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An inferno in the darkness

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

No. And yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The philosophy of wine criticism

Millions of words have undoubtedly been written on the meaning and practice of criticism, and I have no intent of adding to that din beyond what’s absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, it is worth a few moments to explain what I view to be the philosophical basis of wine criticism, in an attempt to support what will be said elsewhere on its ethics and its practice.

Why criticize?

Because it is in our nature. We are creatures of emotion, and we are creatures of opinion. It seems to me that the two are inextricably linked. That we are also creatures of communication seems to me to inevitably lead to the practice of criticism. At every moment of life, we exercise judgment – here, for example, I decide to employ one word over another via a judgment that one is better-suited to my needs – and we communicate that judgment in ways both internal and external. Externally-focused judgment is simply the expression of opinion, and that is the basis of criticism, which is merely a formalization of that inherent human trait.

Why not criticize?

We are creatures of emotion because we are creatures of feeling, and judgment can be difficult when you or your work are its target. Yet this, too, is fundamental – not necessarily to our beings, but to our society – for without judgment there are no standards, and without standards we cannot advance and improve in ways that are meaningful and helpful to us as people. Nonetheless, the most common objection to criticism is that it carries the potential for emotional damage. This is unquestionably true, and an inevitable fact of criticism, but it is not enough to invalidate the practice.

Why critics?

You know the saying: “opinions are like [maligned body part]…everybody’s got one.” This is true. On the other hand, there is also this (frequently attributed to Harlan Ellison, but probably not original to him): “everybody doesn’t have the right to an opinion, everybody has the right to an informed opinion.”

Some will see the latter statement as unduly elitist. They are no doubt correct, from one point of view. Another group will see the former condition as insufficiently rigorous for utility; informational anarchy. They, too, are correct from one point of view. The critic inhabits the world of the latter group, though this may or may not be his audience. It is true that anyone can criticize, but it is not true that anyone can criticize with equal authority, and it is definitely not true that anyone can criticize with equal utility. The uninformed opinion can be emotionally satisfying to its source, but only by accident can it be useful beyond its author. There are several reasons for this.

The informed and authoritative opinion can exclude by the very means of its expression. This is because most fields of criticism have developed their own communicative traditions. The language of wine criticism is rife with terms and modes of expression that are undoubtedly impenetrable to the casual and uninformed reader. This is something the careful critic will consider, though whether or not it informs their work is a personal decision. On the other hand, it virtually guarantees that an uniformed opinion will stand out as such, because the terminology and syntax are unfamiliar, unless the critic is making a deliberate effort to eschew jargon…which is itself usually obvious.

Adding to this is the issue of context. Authoritative criticism becomes so by its ability to contextualize information and opinion. There is scientific basis for this: when studying the brain activity of wine professionals vs. complete novices in response to the act of tasting wine, the differences found by researchers are not emotive or sensory, but analytical and associative. The expert and the novice “taste” the same things, but the expert has the ability to put those sensory impressions into meaningful language, and they have this ability because of experience and the contextual authority it provides. (This is an extremely positive finding for the wine novice, for it suggests that the majority of differences between them and any given expert are not necessarily matters of inherent sensory skill, but rather of training, and that achieving expert status could be a mere matter of learning and practice.) The novice, lacking this contextual ability, can only respond to an object of criticism on a more purely emotive level.

This level of response has, somewhat uncharitably, been called “caveman” criticism. What this means is the basic, gut-level responses of “I like it” or “I don’t like it” that form the foundation of criticism become an end in themselves, and are not expanded upon. The populist and democratic appeal of this notion is undeniable, but of what use is it? Unless caveman number one and caveman number two have identical tastes, or one is willing to subordinate their tastes to the other, nothing of utility is communicated. This is unsatisfactory. A critic must ask, and answer, “why?”

It follows, then, that for a critic to be useful he must communicate judgment and opinion with some measure of authority. This means some measure of academic study, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be institutional (one cannot confuse acidity and tannin and be an effective wine critic), it means broad experience in tasting a variety of wines and wine styles, and it means the ability to separate the objective from the subjective and communicate as much of both as is necessary to support a criticism. It also means accepting and embracing the fundamental nature of bias. Incidentally, none of this invalidates the broad field of amateur criticism; this is not a plea to “leave it to the experts,” but rather a roadmap to improved criticism at all levels.

It also follows that a critic must be effective at communication. An unreadable criticism can be forgiven if delivered in an unfamiliar language, but otherwise is virtually useless. The mode of expression can and should differ – no one style will satisfy every audience – but the true intent of the author must be on display and comprehensible to the consumer of the information. This is much less about spell-checking or grammar than it is about clarity; a work of criticism can be as prosaic and scientific or as metaphorically fanciful as one wishes, but at the end the reader should be able to say, “yes, I know what that critic wished to communicate about that wine.”

Why not critics?

Because everybody has their own taste. Critics serve an important function in a world with almost too many options, but can never and should never replace or supersede one’s own judgment. This is why wine writing is such a crucial adjunct to wine criticism; the consumers of criticism must have the opportunity to develop their own analytical and authoritative responses to wine, and pure critics rarely fulfill that role. But beyond critics and writers, there exists an infinitely more crucial source of information: personal experience. A successful critic becomes so by the breadth of their context, and a successful consumer becomes so by similar practice. To use critics effectively, one must taste as widely, as deeply and as analytically as possible in order to properly contextualize the information provided. Paradoxically, this reduces the need for reliance on critics.

This is, in my opinion, not a bad thing.