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The long & the short of it

[angkor wat]At my right hand: a cereal bowl-sized vessel of coffee, the first from my own press in nearly a month. (Just a few inches closer to my hand: the mouse. This is a digital still life, after all.) To my left, a frostbitten window streaked with postmodern art that will vanish with the dawn. The frozen streaks and whorls hide the haphazard piles of snow outside, piles that my shovel has yet to deal with in their entirety. I hope my neighbors will forgive me.

Just a few days ago I was marinating in sweat, wishing that I could change into shorts but unable to do so, because I was on sacred ground. Specifically, Angkor Wat and its many, many templed neighbors. Before that, it was Vietnam, cooler than Cambodia but with a humidity that escalated to broth-like levels as we moved south. Both were bookended by four surprising days in Hong Kong, a city so insanely hypermodern that one expects to see personal spaceships flitting about, even while inhaling a pile of steamed pork buns in an impossibly crowded 19th-century storefront.

This isn’t a travelogue, though. It’s a reflection. Despite a grueling schedule of tourism (reminder to self: next trip, plan some rest every three days or so) I had some time for such, because for the first time since 2005 I left the house without my laptop. Yes, OK, there was the occasional moment of weakness involving my mobile device, but not often. Not reading (except The Quiet American, and not on an e-reader either), but more importantly not writing (except by pen in an increasingly well-worn journal, and wow has my handwriting deteriorated). Just taking it all in, then using the waning moments of each evening for collation, contextualization, and free-association. You know, like we all used to do before the rush to get our every fleeting and 140-character notion into the grist mill of our personal self-publishing empires.

Did I drink any wine? Yes, rather more than I’d expected to, though this was somewhat a function of the ludicrously lavish hotels at which I stayed, or perhaps just as much the lingering influence of Indochine (the place, not the movie). None of the previous sentence applies to Hong Kong, of course, which needs no post-colonial help with its explosive wine culture. Wineries are right to turn their commercial attention eastward. And Westerners are also right to fear the effect this could have on the cost and availability of their favorite wines, related to which I have a hard truth: it’s not just pointy Bordeaux, folks. The cultish, the quirky, and the natural are quite available, and though Big Dollars aren’t yet being spent on those wines (we need, here, to conveniently ignore Japan, where they already kinda are), at the quantities vs. the populations involved, it won’t take much to reduce everyone else to strict allocations on wines for which we had to beg importers and retailers just a few years ago.

And yes, in case anyone’s wondering, I did drink wine with a snake in it. It was really quite good, actually. I wanted to bring some home, but one can’t always rely on Homeland Security’s well-known sense of whimsy and good humor when it comes to unexpected customs declarations, so I didn’t try.

While I’m not exactly thrilled about coming home to impenetrable winter, some of the comforts of one’s own hearth have greater appeal. I ate well – very well – on this trip, even convincing guides that yes, I really did want to eat the dubiously-sanitized street food elbow-to-jowl with shocked natives. But to be honest, I’m a little sick of rice as a constant companion, and I could probably do without a noodle for a while as well. And prawns, which I think I ate at least twice a day in Vietnam and Cambodia? Not for a while, thanks. Yes, I know most of the world subsists on little more than these staples, and I’m already whining after three short weeks. It’s pathetic of me, and I’m rightfully embarrassed.

It’s not about distaste. I like both rice and noodles, quite a bit. It’s about the comfort of the familiar. Landing at JFK, then stuck in the airport for six hours waiting for a much-delayed flight home, what I craved more than anything was something in the cheeseburger with onion rings genre. Normally, that would be the last thing I’d get at an airport, especially for breakfast (it wasn’t yet 8 a.m.), and yet the yearn was palpable. I admit, to my shame, that I succumbed.

There’s a wine component to this as well. Almost everything I drank on this trip was white. Yes, there was a plurality of seafood, but even the meat dishes went best with aromatic whites (as Mark Ellenbogen proved many years ago), and by the end I was craving a red. At home, my preferences usually run towards the elegant, the transparent, the lively, but what I want now – perhaps after the coffee – is something with brawn and burl alongside a nice, big, fat American-sized steak. (Probably followed, one fears, by a few hours of manly grunting and football watching.)

I often say that I crave difference, that I’m a relentless neophile when it comes to food and wine. I think this is mostly true, but taking me as far out of my element as three weeks in Southeast Asia did shows the limitations of this claim. Presented with the alternative as a norm, I started to wish for the familiar as the alternative. I did not, as I insisted I would before the trip, have phở for breakfast every morning, and Vietnam’s well-regarded skills with French pastry became more and more appealing as the days went on. I succumbed there, too.

(Note for the curious: phở and croissant are not a match made in fusiony heaven.)

This isn’t a paean to there’s-no-place-like-homerism, by the way. I cherish the opportunities I have to travel, to experience difference, to draw what I learn into a (hopefully) ever-expanding redefinition of my own self. It’s an essential part of what and who I am. But kicking that self halfway across the globe gave me the opportunity to turn around and look at the anchors left behind. There’s more than one, and maybe at some future point I’ll see the one I left in Southeast Asia, but they’re there. They, too, are “who I am”…not the branches of the tree, but the roots. Everything changes, but some things stay the same. Faced with the biggest chasm between the two I’ve yet experienced, I’m forced to recognize both.

Is there a point to all this navel-gazing? Yes, actually. As with most of my points, I’ve taken a meandering and verbose path to get there, but the destination is now in sight. Before the holidays, I posted something in haste. Something reactionary. Something hot on the heels of an event. And in the chillier aftermath, I didn’t like the result. I edited, trimmed, edited some more. I still don’t like it, and I’m going to take it down right after I finish this essay.

What I don’t like about it isn’t what it says, necessarily. Another version of its essential points will, I think, rear its wordy head in the near future. It’s just that, looking back at things I’ve written in heat and things I’ve written after consideration, I much prefer the latter. I look at the live-blogging I did from the barbera orgy in the Piedmont and the posts written after my return to the States, and I think the latter are better. More informative, more contextual, less full of the emotions of the moment and the best snark-laden zingers a few minutes of typing peace can generate.

I can do that sort of writing, and can churn out clean content on tight deadline as well as anyone, but it’s rarely my best work. What I do better – my comfort zone, my anchor – is reflection. Consideration. Taking the time to examine an argument from all sides. The slow, winding march to a conclusion, even if it’s the realization that there’s no single conclusion to be reached. Explorations of other forms are interesting and necessary, and they make me a better writer, but this is what I do and who I am. Would this blog be more “bloggy” if I cranked out dozens of shorter posts rather than the occasional novella? Certainly. But doing that is to send the author on a permanent vacation, cutting the anchors and losing sight of land and home. Shorter and alternative forms will appear when they can, and I cannot promise a future without furious broadsides written in haste that are later seen to be ill-considered by all (including the author), but the long, patient stuff is what oenoLogic is and always will be.

Meanwhile, my coffee is getting cold, and enough frost has receded that I can see the shoveling yet to be done, lest my neighbors arrive with threatening pitchforks and torches. A queue of ideas for future blog posts rests, in barely-comprehensible scrawl, amongst the pages of my travel journal. And a fat-bottomed red wine is settling on the kitchen counter, waiting for its beefy demise.

It’s good to be home.

Third place

Poke almost any subject long enough in a wine-savvy crowd, and the sticks and prods will eventually unearth a good old-fashioned terroir debate. I’m not sure how or why this happens, only that after having observed it over and over again, I’ve come to accept that it does. And while I’ve long known that there isn’t anything even vaguely approaching universal agreement on what terroir means, or even whether or not it’s important, I didn’t realize until a recent conversation the breadth of the definitional chasm.

(Clear a spare hour or two from your calendar if you choose to follow that last link, by the way.)

There are, I think, three broad categories of opinion on the subject of what terroir is: cultural, personal, and scientific. The first is, one might say, the traditional usage, because it’s how the term is often employed in its country of origin…though I should note that not all French oenophiles actually use the word this way.

Driving around the French countryside, all those produits du terroir signs mean a little more than a direct translation would suggest. Yes, “products of the land,” but also “products from here” where “here” carries a whole bunch of cultural and historic baggage in its marketable hands. In the traditional French usage, terroir means not only something transparent to the character of a place, but also representative of that place.

This is, incidentally, the reason that the oft-made charge of presumptive hierarchy leveled at terroir-endorsing French winemakers has some validity. When terroir is deployed in this fashion, there must be a history and culture, not just a polygon on a viticultural map. If a young site has only geography, then of course it has no terroir by this definition. Ill feelings on all sides would be diminished if the necessary corollary – “yet” – were appended, but I think that while Old World usage assumes that appendage, New World winemakers hear only the dismissal.

What does the cultural definition of terroir mean for wine? It means that it’s not just about site; in fact, anything but. It allows a great deal of human influence, because traditions are part and parcel of the concept. If an intervention, even a drastic one, is and has been routinely practiced, then that intervention is traditional and must be considered part of the terroir…even if, from an organoleptic standpoint, it interferes with the wine’s ability to express its site. In other words, terroir now embraces the thorny definitional dysfunctions of typicity. And terroir changes if the traditions change.

So there’s the traditional view. How about the “personal” alternative? This is the one that was new to me, until I encountered it in the above-referenced discussion. It has never been a secret that people have their own different notions of what terroir is and isn’t. What surprises me, however, is the extent to which this definitional incompatibility is not only acknowledged, but actively cherished by proponents of the personal.

An example: a definition proposed to me by one such adherent included what I would term “transient” effects. For instance, each vintage’s weather. Pests that may swarm and destroy one year, then absent themselves the next. Yeast populations indigenous to the vineyard, whether or not they’re different from vintage to vintage. Diseases and fungal infections (or the lack thereof). And so forth.

What this and myriad variations on the theme come down to, more or less, is a comfort in identifying wines that speak to one’s personal preferences as “terroir wines.” That seems dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. There is a natural and in fact unavoidable inclination towards preference in any definition of terroir that presumes it to be identified at the point of tasting, because…well, what is the terroir signature of the Oberhäuser Brücke? Who gets to decide? Dönnhoff? Critics? Do we put it to a vote? What if we can’t agree?

Since subjectivity is inherent when we’re talking about taste, there’s a measure of coherence to this approach. If the terroir of a site can’t be pinned down, nailed to the wall, and then etched in diamond (and from an experiential standpoint, it can’t), but is instead an individuated conversation between wine and taster, then what does it matter if we allow some transience and mutability in the definition? Probably not much.

The third definition is the scientific one, and it’s the one I prefer…irritating empiricist that I am. The goal here is to extract the maximum utility from the word, such that we may say “this is terroir, and this is varietal character, and this is vintage, and this is the winemaker’s hand,” and – while acknowledging that nothing will ever be separable by clean borders in the fashion I just suggested – advance the conversation about each in bounded and comprehensible ways.

The scientific view binds terroir not to the finished wine (it accepts that terroir may be identifiable in the glass, but considers it a separate field of inquiry and not what terroir is), but to the place itself and the products that derive from that place. Ideally, terroir would be identified by the chemical signature of the grapes from a single site, which would then turn their data back on the site to refine its borders. It does not embrace transient effects, considering them to be variables or noise vs. the constant provided by the site. And yes, it is a rigid, relentlessly utilitarian view that attempts to extract the maximum objectivity from a subject inextricably bound to its subjectivity.

Which is to say: even if the scientific view is pursued to its endpoint, and each terroir is identified by chemical analysis and defined to the maximum possible perfection as a consequence, we still go on to drink the resultant wines. And taste, no matter how much science or knowledge we heave in its direction, remains subjective. For though taste is observable by science, its practice is a blend of the scientific, the cultural, and the personal.

Just like terroir.

Varietal is not the spice

It’s “variety.” It’s almost never “varietal.” Stop using “varietal” unless you’re absolutely certain you know what you’re doing, and even then consider reconsidering.

Evidence on this blog to the contrary, there aren’t all that many things in the wine world that drive me to tooth-grinding agony. I argue, yes, but I do so from a position of peace and goodwill towards all. It’s the Summer of Love, every day, on oenoLogic.

