In Defense of (some) Wine Flaws



wine flawsMatt Kramer’s article articulating 5 fundamental rules of wine continues to bother me. Recently, I took issue with his claim that expression of place is always the primary aim of quality wine. This week his second fundamental rule strikes me as equally misguided.

A Wine Has Got to Be Clean. I can’t put it more plainly than that. How can a wine possibly meet its highest calling of expressing its place if that expression is distorted or obscured by one or another winemaking flaw?…But if that sought-after purity is besmirched by unclean or off flavors or by the presence of brettanomyces (a yeast that creates a musty, funky odor in a finished wine) or by noticeable volatile acidity (think vinegar), well then, the very purpose and intent of “natural” has been defeated hasn’t it?

There are some flaws that must be avoided at all costs. Corked wines or maderized (cooked) wines are never pleasant.  No one wants to smell rotten egg or burnt rubber aromas from certain sulfur compounds. But some of the most intriguing wines in the world have minor flaws that give them character. Brettanomyces and volatile acidity are flaws if too excessive but in the right proportion produce wines of interest and depth. Some of the best of Bordeaux  such as Petrus often have subtle brett aromas, traditional Northern Rhone Syrah such as Ogier (when it was a father and son operation) employs Brett to good effect. Volatile acidity, another wine flaw, is the hallmark of some great Barolo’s giving them a balsamic vinegar note. Volatile acidity and Brett together make the Lebanese wine Chateau Musar one of the most sought after wines in the world. Too much exposure to oxygen makes a still wine smell like sherry, but just the right amount of oxidation gives both reds and whites an appealing nut-like aroma.

Kramer’s judgment seems to presuppose rule #1 that vineyard expression is the highest calling of the winemaker. We could argue about whether the presence of Brett or VA always diminishes the vineyard character of a wine. But even if we accept that premise, as I argued in the previous post, there is no reason to think that is the only approach to wine quality.

Kramer is of course aware of these controversies about brett and volatile acidity. He apparently prefers wines with no hint of these “flaws”. All well and good. But to make this a fundamental principle of all quality winemaking requires an argument which he has not supplied.

There is nothing wrong with clean wines and any successful winemaker must know how to control the so-called “flaws” to make sure they aren’t too prominent. But by insisting that all wines must strive to be clean is a recipe for boredom and a failure to recognize the variety of expressions of which wine is capable. Why make wine less than what it can be?

Budget Wine: McManis Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon California 2014



mcmanis cabMcManis wines are widely admired for their relative quality at a moderate price. But you do get what you pay for.

Ripe blackberry and prominent toasty notes from oak are highlighted by slight herbal top notes and a hint of baking spice on the nose.  There is some depth but the alcohol burn on the nose is significant despite the moderate alcohol level.

In the mouth it is soft and smooth up front, dominated by toast and coffee notes, and a hint of sweetness. It picks up structure midpalate , although the the acidity turns hard with some sourness drawing attention away from nicely integrated tannins. The initial impression is lush but it turns more sinewy as it develops in the mouth not quite delivering on its promise.

It seems to not quite know what it wants to be. But as a simple table wine it offers good value.

Score: 86

Price: $11

Alc: 13%

A ballad with some edginess helps give some unity to this wine. The Beatles did that as well as anyone. This is a killer version featuring Prince (RIP) with a scalding solo at the end.

Bringing Back Local Agriculture



hydroponic towerAs I travel about the country visiting rural areas it is obvious that many of these small towns are dying. Big agriculture has undermined the small farm economy that used to support them, extraction industries have fallen on hard times, and manufacturing has moved out in search of a larger, cheaper work force. With too few people to support a service economy it is not clear what can be done to revitalize vast areas of the country.

But stories like this one from West Virginia provide a clue if not an answer:

In the parking lot of the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank in McDowell County, squash and basil are growing in 18 tall white towers without any dirt. It’s a farming method called hydroponics. The vegetables sprout from tiny holes as water and nutrients flood the roots.

Joel McKinney built this hydroponic garden because it produces a lot of food yet takes up just a little space.

