offer explanations (“when are you going to eat this cheese? for how many people?”) and catalysts (“the bleu d’Auvergne last week was excellent, but I’d like something a little more aggressive”), there are force-feedings (“this is the cheese that you will buy, and this is how you will serve it”), and as a result the simple act of sectioning and wrapping a few pieces of cheese can take the better part of a quarter-hour. But woe betide should this relationship fail to get off the ground, or develop in difficult ways, because product quality will suffer as a result. It is essential to build a positive rapport with a merchant who has consumable goods one desires, and the burden of that interaction is – contrary to American practice – almost entirely on the consumer, not the purveyor.

Here follows a tale of merchant dating failure. And of success. A multi-year love story that has come to full, and gloriously stinky, ripeness.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2009) – The aroma of fame hangs over this rue Cler shop, lingering thick and nearly tactile in the air to either end of its block. Or maybe that’s just the chèvre.

A famous affineuse, a beautiful selection of cheese…why, then, am I about to complain? Because even after a half-dozen visits, each query as to what’s fresh, what’s interesting, what’s seasonal draws the identical droned reply from the tall, patently bored young man that is always – despite my attempts at identifying his off-day – here: “brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Yes, OK, and a first purchase demonstrates that versions thereof sold here are superlative. But there’s a whole room full of cheese, some of which are as yet untasted legends from my reference books. Can’t I try something else?

“Brie, Camembert, Roquefort.” Apparently not.

Marie-Anne Cantin (2011) – A year and a half later, the only holdovers on the staff appear to be Madame Cantin herself and her husband (who, on my first visit, scolds me for threatening a pyramid of ash-covered chèvre with the uncontrollable arc of my allegedly wildly-swinging murse). And so, a new attempt at relationship-building is initiated.

This time, it pays off. Suddenly, there’s a lighted and signposted pathway through an oozing world of terroir-specific brie. “Sec” in reference to a goat cheese now actually produces a semi-hard version, not just whichever cylinder or pyramid the shopkeeper happens to put his hand on, and always something different than was offered last week. A full range of creamy rounds and squares, bloomy and washed – the very cheeses that are impossible to acquire legally in the States, and are inevitably past prime when they are available – are systematically offered over the course of two months’ visits. Best of all, a deliriously complex four-year-old Comté, previously extant but not for sale to just anyone (“anyone” being me) suddenly becomes available. Each week, each exchange, is a new adventure in not just selection, but also in escalating warmth. My only regret is that when I come back, I might need to start all over again with a brand new blind date.

There are other sources, as well. One does, on occasion, leave the comfort of a marriageable affineuse for the excitement of a lactic dalliance; this is France, after all. Most of the action on the side comes from a purveyor at the biweekly Grenelle open market that offers a selection of his own goat cheeses from the Loire. His fare tends towards more youthful freshness than is my personal preference, but it’s still a fine and varied array of chèvres. The best is probably his Selles-sur-Cher, which is sold in a range from birth into a creamier era of development, but the ash-dusted fresh rounds and logs are impressive in their own right.

But again, cheese is only part of the act. The rest is his banter with the mostly female market crowd, with whom he relentlessly and shamelessly flirts. (Sometimes unsuccessfully; on my first visit, a middle-aged woman stalks off in anger at his unexpected use of the familiar form, hissing “animal” at him as she harrumphs away. By week four, the familiar is all he’s using in my presence, but then I’m not French and don’t really care about such things.) A good 90% of any commercial transaction with this gentleman is, thus, unrelated to the actual exchange of money for cheese, but rather the chatter than precedes and follows that transaction.

And so, that’s a French cheese transaction. You might not get what you want, exactly, but if all goes well, you’ll get more than you knew you wanted.


Every country has its white zinfandel. A sticky, too-sweet, unstructured, synthetic-tasting Kool-Aid™ wine. France’s is often made from one or both of the cabernets and carries the Anjou appellation, though there are plenty of blushing contenders for the role made elsewhere. I notice, as a frequent renter of apartments and gîtes in various French locales, that when there’s a gift bottle, it’s very often something of this stylistic ilk. Why, I wonder? Perhaps as a result of a guess that it has the broadest potential appeal to all, but especially sundry? Perhaps – though this seems hard to believe based on the evidence – people actually like the stuff?

Well, I don’t. And yes, it’s rude to look a gift horse in the mouth and decide to withhold the lurid neon pink refreshments. But I would love to, landlord by landlord, shift attention to something a little more interesting for both novice and geek tastes. Sweet and fun, sure, but clever as well. A Bugey Cerdon in every pot, maybe? It couldn’t hurt.

Emb. 49125D 2009 Cabernet d’Anjou (Loire) – Sweet synthetic strawberry syrup. It’s wine, but I know this primarily because the label says so. And you have to love the romance and revealed cultural history of the winery’s name. (3/11)

Les Fouleurs de Saint Pons Vin de Pays du Var “Réserve du Cigalon” Rosé (Provence) – Candied berries, a bit hot, thin, and not very interesting. (11/09)

Bernard-Noël Reverdy “Domaine de la Garenne” 2008 Sancerre Rosé (Loire) – Actually, not bad. (I know…lead off with the lavish praise, right?) Dry, with some flattish minerality exposed – something planar and uniform – and a little patina of raspberryishness. Nothing to think about, but quite drinkable while well-chilled. And had I not written this note hot on the drinking’s heels, I’d never have remembered drinking this at all. Meanwhile, that Reverdy family sure is fertile, isn’t it? (11/09)

Renardat-Fache Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Intense strawberry, with one of the best balancing acts between acid, fruit, and sugar I’ve encountered under this label. Fresher for the lack of a trans-Atlantic trip? A better vintage? Or just an artifact of the environmental bonus multiplier of drinking it in Paris, rather than in a Boston suburb? Well…does it matter? Whatever the cause, this is the best bottle of this wine I’ve ever tasted, and I have consumed a lot. (11/09)

Rondeau Bugey Cerdon (Ain) – Pure strawberry lifted by raspberry/cranberry volatility. Fun, fun, fun, and no one’s T-Bird is getting taken away. (4/11)

The utility of "natural"

In the comments to the previous post, Thomas Pellechia makes the following assertion:

The word “natural” is the problem. “Natural” to apply to a movement or to a way of production was likely selected (by whomever, I don’t know) for its connotation and not for its accuracy. Maybe good marketing, but certainly useless information.

