Wine Fundamentals Are Not Like Rules

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ballet dancerAs usual, Matt Kramer’s essay “Why the Fundamentals Matter”, in which he compares wine to the 5 fundamental ballet positions that every aspiring dancer must learn and practice, is interesting. But the analogy I think breaks down immediately. No ballet dancer can succeed without knowing the 5 fundamental positions. But wine quality is not so cut and dried.  I have an allergy to any complex activity, including wine appreciation, being described in terms of rules. And I think each of Kramer’s “rules” are too fraught with exceptions to “prove the rule”.

Here are Kramer’s 5 rules of wine quality:

1.  Expression of a place is a wine’s highest calling.

2.  A wine has got to be clean.

3. A perfect sphere is the ideal. (Meaning overall harmony is the ideal)

4. Originality, not replication.

5. Greatness can come from places not previously recognized as great.

I’ll focus on (1) today and cover the rest of Kramer’s rules in subsequent posts.

I agree that expression of place is central to an explanation of wine’s appeal. Wine succeeds at expressing place perhaps more than any other food or beverage and that general characteristic is in part why we love wine. But it isn’t always the ideal for which great wines aim. For instance, Vega Sicilia  Unico, the great Spanish wine from Ribera Del Duero is a blend of grapes from 85 geographically dispersed vineyards that are vinified separately and then blended. The aim of this wine could not be an expression of a particular place. The same is true of many of the Premier Crus Chateau of Bordeaux whose wines are made from vineyards scattered throughout their respective regions. Granted in all these cases the wine reflects characteristics of the broader region but they achieve their originality through blending that will obscure the influence of particular vineyards.

Furthermore, a wine can express a sense of place, showing a flavor and texture profile typical of a site, but nevertheless be rather simple in its flavor profile. Why would such a wine be inherently superior to a wine with complexity that lacks a sense of place, especially if it shows originality? In fact as noted above, complexity is often achieved by blending away characteristics of particular vineyards.

Surely complexity is a characteristic of great wines, but that is often in tension with terroir expression.

Most of the great wines of the world are made by using extreme sorting methods with trained workers picking grapes by hand and then using optical sorters to eliminate grapes that look good but have machine-detectable flaws. So what goes into the wine are perfect berries. But do “perfect berries” express a sense of place better than just the mix of grapes that a vineyard gives you in a particular vintage, flaws and all? Some winemakers think that having some diversity in the crop, including some over-ripe and some under-ripe berries, adds interest and complexity to a wine.

I’m no terroir skeptic but I doubt that the expression of terroir is always the fundamental aim of a great wine.

 

 

 

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Wine, Scientism and Specialization

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wine scienceI complained recently about Mark Mathews new book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, arguing that it’s obvious to anyone with a passing acquaintance with wine that climate,weather, sun exposure, yeast, bacteria, and soil—all aspects of terroir—help explain wine flavors.

Matt Kramer has now piled on as well with more insight about how someone so learned as Mathews, a professor of oenology at UC Davis, can go so wrong.

I wish I had a dollar for every winemaker and grapegrower I’ve met in Napa, Sonoma and elsewhere in the world of fine wine who have told me that they had to unlearn everything they were taught by their wine science professors in order to gain traction in their fine-wine ambition. Too often the nuances sought for fine wine are not necessarily captured by the “facts” established in one or another often-narrow scientific experiment.

Kramer accuses Mathews of scientism—the belief that only scientific knowledge counts as real knowledge and everything else is just nonsense. The charge seems appropriate here.

Science is of course a hugely successful enterprise that serves as the most impressive exemplar of genuine knowledge we have. One can’t do epistemology (theory of knowledge) without understanding how and why science works. And we have no reason to doubt settled, scientific consensus on any topic that has been subjected to thorough scientific scrutiny.

But, as they say in the computer science field, garbage in, garbage out, and Kramer points to the problem with Mathews’ hasty conclusions.

One of the features of professor Matthews’ book—and virtually all of the others of its sort penned by his fellow academic wine scientists—is that it never reports actually tasting wines, let alone trying to correlate tasting experience with academic knowledge. Nowhere in Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing does the author refer to a tasting experience. Such a thing is too subjective and thus inherently suspect.

This is a stunning claim and a wholesale indictment of Mathews approach to wine knowledge.

Mathews and his ilk are looking at a narrow range of data excluding facts that are too ambiguous to fit their need for quantification and exact measurement. So, to draw on another cliché, if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. If quantification pays the bills then everything will be quantified or made to disappear. Many scientists are specialists interested in the parts but ignoring the whole if the whole can’t be neatly packaged for easy access with the tools at hand.