“So like for right here I can grow 44 plants, whereas somebody growing in the ground can only grow four,” McKinney says. “So I want to do as much vertical space as I can and really amaze people with the poundage of food, because I’m growing up instead of out.”…

“People have the ability to grow their own food. I want to help them learn to market their product and earn some money,” he says. “Like people who quilt or make necklaces, the same thing with growing food — people have just never seen it as a marketable skill.”

Obviously not a global solution to a global problem. But revitalizing local agriculture even on a small scale is a start.

Standing Stone Vineyards Saperavi Reserve Finger Lakes 2014



Saperavi-Reserve-2014-100x400The Republic of Georgia may be the oldest wine region in the world with evidence of wine being produced there 8000 years ago. The major grape in Georgia is Saperavi, a grape that makes very dark colored wines with high acidity. In addition to aging well, it thrives in cold temperatures which is why a few wineries in the Finger Lakes are growing it.

In tasting through hundreds of Finger Lakes wines only a few reds stood out and this was one of them. Aside from the occasional Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc, red varietals are tough to ripen in their short growing season–if they survive the winter. There is lots of experimentation going on trying to find a red wine that will fill out their tasting menus next to the ubiquitous Riesling. I think Saperavi probably has the most potential of them all.  Mcgregor Vineyard makes a Saperavi/Sereksiya Charni blend called Black Russian which is quite good but I enjoyed the more restrained elegance of the Standing Stone Reserve a bit more.

It’s very inky in the glass  with complex, intriguing aromas of blackberry, toasted oak, damp leaves and eucalyptus prominent against subtle vanilla in the background. The concentrated dark fruit  on the palate gives way to steely minerality that is really more prominent than fruit. Firmly textured, sinewy rather than supple, the incisive acidity carries all the way through the medium-length finish, giving it a pleasing, lifted, slightly edgy quality. The tannins are fine-grained and already well-integrated.

This is a linear wine—the flavors and textures establish themselves early and relentlessly push all the way through the finish without much evolution.

With a gentle oak treatment burnishing any rustic edges, it comes across as polished yet resolute and insistent.

When I dialed up this oldie from Massive Attack the wine settled into a buoyant groove in sympathetic resonance with the polished vocals and relentlessly repeated baseline. The broken synth and piano fills seemed to bring out the eucalyptus notes on the nose—a really scintillating pairing of music and wine.

Score: 90

Price: $50

Alc: 13.3%

The Fastest Food



soylentThe online magazine Aeon has a long meditation by food writer Nicola Twilley on the virtues and vices of Soylent, the food substitute that has captured the imaginations of people who don’t like food. Described as a “ ‘thick, odourless, beige liquid’ made up of ‘every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial’”, the attraction is that by consuming Soylent at every meal you can save all the time devoted to planning, shopping, and consuming food, about 90 minutes a day according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.

Of course the desire to spend less time consuming food is a very long historical trend since the days of grinding your own corn meal or harvesting seeds. Reductions in the time spent preparing and consuming food have made the lives of  women immeasurably better. Fast food is a modern necessity in a busy, mobile society built on the logic of efficiency. So there is something thoroughly predictable about Soylent.

As someone who finds food preparation and consumption the highlight of any day I’m clearly not the audience for this product.

But aside from matters of preference, Soylent seems a symptom of a deeply pernicious, modernist tendency to entirely remove nature from our lives.

Twilley runs through a number of costs and benefits if we should widely adopt food replacements to satisfy nutritional needs including the effects it might have on the shape of the face and jaw if we no longer had to chew.

But in the end the sheer monotony of consuming the same thing at every meal is the deal breaker:

However, after five days spent living on 100 per cent Soylent, I can report that its most pressing problem is how downright unpleasant it tastes: like oversweet vanilla body wash, but with the texture of silt. It also has a rather unappetising tendency to separate into a scummy top, oily layer, and dense, mud-like bottom. I lost weight, but only because I found it was more tempting to go to bed hungry than to drink more Soylent.

This just sounds depressing; one more way to strip life of meaning.

Perhaps its nothing more than a novelty that few will find appealing but we should not underestimate the attractions of nihilism.