Not the last word by any means on the natural wine kerfuffle

by blog on April 4, 2017

This article is inspired, if that’s the right word, by a proliferation of silly pieces about natural wines recently. Like the mythical London buses, these broadsides tend to come in threes. I suspect they are brought on by the full moon, but other theories include that they are in fact brilliant stone-faced parodies by natural wine lovers to hoist certain (usual suspect) critics on their own petards. If so, I will duly punish myself for my irony-radar going amiss.

Rachel Signer’s post refuting one such silly article

Anyone can drink wine. By the same token anyone can write about wine. It is hard to think, however, of a subject that is so poorly, uninformatively and unimaginatively written about, so ignored by TV and radio, and commented upon by people (or are they gadflies?) whose aim seems more to foment shallow discord than to shine a light on the subject.

The ignorance seems more to do with posturing. When you visit growers, see the vineyards and the winery, talk to them about the craft, their reasons for doing things, it becomes pretty clear that winemaking involves dozens of decisions, a combination of hard-won knowledge and instinct.

In the past couple of weeks, I have been venting my spleen – the origin of this expression being the historic belief that the spleen was the seat of emotions and I have certainly been out of humour, if not thoroughly choleric. What with the poisonous troll in the White House and his myrmidons of evil running amok, we seem at the same time to have hit the silly season with regards to negative rants about natural wine (take a bow HJ and JR a few weeks ago, augmented very recently by a plethora of other commentators), so maybe it is time to look at language, meaning, emotion, politics and natural wine, whiz them in a centrifuge and see what mess results. It hardly seems apposite when the Book of Revelations is evidently being consulted as an advisory manual in the US on how to run a democracy, to harp on about on such meagre frivolities as how one might define natural wine, but before any orgy of polemics, a frothy critical amuse-bouche is permissible.

Never has language been so analysed and intention so pored over to such little purpose. For a country that never had its academie francaise we seem to get a perverse pleasure arguing about linguistic purity and the value of a word. In religion, schisms lead to wars, in the world of wine, wars of words. It’s all a bit confected, as if perpetuating an argument had become an end in itself.

Passions run unnaturally high in the natural wine debate. Which is not actually a debate, because that would imply that two sides of an argument were being opposed. Instead of which, one side is bellyaching and the other feels compelled to react to, and correct misapprehensions. There is a spectrum of opinions, but even the more open-minded folk will feel the need to temper their enthusiasm by talking about extremists on the natural side of the argument. Being reasonable is not refusing to take sides, it is the ability to understand how and why we are in the position that we are. Friction results because growers, drinkers and importers do not enjoy being patronised by establishment figures – those writers, critics, commentators, some heavily invested in the wine industry, who seem to feel that they have been ordained by a higher power to debunk this shocking trend for drinking smelly, cloudy wines! They might even save us from ourselves, or, at least, our “worse natures.” Their opinions might hold some water if they actually made an effort to understand the subject, to examine the evidence, rather than start with an opinion and work backwards to a vague insult. Instead they come with sweeping generalisations (about all natural wines), using sophomoric straw-man arguments. You will never lack for cod-academic treatises being disgorged into a vacuum.

Alice Feiring’s post refuting the same silly article

Man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority indeed. These are the top-down hecklers, folk who have taken a professional position, their amour-propre demanding that they defend it by means of constant and thoroughly tiresome repetition. Adamantine inflexibility is admirable in a mule or a wall, but not in a supposedly intelligent human being. People like JR have nothing interesting to say on a subject that doesn’t interest them, hence they blow smoke. The natural wine debate is the sound of one side disengaging. Natural wines, of course, the vignerons and the respondees are not one colour, so to speak, they are hundreds and thousands of shades, individual expressions and individual reactions. Yet everything is darned, everything tarred with the same brush unthinkingly.

The reason why no-one is interested in these ossified opinions is because the world of wine keeps on turning regardless. Artisan farmers will continue to spend time in the vineyard, nurturing their vines – some of them may well be philosophers or scientists as well as farmers – but what they are doing has value– helping the vines to reach their maximum potential. And they are part of creating something that gives a lot of people a lot of pleasure. When a commentator condenses the efforts of a year (or longer), an individual’s very livelihood into a handful of crisp, dismissive words, it displays a meanness of spirit that is the antithesis of what wine is all about.

One word is directly responsible above all for the wrangling. The word, mind you, not necessarily the practice behind it. I covered this at length in a recent blog post but as all good (and bad) journos believe equally in the value of recycling, so do I! Words convey certain associations – for JR, “natural” conjures the experience of a bretty wine that he once drank and seems unable to forget. Nor to let us forget that he is unable for forget. Thereafter, whenever he sees or hears the word natural, his Pavlovian reaction is to mentally taste barnyards. Regardless of this faecal fascination, JR is in danger of becoming like some superannuated rock star perennially returning to his hit of yesteryear. The truth is that there is a whole world of amazing, beautiful, authentic, pristine naturally-made wines out there that JR knows nothing of, nor cares to find out about. Made by people who care deeply about what they doing and want to preserve as much as possible of what the vineyard gives and thus are not aiming to denature the final product with host of supernumerary chemical additions. But as far as he is concerned it is some kind of hipster con – so that’s (not) all right.

