Browse Tag

natural wine

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.

Careful with that axe, Eugene

Thomas Matthews has an axe. And he is going to grind it. Observe:

Call me hard-hearted, or wrong-headed. But as I read the outpouring of admiration and love for Marcel Lapierre following his untimely death in early October, I thought of Georges Duboeuf.

Now, look: there are a lot of people who like the wines of Georges Dubœuf. And there are a lot of people who like the wines of Marcel Lapierre. I seriously doubt anyone other than Thomas Matthews has ever thought of tragedy afflicting the one and been reminded, immediately and with purpose, of the other.

Ah…but there’s the word: purpose. Matthews has a purpose. That, and an axe. And a grinding stone. (How does he have free hands with which to type?)

Lapierre [..] was an early and faithful adherent to a traditional, non-interventionist approach to grapegrowing and vinification. This made him a hero to the proponents of “natural” wine. And they, in turn, have positioned him in opposition to the wines they judge as industrial or even immoral.

Not exactly. Many have positioned him as an alternative to wines not made Lapierre’s way. Opposition is a loaded word, full of baggage that has arrived in the hands of Mr. Matthews; Lapierre was far more interested in “because” than he was in “rather than.” So already, Matthews is sliding off the track, attributing to Lapierre actions that he really means to attribute to commentators (whether they be winemakers or not). When he gets done grinding this axe, I bet we’ll be eyeing the necks of those commentators, not Lapierre. Anyone want to take that bet?

…oh, and as for his allegation of immorality: um, what? I hope he has a citation handy. I’ve heard Dubœuf’s wines called a lot of things. (I’d call them uninspired and unfortunately but consequentially popular.) But “immoral”? Really? Who said that? Whoever it was, they have a high-speed grinder and a tiny axe, but apparently a very poor sense of the target.

I’m going to edit & paraphrase for brevity here. (Hey, I can do it for others. Just because I can’t do it for myself…)

Eric Asimov: “[Lapierre] and a group of three other producers were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that Beaujolais had far more to offer than its often insipid mass-market nouveau wines.” And Alice Feiring: “There are stars in the world, leading men and women, ones that make a difference. You can smell them, see them vibrate … The saving of Beaujolais was mostly his heavy lifting in his quiet way … he left behind a legacy of commitment, [that] belief + action changes the world.”

Wow. Yes, just look at how many times they called Dubœuf immoral. Just look…hey, wait. They didn’t do anything of the sort.


I regret to say that I never met Lapierre. […] I don’t know his wines well, either. Based on our reviews, I can tell they were exemplary […].

No one is requiring Matthews to have been fishing buddies with Lapierre, or to have consumed his wines by the truckload. But it’s not like he’s some hooch-swilling bumpkin who just fell off a navet truck and is now forced, absent knowledge or preparation, to make his first wine purchase. He has a rather major position in the wine assessment industry, with access to as many different wines as anyone on the planet, and he can certainly afford to travel. I suspect he has not lacked for opportunity in either regard. Moreover, the wines have been around, hyped, and laden with reputation and oenological importance (whether one is for or against that style of oenology) for rather a long while now. What, exactly, was he waiting for?

And also: what, exactly, are we to take from the above admissions? I mean, I’m happy he made them, rather than pretending an experience he didn’t have. But let’s try it this way: “reading musicians’ outpouring of adoration for bandleader Robert Fripp the other day,” (don’t fret, Crimheads, he’s not dead) “I thought of Britney Spears.” Well, great for you. What does one have to do with the other, other than they both make their money from music?

Oh, but see, I’m already going to be in Matthews’ ill graces here, because I’m implying all manner of insult against the brilliance of M. Dubœuf by comparing him with Mlle. Spears. Well, let’s all rest easy on that score, because I’m not implying anything. I’m stating my opinion outright: Dubœuf’s wines, which used to be manipulated in a most unfortunate way, are now merely somewhat manipulated and are qualitatively mediocre. In other words, the Beaujolais equivalent of eminently forgettable pop music. Hey, wait…there’s an analogy in that, somewhere…

[Matthews drinks a Lapierre Morgon.] Was it balanced, lively and refreshing? Yes, indeed. Was it transcendent, somehow on a different plane than other delicious Beaujolais I have enjoyed? No, I couldn’t really go that far.

Among those for whom Lapierre was a transformational figure, there aren’t that many who would disagree that the wines aren’t as transformational as those of others who’ve followed in his footsteps. Once, perhaps. Now, with so many alternatives, less so. And it’s important to realize that Lapierre wasn’t precisely a trailblazer, either. He built on the nearly-lost work of others, demonstrated its value, and spread the knowledge thus gained. That there is a core of natural, or at least non-industrial, winemaking in Beaujolais is almost solely due to his knowledge-sharing efforts, and that there is a groundswell of such wines around the world is, again, somewhat attributable to his success and his generosity with this knowledge. But transcendence? Has anyone made that claim? Lapierre himself would have been the very last, even under duress.

No, Lapierre’s “different plane” was in the philosophy behind the work…in the vineyard and in the cellar. The result would, he believed, take care of itself. And it did. His legacy is not one of a specific paradigm or practice, but a demonstration that – while accepting the premise that no wine actually makes itself – a philosophy of control and outcome-orientation is not the only way to make successful wine. There’s another. To the extent that anyone has even suggested such might be codified, that’s the genesis of the “natural wine movement.” But that wasn’t Lapierre’s purpose, and while I hope he was satisfied that he made an impact beyond his bank balance, he never seemed to be all that enthused about movements and labels. He’d have been pleased that Matthews at least tried the wine, happy that he liked it, and confused at the notion that it was supposed to exist on, or even represent, some materially elevated plane.

