Day 9: Down with your Dogma!

Nick Gorevic is a former New York City retail guy and current wine educator, living in Paris for the year. He worked the harvest at Marcel LaPierre’s second winery, and has spent the past year delving into the natural wine wonders France has to offer. He will be posting an interview with Audrey and Christian Binner later in July.

dogma |ˈdôgmə|

a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true

Lately, natural wine lovers have been accused of being overly dogmatic. If you say your wine is natural, you’re implying that other wines are less natural, and therefore inferior. Traditional wine fans bristle at this comparison, and assert that their wines are the best in the world, and they have a lot of books and articles on their side to back that up. But isn’t that just dogma of another color? In my opinion, if we natural wine fans are being dogmatic, it’s only in response to an overbearing dogma that’s been the order of things for quite some time. The old school dogma is one that needs a bit of toppling, and the insane prices of the “top” wines of this world are proof enough of that for me.

My training in wine began at the Wine Spirit Educational Trust (WSET), a British-based organization that is almost universally accepted as the most professional and widely available wine training out there today. I’m going to be a bit critical of the WSET here, but let me first say I think it is a fantastic place to start from. You can’t beat the palate training you get there, and it gives you a very solid command of the basics of how wine works all over the world. The problem I have with it is that it’s not a truly objective view of what wines are good.

You see, there’s an established order of the top wines of the world. This includes the top growths of Bordeaux, the best parcels of Burgundy, Barolos of Piedmont and such other similar fine-wine producing areas of the world. And the WSET teaches this established order. The WSET education is full of ideas like, “Chardonnay reaches its fullest expression in Burgundy, France” (not a direct quote, I’m paraphrasing from memory here.) Now doesn’t that sound like dogma to you? Anyone out there prefer the chardonnays being made in the Jura right now? Not to mention everyone out there who loves a tropical oaky chard from California much better than a steely minerally one from chablis. They also make it sound like you can’t make good wine without sulfur, and that indigenous yeasts are unpredictable and dangerous. You could argue that they’re just teaching about the bulk of wines, and don’t have time to cover a very small minority of wines being made in different ways. But in my opinion, that skips out on some of the most interesting and complex wines being made today. The further I’ve gotten into learning about natural wines and meeting with the winemakers, the more I’ve had to discount most of what I learned about winemaking at the WSET. Seems like a pretty big omission to me.

As someone who worked in retail, the point where this old school dogma really falls apart for me comes when we start to talk about price. Of course there are some very fine chardonnays being turned out in Burgundy. But they cost 2-3 times as much as the natural stuff from other areas. Even if the prices of Burgundies somehow magically came down to equal the other wines, I would still prefer some of the crazy, funked out, natural wines I’ve tried. Now, of course, as with everything, some of this does come down to personal preference. I don’t think Kermit Lynch, for example, would always agree with me. I like crazy funky wines. I like them a lot. I think he probably prefers wines that are a little more “normal” than I do. Others prefer their burgundies oaked to the max. And that’s ok, there’s room for all our palates at the table. But if it’s a question of personal preference, why all the dogma?

So imagine you’re someone like me who prefers the crazy wines. In fact, you think they’re your favorite wines in the whole world to drink. You like them so much you decide to start making some of your own. Maybe even your father made wines like this, and your grandfather before him, and you see yourself just continuing their work the way it’s always been done. Then you have all these people saying that the way you make wines isn’t the best way, that theirs is instead. Don’t you think it would be natural for you to get some friends together and start talking about how your way is better instead?

So what we have here are two competing dogmas. According to the definition of the word, both of them can’t be right. In fact, I don’t think either of them are right, for everyone. It just depends on what you like. But I think you can understand why it happens on either side. People like to categorize and rank things. They like to make top 10 lists, and they to disagree with other people’s lists perhaps even more. It’s just the way we work.

Truthfully, in my experience over here in France, if you ask most winemakers if they make natural wine– even if you’re talking to them at a natural wine tasting– they usually won’t say yes. They might even belong to the AVN (Association des Vins Naturels). They’re not particularly dogmatic people. They tend to be people that like to do their own thing and don’t follow along with existing trends just because lots of other people out there are. They resist pigeonholing and stratification. It’s really mostly the writers, bloggers, critics, and fans that come up with all this anti-dogma dogma.

Natural wine as a term certainly is full of flaws. You can’t pin down exactly what it is, and it’s ripe for big commercial business to come in and pluck for their own nefarious marketing plans. But you could say the same thing about any other wine marketing term out there. How about Grand Cru? Does that mean it’s the best wine? Even the WSET wouldn’t argue that. So does natural mean good? Absolutely not. How do I know when a wine is natural? I can tell when I taste it. Or I buy it from someone who I trust to know what natural wine taste like. Simple. No need for dogma. Just drink it and see if you like it.

Follow day by day here:

Up next: These aren’t the easiest wines to sell, or; Why is my wine cloudy?

~ by Cory Cartwright on June 27, 2010.

12 Responses to “Day 9: Down with your Dogma!”

  1. Crazy wines (natural, if you will, but I really like the ‘crazy’ tag) are where it’s at. With the exception of the occasional older burgundy, champagne or riesling, it is these wines that have had the biggest impact on my wine education and have most consistently challenged my perception of what wine is.

