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Dispatches from Naturalia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Market that.

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.

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.

Idea log

[questioning brain]It will surprise no one that I’ve had a political discussion or two over the last few weeks. And it’s probably also no surprise that one of them got me thinking about wine. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the role played ideology.

There are a number of ideological stances one can take in response to wine. This is true whether you’re a producer, in the trade, or a consumer…and in fact, those ideologies often run in parallel lines through those three groups. For example, consumers with a given philosophy often patronize the wines of retailers, importers, and producers who share that philosophy.

What do I mean when I refer to wine ideologies? Here are a few common examples, though by no means is this an exhaustive list:

  • “natural” wine is superior
  • “natural” winemaking is anything but
  • biodynamic viticulture is better
  • biodynamic viticulture is mystical hooey
  • organic viticulture is preferable
  • organic viticulture is marketing
  • all that matters is what’s in the glass
  • wine is wine, no matter how or where you drink it
  • wine is meant as a companion to food
  • quality is not inherent, but is a product of context
  • there are objective standards to wine on which experts can agree
  • taste is subjective
  • quality is determined by price
  • quality is determined by terroir
  • sulfur is bad
  • the abandonment of sulfur is lunacy
  • screwcaps are the answer
  • only real cork belongs in a wine bottle

…and so forth. One immediately notices that a good number of these ideologies are fundamentally incompatible. And yet, they are passionately-held, each of them, by very serious wine folk. How can this be?

It is likely true that some ideologies are, in fact, nonsense. And that others are justified primarily by their marketability. And that still others are only held because their holder fails to understand (or denies) evidence to the contrary.

I’m not interested, here, in discussing which ones are valid or not. Instead, having been brought to this musing by considering the positive and negative effects of ideology in a political context, I’m interested in whether or not the very concept of ideology is worthwhile, especially from the standpoint of the consumer.

Long-time acquaintances are undoubtedly sputtering in their biodynamic Muscadet right now, objecting thusly: “oh, sure, you’re a fine one to talk about the negatives of ideologies, Mr. Everyone-has-a-bias, and Serious-is-not-a-philosophy, and Alcohol-is-a-conceptual-problem, and No-really-everyone-has-a-bias.” (OK, maybe no one actually talks like that. At least, I hope not.) And it’s true: I have ideologies, and while I feel I’m open about them in a way unfortunately few critics and writers are, I would never presume to deny them.

Despite this, might ideologies be a profoundly mixed blessing?

Let’s start with the positives. I’m a firm believer that wine – that is, wine worth thinking or writing about, wine worth more than a tossed-back glass after a hard day at the office – can be about more than a gut-level, caveman-like response to the pure pleasure it brings as it fills your mouth and gets you just a little bit more drunk than you were a moment ago. That, in itself, is an ideology, and one certainly not shared by everyone. But it’s a basic, foundational ideology, without which I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – write about wine for a living or for fun.

Based on that foundation, then, one can immediately see the appeal of sub-categorical ideologies. Especially those reinforced by experience. If, on balance, wines self-identified as biodynamic, or “natural,” are appealing to me more often than is the norm across all wines, I as a consumer have a ready-made shopping list, even if the brands on it are unknown. Or if I find the modern obsession with ripeness to be fundamentally deforming, I now have a ready-made list of wines, and perhaps even places, to avoid. The mere existence of these ideologies, coupled with the knowledge of how to apply them, makes my life as a consumer a more efficient one. And it reduces the number of times I’ll waste my money on something I was destined to dislike.

Other philosophies can be similarly-examined for their benefits, which accrue not just to the consumer, but to other entities as well. An organic producer has a ready-made audience, while a low-sulfur producer a smaller but proportionally more fanatic one. An importer with a portfolio of luscious liquid “hedonism” from warm, fertile regions – big explosions of velvety fruit layered with toasty new wood – has a reliable market, as well.

