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 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.
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 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