A Natural Debate over Natural Wines

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I guess it must be that time of the year again. Every six months or so, it seems, the wine blogosphere erupts in a cascade of screed, accusation, and innuendo about so called “natural wines”.  This latest go-round was initiated by an intemperate article in Newsweek entitled “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider”. As you might imagine, that provoked some wine writers to come to the defense of natural wines and others to offer somewhat more restrained denounciations.

If you are one of the billions of people on this planet who avoid the wine press and wine blogs you might never have heard of “natural wines”. Essentially these are wines made without cultured yeast, mininimal (or no) use of the preservative sulfur dioxide, no modern winemaking technology such as reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation, no additives such as mega purple or additional acid, no filtration, and using only grapes grown organically and/or sustainably–the way wine was made 100 years ago.

So what is wrong with modern winemaking technology? Well, environmental issues such as soil depletion and potentially harmful chemicals to start with, but natural wine enthusiasts also claim modern industrial winemaking destroys flavor, creating generic wines that lack freshness, complexity, and that no longer reflect the unique characteristics of the grapes’ origins.

This is controversial because modern winemaking technology is, in part, designed to eliminate flaws, bad bottles, and to preserve the wine for shipping and storage. So making (and purchasing) wine without that technology is inherently risky. It is, however, not quite true that natural winemakers eschew modern technology. The natural winemakers I know obsessively test their wines in the lab, use the latest in storage technology, and are scrupulous about cleanliness in the winery using the best equipment they can find to make sure their facilities, storage containers and equipment are free of bacteria. The idea that they are luddites is absurd.

So what does this controversy come down to? On one side, the traditionalists claim that natural wine enthusiasts are ignoring flavor in favor of a dogmatic ideology, deceived by the romantic lure of the idea of “authenticity” into making inferior wine. On the other side are the enthusiasts who claim that the wine revolution is upon us if only the close-minded and hidebound apologists for big business would get out of the way.

In the middle are the vast number of artisanal wine producers who use technology when necessary but only as a last resort, who believe vineyard expression is what matters most but that some intervention sometimes is necessary to produce the best wine they can.

Part of the controversy arises because the word “natural” is ill-defined and there are no standards for what counts as natural wine and often no way of knowing whether a wine is natural or not. There is a simple solution to this–require ingredients to be listed on the bottle so consumers can make their own decisions about what they prefer and are less dependent on the marketing of the word “natural”.

But another main source of confusion is the idea that we can somehow distinguish flavor from the idea of what we’re drinking. Flavor is an idea influenced by our past, our environment, and most importantly our thoughts about what we’re tasting. Natural wine enthusiasts are not ignoring flavor in favor of dogma. They define flavor differently because they have a different idea of what flavor should be. The traditionalist notion that great wine must be made from very ripe grapes, filtered, and heavily oaked is itself a kind of dogma. There is no neutral ground called “flavor” that defines what flavor is and our various ideologies inevitably influence our judgments.

The attitude I find most disturbing is one expressed by Matt Kramer whose writing I usually admire. He writes

For those of us on the sidelines, watching the crusaders on both sides saddle up for yet another joust leaves a bad aftertaste. And that is surely not what fine wine is supposed to be about.

The idea that we shouldn’t disagree about these things takes wine out of the realm of the aesthetic. As Kant insisted, the idea of beauty (as opposed to mere subjective preference) produces judgements that aspire to be universal. The fact that the taste of wine matters enough to argue about and take sides with the aim of convincing others means that wine is not just a preference but an attempt to experience something of genuine value and import. If it were like a preference for Orange Maid or Sunkist then arguments would appear to be beside the point. Everyone in the wine world should welcome this controversy because it is a sign that wine is not merely a commodity like orange juice but a work of art worthy of our commitment.

In closing let me weigh in on the controversy. Some natural wines are better than others. Some are flawed or just ordinary. But I’ve had natural wines that are extraordinary. Someone who claims that they all taste like “putrid cider” is just ignorant. The trick is to know the producer so you can return a bad bottle, buy local, and drink young to avoid the need to store them.

Wine Review: Weise and Krohn Valtorto 2011 Red Blend Douro

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valtortoI’m fascinated by the capacity of wine to evoke ideas and images. It is not true of every wine, but some have sufficient personality and character to send the mind traveling across worlds and through time.  Happily,these wines are not necessarily the most expensive.