(Um, what’s that? I’m full of what?)

Anyway, the errant conflation of “variety” and “varietal” is the burr in my craw, the stick in my saddle, the hazelnut and pumpkin syrup in my charred coffee. Herein, a brief tutorial, the better to save the oenologician from the grammatical chafing caused by burr, stick, and venti latte. Pay attention, now.

(No, really. Brief. What’s that? I’m even more full of what?)

Variety – This is the word you want when you’re referring to a grape. Pinot noir is a grape variety, which you may shorten to variety. It is not interchangeable with the word “varietal.” And if you think it might be, start swapping the words in situations not related to grapes and see how far it takes you.

“Starbucks offers a varietal of dessert drinks that may, once, have been in the same room with coffee.”

“There hasn’t been a good varietal show on TV since Hee Haw.”

“I’ve eaten deep-fried whale spleen five nights in a row; it’s time to put a little varietal back in my diet.”

See? Doesn’t work. “Pinot noir is a grape varietal” doesn’t work either. Don’t say it. Don’t write it. Don’t think it. (The oenologician waves his hand.) These are not the droids you’re looking for…

Varietal – The adjectival form of “variety.” It is very nearly the case that the only times you will need to use it are to modify the words “composition” and “character.”

“Sauvignon blanc grown on fertile plains, harvested by machine a month before everyone else and at industrial crop levels, then chaptalized, yeasted, and enzymed, probably doesn’t retain much varietal character despite the desperate attempts of global beverage conglomerates to convince you otherwise by putting cute animal drawings on the labels.”

“The varietal composition of a super-Tuscan is irrelevant in comparison to the speed-to-overcompensation ratio of the modified sports coupe driven by its owner.”

There are other uses along these lines that can be correct, but if it’s not explicitly modifying a word, it is very likely that you’re using it incorrectly.

The trouble comes with the other acceptable use of “varietal,” which is to refer to a single-variety wine, and in which the word can transmogrify into a noun. That is to say: if it’s 100% saperavi, it’s a varietal wine, a varietal saperavi – note that, in both cases, “varietal” is happily nestled in its comforting and familiar position of modification – or, in shorthand, a varietal.

This is the only use of “varietal” in which a missing word-being-modified is acceptable. The only use. (Unless, of course, I’m forgetting one. Which I might be.) The Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, for example, is a varietal wine, a/k/a a varietal pinot grigio, a/k/a a varietal, made up of the fermented pressings from P.T. Barnum’s soul. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, on the other hand, is only very rarely a varietal, but is instead almost always a blend. (Varietal Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be identified, in the absence of directly-sourced knowledge, by the mass of the bottle multiplied by the number of points the wine has received from critics who live in Maryland.)

It would, perhaps, help the ongoing confusion over these terms if even those who understand the differences would attempt to limit their use of the noun form of “varietal” and stick with alternative terms, like “single-variety” or “the first strike of a dumbed-down New World wine nomenclature that’s going to destroy centuries of European winemaking tradition unless we fight it tooth-and-bulldozer, and as long as we ignore that much of Europe has been using varietal designations on their wines for some time now with no deleterious effects for anyone.”

(See what I did there?)

The truth isn’t…

[“que es la veritat?” at sagrada famlia]It started off well enough. It started as a discussion of a (to most) arcane bit of cocktail-making technique. It turned into a barrage of sarcasm, curriculum vitae in place of arguments, insults, hurt feelings, and both participants more or less stalking off into the digital ether with a virtual huff.

So goes far too much online discussion, but this instance – with someone I’d called a friend and mentor, and still would were he willing to talk to me – was striking. Not because of the disagreement itself (we’re both stubborn and argumentative types), but because of the form of that disagreement. To elide all but the matter of immediate interest: there was an attempt to test a theory of mixology that ended in doubt being cast on the efficacy of certain other techniques. No problem, right? Just one more inquisitive step on the long road to understanding, no?

No. My interlocutor was having none of it. Science be damned, and in fact the mere notion that there might be reason to question or even test his beloved technique also be damned (or, more accurately ignored: I suggested he draw up a test, since he was so convinced of the inevitability of its result, and the suggestion wasn’t even acknowledged, much less accepted or rejected). My friend was a believer, and could not be gainsaid. Immutable surety was his counter-argument, and when that was questioned, along came the CV. (An impressive one, it must be said. But entirely orthogonal, especially to this mixology-agnostic.)

What struck me so much, especially in the aftermath, wasn’t that we couldn’t agree on the bona fides of the technique, or even whether or not it had been/could be tested by scientific inquiry. It was that we weren’t actually having an argument at all, despite appearances to the contrary. I was primarily interested in the questions, but he was so convinced by the answers (despite a lack of anything other than anecdotal evidence, weighty CV or not) that he was no longer interested in the questions. There was a riptide of hero-worship inherent in my friend’s angry rejection of counter-arguments, even of scientific counter-arguments, that I did not fully understand until the churning waves had receded. No; the matter had been settled, because a bartender – the object of my friend’s intense admiration – had settled it simply by saying so (the form of “saying so” here taking the form of a finished cocktail of, in my friend’s assessment, superior quality). That other practitioners with comparably or even more impressive CVs (than my friend, not the bartender) disagreed with said conclusion was deemed as irrelevant as the potential scientific arguments. The matter was settled, once and for all time, and a man had settled it by saying it was settled, and now another man was attempting to work the same dazzling rhetorical mojo on me. In other words, he was propheteering, if you’ll forgive the coinage.

That is, of course, faith. By no means am I prepared to speak for or against the power, or even the importance, of faith. But there’s a reason that the adjective “blind” so often precedes it. And guarding against that adjectival form – the supplanting of reason with faith – is one of the hardest but most important things to which a student of any subject can aspire. There’s room for belief, and for faith, but there can be no understanding without reason, and where reason and faith are in conflict and a test exists to settle the matter, the test does settle the matter. To believe otherwise is to abandon reason. But, alas…my friend, normally one of the most relentlessly inquisitive people I know, had been attracted by the gravity of, and had thus entered the orbit of, a guru.

Usually, when someone in the wine world starts warning against gurus, an attack on a wine critic (or perhaps wine criticism in general) is about to follow. Or it’s a wine critic issuing a similar warning about the rampant untrustworthiness of retailers and/or sommeliers. None of this is inherently wrong or right – people have self-interests on which they cannot fail to act, even if sub- or unconsciously, and even in the absence of any malicious intent it’s probable for each of these entities to see the others as competitors for mindshare and thus commercial importance. But I’m not talking about critics, retailers, or sommeliers. No, the guru against which I wish to warn is the one responsible for wine itself. In my friend’s case, it was a bartender that was the object of his admiration, but I think the same concern I have over admiration writ extreme applies to practitioners of the oenological art.

Talk to winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of certain practices. Talk to enough winemakers, and you’ll hear entirely convincing arguments for the efficacy of absolutely opposed and entirely incompatible practices. The subject might be irrigation, it might be yeast, it might be sulfur, it might be clonal selection, it might be varietal composition, it might be anything, but the conviction will be firm and the defense (whether asked for or not) more or less passionate. But an argument in isolation does not a case make, no matter how convincing or lauded the source. There must be results, too. There must be wines to support the case. When there are, the first opportunity to leave the path of reason presents itself for both creator and consumer, for the widespread belief that “all that matters is what’s in the glass” applies not just to the misguided notion that wine has objective qualitative standards, but also to the equally misguided belief that a wine can settle an argument. As anyone who’s consumed even the best of wines long into the night with friends/acquaintances/enemies knows, after all, the opposite is much more frequently true.

Consider traveling to a destination. One may take the quickest route, saving time. One may take the easiest route, avoiding inconvenience. One may take the cheapest route, saving money. One may take the most scenic route, gaining more than just the destination along the way. Or one may take an entirely random route, and still arrive at the destination by happy accident. In each case, the desired result – getting to the destination – is achieved. But in each case, the path to that destination is different. It is possible to argue the inherent superiority of one path over another, and those with a strong preference may do so, but they will not be objectively correct…because no matter which choice is made, the destination is still attained. A successful result, then, speaks of a successful path, but not necessarily the successful path. No one who has achieved success via a different path would agree that any path other than their own was the one and only correct path, nor would anyone credit or laud the chosen path of the random arrival. So why should we respond otherwise when it comes to winemaking? In the absence of testable, repeatable evidence for claims, we often have little more to go on than that random traveler’s itinerary, no matter what a given winemaker says.

Winemakers who defend specific practices, even to the extent of decrying alternatives (which is often the case, especially for believers of more idiosyncratic theories), are convinced of the rightness their defense. They can show what they believe to evidence via the wines made with these practices. They may even have actual science to explain the efficacy of those practices, though just as often this is either not the case or the science, properly understood, tells a fuzzier, less certain tale. But while successfully-produced wine is an important component in a convincing-to-others argument, as long as successful alternatives exist it cannot be the answer. It can only be an answer, at best. And in the case of our random arriver, there’s no answer at all, only unaddressed questions.

Perhaps this point can be made more clearly by referencing practices that have, in whole or in part, demonstrably anti-scientific defenses. Biodynamism comes immediately to mind, of course, but it need not bear the entirety of the burden; there’s cosmoculture, crystal energy, divination, tidal forces, astrological calendars, the disallowing of women in the cellar (it happens; don’t ask)…a rich panoramic cornucopia of the semi-sensible to the entirely nutty that is embraced by some winemaker, somewhere, and which may nonetheless be passionately defended as the reason for quality wines thus produced. In the case of biodynamics, in fact, widely practiced, though somewhat less enthusiastically defended, by a large number of very successful winemakers.

Those defenses are interesting, and the open-minded listener should attend to them. How could anyone blindly ignore the thoughts of someone who produces excellence? However, the requirements of an open mind are twofold: it must remain open, but it must not become a sieve. One should not discard reason and intellect because of a few convincing words and a fine glass or two. Moreover, one may fully appreciate the quality of a product while harboring the belief that the person who made it is right, wrong, sensible, or a lunatic on any given subject (and may be differently-situated with regards to a different subject). It is an essential separation of the thing that is made and the person that makes it. One may simultaneously love Huet Vouvray and think biodynamics are a load of hooey, and one may subscribe wholeheartedly to the superiority of biodynamic agriculture while thinking that Benziger’s wines are lousy. Despite what advocates, true believers, and prophets would have you believe, the technique is not the result, nor is the reverse the case, without a proven and repeatable link between the two.

When evidence – hopefully scientific – arrives that shows a given practice to be either supportable or unfounded, one should be prepared to accept that evidence. This is the duty of a critical thinker. Not to fail to question, ever, but to add answers to one’s understanding, the better to ask new questions and thus reignite curiosity. This is especially true if that evidence contradicts one’s previous understanding. That, after all, is how we learn and grow as thinking beings.

[sagrada familia under construction]Some winemakers – through force of personality, the excellence of their wine, or both – can be utterly convincing, especially to those unprepared with an equivalent depth of experience (and that would be most of us, unless we’re eminent winemakers ourselves). It’s all too easy to ally one’s convictions to those of the winemaker in question because what one is hearing “sounds right,” and isn’t the wine just oh-so-good? This is an understandable impulse – we all, at times, need something in which to believe – but it’s important to remember that it’s faith, not intellect, that motivates this impulse. By so choosing, one has abandoned the path of understanding in favor of the path of belief. Even the demands of politesse, in which one may wish to suspend open debate so as to not offend one’s host, can be met as long as critical thinking is only delayed, not abandoned.

The alternative, however, is how one participant went wrong* in the midst of the argument referenced at the beginning of this essay: the transformation of a personal faith into the means by which others are to be convinced of that faith. It goes wrong because one is not mounting a defense based on evidence available to anyone’s review, but rather asking others to share their faith through no more than an inevitably personal testimony…proselytizing rather than informing. For any who are themselves searching for a faith in which to share, that method of argumentation has efficacy. It works for religions, after all. For those who are not, it is utterly useless, and may even become offensive if pursued with enough vigor.

