Browse Tag


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.

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.

Château the line

[dancing in the dark]If, as Eric Asimov asserts, the wine-soaked youth of America are giving up on Bordeaux, it’s perhaps not as interesting a point as it might, at first glance, seem. Trends and shifts in consumption are ever-present – who among us drinks as much Port as our great-great-greats did? – and today’s retreat may be tomorrow’s triumphant return. What’s interesting is the “why” of it.

A number of reasons are suggested by the article, one a quote from someone who admits to not even liking the major grapes of Bordeaux (and thus I’m moved to wonder why his opinion on Bordeaux would be deemed especially quotable), but no one really gets at the heart of what’s separating the younger generation from its Haut-Brion. Yes, all the reasons suggested by Asimov and others are part of the equation – price, a reputation for overt commerciality and luxury good positioning, a (deliberate) disconnection from the appealing narrative of a farmer and her land – and there are some others the article missed, including the rigidity of a structured wine that is not as agile as many others in dealing with the ever-increasing fusion of culinary influences, even in its modern, somewhat Californicated form. But Champagne suffers even more profoundly from some of the same issues, and the younger generation still drinks it. In fact, they might drink it with more enthusiasm than their immediate elders.

There’s a reason for that. What people of the age cohort described in the article (and I dislike the generational division therein; I think the dividing lines are more related to philosophy and preference than they are age) drink from Champagne are not the major brands stacked to the ceiling of every middle-of-the-road liquor mart. They drink the grower Champagnes, which range from solidly traditional to wildly experimental, and which have both a story not concocted by a marketing department and a price that reflects a lack of that same department…which is not to say that that price is always lower than the familiar names (often, it isn’t), only that it is more directly tied to the quality and/or reputation of the wine than the needs of a worldwide branding campaign.

So the anti-Bordeaux folk, apparently so hung up on price and prestige, still drink pricey wines from the one region even more afflicted by excessive prestige-ery. Given this, it’s unlikely that what’s really bending their necks about Bordeaux is either price or prestige. In reality, it’s marketing…a success in Champagne, contrasted with an abject failure of same in Bordeaux.

Why are these theoretically disaffected youngsters still imbibing in bubbly, even if they reject the widows and the monks behind the overly-familiar brands? Because they’ve tasted the wines. Yes, there’s a story and (usually) a connection to the land, but more importantly, the wines are out there in the market, year after year, being flogged by their importers – the tireless Terry Theise gets much credit for leadership here, but he’s far from alone anymore – to trade and press. And they’re poured for consumers, too. Wine bars, both hipster and less so, are encouraged to provide these wines alongside the more eclectic sparklers that are the “other” Champagne alternative, and at by-the-glass pricing, young tasters can experience and make up their own minds about these wines.

Not so for Bordeaux. The classified growths and their companions from across the river barely even see store shelves anymore; they’re ordered as futures, arrive as intact cases, and move directly from store basement to customer vehicle based on whichever critic the consumer has chosen to follow. No tasting there, unless you’re the critic in question. Those that make it to restaurant lists are priced in the exosphere, and thus both bottle and (rare) glass consumption are targeted almost exclusively at those who are already fans of Bordeaux and can support such elevated prices.

“But what,” an on-the-ground Bordeaux winemaker might argue, “about all the other wine we make? All the reasonably priced bottles that have nothing to do with luxury brands or lofty titles?”

These are indeed difficult times for the majority of the Bordeaux winemakers, the ones not blessed with a 155-year old classification or a modern equivalent. No one wants the wines, and even centuries of tradition can’t stem the receding tide. When there were few alternatives, the market for the “good,” “OK,” and “not bad” of Bordeaux was assured. Now, with flavorful offerings from nearly every winemaking country on the globe, that locked-in market is essentially gone, and probably for good. Bordeaux’s singular qualities are not, and have never been, those of the fruit-forward, generous wines that dominate the lower end of the market, and in a competition with those alternatives, Bordeaux will lose each and every time. Even in France, long a safe haven for Bordeaux, the sale is becoming more and more difficult.