It’s not useless information. It means something. As much as “pinot noir” or “Chambolle-Musigny” mean something. None of the three terms tells you exactly what has been done and what you are going to get; far from it. But they’re useful, and helpful, and descriptive to the extent of their ability to be any of those three things. And they are all also, in their own way, “marketing.” We deal with this sort of definitional and intentional ambiguity all the time in wine, as I believe I just wrote a few weeks ago, and there’s no good reason other than sheer obstinacy that “natural” should be required to submit to unprecedented scrutiny in this regard.

When a winemaker utters the (in)famous “my wine is made in the vineyard” cliché, and putting aside the cases in which that phrase is used either cynically or with premeditated deception, what’s the most sensible reaction to an honest use of that phrase?

1) Start objecting that wine can’t actually be made in the vineyard, that there’s no fermentation vessel, that there are no bottle trees in the vineyard to catch the miraculously-fermenting grapes, and so forth.

2) Understand the conversation for which the phrase is long-standing shorthand: that the qualitative influences on the wine in question are preferentially agricultural.

I submit that the non-Asperger’s answer is #2. Anyone using the phrase honestly already agrees that, yes, they have to actually get the grapes into the winery and do stuff to them, or there’s no wine being made in or out of a vineyard. There’s no need to revisit the entire history and science of wine every time someone is trying to signal their intent with a helpful shorthand phrase, examining each assumption to make sure it doesn’t indicate wobbly doctrine. They know what they mean by the phrase, I know what they mean by the phrase, and I cannot conceive that any knowledgeable observer doesn’t know what they mean by the phrase.

The same is true for “natural.” I think, with the body of work and theory that exists, it’s three sensorially-deprived monkeys on a t-shirt to keep insisting that people who make and drink the stuff don’t know what’s being signaled and shorthanded.

Would I prefer to go back in time and Napoleonically order them to use “anti-interventionist” or some other similarly-questionable phrase? Probably, though I don’t think it would have saved much grief in the ensuing arguments, a rather large number of which are disingenuously presented by those whose economic interests are highly interventionist. There are some other terms I’d like to get rid of while I’m busy being the Emperor of Wine Terminology.

But that unbagged cat is already riding the barn-fleeing horse into the sunset. It’s the term we’ve got. And if you show me a Riffault Sancerre and a Bourgeois Sancerre and tell me that the former is a natural wine and the latter is not, what I expect based on those descriptions very much matches up with what I will actually get. The same is true for many such contrasting pairs, and I would love to hear from anyone familiar with both wines that thinks they do not have similarly differentiated expectations, because I suspect such a person doesn’t exist. That’s a demonstration of utility right there, and thus the term is not useless information. Insisting otherwise is baseless.

Anti-choice

“Why don’t you,” suggested an email, “offer your own definition of ‘natural wine,’ if you’re so sure everyone else has it wrong?” It’s possible that slightly different and marginally more aggressive words were used, and thus I’m paraphrasing for the sake of clarity, but this is a family blog I’ll stop at nothing in pursuit of a joke the paraphrase will have to do for now.

In any case, I pretty much already have. But OK: here’s a short* version. Laminate it if you wish. (Biodegradable laminate, please.)

*Why are people laughing?

Natural wine is the result of a winemaker given a chance to intervene and always choosing otherwise, except as necessary* to achieve a drinkable product recognizable as wine.

*And sometimes, not even then**.

**On the other hand, bad wine is bad wine, and incompetence is incompetence, and neither really invalidates the definitional divisions between natural and other types of wine. After all, a freely-intervening hand does not preclude biological instability, though it’s certainly true that that hand’s absence can make instability more probable.

What I like about this definition is that it doesn’t attempt to swim upstream against the currents of example vs. counter-example. While it’s true that I can’t think of a natural winemaker who adds cultivated yeast, the standard claim about few or no sulfur additions is rather fiercely challenged by one natural winemaker, who submits bottle after bottle of self-described naturalia to a test that finds most to have surprisingly high levels of sulfur. Thus, I can’t even adjudicate the truth or falsehood of one of natural wine’s core tenets. And pretty much all the rest is debate, argument, philosophy, and/or religion.

This definition also doesn’t require tiered value judgments. One needn’t weigh one intervention against another, trying to discern which is more deformative and which is less…an argument presented time and time again by the contrary and the disbelieving…because the point isn’t some inherently obvious anti-natural value to a given intervention, it’s the motivation behind and purpose of intervention itself.

That last bit is why I prefer a less-prescriptive definition of “natural wine.” It’s not a papal bull. It’s not even a recipe. There really isn’t a perimetered group of wines within and external to the category. There’s just a continuum between wines made with more or less intervention, and a vague and highly malleable circle drawn around the lower-intervention end of that scale encompassing what would be called “natural” by everyone, by most, and by some. There is not, it should also be reiterated, a wine at the endpoint of that continuum; insisting that there must be one is a straw man argument by the pro-intervention crowd, not something that any actual natural winemaker believes.

When debates get heated, I often think that I would prefer to talk about categories of “more” and “less natural,” rather than just natural as if it had a set meaning. On the other hand the word does mean something. To deny this is to attempt to win by semantic pedantry what one cannot demonstrate in reality. There are natural wines that are different in identifiable ways from other wines, and there are enough common denominators within that category that generalizations can be made.

And yet, the “definition” is nebulous. It pretty much has to be. Now, if someone wants to launch a Natural Wine™ certification program, they’re free to set rigid guidelines and commence purging the heretics and apostates. Until that grim day, we’re just going to choose to live with, and even embrace, ambiguity.

In other words, choose to not choose. Just like natural winemakers.

Nurture, not nature

I don’t care about natural wine.

So why do I write about it so much? Good question. Masochism? Or maybe, since by blogging I’m encouraging people read those words, it’s sadism?

Many people begin and end their wine experience with taste, and while that’s important, it’s not quite enough for me. I’m interested in all manner of auxiliary matters, including what happens to cause that taste. And while it makes little sense to the taste-centrics, I do appreciate certain wines more (or less) based on what they are, what they represent, and how they’re made.

I suppose what I’m really after, in this non-organoleptic realm, is authenticity. That is: wines that speak authentically of their place, of their raw materials, and of their category. To the extent that natural wine means anything to me, it’s in its alleged potential for this sort of transparency.

