Monday, February 13, 2017

A Letter to the New, the Tentative, the Curious, Nervous, Thoughtful, Inspired, Learning, Adventurous, and Hopeful Wine Drinker

Dear Gentle Reader~

I initially set out to write an open letter to the venerable Mr. Hugh Johnson, the author and wine writer from London who has been a longtime voice in the appreciation and study of wine.  I began writing with the greatest respect, as I cut my teeth on Mr. Johnson’s wine books in the earlier years of my studies as I prepared myself to create and manage the Italian wine list of the osteria that Caleb and I opened twenty years ago.  My desire to connect directly with Mr. Johnson was in response to an article he wrote recently in Decanter Magazine entitled Do We Need a NaturalWine Alternative?”  I began this open letter in a flurry of thoughts and questions on a very late night after a bustling dinner service.  After my initial burst, life got in the way and my letter sat unfinished for a week.

Inspiration, or a kick in the pants, comes in many fiery forms.  Madame Alice Feiring, another equally formative wine writer and author whom I admire a great deal just posted today on her lively blog “The Feiring Line” a response to this article in “When Hugh JohnsonTalks About Natural Wine.”  She linked her post on the round table of social media and the thoughtful and exacting dialogue that ensued lighted another fire for me.  In my own commentary in the thread I mentioned I was working on an open letter to Mr. Johnson. I was encouraged to think about taking a different tack: we all know how badly it can turn out when we try to change another’s mind, but to write an open letter “to those starting in wine…is time better spent” was and is a challenging and humbling notion.

So, I write to you: The New to Wine, to the Tentative, Nervous, Curious, Thoughtful, Inspired, Learning, Adventurous, and Hopeful.  I write to you who are sitting at the table just beginning your journey and relationship with wine, and I write to you, the new, aspiring winegrower and winemaker.  In the dialogue on social media there was a lot of discussion about educating and engaging young people about the beauties and idiosyncrasies of wine, but you are not only young of age.  You are indeed the young woman who recently moved to Vermont to learn, to share, to experience, to plot and forge ahead in the world that we call natural wine.  You are the young man who works for a more conventionally directed wine producer in the Berkshires, but has a strong desire to farm his own vines biodynamically and to work minimally in the cellar.  You are the young couple who sat at table 13 last week in New York City at a wine dinner that hosted Caleb and me and our wines, intrigued and game; you are the young woman, or man, who have traveled back and forth from Vermont, to California, to South America, to Australia, to Tasmania for wine harvests in both spring and fall to learn this intricate and magical world of tending to a vine that in the end results in the mercurial liquid that is wine.  You are the retired gentleman who came for a day of harvest with us this past autumn, eager and bright in the eyes with a want for learning more about tasting and enjoying wine.  You are a skilled and established journalist of thirty years who moved from Los Angeles and lives now ten minutes down the road and just planted a small vineyard and is farming it biodynamically; you are the woman who is segueing from a career in perfume and is fascinated by the scent and structure of wine. You are the couple at our own restaurant table who asks me for a big, jammy California Cabernet or Super Tuscan who shrugs and says “Okay” when I say we don’t have any wine like that, but I will bring something that we can talk about that you might enjoy.  You are the young woman in her last year of college studying at a viticulture program in Bordeaux who’s special project is working on a team helping a conventional Chateau producer transition to organic and natural methods. You are another college student who just took a two week History of French Wine course in Paris where it became clear that camps have been drawn about how to approach wine, which has left you with lots of questions and a new-found wish to learn more.  You are the husband, or the single woman, who just last week said you knew nothing about wine, that you would drink anything, but who took a photo of all the labels of the wines you tasted at the end of the evening armed with information on where to find more of the same, taking your first real interest in what is in your glass.  You are the person on the threshold who doesn’t even know that any of this will happen in your future.

In an open letter, what might I share with you?  How might the Decanter piece by Mr. Johnson influence what I might like to write?  For I, too, am still at the beginning of my own journey with wine, and that is one of the pleasures of it.  We can never know all there is to know.  Wine is like a treasure map and scavenger hunt rolled into one.  Every time you reach a destination, you realize you have yet to arrive. And in particular, what might I want to share about this starry and earthy world of natural wine?

Firstly, I would like to share the reminder that the history of wine always leads us to the table.  Fermentation was the direct result of the need for survival, the need to make food that would last.  Wine was a way to preserve fruit for longer than its season.  We took sustenance, energy and delight from what fermentation provided.  I constantly remind myself that at the core, wine is food, and is an expression of a place and the people around it.

On the road of wine, I might encourage caution: caution of what you hear and what you read; a reminder to hold true to your own experience.  Wine is a venue full of emotions, opinions, stories, rumors, facts, history, projections.  I would suggest a caution against hubris: It is easy as you delve into wine to become haughty with what you have learned, how you might be able to tell a Sangiovese from a Nebbiolo in a blind tasting.  It is easy to be defiant, to protect what you have learned as the only way to learn.  It is easy to become opinionated without being open. This is not to say you can’t hold strong opinions on wine, I do myself, but it is important to do so with understanding, and always compassion in the dialogue.  It is important to have an open ear, and an open eye.

