An Interview with Jamie Goode, Author, Journalist, Blogger & Wine Judge. Part 1

This interview originally appeared in the online publication, In Search of Taste. Head over there to read it in its full form.

Jamie Goode is an author with a PhD in plant biology, and is the wine columnist for The Sunday Express. He also contributes to wine publications such as HarpersThe World of Fine Wine, Decanter, Noble Rot, GrapesTALK and Sommelier Journal. Goode published the book Wine Science: the application of science in winemaking in 2005 to wide acclaim and winning the Glenfiddich Drink Book of the Year award, and Wine Bottle Closures in 2006.  He co-authored Authentic Wine: Towards Sustainable & Natural Winemaking with Sam Harrop M.W. His website, The Wine Anorak and the related blog launched in 2001, are among the internet’s most highly- regarded wine sites, containing wine and tasting reviews and in-depth articles on subjects as diverse as wine chemistry, language and wine, wine marketing and GM technology. Recently, he also set up The Beer Anorak blog and web site with Daniel Primark.

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ABOUT  YOU

How did you get into wine professionally?

I gatecrashed the party. I was a science editor with a bit of time on my hands and a wine habit. It was my hobby, and I started a hobby website that grew and grew. And then I approached editors and pitched article ideas to them, and began to get advertising on the site. 

What is the most enjoyable thing about your job?

The flexibility. The intellectual stimulation of dealing with an interesting subject with few constraints on what I investigate or cover. The great people in the world of wine. The chance to travel to wine regions worldwide.

What’s the worst thing?

The more commercial side of the wine industry is pretty ugly. The world needs cheap wine, but the larger retailers and wine companies try to pass off their cheap wines as more expensive bottles, which is ultimately dishonest. And it results in joyless, tricked-up wines, over-packaged and over-sold. But I have to deal with this side of the industry from time to time, and it’s a bit depressing. 

How many bottles of wines do you sample per year?

I don’t count, but it’s a lot. In the thousands, for sure. It’s no badge of honour.

How many bottles of wine do you drink (as in willingly finish the bottle)?

Quite a few, actually. I really love interesting wine, and there are lots of them around. Most of the wines reviewed on my blog are drunk as opposed to just tasted. It’s the difference between a handshake and spending an afternoon with someone. 

You write for a variety of audiences ranging from beginners to experts. How difficult is it to adapt writing style to different audience?

It takes some thought, but through it all you have to maintain your own voice. If I’m writing for beginners, I think back to when I was new to wine and the sort of writing that appealed to me, or I think of what it’s like for me in another product category where I lack expertise.  

 

NATURAL WINE DEBATE

Are you surprised that the term “natural wine” provokes such controversy? Whenever you cover the subject on your blog it elicits plenty of animated (mostly negative, it has to be said) reaction – what is the major reason, in your opinion, for this term inciting this kind of response?

I think it’s insecurity. Many people are threatened by the unfamiliar. They have gone through wine education and have put wine neatly in a box: this is what wine tastes like, this is how we describe wine, and wines from these places taste like that. Then they are faced with this new category of wine that blows all the rules out of the water. They are faced with new flavours. And they use their knowledge like a sword to try to defeat this imposter. Classic insecurity. People who are confident and at peace with themselves don’t find the unfamiliar so threatening.

“Natural” is a loaded word. If this kerfuffle revolves around definitions pure and simple- would you be able to give a definition that captures the meaning (or the spirit of the meaning) when you think of natural wines.

A natural wine is a wine made with as little added to it as possible; where a skilled winegrower has been able to choose to withdraw unnecessary intervention in order to make a more elegant, compelling expression of the particular place where she or he is working. It is a wine where skilled work in the winery (not neglect) has freed the grapes and the microbes to create an authentic expression of place, unencumbered by the clutter of too much winemaking.

You’ve written a book called Authentic Wine. Authentic is an interesting concept– what does authentic mean to you?

Authentic is about the results, rather than the process. It is a wine that rings true: that manages to be an intelligent expression of its origin. It is a holistic term that embraces all the elements of wine: the site, the microbes, the grapes, the people.

Natural, naked, no-intervention – but also minerality, typicity and terroir – so many of the words that some of us take for granted are shibboleths for many others. Is it important that we can physically prove the existence of these concepts or understand that there are acknowledged truths which have no precise definition?

I’m a scientist, but not a scientific fundamentalist. Science has been incredibly useful in so many ways, but it is merely one way of understanding the world, albeit an incredibly powerful one. You can sum up a person in scientific terms, but this tells you relatively little about the very important elements of that person; things that simply can’t be captured in scientific language. If we talk of love or loyalty or bravery in scientific language, we have stripped these concepts of their very meaning. Natural, mineral, terroir – these are all words that are very useful, and which are used effectively in wine communication, even without precise scientific definitions. There are levels of meaning to these terms which are beyond science, and so we shouldn’t be bullied into not using them.

Wine is largely taught in courses and in oenology schools as an academic subject and an exact science. Do you think that received scientific wine wisdom can (and should be) questioned?