Matthews’ inability to derive a more useful and applicable conclusion from Lapierre’s work is not due to any insufficiencies as a taster. I wouldn’t speak to those even if I could, and I can’t. In any case, taste remains personal and subjective, and Matthews will either find something in the wine or he will not; others can point to what they taste, but only Matthews can taste what he tastes. No, the failure (as such) is the philosophy that understanding is to be found in the glass, and here arriveth the full-stop punctuation. An understanding that founds Matthews’ work. An understanding that is mis-.

Within the confines of the glass, Lapierre’s goal was to make a pleasurable wine. If there was understanding to be had, Lapierre intended that to be acquired well outside the drinking vessel. And there is, in fact, rather a lot of understanding to be had and dealt with in Marcel Lapierre’s work, whether one ends as a disciple, a contrarian, or an agnostic. “Understanding Lapierre” is not sniffed, swirled, spit, and scored. It is a story of how the wine was made, and an ever-evolving cornucopia of answers to the why of the wine. If Matthews is looking for that in a bottle over dinner, he’s looking in the wrong place, and his quest is bereft of hope. To find those, one must – as Matthews does not – know the wines. And that requires more than just drinking them.

I don’t fault Matthews for not having done this, though given the growing importance of the concepts behind Lapierre’s work, it’s an unfortunate oversight. He can’t, after all, know everyone and everything in the overwhelming universe of wine. But here he is nonetheless, opining on the wine, the context, and the philosophy. I would (gently) suggest that to do so from a position of knowledge would have mitigated some of the exasperation that this paean to Dubœuf is now generating.

But, as I suggested earlier, Matthews’ topic isn’t actually Lapierre, or even Dubœuf, which is how we begin at the rather absurd leap from one to the other and move quickly on to the sharpening of hatchets. Witness:

I imagine Duboeuf knew Lapierre, too, and knowing Duboeuf, I am sure he admired the principled vigneron from Morgon. I suspect he feels that much of the praise now being lavished on Lapierre is a veiled attack on him. I suppose you could cast the two men in a morality play that pits worldly success against traditional virtue.

I suppose one could, yes. Has anyone? Other than Matthews, I mean? Straw men are pretty, especially as the corn around them browns into an autumnal tangle and the crows realize their season-long error in judgment has left them tragically undernourished. But I rather think that most of the comparison between the two – typically utilizing them as icons for competing philosophies rather than actual personages – comes down to a discussion of homogenization vs. its alternatives. Dubœuf’s flattening effect was an all-too-easy target in the days of the 71B yeast and its overwhelming banana aromas. Now it’s thermovinification (unless my knowledge is out of date), which still has a homogenizing effect, and which is still a fairly easy target. No sensible observer misunderstands the commercial appeal of homogeneity. No sensible observer thinks Dubœuf is going to convert to Lapierre-ism (even were there such a thing, which there isn’t) in the 2011 vintage. But there is a clear and identifiable philosophical gap between the two, which leads to a clear and identifiable difference in practice, and which thus leads to a clear and identifiable difference in wine character. (Note: character, not quality. Quality in this usage is subjective, no matter how many times Matthews references his publications’ scores to assure himself otherwise.) And that is the script of the play, oft written and rewritten by observers, that stars the two in their metaphorical rather than actual roles. It is about what they do, not who they are.

(This is not to suggest that there isn’t criticism of Dubœuf aside from this basic contrast. There is, and not all of it is purely academic. For that matter, there’s criticism of Lapierre as well, and some of it is as personal and hostile as that directed at Dubœuf. But both are minutiæ compared to the much more important and vastly more common debate about how wines become what they are.)

Furthermore, are Matthews’ opposites really the only two choices? “Worldly success” vs. “traditional virtue”? I’d suggest not. First of all, Lapierre had rather a fair amount of worldly success, as have many that have admired his work. And moreover, it is manifestly incorrect to call what the dedicated non-interventionists do “traditional.” It is not. “Tradition” dictates that wine be brought successfully to market, conform (at least where such things apply) to the dictates of typicity, and not unduly rock neighbors’ commercial boats. What the non-interventionists do has deep historical roots, but it is not traditional winemaking, it is a deliberate philosophical distillation of traditional winemaking to its minima.

If what Lapierre did was actually traditional in Beaujolais, Dubœuf would stand accused of turning widespread regional succulence into a faceless corporate enterprise. In fact, that is neither the case nor an extant accusation against Dubœuf. While good “traditional” Beaujolais existed and was gradually rendered irrelevant during Dubœuf’s ascendance (I find it difficult, viewing the historical record, to blame him for it; people died and no one took up their oenological sword), it wasn’t and hasn’t ever been dominant. As everywhere else, swill abounded and still abounds…whether or not the producers of the region wish to sue me for using that word…and swill is not what Dubœuf produces.

