Perfection, Perception, Personality, People, Philosophy and Flaws, or: Here We Go Again

Let me tell you a story.

Somewhere deep in the heart of Anjou there is a man who may be France’s worst vigneron (his wines are not imported into the US at this time, so don’t worry importers). On paper he has all his ducks lined up to be making interesting, idiosyncratic, “natural” wines. He works biodynamically, with minimal treatments in the vineyard, ferments with nnative yeast, works a variety of interesting terroirs, and is sulfur free. Sound great, right?

Fact is the wines are undrinkable. Arriving at his cellar we were horrified to see several pallets of pet-nat cooking in the morning sun, clear bottles and all. His wines were a horror-show of every imaginable wine flaw you can think. Brett, reduction on some, oxidation on others, VA on everything, refermentation, lambic notes, you name it. There wasn’t anything on these wines that speaks of terroir, of vintage, or of grape variety even. And yet the winemaker still sells the wines, to bars all over France with nature-nature wine lists because it is perceived as good because of what it is on paper, not what it actually is.

i was thinking about this vigneron when i was reading the latest article to cause a stir in the natural wine world “Natural Isn’t Perfect” (an incredibly unfortunate title if you ask me). In the article Dave McIntyre gets to the by stating the obvious, that natural wine, when made poorly, can lead to flawed wines. Which is to say that natural is like anything else in the world.

He then goes on to ask the question “If the natural-wine movement makes us question the additives and techniques used in the winery, all well and good. But why reject all the winemaking advances of the modern era if they help us avoid the occasional stuck fermentation, correct an acid imbalance and ensure that the wine reaches the consumer in the best possible shape?” This line seems to be the controversial article seller, and since it’s the last paragraph of the article it’s the one that will stick with the reader, a sort (as they on the internet) “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG” statement of purpose to natural winemakers and natural wine lovers.

That natural wines are flawed and that some people believe that this style of winemaking can oftentimes be wrongheaded and purposefully bone-headed aren’t really new arguments, and as such they aren’t really interesting and not particularly worth arguing anymore. But there is something interesting about the article. The lack of vignerons and wine.

What the article does, in essence, is it reduces a range of wines into a single category, and forgets any sort of human element to the wines. This isn’t simply a problem on the side of people bothered by natural wine, many proponents of natural wine (including me) have gotten caught up in the dogma of the thing, apologizing for poorly made wines because they adhere to rules, as if rules were able to replace talent and real work in the vineyards.

There are vignerons like the one above who have given up on trying to make good wine and instead have relied on the term “natural” to sell his wines. On the other hand there are brilliant vignerons toiling over their wines, obsessing about them and constantly re-evaluating what needs to be done from year to year and from cuvee to cuvee and from grape to grape. People like Manu Houillon, Didier Barrouillet, Paolo Bea, Eric Texier, Anselme Selosse, and Marcel LaPierre amongst many other people. These are people who believe that making wines naturally will produce the best wines, but they aren’t people who believe that natural winemaking automatically produces good wine. The work is there.

i’m not going to become one of those people that believes that “natural” wines shouldn’t be a category at all, because i still think the term has some value, but if we’re going to talk about the wine without talking about the wines and the vignerons making the wines we should give up the conversation right now, because we will keep having the same stupid debates about easy to knock down strawmen.

~ by Cory Cartwright on April 21, 2010.

13 Responses to “Perfection, Perception, Personality, People, Philosophy and Flaws, or: Here We Go Again”

  1. Lots of good points, Cory. Thinking in categories does little to define wine, right? Saying “I love natural wine” or “I hate California cabernet sauvignon” is pretty meaningless, as such a statement encompasses the brilliant, the good, the bad and the ugly. Individual stories matter.

    However, there are wines and vignerons mentioned in the article. More precisely, there is a link to a selection of natural wines, on the page. I didn’t notice it at first (great web design, Washington Post!), but it is there, and it points to Jean-Paul Brun and Tracey and Jared of Donkey and Goat, who are highly commendable vignerons. So there you go.

    Cheers,

    Rémy

    • Remy, it took me a while to find the link. Why not just put it in the article in the first place? He mentions wine retailers and wine importers, but no wine or vignerons.

      • You’ve never worked in a magazine or a newspaper, have you?

        Those are editing questions that have nothing to do with the author. Dave McIntyre can’t be blamed for the fact that the Washington Post site is poorly designed or that the editors gave his article a bad title. In the newspaper page, these would have been together and obviously connected.

