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First we take Manhattan…

[sandra bullock takes a sniff]A scientist, an artist, and an artisan walk into a bar…

…and order a cocktail. Because they can actually have a conversation about that. Wine? Impossible. On that subject, the three shall never speak, nor (even more tragically) listen.

The long silence of this blog has been accompanied by a significant personal focus on cocktails both in concert with and in lieu of wine. There are more differences than similarities between the two disciplines, despite both being founded on the pleasurable boozification of daily life, and one of the biggest is that in the cocktail world, analytic inquiry is not relegated to — or worse, dismissed as being the unseemly meddling of — industrialists.

Some of the very worst biochemical travesties in the natural wine realm come from those who not only avoid science, but are actively hostile to it and whatever lab-coated hyper-globalist monsters stand behind it. This while their case-stacking and exceedingly wealthy counterparts in the mass-market realm dismiss not only the raving unwashed hippies at the other fringe, but any notion of wine being more than a soulless recipe custom-fit to a receptive demographic.

Cocktail folk, to their great credit, aren’t afraid to poke these monsters with syringes and pipettes, to see how and why they bleed. Witness this analysis, for example, which questions whether or not there are actual recipes — golden proportions, if you will — that transcend ingredient identity. The wine community will see no similar effort, because the Olivier Cousins of the world would never read it, and because Constellation Brands has already profited from it.

There are a few exceptions here and there. Some winemakers are actual technologists, like Clark Smith. Some are disruptively interrogative pebbles in the natural wine machinery, like Eric Texier. Though they start with completely different philosophies about wine’s essence, and their products evidence relatively oppositional goals, in actual practice they don’t let results stand in the way of inquiry and testability. Sadly, such people are thin on the ground in the wine community, and when they exist they tend to be gobbled up by the megacorps.

This somewhat depressive muse comes not as a result of the above-linked article, but after reading this brilliant thought experiment on the intersection between aroma, sweetness, and sense. Go read it; it is eminently worth your time.

I’m somewhat hesitant to respond to this terrific essay in the manner I’m about to, because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in serious disagreement with it. I’m not. A great deal of its foundation is based on subjectivity (because it’s about taste), and with that there’s no fruitful argument. The rest is thoughtful, forceful, and challenging. I think it proposes some extremely penetrating notions, and even if they prove to be wrong or partially wrong (though I don’t know how one would “prove” such things), rarely is the starting point pinned so far, and so authoritatively, into the latter stages of the conversation.

Despite my now well-established cocktail enthusiasm, I don’t yet feel expert enough to respond to the spiritous specifics in the essay, so my responses there will remain general. Regarding the wine-related portions, however, I do have some reasonably-founded thoughts. This will be a somewhat scattered essay, on my part, but the source material filled me with knotty mental puzzle pieces, few of them neatly-knit into a cohesive narrative.

Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit:

This lesson was first mastered by port wine producers who created the 18×6 template. For port, 18% alcohol puts the wine at the minimum of preservation so as not to be a distraction.

I think it’s an easy but understandable error to attribute intentionality to such choices, at least with the confidence this essay implies. The fermentation-stoppage alcohol employed in the Douro has varied wildly over the years and across producers, with both innocuous and deformative effects on the organoleptics, the aromatics, and the perceived balance of the finished beverage. And it’s little use to speak of Port as a single entity, anyway; an aged Colheita and a baby-cheeked Ruby don’t express balance in the same fashion, nor do a White and a Vintage. It’s possible that there are known ratios for each category, but I submit that ratios are quickly superseded by house styles.

Further, Port is an interesting example in that its tinkering winemakers and marketers have (like their counterparts in Champagne) long exploited differing cultural responses to the beverage. Drier, more oxidative Ports are popular in one country, while tooth-decaying young-Ruby sweetness reigns in another. In a third, Port may be more or less unsalable as part of a wholesale rejection of “classic” sweet wines.

That said, Port is correctly identified by the essayist as, at its core, a procedural, “recipe” wine…in which category it is joined by Champagne and most other sparkling wines (save pet-nats), Sherry, and nearly the entire universe of fortified wines. To my knowledge, Port doesn’t have a Marco de Bartoli-style iconoclast (Infantado would be the closest I’ve tasted) working to reduce or eliminate all but the most necessary interventions and producing atypical yet incomparable results along the way, but it could. And then we might see whether or not the received ratios are actually all that golden.