No, the knock on Dubœuf remains homogeneity and the creation, though market dominance (which he undoubtedly possesses), of the expectation of same in both consumers and gatekeepers…critics, retailers, etc. Imagine making quality, individual Beaujolais of any style – not just Lapierre’s – and attempting to bring it to a market that responds with hostility towards your banana-scented products before having tasted them. Imagine trying to penetrate a market dominated by a single producer whose wines taste more or less the same and can be resupplied in nearly endless quantities, while yours are limited, different each vintage, and transient. Imagine trying to get people to pay attention, to open their minds, when someone else has convinced them through relentless example that there’s no more to understand. Imagine trying to convince an ennui-afflicted Beaujolais drinker that a wine of individuality, quality, and limited quantity may be worth more than what someone working in industrial quantities can charge. All those and more are the hurdles that Lapierre, his cohorts, and those that sold his wines had to overcome. (And to an extent did, it’s worth noting.) But that success came by chipping away at territory not only dominated, but overwhelmed, by Georges Dubœuf. Whether by intent or inertia, Dubœuf’s wines and the philosophies that bore them set those hurdles. When contrasts had to be made (and contrasts are necessary to sell wines of character), they had to be made with Dubœuf.

That those hurdles were fair-quality hurdles was, at least, a benefit to the Beaujolais name. That is, indeed, something for which Dubœuf can be justifiably praised. The need to resurrect a fatally diseased brand, as will have to happen one of these days in Chianti, was not the challenge faced by Lapierre. But one may be grateful for the success of white zinfandel in saving old zinfandel vineyards from the plow without the requirement of admiring the way in which the ubiquity of same inhibited the success of the red version (and it did, for a very long time), and in similar fashion one may be grateful to Dubœuf for preserving some semblance of saleable wine in Beaujolais without thanking him for associating that name with a bizarre, constructed wine bearing only marginal relation to unmanipulated Beaujolais. Put another way, one may thank Disney for keeping The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the public mind, but no aficionado of Victor Hugo need praise the way they’ve misrepresented the material.

My unsolicited advice to Dubœuf – and boy, is it unsolicited – would be to drop the thermovinification, demand the greatest possible natural diversity between his own wines, and thus leave as his legacy the preservation of a region and then, at the end of his commercial reign, an enthusiasm for and encouragement of the qualitative renaissance that has unquestionably come to Beaujolais. No one is going to challenge his commercial dominance for a long, long while, unless his children decide to dismantle his empire. But there would soon come a time in which no one would remember that his was once a problematic empire. That, far more than dozens of flower-laden labels, is a worthy legacy.

And my advice – equally unsolicited, but just as heartfelt – to Thomas Matthews? Look beyond the glass if you’re searching for saviors and transcendentalists in Lapierre’s work. And don’t set up false dichotomies that are no more than your own exaggerations and extrapolations from the arguments you believe others to be having with your own icons. Your axe, pointed at accurately-described targets, will be all the sharper for it, and you’ll even be able to drop it on occasion and enjoy a refreshing glass of Lapierre Morgon. Everybody wins.

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.

Paris, naturally

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

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

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

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

This is going to require some explanation, I suspect.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be…only natural.


Cory Cartwright is doing a sequel. His 31 Days of Natural Wine was a watershed moment in the genre, and now he’s attempting to surpass it. Numerically, I mean. This year, it’s 32 Days of Natural Wine.

I’m not saying you need to love, like, hate, or be indifferent to natural wine, as a category or a concept. But this is as much of a wine bloggy event as can be conceived. It is, to the extent that anything is in the genre, “important.” (Though Cory would unquestionably twitch at that descriptor. And I don’t blame him. It sounds a little like a “very special episode of Blossom“) If you want a definition of natural wine…well, just read the series at saignée. If you still want a single, bright-line definition at the end of the series, you may have missed the point. (But that’s OK.)

Cross-promotion? Why, yes. Thanks for asking. My contribution goes up today, assuming Cory doesn’t reject it for confrontationalism. Or invented words. Or length. Though I can’t imagine it suffers from any of those three problems…

[jean-baptiste sénat, dusty bottle]

To the Nth power

What is natural, and what is Natural? As explained in the previous post, “natural” is a guiding philosophy, not a set of rules. It’s possible (and even probable, given the lack of control inherent in the category) that no two natural wines are alike, and even more certain that any given set of natural producers will disagree on details of viticulture and vinification. Thus, a rigid external definition of “natural” is unlikely at best, and misguided at worst. Yet another reason to prefer “more natural” as the implied synonym, rather than bicker about this or that process leading to disqualification and banishment from the category.

Capital-N “Natural” is a placard. It’s a printed t-shirt, a social media fan group, an “ask me about indigenous yeast” campaign button. It’s a public statement that one is following principles one deems to be natural, because it’s important to the person making that statement that others know this. It’s a form of marketing. It’s coming out. It’s not necessarily a movement, though it often looks that way as commercial entities coalesce around the term. It’s an open self-identification as much as a philosophy, and what others think (and how they react) is now a matter of importance, whereas for a lower-case “natural” producer all that need to matter are the process and, hopefully, the result. Once interest moves beyond that to the market (of ideas or commerce), it’s no longer just natural, it’s Natural.

The whole idea of a Natural wine movement seems strange to oenophiles in many countries. Yes, there are importers and wine bars that trumpet “natural” as a guiding principle, but the majority of wine is not “natural” except in a very denuded sense of the term. (Nor, it should be stressed, is it ever likely to be.) There are natural and Natural producers everywhere, but the movement as a Movement – there’s that upper-case signification again – really lives and breathes in France. Especially Paris, where there are dozens of bars and restaurants that embrace, promote, and…after a fashion…are the only identifiable manifestation of Natural (vs. natural) that many will experience. There are establishments elsewhere in France, there are wine fairs and gatherings, there is a vocal and ever-growing base of media and fan support (and corollary hostility), and of course there are the producers at the heart of it all, but to really understand what Natural means and how it differs from natural, one needs to be on the ground in France, visiting both producers and their commercial advocates.