JR’s moderate offensiveness is a reaction to a word that he doesn’t like being used in a particular context. He’s claiming the word “natural” for his nefarious argumentative purposes; it’s his precious and he doesn’t want it used and abused. This is amateur league stuff compared the late AA Gill’s attack on Terroirs:

I covered the fascist, eugenic philosophy of terroir in a column a couple of weeks ago, so we needn’t go into all that again, except to point out that placing a French restaurant called Terroirs in the middle of London begs the question they might not have fully understood the concept implicit in their title.

Lazy writing is invariably the product of lazy thinking. The words fascist and eugenic are horribly misapplied and abused here. Crypto-idiocy, par excellence. Terroir, of course, a term used and occasionally abused in the wine world, not just by the French, refers to wines that exhibit something of the place they originate as opposed to “international wines” which taste as if they might come from any country in the world. Terroir is fundamentally a positive term, connoting strong identity, individuality, diversity and traceability. Assailed by homogeneity and “lowest-common-denominatorism”, it is important for us to encourage those artisan growers who capture the flavour of the real in their produce. Cuisine de terroir is a common expression, hearty cooking based on local ingredients. It comes from the heart. A fascist philosophy, if we must use that puerile assimilating term, would insist that everything must conform and be correct, that all growers should make identical wines according to the dictates of consumer acceptance panels.

For terroir to flourish, however, an appellation system needed to exist which laid down guidelines for what constituted regionality. The concept of terroir developed through centuries of French winemaking based on observation of what made wines from different regions, vineyards or even different sections of the same vineyard so different from each other. The French began to crystallize the concept of terroir as a way of describing the unique aspects of a place that influences and shapes the wine made from it. Long before the French, the winemaking regions of the ancient world already developed a concept of different regions having the potential to create very different and distinct wines, even from the same grapes. The Ancient Greeks would stamp amphorae with the seal of the region they came from and soon different regions established reputations based on the quality of their wines. For most of its history, Burgundy was cultivated by the literate and disciplined members of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders. With vast land holdings, the monks were able to conduct large scale observation of the influences that various parcels of land had on the wine it produced. Some legends have the monks going as far as “tasting” the soil. Over time the monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different terroirs – many of which still exist today as the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy.

Gill never allowed facts to stand in the way of a bad argument. But his use of two loaded words: fascist and eugenic shows how easily one may distort words to serve a purpose.

“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

And Marko Kovac’s post again refuting the same silly article

The angle of the amateur critic (the most compleat angler of all) revolves around the use of that tricky word “natural”. Just as no self-preening assertion that terroir is a fascist, eugenic concept will diminish the importance of farming in such a way to express the individuality of the vineyard, no semantic arm-wrestle over the validity of a word will ever invalidate the toil and moil of the natural winemaker. Our friendly absolutist pedant will point out that natural wine is a contradiction in terms, and the journey between grape and bottle is, by definition, mediated by vigneron. I think we get the point but, since no-one argued otherwise, it is a moot one. I would go further and suggest that a vital aspect of terroir is the very relationship between the man/woman and his/her environment. The ability to create the preconditions for, to work with, and interpret nature, provides a unique signature to the wine. The amateur critic who desires the Manichean certainties of the authorised textbook –is, in effect, saying that wine should be either all nature or all man. Life’s a tad more complicated.

It is the way you work, the decisions you make, the philosophy you go by, that determines whether you are on the natural side of the argument, and whether you are an extremist revolves around whether you express no doubt about your position and admit no room for manoeuvre. If you are adamant in your views as JR, RJ and a host of others, you can hold your nose as long as you want, but then you won’t smell anything at all – good, bad or indifferent.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

David Crossley April 4, 2017 at 9:13 pm

If we are honest there is a whole lot wrong with so-called wine criticism. For starters, this whole debate goes to emphasise the fundamental subjectivity of it all. So -called “wine faults” are a bugbear of mine. To say a wine is faulty when it tastes as its creator intended is fairly perverse. My wife doesn’t like Coca Cola, but I’m sure she’d never call it faulty. Thankfully she loves natural wine. I doubt a fault is relevant if a wine displaying such a characteristic has a ready and appreciative audience.

At the end of the day it is indeed all about vested interests. If I’m an older wine critic who is respected, and well remunerated, I probably need to fight to keep the status quo. Don’t want some young dude swanning in and grabbing a slice of my pie. If I so much as let slip that I quite like the wines of that Ganevat chappie, it’s the thin end of the wedge. In will slip someone who’s actually been to Jura a dozen times and before you know it, they might be paying her instead of me!

But what of those MW folks? Now the MW is respected the world over, is it not? But they do promote a narrow view of what wine should be. That comes from a time when there were about five types of wine to drink (Claret, Burgundy, Hock, Port, Sherry and Madeira) …okay, that’s six. Yet so much was adulterated (talk about fakes today) that someone had to tell people what the real stuff should taste like. Now, the world of wine is so much wider. It’s diversity is its strength. Has the IMW embraced that? I hope it will.

But getting back to the argument, all we can do is fight the lies (reminds me of something else, and the types of people on each side are often not dissimilar). Meanwhile, the “yoot ” are having a cracking time drinking fun wines in bars with other like minded people. They are highly unlikely to start buying Château Pétrus, or Bonnes-Mares anytime soon. That may be a problem down the line. At least for English merchants not selling internationally.

The influence of the old school is on the wane (fane wane in their case). There are those with open minds…I’ll be bold and mention Dr Goode. But to be frank, many of the great writers of the 80s and 90s risk losing relevance and audience as we polarise even further between rich collectors and actual drinkers.

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Doug April 4, 2017 at 10:19 pm

Well said, David!

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