Champagne, however, is currently littered with such iconoclasts, and what they’ve demonstrated amongst all the strict interventions and recipes is that there is a multiplicity of positive responses to the sugar/alcohol/non-sugar dry extract/ester quartet. In other words, subjectivity of form and response are a greater factor than the linked essay allows. Which is still very far from saying it’s wrong, only that if it indeed applies to cocktails, it still might not apply to wine. But if it doesn’t apply to wine, yet wine is being used to support the thesis…well, there’s clearly more work to be done.

Are there demonstrably successful ratios that fling wines from shelves into customers’ baskets? Maybe, but I’m deeply suspicious. I’m particularly uncertain that the market demonstrates the validity of such truisms. When’s the last time you laid down a case of Port?

I thought so.

Drinkers of dry wines complain that even alcohol contents as high as 15% can be distractions from aroma when there is not residual sugar.

That’s a massive simplification of an extremely vociferous debate, though I’m quite certain the author knows it. Response to obvious alcohol is variate and personal, but the crux is always balance-in-context. The most strident anti-alcohol ranters have likely tasted (for example) Ridge zinfandels far above their personal thresholds that seemed poised and appealing despite being only a few ordinals shy of actual Port. It’s almost never the number, though the number is a convenient whipping boy. It’s the imbalance and the entire set of corollary effects — fruit-sweetness to the point of overripeness, textural issues, structural abandonment — that form the entirety of the objection to high alcohol in dry wines.

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is an easily-manipulated response, manageable with tricks both crude and subtle. Clark Smith claims that “balance points” for a given wine exist at multiple alcohol levels, and while it is (or was) his business to use technology to bring wines to those points, I’ve no reason to believe he’s lying. But as the most volatile component of wine, alcohol can be trapped or shunted by a studied choice of tasting vessel. In fact, the entirety of the wine-tasting rigamarole is based around this and related concepts. Anyone who’s purchased a boozy domestic pinot tasted from a narrow stem and carted it home to their wide-bottomed Burgundy bowls knows what I’m talking about.

The more interesting consideration here is a utilitarian one. Is the wine being employed as a cocktail? Or is it a component of a food-centered ritual?

I submit that of all the differences between wine and cocktails, the greatest is that one is normatively intended to accompany food and the other is not. I say “normatively” because there is a very lucrative subset of wine consumers who do, in fact, drink wine as a cocktail. That they will perceive issues of balance, aromatics, and sweetness differently is immediately obvious.

Wine, even with residual sugar, can be (and in the majority is) intended as a companion. A supplement. An enhancement of the food, or itself enhanced by the gustatory accompaniment, but in any case only one element in a more complex work. Cocktails, however, are generally considered in isolation. To bend one context to the other, wine (as traditionally employed) is not the cocktail, wine is the vermouth in the Manhattan. (That vermouth is in fact wine seems massively apropos.) Whereas a Manhattan is not the wine, a Manhattan is the entire meal.

It follows, then, that wine-as-cocktail has a fundamentally different set of sugar/alcohol/ester relationships than wine-as-food-partner. I’d submit that the bifurcation of wine response is most profoundly expressed by that division. And thus, it inevitably follows that while the science of organoleptics and the personal art of sensorial response are theoretically the same, they are inevitably divided by utility. To speak definitively about balance in wine is to skip past the essential, first-principle “how.”

And perhaps also “where.” The structural theory of wine, as grounded by history in the Old World (and Older World), is based on a cuisine that increasingly exists as a cultural artifact and is fading nearly everywhere. Many of the truly paradigmatic wines, like age-worthy red Bordeaux, remain unconflicted only with the most restrained of dishes. The modern trend towards fusion-in-all-things and pan-national culinary polyamory has almost destroyed the traditions that support things like structure-driven cab/merlot blends, which is instead now a market almost entirely supported by icon-seekers in multiple cultures, and people whose diets somewhat inexplicably consist of steak after steak after steak. I don’t say this to criticize or judge — people should eat, drink, and buy what they want — but to point out how the field of play has shifted: the most dedicated wine consumers no longer consume a diet that supports most of the traditional assumptions about structure, aromatics, balance…and yes, sugar.

We have long been living in a gustatory world that should wholeheartedly embrace off-dry wines, as Asian influences permeate nearly everything we eat and even our driest, most animalistic dishes tend to employ some sort of sweet counterpoint. This while the Germans, who mastered the most brilliant wines to accompany this sort of eating, have fled such styles wholesale in the pursuit of magisterial dry rieslings (which they can now make with steady confidence, thanks to climate change). Certain umami wines, like Burgundy, have proven unexpectedly adept at marrying world cuisines, but there is an entire universe of bibulous assumptions that has been somewhat unquestioningly abandoned by the modern diner. To cheer or regret this movement is to miss the point; it is, and the wines must respond or be rendered antiquated.

