Browse Tag

natural wine

[hirsch]

The fault in our stars

Jasmine Hirsch is, these days, probably better known as the co-provocateur (provocateuse?) behind In Pursuit of Balance, but with that flashy (if sometimes haphazardly defined) project shuttered, she’s free to return to her other full-time job as the face and voice of her family’s eponymous Sonoma winery.

The cringe-inducing whining about IPoB was often as overblown as the wines against which it sought contrast (and even “against” is more antagonistic than the reality), but Hirsch’s basic message hasn’t changed at all: ripeness can obscure difference, intervention can obscure difference, even intent can obscure difference. Obviously her argument is more nuanced than that, but the core of the philosophy is to make wines of response or revelation rather than wines of intention…which is why there was always a certain irony surrounding the word “pursuit” in IPoB’s name.

By “intent” I mean something other than the basic desire to turn grapes into salable wine. Not even the most hardcore naturalistas operate from a position of utter indifference to material or process. Hirsch has selected its preferred grapes, its preferred clonal material, the sites on which its vines grow. It most certainly practices viticulture of intent, and harvest dates aren’t selected at random. A sufficiently problematic fermentation would likely be dealt with, one way or another. But on a continuum from industrial to natural, wines of intent invite — in fact, demand — a lot more meddling than is evident here.

“Revelation” is an equally tricky word, in that it usually bears a promissory burden. That’s not how I’m using it here. I mean only that a wine of revelation is one that differs from vintage to vintage in response to its natural inputs — weather, mostly, but also less welcome participants like pests and diseases — and the oenological decisions such inputs encourage. Big house non-vintage Champagne is the ultimate wine of intent, requiring dramatic interventions all through the process, up to and including blending to achieve the house style. Wines of revelation aren’t the total antithesis of such machinations, but they’re a lot closer to the other end of the spectrum. 

That said, it’s impossible to entirely disentangle intent from the drinkable results; Hirsch probably couldn’t make the style they obviously prefer were their vineyards in Paso Robles. Also, the notes below are for blended wines, not terroir wines (except in a general regional or communal sense). Still, the wines themselves can’t help but reveal the truth or lie in the claimed philosophy; if they hold fast to an identity, year after year, they’re wines of intent. If they waver in response to season and the resulting variabilities in vine/grape chemistry, they’re wines of revelation.

Hirsch’s are clearly the latter. Keep Reading

Plus c’est la même chose

romulusIt isn’t always necessary to choose a side. In fact, some would argue that the only path to wisdom is in not doing so. Others of a less earnest bent might feel that it’s at least better to retain devil’s advocacy as a rhetorical tool. I’d agree with both, depending on the subject, but add that the most common cause of a lack of surety is the experiential maturity to know what one doesn’t – or cannot – know.

This defense of hesitancy is a prelude to Yet Another Post on natural wine. I think my written record on the subject qualifies me as a vocal advocate, firmly on the “pro-” side (or at least very frequently witnessing for the defense), but that’s not a fully accurate characterization. I think that’s grasped by some who really are fully committed to the cause, who see through the support to the lack of surety within. I have, at times, been accused of a lack of sufficiently strident advocacy…as if this is a bad thing. (That said, I certainly draw more grief from the skeptical, though I usually find that their objections amount to an extended argument with things someone who is not me has claimed.)

It’s true that I do have…worries. Certain areas of non-commitment. And that really makes sense, for my goal isn’t to promote (or condemn) natural wines, it’s to drink better and, perhaps, participate in an open discussion of how natural wine both does and doesn’t fit into that pursuit.

So if it’s useful to have an essay extant in which I say bad things about natural wines to demonstrate my agnosticism, this would be it.

I’ve said this before, but one of the most distasteful things about natural wine — another is actually distasteful natural wine — is the often-messianic surety that surrounds it. And there are some angry messiahs, to whom everything and everyone else (even sometimes within the movement itself) is wrong…for reasons of insufficient purity, insufficient commitment, insufficient science, or a hundred other sensible and lunatic doctrines seemingly invented on the spot. In a way this shouldn’t be surprising, as the movement not only invites, but practically requires, a large percentage of cranks and anti-social, anti-most-everything-else iconoclasts. I mean that much more affectionately than it sounds, but listening to the loudest voices in the movement often requires a good deal of private eye-rolling. Natural wine could – and the irony is not lost – use a good finishing school, in terms of selling its philosophy.