Of course, the temptation is – as with any ideology, in any field – to mistake preference for objectivity, projecting hierarchies outward from the person onto the thing itself. This isn’t to say that there cannot be objective value in certain ideologies; organic viticulture may indeed be better for the environment, low-sulfur wines could be easier on the body’s biochemistry, screwcaps might maintain a wine’s intended form better than other closures. But most ideologies aren’t like this. They’re philosophies that emanate from subjective preference, codified and thus eminently arguable, but no less subjective for the force and structure of them. And that’s where we run into trouble.

It is perfectly reasonable to prefer one wine to another for stylistic reasons. If those stylistic reasons are directly attributable to philosophies, and that preference reliably extends to other examples, then it is similarly reasonable to connect the preference with the philosophy, and thus to prefer one philosophy to another. In fact, I know of no one who does not do this, to a greater or lesser extent, even within the narrow field of wine appreciation.

The problem arises when the ideology becomes more important than the object of the ideology. There exist more than a few winemakers, tradespersons, writers, and consumers who cannot free their response to a given wine from the boundaries of their ideologies. Sometimes, they won’t even try a wine because of how it’s made, where it’s from, or what it represents. More often, they’ll take a taste, but final judgment has been rendered before the first sniff.

It needs to be made clear that this does not make said victim of their ideology a bad person, nor does it make them useless as an observer or commentator on wine. In fact, many of the most successful critics and writers in the wine field are absolutely laden with ideologies. But note that word: victim. The trap of ideology is that is closes the mind and the palate, while calcifying in such a way that the subjective eventually becomes canon. Wines that fall outside the strict borders of the ideology are tarred as heretical, rather responded to with reasoned dislike.

Don’t believe me? Ever heard someone dismiss a Burgundy just because it was a Burgundy, and thus already known to be a lousy value, thin, and rife with biological flaws? I hear it all the time, and with unfortunate frequency from a number of California winemakers and their fans. (Worry not: some Burgundians can and do return the favor.) Ever read a writer or importer decry a wine for using non-indigenous yeast before they’ve even tasted it? Or their control-freak opposites mocking the very concept of indigenous yeast and the oenological negligence it represents? Ever heard someone respond positively (or negatively) to a wine tasted blind, and then completely change their tune when they find they’ve been had by their ideology-tweaking friends? Of course you have. And so have I.

I think this is a shame, and something to be resisted. There are good wines out there made in a way I’d probably prefer wines weren’t made, and if I can’t leave myself open to the possibility that I might enjoy them, I’ve not only lost something important, I’ve prevented myself from ever finding that important something. There are surprising experiences left for the experiencing, but they’ll never be experienced if I refuse to experiment. There are beautiful places and people in the world of wine who I will never meet should I be unwilling to accept what they do on their, rather than my, terms.

More generally, the inability to adapt to one’s circumstances is a dangerous trait, both intellectually and socially. Should friends not be able to enjoy a wine they like without receiving a philosophical lecture in return? It sounds unfathomably rude, but I’ve heard wine ideologues who couldn’t help themselves. Should one stubbornly cart one’s preferred wines around the world, refusing to drink local wines because they’re ideologically insufficient, becoming the oenophilic version of one of those people who brings their own condiments or desserts to a restaurant?

This doesn’t mean that one has to change, or even lower, their standards. Not at all. As I noted before, I believe wine is about much more than whether or not it tastes good. It’s right up there in the header: “wine is liquid, wine is life, wine is emotion, wine is thought.” (I might add that it’s art and science, as well. And it gets you tipsy. And it tastes good.) Matters of philosophy, practice, and execution are, to someone who feels as I do, important. And if wine as anything other than a commodity is to survive and prosper, it needs ideologues at every stage of its existence.

But it’s crucial to remember that we do not drink the ideology. We drink the wine. And if we don’t, we’re drinking the Kool-Aid.

(image used thanks to a Wikimedia Commons license)