There is, however, a middle ground. Small wines, perhaps without the grand ambitions of the crus, but which exhibit classic Bordelais characteristics. Wines that have their own stories to tell, as rich as any other. Wines that could speak to the same folk who are instead choosing refosco or Bierzo. These wines exist, and with very careful searching they should be locatable.

But where? Effectively, nowhere. At least, not in the States. There’s no Terry Theise…there’s not even a Kermit Lynch…promoting these alternatives. Working the markets. Telling the stories. Getting placements in interested wine bars, restaurants, and stores. Proving – at a reasonable price to all – that Bordeaux is not just about Gucci handbags and Walmart schlock, with nothing in between. These wines need an advocate, and they don’t have one.

Viewed from the Gironde, it may be hard to see that there’s a problem. The wines are selling, are they not? And for ever-escalating prices? Well, maybe they are, though the markets are shifting eastward. And maybe they’re not, except through artful market manipulation and artificial scarcity. I’m not here to argue these controversial points, because what matters is that this speaks only of the classified growths and their point-laden brethren. Of the superstars. Putting aside low-cost dreckery like Mouton Cadet and its ilk, that still leaves the overwhelming majority of Bordeaux with neither a market nor a future.

What is Bordeaux doing to rebuild that future? Nothing. Without tasting Bordeaux, in any form, on a regular basis and especially in the crucial, palate-formative years, the only members of upcoming generations who will develop a taste for the region are those wealthy enough to dabble without consequence and those blessed with friends who have deep cellars and an enthusiasm for evangelism. That’s not enough to sustain a market over generations. And so, Bordeaux’s upper class fiddles, secure in their lucre, while the chai underneath them burns.

Oregon, going, gone?

[vines at Bella Vida winery, Willamette Valley, Oregon]Marketing. It’s really not my thing. I’m mostly immune to it, and though I am as frequently awed by its most adept practitioners as I am repelled by their best work, I’ve no discernable skill at it.

So it’s somewhat amusing to me how often I get asked, by those who make and sell wine, for an opinion on how they might a better impression on the market. Usually, but not always, it’s a foreign concern wishing to sell more – or at all – in the States. In fact, I just got back from South Africa, where this question was much on the minds of many of the winemakers with whom I swirled and spat.

While I was traveling, Thad over at Beyond the Bottle invited my comment on a piece he’d written, itself a follow-up to a winemaker’s thoughts on how to market a decidedly non-foreign wine region: Oregon. Since this is a place I’ve actually been, and a state that produces a rather larger number of wines that I like than is the norm for other domestic sources, I took a special interest in the topic. Herewith, then, a few thoughts from a someone who knows nothing about marketing. And what could be more valuable than that?

The contrast between the two essays to which I’ve linked is interesting, even though they cover some of the same ground. On one hand, we have a winemaker talking about wine as a niche (some would argue luxury) product and how to market that product to a knowledgeable audience. His idea is to find the hook, the mnemonic, the attention-grabbing uniqueness that will move his state’s wines into the public consciousness. And he suggests their fundamental “Oregon-ness” as that hook.

Thad Westhusing, on the other hand, takes a broader view, examining everything from wine tourism to price points in an effort to wrestle the problem to the ground. But neither he nor Hatcher really question the latter’s assertion that Oregon and the associations to be made with that place are the path to sales glory.

That may be, and I find thoughts with which to agree from both, but I think they’re missing the key point. The problem is pinot noir.