This is where things can get potentially murky.  Lines begin to be drawn, sides chosen.  You are “either”; you are “or”.  Right now one of the most potent dialogues circling around wine is the one whirling around natural wine.  You may already know about natural wine, or you may know nothing, wondering, “isn’t all wine natural?”  Before moving forward, it is important to understand that all wine is not naturally grown, or made.  There, I’ve done it.  I just drew a wide line in the clayey soil at my feet. 

You can grow wine in what has become known as a conventional manner, meaning that the farming uses synthetic chemicals, and that you allow yourself to use a variety of chemical manipulations in the winery.  My use of the word chemical is intentional here.  I think the basic understanding of chemical is that of a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared artificially.  But an organic chemist once pointed out to me that all materials used in farming and in a winery, whether organic or synthetic, are actually considered chemical.  The importance is using the correct descriptor of what kind of chemical.  This becomes crucial when discussing low-intervention wine, or wine manipulated in the cellar, or the kinds of agricultural chemicals used in the field.  In the United States, over 70 additives (including both synthetic and organic chemicals) are allowed in bottled wine.  The most usual ones cited are artificial color, tannin, sulfites, isinglass, egg whites.  But what of copper sulfate, polyoxethylene 40 monostearate, lysozyme, or ferrocyanide?   They too can find their way into what we drink labeled in a bottle called wine.

So we go forward with the knowledge that not all wine made in the 21st century is  inherently natural.  There are producers and wine journalists and appreciators who believe that true and real wine is grown in the field and that if the work has been done well, very little is done in the winery other than to provide a clean space and vessel and shepherd the fermentation and aging.  While others believe that one should be allowed to do whatever is necessary to make a “good” bottle of wine.  Whether it is saving a crop with a synthetic chemical tool, or using a spinning cone in the cellar to deconstruct a wine, and put it back together again based on the winemaker’s desire and image. There are those who are extremely dogmatic on both sides.  Everyone else falls somewhere along the spectrum.

And there, I have drawn a second line with the use of the word “good”.  What is good wine?  How do we know?

Mr. Johnson lays it out in established assumptions for us. “…wine depends on certain assumptions (of clarity, stability, and a balance between strength, sweetness, and acidity) and the sort of conventions enshrined in appellation systems.”  In the social media dialogue on Alice Feiring’s FaceBook page the question in response to a conversation about these assumptions was asked by another wine journalist and importer, Marko Kovac, “Why? Set by whom? When? How?”  These are fair questions.

Mr. Johnson went on to write, “’Natural’ doesn’t even come into it; these are works of craftsmanship; even, occasionally, art.  Does a winemaker, then, have the right to sell me something that ignores, flouts, the winemaking conventions that I rely on?”
These are the assumptions that Mr. Johnson relies on, an age~old criteria set down by French, Italian, German wine appellations whose main goals were to protect a patrimony.  Mr. Johnson has every right to write these questions for himself.  This is what he believes the criteria are for “good” wine.  It is the criteria of his generation and the wine conversation that was important at that time.  But these are not my criteria. 

It is important to remember that the deeming of a wine as “good” or “correct” is always, essentially, subjective.  My palate and your palate are forever different; we will never taste the same things.  We may gravitate to completely different styles.  I like higher-toned alpine wines, you might like broader, more tannic wines.  Our experience of acidity in a wine may be completely different.  I might prefer young wines; you might  prefer wines with bottle age.  What I see as clarity or cloudiness may be different than your perception.  At home, we have an antique painted cabinet.  Caleb says it is blue, I say it is grey.  When we both look at a really dark, inky color, I often say it is black, and he sees dark green.  Who is correct? 

Of course, criteria must be discussed, or we would have no system for dialogue or understanding or language about wine.  I find the natural wine camp to have reached a very logical, reasonable, simple evaluation for judging the end result of wine itself: Is the wine balanced?  This is. of course, after another set of criteria put forward by natural wine supporters, which is focused on a few basic tenets: the farming must be organic or biodynamic in some way; the natural yeasts on the fruit and in the cellar must be what fire the fermentation; no additional additives in the wine, and little to no sulfite used in the process.

As a wine drinker, a wine director, and wine producer these are the most practical, sensible questions that I think can be asked about the nature of wine and the vocabulary with which we can best discuss a wine.  A wine with a slightly higher volatile acidity might bring a plain wine into brilliance much like the elements of the five flavors in food create an inexplicable and magical experience.  Volatile acidity is considered by many to be a flaw, not to mention different kinds of issues like brett and mousiness that are often associated with more quirky natural wines and also considered major flaws in the criteria understood by tasters like Mr. Johnson.  My mother always told me that true beauty was never about perfection.  That is too antiseptic--boring even--and also deceitful.  True beauty lies in revealing at least one flaw, yet retaining balance.  It is what intrigues, elevates, surprises, and enchants.  It is mystery. It is what makes a wine enjoyable.