Of course, some natural winemaking is anything but transparent. Some of it is patently obscurative. Certain grapes and sites seem to emerge tasting recognizably akin to those made via more interventionist methods. Others are profoundly transformed, at the extreme tasting much more of each other than of their peer groups despite wildly differing raw materials and grape sources. The set of flaws that can all too easily afflict natural wines are a contributor, but even in the absence of flaws there is, at times, a sort of asymptotic “natural” aromatic and textural profile. Anyone who drinks a lot of natural wine knows what I’m talking about.

Ennui sets in when theoretically different grapes and sites end up tasting like minor variations on a single theme. Soon, that ennui is replaced by boredom. Eventually, I find myself wanting to drink something else. Something that tastes like something else. Of what it is or where it’s from more than how it’s made. That is, after all, the exact objection I have to industrial winemaking practice. Why should I laud a product just because it’s in philosophical objection to same?

It is here that I often find myself parting ways with the most dedicated natural wine fans. It’s not just about preferring different organoleptic profiles – that’s inherent between any two wine drinkers – but that natural wine soon ceases to appeal to me, except as a gustatory curiosity, when it obscures rather than reveals. In other words, I don’t enjoy natural wine because it is natural. I sometimes enjoy it because of how it makes wine tastes (and sometimes not). But the vast majority of my enjoyment comes it when it serves the greater aim of authenticity.

So why should I care about natural wine, as a category, at all? Because it’s my experience that I tend to prefer wines made with less intervention to those made with more. Exceptions abound, but it’s a useful generalization. It’s even more accurate not as a wine moves from interventionist to natural, but as it transitions from highly-interventionist to minimally-interventionist. The very existence of natural wine as a growing and much-discussed category exerts pressure against the urge to intervene. That is, for both my palate and my preferences, a good thing.

As for my apparently persistent desire to put hands on keyboard, there’s even more to it than the exertion of palate-pleasing pressure. About natural wine is written and spoken a rather incredible amount of bullshit, both pro- and con-. I’ve probably contributed my share of both, over the years. What strikes me about a lot of it is that it appears to coalesce around positions of wild-eyed extremism about which everybody argues and finger-points, but which positions vanishingly few people actually hold.

The thing is, among the cohort of people who drink and enjoy any subset of natural wines, one finds a lot less polemical rigidity. And those are just the vocal ones; the silent are likely even less doctrinaire. But while those who enjoy a good supply of both natural and interventionist wines far outnumber the zealots, their megaphones and klaxons are set at lower volumes. What cannot be overcome in decibels must thus be compensated by numbers. And maybe the chorus can, eventually, drown out the most narcissistic soloists.

Dispatches from Naturalia

A few weeks ago, an offhand dismissal of natural wine on Twitter (imagine that!) caught my eye. Paraphrasing, the tweeter mused: “still trying to decide if it’s all just marketing.”

I can answer that, actually. Yes, it is indeed marketing. So is “Gevrey-Chambertin.” So is “pinot noir.” And for the exact same reasons.


Inspired by the above, I admit continued bewilderment at a refusal to engage with ambiguity when it comes to the word “natural.” I’m glad that people have, from time to time, offered definitions, because it gives us something to argue about. But those are their definitions, not the definition. It’s quite clear that among both self-identified and externally-identified producers of natural wine, there’s little to no agreement on precise, regulatory-style meaning. And while a few ideologues are more than willing to fight about it, most are quite happy with the lack of rigidity. Alas that detractors (and advocates) can’t adopt the same attitude.

But aren’t “Gevrey-Chambertin” and “natural” different? Doesn’t the former have a specific definition? Yes it does, but it’s mostly about geography and content, a little about practice, and not at all about what the wine is actually like. “Pinot noir” is a specific grape, yes, but both a transparent blanc de noirs Champagne and an opaque hot-climate bruiser are pinot noir. The name is a datum, not a characterization.

“Natural” has no force of legal code behind it, but amongst its Gaussian distribution of producers that there’s a core set of practices that any hypothetical code would include (and practices it would exclude). And yet, this still tells us nothing about what the wines are like. A pretty little gamay for immediate slurping? A stately riesling made for (given sufficiently careful cellaring) long aging? Both exist.

In other words, there’s as much simultaneous meaning and ambiguity to the word “natural” as in many other wine terms. We embrace uncertainty elsewhere, using words that are not simultaneously prescriptive and descriptive. Why is it so hard with the word “natural?”


Perhaps it’s because the word – like so many others – gets entangled with value judgments. In this, “natural” takes up the burden that “terroir” used to carry. Some of the most passionate defenders of the concept can be regularly seen to have – maybe subconsciously, maybe not – entirely conflated the term with “wines they like.” When a wine comes along made exactly as they’d prefer, but far outside their stylistic preferences, they start protesting that it can’t be natural and looking for redefinitions that will exclude it. This is ludicrous. “Natural” is prescriptive, it has some limited ability to be descriptive, but it is not and cannot be qualitative. That’s not to say that one can’t prefer natural wines for reasons aside from the organoleptic. But “natural” is not a synonym for “good,” and it was never intended to be.


On a personal level, one of the biggest reasons I appreciate the growing presence of natural wine is the pressure it exerts on winemakers who’ve never met an intervention they don’t like. I don’t expect many of them to change, and certainly control-oriented industrialists never will. But others will. More might reconsider what they do, maybe making a little tweak here or there, perhaps experimenting outside the borders of “what they’ve always done” to see if quality can be achieved in a different way. The more important outcome, to me, is that producers are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about what they do. What did they add? What did they adjust? And why?

These very questions are themselves too often taken as value judgments. This, too, is ludicrous. I am in no way dismissive of the impulse and the frequent need to intervene, sometimes aggressively, to shepherd a wine from grape to saleable bottle. And some of my favorite wines are the result of intense intervention. But centuries of furtive meddling have served no one except the true industrialists, whose practices are thus fully legitimized. And the secrecy not only fails to increase knowledge, but leads to confusion and premature didacticism on the part of insufficiently educated wine folk…consumers, yes, but even sometimes those in the biz. If the obsessive focus on practice brought by natural wines serves to turn up the intensity of revelatory light, there’s not a single bad thing to be said about that.


Last year I penned an essay on the qualities and difficulties of the natural wine scene in Paris. I’m in the midst of another extended stay in that glorious city, and have as a matter of choice been rather immersed in the stuff. And so it’s been interesting to reexamine my former conclusions.