Absolutely. It should be questioned, but not rejected out of hand. I love integrating different avenues of learning. I think science, if it is humble enough, has a lot to contribute to the conversation around fine wine. But let’s not let the scientists tell us we are wrong about things when we have seen and tasted ourselves that they are true. I like multidisciplinary thinking that brings together contrasting – and even, sometimes, seemingly opposing – views, to create a better understanding. Paradox is part of life, and often the truth lies in tension between two opposing viewpoints. 

Do you believe that there is a natural wine movement as such? Is there a better term than ‘movement’ to describe the groupings of growers and supporters?

I would say it is less a movement, and more an alignment of people who share common ideas and cultural viewpoints.

Is it a problem that there is no clear definition or certifying body? Or is that part of the strength in that it liberates vignerons, allowing them to push the boundaries and work off-piste?

Certifying bodies end up being parasitical, creating checklists that focus attention on subgoals, and then sending in a big invoice. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken. The natural wine scene is vibrant and in rude health: why risk this? The only time we’d need certification would be if there were a commercial incentive for use of the term ‘natural’ on a label. Currently there isn’t.

A lot of growers all around the world, having tasted cracking examples of what we might term natural wines, are experimenting with a barrel or a particular “non-interventionist” cuvee. This evidence seems to contradict the view of certain commentators who observe that the natural wine phenomenon is a very small closed world. How would you assess the impact of natural wine in the overall wine world?

I think this small movement has had a huge effect on the mainstream wine world. The next generation of sommeliers, wine writers, retailers and winegrowers all seem to share a sense of excitement about natural wines, using less sulfur dioxide, not messing around too much in the winery, and using alternative means of elevage (such as large old oak and concrete). It has sparked massive intellectual curiosity. Even those who would never call themselves ‘natural’ are thinking about how they work, and how they might make more compelling, authentic wines.

One wine educator observed that natural wines are more likely to appeal to the younger/newer generation of drinkers. This suggests that people with conservative palates just won’t (and maybe don’t want to) get it. Will there be more wines made in this vein; what are the limits of such a phenomenon and will natural wine ever become mainstream?

I think that many of the older generation aren’t flexible enough to re-learn their wine knowledge and embrace natural wines. They’re currently the gatekeepers, and so it will take a generation before natural wine is accepted into the mainstream. But it’s already making covert headway, bottle by bottle, winning over converts. For natural wine to become fully mainstream would require a large shift in the wine retail scene, with a move away from large retailers and supermarkets to people who can better sell and store these wines. They’ll never be as cheap as more mass produced stuff, but it is in that middle ground that they could make a lot of headway.

Some critics of natural wine refuse to believe that clean wine can be made without sulphur. Are they right, or is more complicated than that? And what is clean anyway?

Great question. I have had so many clean wines made with no sulfur dioxide that I’m sure it is possible. But your second question is also good: what is a clean wine? What is a fault? What is beauty? Ultimately, the proof is in the glass, and its consumption, and then the consumption of the rest of the bottle. Some people seem to get really angry that I can enjoy a bottle of wine that they ‘know’ to be faulty!

Do you think the quality of natural/low intervention winemaking has improved in the last few years?

Yes. I think there’s a misconception: people think natural winemaking involves neglect. It doesn’t. It involves even more attention than conventional winemaking. To do nothing requires great understanding and skill. 

Another analogy is that in every generation there will always be artists, musicians, dancers and writers who bend or break the rules of form, structure and offend contemporary taste. Can the natural wine phenomenon be seen in these terms or are the growers simply rediscovering a traditional craft wherein the human being is close to the material in which he or she is working?

Art builds on what went before. In this case, we are seeing something different: we are not seeing a progression of what went before in terms of winemaking, but a cultural rift; a deliberate turning away from how things are currently done.  The natural way isn’t even a regression to how things were done in the past, although some participants in the scene do seem to be nostalgic for a past that probably never was. It’s a rejection of modernism, yet at the same time it’s a striving for something of greater purity and authenticity. In truth, all these streams seem to exist within the natural wine movement. It’s an organic, bottom up, self-organising system, not a centralised movement.

There’s been pointed criticism recently of the natural wine bar culture and a concern that sommeliers will populate wine lists with exclusively natural wines. These concerns have been articulated by some of the most highly respected commentators in the wine trade. Would you say that it is an accurate representation of what goes on? Do you think people are slavishly following a perceived trend (and if so what is responsible for that trend) or do you think that the growers and their wines have spontaneously excited a new audience of drinkers and that sommeliers and wine buyers are responding accordingly?

My view of the new wine bar culture is that it is driven by people who are just very curious about interesting wine, and so as a result have many natural wines on their lists. But few are exclusively natural. I love it that the proprietors of these bars have the guts to offer people wines they are truly excited by. This is quite new in London, where so many wine lists are cynical profit centres. If I go to a great restaurant, I want the chef to serve me what she or he thinks is great food; I delight in being taken outside my comfort zone. But wine commentators are bleating like babies the first time they go to a wine bar and can’t find the sort of wines they know they like on the list. Once again: a manifestation of insecurity.      

*To be continued in Part 2!

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