Day 12: Fear and Loathing in the Natural Wine Revolution

Robert Camuto has been an award winning author and journalist for some 25 years, and has written for just about everybody at some time or another. His book, Corkscrewed: Adventures in the new French Wine Country is a fantastic snapshot of what is going in with a small band of like minded French vignerons. It is an unpretentious journey written by a man who stands apart from the know-it-alls and hacks that dominate wine writing (nobody here of course, excepting myself).

???

Sticking my nose into the natural wine world these days, I’m getting a big whiff of essence of dogma, aromas of Parker-esque certitude and attitudinal notes of ….Could that be arrogance?
It was bound to happen. Natural wines are now trendy, and like all fashion they are developing a cadre of self-appointed police with about as much flexibility and appreciation for nuance as the Iranian Governing Council.
I am not a wine critic, but a writer intensely interested in wine and the people who persist in making beautiful and honest things from the land in the 21st century. When I moved to France at the beginning of this decade I fell in love with the freewheeling diversity of so many good small production wines emerging from so many places. (Cotes-du-marmandais anyone?) The term vins naturels didn’t come with orthodoxy– just the understanding that the vigneron respected the environment and limited the use of technology in the winery. This is France, after all, where pleasure comes first and religion is way down the list.
But in the last few years since natural wine scene has made the leap to U.S., the line has hardened. It’s not enough just to enjoy the wine anymore. There is more pressure to define, limit, and label them, to designate stars and turn them into some sort of alternative lifestyle brand presided over by their very own Mullahs.
Yeccccccccccccccch!
How did it happen? It seems we Americans can’t help it. We’ve been so marketed to, we HAVE TO define ourselves by the stuff we consume. Of course, today’s electronic shorthand doesn’t help. You’re not going to get much nuance in a Twitter tweet.
I’ll state the obvious: The move to natural winemaking was not started by bloggers. It began among winemakers with the shift to quality wines a couple of decades ago – and was aided by some passionate importers and retailers. It was a reaction to lots of things: decades of terroir–killing industrial viticulture, European policies that favored quantity over quality, and a glut of international style wines.
To me wine at its highest level is an expression of terroir, nourishment, omnivorous pleasure, experimentation and something scarce in the nnanh-nnanhing classes: humility. Here are some of the misconceptions and buzzwords abused by the more shrill ranks of the Revolutionary Guard.

Manipulation

As in wine should not be manipulated. Of course winemaking should be kept simple. But wine itself is a manipulation that started with the selection of grapes, grafting, etc. The natural product of grapes is… vinegar.
A perfect example is malolactic fermentation. This natural secondary fermentation which converts malic acid to softer lactic acid was never really understood until the modern era. It is now considered essential for reds but not necessarily whites or rosés. In high acid areas like Burgundy it’s great in whites. But in the low-acid south—allowing m.f. to happen makes for flabby, dumb whites. Even natural winemakers “manip” low-acid whites (with sterile filtering or sulfur) to block m.f.

Technology

As in all tech is bad. Yes, wine should be made of grapes, and not an OZ-ified, reverse-osmosified cola. BUT most of southern Europe would not produce fine wines without one very significant technology: refrigeration. Temperature control allows for fermentation and maturation of wines while preserving flavors and aromas. I live in Provence and I drink rosé in summer: made and served thanks to refrigeration. Speaking of which, last time I looked, most city dwellers kept their wines alive—especially unsulfured ones—with that same technology.

Organic or Biodynamic

As in anything else is bad. Organic and Biodynamic farming are not only good for the planet but make fantastic wines that express and even scream terroir. But rigid labels and certifications? To what end? If a winegrower uses environmental methods, why should he spend the time and money to get a stamp of approval? In my experience, the best winemakers are those who follow their own conscience and instincts—not administrative regulations or bodies like the USDA.
A sticky example: There are some meticulous sustainable wine producers who in the midst of a severe once-in-a-decade mildew outbreak, prefer to use a
little (non-organic) antibiotic to using a lot of (organic) sulfur which kills insect and bacterial life in the soil.

Sulfur

As in the sulfites monster. Sulfur in some form has been used for thousands of years as a preservative and is present in all wines as a product of fermentation. Sulfur dioxide should not be overused—but only bad winemakers do that anyway. No-added-sulfur wines can be beautiful and they can also be unstable. To make no-added sulfur an orthodoxy is ridiculous.