(To which I know the response is going to be: yes, but we don’t care. Fair enough. But there are people who could be convinced, or at least persuaded, were the temperature turned down a little.)

Of vastly greater importance is that the whole issue of biological and chemical flaws is far too blithely handwaved as a matter of personal preference. Not because it’s impossible to enjoy wines with characteristics otherwise considered flaws, but because it’s not clear that they have to be there in the first place. Were all natural wines bretty, or excessively volatile, or ropy, then it would be obvious that this was just an essential condition of the category. But they’re not. There is a very large percentage — I have no idea if it’s a majority or not — of natural wine that’s clean, that’s pure, and (in some cases) ages perfectly well despite limited (or no) added sulfur. A lot of what is regarded as the common baggage of natural winemaking is instead just sloppy, often untutored, winemaking. Certainly this impression is not countered by meeting the winemakers whose wines are chronic sufferers, many of whom seem to insist on doing things at odds with the tenets of basic chemistry.

But there’s another side to the widespread embrace of flaws, and it ties into the third and most distressing problem with natural wine. To contextualize this, let’s step to the other side and consider natural winemaking’s philosophical opposite: industrial winemaking, the goal of which is to produce, via technological means, a thoroughly reliable, predictable, quality product. As bad or good as any given wine might be (for industrialism is practiced in the hallows as much as in the Gallos), the actual hallmark of industrialism is its sameness. This is true whether the wine is a $12 petite sirah littering gas station liquor shelves or a pricey Champagne produced in zillion-bottle quantities that remains inseparable from its own glitzy marketing beast.

One doesn’t have to taste more than a few hundred natural wines before it becomes clear that a rather distressing percentage of them are very, very close cousins. Biochemical “flaws” can be the cause of this — one brett-ridden explosion of volatility is much like another — but there’s a more fundamental sameness. On the red side, one tastes an awful lot of crisp, snappy Beaujolais…except that much of it isn’t from Beaujolais, nor even made from gamay. On the paler end there’s a bit more variety, but a flavor profile akin to Loire chenin dosed with a little skin-contact ribolla gialla is quite ubiquitous. And then there are the orange wines…

(Let me head off the complaints: I’ve tasted scores of orange wines together, and in that context their differences are clear…ish. But no one drinks them that way, and no one ever will. Considered in isolation, only the true outliers really shine through their copper-colored glasses.)

That so many of the reds should be Beaujolais-alikes isn’t all that surprising, considering the heavy imprint of semi-carbonic winemaking on the source material, but I think it’s worth asking: to what end? Do we really need Sicilian frappato, Roussillon grenache, Sierra Foothills syrah, and even Bordelais cabernet to taste like increasingly endless variations on the — admittedly excellent — Lapierre/Breton/et al theme? Where’s the individuality? (And I don’t mean the often excruciating label design.) What, exactly, makes the creative philosophy of all these nearly-identical natural wines different from their nearly-identical industrial opposites? Less frequent use of beard trimmers?

Natural wine is supposed to, among other things, be the ultimate transparency; letting the vine speak with as little interference as possible. It’s patently obvious that wines that taste the same no matter what they’re made of or where they’re from aren’t revelatory of anything except the winemaker’s imprint. That happens to be the core sin of industrial winemaking. There’s no need to replicate it.

How did we end up here? It’s my belief that a lot of natural winemakers and admirers don’t, in their subconscious liver of livers, actually like transparency nearly as much as the idea of it, whereas what they’re really after is the taste. And please, don’t tell me they don’t have a taste. (The exceptions are the stars of the genre, and there are many, but they’re not the subject of this essay. Also, many of their winemakers and importers agree with this complaint, though sometimes only privately.) I don’t mind the fetishization of that taste any more than it truly bothers me to see someone who really, really loves mass-market pinot grigio. Less appealing is the volume of the adoring peloton careening along a merry trail of sameness while all the while crowing about how fundamental and essential their preferred wines are.

So if the industrial fans prefer painstakingly crafted monuments to intention and the frequently-cloned natural wine aficionados crave indifferently crafted monuments to inattention, who’s holding the philosophical high ground? Could it still be the terroirists? The winemakers and drinkers who do in fact philosophically skew towards natural, but would be just as horrified by a Brouilly that tastes like a Morgon as they would a Chilean carmenère that tastes like one.