*The other participant – me – went wrong by not understanding this soon enough, and so snarking and sarcasm-ing my way into a debating stance in which my opposite number took angry offense. This was insensitive on my part, for which I can only mouth this defense: I was not prepared for irrationality from this particular person. Were a rewind button available, I’d conduct myself differently. This, by the way, is not to suggest that I don’t mean everything I just wrote about the dangers of gurus and belief over reason. I do. But I don’t want to leave the impression that I consider the entire mess someone else’s fault. I don’t.

For as we all know, it is easy for those immersed in belief to become so convinced of their rightness that the dissemination of that belief becomes as important as the belief itself, no matter how aggressive one must be to achieve that dissemination. Inquiry is no longer ignored, it is attacked. Dissension is no longer an unshared viewpoint, it’s a wrong that must be righted. The discourse devolves, and warring camps develop. On one side, one belief. On the other, another belief. And standing in between, suffering under rhetorical artillery from both sides, are those who would, retaining their intellectual curiosity, ask questions of both.

Obviously, this sort of “debate” does not lead to understanding, but rather hurt feelings and the general entropic decline of civility. Further, no one is convinced of anything in such a debate, except perhaps of the intransigence and unreliable intellect of those whose faith cannot be shaken by reason. This is also a danger, for it remains important to listen to those with whom one disagrees, and this sort of discourse breeds unwillingness to lend an ear. Deaf faith is no more admirable than the blind version.

It would perhaps be better, regarding most controversial winemaking issues, for there to be an inherent skepticism of anyone who utters any form of “this must be” or uses even the slipperiest version of “because I” (in which that pronoun is laden with self-importance) “say so” as a defense for a position. The more convincingly-argued a position on a controversial issue, the more suspicion should be applied as a buffer, unless and until scientific rigor follows on its heels. Winemakers are not required to adhere to any given philosophy (most don’t, and even many of those that do can be wavering and selective in their faith), but if they do, it does not follow that consumers are required to join that adhesion, even if they enjoy the wines thus produced.

Am I over-intellectualizing wine by insisting, over and over again, on the primacy of science over belief? Yes and no. After all, I am one who claims that wine is (or at least can be) about a lot more than just chemistry, to which a relentless and complete application of scientific rigor would reduce it. To this hypothetical charge, I would respond that I don’t believe embracing other fields of inquiry regarding the creation or appreciation of wine affects scientific inquiry one whit; one may romanticize, emotionalize, wax literate, or engage in whatever else inspires and derives from one’s passion for wine without negating a single datum. One may even choose to ignore science in its entirety, feeling that it interferes with a (perhaps) more appealing emotional response. But apathy is not the same as negation, and all the unscientific romanticism in the world does not invalidate the science, whether a given person chooses to engage with it or not. These responses and modes of interaction can coexist without conflict, because they do not address each other in the same language. When they attempt to do so, things often go ill.

For wines do, after all, make their own sort of argument for themselves. But it is an argument, not a conclusion, and wine’s responses to even the most careful questioning are ambiguous at best…suggestions rather than definitions, innuendos rather than proofs. Wine is difficult, confusing, contradictory, and yet wonderful not just despite, but in fact because of those difficulties. Wine is not about easy answers. Those who would attempt to convince you otherwise are not acting in their, or your, best interests.

"It became necessary to destroy the town to save it"

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Cliché? Yes. And yet, true. Ideally, a little knowledge sets one’s feet on the path to more knowledge. But in reality, for too many a little knowledge is simultaneously the beginning and the end of the journey. That one should wish to know more, to know better, never occurs. Once in possession of a fact that confirms one’s prejudices, no matter how decontextualized or debatable, sides are taken, barriers constructed, and rhetorical (or worse) defenses mounted. And thus is our ruinous public discourse conducted.

The cliché applies in other ways, too. Want to enjoy the broadest possible selection of wines, unfettered by moral ambiguity? Don’t get to know the people who make the stuff. Oh, it’s true that most folks who make wine are friendly and generous, some are unfriendly and generous, a few are friendly but grasping, and of course the rest – a pretty small percentage – are widely-acknowledged bastards of the first order. (Often, and refreshingly, they’ll be the first to proffer this acknowledgement.) But encountering someone in a vineyard, or in a tasting room, is not the same as knowing them. Did, for example, the smiling French vigneron that just offered you a gift of a cherished bottle from his cellar vote for the hateful Front national in the last election? Look at the voting totals for certain French regions. Chances are if he didn’t, one of your upcoming appointments did. Is it, perhaps, better to not ask? To not know? That very much depends on your taste for moral conflict.

Considering both of these manifestations of a well-worn cliché about “a little knowledge,” we are thus brought to the matter of Jean-Pierre Frick.

Frick is a grape grower and winemaker in Alsace. He has very firm and non-traditional (or, one might counter-argue, ultra-traditional…the best term of all might be neo-traditional) ideas about viticulture, winemaking, and the region’s wines and winemakers. Most of which devolve to the core idea that he is right and anyone who thinks or does otherwise is not. And fair enough, as far as that belief goes. Shouldn’t someone do what they think is right, and shouldn’t someone believe in what they do? People who think very differently than Frick have similarly strong views and beliefs in those views, and while they may think and act in opposition, the sum of the conversation is better for the strength of that opposition.

It is, however, true that Frick is a little more likely than many others to be outspoken about the rights and wrongs of the wine world (and especially the Alsatian wine world) as he sees them. In this, he joins a smaller subset of producers in his region who tend towards the demonstrative and, occasionally, abrasive. Some of that subset are producers that I and many fellow wine drinkers admire a great deal. Others are not, or are at least more controversial. Again, regional dynamism pretty much requires this, and rampant self-satisfaction is all-too-often a clear midpoint on the road to qualitative ruin.

(Here I think a personal disclaimer is well-warranted: I am not an admirer of Frick’s wines. There are certain exceptions, but in the main I think they are unreflective of, and in fact obscure, both terroir and cépage. I do not think they are made as well as they could be, and are more than occasionally flawed in preventable ways. I think they are, as one acquaintance derisively puts it, “wines of philosophy” rather than wines of pleasure or drinkability, and that philosophy has gained ascendance over the results to the detriment of both. There are, it must also be noted, some for whom I have immense respect who vehemently disagree with these opinions. And finally, to those who contend that I would not write everything I’m about to write were the winemaker in question someone I admire, I can only offer the entirety of my work, which is not exactly rife with caution and rectitude.)

So here’s the short version of a longer story: there were some genetically-modified vines at a research facility near Colmar. A group of anti-GMO activists destroyed the vines and then, as far as I can tell, turned themselves in…the better, given the inevitable legal action, to further publicize their motivation in doing so. One of those activists was Jean-Pierre Frick.

Now, let’s not mince words here: this was destruction of private property. Or it was destruction of public property; I don’t know the specifics of the research facility’s funding. In either case, it was destruction of property that did not belong to these activists. Worse, it also destroyed many years of hard work. Work undertaken by people undoubtedly just as dedicated to the pursuit of their vocation as Frick and his cohorts.

Frick, however, is unapologetic. “The neutralization of the 70 grapevines was an act of civil disobedience,” he claims. No. A protest is civil disobedience. A sit-in. A strike. A barrage of negative publicity and lawsuits designed to stop the research, its publication, or the application of its results. All of those and more would be civil disobedience. This was uncivil disobedience, it was in any sane jurisdiction a crime, and one hopes that the perpetrators – including Frick – will pay a price for their willful act of destruction.

“Il ne s’agit pas d’une destruction mais de la préservation de mon outil de travail,” claims Frick. (Roughly: “it’s not destruction, but the preservation of my work tools,” by which he means his vines.) Frick sees research into, even the very existence of, these genetically-modified vines as threatening to or even destructive of his own. Why? One can speculate, or one can read his own thoughts on the subject, but there’s no logic to the claim until proponents of genetically-modified vines demand that he uproot his own, and France is very, very far from that Monsanto-like state of affairs (.pdf). Is there good reason for concern, wariness, and conservatism about genetically-modified plants as promoted in the commercial agricultural sphere? Absolutely, unquestionably, 1000% yes. But this…this goes well beyond concern.

This was an attack on property, this was an attack on the owners and operators of that property, and (perhaps most dismaying of all) this was an attack on science. Science is neither the final nor sole answer to all questions agricultural, nor should it ever be while the hand of man still crafts our food and beverage to aesthetic ends, but to oppose its testable conclusions is problematic enough, and to oppose its very practice is unthinking and reactionary. There’s no apparent evidence that Frick possesses the science to oppose this project on factual grounds (though I’d welcome evidence to the contrary), which is likely why he’s resorted to a tantrum of breaking and destroying. But ending an argument is not the same as winning an argument. Frick has attempted the former, and in doing so has ceded any moral authority with which to achieve the latter.

But let’s assume, for the sake of that argument, that he’s right. Let’s say that the destruction of both property and work (and possibly livelihood, if the research is subsequently de-funded and the researchers must look for new jobs) is justified because it legitimately threatens something of Frick’s. What is the nature of that threat? Frick may cloak himself as a defender of biodiversity and a proponent of anti-globalist rhetoric, and he may even be right to do so in the Great Struggle against the over-application of science and commerce to agriculture, but that doesn’t explain Frick’s personal motivation in that struggle. No, Frick must himself feel threatened. In fact, he says so, explicitly, in the above quote about his “work tools.” The possibilities and dangers presented by genetically-modified vines are, in his view, a threat to his livelihood, to his way of working, and – it must be said – to his profits.

Continuing under the sake-of-argument assumption that he is justified in his actions based on these beliefs, what are the natural conclusions to draw? One obvious one is that those under similar threat from equally revolutionary or counterrevolutionary methods are justified in taking similar action. Say, for instance, a grower of more typically-treated vines (that is, using chemicals and industrial farming techniques) and producer of quality wines whose livelihood is threatened not only by the commercial competition from Frick, but from the pedagogical din emanating from Frick’s oft-used lectern. Frick is not shy about saying that others are doing wrong, nor that their ways are insufficient to the cause of quality wine as he perceives it. Could not that be considered a threat to the livelihood of those who think and proceed differently? Could not the very existence of his wines constitute a threat in themselves? Could these entities not be free to act in the defense of their livelihood, their way of working, and their profits? And if it’s not his neighbor the winemaker in this role, how about a producer of farm equipment? Of chemical fertilizers? Of stabilizing chemicals or inoculated yeasts? Are their “work tools” under threat from the ascendance of Frick’s ideas? Undoubtedly so. What, then, is their allowed recourse?

Were Frick to wake up tomorrow and find his vineyards “neutralized” by a different set of activists who feel themselves under threat (and let me be clear: I fervently hope that this does not come to pass, because it would be no less criminal or morally offensive), would he consider their actions justified? One hopes so. Because otherwise he would not only be a destroyer of property and work that does not belong to him, he’d also be a hypocrite.

And so, there’s a little knowledge. It’s still a dangerous thing. Knowing of these events changes one’s opinion of Frick’s wines, whether in enthusiastic support or horrified repulsion (I’ve seen both, browsing the commentariat on this issue). And what is that shocked consumer to do? Boycott? Dump any wines already in the cellar down the drain? Refuse to visit or write about the producer in the future? Confront Frick in person? Confront Frick from the safety of an English-language blog he will probably never see?

Or perhaps just go out and wreck a bunch of property? That should solve things. Shouldn’t it?

How sweet it is

Alsace might be getting it right. For a change.

Faced with disastrous sales — a recent visit included a lot of producers’ shrugs and “our American market is dead”-type laments — and an increasingly sugary regional identity, the time has apparently come to do something about it.

Rémy Gresser, a forward-thinking winemaker who doesn’t share the ludicrous fetishes of some of his peers and is now in a position of regional influence, thinks there should be sweetness indicators on bottles. He’s absolutely right. Because aside from Zind Humbrecht’s indice, there’s no way to know what one is getting unless one knows the stylistic preferences of the producer (and even then, it’s easy to go wrong).