Any broadly-tasted observer of the natural scene might choose this moment to object, noting that an awful lot of the wines that fit into and in fact define this category come from Italy, despite a general hostility towards the concept in mainstream Italian wine circles. But the center of gravity remains in France. Why? Because it’s not about natural, it’s about Natural. Italians have managed to cobble together a few natural wine fairs as alternatives to VinItaly, but the seemingly genetic Italian antipathy towards organization and conformity makes the likelihood of a true national movement extremely unlikely. Even those Italian natural wine events exist mostly because they’re the nonconformist alternative, rather than an establishment position. If natural wine ever became a Movement in Italy, I suspect it would fall apart at the seams. (In fact, since there are competing natural wine fairs, in a way it already has.)

I and others like to joke that the French are terrible at marketing. In some ways, this is true. In others, it’s most decidedly not – what, after all, is the appellation system if not marketing codified into the very law of the land? – and when it comes to natural wine, producers seem to understand what I’ll call “marketing the minority” quite well. Capital-N Natural thrives because the alternative is the vinous majority, and there’s always something to position one’s self against. If that’s not marketing, what is it?

The odd thing is, France – for many wine drinkers – is already the alternative. Isn’t the Old World model of traditionally-made, structure-forward wine the philosophical opposite of the fruit-forward, low-structure, texture-oriented wine that has come to prominence elsewhere? Aren’t the legendary forms of French wine the very definition of one side of the traditional/modern dichotomy?

Yes, perhaps. But traditional/modern isn’t the same division as natural/interventionist. In some ways the practices of the naturalists are thoroughly modern, in that the rejection of control is based on a sound fundamental knowledge of the chemical consequences of each action. In others, they’re a modern freedom to market to a philosophy rather than live from sale to sale or bet one’s future on the reputation of one’s history and one’s neighbors’ histories, which is how the appellation system functions. But of course, the naturalists are in essence the über-traditionalists, rejecting not only the clever manipulations of modern winemaking, but also the tried-and-true manipulations of traditional winemaking. A naturalist, for example, might reject chaptalization even though it has been practiced by seven generations of her forebears, and even though it would allow a thoroughly traditional way of working and marketing the results.

One may work quietly but naturally and reap benefits anyway. A surprising number of producers do this, based on reputations already made and ensured by the quality of their wines or the fame of their sites. But others – especially the previously-unknown, whether they be newly-splintered growers who used to supply a cooperative, or young turks eager to prove their mettle – want and need a hook. Especially, in France, given the inherent (and arguably desirable) conservatism of the AOC system. That hook? Natural…capital N intact and, in this case, necessary…winemaking.

The thing is, a marketing hook inevitably leads to marketing-speak. And sometimes, that blather can be aggressive and hyper-critical, selling an old/new category of wine not on its merits, but solely on the points of difference and denigration that can be applied to the alternatives. Difference quickly becomes superiority, and superiority soon becomes a rhetorical target on which opponents of the Natural crowd can hang their objections.

“This wine is better because it’s natural” is a nonsensical statement, and yet one hears it a little too often from producers who should know better, but either don’t or feel that the marketing advantage still works to their favor. A wine is natural because it’s natural (apparently it’s made from late-harvest tautology grigio), but it’s better because it’s better, and the quantified twain ne’er shall meet.

Here’s the important exception: for some producers, tradespeople, and drinkers, “natural” may be a desirable characteristic all by itself. People make philosophical choices about their purchases and their foodstuffs all the time, and why should wine be exempt? For such people, a natural wine does have an inherent advantage over a less natural one, because of what it is. But let’s not conflate concepts: an increase in desirability due to naturalism is not the same as a purely qualitative advantage. One may, given a certain philosophy, reasonably conclude that a natural wine is more desirable than a less natural wine even though one thinks that the less natural wine is, by some personal standard of quality, “better”…just as (for example) one might choose local agricultural products over transoceanic products for environmental and philosophical reasons, even though this means a net loss in the quality and/or variability of available ingredients. Choosing natural is a very different thing than saying natural is, by definition, better.

Advocates of naturalism engage in their own bad faith when they merge the two concepts, whether they’re just plain ignorant or because they perceive there’s a marketing advantage to be had. A producer or consumer may honestly believe that natural wines are qualitatively better for any number of personal reasons, but they cannot demonstrate this to others beyond doubt or counter-argument, nor can they prove a correlation between nature and quality. Even in the most amenable of universes, one in which natural is a widely-recognized cause quality (and that is not necessarily our universe), there would still be those who preferred alternatives. In that universe, “manipulated” (or “Manipulated”) might be the same sort of marketing hook that “natural” is now.

(By the way, cards on the table: I tend to prefer, all else being equal, “natural” wines for philosophical and organoleptic reasons. I think that diversity is generally enhanced when adjustments are minimized, and I greatly value diversity. I think terroir is obscured when changes are wrought to a grape’s intended expression of itself and its site, and I very much value both varietal character and terroir. I tend to dislike some of the common vine and wine manipulations – primarily those that elevate alcohol, limit structure, and create or encourage specific flavors – that very often go hand-in-hand with an interventionist philosophy. There are qualitative exceptions to my philosophical preference in each of these cases, however, and that is why I can’t cast my lot with the Natural crowd, but can and do support the generalized goals of the natural set.)

