A Q&A with Heidi Nam Knudsen of A Thousand Decisions

Heidi has been a close friend of Les Caves de Pyrene and The Real Wine Fair (as well as other small progressive natural wine merchants) for several years. She was a manager and group buyer for Ottolenghi Group and created exciting pithy natural wine-focused lists in each of their restaurants. She then consulted for Imad’s Syrian Kitchen, before devising and teaching a training course called A Thousand Decisions in which members of the trade are given the opportunity to learn about how wine comes to be and the transformations from vine to glass.

You teach a course called A Thousand Decisions. What is the philosophy behind the course?

HNK: The name of the course is a homage to all the many decisions that growers and winemakers who work with respect for nature are constantly making in both the vineyard and the cellar.

Are you teaching more than the methodology of winemaking?

Whilst I include winemaking, the majority of the course is about farming and the importance of soil health.

I try and incorporate as many aspects as possible of the process from the beginnings in the vineyard to the final wine in the glass, and what impact all the decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar have on the final wine in your glass.

I always invite an industry person and a winemaker to the course to give a masterclass on their specialisms.

There are so many aspects of the wine trade which consumers/ buyers may not be aware of. For example, I discuss cash flow and responsibility in terms of keeping the wine back until it’s ready to be enjoyed and ask whose responsibility is this?

I am also interested in exploring who has access to natural wine, both in terms of consuming it and making it.

What do you hope that your students will get out of the course at the end?

That people leave feeling inspired to learn more about natural farming, understand why wines with nothing or little added may look, smell, and feel different to more conventionally-made wines. That they acquire an appreciation of the importance of vintage and what it really means in winemaking, and thus why the same cuvee may not taste the same year on year. Moreover, I hope that people think about how they can share their knowledge and open up space for others who may be at the beginning of their wine journey.

When we discuss wines purely in terms of chemistry, microbiology and the science of winemaking and tasting, what are we missing out on?

Where to begin! When we analyse wines from a purely technical viewpoint, we forget that these are living wines which keep changing -and evolving – both in the bottle and the glass. We can easily forget to simply enjoy and appreciate the wine as we are so busy judging it through the lens of technique and science. We forget that the winemaker is part of the terroir and that all that happens to them in the year tends to come in the final wine that they make.

How much of our response to wine depends on the intellectual baggage that we carry with us?

I think we all carry preconceived ideas of what certain wines should taste and even look like. It’s always amazing when we are surprised (in  a positive sense) when not a wine doesn’t taste like our preconceived “idea” of that wine. Sadly, we may also dismiss a wine for not being “good” enough, because it doesn’t tick the boxes for what that wine “should” taste like.

Do you find that people cleave to wine wisdom without sufficiently interrogating it?

Absolutely. For example, I don’t think people question enough why certain wines have to age. Sometimes, it’s because the oak flavour is so strong that you simply can’t drink the wine before it has aged. Sometimes, it’s the over-use of sulphur. I still come across the fixed idea that wines that age are somehow better. Perhaps it would be better to change the style of wine (and winemaking) so we might be able to drink it earlier and with fewer preservatives…?

How much of taste is the objective properties of the wine and how much our state of mind, our mood, our prejudices….

It’s difficult to be objective. Our interaction with wine is sensory and emotional, so your state of mind, mood and prejudices are bound to affect your tasting experience.

Talk about the advantages and disadvantages of blind tasting?

I don’t think there are any disadvantages! I present all the wines on my course blind, as I find people are much more open-minded when they don’t have prior knowledge of the wine. I always ask: “How does it make you feel,” as I believe that this is such an important – and often overlooked – question. We are forever analysing and judging the technicalities of the wine, rather than simply listening to how it makes you feel. We are all informed by what we have eaten and drunk throughout our lives, so our personal reference points and individual experiences are completely different. I love hearing people’s first thoughts and unique perspectives and references to what they are tasting. Something original always comes up.

Do people come to your classes with certain prejudices about certain wines?

Yes, people have joined the course who were not big fans of natural wines and believed that these wines (as a genre) were invariably super high in volatile acidity, faulty in general, and not very complex! Their employers had signed them up, but by the time they left the course, they had been exposed to a wide range of different styles of wine that they hadn’t previously associated as being “natural”. I have also had plenty of people on the course who have fixed ideas about what a Riesling, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir should taste like (and then leave with those ideas turned upside down!)

What are the qualities of a good taster?  Indeed, what do you call a good taster?

For sure, it’s impressive when someone can nail a wine in a blind tasting, and one can certainly argue that that is what a good taster is. It could also be argued that it is someone who can taste as objectively as possible.

Personally, I think a good taster is someone who is sensitive and can really “feel the wine”. Being able to pinpoint where a wine is from, its grape variety, vintage etc presupposes that you have had the privilege of tasting a wide range of wines, you have the references, and you have the vocabulary. However, I have seen so many inexperienced people be excellent tasters as a result of their sensitivity and ability to detect nuances and flavours in wine, without necessarily being confident enough to be able to articulate what they are tasting.

Do you believe that there is a hierarchy of quality of wines?

My idea of quality is based on farming practice. The effort that’s gone into working the vine, keeping the soils alive, and encouraging life in the vineyard. But I am very aware that this is not how the majority of people see quality. Sadly, I think there are still far too many people who automatically link quality with prestige appellations and big names.

What qualities are important to you in wine, and do you believe that discussion of them is neglected when we are assessing wine?

