Producers, Their Wines, and all The Rest

[editor's note: This appeared first last Friday, but we here at saignee felt it needed some editing]

Last Saturday i found myself at one of these quintessentially wine-geek functions that are so off-putting to outsiders to our strange little world (the term “wine snob” comes to most people’s lips, and I can live with that, otherwise i’d be giving point scores to the value bin over at my local Lucky). It happened to be the birthday party of a friend, but since that friend happened to be a wine collector, it was turned into a wine function.

People brought bottles, some to show off, some they were curious about, and some simply because they thought they might be over the hill. Some were right on (’88 De Montille Volnay, 09 CRB Gamay) some were disappointing (a bottle of ’94 Pergole Torte that was cooked). And one was revelatory, an ’01 Giacomo Conterno.

Now i’ve had Conterno before (very infrequently, mind you) and everytime it strikes me as…profound (as pretentious as that sounds i’m sticking with it). In the life span of Conterno, this was still just a youngster, which is ok because i don’t have enough in my life to worry about good bottles that may have been better in some hypothetical future. Now this wasn’t the best setting for this type of wine, with so many bottles behind it and so many more to come after and so little to go ‘round, but it was the type of bottle that gives one immediate pause, the type of bottle that reminds me that writing about 10 bad bottles is infinitely less exciting than writing about one good bottle (or better, the type of pause when a beauty walks by and we walk directly into walls, ditches, traffic).

In the debate over traditional vs. modern Barolo, Conterno is one of those producers that is sine qua non, just as Gaja is, albeit in different terms. Conterno is traditional, just as Gaja is modern. The wines can define the debate, but they are also outside of it. At the end of the day Conterno is Conterno, because there really isn’t anything else like it. To know the wines one has to drink them, like minded producers are no substitute. To put it simply, Conterno describes traditional, but traditional doesn’t describe Conterno.

One of the things that has been bothering me lately is the term “natural.” A few times in the past months people have been surprised to find out that there is some wines that fall under the blanket term “natural” that i don’t care for, that i find flawed, unbalanced, poorly made, lacking terroir, lacking anything but brett and VA and lambics. There is also the more annoying question people pose to me when they find out i like a wine that isn’t…god forbid…Natural.

“ummm…you know that wine isn’t natural?”

At some point in the past perhaps i would have changed my opinion on the wine, knowing it wasn’t natural, made the whole thing political, towed the line i had created in my head. If the concept of points is reductionist and trying to encompass the essence of a wine each of will experience differently, does me telling you a wine is natural do the same thing? Are you more likely to drink it? How about instead we talk about the person making the wine? Their personal methods, lands, history?

Natural as an idea is very close to becoming another PR castoff phrase. More and more people are catching on to the term, touting the “naturalness” of this or that list or that winery or whatever (hypocrisy abounds, i realize). People are bickering over the term “natural,” who’s in and who is out, who does what becomes more important than the wine itself.
i’ve been there. i’ve put down perfectly good bottles of wine on purely philosophical grounds, and i’ve even stopped drinking German rieslings because there isn’t enough natural stuff (not consciously, but it still happened, i realize as i stare at the single bottle of JJ Prum on my shelf). It’s bullshit, of course, i realize now. Why would i do that to myself? Do i not like wine enough to realize the good and the bad producers and fuck all the rest? To not listen to PR hacks, “natural” wine bloggers like myself? How much weight should i give to myself? Not much, in the final analysis.

So what is natural? Does it matter? i thought I knew, or at least i thought knowing would matter to what to what i liked.

So what is next?

Conterno is Conterno i tell myself, without or without a label. It doesn’t need a term. The fact that Roberto Conterno makes the wine he makes like his father’s father is enough in itself, without a term to back it up. When i talk about Marcel LaPierre i want to talk about Marcel Lapierre i want to talk about Lapierre’s Morgons, not some guy in Corsica that is making 14.5% carbonically macerated grenache that tastes like hairspray but slips in because it is natural. i want to talk about the producers i love, not philosophies or movements, or politics or PR. Puzelat’s La Tesniere is Puzelat’s La Tesniere, not a statement about yeast or farming. Anyone can grab at the label, and believe me, they are going to.
Now of course i must take a step back here and remind myself that there is a lot to be said for those winemakers who strive for a purity in their wines, that try and make wine that speaks of place, or their traditions, or have rejected the tenets of modern agriculture for a way of doing things that no longer relies on chemicals, and that is to be applauded, and in many instances it shows up in the wines. Some of them make great wines, some of them don’t, some make wines that are variable from year to year because they believe to achieve that greatness they must employ methods not suitable every year. Many of them call themselves natural, many don’t, some would scoff at the notion, some would shrug, and some would smile, but this is no longer something i’m going to be applying. They are all different, believe me here. i don’t make wines, i drink them. i’m sitting here writing a blog, somewhere someone at the same time hasn’t slept in days, stressing out over their harvest.