Has anything changed? Yes and no. There are even more natural wine bars and restaurants than before, which is a testament to their success (some of the old stalwarts have even expanded). That’s the first “yes.”

The “no” is that at such establishments, vinous apartheid more or less continues to reign. That’s a loaded term, so let me clarify that I mean it in a value-neutral sense. Natural wine lists mostly remain natural wine lists, full stop. If there’s a wine bar or restaurant that fully embraces naturalia yet allows their stock to be dominated by qualitative rather than definitional concerns, I haven’t seen it (which is not to say that it doesn’t exist; one can’t go everywhere, or at least my liver certainly can’t). And that, of course, is fine; I would no more criticize a restaurant for being exclusively “natural” than I would for specializing in crêpes. I still think an opportunity is being missed to broaden the concept, but I’m not a business owner.

It’s probably true that there’s more bad natural wine than there used to be. No surprise there. I don’t mean that the wines have gotten worse, I mean that there’s some trend jumping, and a quantity of product that appears to be more the result of fermented ideology than fermented grapes. It’s certainly true that there’s more similar-tasting natural wine than before, due to the leavening effects of semi-carbonic maceration and other asymptotic techniques. I like these cute, fresh little vins de soif, as they’re often called, but a steady diet of them across appellations and grapes gets repetitive and frustrating; I don’t want every grape, from every appellation, to taste like either gamay or pétillant orange wine.

There’s a second “yes,” however, and it’s a welcome development. It’s been a bit of a joke amongst wine geeks, over the years, that Lapierre has somehow found itself the sole representative of natural wine on hundreds of wine lists and store shelves ‘round the world. Good for Lapierre, and good for people who know and love the wines, but that’s no longer quite true. Major retailers here are now more or less compelled to feature natural wines somewhere in their square footage meterage. Good restaurants have more and more options from the natural side of things, and they tend to be the better examples of same. That’s the merging of preferences that I’d hoped for; that “natural” not be an exclusive end in itself, but just another choice among a diversity thereof. Because only then can it directly influence the conversation outside a small circle of oenophilic obsessives.


And yet, despite all the above, it remains true that natural wine is a niche. A micro-niche. Given that its practices are highly unlikely to be scalable to the mass market, that’s all it will ever be. There is so much written, pro and con, about natural wine that it would be easy for a causal observer to conclude that the market was awash in the stuff. It isn’t, and in places that aren’t Paris (or, I’m told, Japan), finding more than a token bottle is like seeking an unsulfured needle in a volatile haystack.

So to our introductory Twitter skeptic, wondering if it might all be just about marketing, it might as well be if the argument in their favor is not in rich physical supply. The wines can be hard to find, harder to transport, and even when present are often unwilling to be the lap cats of the vinous world, curling up for a few hours of familiar and unconscious comfort. They are difficult wines for (judging by some of their fans, including myself) difficult people. Their very difference can be both flaw and virtue.

Market that.

Color me surprised

[mosaic]So here’s a fun thing. Excerpted from Twitter, but with the graphics, etc. removed. It’s a dialogue between Evan Dawson, a journalist and spare-time (where does he find it?) wine writer from New York, and the auto-estimable James Suckling. Let’s count the evasions and logical fallacies, shall we?

Evan Dawson
If sunlight is best way to view color, why judge color indoors like you do?

James Suckling
Isn’t that sort of a dumb question? Tasting outdoors doesn’t work1. You know that.

Evan Dawson
Right. But 15% of the wine’s score is color, and you admit you judge the color in sub-optimal conditions.

James Suckling
What do you do2? Do you have anything better to do today3…or is it a slow news day?

Evan Dawson
Just honestly curious. If a wine’s color is 15% of its score, why judge in conditions that don’t let you see it optimally?

James Suckling
May be you use your daylight flashlight when you visit cellars to taste4? Can [I] get one?

Evan Dawson
Ha! That would be great. But perhaps another reminder that assessing color for points is questionable.

Evan Dawson
And yes, I confess that I think it’s strange to put so much weight on a wine’s color. But your mileage may vary!

James Suckling
But just to be polite and answer your question. I have been tasting for 29 years5. I know how to judge color6.

Evan Dawson
A wine can go from 92 to 89 pretty easily all because you judged the score in artificial/lesser lighting. That matters!

James Suckling
Giving points for color works for me7, UC Davis8 and lots of people9.

So…by my count, that’s four evasions and five logical fallacies (though to be fair, some of the latter are reiterations of the same fallacy). I’d suggest that this is some sort of record, but then I remember that I’ve read/heard/seen political commentary more than once over my lifetime…

Since Mr. Suckling won’t actually answer Mr. Dawson’s (excellent) question about color – his defense of his self-alleged inerrancy, by the way, goes against science in the field – I’m free to opine.

Identifying color is fine, especially if it is any way unusual (opaque pinot noir, young wine not made from nebbiolo but with significant bricking, orange wine) but it is, to me, the least important category of descriptor. Why? Because it is so rarely useful in the note’s afterlife. I often mock the fruit-salad tasting notes that writers (including me) tend to fall back on, because I doubt anyone has ever gone into a store and asked for a wine that tastes of “slightly bitter Rainier cherry skins and crisp, lemony acidity,” but even if that’s not true, I’m sure no one has gone in with an electromagnetic frequency range between which they wish to restrict their purchases. “No, sorry, that aglianico is just a bit too magenta for me.” Please.

But scoring color? Especially, as Dawson points out, in variable and sub-optimal conditions? Ludicrous. Of course, conditional variability can be a reason to suspect all components of wine scoring, but I’ve a pledge to myself that – the anti-scoring rant being well-worn territory – I won’t repeat what so many others have said on the issue, and yet here it’s especially damning. Unless the light source is being frequency-controlled across all wines in a peer group, it is impossible for wines tasted in different lighting to be scored for color in any reliable fashion. Especially when the color component forms as significant a portion of a total score as it does in Suckling’s methodology.

Why didn’t Suckling answer Dawson’s question, except with complaint, evasion, and logical fallacies? Because, obviously, he can’t. No one can.

(Yes, yes, I linked the word “science” to a Wikipedia article. I’ll do penance in the afterlife. It was the best gateway to the actual science I could find in fifteen seconds of Google-fu.)