  2. Can someone maybe list a couple “crazy wines” for me as i have no idea what we are talking about here?

    • Guilhaume, do you know Catherine and Gilles Vergé’s wines? Those are some crazy funked out ones. How about Jean-Claude Lapalu? I think Jean-Marc Brignot and Jean-Yves Peron are pretty crazy too. Hmm, now that I look at that list I’m not sure any of them are exported to the US at all. Perhaps there’s a crazy correlation going on here.

  3. Great. Thanks

  4. […] with our sashimi et alia at the new Uchiko in Austin (friends and family soft opening). Not to be down with the dogma, but few would argue with the street cred of this natural wine. (Are you following the 32 Days of […]

  5. Good post, Nick.

    Two things about the WSET, which was also part of my wine educational past:

    1) Despite the flaws (another glaring one for a U.S. student is, of course, not nearly enough coverage of U.S. wines; the UK-centric focus is inevitable, but doesn’t travel well), you’re better off for the foundation. I know you know that. But — and this sort of flows from what I was arguing a few essays ago — a lot of the interest in natural wines comes from the context, and the context is largely traditional and what the WSET is teaching.

    2) I’m not sure the WSET can teach everything you’d like them to, because there’s not enough structure or consistency to it. How do you teach Chambolle-Musigny vs. Sancerre rouge from an organoleptic standpoint if both of the wines taste more like semi-carbonic Fleurie? I know some might say that the former a useless distinction anyway, and that we’re better off abandoning it. That’s a valid viewpoint. But without declarative categories, there’s not much to teach, other than boring memorization of terms and places, and perhaps some training in tasting for structure and wine faults.

    It could also be argued that the WSET creates its own curriculum by imposing standards and then assuming their existence to be external to it (i.e. “this is what Cahors tastes like, because we’ve decided it’s this and not the other thing”), and there’s some validity in that as well (and then again not; many of the generalizations they teach do hold). But in general, I think that understanding and, almost as importantly, communication are improved by knowing both the standard and the non-standard. Just as it’s valuable to have a sense for when a character is being obliterated by new wood or excess acid-adjustment, so too is it valuable to have a sense of when paradigms are being rethought by stripping away traditional/industrial practices. And without the paradigm, both knowing it in practical terms and “knowing” how it tastes, it’s hard to assess that.

    I don’t want to over-defend the WSET, MW, or MS programs, but I think that in some ways their content — whether or not one actually signs up and pays the fees — is even more valuable for those interested in the non-traditional than it is for the traditional. It’s useful to know what one is rebelling against. And I think a scientific basis, whether or not one then wants to explore the mystical, is helpful in expanding the understanding of wine.

    • Those are all good points about the WSET Thor. I feel like I’d be fine with it if they came out and said that’s what they’re doing. But I feel like they’re not just training palates to be open to all the wine that’s out there. I feel like they take it a step further and actually attempt to arbitrate what is good and what is not. I don’t really think that’s appropriate for an educational setting. There should be more freedom to decide what is good.

      Really, it’s been a while since I’ve been involved with the WSET, so I may be lumping the WSET in with the general established wine world in total. But I do feel like with people who’ve done the WSET, particularly those either in the middle of the diploma or who’ve already finished it, that they are very indoctrinated with what is good and what is not, according to all the old-school wine regions. And it often doesn’t line up with what I like.

      Then again I could just be insecure and anti-authority. I have been known to have daddy issues in the past! :)

  6. Well said, Nick, and good points, Thor.

    Guilhaume – don’t know the ‘crazy’ producers Nick mentioned but then again I really don’t know much about ‘crazy’ or ‘natural’ as I’ve spent hardly any time in both the acknowledged commercial center of the movement (i.e. Paris) or in the vineyards. I know what I taste and occasionally what I remember from reading which is not nearly as much since I’m not as patient a reader or as quick a study as I used to be…To me, though, some examples of ‘crazy’ might include Bodegas Mendall (Laureano Serres), Radikon, Jean Thevenet in Macon, and anyone else whose viticultural and winemaking methods (and resulting wines) are far different from the typical result of others working with the same grapes in the same regions.

    Thor is absolutely right about the WSET background (which I was subjected to as a wholesale rep for 3 years) providing an enjoyable (necessary?) context to these wines. 02 Bongran Macon Viré is no Caves de Lugny; it is much more complex and interesting. Ditto Laureano Serre’s 2008 L’abeurador from old vine macabeu vs Marques de Caceres Rioja Blanco (cheap industrial macabeo).

    • I’d definitely give radikon a thumbs up on the crazy funked out scale. Where’s Hardy Wallace on this thread? Now there’s a guy who could tell us what it means when a wine is crazy and funked out!

      • I think the funked out / crazy is something that I use when I experience wines that defy the characteristics most often associated with the modern world’s expression of that variety- like a Chardonnay that smells like basil and cherries and dirt, and a whole bunch of descriptors that you struggle to describe- because these wines have a unique profile (a funk, a wildness, a taste, some crazy) that is truly that place and of that time. The crazy ones are the ones that jump out and scream it…

  7. joe, nick,
    somehow, i kind of understand what joe and nick mean by “crazy”, but really, you can’t seriously even think of putting them in A category.
    You know, thevenet uses over a hundred ppm so2 on most wines (that’s what it is when you like botrytis) while stanko radikon overmacerate his grapes (overmaceration is a fault, dixit chauvet…) and use no sulfur, but makes crazy aromatic and stable wines, and one out of two bottles of serres is refermenting by the time you open it (reminds me of dard et ribo a few years back).
    How can we really put all that together, except for the fact that WE like these wines?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: