Day 27: Industrial Wines, Natural Wines and the Perils of Human Frailty.

VLM is The Vulgar Little Monkey AKA Uncle Nay-nay AKA Some Mathemagician

There has been a lot of commotion over the last couple of years around the wine intertubes regarding natural wine: what it is, what it isn’t, what it represents and whether it even matters, among many other topics. These conflictual exchanges often end in name-calling and other kinds of posturing, with people who know little about grape growing and winemaking taking ridiculous stances because they are either emotionally engaged or do not know any better.
It is my belief that part of the reason is that people are simply talking past one another. This isn’t new to the wine internet nor to human discourse in general. There are two reasons for this, the first is simply the human condition, and the second is that the differences are there, but they are not always as distinct as we would like. As it turns out, distinguishing complex things turns out to be, well, complex. It does not help that the words used to describe these wine types tend to be frequently pejorative, loaded with baggage. I’ll use them nonetheless: Natural Wine, Real Wine, Industrial wine.

The Human Condition
There are many things that human beings do wonderfully. Unfortunately, thinking in terms of probability distributions is not one of them. Starting at least with the development of prospect theory by Tversky and Kahneman (for which they have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics) through most of the generally accepted thought of today (even creeping into the University of Chicago) it has been determined through experimental findings that humans have several flaws in the application of human judgment, which affects the assignment of an event’s probability. It is also the case that human beings naturally want to think of things as being in exclusive or (ex-or) categories. That is, something is A or B, not mostly A with a bit of B. In fact, the world usually is not quite so clear-cut as ex-or A and B. Complex things tend to have overlapping distributions, such that something that is A could also be classified as B with some sort of mixing probability.
The Epidemiology of Wine
The best way I can think of talking about natural wine is the intention to treat. This is a classification for clinical trial research which, while it is not usually drawn on in what we are discussing here, captures my thinking. Per-protocol is the opposite of intention to treat: it excludes any case that doesn’t fit with the clinical protocol. Intent to treat includes all cases, even those that left protocol because they received treatment. What I would like to borrow from this is the idea of what a vigneron will do once to correct any vagaries of nature. If we can imagine this multi-dimensional idea projected onto one dimension (the first principle component, for example) such that we have a score, those values would range from 0 to 100. I’ve included a schematic plot of the distributions of Natural, Industrial and Real wine in terms of intention to treat.
Natural Wine
Natural wine is sometimes defined by what it is not, which is harder than defining it by what it is. We could think of Natural wine as being a distribution around an idea of minimizing treatment, such that at one end there are those who would have a score of 0 (Marc Angeli). A fair description of Natural wines, in American self-help lingo, is that they are process-oriented. This distribution is left censored at 0, meaning that the distribution implies other values that aren’t on the scale. This is because there is not less you can do than 0 and there is a density of practitioners of 0. This distribution is fairly tight around the mean.

Industrial Wine
If the idea of natural wine is that the intention to treat is minimized, the idea for Industrial wine is that a particular desired outcome is maximized, such that the intention to treat is quite high (Michel Rolland, a la Lascombes). A fair description of Industrial wines is that they are goal-oriented. Industrial wine has a distribution somewhere high on the intention to treat, with the narrowest standard deviation.
Real Wine
Real wine is what we started talking about when we talked about wine. Wine that speaks of place and vintage (for good or ill) where there is no grand philosophy, but an appreciation of what has come before with an eye toward stewardship for those that come afterward (Baudry, my example from last year). This is where I find myself. A distribution that overlaps Natural with a higher probability than industrial, but there is substantial overlap with both and the standard deviation is much higher than for Natural or Industrial. Real wine, being neither goal-oriented nor process-oriented is not what I have termed vins de philosophes (I totally made that shit up). The contrast I make is that the wines are vins de terroir. The intention to treat is not in the service of anything other than the translucent expression of the harvested grapes.
Distinguishing between them
As I’ve tried to show in the figure and in this text, all producers (and indeed, all wines) will have a mixed probability of being in one or the other. Distinguishing between those that are about the mean will be fairly easy especially the more one tastes from each group (as N increases, the standard error (standard deviation divided by N) will decrease resulting in more power to make distinctions). And really, isn’t that the best advice? Drink widely, drink intelligently, use your mind, do some research, travel. Don’t get confused by people that tell it’s just “what’s in the glass” or that all palates are equal. None of that claptrap is true. Wine appreciation is like anything else, it rewards careful study and dedication. Just as humans can learn to think about probability and understand complex, mutable concepts wine can be understood as a continuum, not as discrete objects. At the end of the day, wine may not be science but thinking about it scientifically can be enormously rewarding.

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Up Next: Part 2 of Day 27

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 15, 2010.

12 Responses to “Day 27: Industrial Wines, Natural Wines and the Perils of Human Frailty.”

  1. Man – you should patent this idea. Some vignerons may want to use it to market their wines. I can see the day when bell curves appear on the front of every wine label.

  2. VLM – I love your post, your graph in particular, but I have a couple questions for you. How do you define “Intention to Treat”? I have a feeling this is where a large amount of the debate about natural wine resides. There is baseline of “treatment” that must take place in order to make wine instead of vinegar, and I’m assuming you’re throwing those treatments out in order to get a 0 baseline. But who gets to define that baseline? Some industrial winemakers may not realize how interventionist they really are, so if you asked them where their baseline is it might end up being 50 according to Angeli. Unfortunately this line of thought might take you back to the original arguments about the definition of natural wine.

    My other question is about the real wine curve. I can think of lots of winemakers that skew on the side of natural, and I notice that curve is skewed slightly that direction, but I have a hard time coming up with many that skew towards industrial. Maybe Produttori? But I guess you answer this question (have I even formulated a question?) near the end of your post when you say people should go out and try lots of different things, form their own opinions, and learn as much as you can for yourself. My wine drinking in general definitely skews to the natural.

    Thanks again for posting, and come visit again soon! It will be extra fun when we live in O-town instead of boring old San Jose.

  3. Thank you. I found the disclosure to be clarifying in a way that allows me to love the wine for what it is, not what others may falsely expect it to be.

  4. @VLM have you ever read Barthes’ _Writing Degree Zero_? I think there’s a relation here to your approach and the semiotician’s take on writing. Great post…

  5. I only read the beginning. I hope it at least ends funny. You’re a fucking dork.

  6. Like Matt, I too, took a break while reading your post and hoped it would at least end funny. Maybe it did – I may not be smart enough to understand. Nonetheless, I’d like to see a lot less Mathemagician with a little more VLM but much more Uncle Nay-Nay.

    You made a great point, though, I think . . . I’m really still not sure.

  7. That post left me so stupid, I, apparently, couldn’t even spell my own name.

  8. Actually, I was just messing with VLM – I liked the post a great deal.

  9. Emma-

    Intention to treat could be thought of as the hi-dimensional space consisting of all “treatments” that can be made to a vine in the vineyard or wine in the cave. I have imagined that the dimensionality can be reduced to one dimension which I have labeled intention to treat. Upon this dimension there are two philosophical bents, tending towards 0, the process oriented (Natural) and using as much as needed for the goal oriented (Industrial). This has nothing to do with where a vigneron thinks he is but rather a theoretical construct for understanding how we might be able to distinguish between Natural, Real, and Industrial wines.

    IMO, at both extremes wines are heavily marked by the prevailing philosophy.

    To be technical, none of the distributions are skewed they are all normal but with different means (center) and standard deviations (spread). They are centered about different parts of the x-axis.

    An example of real wine that is quite industrial would be Trimbach Frederic Emile.

    I was making a couple of points about the study of wine. The first was that it does require study to have an opinion of any worth. The wines are where they are, only through study can you as a wine appreciator determine that.

  10. anonymous-

    I have no fucking idea what you are talking about.

  11. Do Bianchi-

    Thanks. I’m only peripherally familiar with Barthes and not with any particular work or theory. I would be surprised if it was the same coming, as I assume they do, from very different starting points. Can you describes Barthes theory in a paragraph?

  12. […] del Barbaresco amongst other things. Now Produttori isn’t a natural winemaker. In fact, using VLM’s graph it would be closer to “industrial” rather than “natural.” i got several […]

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