Global warming has a lot to do with this; look at Alsace’s varietal range and then look at where else those grapes are planted. In almost every case, Alsace is the hottest and driest member of the club, and it’s not exactly getting cooler or wetter. But there’s a lot of blame to be assigned to ripeness-loving critics and writers, as well. The desire for the gargantuan points (and prices) achieved by Zind Humbrecht or Weinbach has led to a lot of long-hanging viticulture without corollary concentration or the sense of balance occasionally achieved by the former and more regularly achieved by the latter, and that means a lot of wines that aren’t pleasantly off-dry or easy-to-drink soft, but instead are just sugary and leaden. This has been a disaster for the region, as sales demonstrate.

Sweetness labeling isn’t going to save Alsace, but it certainly won’t hurt. What’s more, I suspect it will have an unintended effect: faced with the prospect of labeling nearly everything they produce as sweet, more than a few wineries are going to rethink the absence of dry wines in their stable and (re)start producing some. This, too, can’t hurt.

(It’s possible that this isn’t actually an unintended effect. Gresser may very much intend this exact outcome. Good for him, if so.)

I fear that, over the long run, Alsace — like many other regions — may be forced to consider rethinking their traditional varieties in favor of something more climate-appropriate. How much sweet gewurztraminer and sweet pinot gris does the world really need, after all? But in the meantime, this represents unquestionable progress. I only hope the producers heed the message of the market and join in.

What the hell are we flighting, flor?

[flor, © Arnaud 25 via Wikimedia Commons]It’s all about context.

Oxygen is the enemy of wine. Open a bottle and it starts to die, right then and there. The demise may take minutes or long, lingering days, and there may be some interesting…maybe even salutary…effects along the way (certain components kick their respective buckets faster than others), but the fact is that exposing a wine to oxygen is signing its death warrant.

This is as true in the winery as it is in the bottle, and a lot of modern winemaking is about going to elaborate lengths to keep wine and oxygen as far apart as the Montagues and Capulets. The failure to do so turns out about as well as that literary pairing did, albeit without quite so many balcony dramatics. Careful pumping from one container to another, topping up barrels the instant they show a little airspace, bottling under a blanket of oxygen-repelling gas…it’s all part of the basic repertoire.

Sure, there are a few ambered-in-time wine styles – colheita port comes to mind – in which a little bit of oxidation can be expected, but what in the distant past used to be the norm is, today, little more than a historical artifact. These days, when someone mentions oxidation it’s almost always negative…as with the vexing scourge of prematurely-oxidized white Burgundies. And oxidation isn’t the only worry. For in the cellar, oxygen also encourages the growth of unwelcome micro-beasties that will work their own nefariousness on the wine.

Ah…but it’s all about context.

One of the colonizations encouraged by excess in-barrel oxygen is yeast…or at least, a certain type of yeast. Finished with the busywork of turning sugar into poisonous (to them) alcohol, they retreat to the surface, lay back, and commence as much of a sunny post-work bask as yeast cells can enjoy within the darkened confines of a wine barrel. Their cousins join them, pulling up a very tiny beach chair and cuddling close. And soon enough, there’s an enveloping film of recumbent Saccharomyces doing what the winemaker could (or would) not: separating wine from oxygen. Oh, those poor unicellular Romeos and elemental Juliets, they just can’t catch a break…

And then…a bunch of chemical stuff happens. I’m not going to bore anyone (least of all myself) with the details, especially since I’d just be cribbing others’ barely-comprehensible work, and I’d still probably get it wrong. The important thing is that, under certain controlled conditions, this layer of yeast – one that in most situations would mean liquid refreshment for the winery drain – leads to something particularly interesting. The geographical center of such controlled conditions is the region of Spain in which Sherry is made. There (and in other Spanish regions practicing similar techniques) the yeast is called flor, from the Spanish word for “flower.”

But the flower doesn’t just bloom in Spain. It’s also embraced in the Jura region of France, in which vin jaune (yellow wine) is the most famous name amongst a varied, yeast-enveloped genre. There, flor is called voile, which means something like “veil,” “shroud,” or “curtain.” And then there’s Sardinia, with its vernaccia di Oristano, and…well, no need for a complete dossier on flor’s worldwide peregrinations. Enough to know that it’s not just restricted to Jerez and its neighbors.

The French term for the yeast in question raises an interesting question however: what is flor’s role in varietal and site expression? Like fortification, botrytis, bubbles, sans soufre winemaking, and the extended macerations of the orange wine set, is what it adds to the organoleptic palette subverted by its masking, equalizing effects? Do flor-affected wines achieve an asymptotic similarity, or do grape and site still shine through? Perhaps flor itself differs from wine to wine?

These are provocations that can’t be argued into submission, but rather need to be explored by tasting. And the Impresario of Orange, towering (literally) New York wine eminence Levi Dalton – the man responsible for last year’s orange wine bacchanal – is just the man to do it. It is thus that a group of wandering seekers after a babe in swaddling yeasts assemble at Alto, Dalton’s swanky new Manhattan restaurant digs, to find out. Florty-nine wines…each one flor-affected, flighted and sequenced in a controlled setting which will highlight what they do and don’t reveal from behind their veils.

It’s all about context, after all.

Oh…and there’s food. Selected from some of the hits of the flor repertoire but taking a few chances, filtered through Alto’s northern-Italianate leanings (more or less; note the cheesy interloper at the end), and mostly highly-restrained and low-impact, which serves the wines – if not always the food – well.

sausage-stuffed olive, branzino tartare, spiced marcona almonds

capesante dorate e agrodolce di uva
seared scallops, toasted marcona almonds, golden raisin agrodolce

garganelli amatriciana
hand-made pasta quills, pancetta, slow-cooked tomato ragù, basil

sgombro alla griglia
lightly grilled mackerel, fava purée, hen of the woods mushrooms


And so, flortified and sustained, we forge florward…into a walk-around tasting of finos and manzanillas.

El Maestro Sierra Fino (Jerez) – Very salty and fierce, slashing and hacking away at the already well-infused remains of a raw olive pit. Bitter. With food, this is pretty exciting; without it, there’s hurt. (8/10)

Gutiérrez Colosia “Juan Sebastian Elcano” Fino (Jerez) – Dirt, sand, sourness, and rancidity. The worst wine in the room, and by a fair measure. The real first man to sail around the world deserves better than this, doesn’t he? (8/10)

Perez Barquero “Gran Barquero” Fino (Jerez) – Nuts and old citrus oils, with a molten candle-wax texture. Smooth and elegant. (8/10)

Toro Albalá “Eléctrico” Fino (Jerez) – Bitter green olive and lemon pith. Rectangular in form. Not very interesting, but OK. (8/10)

Dios Baco Fino (Jerez) – Perfumed, elegant, and somewhat feminine in form. Flowery. Fills out and lengthens on the finish, though the alcohol becomes more pointed. (8/10)

Lustau “Jarana” Fino (Jerez) – Sweet watermelon and strawberry. Kind of a fluffy fruit bomb. Not what I want. (8/10)

Lustau José Luis González Obregón Fino del Puerto (Jerez) – Flat-textured. Sand and gravel in planar form. A little weird, but there’s complexity in that weirdness. (8/10)

Valdespino “Inocente” Fino (Jerez) – Lavish, complex, and well-seasoned with various salts and peppers, yet elegant at the same time. Earth-driven, in a grey-toned way. Very impressive. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 15” Fino (Jerez) – Starts texturally lush but quickly turns solid, its dark metals ending in squared-off edges. Seems not to be all it could be. Good but disappointing, I’d call it. (8/10)

Fino is sort of the poster child for flor-influenced wine, and so here is an early demonstration of something that will become increasingly clear as the tasting continues into other regions and realms: while it’s not really possible to mask flor’s influence, the extent to which it’s pushed into a supporting rather than leading role has a lot to do with how positively I respond to a given wine. I should note that come to this tasting with an unfortunate disposition against Sherry – I can appreciate it, but I very rarely love it – and I wonder if someone with more affection for the genre might feel differently, preferring more equilibrium between yeasty and grapey elements. On the other hand, here and in the flight that follows, my favorite wines are those that I’d expect to favor based on reputation, so maybe it’s less an issue of picking the most interesting wines than it is properly appreciating the more typical, middle-of-the-road expressions.

La Cigarrera Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Rusty seawater, thick and chunky. Moody and dark. Difficult to like, or even to approach. (8/10)

Argüeso San León Clásica Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Bright lemon rind, salted stones, and riesling-like metal shards. An inner light lifts this into the realm of refreshing. (8/10)

Pedro Romero “Aurora” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Very fruity (seriously: raspberry and peach, not typical manzanilla descriptors, at least in my experience). Decidedly different and somewhat giggly. (8/10)

Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Direct and overtly fruity, melding stone fruit and Rainier cherries with peaches and just a little bit of minerality. The training wheels need to come off, and soon. (8/10)

Dios Baco “Riá Pitá” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Structured and full-bodied but beaten down by overt sourness and what appears to be light oxidation. Lifeless, really. (8/10)

Lustau “Papirusa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Leafy and barky, with an omnipresent snowflake shower of apricot skin. Medium-toned and average. (8/10)

Valdespino “Deliciosa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Spiced berries and dark fruit dominated by minerality. Complex and rather fantastic, albeit showy. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 16” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – The bones are evident, but that’s appealing here, as the plump intensity draped about the skeleton just adds interest. Long, spicy…and dry, dry, dry. Really excellent. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 10” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Heady, dark fruit edging towards cherry, with a saline structure and thick, persistent intensity on the finish. Very impressive. (8/10)

The manzanilla-fest starts slowly, but more approachably than the finos, and then pretty quickly builds towards the same qualitative conclusion as the last flight. I know which producers will be on the shopping list: the same ones that were before the tasting. But a few have dropped off in the interim.

Montagut “Mendall” 2007 “Vinyes Arrencades” (Cataluña) – Apple and honeysuckle. Mead-like. Or maybe it’s dandelion wine? There’s a bit of skin to it, so perhaps it’s neither. Quite interesting. (8/10)

Vevi 1954 “Golden” (Castilla & León) – Spanish speakers would know this as the “Dorada” bottling (why it was so arbitrarily and Ibérico-handedly translated I don’t know), done in solera and made from verdejo (with cameos from viura and palomino) in the Rueda. Sweet and short, blowing itself out early in a soft burst of bronzed banana. Fun and very appealing…while it lasts, which isn’t long. (8/10)

Strictly speaking, the Vevi probably would have been better nearer the end of this meal, alongside the vernaccias, but that would have orphaned the Mendall. Perhaps they’re better left here, as an interesting interlude or a palate reset before delving into much narrower and more directed realms of flor – or rather, voile – expression. Florward march, voilenteers…

Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” (Jura) – Pointedly volatile but otherwise shy, aromatically; it could be that the reticence highlights what would otherwise be submerged volatility. Peachy, pretty, and rounded. Very fresh. If there’s flor influence here, I can’t detect it, despite being assured by all involved that there is. In a tasting of non-sous voile Jura whites, this wouldn’t stand out. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. (8/10)

Bornard 2005 Côtes du Jura Savagnin “les Marnes” (Jura) – Forward fruit and huge acidity. Very juicy, with a gummy texture despite all that acid. Shouldery. (8/10)

Puffeney 2005 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Here’s an interesting twist: mint, lily, apple blossom. Intense, balanced, and unreasonably long, turning more orange-ish and succulent as it lingers. There’s some volatile acidity to deal with, but it’s manageable. (8/10)

Puffeney 2003 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Dusty and dense, with both the texture and some of the form of an orange wine, but also with the fatness of the vintage. Thick, spicy, and shocked with electric tangerine that – alas – doesn’t make up for insufficient acidity. Direct, and yet holding something back. This is good for a 2003, and (as the lengthy note indicates) it’s hardly without interest, but it’s neither typical nor qualitatively above-average. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois Savagnin “Cuvée l’Oubliée” (Jura) – Stone fruit and copper with a beautiful texture. Incredibly interesting, with depths and hidden hollows in that depth, then crannies in those hollows; the finish is almost Mandelbrotian. Gorgeous. It is not, one must caveat, representative of normal Arbois savagnin. It’s special. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois “Cuvée Christelle” (Jura) – A deft but somewhat acrid nose soon loses itself in flowers, mold, and volatile acidity. Powdery. Too weird for me. (8/10)