But even as wine and food tastes bend inexorably to an unfamiliar horizon, is it possible that spirits confound this trend, falling into neatly predictable ratios that transcend the vicissitudes of the ages? Perhaps. And perhaps it is my natural cynicism that makes me doubt it. A moment in time is little more than a vivisection. Perhaps we can definitively characterize a given moment and support it with data, but I don’t know that our firmest conclusions will be of much use to the swillers of 2040. The very reasons for cocktails in their traditional forms have profoundly changed over the interregnum between creation and our modern revivalist fetishization. Their utility would be slightly more familiar, but even that cloth is fraying. Do I think that today’s answers will apply tomorrow?

Honestly, I don’t. They certainly haven’t in wine. It’s true that cocktails have a much more intensely-tended root system, and I think it’s entirely possible that the “core curriculum” of cocktails will be preserved for eternity, to be admired and learned and introduced by bartenders to curious stool-perchers until the heat-death of the universe. But is what I just described “cocktails” as actually experienced, or is that just a foundation on which many future and highly differentiated edifices will be built?

I don’t know.

The brash attentional nature of these Manhattans are thought to dispel anxiety and with that said we might have just found their motive. If the Manhattan simply becomes a vehicle for attentional therapy there quite a few ways to skin the cat.

In fact, this is where and how the wine world divides most neatly in twain. The largest cohort of drinkers most certainly seeks familiar and repeatable commodification. This is a hyper-competitive market obsessed with pricing, positioning, and marketing minutiae. The rest are the cornucopia of niches who must be micro-marketed to by a haphazard chain of producers, shippers, and outlets, but who consume the vast majority of labels and of media generated in service of those wines. The former are the wine industry as an industry, the latter are the the entire reason that the greater wine industry has persisted and blossomed for millennia.

Do people who order a Manhattan without modification want the edges pre-filed to fit neatly within expected parameters? That’s the assertion here, and it’s likely to be true for the mass of drinkers, but what of the enthusiast? Is the delicate propriety of a safe Manhattan what they’re after? Do they even order Manhattans? Or do they order something from a creatively-crafted list, or a more touchy-feely cocktail like a Sazerac? I can’t answer for the market, but I know that I prefer the latter; Manhattans I save for bars I can’t trust (a cruelty I bafflingly inflict upon myself given the pitiful “success” of the results) or home.

It may be that this is a significant difference between cocktails and wine, in that the creatively important segment of the wine market (in terms of sustaining interest in something other than a mere alcohol delivery system) is very much obsessed with “vehicles for attentional therapy.” Indeed, there seems little other reason for most non-commodity wines to exist. No one needs a hundred new natural wine labels any more than they needed hundreds of differentiated Burgundian lieux dits. But we have them, and we embrace them.

If our motive is to thwart complacency it might make sense to have a formula forced upon on us through random old school free pouring where we will just learn to love it. Many people enjoy this randomness, but we are quick to chalk it up to a lack of understanding their options. Free pouring and random recipes are cocktail movement blasphemy but they may not have been without positive effects.

…and this gets to the very crux of the issue. Historically, we have “learned to love” all manner of contradictory things. We would not now drink Port with steak and Sauternes with roast game birds, even though to do otherwise would once have been to challenge long-settled wisdom. We do not tend to drink hyper-sweet wines as apéritifs if “we” are Americans, fearing them destructive to the dry whites or reds that are sure to follow, but the French ritualize that very behavior. We do not love resinated wines, unless we are a certain sort of Greek traditionalist, and we have abandoned aromatized wines to the cocktail folk for their blending experiments…only to have them turn around and offer those wines unadorned as breezy, delicious alternatives to cocktails. Apparently, the simple act of adding a citrus peel transforms something that is very obviously wine into not-wine, a categorial exclusion that is based on shifting cultural appreciation of aromatics and approaches to balance. Why do we consider Dolin Blanc a cocktail beverage and Conundrum a wine? Because we’ve decided so, whether via choice, marketing, or acculturation. No better reason.

Whether or not we are naturally inclined towards any aspect of wine (like sweetness) or require assimilation (as we likely do with tannin), it’s fairly clear from the multiplicity of wine styles that we are a constellation of opinions regarding balance. The industrialists have chosen recipes (and there are many) that are, by and large, repellent to enthusiasts. A cloudy Riffault Sancerre is predictably shocking to a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc drinker, but it isn’t any more likely to appeal to a regular buyer of Vatan Sancerre. And what of the late-picking Cotats and their ilk, who occasionally lose their AOC privileges despite the historical precedent for off-dry Sancerre? Or the opposing camps in Marlborough: one favoring enzyme-enhanced pyrazines and the other off-dry fruit salad from their sauvignons, while a third wave skirts the perimeter with uninoculated, texturally dense alternatives? There’s a strong and opinionated market of enthusiasts for all these wines, and in fact it could easily be argued that “learning to love” not just what is, but what is developing, is a foundational motivation for a very large number of wine consumers.