I would posit that a wine being “natural” has everything to do with a wine being truly good.  There are wines--some of the most storied and expensive wines in the world-- that fall into the “natural wine” criteria. (Interestingly, these wines are never mentioned by those who favor conventional wines.)  I think a wine can only approach art or be art if it is grown naturally in the field.  The wine becomes about the relationship of the winemaker and the vines, the narrative they create together.  Even in natural negociant wines, the maker has a relationship to the vineyard and the farmer doing the majority of the work. Not only does it have everything to do with it, I believe it is crucial if wine is to aspire to be sublime.

I have never understood the strong, often vitriolic responses to the language of wine described as “natural.”  I see from Mr. Johnson’s recent piece in Decanter even he sees how futile and divisive the argument and the word have become.  But I also do not understand why such a bucolic and benign word elicits such controversy.  Or why wine writers feel it must be replaced.  Writers will be writers and traffic in the currency of words, and I admire the gravitational pull to the tools of the poet, chiseling language until it is prismatic and pointed.  But there is an explicitness and fluidity to the use of the word natural in relation to wine that I believe serves the conversation well.

One of the things that concerns me in this heated kind of discussion is that the detractors are always ready to announce that all natural wines are bad--the antithesis of the “good”-- and poorly made.  What was an opinion becomes absolute.  Certainly, there are wine producers at all different levels and vintages with different kinds of problems, and like in anything, natural wine can be unbalanced.   But what of the discussion of conventional wines that are just as poorly made, that are just as unbalanced?  These are never cited by natural wine detractors. I would put those wines actually in a lower category because they can’t even put forward that they were grown organically or with an eye toward building soil and protecting terroir.  Not to mention the sheer nutritional or health issues around synthetic chemical farming.  But that is a whole other discussion for another day.

This digression leads me back to Mr. Johnson’s quip about the right of the winemaker to sell him something that openly defies his set of criteria and conventions.  There is fear in this statement: fear of being foolish, of good money after bad, of not subscribing to the trendy caprices of the modern somm.  He is not the only one to voice this sentiment.  But what do we have to be afraid of in wine?   Somehow wine has become something we fear, that we don’t understand, that we will not know the right words to describe, not be able to choose the right wine, not like a wine with which we are presented.  We are afraid of what others will think.  The language and mystique created by the establishment of criteria and conventions that has surrounded wine in the modern era has come to alienate us.  But the establishment of criteria and conventions aside, the answer seems plain:  Mr. Johnson, just like you, or me, also has the right to refuse that bottle of natural wine, just like any wine, brought to the tableside.  The winemaker is not foisting wine upon any of us, any kind of wine, conventional or natural.  There are no arms being twisted, no torture tactics employed.  We each have the free will, at least at this juncture in the free world, to choose what we would like to drink.   

When I saw a suggestion for a new word for natural wine in the word 'alternative', I found myself bristling.  Perhaps  Mr. Johnson was looking to the use of alternative as in the usage of Alternative music, something other than what the establishment puts forward.  But in the end, I find something patronizing in this use of the word, as if natural wine is a second class citizen to conventional wine.  I have written before in defense of the term natural wine, and real wine, and at the risk of repeating myself, I will include those thoughts here. 

“What I like about both terms is that they are deliberately specific and broad.  Natural wine was originally coined by the French as vin naturel, and it was meant to indicate a wine that had been made with as little intervention as possible both in the field and in the cellar, with native yeasts and little to no sulfites.  I like the idea of natural wine because it doesn’t pin down the definition.  It allows for a variety of approaches and philosophies.  Wine grown organically and biodynamically can fall under the big-tent definition of natural wine. 

I like the terms natural or real wine because they promote the shared belief that wine is grown in a vineyard free from synthetic chemicals and pesticides, and that the will or ego of the producer intervenes as little as possible in the cantina.  It allows every producer to respond to his or her season and location without having to follow the same set of prescriptive rules.

I understand the desire to define real or natural wine precisely, but I find the effort too restrictive.  Growing and fermenting wine naturally is a fluid process and the words used to describe it should also be fluid.”

So rather than cooking up new words to describe the longest held approach to making wine as if it were newfangled or a fad, let’s sit around the table together and taste.  Virtually or in~person.  Let’s have a conversation that is not marred by blinders and fury.  Let’s have a shared experience that connects us to the land from which our food and wine come and the people who farm it, the ones who prepared it in the kitchen, or those who fermented it in the cellar.  Rather than superimposing the idea of alternative over natural, let’s go back to the origins, and in the experience of these things that are grown and prepared with care and intention, with survival in mind, of life, love, and culture, perhaps we can do away with the derision and this tired fight, and you: the New, the Tentative, Nervous, Curious, Thoughtful, Inspired, Learning, Adventurous, and Hopeful Wine Drinker, in the wonder that is in all beginnings can bring the conversation to life again, to joy, and to more transcendant, yet very natural pastures.

{excerpt from An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir, chelsea green publishing}


MooonUnit said...

Beautiful letter - some of the things you touch on are so crucial and spot on. Thank you!

Valentina Kasperova

Valerie said...

Your expression of perspective is so like your expression of alpine wine, Dierdre: finely shaded, encouraging of varietal variation, highly responsive to climate, place and vintage, always both luminous and illuminating, and for all this, ineluctable. Thank you.

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