What is genius in wine? I think we can apply Schopenhauer’s observation: “Genius is its own reward. It serves no useful purpose; it bears no profit. It is as music, or art, or poetry or philosophy. To be useless and unprofitable is the patent of nobility.”
Wine, as we understand it, serves a commercial imperative; 99.9% of wine conforms to this imperative. There are, however, rare wines that exist on their own terms, wherein the winemaker has held back from intervention in that you cannot say with certainty that the wines are good or bad. They are sui generis. Genius comes from within; the genius of wine is thus the perfect expression of itself. Evaluative norms do not apply.
I am not saying wine should be raw grape juice and that the winemaker plays no role. There are numerous transformations and evolutions – indeed the living character of the wine depends on these processes continuing. Stable wine is mute, real wine is in constant flux.
This may mean that two bottles of the same wine may not taste exactly the same, a fearful concept in a world dedicated to homogenous products. Yet since we are content to recognise the possibility of mutability within ourselves why may we not assess wine in the same way? And whilst we would obviously not desire to drink anything unpleasant, nor should we flatten our expectations to look for wines that conform solely to specific flavour profiles (ugly expression).
It is almost easier to describe real wines in terms of what they are not, rather than what they are. In a dynamic sense they draw their inspiration from the soil and the stones, from plant life and insects, from the sun and the wind, from the abundant wild yeasts that populate the vineyards and the winery. The vine is a glorious natural mechanism absorbing countless subtle flavour components. The role of the winemaker is perhaps to recognise the genius of the wine: its capacity to be luminous, uncanny, coalescent and fluid and to bring out that truth as gently and sympathetically as possible, to capture and put – using a lovely Randall Grahm expression – the (terroir) message into the bottle.
Through a glass darkly
“Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
(Don’t roll your eyes and tell me that there is nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach me about the raising of the wrist.)
“Your wines are obscure” was an accusation formerly levelled at us, as if we had wilfully sourced grape varieties that were off the map of human knowledge (here be dragonberries), and sought to promulgate exclusive, recherché wines in order to bamboozle all and sundry. One of our growers even bottled his wines (and still does) with the tag vigneron non conformé on the label, a play on the concept of publish-and-be-damned-in-the-court-of-critical-opinion. Oh, to be different etc. Well, a wine’s a wine for a’ that. Of course, the truth is quite the opposite: neither were the aforementioned grape varieties obscure per se (many have a long and noble heritage), nor were the styles of “natural wine” always so difficult to comprehend, nor were the regions themselves whence the wines originated particularly outlandish. Certainly, knowledge about these wines was not widespread and their individuality was often dismissed as going against the grain. That is not the fault of the wines or the vignerons, however. Until recently we were largely confronting critically closed minds and closed palates.
By some strange logic popularity used to be perceived as an imprimatur of quality (ergo, if a lot of people liked a wine it must be good). Similarly, if a lot of people had heard of a wine it must be good. It’s the argument widely used to justify the extension of brands and to pour money into marketing and label design. Perhaps the real reason why certain wines and not others have became popular is that the public was only being exposed to a narrow range, and, as a consequence, these largely factory-produced vapid simulacra of wines had become, by default, the preferred common denominator of choice. This had nothing to do with democracy or responding to what the customer wanted. Reinforced by the unimaginative buying and the promotional selling policy of supermarkets, wines survived and thrived in the market by a process of simple (un)natural selection: safety first and devil take the interesting grapes and styles. Thus bland consistency (or consistent blandness) was the name of the game, consequently, for a long period, wines were specifically made (or manufactured) to track the hypothetical palate of the mythical general public.
An obscure wine is one where identity and orginality are sacrificed in favour of creating a product to appeal to a perceived common goal; product for a purpose, if you like. Obscurity thus arises when wine becomes a means to a commercial end and is thus transformed by marketing legerdemain into something greater than the sum of its inconsiderable parts. The real wine always has a simple tale to tell, the faux-wine, be it cheap, middling or expensive, owes its commercial life to a marketing myth.
We seek wines that are primarily animated by their terroir. In our view the value of the unadorned (unadulterated) simplicity of the wine lies in its very nakedness. Obscure or pretentious wines disguise the essential transmission of flavour from the soil, the microclimate and the nature of the vintage to the vine and its grape variety; obscure wines are heavily manipulated in order to correct or vault over nature’s deficiencies, either bludegeoning attempts to layer flavour into the wine or using oenology to strip the essential identity from the wines.
The wines we love embrace clarity – through cloudiness (sometimes)! They achieve complexity through simplicity: you can smell and taste every subtle inflection and nuance. The more I taste our “obscure wines” with people (and explain the philosophy behind them) the more I feel that people are beginning to connect with the wines because they understand why they taste the way they do and thus appreciate them for what they are. That is not to say that they are easy wines. You only have to try a Valentini Trebbiano to understand that real wines are living wines – they taste different on almost every occasion, and, as the man himself used to say: “Nature does not leap”.
Tastes change. Now we are praised for championing the cause of the small grower, for offering variety and for challenging conventional perceptions. The map is being redrawn to reflect quality and interest; people want to be stimulated, to experiment and to discover wines which have a story and are crafted with artisan intent. Trends are illusory and the notion of what will sell, and what should sell, is based on a received faux-wisdom rather than real knowledge. If we accept this world-view, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Specialist wine companies can help to shift opinion and overcome the restraints of the commercial imperative by sticking to their guns and having faith in and promoting growers who make wines with a strong identity. And this imperative is not exclusive to wine; other artisan food and drink producers are also making a name for themselves, demonstrating that small can be beautiful – and successful – in its own right. Success should not, however, be measured in points and pounds sterling, but in the integrity of the product; indeed, as Schopenhauer, genius is its own reward.