Oregon, for better or worse, has hitched its wine fortunes to this supremely expressive but finicky and expensive grape. Though there’s pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot blanc, a little sparkling wine (question: why not more?), and the occasional outlier variety, the consumer is, first and foremost, presented with a range of pinot noirs as the representatives of Brand Oregon. It’s a sort of marketing monoculture, and while it’s taken for granted in the Old World and frequently codified in Europe’s stringent appellation laws, it’s somewhat of a rarity in the anything-goes New. Most New World regions plant a diverse range of varieties (many of them, alas, painfully unsuitable for the terroir) and then let the shifting winds of popular taste do the marketing…or, when necessary, the winnowing.

The problem with doing it the other way – the Oregon way – is that success or failure are entirely subject to the public appetite for one specific product. Now, it happens that we’re still in the boom years for pinot noir, and whether one identifies it as a continuing post-Sideways effect or something else, the fact is the public loves its pinot. However, it must be noted for the record: not nearly as much as it loves its chardonnay or pinot gris/grigio.

Given that, shouldn’t Oregon be going gangbusters, since they’ve got pinot noir to sell and an allegedly avid market to sell it to? Maybe, but…well, see, there’s a problem. Oregon’s not the only modern monoculture in town. There’s the Central Coast of California, which has been around for a while but which has really exploded into the public wine-drinking consciousness over the past few years (and that is attributable, in large measure, to the aforementioned movie). There’s the Central Otago in New Zealand…and in that same country, Martinborough and the Waipara/Canterbury region.

So what’s the calling card of the Central Otago? Pinot noir. The Central Coast? Pinot noir. Martinborough? Pinot noir. The Waipara? Pinot noir (and riesling). What’s previously-monocultural Marlborough, widely known for it’s sauvignon blanc, planting a lot of these days? Pinot noir. How about Germany, the still-beating heart of rieslingdom? They’re making a big name for themselves these days among a subset of the wine geek set with their spätburgunder…a/k/a pinot noir. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley, long a source for succulent pinot noir, hasn’t gone away. Nor has the Anderson Valley. And there’s still that other place…what’s it called?…oh, yeah. Burgundy. They make just a bit of pinot noir there, still, and despite centuries of fame and reverence, many commentators think it’s only getting better.

But why should pinot noir be a special problem? It’s not like people have any trouble selling chardonnay from pretty much every grape-growing region in the world, right? Didn’t I just say that there was an ever-escalating demand for pinot?

Sure, but the grape carries some baggage. It’s notoriously fickle on the vine, and when it does grow well, it requires careful shepherding and lowish yields to show its quality. That means that wines made from it are almost always going to be expensive versus other varieties. Cheap pinot noir is, with very, very rare exceptions, either dismal or – pumped up by the steroidal winemaking much-employed by the industrial set, and yet the primary source of cheap pinot – grossly unrepresentative of the variety and its qualities.

Moreover, its nearly unparalleled (among red grapes, with only nebbiolo as a serious contender) ability to reflect site-specificity results – as it always has in Burgundy – in a small blizzard of single-vineyard bottlings, regular and reserve bottlings, and/or differently-named blends. In other words, where cabernet might be responsible for a wine or two at a given winery, pinot noir can sometimes fill a case. Without duplication.

So where does that leave the pinot noir producer? Holding a dozen fairly expensive wines, each produced in relatively small quantities, and having to convince an already-saturated market of their quality when they’ve got similarly-priced options of quality from all over the globe, plus a few centuries of wine culture nagging that for the same amount of money they could be drinking “the real thing”: Burgundy.

In Oregon, or in fact anywhere the grape is grown, I suspect the urge to “buy local” trumps other factors (and the ability to visit and taste before purchase helps this along). Certainly that’s what they do in Burgundy, as well as all the other regions I mentioned earlier. But selling the wine at home…that’s not the marketing challenge, is it? The challenge is selling the wine elsewhere.