Tradition

As in “all wines were better” before modern winemaking. Excuse me but how many great Italian wines were there really in 1960? In 1980? Natural whiners wrap themselves in the traditions of Burgundy—a place that’s had a great wine tradition for most of a millennium. Being a traditionalist in Burgundy is–as one old-grizzled Texas editor of mine would have said—“easy, like being a liberal in Greenwich Village.” Refined wines—the kind that stretch the vocabulary of wine writers—simply did not exist in most of Europe.

Revolution

As in “You say you want a…” There is a misconception going around that not long ago everyone made wines by adding phony yeasts. Simply not true. This is simply not true. Good winemakers never added yeast. In fact, Emile Peynaud (1912-2004), the enologist considered the father of modern winemaking, wrote of creating the conditions for the natural yeasts to do their thing.

Parker

As in, THE DEVIL . I am not a fan of Robert Parker’s approach on many levels. It’s true the man has championed some bombastic “Parkerized” wines and given high marks to some crappy ones. But give the devil his due: Parker was lauding natural wines long before the term made it to America. In the 90s the Wine Advocate gave outstanding marks to the likes of Marcel LaPierre, Dom. Leon Barral, Dom. Richeaume and Coulée de Serrant. Personally I don’t care what Robert Parker writes. But to take the position that if Parker likes it, it sucks, or to say that the world needs saving from Parker’s opinions is, frankly, more than just a stretch of the truth.

Why am I writing this? I love un-pimped wines that reflect their place and vintage, and I don’t want to see them limited to a ghetto of Parisian Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) and international hipsters. Going fundamentalist will only turn off the next generation and push them towards the next thing. Like martinis.

(Note: Robert wants to know if anyone can guess the wine above. I do as well because he hasn’t told me yet.)

Follow day by day here: http://saignee.wordpress.com/31-days-of-natural-wine/

saignée note: Hey you, buy Robert Camuto’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Corkscrewed-Adventures-French-Country-Table/dp/0803276354 (and not a used copy)

Next Up: Slaton on Carema; or Did somebody say bees?

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~ by Cory Cartwright on June 30, 2009.

12 Responses to “Day 12: Fear and Loathing in the Natural Wine Revolution”

  1. This was the best post yet, so Thanks to Robert for the skrate-up skinny… In recently wanting to learn more about natural/organic wine, I couldn’t help but feel the same things that Robert referred to about the dogma in certain circles I’ve come across… almost giving me a flashback of the early days of pretentiousness I felt getting into wine in the first place. This post says it all as does this site… keep up the good work.

  2. Hell i’ve been guilty of about…all of these.

  3. I excel at the “international hipster” part ; )

    Nice post Robert!

    Cory- This series is great.

  4. YES! Yes! and a resounding YEEESSS! YOU NAILED IT!

  5. who’s the “iranian governing council” of natural wines?
    it seems to me that there are many different philosophies about it, and rare are the places that have only unsulfured wines.

    why is it so bad that natural wine becomes trendy?
    what i see is more young peoples getting interested in wines made with passion, peoples like cory, that don’t care about brands or status, peoples that judge wine for themselves, and the truth is always in the glass.

    Not all technology is bad, but for the record, tempier in bandol didn’t have temperature control for quite some time, they still managed to make some fantastic wines. I’m just saying that the styles of wines that are allready existing in southern europe, like sherry’s, ports, retsina and many others are making sense without temperature control, don’t they?

    To make non sulfur an orthodoxy might be ridiculous for some, but it might also be making the best wines, the most complex, the most interesting, the most honest wines ever made (overnoy’s wine being the finest example) It’s harder to make a good wine with no sulfur, sure, but vignerons selling badly made unsulfured wine is the real problem. Importers not paying the extra care in transportation is the real problem. Retailers, restaurants, that do not store these wines properly is the real problem.

    “refined wines simply did not exist in most of europe”
    Is this for real?
    seriously, there are plenty of examples still around that most regions were making fine wines long before the 60′s or 80′s in italy, spain, greece,turkey, syria, tunisia, maroco, algeria, georgia, hungary, even in bordeaux!
    actually, i wouldn’t be surprised if bordeaux was making much better wines before the 1900′s…

    “Good winemakers never added yeasts”, fine by me, i don’t like the wines of Dagueneau, but some would argue the statement that he was no good winemaker (of course true for hundreds of other peoples)

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. As a winemaker that espouses the concept of ‘natural winemaking’ but doesn’t use it as a marketing tool, I couldn’t agree more. Well stated.