Here endeth the first flight, in confusion and disarray. A slow start, a peaking middle, and then a jumpy trio of eccentricities. As for enveloping mold characteristics, they’re too voileatile to pin down in this set of wines. Onward…

Macle 2006 Côtes du Jura (Jura) – Almond and metal-armored apple in its woody, post-ripened stage. Deep and rather thoughtful. With that apple, steel, and a (contextually) brittle acidity, it almost seems to have spent some time in riesling’s classroom, learning a lesson here and there but rejecting a more encompassing imposition of form. It’s…different. (8/10)

Ganevat 2005 Arbois “Cuvée de Garde” (Jura) – Windy and difficult on the nose, but the palate makes up for it with an excess of expression. Wet metal, walnut (without bitterness, though), and stones. Angular. (8/10)

Ganevat 2002 Côtes du Jura “La Combe” (Jura) – A little stewed and short, with the alcohol out of balance and to the fore. I ask a few fellow tasters who’ve previous experience with the wine (David Lillie is one, so it’s not like I’m asking random passersby) if this seems to be an intact bottle, and they assure me it tastes as it has. In the absence of that assurance, I’d have thought something was wrong with this bottle, and that something was heat-related. Whatever the cause, it’s not very good. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2001 l’Etoile “Cuvée Spéciale” (Jura) – Lots of acid and even more metals, haphazardly piled atop one another with flash but without cohesion. Vibrant and piercing. It’s a very particular wine, and it will leave you a little breathless along the way. “Good” isn’t really applicable. It’s liquid iconoclasm. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2005 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Very flor-dominated, with a complex stew of high-toned quivering and a waxy interior. Mineral, long, and linear. There’s not much else to it, but I wonder if it’s not just too young to strut. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2004 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Gravelly, moldy, and bitter, with obvious volatile acidity. Short, twisted, and difficult. What happened here? (8/10)

Another pause for us to collect our breath and scrape our tongues. Again, the wines are all over the map both stylistically and qualitatively, but some common threads are starting to appear in the weave. First, the acidity, which is affected by yet manages to stand somewhat apart from varietal influence: here and in other wines it’s a planar, nearly impenetrable, and yet paper-thin wall of zing rather than an integrated partner in the structural framework. Second, there’s a tendency towards volatility that might escape notice for the non-freakishly sensitive (which, alas, I am). Third, and perhaps most relevant to the subject of our study, there’s a way in which flor seems to grasp the wine’s aromatics and structure in a loosely-gripped fist. In return, there’s a payback of textural complexity, but the wine has to work to earn everything else. Some can’t escape the clench and end up dominated by that external envelopment. But those that do seem more alive and in-motion as a result of the energy required for the escape.

The next few wines are a bit of an interlude, starting on-topic but soon darting afield.

Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin (Jura) – Buttered bronze, deep copper, empty silver. I can’t quite get past the midpalate void, but the perimeter is certainly shiny. (8/10)

Loye 1989 Arbois (Jura) – Salted nuts. Simple, forward, and fruity. Kind of a yawn. (8/10)

Campadieu “Domaine La Tour Vieille” Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille “Memoire (d’Automnes)” (Roussillon) – A gorgeous texture (is that oak, though? it does a good impression if not) with cinnamon and nutmeg (again: wood?) plus other spices deeper in the blend. Stands a little too apart in this crowd for proper analysis, I think, but I’d welcome another go in a different context. (8/10)

Causse Marines 1996 Vin de Table “Mysterre” (Southwest France) – More conformity to INAO edict would make this a Gaillac, I’m told. Powdered salt, mixed citrus rinds and skins, and a weird Styrofoam finish. Too bad…it was just getting strange. (8/10)

More glasses are added, until we’re all protected behind a solid wall of glittering crystal fortifications, and then the most focused and relentless assault of single-notion wines commences. It will be quite educational, if not necessarily enlivening.

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Deep, with brittle acidity and a hard, sandpapery texture. There’s a sort of lingering nothingness to the finish. Closed, or just not very interesting? (8/10)

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2001 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Despite a pillowy aspect to what “fruit” there is, the acidity is razored. In fact, I mention the acidity three times in my scribbled notes, so it must have impressed me. What appears to not have impressed me is anything else about the wine, because the acidity is all that I write about. So: the acidic pillow. It might be a great band name, but it’s not a great wine. (8/10)

Macle 2002 Château Chalon (Jura) – Pine-Sol™ and waves of acidity, both traditional and volatile. Frankly, this is actively repellent, though some of that is my personal issue with VA. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2003 Château Chalon (Jura) – Grapey but otherwise subtle. Reminds me of a smoked apple tart. Interesting. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2000 Château Chalon (Jura) – A goopy froth of diffidence. Small and short. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2000 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Pear and metal with big acidity and persistent intensity. A diagonal wine. Hard to ignore, but you must tilt your palate in the correct direction. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 1999 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Sweet with acrid intrusions. The finish is bitter. Weird and old-tasting. I’d be tempted to ascribe this generalized failure to the bottle in the absence of a second sample. (8/10)

Puffeney 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Intense, with great balance. Metal, pear, and layers of compressed leaves. Striking and sophisticated. Very, very good. No…brilliant. My absolute favorite of all the non-Spanish wines, and by a significant margin. (8/10)

Puffeney 2000 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Powdery to the point of being toothsome, with a quinine aroma and a complex, amaro-like bitterness (that is, melding bitter/sweet/herbal components). More interesting than good, though it’s certainly not bad. (8/10)

Puffeney 1996 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Weirdly ashen with spiny acidity. Difficult. I feel like I’m missing something that I might have noticed were my palate not fatigued by this point, but maybe I’m not and there’s just not that much here. (8/10)

I normally count myself a fan of both vin jaune and Château Chalon, albeit I rarely get to taste the latter due to cost and general non-availability. As a result, looking over my collection of notes comes as rather a surprise. Palate ennui? Perhaps, but I don’t notice in the text a devolving reaction to the wines’ similarities, which would be the usual fatigue effect. Instead, there’s an increasingly persnickety spotlight on various flaws and imbalances, and to say that those flaws and imbalances aren’t – to my palate – present is not right either. Without extensive retasting, it’s hard to say much more. I only like three of these wines, and truly love only one. But wow, do I love that one.

In retrospect, I wonder if the serving order doesn’t negatively affect these wines. Not the order within the flight, but the fact that they come after the less-reputed gaggle of wines in the last flight. Reputation doesn’t always equal greater size or concentration, and in fact the previous bunch certainly features more showmanship and overt statement-making. These wines, while largely of a piece within their respective appellations (my notes elide some of the similarities), are quieter…while, at the same time, in more congenial agreement with each other. It is ever the “curse” of such wines that they do less well the more peers they are forced to converse with, and I do suspect the combination of breadth and serving order is at least partly to blame for my dissatisfaction with the lineup.

As for veils, curtains, and shrouds, there’s certainly a consistency to the wines in terms of the acid/volatile aromatic relationship. If that’s the voile, then it’s most definitely on display here. But while my favorite wine in the group is (again) the one that layers the most on top of that shroud, I also like a few wines that attempt more playful, interpretative, contrapuntal dances with their veils.

The dinner’s finale is a somewhat amusing one, as our chief server (not Levi, it should be noted) attempts to tell us that the Comté in front of us is Italian and (he thinks) from Puglia. I’m all for his nationalistic boosterism, but…seriously, now. (He does return later, someone red-faced, to admit that it is, in fact, actual Comté. It’s also more than a little wan and flavorless for a Comté, but that’s a separate issue.)

Contini Vernaccia di Oristano “Antico Gregori” (Sardinia) – Honeyed Pink Lady apple cider and pollen. Ripe. Appealing. (8/10)

Contini 1987 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – Restrained. Pine nuts and a brittle, snap-crackle honeycomb character. Very pretty. (8/10)

Contini 1985 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – White chocolate-covered mandarin oranges. The finish is a bit abrupt, which might indicate progress down the path of lingering demise. (8/10)

These are delicious, though they don’t have the seriousness of purpose or complex subtlety of many other wines I’ve experienced this evening. They taste – it might be more accurate to say that they feel – more like regular dessert wines than they seem part the yeast-enveloped category. But they’re a nice way to finish the meal.

And so, did I learn anything? Did I florge a new understanding, pull back the veil, open the curtains? More importantly, did I make enough stupid jokes and puns utilizing the subject of the tasting?

The answer: yes, I learned something. I learned that, no matter how good the wine, I’m still not a Sherry aficionado…though I have even more confidence that when I do purchase the category, I’m looking for the right labels. I learned that I like the flor show (NB: that’s Levi’s pun, not mine) more in isolation and counterpoint than I do en masse…a lesson not dissimilar to the one I learned at last year’s orange wine festival.

And as for flor? What strikes me in retrospect is not so much some ineffable commonality of aroma, but of structure. With the expected exception of the hotter years, there’s a very brittle and unstable, yet inexorable, character to these wines’ acidity that really marks them…across places, grapes, and categories. It’s not the high and full-throated acidity of (say) an old-style riesling, but it’s nonetheless impossible to ignore. More than the aromatic and textural changes wrought by the veil, it stands as a sort of signature.

A signature, signed with a florish.

Disclosures: none that matter. The Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin and the Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” were supplied by me and purchased at a friendly discount from The Wine Bottega in Boston.

Nature, reflected

[eglise ste-hune]So, is everybody clear on the subject of natural wine now? Definitions intact? Categorizations certain? Personnel identified?


One of the more amusing sidelights to saignée’s 32 Days of Natural Wine project was reading the parallel discussions elsewhere on the wine-soaked net. Where naturalistas roost, the response was mostly to the content of each new piece. That there was such a thing as natural wine was taken for granted. What a given entry said on the subject of natural wine, however, was often a point of hectoring debate.

Elsewhere, things were a little different. Braying donkeys of didacticism stomping their hooves and insisting that, in the absence of bright-line rules and double-checked lists of those included and excluded, the term was meaningless. Or – worse – inherently hostile.

This latter claim is rather easily dismissed as hair-shirted lunacy. If “natural” is not a claim but a marketing attack, then so is “ripe”…a word regularly employed by some of these put-upon anti-naturalists that can be interpreted in exactly the same aggressive fashion, should one wish to view the vitisphere from a position of agitated paranoia. Of courseripe” implies that other wines are underripe, just as “natural” implies that other wines are less so. But…so what? No one’s being accused of mortal sin here. If one is comfortable with the way one makes wines, one should keep making them that way. And the same is true of marketing. Who cares what someone else wishes to do, or to say about what they do, so much that it must become a battle for terminological supremacy rather than a simple divergence of choices? The angry, defensive crouch does little other than to suggest that its employer is, in fact, not comfortable with the way his or her wines are made and marketed, or is imbued with an unnecessary resentment over how others make and market. That seems like a waste of emotion, to me. Funnel that passion into your own wines, please.

As for the definition of “natural”: anyone who’s actually read all, or even most, of the series’ contributions (and those of the previous year) now must understand very well that there is anything but a definition of natural wine shared among its proponents. Or rather, that there what skeletal definition exists is of motivation and intent rather than practice. On the specifics and details, there is not only no agreement (even among those who appear to have agreed), but often an aggressively-pursued disagreement. And maybe it’s better this way.

Why? Well, another thing that might be learned from the contributions in toto, but perhaps even more clearly from the comments in response, is that many in the natural wine community are a rather contentious and cantankerous lot. Accord is unlikely at any stage just due to their inherent natures, and even were détente to be achieved at some point, it would probably collapse before the cheese course.

Unquestionably, the clearest example of this sort of natural contentiousness was the penultimate (and excellent) contribution from winemaker Eric Texier. If I may over-summarize his provocative argument, it was that “natural” doesn’t mean as much as it might without a more holistic commitment to lowering all agricultural and winemaking impacts, not just those that contribute to the character of a wine.