Blood, sweat, & Theise

[wrestling]One of the worst consequences of the myth that those who sell wine can’t be trusted – the result of decades of trade-sliming from critics whose own monetary interests depend on you believing this lie – is that some of the best, most passionate, and most insightful writers on the subject are marginalized or dismissed.

This is a crying shame. Especially when one encounters someone like Terry Theise, whose annual catalogs have long been among the most enjoyable wine writing available. Self-interested? Yes, they are. Theise is, after all, trying to sell us something. It’s not like he hides it. But only a fool would thus conclude that the content of that salesmanship isn’t worth their time, for few know as much about their chosen subjects as Theise, and even fewer write about it as well.

Brevity may not always be Theise’s strong suit (take it from an expert), but he can turn a pithy phrase when the need arises. As, for example, this, which is as close to essential reading for oenogeeks as anything I’ve seen of late. Theise offers his take regarding an issue on which this blog has been harping for a while: categories are useful, philosophies are nice to have, but categorical dismissals are silly, and one can’t drink a philosophy.

Let me assert, before I begin to contradict myself at numbing length, that I wholeheartedly endorse most of what Theise writes in the linked essay. And even when I don’t, he makes an effective case for his thesis. That said, I do have some quibbles. And one of them is precisely what I’ve otherwise defended above: the way in which self-interest has the potential to deform one’s views.

[T]oo often aficionados feel the need to turn […] knowledge into intractable wine dogma. Then, when they encounter a wine that unnervingly threatens their new knowledge […] they spring to protect their theory. “All serious wines must be dry,” is a classic (and egregiously wrong) example.

This is an interesting opening example for Theise to use, considering the fair amount of pushback he has received – more of late than in the past – against his continuing defense of German wines with residual sugar. Among certain groups (German drinkers, for example), his position is increasingly the minority one. It’s not fair to say that Theise has always been against dry German riesling, but it’s eminently fair to say that he hasn’t always been its most enthusiastic supporter, either. The realities of German wine production have influenced his views on this point, both in terms of wine quality and commercial availability. But it’s amusing that the first category of wrong thinking that comes to his mind is so closely related to the exact reverse of the one of which he has most often been accused.

When we are insecure — we don’t think we’re knowledgeable enough, experienced enough, have good enough taste — we latch on to doctrine.

I don’t think this is entirely fair. There is more than one reason to embrace doctrine, and most reasons are not the result of insecurity. Some people really, truly, passionately believe in their preferences…organic vs. non-, local vs. non-, “natural” vs. industrial, terroir wines vs. branded wines, lower-alcohol vs. higher-, fruit vs. dirt, brett-free vs. not, and I could go on and on listing oppositional categories…for reasons that have nothing to do with insecurity. I have my own preferences, Theise does as well, and they’re not plucked from thin air nor mired in insecurity. They’re based on our experiences.

May they be in error? That’s not a relevant question; preferences can’t be wrong. Are they be subject to future revision as new data arrives? Certainly, and (as Theise argues), a wise taster is always open to such revision. Still, this is not the same thing as insisting that, faced with contradiction, a person must perforce abandon preference (or “doctrine,” as Theise puts it). It is both perfectly normal and eminently reasonable for someone to acknowledge that a given wine demonstrates an exception to one’s beliefs without modifying actions based on those beliefs. A continued refusal to do so despite overwhelming contradiction by data or anecdote is pointlessly stubborn and resembles religion more than sensibility, yes, but the question must be asked: so what? A counter-argument can only be made so many times. If someone won’t acknowledge it, sometimes it’s better to move on to those who truly don’t know, rather than beating one’s rhetorical head against those who have dismissed the possibility of same.

Even the wisest of tasters may fully acknowledge a cornucopia of caveats, exceptions, counterarguments, and counterfactuals, yet still possess firmly-held conviction as to the general utility of their preferences. Isn’t that what preference is, after all, once it’s backed by experience? It’s not black and white, X ≠ Y absolutism, but it is a trustworthy guide. When it’s not – if it repeatedly fails to guide – it’s not useful anymore, and the choice will not usually be the abandonment of preference, but the modification thereof. Choosing to term this doctrine rather than preference only burdens the concept with external judgment, rather than shedding light on the evidentiary basis for the choices themselves.

For instance, someone says that low-yield vineyards produce better wine, and it makes sense; the fewer grapes per acre, the more flavor each grape has. So you assume it’s true, until you taste a wine you really like, made from yields you’ve been told are too high. Now what? A reasonable person would throw out his assumptions about yield. But many will instead question their own taste.

There’s a whiff of straw hominid, here. Who are the people who’ve pursued the latter path? Are there actual examples of such?

Further, I don’t think a reasonable person would actually “throw out his assumptions about yield.” That’s an overreaction just as unreasonable as the alternatives of rigidity or mindless relativism. A reasonable person might prefer to conclude that yield is a complicated subject, that different grapes and different places have different relationships to yield, that what works for pinot noir on one patch of land may bear little relation to what works for riesling on a different patch of land.

Theise’s lurking point – that successful wines follow many different and often contradictory paths from start to completion – is an excellent one, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But this is a different argument than the one against holding too tightly to doctrine. One is an argument about a process, the other is a criticism of a person. And still, one may demonstrate that a belief is factually inaccurate or inconsistently applicable without successfully influencing personal preference. (The reverse is also true.) Fact-based deconstructions of procedure are worthwhile. Criticizing people’s preferences might be fun, but it’s not very enlightening.

In the wine world the newest and sexiest doctrine is the so-called “natural wine” phenomenon. […] Hearing what these (mostly admirable) producers do not do, we’re tempted to think the alternative must be unnatural wine, riddled with chemicals and fake yeasts. What’s the alternative? “Partly natural” wines? The very use of the word “natural” tempts us into an all-or-nothing position. Doctrine.

For years I’ve been reading this argument. For years I’ve been wondering at who it’s aimed.

Are there people who, abandoning sense and rationality, worship at natural wine’s fundamentalist altar? I’m sure there must be. I’ve met a lot of the people who make, sell, and drink so-called natural wines, and this applies to almost none of them, but for any belief one can imagine there is almost always a puritanical adherent. And maybe Theise is, hourly, oppressed by hordes of such fundamentalists, though he offers no evidence for it in this piece. But I have to say that I simply don’t know these people. Not even the loudest philosophy-thumpers of my acquaintance, the ones who sometimes defy commercial sense in pursuit of their beliefs, insist that there are only Natural and Unnatural, and that the line between them is impenetrable, razor-sharp, and inherently obvious even to the most casual observer.