So yes, there’s bad faith on both sides. That said, let’s not over-equate those sides. Natural (capitalized or not) producers represent the thinnest possible wedge on the pie chart of all wine philosophies. They are a “threat” to no one except the incomprehensibly insecure, and are an actual threat to no one at all, because they’re only an alternative, not a theocracy. How can the existence of one style of winemaking hurt any other style of winemaking., absent legislation (from which natural winemaking could not be more remote)? It can’t, of course. If the varying and competing styles of are qualitatively appealing , there should be room for everyone at the table. What there probably isn’t room for is pointless sniping over who can and should use which term, or who has the right to a concept, or whose philosophy is “better.”

[netted grapes]

It’s only natural

“This wine is red.” Say it out loud. Do any wine geeks within range raise immediate objections? No, unless they’re completely soused and apt to object to their own names unless supplied in song form. But is the wine actually red? Probably not. It might be magenta, purple-hued, infused with a pale salmon color, or bricking orange-brown at the edges. It might be nearly opaque, or it might be a faint tint in an otherwise transparent liquid. What it probably is not is plain-and-simple “red,” nor is exact correspondence with a specific wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum necessary in order to employ the term. It’s not white, pink, or orange? Then it’s red.

How about “this wine is dry”? Residual sugar can be measured and quantified, certainly, but sweetness is an organoleptic response, powerfully affected by factors beyond a quantifiable measure. And the seemingly crucial fact that very few wines are actually entirely free of any and all residual sugar probably won’t enter into this discussion, because “a dry wine” doesn’t mean “zero residual sugar,” and wine folk understand and accept this as part of their shared language. There might, if there’s to be any debate at all, be a discussion of apparent sweetness as experienced by different tasters, but that will probably be the extent of the controversy.

So let’s try another short, easy-to-understand, and useful phrase. “This is a natural wine.” Quickly now: cover your ears, lest you’re deafened by the escalating responsive din. “Natural wine doesn’t exist,” you will be told, with impatience and, sometimes, actual exasperation. “Wine doesn’t make itself.”

Yes, because that’s exactly what “natural wine” means to those who use it: grapes that ferment themselves, fall into a bottle that’s sprouted from the ground, acquire both label and closure thanks to the charitable works of passing insects, and then walk (on newly-sprouted bottle feet) to the nearest port for transport and eventual sale. It is then purchased by fairies and leprechauns to be consumed at the Midsummer feast while conjuring unicorns.

(Why isn’t there an HTML sarcasm tag? Or is it better to just assume that the entire internet is enclosed within one instance of the tag?)

This increasingly tiresome debate continues along these lines, unabated, as more and more wines self-identify as “natural.” But a lot of the arguments are in bad faith, because people insist on a strict definition for “natural” that neither corresponds to reality nor is demanded elsewhere within the language of wine.

Imagine that, hypothetically, there are exactly one-hundred things that a winemaker can do between and inclusive of vine, must, and bottle that will change the nature of the wine: additions, subtractions, and transformations. A winemaker might do four of them, or all 100 of them. Which of those wines is less a product of nature and more a product of human ingenuity? That’s an easy question to answer, and unlikely to be debated. So why does identifying the opposite condition lead to such indignant rhetoric? If the latter wine is less natural, what’s wrong with calling the former wine more natural? Without even digging into the marbled meat of the matter, but instead as a matter of language, it should be clear that these disparate reactions don’t make a bit of sense. If one pole exists, so must the other.

And “more natural” is really the full extent of what “natural” means in common parlance. With one caveat: a natural wine is more natural than an arbitrary less-natural alternative, while (here’s the caveat) remaining within some arbitrary and personal threshold whereby deformative manipulations have been eschewed to the extent possible. (In other words, Kendall-Jackson can’t sensibly claim itself natural because they use two fewer techniques than Gallo, but seventy more than Edmunds St. John.) It’s not a boast that no human has participated in the process, it’s not an assertion that the grapes were magically transformed into wine by the wave of a wizard’s wand, and it’s not an insistence that absolutely no agricultural or technological measures were undertaken. It’s a philosophical approach to the craft of winemaking in which the myriad opportunities for control tend to be ignored rather than taken, and in which most choices remain unmade. That’s tend to be, not must be. Enforced naturalism is fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is not natural winemaking, it’s religious winemaking. In fact, it goes against the principles of naturalism in that it, too, is a recipe, insisting on rather than allowing specific choices during the winemaking process. This matters because far too many observers incorrectly conflate fundamentalism with naturalism, and in fact the insistence that “natural” can only mean one single (and impossible) thing is to insist that naturalism is a synonym for fundamentalism. Which it most certainly is not.

The other problem with a debate being conducted along lines in which “natural” is not allowed to have any meaning beyond fundamentalist purity of practice is that both it and all related and opposed terms become laden not with meaning, but with inferred (not implied) value judgments. But this need not be the case. The employment of the term “natural wine” does not inherently presume an opposing category of “unnatural wine” (which is certainly a laden phrase), it simply places natural wine near one end of a range of practices and guiding philosophies. To pretend that that range does not exist, and is not represented by many producers at each point along its length, is ludicrous. And yet, this is what deniers of the concept of “natural wine” claim to believe when they insist that the term is without meaning; if one end of the range doesn’t exist because it can’t, then the other doesn’t and can’t either, and thus all wines are essentially the same in both intent and result. Which they unequivocally are not.

Some posit that the problem is the word “natural” itself, claiming that it does imply an opposite, unnatural practice. But if the popular counter-argument to natural wine is that all wine is inherently unnatural, existing only as the work of man, then why object to “unnatural” at all? If this is the case, “unnatural” must be assumed as a synonym for the word “wine,” in which case “natural” has no meaning at all. But didn’t our objectors just decide that “natural” is a synonym for fundamentalism? Clearly, they cannot have it both ways.