It’s a hard question because I constantly seek different things depending on the mood, the occasion and so forth, but I always look for wines brimming with life and energy. Wines that are digestible, much like food. Energy is not always bright and electric. It can be austere or muted, but often one tastes wines that feel completely dead, sterile, or frozen due to the winemaking, or perhaps because the fruit was unhealthy in the first place.

What do you think of the scoring system?

Not much….

Do you think ordinary consumers still pay as much attention to the views of critics as they once did?

There are so many apps/ platforms now where anyone can upload their opinion and a lot of people look at those instead. Social media has changed the landscape and younger people look more at what the people they follow drink and recommend rather than traditional wine critics.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s a generational thing and just part of the shift that has also seen food critics being less influential now than they were previously.

What snobbery have you encountered towards natural wine?

I have encountered snobbery from people obsessed with finding flaws in order that that they might be able dismiss natural wine. Others who pass judgement on certain grape varieties or regions. I have also encountered plenty of snobbery from within the natural wine world. It can become very cliquey, and I feel that the things I’ve never liked about the (traditional) wine world have now (alas) become the norm in the natural wine community. Gatekeeping information, withholding connections, even the exclusive atmosphere at certain tasting events. Again, a big motivation for me to do A Thousand Decisions! I truly believe that knowledge is useless unless it’s shared!

Why do you think some people are suspicious or offended by natural wine?

I think there are some who are desperate to maintain the status quo  naturally dismiss natural wine as a trend. Perhaps the very idea of not spraying your vineyards and not adding anything to the wine in the cellar, scares those who have always worked conventionally. Also, there certainly hasn’t been enough education and training around natural wines in a professional context, for example, how best to store and serve them, which means a lot of consumers have had negative experiences with natural wines. Lastly, there are natural wines that were (and are) badly made, and these wines may tarnish the reputation of all natural wines.

Is this suspicion something which we find particularly in the professional world of wine, or are consumers equally suspicious (and if so, why might that be?).

I believe consumers are becoming more open to natural wine. You see more and more restaurants and bars list at least a few “natural wines” (what people consider natural wines is another discussion, however!)

Is/was it helpful or accurate to characterise natural wine as 1. a movement and 2. a trend?

I definitely think it was and probably still is a movement, however, as with all movements, fractures appear, and we are witnessing on one side of the divide: growers who make wines with no compromises and no additions, and others who add things where necessary to protect the wine. Natural wine is a very broad spectrum, although I don’t think it’s helpful or accurate to describe all wines which are farmed organically as natural wines.

To call natural wine a trend is straight up offensive.

Do you think that there is a tendency in the wine world to be enamoured with one aspect of wine (be it low sulphur or skin-contact or from a particular region or grape) because they are suddenly the unique flavour of the moment, and then after a while when the trend becomes popular, to row back and repudiate?

Yes, and a of lot things play into this. For example, certain vignerons started by making wine with some sulphur, but through experience and exchanging knowledge with other winemakers, have realised they can make incredible wines without the addition of sulphites. And vice versa. Winemakers who were adamant that they would never add sulphur to their wines now accept that these wines will be more stable if they add a judicious amount. It’s dangerous to be focused/ enamoured with one aspect of wine when winemaking is a holistic process.

One of our wine producers used to make a wine called Les Mals-Aimes (the ill-liked ones) referring to grape varieties deemed to be workhorse and incapable of producing great wines. Do you believe that any grape variety -with the right approach in the vineyard and the winery – is capable of producing great wine?

Yes. Palomino is a good example of this – I have tasted so many interesting wines made from this variety recently. Elisabetta Foradori notably showed that the very humble grape Teroldego could be made into something great by treating it with respect, growing it naturally, and vinifying it with minimal intervention.

Why are some grape varieties and regions more critically fashionable than others?

I sadly think that in the more superficial part of the natural wine world where people are obsessed with the next new thing, the more obscure the grape variety or region is the better for being obscure…

What are iconic wines? Tell me what you think about the phenomenon of so-called iconic wines.

I’m not sure I know what iconic wines are other than what I view as iconic wines! I always call Ageno from La Stoppa iconic as I think it’s a real benchmark wine when we talk about the history of skin contact wines – plus I think Elena Pantaleoni is an absolute icon!

Do you think social media plays a role in the desire to be visibly associated with rare and highly valued wines.

Yes, absolutely!

Is this form of peacocking also a form of snobbery?

We should be mindful of what we post on social media and why we post it. Without wanting to sound like the natural wine social media police, some wines are very rare and on allocation and I’m not sure what the purpose is when we post these wines other than making other people feel excluded. Whilst I get that maybe you just want to tell everyone how amazing the wine is, as wine professionals we have a responsibility to acknowledge our privilege and access to these wines and therefore always ask ourselves what the purpose is of posting about these wines. Having said that, sometimes you are just having a good time with friends sharing a rare wine, and that’s great. I’m not saying you shouldn’t share that on your page. I just think intention is important.

Wine is an artisan drink (particularly natural wines made by small producers), Do you think we’re forgetting this and becoming a bit too precious about the subject?

For sure! This links to my answer earlier on re enjoying wine and not over-analysing it. Artisanal wines were mainly made to be enjoyed with family and friends over a good meal, simple as that.

How do we remind ourselves to be humbler?

Always remember that there’s so much hard work and so many decisions behind every bottle that you drink! And taste is subjective, just because YOU don’t like something doesn’t mean that it’s bad…. And the best way to stay humble is not to take ourselves too seriously.

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