Is this a call to some sort of action? Not really, no. Natural wine is what it is; or, more accurately, natural wines are what they are, since there remains little agreement on a definition (and given the personal predilections of those involved, I suspect an unwillingness to conform is fundamental to the movement…which is why the easy acceptance of wines that very much conform is so baffling). Perhaps it would be most correct to say that natural wines are what they aren’t and leave it at that.

It’s neither my business nor my interest to tell people how to make, sell, or enjoy wine. To each their own gout…let a hundred brett infections bloom…whatever. But when I’m next accused of fence-straddling and unnecessary contrapuntalism regarding the claims of natural winos, I’ll have a document to point to that explains why.

The Pall & the proceedings

[clown art]Witness the urtext of lousy writing about natural wine.

Bruce Palling isn’t even trying.

(This is almost literally true. Be amazed at the lack of effort.)

The grand generalizations and profound ignorance — not to mention the errors — aren’t what makes this article terrible. Nor does it matter one whit whether or not Palling likes, or even understands, natural wine. What makes it legendarily, appallingly, brilliantly horrid is what has made millions upon millions of words of wine writing numbingly bad down through the ages.

Because this is what Palling has written:

“I tasted some natural wines and didn’t like them.”

No worries. More for those who do. At least the tl;dr edition doesn’t make everyone look foolish…for wasting the time reading it, but also for the more egregious sin of wasting the time writing it.

Twice.

An inferno in the darkness

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

No. And yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Crickets.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butcher, writer, winemaker

Never watch sausage being made.

That few want to know what goes into sausage is, I suppose, taken for granted by those who don’t. But most food-enthusiasts absolutely do want to know…not just what’s in the sausage, but how it’s made. There would be dismay over poor ingredients, yes, but as much or more from watching good raw material mauled into something unrecognizable via sloppy practice or an excess of adulteration. Who wants to pay the premium for a wild boar sausage if it’s indistinguishable from plain pork? What’s the purpose of using a top-notch source of veal and then studding it with stale dried herbs?

(…transitions are for amateurs….)

The Lord of the Rings was, and is, an important book to me. The first time I read it, I was a little too young to follow more than the frontline narrative, and I suspect that’s part of why regular and enjoyable re-readings continue to this day: each time, I find something I’d glossed in the past. Such understanding has, admittedly, been greatly aided by also owning and reading the vast library of revisioning and background material that has gradually been made available by Tolkien’s son Christopher. Watching this particular sausage being made led to greater admiration for the result.

When the news first broke, years ago, of a live-action filmic version – I’d seen the fascinatingly muddled animated hack job back in the day – I felt the same mixed emotions as most long-time Tolkien fans. Emotions which were mostly borne out by the results, as the films alternated between painstaking recapturing and inexplicable revisionism. On balance, though, and with innumerable complaints small and large to the side, I was pleased with the results. It wasn’t always The Lord of the Rings, no, but it was a pretty good cover version.

As a fan and completist, it was only natural that I had to own the extended-cut DVDs when they came out, in all their lingering and bonus-materialed glory. But my fellow fanatics who’d sat down with them before I had offered a warning: don’t listen to the writers’ commentary tracks.

Perhaps inevitably, I failed to follow their advice. I wanted another trip to the sausage factory. And anyway, I’d already seen the results, hadn’t I? What they’d gotten right and what they’d gotten so spectacularly wrong? How much worse could it be? Well, I suppose I should have listened. Few of the perturbations to the original text were as infuriating as listening to how they came about, explanations which the writers were extremely eager to provide in detail.

Changes necessitated by a shift in media – book to film – didn’t bother me that much. The book, as written and without a word or scene altered, isn’t filmable. I’d understood going in that there would be shortcuts and additions made to pump up the action, to sharpen conflicts, to elevate emotional climaxes, and so forth. I didn’t even mind a little bit of alteration to better suit modern norms (which, I knew even before the movies were filmed, would mean bigger and better roles for women than are evident in the book, though much of this material could be mined from appendices and supplementary texts).

What set my teeth a-grating was how changes always begat more changes to “make up for” a now-insensible narrative that only existed because of the original changes. How disbelief in a character’s motivations (as written) wrought small changes early in the story, then required massive, deformative changes later in the story. How caricature-like inventions were defended as logical inevitabilities when the original alterations that required this logic weren’t necessary in the first place. Worse were the number of times regret was expressed at one of these later, cumulative alterations; as the filming progressed, the sense of closer fidelity to the text had frequently been seen and attempted, but was often rendered impossible by earlier, committed-to-film alterations. Thus requiring even more severe changes to return a story or character back to some vaguely-recognizable place.