I often think that this trend is almost exactly reversed in the cocktail realm. The “new/now/nextness” in the wool-vested world frequently comes from adulterating vodkas and whiskies that are almost entirely rejected by the cognoscenti. Want to get cocktail geeks excited? Resurrect a lost formula. “Unimprove” a modernized product, like Lillet. Convince the Amer Picon folks to export to the States. Want to bore a room full of wine geeks to tears of indifference? Tell them you’re going back to Hermitage-ing classed-growth Bordeaux, just like they did it in the old days. The deafening silence of crickets and empty bank accounts will follow. But tell them you’re kveri-fermenting and skin-macerating a white from some Latvian grape they’ve never heard of, and the wine nerds shall flock.

“Thwarting complacency” is the raisin d’être (sorry, I apparently never tire of that pun) of wine geekery. As for “randomness,” it’s the very essence of the natural wine movement. Is there a “lack of understanding their options” at work? Perhaps among some of the most indifferent True Believers, but the majority understand their options very well, and have specifically and deliberately rejected complacency in favor of its opposite.

Though I still don’t know if they’d prefer free-poured cocktails.

It’s fascinating to consider the intellectual and emotional tension between the two worlds, actually. That the scientific perfectability of a Manhattan could be seen as desirable makes sense from the perspective of my inner cocktail enthusiast. My longer-time companion the internal wine enthusiast finds the very idea tedious, at best. I wish I had a verifiable explanation for how these fields have arrived at opposite conclusions regarding irreducibility. I don’t. I can only speculate that the difference is that cocktails are, by design, multivariate complexity unified by craft, whereas wines are singularities that must express both authenticity and complexity with, preferably, as little resort to craft as possible. (Here, of course, I speak only of non-industrial wines.) But this is only a contention, not a demonstration.

Some of the most fascinating work in the linkedy essay revolves around the tension between aroma and sugar. For example:

Among people with well entrenched acquired tastes, when we flatten a path to olfaction by holding all the the other senses at their most innocuous (a sweet drink) the aroma presented must be extraordinary or the experience will be seen as unharmonic.

Again, there is a clear difference when the subject is wine rather than cocktails. Industrial exemplars of the category — Blue Nun, Apothic, and so forth — don’t really have any aromatic extraordinariness at all. The current vogue for moscato certainly highlights aromatic explosiveness, but are the painted-whore charms of muscat really extraordinary? Rarely. Industrial wines that rely on sugar to sell themselves, of which the once-triumphant Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and its usurper Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio are the exemplars, are severely aromatically muted compared to their non-industrial brethren.

Yet I definitely agree that an overtly sweet cocktail must work harder for my attentions…proportionally along a continuum of same… than a drier cocktail. If I’m to truly adore a muscat, I need more than sugar and a flower shop/fruit salad detonation, yet access to those organoleptic realms is only hindered by muscat’s lurid varietal signature.

Again, I wonder at the reason for this separation. Wine lovers appreciate lavish aromatics, certainly — witness the rhapsodies writ with the ink of Burgundy or Barolo — but there is hesitation when it comes to overtly sweet wines. Instead, adoration usually only comes when the wines sugars have retreated; not in measure, of course, but in comparison to the maturing varietal, terroir, and winemaking signatures that blossom with age, rendering the wine “less sweet” to the palate. There are people who drink young Layon for the overwhelming sugar, certainly — most of them are French — but no serious aficionado reaches for their corkscrew until the decades-long process of drawing forth chenin’s elegant, earthen complexity has at least begun.

Here’s where I come around to a conclusion, of sorts, regarding the Boston Apothecary essay. Do I think there’s value in the search for a paradigmatic Manhattan? Yes. Immensely so. There may even be one, though I harbor more doubt than the essayist. But as is so often true, it’s quite possible that it’s the search that provides more value than the conclusion.

Mostly, I regret the lack of similar inquiry into the science of wine’s sensorium. Not because I want a One True Sommerberg Riesling, but because I think the people who would most benefit from a robust examination are leaving the questions (and thus the answers) to people who make wines they hate. Personally, I abhor artisanal wine’s too-frequent rejection of science, and hope for a day in which both the most vapid industrialist and the most committed naturalist can agree that biochemistry is an important tool.

And now I’m going to make a Manhattan. Because I’m thirsty.