Obviously, the actual problem with “unnatural” is that it’s not a particularly marketable word (to say the least), and the fear is that customers will reject it as a result. In reality, then, this set of definitional objections aren’t about definitions, they’re about positioning product in the marketplace. And that’s not a linguistic, scientific, or a philosophical debate, is it? This is an clarion example of an argument being undertaken in bad faith. The problem isn’t “natural,” the problem is the fear that it makes selling the alternatives more difficult.

So how about the alternatives? “Less interventionist,” “less manipulated,” and so forth. Better? No. In general, the same people object, and for the same reasons: how does one sell “more interventionist” and “more manipulated” in a wine market in which endless bullshit about the natural gifts of a pastoral, vine-covered countryside is peddled by the most industrial and mindlessly commercial wineries in the world, with fake jitneys, fake overalls, fake dirty fingernails, and depictions of moldy barrel rooms miles from the glistening tank farms of reality?

But here’s the bald truth: some wines are more manipulated, more interventionist, and so forth. Honest producers will tell you why and how they manipulate and intervene, and will be both proud and explicatory as they declaim their thoughtful justifications for each decision. The desire for control, or in a more comprehensive sense safety, are part and parcel of a directed, goal-oriented philosophy of winemaking, one in which the myriad opportunities for meddling tend to be embraced rather than ignored. This is not bad. Let me repeat: this is not bad. A huge percentage of the greatest wines of history have been made with this philosophy, and great wines are still made this way. There are many paths to beverage brilliance, and naturalism is not the only one.

That said, a given producer, importer, seller, or drinker may choose – or prefer to choose – wines in just one mechanistic category, for reasons that seem good to them. This should not be viewed as an opportunity for opprobrium, as it so often is by winemakers (nor their fans) who manipulate more rather than less. Rather, it should be emblematic and celebratory of the diversity provided by a modern, scientific understanding of winemaking that allows, rather than forces or narrows, decisions in the vineyard and cellar. Natural winemakers who are not just following the recipes of yesteryear – and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that path, either – are able to make a philosophical rather than practical choice because they have a fair idea of what will happen as a result. This is not really a rejection of the technology that their neighbors employ, but rather an embrace thereof for the purposes of rejecting its use. That’s an important difference.

Those who grow virulent at the mere mention of the word “natural” are ignorant at worst, but at best perhaps understandably tortured by the baggage the word has been forced to carry. The virulence is even more amusing when one understands that natural wines are a tiny percentage of all available bottles, and that the strength and volume of the objections are far out of proportion to the market presence of the wines that actually self-identify as natural. This, too, is explained not by an earnest desire for linguistic precision or rigid taxonomic categorization, but rather by resentment and hostility over the implications – though I rather suspect inferences are actually at work – of the terms for wines not categorized as “natural.”

So that covers the bad-faith arguments by those who oppose naturalism. What about the other side? For they and their arguments draw hostility from many who are not part of the natural crowd, and not always unjustifiably.

Well, there’s another category of natural-ness that’s not just a matter of less intervention, and I think it causes much of the artificial hue and industrial cry over the term. My personal shorthand for this category is Natural, as opposed to natural. And what does that seemingly insignificant capitalization mean?

That’s for part two.

Natural science

[netted grapes]Clark Smith is an articulate guy. And there’s an odd schizophrenia to his eloquence; at times, he’s passionately defending the full suite of modern technological interventions that have made his name and his fortune, while at other times he’s lauding the primacy of the vineyard.

In this, he’s more right than many of the partisans on either side…both the ones who’ve never met an intervention they couldn’t excuse, and the ones whose winemaking ideal is impossibly utopian. And I say this as someone who is, with fair frequency, an enthusiastic endorser of the natural/traditional side of things.

In a recent issue of Wines & Vines, Smith gave voice to an inevitable outcome of this ongoing tension:

In the ’70s, there used to be a clear, open channel of communication with the press and with wine buffs in general, but winemakers got insular. There are now fully 50 times as many wines on the market as there were 30 years ago, and the resulting heated competition has shut down the sharing of knowledge. Instead, today you scrape for every advantage. Winemakers thus tap eagerly into technological innovations from, say, the biomedical field or NASA. These have come so fast that it is difficult for even seasoned pros to keep track, let alone school the public and the romantic press corps. Amidst all this change, there is a growing realization that the modern principles we learned in school aren’t adequate to the task of making great wine, and this has added confusion to deciding just what the post-modern path should be. So winemakers are really confused, just when a revolution in social media is demanding clear, honest answers.

This sort of transparency is something I’ve called for in the past. That it meets with resistance from concocters of industrial beverages is no surprise, but I’ve received significant pushback from those who’ve little to hide, and also – even more surprisingly – those who hide nothing. The usual protest is that transparency will, as one winemaker put it, “open [us] up for criticism.”

The thing is, that’s already happened. Arguments about techniques, sometimes more than the wines that employ (or deliberately don’t employ) them, rage across the world of wine discussion…in print, online, and in person. So the time to worry about the possibility of criticism has passed. It’s here. And now it must be dealt with.

Open secrets

What wine-related matters would benefit from the bright light of revelation? Ingredients, certainly…something Bonny Doon has already addressed. One of the great misapprehensions about wine is that it’s all just grapes and maybe some yeast, while others of a more suspicious bent hear “ingredients” and start thinking about artificial flavorings and all manner of nasty chemical additives. Wines of each type do exist, certainly, but there’s a vast middle ground of things added to wine that are, by almost any definition, quite traditional and well-established, like acid, or sugar. The availability of this information would remove the stigma of mysteriousness for people who, having just learned that most winemaking is not peasants foot-stomping tubs of grapes, are driven to question as blindly as they’ve accepted in the past.