(…transitions are still for amateurs…)

Which, of course, brings me to wine.

One of the more aggravating dances in the natural wine debate is the one over the word “intervention.” The standard comeback – “isn’t all wine a product of intervention?” – is true, trite, and deliberately obfuscatory. The latter because, as I’ve written at numbing length elsewhere, the debate isn’t a Manichaean choice between asceticism and the kitchen sink, but rather the purpose and degree of intervention.

Intervention springs from two sources: the urge to intervene, and other interventions. The former is something I’ve written about a lot, and so I’ll just summarize the argument here: there are those who prefer to not intervene unless complete failure is the alternative, there are those for whom intervention is an essential and inevitable tool, and there’s a vast spectrum of practice in between those extremes. But the important difference between those endpoints is real, and not dismissable by dull-witted clichés like “all wine is intervention.” The latter (“other interventions”) provides the foundation for many debates between the divergent camps. But it’s a foundation oft-unspoken, even oft-unrecognized. And it’s worth, amidst all this talk of sausages and epic fantasy, a closer look.

Everyone has different ideas of what constitutes balance in a wine. Everyone has their own ideals of taste. And there is no settling a debate that hinges on trying to find the “correct” expression of a wine (though that doesn’t mean the debate isn’t worth airing; there’s always much to learn). Thus, any examination of this idea will rest on personal preferences, and so here are mine. Others will begin with different assumptions:

  • One grape should not taste like another. The differences between grapes should be expressed rather than obscured. If this is not an important goal, then why use anything other than the cheapest, easiest-to-grow grape that can be wrestled into the desired frame?
  • One site or place, if identified, should not taste like another. The organoleptic differences collated and defined as terroir should be allowed expression. If this is not an important goal, then site designation should be abandoned as deliberately misleading marketing chicanery, and the cheapest serviceable blend should be found from wherever on the globe can supply such a thing.
  • The more interventions required in the vineyard, cellar, and bottling line to achieve the winemaker’s goals, the less suited the grape and site are for that winemaker’s purposes. It is then worth asking, if said winemaker continues to work with the same grape and site, why he or she does so. Because the inherent qualities of either are clearly not important.

And so, an example: a grape, famous elsewhere and with a historical reputation for quality, planted in a new place. Most years, it’s a struggle to get the grape to the ripeness that the winemaker seeks. Sugars aren’t high enough, acids are too high and of the wrong type, flavors are undeveloped. There exist many ways to encourage the various sorts of ripeness by manipulating the vine, and these methods have been employed with marginal improvement. Thus, the vaster array of winemaking manipulations have been employed – acid adjustments, targeted yeasts and nourishment for those yeasts, enzymatic treatments, chaptalization, and so forth…which doesn’t exclude the possibility of harsher interventions or flavor additions (of which time in new oak barrels would be the most common) from time to time.

The palatability of the result isn’t what concerns us in this thought experiment. Instead, questions of intent and identity are. Does this wine actually express anything of the grape from which it’s made? Even if the various techniques employed create a simulacrum of that character, I’d argue that it doesn’t. It’s no longer the grape, it’s a cover version thereof. An artist’s rendering.

So how about the site? Though a lot of attempts have been made to obliterate the site’s character, ultimately it’s unscrubbable from the finished wine because it’s that site’s interaction with the grape, filtered through the winemaker’s intent, that necessitates the cornucopia of interventions in the first place. That said, whatever the site may provide to the wine is no longer perceptually evident, so whether it exists in the finished wine or not is a purely theoretical question.

To summarize: it is, technically, a wine of its site. But there’s none of its site in it. And it is, technically, a wine of its grape and even has its grape in it, but no effort has been spared to hide this fact from the drinker. In other words, it’s a wine of neither grape nor site, but of intervention. Or more precisely, a wine of pure intent. And if intent could be fermented and bottled, rather than dealing with recalcitrant grapevines and laborious cellar machinations, I think everyone involved would choose to do so.