Do I know a few people who are, for me, far too quick to start categorizing and prejudging wine? Yes. Do any of them have a strong public voice? Yes, though only a very few among the few. But that’s not restricted to the natural crowd, nor was hyperjudgmentalism invented by them, and in fact I see at least as much, and possibly more, dogmatism among the pro-intervention gang. Most often, however, this is a situational and transitory fault. I would accuse myself of falling into the trap from time to time, for example, and I’ve also heard the charge leveled at Theise. We all make mistakes, from which one hopes we learn.

In one sense, I again wonder: so what? Cannot the proverbial multiplicity of flowers bloom, each with their advocate?

The thing is, the case for rigid adherence to doctrine is almost never made by natural wine folks. Yes, they decry industrial process in vineyard and cellar (and so, incidentally, do many who would never attach themselves to the “natural” crowd), but the people insisting that we must have either tablet-etched commandments or babies discarded with bathwater are rarely the naturalistas. And I bet if we all agree to remove one (and only one) particular writer from consideration, examples to the contrary would be extremely difficult to find. What, then, is the overwhelming power and influence of this one writer that must be so aggressively resisted by both philosophical enemies and potential allies alike?

I’d point out that some of the answers suggest themselves. No one likes to be at a marketing disadvantage, and the gauzy appeal of the word “natural” is not easily countered. It’s mindshare, it’s commercial self-interest, it’s the never-ending war of marketing vs. marketing, and one does not have to grant the accuracy of argument or counter-argument to see this battle played out. On the other hand, sometimes the resistance to concept comes from theoretical allies, in which case it often takes the form of a Chamberlainesque ceding of ground to the “other side” before a disputed claim for that ground has been adjudicated. I don’t really know why this happens. Fear that if a perfect defense can’t be mounted, it’s better that there be no defense at all?

Natural wine doesn’t actually require a detailed defense. Everyone understands the fundamental, foundational precept of more vs. less natural, more vs. less interventionist. Everyone with a functioning neuron understands that wine does not actually make itself (centuries of winemakers blathering otherwise to the contrary) nor is it actually “made in the vineyard,” and understands that the entire categorical debate is a matter of degree, of a preference for not-doing over doing, that natural is no more than the amorphous cluster of producers and practice at one end of that motivational and philosophical axis. No one in the natural wine milieu is demanding fealty oaths. The insistence that this state of affairs cannot exist, that there must either be iron-clad definition or wholesale abandonment of concept isn’t an argument, it’s Asperger’s.

Does an importer of self-identified natural wines have a commercial self-interest in defending the concept? Yes. And to the extent that they may on occasion attempt same, a careful reader will hear their arguments and defenses through that filter. But the exact same sort of filter must be applied to those who commercially represent that which is in competition with the self-identified natural category. And Theise, while he represents a few producers who hover around the perimeter of the movement, falls into the latter group. In no way does this invalidate his arguments. But it does contextualize them.

Here’s the rest of the context, though: earlier, both Theise and I were suggesting what we thought a “reasonable person” might think in the face of contradictory information. My argument was that the most reasonable person might soon conclude that a practice that works in one place, with one grape, might not work in another place, with another grape. The core of Theise’s portfolio is German wine (mostly riesling) and Champagne. The latter can’t ever be “natural” according to any ultra-fundamentalist view, because it cannot exist without human meddling…though there are unquestionably producers who craft and hone less than others, and some of them are in Theise’s portfolio. As for the former, it’s worth observing that the techniques and anti-techniques of the natural set are virtually nonexistent in Germany. Since almost everywhere there’s wine, there’s a group of enthusiasts exploring oenological minimalism, and yet no one seems to be trumpeting their success with same in Germany, it might just be possible that the techniques don’t work there, or with the grapes common to Germanic wine regions. Certainly sulfur use alone, especially as employed with residually-sugared wines, would disqualify most producers from even the softest possible definitions of “natural.”

Again, is there someone, somewhere, who is arguing that because this winemaking path is largely unfollowed in Germany, that German wine can thus be categorically dismissed as qualitatively inferior? I don’t know of that person, but he or she might exist, and maybe Theise knows who it is. Most people of my acquaintance whose drinking comes largely from the natural world make an exception to their philosophical preferences for several styles of wine, and riesling (especially German) and Champagne often make up the primary population of those exceptions.

Let’s face facts: the natural wine movement, no matter how many zillions of words have been expended on it of late, is a micro-niche. These are ultra-small production wines, curated by a tiny number of commercial gatekeepers, and sold in not very many places to a passionate and loquacious, but extremely small, number of consumers. And I think, frankly, that a lot of the people along this commercial chain like it this way.

What they are, however, is competition for the attention of the relatively small group of wine consumers whose tastes are not informed by mass-marketing or by point ratings in major journals. The very group that Theise, Lynch, Rosenthal, et al have been selling to their entire careers. Does the emergence of yet another set of competitors for this finite market spell trouble for such importers? In theory, I suppose so. But no more than any other form of competition. If one is doing a good job of expanding the audience for such wines palate by palate – perhaps, and paradoxically, easier in these days of fractured wine media than it was when there were just a few editorial powerhouses – the net effect should be a wash.

Instead, we have this internecine bickering among niche entities, fortifying their little philosophical empires and lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other, further factionalizing the audience that they need to be expanding, not dividing. You know who benefits from this? Not Theise. Not us. Instead: Constellation Brands and their megalithic counterparts, whose sides would be splitting with laughter at such bickering if they amounted to anything more than a rounding error on their balance sheets.

And so, here I am contributing to the problem, lobbing my own IEDs at an importer whose wines I adore and whose words I admire. Why? It was this paragraph right here:

I’m a wine importer, and a few years ago a customer, a sommelier, wanted to know what each of my 35-plus German producers did and didn’t do in the vineyards and cellars. So I asked him to design a survey, which I then broadcast. And thus commenced as bitter a moral outrage as I have ever witnessed among my normally peaceable wine growers. A cynic could have supposed they were annoyed that this organic thing wasn’t going away, which would now increase their workloads and expenses, besides which they didn’t give much of a rat’s ass about the environment. In fact, they found it arrogant that someone who didn’t make wine for a living would dictate such standards. A survey to determine how environmentally “pure” they were came across like a green pogrom wrapped in piety.