To this I have several immediate reactions. One is that here, laid plain, is one of the major reasons that there will never be an effective coalition of natural winemakers with clean and clear definitions of what they do and don’t practice: the concept is intimately tied up with philosophies, lifestyles, and even politics which will, inevitably, factionalize those practitioners. Texier’s suggestion that there must be an environmental component to natural practice is forcefully argued, but of course it’s just his opinion. Another producer might be into the notion of natural wines because they prefer the taste. Yet another might have faith-based motivations – as with the various levels of belief in and application of biodynamics – that trump either organoleptic or environmental concerns. Texier’s commitment to his stance (which is more thoroughly explained in the comments to his piece) is not to be confused with full accord, of which I doubt he’d find all that much.

[vulture]Second, there is, in his piece, a little too much “making the perfect the enemy of the good.” That is to say, dismissing the positive impact of worthwhile changes because those changes don’t go far enough for a given observer. If one agrees with the premise that overly-technological and industrial wine production is less desirable than more natural practices – and I’m not stating my own opinion here, merely suggesting that the natural wine cohort would almost certainly have to believe this – then here we have a rejection of that success in favor of waging an increasingly arcane war conducted wholly within the borders of the movement. Rather than lauding the achievement represented by an increased supply of (and knowledge about) natural wine, fingers are now pointed and judgments rendered for a lack of sufficient ideological purity.

This sort of internecine bickering is intimately connected to the philosophical, moral, and political baggage that litters the natural wine landscape; there are those that practice, and there are those that believe. And it’s all a little too Orwellian for my tastes, to be honest. Must we hold some sort of convocation to identify the purest practitioner of ultra-natural, zero-impact winemaking and then unfavorably condemn all others as failures for not achieving that standard? Sure, we can do that. But why would we want to? Isn’t “better” just that: better? Or is the only choice perfection or nothing? Because if there’s a desire to kill the concept and the movement from within, this is certainly the way to do it.

Having just argued against this sort of thing, let me employ it by offering my third reaction to Texier’s piece…which was really my first, but I wanted to get nuance and care out of the way before I took up the sledgehammer. In his essay, Texier argues pretty forcefully against the excess use of fossil fuels (especially those that increase as one transitions to less industrial methods of farming, which seems counter-intuitive but is often the case) and increased carbon footprint. OK, fair enough, but can we discuss the fossil fuel and carbon footprint involved in shipping heavy glass bottles of wine around the world by truck, train, boat, and plane? And (one hopes) refrigerating it along major stretches of that journey? I mean, I’m staring at a bottle of Texier’s Côtes-du-Rhône right now. And I’m in Vermont at the moment, not Texier’s home base of Charnay. There’s quite a footprint underneath that bottle, eh? Or how about his travels around the globe to promote those fuel-burning wines? One could continue along these lines, finding ever finer nits to pick. Provoke, stir…then reduce until absurd.

In other words, a self-considered true pursuer of purity (which I don’t think Texier considers himself) might look rather askance at Texier’s practices, in much the same way his essay challenges others’ practices. Why not, for example, sell only to locals, and – even better – only those locals who bring in reusable containers for refilling? Wouldn’t that use a lot less fuel, and consume a lot less carbon, than the global wine trade?

Sure, of course. Texier would make an awful lot less money, but what does that matter in the pursuit of ideological purity? And in fact, it’s entirely likely that there’s someone who, branding themselves an advocate of whatever they consider to be “real” natural wine, would wholeheartedly embrace this stipulation, and thus condemn Texier for shipping his wines to the furthest reaches of hither and the remotest corners of yon.

But that someone isn’t me. If a producer wants to employ less transformative farming and winemaking practices than they did the year before, that’s great. I applaud them for it. If another producer wants to examine and reduce their use of fossil fuels, that’s also great, and I applaud them as well. If a third producer wishes to do both…well, terrific. But as for a epilogue of disdain for the first two, who could only manage 50% of the change? Sorry. Not interested.

It was a dark & stormy night

[snowy tree]Passion & warfare

The contrasts of Italy can be striking. Nerve-jangling cities, pressed close and gesticulatory. Pastoral, ambered countryside as much Etruscan as modern Italian. Verdant beauty, industrial squalor, living history, the fleeting whims of modern fashion. But always, always, always overlaid with the intensity of the Italians themselves. Hands in flight, mach 5 language in simultaneous eruption, pressing any and every point until it has been flattened or pierced, and never, ever yielding. Faster and more intense there, more restrained here…the regional and cultural differences show…but if there’s any sort of national unity in this dubiously unified country, it’s this.

And it’s so here in the Piedmont, too. Parts of it almost impossibly beautiful, reclining peacefully amongst vine-covered hills. Wines both royal and common, as richly conceived a cuisine as one will find. History. And, it must be noted, wealth, which does not always factor into the Italian equation. Every predicate, it would seem, to a peaceful, self-satisfied existence.

But illusions are no less illusory for their patina of gentility. No face can hide roiling passions forever, and those passions are what define this tenuous national culture. The Piemontese may be slower to it, at least outwardly, but eventually it will out. All the argumentative, confrontational glory of those passions, unleashed. Perhaps first on targets external…but then, inevitably, turned inward. Not just because there’s disagreement and discord – though of course there is – but because no one is better at passionately-engaged disorder than the Italians. Why waste time bickering with lesser practitioners?

We’re in the Foro Boario in Nizza Monferrato for yet anotheranother? yes, another! – tasting. More Nizza-labeled wine, more pressing of an organoleptic point that seems increasingly elusive in the glass, but ever clearer when viewed cynically. That cynicism is, admittedly, helped along by the fact that this is a (beautifully) refurbished cattle market. Well, the cattle have arrived. Let the slaughter begin.

Outside, it’s snowing. A fluffy, blanketing snow. The din of the city is muffled. Peace descends. Piedmont is quieting.

Inside, amongst the cattle? Not so much.

Écrevisse rouge

After the tasting, there’s a speech. A long one, chockablock with grand statements of intent. Not unexpected, of course, but after a lunchtime speech that was drier but had actual oenological research to report, something that’s purely marketing-driven may contribute to pushing the cattle’s tasters’ moods into the reddish hues. There’s material – and perhaps it’s intentionally vague, but at any rate it’s unsatisfactory when paired with the organoleptic evidence we’ve just finished expectorating – justifying the existence of the Nizza sub-appellation, and a fair amount of satisfaction expressed at the style and quality of what we’re tasting.

This is a little odd, to be honest. It wouldn’t be had the day gone differently up to this point; one hardly expects that the producers, here to promote their product, would be anything other than enthusiastic. But immediately after a largely hostile post-lunch Q&A in which the clear dissatisfaction of some of the assembled has been communicated, a bland reassertion of the party line might be heard in a different context. Could that be a note of defensiveness that we hear? No? Well…why not? These are producers who were pretty harshly attacked, earlier in the day, and though most of them weren’t physically present at that event, the news has to have been communicated by now. Where’s the counter-argument? Where’s the preemptive defense? Where’s the passion?

(It’s coming.)

Yet all this is still mere prelude. And had we moved directly from tasting and post-tasting speech to dinner, this post wouldn’t exist. As at lunch, the actual controversy-catalyzing event may be a more basic one: opening the floor to questions.

Matters start pleasantly enough. Here’s a Danish audient, well-pleased and happy to report same. “To be honest, I didn’t used to like barbera, but now it’s a truly interesting wine, and now I enjoy it.” To this there is some nodding from the producers, perhaps even a faint smile here and there, but far from universal approval. This is revealing because it betrays a clear and pervading sense that if some agree with this sentiment, some do not, or at least are on the fence about it.

Or, maybe, it’s that they found the old wines unsatisfactory for reasons other than personal taste. Could that be?

Near the end of the just-mentioned speech, we are treated to a fairly passionate defense of the current wines. What’s strange is that it comes not from the producers, but from a writer for Gambero Rosso. Not, it must be added, an unbiased source when it comes to championing the tools of internationalization, as their triplicate bicchieri have long-demonstrated. Moreover, it’s a very odd synergy of effort, like a Pentagon official handing the microphone to an allegedly disinterested reporter and asking her to defend a military decision. Shouldn’t there be some separation between the two camps? Is it really Gambero Rosso’s job to promote the wines of Nizza?

(This wouldn’t be particularly worthy of mentioning, except that it comes up again later.)

And then, the fun begins. Several things should be noted in advance. One is that much of what follows (though not all of it) is translated. Translation is a hard enough job to begin with, but translating heat – both directions – has to be draining. It is, as always, possible that certain nuances and senses have been lost in that translation. It is also worth mentioning that as tensions escalated, the translator’s tone took on a decidedly aggrieved tenor, at times seeming to do so without prompting; the clear sense was that the translator herself was getting her back up, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. This is fully understandable, given the tenor of the room, but it may have contributed to an escalation of tensions…adding a second layer of upset when, before translation, there may have been only one.

Another is that what follows is not all from the Q&A in Nizza. At times – and it will become obvious why – it seemed necessary to include words from other times and places. Those intrusions have been clearly noted, but it’s worth mentioning to head off potential confusion.

On with the show…

[row of glasses]Issues one and two: structure & alcohol

The first volley of contrarianism comes from an Italian attendee, apparently not on board with Gambero Rosso’s enthusiasm. The Nizza wines, he says, are “very structured but lose drinkability,” and in fact are “so structured it’s hard to drink [them].” He then suggests that they’re more like Amarone than barbera. It’s an on-point charge, especially as we’ve already visited a producer who uses an appassimento-like procedure, but the concentration and density of these wines is, I think, coming mostly from the more usual methods.

Now, I’ve noted before that, sometimes, the answers to questions asked of winemakers here (and elsewhere) can be confusing and contradictory. If I may presume to divine intent, I don’t think it’s usually because the producers don’t know what they’re talking about, or that they’re lying but not very good at it. Either is possible, of course, but I’m hesitant to jump immediately to the worst possible interpretation when more charitable alternatives exist. I think, instead, that the producers are themselves sometimes conflicted on these issues. Or if they’re not, they’re cognizant of debate with their peers over controversial matters; they “hear” this internal narrative of dissent and uncertainty while they’re trying to express a coherent philosophy. Not necessarily trained as public speakers, and sometimes attempting these formulations in languages other than their own, consistency can fall by the wayside. And there’s no blame in that.

But there’s also no answer in that. For example, one producer’s response to this initial challenge is that alcohol “is a problem with these wines,” but that producers are “trending towards” making more elegant wine. But then, he changes his mind. “I don’t see higher alcohol as being a problem.” (This is the same person speaking, remember.) He then finishes with a reiteration that “we do need to go towards more elegance.” So: alcohol isn’t a problem, but we’re trying for more elegance because it is a problem. Got it.

OK, so maybe there’s at least some agreement, from some quarters, that these Nizza wines have been muscled up a little too much, and that maybe their alcohols contribute to a sense of mass that doesn’t serve them well. But then, the answer moves to address another structural complaint, this one regarding a lack of acidity in these modern barberas.

Issue three: acidity

“The fact is that we’re moving into markets where this hasn’t ever been an issue.”

Note that the charge is neither refuted nor challenged; assent is inherent in this response. But that’s not what strikes me about the answer. What does hearkens back to Kermit Lynch’s brilliant Adventures on the Wine Route. In it, there’s an encounter (I may get some of the details wrong; this is from memory) in which a producer defends his decision to start aggressively filtering based on potential new markets in places like Africa. The reasoning is that these far-flung locales couldn’t handle the immeasurable shock of sediment (or worse, instability if the wine is treated poorly in transit), and thus the entire world must be subject to the shipping conditions and theoretical naïveté of one new – and probably very small – market. Those familiar with Lynch’s position on filtration can probably guess his opinion of this defense.

And so, here is the suggestion that if no one knows barbera used to be a high-acid wine, no one will miss the acidity. Well, maybe that’s true for these mysterious new markets (though I think pretty much anyone can guess who’s being talked about), but it’s a little insulting to everyone else. If, next year, barbera is sold to us as a sweet white wine because someone in Bhutan doesn’t know that it was ever otherwise, are we supposed to embrace that as well? Is no one listening to Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, the university researcher who presented our lunchtime lecture?