  7. Guilhaume– You guys do a great job. Great bar. Which is more than I can say for le Verre Vole in Paris where the wines are served in unclean decanters stained with yeast from the 10th arrondisement. (Cool hunh?)Anyway, I have noticed a trend as I think of others have of certain wine commentators who have set themselves as the revolution only to act just as rigidly as “the man.” As the WHO sang, “meet the new boss…”
    I believe (and certainly when it comes to wine) in freedom, freedom and freedom.
    Other points: Could you imagine drinking sherry, port and retsina every day?
    The term natural wine never meant no sulfur until it got to the states. I go natural wine salons all the time in France and many of the winemakers use some sulfur. So what?
    I have been spending a lot of time in Italy this last year. Specically the south and Specifically Sicily. And I can tell you that even the idea of putting wine in bottles is relatively new. A good wine was a wine that didn’t spoil. And much of it was shipped out in boats to go to northern Italy and France to doctor the “great wines” there. In Tuscany, look at Chianti– Do you know what chianti classico used to taste like? Awful!(Bordeaux had a great bottling tradition started by the brits and going back centuries. I am not a Bordeaux man in general but I love the wines of St. Julien and St. Estephe)
    Anyway, cheers!

    • Hey Robert, Natural didn’t mean no sulphur until it got to the states? Uh—you know the answer to this one, so are you just trying to be contrary? May I remind you of Jules Chauvet? It is the definition of the genre. Let’s call it hard core vin naturel, but it is the original. It’s the soft core that is the new-fangled some sulfur added…and some of my favorites are from the new-fangled camp.

  8. Robert – I could see this post brewing from the moment we first met and dined at that mediocre Italian restaurant on 18th St between Guerrero and Dolores! Good post.

    You really didn’t dig Le Verre Volee huh? I think they do a pretty solid job (despite the cloudy decanter) with food, wine selection and (in general) their fair pricing. Anyway, I think this post is basically right on, though I would echo Guilhaume’s sentiments regarding traditional styles of wines made by traditional (some would say antiquated) methods. These styles are still relevant and delicious. Look at Lopez de Heredia as just one of many examples.

    Guilhaume – when anything gets too trendy, it gets more expensive, invites more douche bags and often times results in lesser quality, so I’d be careful on that point….

  9. Joe– Thanks for the comment. I think Verre Vole has good food and some great wines. I just find the state of the carafes unacceptable– not so much the cloud as the ring. I am not anti-tradition by any means– I just think for every Lopex de Heredia there were hundreds of producers making not necessarily bad wine — but a lot harder, simpler wines than we are used to. What I’m saying is that a bit of technology and oenology has helped most of winegrowing europe improve quality. The problem is those things have been abused…

  10. As Marinetti soon learned with Futurism, the problem — after you murder the moonshine — is that you have to be killed yourself… The situation is akin to that of the historical avante-garde. But, yes, ah hah! therein lies the rub… What did the decontructionists do when they realized they had truly killed the author? they coined POST MODERNISM…

    Seriously, Antonio Galloni tore me a new one the other day in a comment thread… and he wasn’t entirely wrong too… but I’ll leave it at that…

    Great post Robert and great series Cory… and Guilhaume, I’m always a fan and loyal reader… I think the next series should be tagging tasting notes across SF…

  11. Thanks Robert – you saved me here from having to finish my own blog post on this topic – I could not agree with you more on all points. I have no problem with a lawyer or a shopkeeper expressing their preferences for wines made this way or that. But there is real danger to my livelihood when someone issues a fatwa against wines that don’t fit these dogmas – and the sheeple follow. Let’s see – 12 years of relevant education, another 12 years of winemaking apprenticeship, and lately another 12 years of professional committment to sustainable winegrowing and a winemaking approach I call active or pre-emptive minimalism. To have my deeply soil-driven wines dismissed for lacking a particular certification, for being produced from clonal selections, or because I have added some SO2 or used a cultured yeast to assure a clean finish to fermentation? Pah. I fart in your general direction.

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