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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.


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…

Elephant talk

[windows]Would we be better off without tasting notes? Cory Cartwright thinks so. Over on his excellent blog, saignée, Cory takes up a crusade against tasting notes, calling them “esoteric,” “linguistic blackflips,” and…well, the epithets go on from there. It’s a powerful broadside, and well worth the time to read.

Cory’s not the first to gaze longingly over this horizon. Contrarian importer Joe Dressner has been there before, and Eric Asimov has peeked through these trees at what might otherwise be, and a fair number of very intense wine dorks of my acquaintance have long practiced a quieter form of protest by not issuing their own tasting notes.

Or so they say.

The thing is, I’m going to disagree with Cory. First in a nitpicky, superficial way, and second because despite his seemingly heartfelt promise to “no longer subject [us] to these tasting notes,” by the end of his thoughtful essay he has in fact come right back to promising to continue to subject us to them.

Before too many paragraphs have passed, it becomes clear that the target of Cory’s particular ire is the grocery list note: fruits, vegetables, rocks, some structural check offs…and then, should the writer be so inclined, a rating of some sort. I would be tempted to agree that these notes are the least useful sort, which is why I’m trying not to write them anymore, but I also have a firmly-stated belief that people should write the notes they want to write to which I still hold. And the fact is, whether Cory or I like them, these notes are pretty popular, judging by their ubiquity amongst the most consumed critics. An alternative to them might be more popular, but until a critical mass of the latter exists, there’s no way to know.

So, that micro-nit aside, let’s question the general contention that Cory’s making. A fair number of paragraphs after his solemn promise to eschew tasting notes, this is how he ends his piece (I have done some cosmetic editing; Cory is less enthralled by capitalized pronouns than I am):

So this is the death of any sort of tasting notes on this blog. I will instead try and do better about telling you why I enjoyed what I drank (and hopefully why you should be interested in what I drink) instead of trying to figure out what I drank.

That’s a worthy sentiment, and a strong philosophy. As a goal, it’s going to be harder than Cory thinks. Somewhat ironically, he identifies one key concern earlier in his essay:

Just as I’ll never appreciate cars in the same way as someone who restores ‘57 Chevys, or care for jazz like crate digging fans do, I don’t expect everybody to enjoy wine the same way I do.

So when Cory says that he hopes to communicate “why you should be interested in what I drink,” he’s just reversing this problematic lens: rather than asking readers to figure out just exactly what it is that he likes or how he thinks, he’s now putting himself in a position whereby he must try to figure out what they like and how they think. Since Cory is unlikely to know any single person better than himself, this is already a monumental task. Apply that to the masses of potential readers, each with their own needs and desires, and it seems an unscalable monument.

But whether or not Cory is up to this task isn’t really the issue. Earlier in his essay, he narrowly defines the tasting note as the fruit-salad form identified above

When I say “tasting notes” I mean the shelf talker kind that breaks the wine down into a list of aromas and flavors that I may or may not have detected in a glass of wine. I don’t like writing them, reading them, and I don’t think they are useful in any way.

But that’s an unduly narrow conception of the tasting note, and Cory must certainly know better. We’ve had structural or hierarchical notes, notes-as-points, notes-as-graphic-art, Wine X-style pop culture references, and since Cory and I participate in some of the same wine fora, I know he’s also familiar with the long-form, “walk with the farmer” style of which I and others are particularly enamored. Even my short notes are, increasingly, an attempt to give up the banality of direct organoleptics in favor of a “what it was like to drink the wine” approach (which I detail at some length here), and that style was borrowed from much better practitioners, not invented by me.

Rather than restate my definition of a tasting note, let me just quote myself (edited for brevity and applicability to this post):

A tasting note is an impression frozen in time. It is fleeting and ephemeral. It is one person’s opinion at one particular moment. It is not a communal judgment, and does not represent some Zagat-like conventional wisdom. It is not a poll. It is not “wrong.” It may or may not be an invitation to dialogue. The note itself may be all the dialogue its author intends. Alternatively, the note may instead represent only the author’s dialogue with the wine itself.

And then:

Notes may be structural, as exemplified by the methods taught to candidates for the Master of Wine examination, wherein the components of wine are systematically broken down to aid in analysis and identification. Notes may be organoleptically iterative, in the manner of modern North American wine writing – “laundry lists” of fruits, vegetables, flowers, rocks, etc. – or they may be as austere and ungenerous as the wine they describe. Notes may be metaphorical, comparing the experience of the wine to just about anything in the realm of experience, including anthropomorphism. Notes may be fanciful, reflecting the joy inherent in the beverage. Notes may be contextual, comparing one experience to another or giving the wine an active role in a real world narrative. Notes may be educational or informative, carrying the weight of experience and the power of data collection with every word. Notes may be a ranking and a justification thereof.

So whatever Cory’s going to try next, unless he’s going to try silence, it will – sorry to be the bearer of bad news – still be a tasting note. A better tasting note? A more useful tasting note? A more interesting tasting note? Perhaps, perhaps not…and that’s not just up to Cory, but also to his readers. That said, it’s still an attempt to communicate something about a wine to someone or something external to the taster. That, by definition, is a tasting note.

The tasting note is dead. Long live the tasting note!