31 October 2008

Idea log

[questioning brain]It will surprise no one that I’ve had a political discussion or two over the last few weeks. And it’s probably also no surprise that one of them got me thinking about wine. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the role played ideology.

There are a number of ideological stances one can take in response to wine. This is true whether you’re a producer, in the trade, or a consumer…and in fact, those ideologies often run in parallel lines through those three groups. For example, consumers with a given philosophy often patronize the wines of retailers, importers, and producers who share that philosophy.

What do I mean when I refer to wine ideologies? Here are a few common examples, though by no means is this an exhaustive list:

  • “natural” wine is superior
  • “natural” winemaking is anything but
  • biodynamic viticulture is better
  • biodynamic viticulture is mystical hooey
  • organic viticulture is preferable
  • organic viticulture is marketing
  • all that matters is what’s in the glass
  • wine is wine, no matter how or where you drink it
  • wine is meant as a companion to food
  • quality is not inherent, but is a product of context
  • there are objective standards to wine on which experts can agree
  • taste is subjective
  • quality is determined by price
  • quality is determined by terroir
  • sulfur is bad
  • the abandonment of sulfur is lunacy
  • screwcaps are the answer
  • only real cork belongs in a wine bottle

…and so forth. One immediately notices that a good number of these ideologies are fundamentally incompatible. And yet, they are passionately-held, each of them, by very serious wine folk. How can this be?

It is likely true that some ideologies are, in fact, nonsense. And that others are justified primarily by their marketability. And that still others are only held because their holder fails to understand (or denies) evidence to the contrary.

I’m not interested, here, in discussing which ones are valid or not. Instead, having been brought to this musing by considering the positive and negative effects of ideology in a political context, I’m interested in whether or not the very concept of ideology is worthwhile, especially from the standpoint of the consumer.

Long-time acquaintances are undoubtedly sputtering in their biodynamic Muscadet right now, objecting thusly: “oh, sure, you’re a fine one to talk about the negatives of ideologies, Mr. Everyone-has-a-bias, and Serious-is-not-a-philosophy, and Alcohol-is-a-conceptual-problem, and No-really-everyone-has-a-bias.” (OK, maybe no one actually talks like that. At least, I hope not.) And it’s true: I have ideologies, and while I feel I’m open about them in a way unfortunately few critics and writers are, I would never presume to deny them.

Despite this, might ideologies be a profoundly mixed blessing?

Let’s start with the positives. I’m a firm believer that wine – that is, wine worth thinking or writing about, wine worth more than a tossed-back glass after a hard day at the office – can be about more than a gut-level, caveman-like response to the pure pleasure it brings as it fills your mouth and gets you just a little bit more drunk than you were a moment ago. That, in itself, is an ideology, and one certainly not shared by everyone. But it’s a basic, foundational ideology, without which I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – write about wine for a living or for fun.

Based on that foundation, then, one can immediately see the appeal of sub-categorical ideologies. Especially those reinforced by experience. If, on balance, wines self-identified as biodynamic, or “natural,” are appealing to me more often than is the norm across all wines, I as a consumer have a ready-made shopping list, even if the brands on it are unknown. Or if I find the modern obsession with ripeness to be fundamentally deforming, I now have a ready-made list of wines, and perhaps even places, to avoid. The mere existence of these ideologies, coupled with the knowledge of how to apply them, makes my life as a consumer a more efficient one. And it reduces the number of times I’ll waste my money on something I was destined to dislike.

Other philosophies can be similarly-examined for their benefits, which accrue not just to the consumer, but to other entities as well. An organic producer has a ready-made audience, while a low-sulfur producer a smaller but proportionally more fanatic one. An importer with a portfolio of luscious liquid “hedonism” from warm, fertile regions – big explosions of velvety fruit layered with toasty new wood – has a reliable market, as well.

Of course, the temptation is – as with any ideology, in any field – to mistake preference for objectivity, projecting hierarchies outward from the person onto the thing itself. This isn’t to say that there cannot be objective value in certain ideologies; organic viticulture may indeed be better for the environment, low-sulfur wines could be easier on the body’s biochemistry, screwcaps might maintain a wine’s intended form better than other closures. But most ideologies aren’t like this. They’re philosophies that emanate from subjective preference, codified and thus eminently arguable, but no less subjective for the force and structure of them. And that’s where we run into trouble.

It is perfectly reasonable to prefer one wine to another for stylistic reasons. If those stylistic reasons are directly attributable to philosophies, and that preference reliably extends to other examples, then it is similarly reasonable to connect the preference with the philosophy, and thus to prefer one philosophy to another. In fact, I know of no one who does not do this, to a greater or lesser extent, even within the narrow field of wine appreciation.

The problem arises when the ideology becomes more important than the object of the ideology. There exist more than a few winemakers, tradespersons, writers, and consumers who cannot free their response to a given wine from the boundaries of their ideologies. Sometimes, they won’t even try a wine because of how it’s made, where it’s from, or what it represents. More often, they’ll take a taste, but final judgment has been rendered before the first sniff.