This red blend from Portugal’s Douro river valley is a perfect evocation of that region. Characterized by steep, rugged hillsides, with poor, rocky soil, infernally hot and dry as a bone in summer, growing and harvesting grapes in the Douro defies gravity and common sense notions of what is humanly possible.  Although many of the large port houses own sculpted, terraced vineyards that ease the difficulties of harvest, many small vineyard plots and steep slopes still survive. Weise and Krohn are a small, but established port house. I have no idea whether their grapes are sourced from growers using traditional methods or not, but this wine is a metaphor for that hardscrabble existence endured by centuries of growers trying to eke out a living growing grapes.

Powerful and sturdy yet sinewy and lean, it opens with the deepest, darkest blackberry notes, set off by baked earth, coffee, and hints of tarragon. There is an intriguing caramel note that rewards some careful sniffing. On the palate, intense dark fruit, tar and bitter herbs give way to coarse, dry tannins and robust acidity. Despite all that savory intensity it feels lively not weighty and manages to be rustic yet well-balanced, tough but pleasing.

It doesn’t have the classical character of fine wine. It is what it is—a wine with personality.

This is a blend of the standard port varietals—Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, and Tinto Cao—which make interesting, savory red wines. In fact, if you want bargains I would buy Portuguese wines right now. They are usually under $15 and almost always rewarding.

 

Score: 89

Price: $12

Alc: 14%

Budget Wine Review: Guenoc Chardonnay 2013 California

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guenocGuenoc is Langtry Estates entry level wine which is now part of the Foley Family stable of wineries. It’s a widely available supermarket wine produced at their Lake County winery using less than 15% estate grapes with the rest coming from various vineyards in California.

This is a straightforward, modern-style, warm-climate Chardonnay, not too oaky, no butter, with tropical fruits and crisp acidity but exceedingly average in quality.

Good intensity on the nose, showing pineapple, baked apple, and lime but with faint medicinal notes if you look for them. Restrained oak notes.

The oak influence is a bit more apparent on the medium-bodied palate which shows some roasted pear, but the flavor disappears mid-palate, overwhelmed by the bite from the acid. A crisp and tangy mouthfeel but dull on the finish as it turns a bit sour. This will work well with salmon or butternut squash soup for dinner but won’t impress as a sipper.

A good bargain if you find the price discounted, which I did at BevMo.

Score: 85

Ave. Price:  $10

Alc: 13.5

Do We Need Psychoanalysis to Learn to Eat Well?

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therapylandscape_1651411cIn his recent interview with Ezra Klein, Michael Pollan expresses puzzlement at the Obama administration’s reluctance to take on the food industry.

“The energy sector is a powerful lobby,” he says, “but the President seems willing to go after them. But not agriculture….The agricultural sector generates more methane than any other sector. But for reasons I can’t fathom, when they announced the new rules governing methane in the energy sector, they called for voluntary measures in the agricultural sector.”

Reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock gets a similar voluntary treatment. Pollan attributes Washington’s reluctance to regulate the food industry to public resistance to changing one’s diet:

 “People’s eating choices are more fundamental and closely tied to their identity than their driving decisions or how they choose to heat their house or anything else. If you challenge my right to have a cheeseburger, that’s getting a little intimate.”

Perhaps Pollan’s right about our reluctance to change our diet but if so that is pathetic. The environmental impact of eating meat could be substantially mitigated by choosing to eat meat less often. Moving to a plant-based diet three times a week would make a big difference.

So what does choosing an occasional plant based meal have to do with one’s identity? If eating pasta primavera insted of a cheeseburger is a threat to your identity–well your identity is a bit too fragile to survive the slings and arrows of human existence.

I recommend psychoanalysis along with the change in diet.

 

 

 

Does Jiro Dream Only of Sushi?

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jiroI finally got around to watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the documentary about famed Sushi chef Jiro Ono and his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, where diners pay the equivalent of $300 for a 15 minute meal. (Jiro discourages lingering or socializing–its all about the food)

It is a well-done documentary with scrumptious shots of sushi, a behind the scenes look at a fish auction, and music by Philip Glass. But the main attraction is Jiro Ono’s character. Now 86 years old, and a perfectionist with extraordinary discipline and dedication, he still goes to work each day, detests holidays, and, despite being the best sushi chef in the world, dreams of making better sushi. His sons seem to be happily following in his footsteps.

He pours over every detail of his operation from how long fish is marinated to the placement of place mats and seating arrangements. His apprentices spend weeks learning how to slice an egg and decades perfecting a dish. He apparently has no other interests, eschews all recreation, his home life is never mentioned, his wife never appears.

He has a mission, the value of which he is absolutely sure, and each moment of his life is aimed at carrying it out. His self-certainty pervades the film. No doubt driven by an exquisite form of love, his life embodies Nietzsche’s  stirring paean to single-mindedness:

O thou, my Will! Thou change of every need, MY needfulness! Preserve me from all small victories!