But also, techniques. The modern winemaker has a lot of tools in their arsenal. Some are quite old and well-established, some are modern ways to accomplish the same result, and others are on the cutting edge of scientific winemaking. Some are deformative in expected ways, others are deformative on the sly. Some fix problems, others create new problems (which can sometimes, in turn, be fixed by other methods). Some are the outgrowth of a philosophy, including the philosophy of using as few as possible (or, for some idealists, none), some are employed as last-ditch damage control, and others are applied as a regular part of a rigid process.

Every technique has its supporters and detractors, but none is inherently good or bad, except as viewed through the lens of a winemaking philosophy. The problem is that, in the absence of transparency, the consumer is often left to develop their own philosophy based on insufficient, and sometimes even completely wrong, information. For example, the majority of Smith’s former clients hide the fact that they used his services. Why? Because there are some that consider those techniques to be of a special category of deformation, and those companies don’t want to deal with the possibility of negative publicity. The thing is, the actual number of people fundamentally offended by some of the technologies is fairly small, but by cloaking everything under a cloud of obfuscation, the result has been a wider net of suspicion falling on the entire wine industry…a suspicion now held by a greater number of people than would have actually cared, were the details supplied to them from a non-partisan source. The only escapees are those whose philosophy is rigidly spelled out, those already assumed to be using any and all techniques available to them (the industrialists), and the very few who have the courage to hide nothing.

Bent finger-pointing

So the transparency that Smith calls for is laudable and, at this point, necessary to restore rationality to the discussion of winemaking science and philosophy. However, that Smith has issued the call for such transparency is a little problematic. First because much of his business has been built on a lack thereof, and second because he cannot help but grind personal axes in the process. For example, elsewhere in his statement, he goes awry when he personalizes the debate:

More than ever, consumers have become inspired to love wine as the “one pure thing” unaltered by 20th century fiddling. The lack of straight talk from winemakers has spawned a whole generation of Internet piranhas who make a living devouring ill-prepared winemakers, the poor saps. These predators have learned they can trade on the public’s growing fears of technology in winemaking’s sacred ground. While wine lovers may not agree at all with these sensationalists, they can’t help being drawn to their rhetoric. The public needs to create an entrée for honesty before most winemakers will come clean. That’s beginning to happen with real journalists like Jamie Goode and Eric Asimov writing without an ax to grind. So heroes like Randy Dunn and Michael Havens are now willing to speak openly.

Oh dear. Those poor, poor winemakers, who sound awfully set-upon by the bloodthirsty “internet piranhas.” It sounds unendurable, but it’s mostly untrue.

It’s not that Smith’s carnivorous fish don’t exist, though someone who wasn’t deeply immersed in the battle himself might more fairly and reasonably call them advocates for a philosophical position, rather than some insulting name. And it’s not even that they’re incapable of the occasional bout of rhetorical savagery – who isn’t? – or that they are always fair – who is? – or even that they all make sense. It’s absolutely true that some advocacy is unfair, badly communicated, and outright incorrect. But Smith rides this fence too hard; either it’s his ox being gored, or it isn’t. He can’t simultaneously claim special aggravation as the target of attacks and the pretense of objective distance. And in any case, those he believes to be his tormenters…aren’t.

In examining why Smith is pointing an accusing finger at the wrong target, it’s necessary to ask where the “natural wine” advocates come from. Did the cohort of philosophically rigid interlocutors that annoy Smith so much spring fully-formed from the ether? No. They arose as a response to an existing dichotomy in the world of wine, one in which the majority of winemaking either embraces or is unconcerned by matters of technological meddling, and in which exists a small but very vocal opposition from winemakers who espouse positions of (occasionally extreme, occasionally not) traditionalism and naturalness. It is their work – their wines, which exist as evidence for their counter-argument to the modern norm – that gives rise to a segment of the professional and enthusiast commentariat that are the media-saturating advocates for the wines, and as a result the philosophy. This is no different than an encounter with great Barolo giving rise to enthusiasm and advocacy for Piedmontese nebbiolo, it’s just newer, and thus seems more jarring…especially by those who were unaware of the existence of, or have reason to be antagonistic to the promotion of, an alternative to the norm.

Thus, the “problem” for defensive winemakers isn’t the commentary on natural wines, it’s the natural wines themselves, and also their most passionate advocates: their winemakers. Did they not exist, and in ever-growing number, there would be little or no media advocacy to worry about.

[cowc exterior]The best defense is a good offense

So what’s the path forward? Still transparency, after which an honest debate can take place, Yet all too often the actual debate takes the form of a defensive crouch, expressed as a “yeah, but what about…” argument and often employed by winemakers, who respond to questioning of their methods with veiled accusations about others’ methods. There’s a good point buried within this argument, one which examines the value judgments in considering (say) reverse osmosis to be fundamentally deformative, but chaptalization to be more or less OK. But the defense fails in two rather basic ways. First, it is unresponsive, and merely returns accusation with counter-accusation. Second, and worse, it assumes either ignorance or hypocritical motivation on the part of the questioner. Yet not all who question are hypocritical; some distrust chaptalization and reverse osmosis in equal measure, and others are innocent in their ignorance of the philosophical difference. As detailed earlier, it is the very lack of transparency – a situation exacerbated by this tennis match of volleyed accusations – that creates misunderstandings by which reverse osmosis and chaptalization are judged by different philosophical standards that have little foundation in reality.