“Barbera, more than any other grape variety, owes its character to acidity. In the past, people have boasted – for not the right reasons – about this acidity. […] We can produce balanced and great-tasting barbera, [and w]e can do so while maintaining the defining character of barbera.”

[producers]Issue four: tannin

The fun – the real fun (by which, of course, I mean red-faced confrontation and controversy) – starts with the ever-cantankerous Belgians. No, really.

Bernard Arnould, taking the microphone, pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts. They’re not entirely unlike those of the Italian’s earlier challenge, but they’re presented somewhat more aggressively. And they’re certainly taken that way; tensions in the room immediately escalate and never entirely abate. Here’s Arnould:

“Why so much oak? Why so many uninteresting tannins? [My] quest is to find a wine with fruit, freshness, tannins that are interesting and not dry, and…if it’s necessary…a little oak. If you think that putting oaky barberas on the market is a good idea, [then you just] join the rest of the world in making big, oaky wines.”

There’s a low rumble from the assembled. And that’s just the attendees. From the winemakers and their representatives, there’s a matching hum in a darker tone and a simultaneous, many-handed grasping for a microphone. But Arnould hasn’t relinquished his, and finishes with a direct question that’s probably intended to be one of a series (he never gets the chance): “do you add oenological tannins?”

Yes, it’s aggressive. Confrontational. Even a little obnoxious. Candor is one path to the truth, no? But Lodovico Isolabella can take no more. Into a freshly-acquired microphone, he shouts (yes, shouts):

“Do you have any concept of wine? Do you have any idea what you are talking about?”

Now, maybe the answer is no. And maybe it’s not. But remember: this is a promotional event. The assembled invitees have not called the producers here to berate them over what they view as deformative practices (who would attend?). Rather, the producers have called the invitees here to teach them something, or to market to them, or at the least to support an argument for their grape and place with their wines. It’s true that they’ve paid for this event and all its trappings, and maybe they believe (or someone has led them to believe) that this will inevitably lead to enthusiasm, or at least mute assent, in return. Well, their mistake. But this sort of attack is very close to the least helpful of all possible responses. One that is echoed in tone and content, a few minutes later, by another producer, who sniffily insists that “to ever suggest that we’re adding tannins doesn’t deserve response.”

(Note, for the record, that in neither case does the response include any synonym of the word “no.”)

Now, a less even-keeled questioner, having tasted Isolabella’s wines and found them as lacking as I did, might have snapped back, “I don’t know. Do you?” But neither charity nor politesse are required. We can, instead, just listen. Here, for example, is the winemaker from l’Armangia, just a day earlier:

“The new [trend] is to say that [a] wine is not aged in wood…but fine tannins are added.”

One of them might be, as the euphemism goes, in error with respect to the facts. There might be a translation/transcription error. Or, more likely, one of the two just does not agree with the other. The latter seems more likely, and the evening’s ongoing contradictions will support this theory After all, we do get a better answer to Arnould’s question, eventually, albeit from a different producer: “there is enough tannin in the oak to make wine’s [overall] tannins what they should be.”

That’s the end of this, then? It’s just a simple divergence of opinion, right?

[hastae slide]Well, wait. Here’s a slide (pictured at right) from this afternoon’s Hastae presentation, backgrounding the wines that were produced to determine and demonstrate differences between pruning methods. The Hastae organization, remember, is suhbeaded by the names of its founding producers: Berta, Braida, Chiarlo, Coppo, Prunotto, and Vietti. So unless these are absentee directors…and they can’t all be, since Michele Chiarlo was most definitely present while this slide was being projected a few feet behind him…they are almost certainly aware what was done to the wines.

(For those who can’t decipher the slide, it reads: “both wines obtained from Guyot pruning and spur cordon pruning were treated by oak tannins [and] grape seed tannins.)

So here’s my follow-up question: does Lodovico Isolabella have any concept of what his peers are doing? Do they have any idea what they are talking about? Maybe he should direct his ire at them.

Issue five: oak

Of course, even the aforementioned polite response about oak tannin has its own problems. Tannin, not a significant natural variable in the barbera structural equation, absolutely is added to these wines. Just not necessarily in the packaged form Arnould was asking about. Instead, it’s added by the use of barrels, whether new or used…though of course, more and more often they’re new. Regarding this practice and its benefits, there is a certain discord:

“The use of wood is necessary” – Michele Chiarlo

“It would be uniquely stupid to try to sell wines that have imbalanced oak.” – another producer, this one of Dutch nationality but with a predictably impeccable command of English, and also the one who thinks that asking about oenological tannins “doesn’t deserve response”

“The use of wood can be compared to a beautiful woman; the clever use of makeup can be used to make a beautiful woman more beautiful.” – yet another producer, whose admission that new oak is as much a cosmetic as a qualitative element is welcome

“Some producers [use] barriques; this [is] a mistake.” – Professor Vincenzo Gerbi, earlier today

[glass of barbera]This is where the writer from Gambero Rosso reenters the discussion; not in person, but as an elevated authority whose opinion must necessarily trump that of our rebellious cohort:

“Someone” (the speaker points to the writer) “who tastes these wines on a regular basis says [our] use of wood is more elegant, and then you…with this opinion that there’s too much wood… [the thought goes unfinished, but the tone is fabulously besnotted] …obviously, wood is very popular.”

Ah, yes. “Popular.” As with our acid-ignorant new markets for barbera, which can only understand a grape by the products of today rather than of the past, the other standard by which we are to judge the quality and difference of these wines is popularity. Chiarlo insists that wood is “extremely popular” in his markets…and after all, as he noted over lunch and reiterates (with a minor clarification) this evening, “in commercial terms, a wine is a good wine when it sells.”

So who’s craving these woody barberas? I suspect most readers suspect who’s going to receive the blame, eventually, but the journey to and around that point is intriguing.

Issue six: the market

Here’s Chiarlo again:

“I’ve never made a wine for any market”

That seems like an odd thing to say when one is near-simultaneously moved to tout the extreme popularity of wood in one’s export markets. If one really isn’t crafting wine for the market, then the proper answer is some variation on “I make wine the way I want to make wine.” Whether or not it’s true, the needs of marketing are served and it’s difficult to gainsay.

An here’s our Dutch friend again, who I might mention is running away with the award for the day’s most witheringly sarcastic tone:

“we are infinitely aware that the consumers are seeking a well-balanced, fruit-forward wine”

Well, which consumers? As I suggested, I think we all know who’s about to be named. Dutch guy again, breaking the ice:

“American taste is ‘very different’ from Swiss or Belgian”

That’s right. It’s the Americans’ fault. Of course. By way of confirmation, here’s a winery owner from a few days later. A big, big, big producer and exporter of wine, and a master marketer. I won’t name him or the winery as I have been asked not to (for reasons that seem exceedingly silly to me, though I will detail them in a later episode) but I think anyone familiar with the region can probably guess:

“[W]e must make wines to compete with American-style wines. […] Of course, the German market is entirely different [and] wants wines with no wood. […] Sometimes it’s very hard for us to figure out what the market wants.”

Now, let’s go back to that earlier discussion regarding acidity, and why we’re told its diminution in these wines isn’t a problem. The markets being referred to can’t be Europe, because these wines have long been available there. And it can’t be the U.S., either, because they’re no strangers on our shores, either. Looking around the room at the attendees and the regions they represent, or just employing simple common sense, it’s clear who’s meant: Asia. It’s the Asians who, according to these producers, don’t care about barbera that lacks its signature acidity.

It’s not important to know, at this stage, whether or not this contention is true. It might be, and it might not. Asia’s an awfully big market. What’s important is that a market and its preferences have been identified. And now, over another issue, we have more geographical subdivision: successful European markets like Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium apparently prefer unwooded barbera. (To this one could likely add Scandinavia and much of the rest of Northern Europe.) And the Americans are believed to want fruit and wood.

So…are we sure no one is making wine for the market? Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that our anonymous owner is (and admits same) and that Michele Chiarlo isn’t. But there seems to be an awful lot of identification of market preferences going on, that by pure coincidence happens to coincide with a massive upsurge in new oak (and a concomitant downgrade of acidity), resulting in wines that by pure coincidence happen to serve the perceived preferences of those markets.

Me, I’m a firm believer in coincidence. But not appellation-wide coincidence.

[snowy night]Issue seven: the United States

I have a question, though. Are the producers of barbera right? Are fruity, woody wines what the Yanks crave?

Not so fast, objects Charles Scicolone, who is becoming somewhat of a professional Asti antagonist today. He has a problem with the idea that Americans like oaky wines; in fact, he counters, Americans are turning away from oak. “I’m tired,” he insists, “of hearing ‘we made this wine for the American market.’” He’s tired of tasting allegedly American-style wines at producers around the world, wines so heavily-barriqued that they’re “not the wines that locals want to drink.” He then gestures towards the row of bloggers of which I’m a part (six sevenths of whom are Americans) and points out that we’re obviously examples of Americans who do not, in fact, like big, fruity, oaky wines…and have been rather stridently saying so.

Scicolone is right, but it’s worth bringing some nuance to this issue to clarify the bounded sphere in which he is right. “Americans” is an awfully big, Hydratic market with a lot of different preferences. If the American market in question is the one that buys the lower echelons of the Constellation Brands portfolio (.pdf) and its Australian/Chilean/Argentinean/South African/etc. counterparts in supermarkets and corner liquor marts, then yes…that American market probably does want fruit-forward, oaky wines.

But those are also inexpensive wines. The barberas that live that price realm are not fruit-forward, oaky wines. They’re the steel or old-wood versions in all their traditionally lean, razored sharpness. In other words, the “classic” barbera that we’re alleged to not want. And this cannot really be otherwise, because new wood and other heft-inducing techniques in the vineyard and the cellar are expensive. Pricing that’s competitive with mass-produced, industrial wines is unlikely at best.

No, these wines carry a higher cost…in some cases, significantly so. As such, they are attempting to capture the interest of an entirely different market. One with a much greater diversity of options from pretty much everywhere in the world, and one that can afford to make stylistic choices based on that diversity. This market has fragmented, and anyone who was actually familiar with it would be quick to say so. Yes, there are those who prefer fruit and oak. But there are also those who crave fruit without oak, and those who prize elegance and austerity, and those whose preferences are more philosophical than organoleptic. There are lovers of high-acid wines and those that find acid shrill. There are embracers of conformity and adventurers after diversity. There is, in other words, no one market.

What, then, is the pitch to be made for these wines? For it is no easy task to grasp and hold the attention of consumers who have as many choices as any wine lover throughout history has ever had. And it’s even more difficult when working with somewhat-unfamiliar grapes from previously-unknown places…like, say, barbera from Nizza. If the pitch is the singular character of barbera, which those who know the wines’ history will expect and seekers of difference will require, then a deluge of wines that have been reconceptualized in an anonymously international style will be eminently ignorable. And if the pitch is that fruit-forward and oaky style, then what’s the compelling reason for a lover of such wines to divert funds from any of the dozens (hundreds?) of wine regions already making exactly this kind of wine? What does barbera from Nizza (or anywhere in the Piedmont) have to offer that’s unique?

The “American market” that loves and wants these wines exists, I’m afraid, only in theory. It may have existed fifteen or twenty years ago, and the Piemontese might have captured it then with the work they’re doing now. Or it might come back again; wine trends can, of course, sometimes be cyclical. But right now, absolutely the last thing one should be doing to attract a cash-strapped, ever-more-fragmented American market is to be making wine-a-likes in a style that is already fading from majority favor.

All this unsolicited (and, let’s be honest, potentially wrongheaded) strategic marketing advice aside, I’m less certain than the winemakers we’ve heard from that Americans and their quercal tastes are really to blame. I think the entire foundation of the decision to remake wines in this fashion comes from something else: an obsession with importance. Or, to write it in the reverent terms with which it is regularly employed by winemaker after winemaker here, IMPORTANCE.

