Artisanal Winemaking is Un-American

artisanal winemakingDuring this Covid 19 pandemic we are learning a lot about the American character in the 21st century.

We are learning that vast swaths of American society are undisciplined, impatient, and far too enamored with the idea they can manipulate reality to conform to their wishes. Even the minor discomfort of wearing a mask in public is just too much to bear, and having to endure life without salons, gyms, or restaurants is just beyond the pale.

And what about the 123,000 deaths and counting? Don’t think about that. “It’s just the sniffles”. “I don’t know anyone who died. The numbers are inflated.” “It won’t happen to me—only unhealthy people die from it.” For any obstacle there is always a rationalization that will set you free.

Yet there are redoubts in society where such infantile behavior and magical thinking is out of place (including of course the front line health care workers who know the score).

Take artisanal or natural wine making for instance. Winemakers know they are not in control and can’t make reality conform to their wishes. They know they are at the mercy of weather, geography, and all the unpredictable unknowns of the wine making process and they embrace that uncertainty

They are disciplined, knowing that, when its time to harvest, the relentless weeks of 16 hour days are just part of the job.

And they are above all patient. Wine making is about watchful waiting—waiting for the grapes to ripen, for the tannins to soften, for the volatile acidity to recede. If you want to know if that experiment with extended maceration will help your wines age, you might have to wait 10 years.

Artisanal wine making goes against the grain of the modern ethos of instant gratification—all the more reason to make sure it survives.

4 comments

  1. Hi Dwight

    I am not sure that natural winemaking involves more patience than any other kind of winemaking. All winemaking depends on a single decision–when to pick the grapes. Get that right, and everything else is easier. Get it wrong, either too early or too late, and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to fix it. And that is true whether you are “natural” or not.

    Of course, that decision depends on observing, studying and knowing–what’s happening in the vineyard, and what that means for your definition of ripeness. Studying and knowing can involve things like science and technology–which might not be “natural” but will give you more information. Do you use more than just your own senses to study the wine? Is that “natural?” Do you use a refractometerr? A hydrometer? A gas chromatograph?

    There may be a qualitative and quantitative difference between using technology to study and know about a wine as opposed to using technology to manipulate a wine. But I am not sure I can tell the difference if I taste the wine blind. Can you?

    Volatile acidity, once in wine, will not disappear unless treated with “non-natural” methods. That’s science. It might appear to hide behind other factors, but it is not going away. And that can be show with a simple test. Patience isn’t the issue.

    1. Hi Paul,
      I disagree. There are all sorts of decisions made in the winery about which direction to take a wine that involve careful observation. I’m no winemaker so I have no first hand experience but I’ve talked to countless winemakers who tell me many problems that arise in their batches are resolved by waiting.
      As to the difference between using analytic technology vs. manipulative technology, I’m not sure it matters. I run into many natural winemakers who have a sophisticated knowledge of the science and analyze their wines in order to find out what’s going on with them. As far as I know that doesn’t violate any of the norms of natural wine making.

  2. Hi Dwight

    Certainly there are more decisions than just ripeness for any winemaker–although I hold to my initial premise that by far the most important decision is ripeness. But I think your emphasis on patience as a defining principle of national winemaking is misplaced. Perhaps the two most obvious examples of winemaking decisions are maceration time and barrel aging time. Do you believe that natural wines are more extensively extracted or heavily oaked than others? I would suggest the opposite, And yet these two winemaking decision play mainly on time–time on the skins, time in the barrel–which creates this style of wine.

    And let’s not forget that as a result of the long barrel aging time for those big, oaky red wines so reviled by “natural” winemakers, they usually need very little filtration because they “naturally” clarify in the barrel–as would most “natural” wines if they were left alone long enough before bottling. But many “natural” wines are bottled sooner than this, and thus display haze or cloudiness in the bottle. That’s not evidence of patience. It may be a legitimate winemaking style–I am not arguing against that–but it is not evidence of great patience.

    Nor should we forget that Pet Nat wines would not be Pet if they were not rushed into bottle before the CO2 disappeared–something that “non-‘natural” wines avoid by using a very different method.

    I know it is appealing to suggest that “natural” wines are made more slowly…but I don’t see the evidence in the field on enology. All winemaking, whether it be “natural” or something else, involves careful observation. It is what is done with the information collected that might best provide some kind of definition for what is “natural,’ but i am certain that definition would avoid the use of the term patience.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I probably wasn’t clear enough in my post. I referred to artisanal winemaking as well as natural wine. They are not synonymous. “Artisanal” is a much broader category and many of those big, oaky red wines are “artisanal”by which i mean non-industrial. Part of that “artisanal” ethos is allowing the wine to dictate what is done and when–especially not releasing a wine until it is ready. So oak aging is certainly one aspect of the patience I attribute to artisanal wine making.

    With regard to specifically natural wine, as I said in my earlier comment, without the presence of SO2, off aromas frequently develop and a batch can seem to be heading downhill. But those problems often resolve themselves with time. And natural winemakers tell me that one of the most important and difficult decisions they make is when to intervene and when to let things develop.

    I don’t think natural wines in general are made more slowly. That wasn’t my point Many of them are designed for early release. My point was about the careful observation and patience required to allow the wine to dictate its direction.

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