It’s still going to be the same wines here, i like what i like and i don’t feel like apologizing to any Napa producers (or Bordeaux, Tuscan etc.) because i think most of their wines taste like sweetened glycerin (these categories go both ways, pr folks). i still believe that what a producer does matters a lot, and i’m going to continue to gravitate towards those wines where the heavy hand isn’t present. But from here on out i’m talking about producers, the pleasure wine gives me. i’m removing myself from the ideological fray. If i don’t like a wine, what is the point of arguing total sulfur? If i like Clos Rougeard why do would i argue if oak is natural? There is too much Overnoy and Produttori to enjoy to get bogged down.

- Cory

~ by Cory Cartwright on September 17, 2010.

22 Responses to “Producers, Their Wines, and all The Rest”

  1. One German Riesling!

  2. Stop drinking German (or any other region’s) wine because there isn’t enough “natural” wine made? I don’t get that. To me, that’s self-limiting. I don’t care whether a wine is “natural” or not. If I think it’s good, I’ll drink it. If not, I won’t. I don’t give a rat’s ass as to how it was made. Life’s too short.

    • Larry, that was the point I was trying to make. In seeking out “Natural” wines, i started limiting what i was drinking unconsciously. It makes no fucking sense.

  3. Welcome to Spain!

  4. Good points. Just that.

  5. Great post. But seriously, ONE German Riesling?! At least it was JJ Prum…

  6. Sounds you are living through a journey – the gastronomic and philosophical evolution is fun. At the end of the day, wine is to enjoy life, and food, and friends. Love the analogy about beautiful woman…

  7. Hear hear… I’ll drink to that!

  8. This post encapsulates all of what I find most annoying about the polemics and “loyalty oaths” among the most adamant “natural wine” people. Well done!

    BTW, Larry Stein, I second that emotion wholeheartedly.

  9. Strappo,

    I have never liked the language employed against the natural wine crowd. “Loyalty oaths” and “natural wine mullahs” have been bandied about, and I have never actually met anyone that has been so invested they deserve the insults.

    – Cory

  10. Welcome, grasshopper.

    And I have first hand evidence that you tasted California wine with an open mind. I saw it.

    I’ve been saying this for 15 years, but it bears repeating, the best vignerons I know are flexible in their approach. They do what they feel is necessary to produce a wine of terroir (which includes vintage) and character with what nature has given them.

    And oak is usually not the problem, shitty oak and misuse is (or the often seen combination).

  11. Ken Wright makes some very good Pinot. But many might find his attitude as expressed here http://gizmodo.com/5639856/we-must-boil-this-wine-to-save-it?skyline=true&s=i objectionable. The belief in “ideal ripeness” (which would seem to negate the value of vintage) is either bad taste or imagined/real marketing necessity. As long as the weight of marketing dollars is lined up behind ripeness we need to trumpet other ideals (with our money and words) to give like minded winemakers a chance to succeed.

    • David, I’m not sure what you mean by “the weight of marketing dollars [being] lined up behind ripeness” – perhaps you mean over-ripeness. As a winegrower I believe there is a “ripeness ideal” – but like most ideals it exists in the mind but never obtains in the real world. I posted on the realities of assessing ripeness a while ago: http://www.winemakernotesblog.com/2010/07/grape-ripeness-and-wine-alcohol.html

      Here in Sonoma Valley we have the opposite problem that Ken is addressing with his juice evaporator. As I have said before, producer intent is important: one can be committed to artisanal principles, and still employ technology to attempt to produce the most delicious, “balanced” wine possible. We can and will argue endlessly about what constitutes a “balanced” wine.

  12. I was going to post “it’s about time” but that seemed mean. Or at least condescending. And I didn’t intend it to be either.

    But, you know…

  13. This makes sense. Somehow I think with a little age and experience we all start shifting a bit more towards the particular and away from the abstract. Looking forward to future posts!

  14. Cory, saw this on a tweet from John Kelly. One of the best perspectives I’ve read in a while…that is to say it is nice – as a producer – to hear such a reason perspective from an impassioned reviewer/critic/taster/whatever you want to call it.

  15. [...] to Cory Cartwright’s non-scale, as expressed in a beautiful blog post he wrote last August. Cory has been getting tired of categories and rigid evaluations of wine, and I can understand why. Although it’s important for people learning about wine to get [...]

  16. dude, was it Cascina Francia or Monfortino?

    We must drink more Nebbiolo together!

  17. [...] Natural wine series have garnered much attention in this ongoing discussion, essentially decided to throw in the towel and abandon the term “natural”. Worried of PR takeovers and of pigeonholing himself away from very good wines, he wondered if the [...]

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