Day 31: Alice’s Untitled Letter
Alice Feiring is a wine journalist and author living in New York and you already knew that
The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.—Simone Weil
I got to Paris on the 14th. Five closed restaurants, four cloudbursts and three blisters later, with relief, I ended up at Le Garde Robe, eating and drinking to the French Revolution with Bindernagel’s Cremant de Jura and Puzelat’s Le Rouillon. These are the wines that keep you and me armed with a corkscrew, hoping to find that harmonic convergence where man, nature, culture, art and tastes meet, no? The night melted and now I’m on the TGV to Cognac (Don’t ask). As you can see my brain is all over the place. Hope you can forgive me for this delayed response because I really enjoyed reading your reflections on Eric’s natural wine piece.
I have a hard time with the snark aimed at natural wine—its name and its existence. What matter of shmendricity is at play? Could this be merely post-traumatic stress disorder terroirism? The movement (nor the name) ain’t exactly new; it just disappeared for a while. But thirty years ago, the practice of making grape wine with little coaxing was resurrected.
People forget that in 1981 scientist/vigneron, Jules Chauvet teamed up with Marcel Lapierre to make a wine from living soil, with nothing added and nothing taken away. Four like-minded others (Yes, Jon Bonne, those prices have soared, one reason I genuflect to Loire Valley gamay.) banded together and out of that a movement was born.
Movements fracture. Vin Nature split into two camps: the hard and the less hard core. If wine made from grape alone with a touch of sulfur if needed is the SDS, those who would rather eat their first born than add sulfur are the Weather Underground. I love many in both camps. Don’t make me choose. (Kidding!)
The label Vin Nature followed practice. And now it seems that almost every other day there’s some lunatic ready with a Straw Man argument about why it doesn’t exist or why it’s a fad, merely an overnight sensation.
Love this one: “Natural wine can only be natural if the grapes ferment on the vine and then you get down on your knees and suck it in right there in the vineyard.”
Xenophobes on bulletin boards are panicked. A winemaker on Wine Beserkers wrote, “The real issue is that there are no standards and “natural wine” is mostly marketing B.S.”
Oh, David! Marketing? It’s hard for most American wineries to fathom that most vignerons live a twelve-month cycle that begins in the vineyards and ends with making wine. They have neither money, need nor inclination to market, nor have I ever seen vin naturel on a European bottle. On an Australian bottle of something called Mod Gamay? Whoa! Evoking the name of Chauvet? Twisting the meaning of natural? Now that’s marketing! Standards? Who the hell needs standards? It’s simple, nothing added, nothing taken away.
This all leads me to believe that critics of natural wines are either in willful denial or holding out for set of standards complete with loop holes that will allow spoof to masquerade as real. No matter what the wine genre is called-Spoof, Naked, Live, Naturel, the word can be and will be co-opted. Mark my words, the Gallo Natural line extension will be upon us before the next hyped Bordeaux vintage or Brunello scandal.
Mike is clearly in agreement with your sentiments posted on Jancis’ board. He weighed in this way: “The phrase natural wines is irredeemably problematic. The discussion just can’t seem to get beyond this phrase. I think the people using the term “natural wines” need to come up with a much more convincing justification for its use, or they need to find a better, less loaded term to describe the wines.”
Yes, the word ‘natural’ is an easy mark. Look, I don’t love my name either. I think life would have been easier as a Sophie, but I grew into an Alice the way these wines grew into Natural. To paraphrase the late charismatic Teobaldo Cappellano, the more we have fake the more we need real. (Natural = real. There you go. I’ve no problem with the word.) There is no bullet proof name and you know what? The more the controversy rages, the more I resist the very idea of a definition and look for refuge in anarchy.
Recently, I sat down for a coffee with silver- haired Francois Morel, the editor of Rouge et Blanc. That’s the magazine that focuses on independent vigneron and wines that stand by the grape alone. I’ve seen Francois at the off- tastings in France for the past ten years, yet I had no idea until recently how he had been part of this all since the beginning. He not only organized the first unsulfured wine tasting in France in the 80’s but he also set up the first a bar a vins naturel, les Envierges. Seems like his love for the wine started with a love for a girl, from the Beaujolais and knew Lapierre (all roads lead to Marcel.). Before we started on our espressos he said to me, ‘First we have to agree on what natural wine is.”
“Which is what to you?” I asked.
“Without artifice,” he answered.
Now, if there is a wine without artifice does someone else make artificial wine?
If there is natural wine, does that mean others are unnatural?
Any wine that deploys aromatic yeasts, enzymes, bacteria, new oak, toasted oak, oak additives, tannins, gum arabic, reverse osmosis for concentration or alcohol removal, spinning cone, excessive sugar, mega-purple thermo-vinification, cold-soaking, anti-foaming agents, ultra-sulfuring and god knows what else, in any combination, is far from natural. To argue the point is being combative, or desperate.
This is an unstoppable story, and the plot line gets juicier. California is returning to native yeast. We have our clutch of natural winemakers, are own band de cinq! The reliance on additives is being challenged. But industrial wine will not go down in the rip tide. Lots of people just like thick wine they can depend on year after year. However, to make sure they don’t lose market, brands looking for the loophole will squirrel a way to natural wine flavor extensions just the way Häagen-Dazs has their (actually decent) Five Ingredients. (“Because we make Häagen-Dazs products in the most natural way possible-…. .” Yes, natural IS problematic, but so what?) A name and definition can’t prevent the inevitable dilution and commercialization. But real, real wines will remain. The power of authenticity –another overused world– is undeniable.
In a few hours, I will be on the job and in between interviews, plied with utterly spoofed Bordeaux. In the last minutes before I detrain, I’ve got a big fat rationalization to run by you. Americans have enthusiastically co-opted the words appellation, terroir and vigneron, so why resist Vin Nature? The troublemakers in this debate are winemakers, writers, bloggers and those wanting their 100-point wines to gain in value. For those who have walked through the looking glass into the crazy mixed up world where there’s a sentence from Finnegans Wake in every sip? A streak of purple that goes to green? A glide down the mountain and a fierce pedal up to the peak? A mink-stoled violinist in frigid Krakow? An army of bats that streak around the farmhouse at dawn? To us, it’s all about the aroma , the taste, the texture the thereness, not the name. To hell with the name.
I hope, to be continued.
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Up next: Eric Texier talks to a serious problem with the current debate on “natural”, or; Something to think about…