I feel like there’s a whole lot more to this story that we’re not getting. Did the sommelier say, in his survey, “your answers to these questions will determine your place in heaven and your worth as a person?” Or did he ask not because he wanted to pass moral judgment on the growers, but because he wanted to refine a wine list that reflected his own philosophy and needed information to make that reflection an accurate one? In the absence of any evidence of the former, I’d rather strongly suspect it’s the latter.

The reported reaction of the producers is emblematic of the laughable, borderline insane, overreaction I’ve been harping about for a while now. Just how powerful was this sommelier? Was he the beverage director for the Starwood Hotels chain or the buyer for Walmart, and thus of overwhelming commercial importance, or did he just craft the lists at a restaurant or two? If the latter, why the angst and acrimony? Is he not allowed to write a list that reflects his own sensibilities, his own philosophies, his own tastes? Isn’t that, in fact, what Theise himself does? One could argue that it’s deeply misguided of Theise to not stuff his portfolio full of industrial Marlborough chardonnay and goopy pan-Californian zinfandel even though those aren’t the wines he’s interested in, and even though they don’t reflect his preferences. But that would be to misunderstand what Theise does and why he does it. If Theise was the gateway through which all available wine flowed, there’s be a reason to carp. But he’s not. He’s one source among many, and consumers have freedom of choice.

I’m reminded of the constant whining and sniping aimed at Mark Ellenbogen…what a coincidence that his name should come up just now…when he was doing the wine list for The Slanted Door. The crime of having a point of view on both the wines and their utility with the restaurant’s cuisine was one for which he could never quite be forgiven by differently-minded consumers and producers, who would serially lambaste him for not carrying more California wines, more high-alcohol wines, more burly reds, and more familiar grapes. As if, in San Francisco, it was impossible to find Napa cabernet, or Cakebread Chardonnay, or super Tuscans, on any restaurant list in the city. As if the very possibility of a list without them was a crime for which Ellenbogen could not be excused. As if he was not allowed to actually make choices, but was instead required to satisfy the tastes of all potential customers…even though they were allowed to arrive with their own wine if they just couldn’t abide his choices. As if the job and purpose of a wine director is no actual curative job at all, but rather little more than receiving shipments, slotting bottles into bins, and checking for typos on the wine list.

These were asinine complaints, and to say so I don’t even have to make a claim about the sense or lack thereof of Ellenbogen’s choices. Maybe he was a genius with exquisite taste. Maybe he was ridiculous and wrong about absolutely everything. I have my opinion, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still just one guy, and one list. Those who didn’t like it were free to spend their money somewhere else.

And so, we have a similar-smelling outrage and existential agony from the producers who received this survey. I hope they’ll pardon me (as I continue to restock their wines in my own cellar, because they’re terrific) if I’m not particularly sympathetic. Can’t they answer a simple question or ten? If the response is really that they can’t, then return the survey uncompleted. Are they afraid to have their practices known? If so, that’s not particularly admirable. And if the core issue is that they’re proud of their practices but are afraid that they will be misinterpreted by the unknowing masses…well, then, do a better job of defending the practices. Arguing that we can’t know what a producer does because people who don’t know any better will get the wrong idea is ridiculously paternalistic, and helps neither us nor the producer.

But no, I suspect I know what actually went on in their heads. Last year, in the Piedmont, I listened to producer after producer lambaste everyone who was making different choices than they were, as if the choices weren’t just different, but a threat to their own existence. A few weeks later, in Alsace, I got to enjoy a repeat performance…my favorite producer’s winemaker calling ambient yeast advocates “idiots,” and another beloved winery returning the favor a few days later by labeling the previous producer’s wines “industrial garbage.”

Overheated rhetoric. And deeply misguided, since both producers make excellent wine. This is, it’s worth remembering (since I’ve been a little harsh on him over the last few thousand words), Theise’s core point: there is not One True Path to wine quality. But the thing is, despite his claims to the contrary no one other than Theise is saying that there is. So when Theise reaches the pinnacle of his argument, here:

It is a better world if 90 percent of growers are 90 percent organic, than if only 20 percent are 100 percent organic. If our natural wine doctrine only is all or nothing, too many people will choose nothing.

…again I wonder: at who is this argument aimed? The first sentence is so unquestionably, powerfully correct, it should be repurposed for deployment in every other wine-related debate. It is, after all, just a restatement of the old trope that the perfect must not become the enemy of the good.

But the second sentence? Natural wine advocates are not the ones insisting on all or nothing. It’s their detractors who are doing so, in much greater numbers and with much greater rhetorical force. And since they’re criticizing ephemera, one must again wonder at their motivation in doing so.

I don’t wonder at Theise’s motivation. I think it’s clear. He believes what he’s writing, and he has a commercial interest allied to his belief. The latter does not invalidate the former, but the former does not render the latter nonexistent, either. Theise wants us to accept that one can simultaneously embrace multiple and occasionally contradictory modes of thinking about quality wine. About that he is certainly right. This is, after all, why readers should accord him that same benefit, considering his words neither because of, nor despite, his commercial self-interest. But he might want to view that assertion in a mirror for a moment or two.

In fact, we all should.

What have you done for me latte?

[french café]French coffee sucks. Yes, I said it. I’ll pause here to let the vituperation and recrimination come to a boil…

(OK, everyone down to a simmering seethe by now? Let’s proceed.)

No, it’s not all bad. But it’s pretty bad nonetheless. The difficulty of finding a good tasse de Joseph in your average French café or restaurant has escalated beyond all reasonable imagining. This in a country that is, ostensibly, known absolutely everywhere for its café culture. The culture is just fine. It’s finding something to drink that’s the problem.

How did this happen? There’s a lot to it, but since this isn’t a coffee blog I’ll stick to the notes de Cliff: Robusta beans, bad temperature/pressure control, indifferent roasts, an obsession with the crema in lieu of the actual taste of the brew…those, and more, are the procedural reasons. But they’re not the reasons that matter.