Thou fatedness of my soul, which I call fate! Thou In-me! Over-me! Preserve and spare me for one great fate!

And thy last greatness, my Will, spare it for thy last–that thou mayest be inexorable IN thy victory! Ah, who hath not succumbed to his victory!

Ah, whose eye hath not bedimmed in this intoxicated twilight! Ah, whose foot hath not faltered and forgotten in victory–how to stand!– (Zarathustra, Part III, 56)

There is something to be said for having only one goal in life—a kind of simplicity and absence of doubt. Jiro enjoys the inherent  satisfaction in achieving excellence and deep although limited aesthetic appreciation. But daily life is repetitive and perhaps lacking imagination, and human relationships seem constrained and circumscribed by his singular goal.

And so the film starkly raises the question–is such a life of dedication and obsession a good life or is it too unbalanced?

I’ve been thinking about this issue for 40 years and I’m still not sure.

Nederberg Cabernet 2011 Winemaster’s Reserve Western Cape South Africa

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nederbergSouth Africa makes some fine Cabernet but at the low end of the price range quality is uneven. Nederberg has two centuries of winemaking behind them but this entry level Cab is ordinary.

It does have the characteristic South African herbal quality. A mélange of eucalyptus and smoke with coffee background and red current give the nose some interest. But this is not fruit driven and suggests a lack of ripeness.

On the palate, simple cherry flavors dominate with a touch of candied sweetness, but the body is meager and the finish tart, like a new acquaintance with a bright smile and a sour disposition.

Refreshing with good acidity but the medium grain tannins grip a little  and with the burst of acidity give the wine an impression of rusticity.

This is old world winemaking—California-trained palates will find it austere. It will go well with pizza but is a little overpriced.

 

Score: 85

Price: $12

Alc: 14%

L.A. Cetto Zinfandel Guadalupe Valley 2011

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la cettoThe Guadalupe Valley is producing some excellent wines especially in the premium price range. But the few bargain wines from that area that I’ve tasted have been uneven in quality.

L.A. Cetto is the most recognizable, large production wine brand in Mexico. They have been making affordable wines since 1928, and they have plenty of fans. But I’ve yet to taste one of their wines that was not over-ripe, and this Zin is no exception.

The nose gives raisin and dark plum with some funky earth hidden behind the tomato paste and a strong whiff of alcohol.

On the palate, prune and chocolate dominate. Yet, despite the ripeness there is plenty of acidity that makes this a lively drink. Full bodied and viscous with a peppery finish and very little tannin.

This is a stimulating wine but, then, not all stimulation is good. It’s bold and invigorating but when you give it your undivided attention the resemblance to prune juice overwhelms.

Score: 83

Price: $10

Alc: 14%

Feeling Umami

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Umami Burger

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely accepted until 2002 when the taste receptors for glutamate were discovered which gives food the flavor called “umami”. (Bacon, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and tomatos have lots of it.)

But of course this 5-taste model describes only the tastes detected by the tongue. Most of the flavors we identify in food come from aromas. Some research suggests that the average human can distinguish millions if not trillions of distinct odors, some of which emanate from food. So the range of flavors we can detect is quite large.

It is then strange that taste sensations but not flavor sensations are used extensively as metpahors. We routinely use taste sensations to describe emotions, personalities, facial expressions, etc. A person is a sourpuss, a smile is sweet, resentment is bitter, language is salty.  But we don’t describe persons as fragrant, minty or herbal. It is curious why taste rather than aroma is the source of metaphorical association.

But at any rate, now that umami is officially a taste I suppose it will eventually acquire metaphorical associations.

So what is it like to feel “umami”?

 

Hipsters And Food

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This article in the Guardianhipster, “The end of the hipster: how flat caps and beards stopped being so cool” got me thinking about current trends in food consumption. (The article is London-centric but it translates well across the pond.)

The title of the article is misleading—it is really about how the meaning of “hipster” changes once ordinary people start to adopt hipster style (and it becomes a commodity exploited by capitalism). The real trend setters will move on to something new once their innovation is no longer a badge of distinction.

Part of contemporary hipster culture is caring about the provenance of your food and drink. If beards, flat caps, and tattoos are on the way out, will locavorism and the whole phenomenon of wanting a personal connection with what we consume go with it?

I hope not because that movement is a form of resistance to the industrial food complex, and it is important to keep up that resistance.

Has locavorism transcended the stage of “fashion trend” to become more firmly rooted in culture?

What say you hive mind?

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