Third place

Poke almost any subject long enough in a wine-savvy crowd, and the sticks and prods will eventually unearth a good old-fashioned terroir debate. I’m not sure how or why this happens, only that after having observed it over and over again, I’ve come to accept that it does. And while I’ve long known that there isn’t anything even vaguely approaching universal agreement on what terroir means, or even whether or not it’s important, I didn’t realize until a recent conversation the breadth of the definitional chasm.

(Clear a spare hour or two from your calendar if you choose to follow that last link, by the way.)

There are, I think, three broad categories of opinion on the subject of what terroir is: cultural, personal, and scientific. The first is, one might say, the traditional usage, because it’s how the term is often employed in its country of origin…though I should note that not all French oenophiles actually use the word this way.

Driving around the French countryside, all those produits du terroir signs mean a little more than a direct translation would suggest. Yes, “products of the land,” but also “products from here” where “here” carries a whole bunch of cultural and historic baggage in its marketable hands. In the traditional French usage, terroir means not only something transparent to the character of a place, but also representative of that place.

This is, incidentally, the reason that the oft-made charge of presumptive hierarchy leveled at terroir-endorsing French winemakers has some validity. When terroir is deployed in this fashion, there must be a history and culture, not just a polygon on a viticultural map. If a young site has only geography, then of course it has no terroir by this definition. Ill feelings on all sides would be diminished if the necessary corollary – “yet” – were appended, but I think that while Old World usage assumes that appendage, New World winemakers hear only the dismissal.

What does the cultural definition of terroir mean for wine? It means that it’s not just about site; in fact, anything but. It allows a great deal of human influence, because traditions are part and parcel of the concept. If an intervention, even a drastic one, is and has been routinely practiced, then that intervention is traditional and must be considered part of the terroir…even if, from an organoleptic standpoint, it interferes with the wine’s ability to express its site. In other words, terroir now embraces the thorny definitional dysfunctions of typicity. And terroir changes if the traditions change.

So there’s the traditional view. How about the “personal” alternative? This is the one that was new to me, until I encountered it in the above-referenced discussion. It has never been a secret that people have their own different notions of what terroir is and isn’t. What surprises me, however, is the extent to which this definitional incompatibility is not only acknowledged, but actively cherished by proponents of the personal.

An example: a definition proposed to me by one such adherent included what I would term “transient” effects. For instance, each vintage’s weather. Pests that may swarm and destroy one year, then absent themselves the next. Yeast populations indigenous to the vineyard, whether or not they’re different from vintage to vintage. Diseases and fungal infections (or the lack thereof). And so forth.

What this and myriad variations on the theme come down to, more or less, is a comfort in identifying wines that speak to one’s personal preferences as “terroir wines.” That seems dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. There is a natural and in fact unavoidable inclination towards preference in any definition of terroir that presumes it to be identified at the point of tasting, because…well, what is the terroir signature of the Oberhäuser Brücke? Who gets to decide? Dönnhoff? Critics? Do we put it to a vote? What if we can’t agree?

Since subjectivity is inherent when we’re talking about taste, there’s a measure of coherence to this approach. If the terroir of a site can’t be pinned down, nailed to the wall, and then etched in diamond (and from an experiential standpoint, it can’t), but is instead an individuated conversation between wine and taster, then what does it matter if we allow some transience and mutability in the definition? Probably not much.

The third definition is the scientific one, and it’s the one I prefer…irritating empiricist that I am. The goal here is to extract the maximum utility from the word, such that we may say “this is terroir, and this is varietal character, and this is vintage, and this is the winemaker’s hand,” and – while acknowledging that nothing will ever be separable by clean borders in the fashion I just suggested – advance the conversation about each in bounded and comprehensible ways.

The scientific view binds terroir not to the finished wine (it accepts that terroir may be identifiable in the glass, but considers it a separate field of inquiry and not what terroir is), but to the place itself and the products that derive from that place. Ideally, terroir would be identified by the chemical signature of the grapes from a single site, which would then turn their data back on the site to refine its borders. It does not embrace transient effects, considering them to be variables or noise vs. the constant provided by the site. And yes, it is a rigid, relentlessly utilitarian view that attempts to extract the maximum objectivity from a subject inextricably bound to its subjectivity.

Which is to say: even if the scientific view is pursued to its endpoint, and each terroir is identified by chemical analysis and defined to the maximum possible perfection as a consequence, we still go on to drink the resultant wines. And taste, no matter how much science or knowledge we heave in its direction, remains subjective. For though taste is observable by science, its practice is a blend of the scientific, the cultural, and the personal.

Just like terroir.