And wine doesn’t lend itself to that kind of inquiry. Wine cannot be understood in a laboratory. It needs to be understood in context, among people tasting, enjoying and learning together. The investigation of wine is an intellectual pursuit but you can’t understand it without bringing in culture, tradition, and various tasting communities with their own aesthetic interests all trying to grasp something inherently ambiguous and a bit mysterious. With regard to wine, If academic knowledge is not trying to explain tasting experience then what exactly is it doing and why?

No doubt the wine world is fraught with half-truths, mythologies, and ideological snafus that wine science can help to untangle. That Mathews seems to have no interest in the tasting experience, however, speaks volumes about the limits of science when its focus is too narrow.

Is the Wine Spectator Fomenting Revolution?

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screaming eagleThe usually reliable Matt Kramer has me confused. In his recent Wine Spectator column he has a go at distinguishing a genuine luxury good from heavily-marketed faux-luxury goods. By implication he seems to think many wines fall into the faux-luxury category.

And he starts in the right place. A luxury good is inessential—we don’t need it—and it taps into our dreams, our aspirations, which of course is what marketers prey on.

With regard to wine, the appearance of exclusivity and privilege also define luxury:

With wine, the idea of luxury trades on two features—exclusivity and privilege. The two are interrelated, but are also separately powerful. Ironically, neither actually has to really exist. They only have to seem to exist. This is perhaps the critical point. And that, in turn, is the very key that distinguishes real luxury from faux.

Kramer’s point seems to be that any good marketer can restrict supply, raise the price of the product, and give the appearance of exclusivity thus enticing the status seekers. This is faux-luxury because it is all about appearances. It is what the big Champagne houses and celebrated wine regions do.

So what is genuine luxury? Here things get strange:

Scalability is the giveaway. Faux luxury can always be scaled-up to meet growing demand. Real luxury cannot.

I’m not sure about this. A Bentley is a luxury car. Like all automobiles, Bentley uses modern manufacturing methods. They could easily be scaled up if demand for Bentleys were to increase. Of course they wouldn’t do that. They would raise the price instead. But does that mean a Bentley is not a genuine luxury car? Presumably, most small, low-production wineries could scale up if they wanted to by expanding their contracts with growers and adding production capacity. Does that mean they lack quality?

His main example provides a clue to what he has in mind:

Distinguishing real luxury from faux is not that hard. Here’s the key: How much involvement, i.e., knowledge, purposeful pursuit and engagement, is required of you to both know about and acquire the luxury? If it comes to you easily, all tied up with a bow, with no investigation or education required on your part, it’s faux luxury.

Let me offer an example. A man can buy a very expensive suit, made with genuinely fine fabric, off the rack. Such brands are famous and cost thousands of dollars. But it’s not really made for you, never mind its aura of exclusivity.

Or that same man can go to a tailor on Savile Row. They will take dozens of measurements and hand-tailor an exquisitely fitting suit which fit is further refined by yet another fitting session—or even a third one. What results is a luxury designed and made solely for you alone. The suit will fit in a way no off-the-rack item can, no matter how expensive or luxurious-seeming.

This is “true luxury.” It takes your involvement, your interest and, not least, education and effort on your part

I don’t think he is describing luxury. He is describing particularity, originality, uniqueness. What makes the tailored suit worthy is the fact it is not standardized—it is perfectly tailored to the unique characteristics of the wearer. There can be no other suit like it.

There are lots of wines that are original, unique, one-of-kind and that reflect the particularity of their origins. They are not therefore luxury wines.

Think of a life devoted to the pursuit of inessential, arcane, rare activities that require “involvement, your interest, and, not least, education and effort on your part”. Is that a life of luxury? It sounds more like the life of a scholar or artist.

I would be very happy if this were the “new life of luxury” where privileged people aspire to the production of new knowledge and great works. Our society might be better off for it.

Who would have thought that from the pages of the Wine Spectator a new age of Enlightenment is born.

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.

The Idea of Wine

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wine and philosophyThis post by From Vinho Verde to Barolo With Love got me thinking, once again, about why wine is fascinating.

It seems that often those who love wine, also love food, and also love to travel. Because wine and food are associated with particular regions, they become a way of travelling, visiting a country, a culture, a people, learning their likes, their climates, their daily joys from a dish and a glass.

That surely is one reason. Matt Kramer’s recent essay in the Wine Spectator adds another dimension to that thought.

Kramer argues that we live in very interesting times because the world of wine is undergoing another revolution. The previous revolution, when Mondavi, Peynaud and Baron de Rothschild, came on the scene was about using new technologies to ramp up wine quality and mass produce consistent, clean, polished wine. Today’s revolution is not about technology but about “mentality”, a word invented by the Annales school of history that means roughly a shared way of looking at the world that governs the everyday lives of a people. According to Kramer, the “mentality” driving the wine world forward today is exemplified by biodynamic winemaking and natural wines. Both minimize technological interventions in the making of wine and both pay homage to the earth and flavors that exhibit a sense of place. Kramer writes:

This is not just a matter of fashion or “changing taste.” Rather, it’s reflective of an emerging cultural shift, a rethinking of wine beauty itself. What is it that makes a fine wine original? And not least, profound?