It needs to be made clear that this does not make said victim of their ideology a bad person, nor does it make them useless as an observer or commentator on wine. In fact, many of the most successful critics and writers in the wine field are absolutely laden with ideologies. But note that word: victim. The trap of ideology is that is closes the mind and the palate, while calcifying in such a way that the subjective eventually becomes canon. Wines that fall outside the strict borders of the ideology are tarred as heretical, rather responded to with reasoned dislike.

Don’t believe me? Ever heard someone dismiss a Burgundy just because it was a Burgundy, and thus already known to be a lousy value, thin, and rife with biological flaws? I hear it all the time, and with unfortunate frequency from a number of California winemakers and their fans. (Worry not: some Burgundians can and do return the favor.) Ever read a writer or importer decry a wine for using non-indigenous yeast before they’ve even tasted it? Or their control-freak opposites mocking the very concept of indigenous yeast and the oenological negligence it represents? Ever heard someone respond positively (or negatively) to a wine tasted blind, and then completely change their tune when they find they’ve been had by their ideology-tweaking friends? Of course you have. And so have I.

I think this is a shame, and something to be resisted. There are good wines out there made in a way I’d probably prefer wines weren’t made, and if I can’t leave myself open to the possibility that I might enjoy them, I’ve not only lost something important, I’ve prevented myself from ever finding that important something. There are surprising experiences left for the experiencing, but they’ll never be experienced if I refuse to experiment. There are beautiful places and people in the world of wine who I will never meet should I be unwilling to accept what they do on their, rather than my, terms.

More generally, the inability to adapt to one’s circumstances is a dangerous trait, both intellectually and socially. Should friends not be able to enjoy a wine they like without receiving a philosophical lecture in return? It sounds unfathomably rude, but I’ve heard wine ideologues who couldn’t help themselves. Should one stubbornly cart one’s preferred wines around the world, refusing to drink local wines because they’re ideologically insufficient, becoming the oenophilic version of one of those people who brings their own condiments or desserts to a restaurant?

This doesn’t mean that one has to change, or even lower, their standards. Not at all. As I noted before, I believe wine is about much more than whether or not it tastes good. It’s right up there in the header: “wine is liquid, wine is life, wine is emotion, wine is thought.” (I might add that it’s art and science, as well. And it gets you tipsy. And it tastes good.) Matters of philosophy, practice, and execution are, to someone who feels as I do, important. And if wine as anything other than a commodity is to survive and prosper, it needs ideologues at every stage of its existence.

But it’s crucial to remember that we do not drink the ideology. We drink the wine. And if we don’t, we’re drinking the Kool-Aid.

(image used thanks to a Wikimedia Commons license)

14 October 2008

The singing ship, sanguine

[reflection]For a chain hotel not exactly known for its luxury, [this] is more than serviceable, though it’s crawling with businesspeople and has to turn several desperate latecomers away at the front desk. There’s a bar in the lobby, and a really impressive breakfast buffet in the restaurant across the hall. I mean really impressive: six kinds of charcuterie, five kinds of cheese (including the ubiquitous gjetost), various herrings, anchovies, caviar (though only the squeeze-tube kind) pickled vegetables and salad greens, creamy “salads” that only a Scandinavian or Minnesotan could love, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, cut fruit, yogurt, cereals and muesli, fair coffee, fine tea, juices, several kinds of milk, three preparations of (real) eggs, terrific bacon, sausages, meatballs, mini-waffles, jams and spreads, a huge block of excellent salted butter, and an assortment of five or six fresh-that-morning breads (most some variation on whole grain, and many with seeds) that is rather breathtaking in its quality. As a result of this early-morning bounty, at hotel after hotel, I’m able to avoid eating lunch anywhere in Norway…which, given that in some places a bowl of fish soup and a beer can cost nearly $100, is a very, very good thing.

…continued here.

06 October 2008

Fraternity management

[vineyard]6σ 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Rooster (Lake County) – The stainless steel cuvée. Very dry and steely, with grass and acidity. Hard-edged and severe, even tooth-stripping on occasion. Persistent, which is promising, but I think this would benefit a great deal from some richness and additional complexity. Lees, perhaps? (6/08)

6σ 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Michael’s (Lake County) – 100% French oak, which dominates the wine despite not being all that heavily-layered. Lots of acidity, still, but with the toast and stale butter notes the wine is exceedingly awkward and ill-composed. (6/08)

6σ 2005 “Cuvée Pique-Nique” (Lake County) – Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. Green syrup and coffee, with good structure but a rough ride through a choppy palate and an underripe finish. (6/08)

6σ 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (Lake County) – Intense cassis, cedar, graphite, and chocolate-covered fruit candies stewed with freshly-plucked herb leaves. In some ways it’s classic, in others confected, and there’s a bizarre lactic element that throbs forward on the finish. The most promising of the reds, but still with a long ways to go. (6/08)