But this is already far too long, and that extremely fraught issue will have to be left for another post. In any case, I think the perfect coda for this afternoon’s conflicts has been provided by the much put-upon Michele Chiarlo, who – after what seems like an hour of pushback and complaint from the audience – somewhat resignedly says the following. A direct contradiction of much of what he and others have said so far, but even more significantly a direct contradiction of the vast majority of what we’ve tasted:

“no one intends to pursue oaky wines for American market”

Were it only so, Signore Chiarlo. Were it only so.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Paris, naturally

My submission for saignée‘s inspiring 32 Days of Natural Wine event, found here in its original form. Go read it there, and then read everything else in the series. You’ll be a better person afterward.

[nouveau ad]Paris may not be the heart of the natural wine movement… that and all the other vital organs reside in the cellars and the regions whence the wines emerge…but it’s almost certainly the head. It’s got a critical mass of consumers, from enthusiast to hipster (and wannabe-hipster), and a vibrant commerce that serves that mass.

Natural wine nirvana, right? In a sense. If there’s a bright, or even popular, future for natural wine, Paris is what it looks like in its ascendance. One can revel for weeks – perhaps even months – in the unsulfured and unyeasted with the right list of purveyors and a fat carnet, or at least sturdy shoes.

Except…I did that. Ate, drank, cooked, and shopped as naturally as I could. And the shocking (to me, anyway) takeaway was that I found it a little boring. What’s more, it made me realize something: not everything is lit with rosy natural light in La Ville Lumière. There are some shadows lurking on les routes ahead.

This is going to require some explanation, I suspect.

What can destroy a wine category these days? Lack of quality, certainly, but this is a slow actor; the general unsaleability of Mâcon or the turning away from Tuscany didn’t happen overnight, but over decades. What can kill it a lot faster, even from a position of apparent desirability, is the reality or perception of over-uniformity. Of externally-enforced conformity. Of cynical boredom. By way of example: remember when muscular Australian reds of both gravitational and evaluative endowment were the point-laden rage? Notice how, just a few years later, one can barely give them away? There’s more than one factor at work in that Icarian tale, but a major contributor is that the thermonuclear fruit devices that were so lauded by critics and consumers are available from just about everywhere on the planet (including Australia) at a much lower cost than those paragons of pricey (purported) pulchritude.

Now, let’s be honest. There are those who drink for predictability. Who – though they would probably object to the metaphor – crave a certain McDonaldization of product, in which consistency and the comfort of the familiar are atop the pyramid of virtues. Rather obviously, those folk aren’t buying natural wine. At least not on purpose. The market that rejects the standardization of industrial viticulture and outcome-oriented winemaking is, by definition, counter- and anti-. This market seeks sensation, but the sensation it seeks is that of authenticity, of difference, of deviance. Among the principal appeals of natural wine are its unfamiliarity and unpredictability. Both of which are, as they must be, measured against the norm…which is, in this case, traditional (which is inclusive of, but not of necessity, industrial) wine. Without that contrast, much of what is unfamiliar and exciting about natural wine is decontextualized.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that without the alternative, natural wine would be less appealing. But then again, there’s probably a cohort of devotées that would experience that little twinge of dismay that all adherents to the alternative feel when their private affection goes mass-market. It’s true in music, and maybe it’s true in wine. That said, we’re talking about a nano-niche within a micro-niche here, so let’s move on to a more important conjecture…

My somewhat leisurely encounter with Paris’ natural wine scene delivered a lot of sensation, difference, and authenticity. No question. But viewed through the contextual lenses of time and post-facto consideration, it delivered something else.


It’s not that any given wine demanded this reaction. Mostly, I drank very well. Extremely well, actually. I could have gone many more months without repeating a libation, without going back to something a second time (though that did happen once, for which I must blame Jean Foillard’s uncanny skill with Morgon), without being forced to act not as an eager dabbler on the frontier, but rather as an actual wine consumer stocking up on quantities of favored bottles. That’s the wonderful breadth of potential natural wine experiences that Paris provides, and it’s unquestionable that had I been in Paris long enough, I’d have had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of wines that were otherwise no more than ephemeral dalliances. There’s great value in that, for sure, and I look forward to suffering that burden in the future.

No, it was the commercial face of my natural wine crawl that brought on the ennui. Wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant: the same list, the same selection, the same labels. Almost without fail.

The immediate objection – why is this bad, exactly? aren’t most of the world’s wine collections the same boring and industrial (or at least traditional) wines, over and over? – is both taken and acknowledged as correct. Yes, the sin of boredom is committed so much more frequently outside the natural wine world that it hardly bears mentioning inside it. But the special thing about Paris’ genre concentration is that it previews the consequences of a triumph of the alternative. And in that triumph is born a redundancy that looks an awful lot like all the familiar redundancies. I’d like to see natural wine avoid that fate.

The problem is self-segregation. Natural wines have…by the deliberate choice of their selectors but also by a somewhat surprising inertia…ghettoized themselves into a self-referential niche. It’s a reasonably successful niche, and the marketing advantages probably go without saying, but a niche it remains. I know there are some who prefer this state of affairs – there’s your alternative music analogue writ vinous, in which the magi of secret knowledge tremble in fear of the moment in which their favorite becomes known to The Other – but there is also a legitimate argument against this preference.

In various cities around the U.S., cities in which natural wine is decidedly alternative and hard-to-find, there are a few stores, wine bars and restaurants to which one goes to be guaranteed a selection from the genre. There might, for example, be just one “natural wine bar” in an otherwise wine-soaked metropolis, or a sommelier whose iconoclasm is rewarded by a dedicated but niche fandom. In that situation, rigid orthodoxy is a marketable virtue, and should neither be gainsaid nor challenged. In such locales, rigidity of concept is a virtue.

[mccafé]But in Paris, where it would seem to be thrilling that there are considerably more than a handful of such establishments, the effect is somewhat different. The wines are no longer hard to find, for the interested. What they are, instead, is gated within a neighborhood of like-minded peers, largely unchallenged by dissent from within or without. It’s an oeno-epistemological closure that just can’t be good for the category.

“Well,” one might ask, “why not?” Given that both the old and the modern ways have been dominant everywhere and everywhen, shouldn’t natural wines be allowed their own time in the sun? (Or rather, their time in a humid, slightly chilly environment in order to avoid the much-feared instability allegedly inherent to the genre?) Wouldn’t it be better if even more establishments went au natural?

No. That is to say: sure, I’d like to see a lot more natural wine, presented however a given establishment wishes, as long as that method gets it to my glass. But what I’d really like is, when forced to go to some standardized culinary purveyor of comforting mediocrity by out-of-town guests who’ve heard the chef’s name on the Food Network, to have natural wines on that wine list. I’d like to walk into a wine shop in Nisswa, Minnesota and be able to buy something that’s not industrial. I don’t want natural wine to be something one must go to Paris (or New York, or San Francisco) for, I want it to be part of the everyday experience of oenophilia. An equal voice in the conversation inherent in every glass. An accepted part of the landscape, neither feared nor a cranky curiosity, but just another typical geographical feature

That may be an impossible dream, since natural winemaking doesn’t necessarily scale all that well. Sure, OK, I get that. But if there are a lot of natural wines (and ideally, as time passes, there will be more), why not spread the wealth a little? Why not some intrusions into enemy, or at least unfamiliar, territory? If there’s a reason one loves natural wine – whether that’s taste, philosophy, or something else – then it’s hard to understand a lack of desire to see that taste/philosophy/etc. exert influence outside the fold. It’s great to welcome a new addition to the natural family. But wouldn’t it be more valuable if, say, Villa Maria abandoned inoculated yeast thanks to the influence of natural wine? If, for example, Drouhin and Jadot massively reduced their use of sulfur? If Wolfberger decided against chaptalization? No, it’s not a clear path to perfection, and the wines still won’t be “natural” by anyone’s definition. But the perfect – as the cliché goes – must not become the enemy of the good. Progress is preferable to the alternative.

That said, I don’t think industrial wine can go away. Nor should it. The demand for crushed grapes outstrips anything the natural set can provide, and especially so if I don’t mistake the generally anti-corporate inclinations of those in the natural wine cohort. Traditional wine can’t (and won’t) disappear, either. But I’d love a wine world in which the two éminences (pinot) grises were not the entire story, and in which natural wine was more than a brief appendix…or worse, a screwily-fonted footnote. To expand to chapter form, natural wines are going to have to expand the range of their thought and worldview. They’re going to have to deal with their competition. Face to face, vino a vino.

It’s easy to miss that they’re not doing this. Are you a Beaujolais booster? A Loire lover? A Jura junkie? You – and I – are in luck: the best of the appellation could very well be represented on the natural wine shelf. But what about Irouléguy? Bandol? Burgundy? The Rhône? Bordeaux?

My own personal oenopiphany of ennui occurred, I suspect, because I’m an advocate of Alsace. Now, it must be acknowledged that not many natural wine folk share my enthusiasm for the region. There are various and entirely supportable reasons why, and the whole “natural” ethos is just one of them. That said…looking at what’s on commercial offer within the category, who can blame them? Aside from Barmès-Buecher, the offerings are wildly inconsistent at best, and too often downright wretched at worst. And so, in store after bar after restaurant, the same labels appear. The same, awful wines. Or maybe the good stuff, but in any case that good stuff is still identical to the good stuff at the last place. And the place before that. And the place before that. Worse, in no sense are the pinnacles of the appellation – the benchmarks that define that potential for a region – represented. Alsace is hardly alone in this, but it is (for me, as a self-professed fan) a convenient stand-in for the complaint.

[le verre volé]Herein resides the gnarly core of the problem. It’s not that I care that much if Boxler, Weinbach, Josmeyer, Trimbach, or whoever one wants to name as their flûted standard-bearer is available in a given venue. But when they’re not available in any of them? And when the natural alternatives are similarly absent in the non-natural establishments, for reasons I dare not guess? I don’t want to overstate this as vinous apartheid, because that would be an abrasive and confrontational step too far, but it’s a separation that need not be, and the wines as separately-presented are most definitely not equal.

(A caveat: natural wines cannot always stand against alleged “benchmarks” due to the particulars of their élevage. If the pinnacle of a place is considered to be some forty-year-enabled wine, an unsulfured alternative is unlikely to be equipped to challenge that supremacy. And fair enough. But when comparisons are apt, they’re also quite valuable. Not because one should drink with winners, losers, and hierarchies always in mind, but because the qualities that make natural wine appealing are – as noted zillions of words above – most clearly defined by their alternatives. By not pointing directly at this distinction, natural wines are missing their…pardon the pun…raisin d’être.)

Natural wine needs to shed the yoke it has secured ‘round its own neck. The concentrated focus of its endorsers should continue, and should expand everywhere that is and isn’t Paris, but there’s so much more it could accomplish once it gains a firm foothold on the foundation. A full engagement with the marketplace of wines will engender a crucial, corollary engagement with the marketplace of ideas. As it stands, natural wine’s separatism allows – even encourages – a destructive factionalism. Here, for example, is a (representative, unfortunately) California winemaker on this very topic amid a recent wine forum debate about the word “natural”:

“[…] but if they say what they do is ‘natural,’ then that is a direct marketing attack on other wineries.”

To answer this: it’s mostly not (there are always exceptions), and the winemaker is being needlessly defensive, but he’s also expressing a widely-held opinion. What’s more important is that it’s a reflexive and resentful feeling that need not be. When natural wines self-segregate, they require the argument for their quality to be conducted solely with words, with philosophy, and with rhetoric. This is, necessarily, unequal to the task. Were the wines physically coequal with their otherwise-identified peers in the marketplace, the dialogue wouldn’t be one carried out in the strident, bickering, posturing tones of blogs, web fora, and print, but by the character and quality of the passion represented by each bottle. The wines would, perforce, speak for themselves.

And isn’t that what natural wines should do? Isn’t the fundamental philosophical purpose of natural wine to express without mask or interpretation? Without interlocution? Without filtering?

The Paris of my desire – and the stay will be longer next time, and much longer the time after that – should not be a carefully-constructed list of naturalia with GPS coordinates and hours of operation. It won’t be a parallel universe. It won’t be a matter of choice, of division, of convention vs. dissension. In my idealized Paris…and eventually, elsewhere…“natural” will no longer be separate, only, and first.

It will be…only natural.