I don’t think Kramer’s thesis is about natural winemaking or bio-dynamics in particular. In terms of sheer numbers, grapes grown biodynamically are a fraction of the total, and wines made without the addition of SO2 or commercial yeast are even less prominent. I think what Kramer is getting at is that, along with the farm to table/slow food/and heritage movements in the food world, there is increased interest in locality, artisanal products that maintain a connection to their origins in a community. Small production, artisanal, family wines fit this ethos. Of course, small production, hands-on wineries have always been around, but Kramer is suggesting, I think, that instead of being an exception or afterthought, artisanal methods are defining our concept of beauty, setting the standard for what wine should ultimately be.

I’m not sure how persistent this shift will be or even how widespread it is. But what I find interesting about Kramer’s thesis is his view that developments in the wine world are driven by ideals of goodness and beauty, the same ideals that have inspired great works of art and literature throughout history.

Wine is interesting because unlike most other consumables it engages the mind. It’s not just a matter of taste, but taste shaped by imagination and reason that can express a way of life and cause us to create new ways of living.

That is a heavy burden for a glass of fermented grape juice.

The Controversy Over “Natural Wine”

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natural-wines_2 If you want controversy, use the word “natural” in any context and someone will challenge your intent. Food and cosmetic companies have been using the word for decades to imply their competitors are “unnatural” without having to precisely define what they mean. The word has largely been evacuated of meaning—it’s the source of empty slogans that allow users to help themselves to virtue without bearing any burdens.

So when proponents of minimally-processed wines chose “natural” to describe their winemaking practices they were walking into a hornet’s nest. We wine writers, of course, love controversy—without it there would be nothing to write about. So despite the fact that the debate barely registers among the wine-drinking public, it rages in the blogosphere. Tom Wark, communications consultant for the wine industry and top-notch blogger, has been on the warpath, accusing proponents of natural wines of mean-spirited, holier-than-thou hypocrisy:

 But there is something much more sinister than “Natural” being just an arbitrary marketing term. The word implies strongly (and sometimes explicitly) that wines not falling under the heading of “Natural” are “Unnatural”. The implication of being an “Unnatural” wine are simply not good…in any context. It implies they are plastic, constructed, inauthentic, unhealthy, industrial, “frankenwines”, all things that apply to very few wines.

The Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer, long an advocate of “authentic” wines that exhibit a sense of place, agrees. The article is behind a paywall but Tom Wark cites the relevant passage:

The very word ‘natural’ has become a flashpoint. Many winemakers who would otherwise be sympathetic chafe at being held—at a kind of intellectual gunpoint—to rigidly prescribed practices…Words matter. And ‘natural’ is not the word you should seek.

By contrast, defender-in-chief of natural wines Alice Feiring insists the word “natural” is squishy only if we allow backsliders and pretenders to get in on the fun:

The category of natural wine is a somewhat slippery slope except predicated by the tenets of nothing added nothing taken away, a touch of sulfur as needed if needed. Basic to the cause is no inoculations and please, no acidifications. There is a transparency in the wines that excite out of control affection for certain drinkers predisposed to the wine roller coaster.

If you stick to the rigorous definition “nothing added, nothing taken away” except for a bit of sulfur when necessary, there need be no confusion over the meaning of “natural”. But it is precisely the rigor of this “ideological straightjacket” that many object to. Winemakers who judge that, in order to make their very best wine, some addition or subtraction in the winery is necessary are implicitly (or explicitly)  falsely accused of being “unnatural”, serving up manipulated, industrial-grade “frankenwines” to the unsuspecting masses.

So does the word “natural” inevitably invite a hopeless morass of contentious ideological contrasts or is their a legitimate use of the word that can be salvaged from the vitriol of claim and counter-claim?

What say you hive-mind?

I’m still thinking through what I want to say about this. But one oft-mentioned response won’t do. Every comment thread on this topic includes one post with a plea to just drink the wine and forget about the philosophy—deliciousness should be the main consideration. But this won’t do because most wine lovers want a little meaning with their wine. It’s not just a beverage that tastes good but an experience of transcendent value that stimulates the imagination and links human communities with the earth and cycles of cultivation.  The origin of a wine, its context, where it was made and how, matters as much as the flavor. When we dismiss those meanings and treat wine as a mere beverage, its distinctive value is sacrificed.

So the philosophy will not go away. We will have to think (and drink) our way out of this controversy.

More later on the troublesome word “natural”.