        Link to the wine recommendations is here:
        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/13/AR2010041301251.html?sid=ST2010041302620

        (Free subscription needed)

        As for the second part of your comment: what are you talking about?

        He mentions wines and wineries. What do you think he’s recommending? What is Jean-Pierre Brun L’ancien 2008?

        Mentioning retailers and importers is customer service. It’s useful to the reader to be able to actually find the wines.

        Here’s an example of what he wrote:

        “Donkey & Goat “The Prospector” Mourvedre 2008
        ** 1/2
        El Dorado, Calif., $30

        This winery is rapidly becoming a U.S. leader in the natural-wine movement, and the mourvedre shows why. It is rich and sweet in a ripe way, with gritty tannins that provide complexity and interest. The 2008 roussanne ($26) is also excellent, honeyed and ripe in a California expression of natural wine: low in acid, generous but not over-the-top in alcohol, and attention-grabbing.”

        As I read it, it points to a good winery and two of their good wines. That mourvèdre is delicious, by the way. My favorite from Donkey and Goat.

  2. I spent a day with this guy.
    I love his sparkling (but yesterday someone you know told me he’s not the one making them) and I like his long elevage white as well.
    The rest not to my taste.
    Cory please don’t follow the trend and don’t lose your precious time arguing about the ridiculous BS marketing on natural wine.
    It is sad to see people saying the same shit all the time,don’t they have anything else to do?
    This debate is a joke!!!!

    • Luc, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same winemaker. I think I know who you’re talking about, and i can’t imagine you ever liking anything from this guy (who makes his own sparkling wine). what i’m saying is it’s time to get the talk back to the winemakers, not the dogma, marketing, or philosophy.

  3. definitely not talking about the same guy.

  4. Well put! I think the definition of “natural” may always vary from terrior to terrior and be dependent upon who you’re talking to…but the point of greatest importance is whether the wines are produced responsibly.

  5. I love T.E.R.R.I.O.R.
    Can you introduce me to that guy, I’m going there this summer.

  6. Cory,

    Well put. I have been arguing with my counterparts in the wine world over here for quite some time now. I am sometimes told I dismiss conventional wines just because they are conventional and that I drink natural wines only because they are natural. They tell me that I am extreme, I get mocked often and am told that I can’t recognize quality anymore. On the contrary, my quality radar is more fine tuned than ever.
    I have to constantly remind people that I drink GOOD wine. And, that not all natural wine is good, as you point out in your opening paragraph. Just like with conventional wines, you have to be selective. It’s easy to point out the bad examples and make them the rule.

    Thanks Cory

  7. Interesting piece.

    You offer up some pretty harsh characterizations of the vigneron and his client base.
    Is there anything to your claim that the man in question has “given up on trying to make good wine” beyond the fact that you find his wines to have too many technical faults when measured against your own internal preference yardstick(s)?

  8. Bruce, The winemaker in question is among a handful of French vignerons who believe in taking vineyards back to a “savage” state, as they say. They don’t work the vineyards very much (he admitted to this), they never use sulfur but they also don’t pay attention during the elevage. When you taste barrel samples that are a few months old and they are already badly oxidized it shows through. Leaving some 1000 bottles of wine to cook in the sun is emblamatic of his respect for the wine, i believe.

    But the point of all this is to say, lets talk about vignerons and what they are doing in a very concrete way. Let’s talk about the wines and practices of LaPierre, not just generalizations about movements because the movement encompasses too much fuzziness to be nailed down.

    Remy: I think the main problem I had with the article is that is broken up. It seems the wines get second fiddle to the controversy. I wish the author had contacted Tracy and Jared for the article. I talk to them all the time. They’re great and they could have clarified quite a few points from a vigneron’ point of view. Really i’m not arguing with the author here, but more a tendency to treat “natural” wines as an abstract away from wines themselves.

  9. It doesn’t make sense to generalize and say things like “All natural wine is good” or “All natural wine is bad”. Just like conventional wine, there will be good stuff and bad stuff, and bad wine-makers, like the one mentioned above, will exist in the conventional wine-making world too.
    When buying natural wine I think the buyer should do a bit of ‘due diligence’, ie try to find out about the wine beforehand. And I also think that producers should make an effort to make as much info on their wines as possible available to potential buyers. After that, if a wine is bad, consumers should spread the word (on webapges, blogs, SM, etc)

  10. […] Cory Cartwright stated in a post about the recent natural-wine debate, knowing the winemakers can help a lot – if not directly, at least through trusted sources. This whole thing may be, […]

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