What does? That the French like it, or at least have come to accept it, this way. Many whose backs were immediately up at the opening sentence of this essay felt that posterior elevation because, for them, French coffee most decidedly does not suck. And it probably wouldn’t matter to them if every other coffee-obsessed country in the world, or at least every self- and otherwise-appointed coffee expert, suggested otherwise

There’s more to this than the inherent subjectivity of taste. There’s a reason that one country’s coffee preferences might drift one way, while another’s will stand firm or drift in the opposite direction. And it’s that taste, while remaining subjective and contextually mutable, can be steered by external influences. Marketing works, after all. So do cultural nudges (witness the sales trajectories of domestic pinot noir vs. merlot post-Sideways). But easier and more likely than both is the organoleptic symbiosis between cause and effect. In other words: that which exists creates taste, and taste in turn creates what satisfies that taste. It’s a reflexive system.

(Reminding myself that this still isn’t a coffee blog, and since in no way do I want to wade into the syrupy philosophical murk of aesthetics – because I’m far from qualified, and if I was we’d be here all day – it’s probably time to turn this into a post about wine.)

That there are national (and regional, and local, and cultural) palates is patently obvious to anyone who sells wine to consumers. Oh, some people still object to this – no one wants to be stereotyped – but there’s a reason that wine lists in, say, Boston are very thin on West Coast wines when compared to West Coast markets, and it’s not because West Coast wines simply aren’t available to Bostonians. Again, it’s the aforementioned symbiotic relationship: tastes in Boston are more Europhile because residential origins in Boston are largely European (and Boston is, in general, a Europhilic city), a market to satisfy those tastes is thus created by how Bostonians spend their money, and that market in turn reinforces the Europhilic bent of Boston’s oenogeeks, because those are the wines that are more available than others. It’s the feedback loop of taste and consumption.

Bring an elegant, Old World-styled California syrah to a group of committed winos in France, and they will very frequently complain of excess size and alcohol, even if the wine is lauded for the lack thereof on U.S. shores. This sort of thing is only a surprise to those who don’t travel much, those who don’t drink far afield from their preferred styles, or those who believe that there are objective qualitative measures for wine (such True Believers are, alas, well-represented among the besotted rank and file). It’s just preference…the personal and cultural forms thereof intermingled…and the two can’t be as easily separated as some (many of them professional critics and winemakers with a commercial interest in insisting otherwise) would have you believe.

My cellar is populated by wines I prefer. My home coffee drinking is a daily encomium to my own preferences. And what I say about coffee, or wine, outside those preferences is inevitably colored not only by my own desires, but by the cultural milieu in which those preferences were birthed and educated. What I or anyone else writes about wine…or coffee…must be understood with that context. “In my opinion” is always the invisible coda, whether one agrees with that opinion or not.

This is, I think, an understanding that has devolved in recent years. Historically, professional criticism was accorded a sort of elevation; authority was more or less assumed, and respect paid to that authority. Without getting into whether or not this supposition of authority and concomitant respect were warranted or even wise, both have changed in this era of communal judgment, social media, and crowd-sourced opinion-mongering. Robert Parker can lose market share not just to Allen Meadows, but also to CellarTracker. Respect…or even the need…for a capital-C Critic issuing judgment has probably never been at a lower ebb. Again, we can debate whether this is an improved state of affairs or not, but it’s hard to deny that it’s our modern reality.

Despite this sea-change, culture – or more precisely, environment – still weaves its symbiotic web with taste. Communities of opinion form from communities of taste, as anyone surveying the various web fora on which wine is discussed soon recognizes, and those communities of opinion return the favor by (as described above) influencing the tastes of their assembled. But as more and more communication is conducted primarily within such communities, the increasingly unspoken assumption of shared values becomes a sort of rhetorical calcification, because those values are never challenged. Opinion can easily slip into orthodoxy.

This explains a lot of the tension one sees between different “camps” of wine lovers. It’s not just that tastes differ, it’s that when one spends most of their time drinking (and thinking) within a largely frictionless environment, actual friction is more than a bit of a shock. Disagreements and debates within a shared-value community tend to be about minutiae, not foundational assumptions. Encountering the words of someone with a different foundation can be more than jarring. Indignation is a common response, anger a frequent resort. More often than not, what’s questioned is not the opinion itself, but the very existence of the opinion…in other words, the “right” of its holder to express same. This is a profound misunderstanding of what criticism – professional or amateur – is, I might add. I often borrow the trope that everyone does not have the right to opinion, only an informed opinion, but the reality is that an opinion does not become any less subjective no matter how well-informed its monger.

This personalization of debate…a resort to ad hominem rather than concession of good intent…is an unfortunate consequence of the factionalization of taste, because we miss opportunities to learn from those with contrary views. But there’s another danger: the previously-described symbiotic relationship between consumer and product leads to this disruption in dialogue being reflected in the products themselves, and even those who make them. Indeed, there are clearly identifiable “camps” of winemakers these days, volleying accusations of cynicism, greed, scientific illiteracy, philosophical hogwash, and bad taste at each other. In what way does this help anyone actually attempting to understand the often-bewildering world of wine? It’s as if everyone much first choose a side, after which they will receive a customized set of answers to their questions. This is unproductive.

One of the easiest ways to identify the nefarious presence of this sort of epistemological closure is to look for short, sharp declarations that, on further examination, are actually no more than opinion wearing the frippery of authority. Like, for example, the opening sentence of this post. Does French coffee actually “suck”? I’ll reiterate that, to me, much of it does. But that’s a claim, not a proof. To many, many French people who drink and enjoy it day after day, it is very probable that it does not (or if it does, they’ve a much greater tolerance for masochism than I’d realized).

The problem, of course, is that aggressive brevity reads better. It’s much more suited to our current forms of media. It “sells copy,” to borrow an increasingly archaic term. And that, too, is why I led this post with an example of same. If I stuck all the properly-understood caveats about subjectivity and such in the opening sentence, immediately allowing for the validity of all potential counter-arguments, no one would finish the paragraph. It would be unreadable. Perhaps worse, it would be boring. This is why no one does it.

And so, the burden is on us – the readers – to mentally assume those caveats alongside any and all expressions of opinion. We should, I think, assume foundation and good faith even from those whose opinions seem shockingly misguided, unless their arguments demonstrate otherwise. Having done so, we can move on to a dialogue not about the validity of an opinion, nor the curriculum vitae of its author, but the reasons for and expression of that opinion. We can agree, disagree, or concede to a blend thereof. We can start to disassemble the impenetrable walls we’ve built…walls that we’ve come to believe describe our taste, but in fact only imprison it. And maybe we can do so over a cup of coffee or two.

In Italy.