Good Wine Lovers, Bad Lies

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410px-Sommelier_e_Tastevin

The Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer wonders why good wine lovers tell bad lies.

If You Like It, It Is Good. This is, without question, the biggest lie of them all. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard wine lovers—fellow writers, merchants, consumers—serve up this whopper.

Why do they do it? The answer is actually simple: They think it will make wine more accessible to more people. They think they’re doing everyone a favor by “democratizing” wine. Wine is too elitist, you see. It’s important—nay, essential—that wine be taken down a peg or two in order to make it accessible to all.

Kramer is right. This advice is indeed misleading.  “If you like it, it is good” assumes that there is nothing beyond your merely liking something that accounts for its quality, nothing more to be discovered and nothing more to be enjoyed. Thus, if you endorse this claim you have no reason to recognize the limitations of what you like or search for something better. It is a shame to encourage such an attitude in novice wine drinkers.

Sommeliers, of course, know this is misleading—that is why they put in the work to gain expertise. But they pretend otherwise because customers want their palates validated and are perceived to be intimidated if wine becomes too serious. Granted, not every situation is a “teaching” situation and sommeliers/merchants must be sensitive to what the customer is looking for. But to dismiss the possibility of educating a palate is irresponsible.

Kramer’s remarks stirred up some controversy. Wine blogger Chris Kassel takes Kramer to task for his alleged elitism.

People like Matt want to be the arbiter of what’s ‘good’ and ‘not good’, what’s ‘hot’ and ’not hot’, because that’s precisely how they justify their paychecks.

Kassel proceeds to give us a dissertation on the ambiguities of “good” arguing that “good” is best understood as “good for some purpose” or “good at some price”. People who are satisfied with inferior wine are judging with a different set of criteria than an expert like Kramer would use, criteria that are more meaningful to them, according to Kassel.

That is no doubt true. But it doesn’t follow that there is nothing to be gained by expanding one’s horizons. Kassel is skeptical that there is any absolute sense of “good” that can be applied to wine (mistakenly using the Sorites paradox to make his point.) But that question is needlessly “metaphysical”. What is important is that we maintain a distinction between appreciation and evaluation. We can appreciate a wine for all sorts of reasons that are only modestly related to its quality—when relaxing after work for instance. Enjoying what is in front of you regardless of merit maybe all that matters in that context. But when we evaluate wine we are asking a different question—does the wine meet a less subjective standard, consideration of which can teach us something about the character of a wine when compared to others of its type. Discovery, learning, and insight ultimately depend on evaluation.

Kramer is engaged in this task of evaluation and is right to insist that “if  you like it, it is good” will not do.

 

Art Wines May Not Be The Most Expensive Wines

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I defend the view that wines can be works of art. But certainly not all wines. Most wines in fact are just commodities. So which ones count as works of art? One might naturally suppose that Bordeaux Premier Crus or Napa cult cabernets might be prime candidates for vinous works of art. But I think not, for reasons that Matt Kramer captures in a recent issue of the Wine Spectator. (Behind a paywall)

Expensive wines, I wrote, rarely surprise. They are known quantities, from known places and producers. Not least, the vast majority are made within relatively narrow taste parameters. Typically that means oak (a little or a lot) and reliance on a relative handful of well-known and much-pursued grape varieties (you know which ones) from equally well-known and much pursued locations (ditto). These wines are in a word predictable.

The most expensive wines are predictable because their producers have a long list of customers who want to know what they are buying when they fork out hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a bottle. What they want least is experimentation. Thus, such winemakers strive for consistency from year to  year.

But art, at least as we have conceived it for the past 150 years, thrives on experimentation and innovation. Artists solve problems in their medium, challenge conventions, and pose new questions. We expect a work of art to be original, an expression of an artist’s imagination that helps us see something in a new way. Thus, works of art that are excessively bound to conventions or designed to cater only to existing taste will fail as works or art regardless of how pleasing they may be to the eye. Similarly a rock band that repeatedly makes roughly the same album will be dismissed by critics regardless of their sales figures.

If a wine is to qualify as art it therefore cannot be excessively predictable or merely a “crowd pleaser” regardless of how exclusive or well-heeled the crowd. And thus the most expensive wines may fall short as works of art.

This is not to say that genuine art must eschew all conventions or ignore existing standards of taste. If a work is to be understood it must make some concession to the past and to existing standards. And this leaves some wiggle room for artists and winemakers to innovate within the constraints imposed by the need for their audience to grasp their point. The mere fact that a work is popular does not efface its artistic merit. But if the “taste parameters” are too narrow we have a Kinkade not a Van Gogh.

Wines with an established reputation, if they are to be works of art, must find a middle way between predictability and innovation. It is achievable but not easily so.

Wines with a less established reputation and devoted to innovation might more readily achieve the status of an art, and that is a good thing for wine lovers of modest means.