For example, consider Boston, this author’s current hometown. It’s a very Europhile market, as I’ve noted before, and a lot of very good New World producers have unsuccessfully beaten their skulls against the seemingly closed door of our avid wine culture. But even for those local consumers who are willing to explore beyond their beloved Burgundy, the available options quickly move beyond staggering to merely bewildering. Felton Road or Belle Pente? August Kesseler or Arcadian? Ata Rangi or Patricia Green? Not to mention the fact that there’s always the “…or d’Angerville?” option lurking in the background. They’re all pretty much the same price here, after all, and while they all have enticing qualities, only the truly pinot-obsessed will want to fully explore the full range on a regular enough basis to qualify as a reliable source of sales. That subgroup, repeated across hundreds of communities, may be enough to escalate a few wineries’ sales, but it’s not enough to accommodate all of them.

So what’s the solution for Oregon? I don’t know (remember: Marketing ’R’ Not Us). I don’t think that grubbing up pinot noir and planting…I don’t know, lagrein…is the answer. Because the wines are quite good, or at least they can be in capable hands, and if they think selling pinot is hard…. I’m not sure that selling “Oregon-ness” is the answer either. New Zealand tried that with their “the riches of a clean, green land” campaign, and I don’t know that it made much of a difference in their wine sales (though it has helped tourism, by all accounts…and it would probably help more were New Zealand not a zillion miles from everywhere). Further, I’m not sure this is the differentiator some might want it to be. Vermont – much closer to my market – is full of crunchy earth-mother environmental goodness and beauty, not to mention a wealth of fine agricultural products, but it doesn’t make me want to drink their wines, and I don’t think the stuff they are really good at (e.g. cheese) is pushing Vacherin Mont d’Or off, say, New York shelves; it remains a niche product for a niche, local market that knows and has regular access to that product.

Also, I’m not sure tourism is the answer. Wine regions everywhere point at Napa and ask, “why can’t we have that?” Well, first, I think much of Napa would very much enjoy it if someone else would take the tourists for a while. But the obvious thing is that Napa benefits almost immeasurably from its proximity to San Francisco, just as the newer California tourist hotspot of the Central Coast benefits from its proximity to Los Angeles. Portland is a nice city, but it’s certainly no San Francisco or L.A.

The best thing a wine region can do – and this is the advice I’ve always given, when asked – is to get into the desired market and really work it. That means sending the best and brightest to whatever places have been targeted and keeping them there for a while, or at least promising they’ll be back every few months. Work the retailers and the restaurants, and maybe even the press (most of the non-national wine press doesn’t really move much wine, but sometimes every little bit helps). Do some public dinners, which I think are absolutely critical in creating demand and name recognition. Plant representatives at stores’ regular wine tastings. Do the big wine fairs, and while there do tutored tastings.

And make it about more than just the individual producers. Yes, by all means, sell the names on the labels. But everyone who makes wines from its grapes benefits if some critical mass of people who know how to pronounce “Willamette” correctly is reached, and for that to happen everyone – or at least a large enough subset of everyone – has to work together to push all the categories that need pushing: pinot noir, Brand Oregon, whatever appellations are involved, and individual wineries’ products.

This is all marketing 101, I’d think, and yet it’s surprising how hard it is to get people to leave their wineries and saturate their target market. The farmer mentality, maybe, and non-corporate winemaking doesn’t leave a lot of down time for travel. What helps is government money, but in its absence wineries – many of which make much less money than the average consumer might think – have to do it themselves. If that means voluntarily pooling resources, then that’s what it means.

Otherwise, I see little hope. Major critics have been giving perfectly fine ratings to Oregon wines for years, and yet not enough has happened. There’s going to be no Sideways 2: Wasted Weeks in the Willamette. California – hopefully – isn’t going to tip its vines into the ocean and make beachfront out of Fresno, nor are New Zealand (and Germany, and Burgundy) going away. Words, print ads, flashy handouts…they aren’t going to get it done. The wines need to be under the noses and in the mouths of potential consumers.

Oregon needs a hook, yes. But the hook it needs is the one in a hotel room, on which its best winemakers and marketing gurus hang their jackets as they make their case to a new market, customer by customer.