What would be preferable is an argument that allows for, or defends, ingredients and techniques the same way the natural wine cohort does: with the wines themselves as the star witnesses. “Here is wine A, made with technique 1 but eschewing 2, 3, and 4. Here is wine B, made with all four techniques plus ingredient X. Here is wine C, made with those four techniques but without ingredient X. Which do you prefer?”

There will be those who will like and dislike wines in ways that go beyond organoleptics – usually for reasons philosophical – and that’s a justifiable response. There will also be those who would not dream of choosing on any basis other than taste, and that’s no less justifiable. And there will be a third group that will learn something about the intersection of nature and man, and how the choices enforced and made by each are reflected in wine. Armed with that knowledge, and a transparency about how other wines compare, they will be able to make more informed choices about new wines they might like or dislike, and why. And winemakers will no longer have to atone for the unproven sins of their brethren, but will represent their products for what they actually are. In this scenario, everybody wins.

So why is there such resistance to this notion? As before, the motivations of the true industrialists are clear: they fear rejection if their actual practices are made public. (A fear that is certainly overblown given that most consumers don’t really care how wine is made, but are only concerned with a personal quality/price ratio.) But the greater problem is that this is a battle for micro-shares of potential consumers in a highly saturated market, and as with any such battle a lot of it is fought by waging a propaganda war. What’s important in such a campaign is not that the consumer knows, but rather that he believes…in a carefully constructed myth of “hand-selected” grapes that have never been touched by a hand, in the benefits of new oak barrels to a wine that has never seen wood that didn’t come in chip or liquid form, in the primacy of a named plot of land without regard to the quality of the actual products of that land, in the traditions of pastoral farming at a winery that owns no grapes, in the need to preserve land from the meddling of foreign corporate interests so it can be gobbled up by domestic corporate interests, in a hodge-podge of scientifically-unsustainable mysticism and nonsense that presents itself as more-holistic-than-thou, and in the ability of one person to carefully nurture an “artisanal” wine produced in industrial quantities while doing a simultaneous nurturing job for several hundred other clients around the world.

Testing one’s meddle

Whenever winemakers or wine drinkers start talking about “intervention” – a catch-all term for winemaking practices, but usually employed to mean only that subset of practices the speaker doesn’t like – the counter-argument comes, again, in the form of a game of counter-accusation and reductio ad absurdum. “Isn’t all winemaking intervention?” Well, yes, of course it is; wine can come into existence through absolute non-intervention (grapes and ambient yeast, a wound on one of the grapes sufficient to connect sugar to yeast and start fermentation, causing other grapes to split and add themselves to the fermentation, etc.), but it can’t end up in a container that way, and it isn’t anything one would want to drink if it could.

But no one who brings up intervention is arguing for that, and I doubt anyone ever has, so said response is more than a bit of a straw man. Advocates of the philosophy sometimes (perhaps unfortunately) called non-intervention don’t actually mean non-intervention, they mean less intervention, and even the hardliners only mean least-intervention. Not a recipe as rigid as any industrialist’s, but a mindset by which the preferred choice at a given stage in grape-growing or winemaking is not to “do something,” but to do as little as possible (with nothing as the philosophical ideal) in response to that choice. To claim a lack of difference between these practices and the free exercise of oenological wizardry is sophistry, and rather weak sophistry at that.

But that’s just the philosophical side. Many of those who argue for less intervention do it for reasons that have little or nothing to do with philosophy, and more to do with organoleptics: in general, they prefer the way wines made with less intervention taste. For such people, the usual straw man arguments achieve even less traction, because they’re interested not in intervention as a general category to be embraced or avoided, but in knowing which wines are more likely to satisfy their palates than others.

Drink the debate

So, having – like so many other industries – lost full control of the podium to the uncontrollable scrum of the internet, the battle has joined over who gets to hold the microphone that’s now roving through the audience. The sort of nonsense iterated above is no longer met with blind acceptance from all quarters, and so – to the blindsided – this must now be the fault of the bloggers. Words and numbers on a bottle are increasingly called to back up their claims with results, not merely with ad campaigns, and so this is now to be blamed on wine fora. Wines that “must” be made a certain way are now challenged by wines of comparable or superior quality that are not made that way, and so this must be the fault of some wine writing harridan.

If the battle is to be fought this way, the lesson of countless others like it is that those who refuse to participate with honesty and as much openness as they can muster will lose. Not because their potential arguments lack merit, but because the internet always “wins” this sort of tussle…and also because they will have failed to actually engage the arguments themselves, ceding ever-larger portions of the field to those who argue from the foundation of a philosophy rather than the needs of marketing.

Here, for example, is a long series of passionate arguments for (and occasionally against) natural wine. There’s some incredible writing there, and some less so, but what jumps out at me is a strong reliance on wines as foundations for the debate…or, in some cases, the entirety of a given argument. And these wines-as-arguments succeed because they’re open books in terms of conception and process. Someone can taste one, know everything about its guiding philosophy, and judge the merits of both. That’s the direction we need to go, but we need everyone participating in the discussion.

Someone much more interested in snarky but unproductive brevity than me probably could have boiled this entire post down to “Clark Smith should stop whining.” But no, that’s not really the point. The thing is, he isn’t going to win this fight via verbal artillery. What he should do is let his wines, and others, speak for themselves. Because articulate or not, wine makes a more compelling and complete argument for a philosophy than Smith ever could.

  • 1
  • 2