This question could be pursued down interesting philosophical lines for a while, but I’m more interested in the mechanistic ones, and to that end I’d say that one or more of three things are “wrong” – by which I mean inefficiently or mistakenly utilized – with this hypothetical product (which is, as we all know, far from hypothetical). One is that the grape is wrong for the site and intent. Two is that the site is wrong for the grape and intent. And the third is that the intent itself is misguided, a contention which can but does not necessarily depend on the other two: given the intent, the materials are unsuitable…a contention demonstrated by the number of tools necessary to manifest said intent.

It is this third possibility with which the philosophy of natural wine, of the rejection of intervention, is based. A true interventional minimalist would do nothing to these grapes before or after they entered the cellar, other than what’s necessary to transport grapes from vine to winery and to turn those grapes into wine, and the result would be what it would be. For better or worse. They might accept this, or they might find the result undrinkable (though given the biological eccentricities of some natural wines one never knows). But the solution would not be to find out which additional interventions would be required to wrest palatability from the source material, it would be to find better source material. A more suitable combination of grape and place from which a wine not demanding such interventions could be produced.

The non-interventionist tries to, as little as possible, consider the question “what do I want?” The important question is “what do I have?” Restricting one’s interest to the second question, one is not overly confronted with the interventionist’s constant companion, “how do I get there?” To grapple with intent is to have already lost the premise, for the “intent” is to avoid applying intention.

A few years ago, a studio and its employees made something they called The Lord of the Rings. From a legalistic standpoint, it actually was The Lord of the Rings because they’d paid the proper people for the rights to the source material. And at many, many points, they achieved a transparent expression of that material; different, yes, as a wine is different from a grape, but an obvious filmic representation of the story as it is known.

But at other points, they didn’t want to make The Lord of the Rings. They wanted to make a different movie, one more in line with their personal preferences or the alleged demands of the marketplace. And so they added, they deleted, and they changed. All things that any filmmaker does. Except that they had to make their not-The Lord of the Rings movie – their collection of personal intentions – saleable as The Lord of the Rings, which meant that they had to stitch the divergent threads of film back together. Sometimes this worked, but mostly it led to the most bothersome and inexplicable adulterations, necessitated less by the original text or the writers’ intentions, but by the need to integrate the two. Not only did such alterations rarely make sense, but the heavy makeup required to hide them usually showed despite the effort. Change “usually” to “always,” and that was the effect of listening to the writers’ commentary tracks. Which I continue to regret.

The seams and makeup of interventionist wine are more opaque to those not already macerating in the debate, just as changes to a movie are non-obvious to anyone not familiar with the book on which it’s based. But they’re there, easier to taste once you know of their existence, and un-ignorable – not, by the way, the same thing as organoleptically obvious – once you’ve been walked through a specific wine’s sausage-making adolescence. At which point one begins to think about not just results, but process and intent. They are related questions, but they are not the same questions. This is how interventionism itself can be, and is, separable from a debate about the effects of an intervention.

Again, this is something that dedicated interventionists claim to not understand. Isn’t the only thing that matters how the wine tastes? Whether it’s good or not?

When the context is only that sort of gut-level, purely subjective consideration, then yes it is. But that’s a really limited way to view wine. I don’t mean that it’s bad, or wrong, to live contentedly within that limitation, but rather to insist that it’s equally valid to view wine through other lenses. One may, with justification, find certain (or most, or all) interventions philosophically distasteful simply because they are alterations to the original text, regardless of the palatability of the finished product. The inevitable corollary is that it’s perfectly reasonable to like a wine less (or more) once one knows how it’s made. Practice matters. Fidelity matters. Intent matters. Not to everyone, and not to the same extent, but that’s not a refutation of the concept. It’s yet another in a series of personal choices.

I can, and do, enjoy The Lord of the Rings as a movie. I can struggle with it as a work of translated art. I can dislike it as a dull-witted misreading of the source material. I can adore the faithfulness of the art design and the brilliance of the effects while decrying the faithlessness of the script. And I can have those feelings enhanced, damaged, or changed when the curtain is pulled back and the sausage factory is revealed in all its abattoirial detail. I don’t have to choose just one way to respond to the films, especially the most reactionary and simplistic – are they good or bad? – and I don’t have to respond to wines that way either.

Those who care about sausage…or film, or wine…do sometimes want, even need, to know how it’s made.

The utility of "natural"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-choice

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

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

*Why are people laughing?

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

*And sometimes, not even then**.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nurture, not nature

I don’t care about natural wine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dispatches from Naturalia

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Market that.

Blood, sweat, & Theise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, we all should.

  • 1
  • 2