6σ 2005 Tempranillo (Lake County) – Chocolate and black pepper with bitter tannin. Far from ripe in any aspect of fruit or structure, and pretty vile as a result. (6/08)

Il communication

Mionetto “Il” Prosecco (Veneto) – Light, mildly sweetened paper. Simple and relatively clean. (6/08)

Mionetto Prosecco Brut (Veneto) – Bright lemon, crisp ripe apple, and a drying finish. The powdery texture shatters and sparkles late on the finish. Fair. (6/08)

Mionetto “Sergio” (Veneto) – Full and rich…perhaps also sweeter than some…with lightly-spiced pear. Thick and complex, but freshness is sacrificed as a result, and there’s actually a bit of heat on the finish. (6/08)

Mionetto “Il” Rosato (Veneto) – Plum, blood orange, strawberry, and old raspberry pushed past its ideal maturity. Heavy and deep. Quite striking, and very much a light red wine more than it is a sparkler. (6/08)

Mionetto “Il” Moscato (Veneto) – Very sweet and extremely simple. (6/08)

02 October 2008

Everyday Tariquet

[chateau]Domaine (and Château) du Tariquet is known for its brandies more than its wines, but due a worldwide slowdown in demand for Armagnac, that’s changing. The winemaking history of this estate better-known for its spirits follows directly from market difficulties for the region’s best-known product, Armagnac. In the seventies and eighties, vineyards were planted to supplement brandy production.

To maintain the crispness of the very light grapes used in these wines, trucks bearing dry ice-cooled tanks are sent to the vineyards. Machine-harvested grapes are destemmed on-site, start macerating on their skins in these tanks, and six to ten hours later are put through a gentle pressing (taking care to avoid breaking the seeds, which releases some very green tannins). A slow, cold fermentation takes place over the next few weeks, and wines are subsequently held in tanks and bottled to order. This is industrial viticulture, yes, but there is very little mucking about with the results, and the low prices reflect the process.

NB: the distinction between “domaine” on the table wines and “château” on the Armagnacs comes from AOC regulation; only appellations so designated can use the latter word on their labels, and the table wines are only entitled to vin de pays status.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Ugni-Blanc/Colombard (Southwest France) – Very crisp green apples. Clean, sunny, and nice with drying skins on the finish. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Linear, to the point of pure two-dimensionality. Simple grass braced by acidity. Eh. (3/08)

Chenin blanc was apparently once widely planted in Gascony, but lost to phylloxera, and remains highly susceptible to disease even now.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay (Southwest France) – Apricot and grapefruit, with good acidity and a hint of minerality. Long and balanced, and bigger than most of this lineup. A nice wine. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay (Southwest France) – This wine sees six months in barrique; half new, half one year old. Some cream drizzled over light, crystallized peach. Short finish. Just OK. (3/08)

The next wine was the result of an accident. Rushing to complete a harvest before oncoming rains, one tank full of grapes was unintentionally left in the vineyards. When it finally arrived the next day, there was no room in the fermentation tanks for the grapes to rejoin their brethren, and so this somewhat unusual blend was created.

Domaine du Tariquet “Côté Tariquet” 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Intensely fruity, with some apparent residual sugar (seven to eight grams), apple, and good acidity. In the context of this appellation, a powerful wine. (3/08)

Château du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac “Classique ***” (Southwest France) – This is the entry-level Armagnac. Raw wood, leafy, and creamy. Chocolate and caramel over pecans and hazelnuts. Lush and seductive, with a long finish. It lacks the more complex and subtle characteristics of better Armagnacs, and it’s a bit dessert-like in character, but it’s quite pleasant. (3/08)

Disclosure: wines provided by and lunch paid for by importer and/or producer.

01 October 2008


Aren't you a wine blogger? Where the hell are all the tasting notes?

Yes, I like to ask myself questions and answer them. I feel better-prepared that way. And, they're over here.

Farewell to Eden

[sunset]In customs, we’re greeted by our first sarcastic Aussie, something for which I’ve been gearing myself up after five weeks of New Zealand-esque pleasantry.

“Are you bringing any agricultural products into the country?”

“Just some wine.”

(looking up) “Oh, no. No, no. You can’t bring Kiwi wine into Australia.” (looking over his shoulder, yelling) “Jim, we’ve got two for the lockup here!”

And so it goes. There’s non-sarcastic concern about millimeter-sized bore holes in the wooden bowls we purchased in Nelson, however, and for a while it looks like they might not let them through. Eventually, they relent…after much peering and a few waves of some sort of magic electronic wand. We emerge into the baggage claim area at last, eager to get into the city and begin a new stage of our explorations.

So where’s our luggage?

…continued here.

Wine Blogger Manifesto, #3

The first duty of the wine blogger is to accuracy. The second is to truth. And yet, the most important thing a blogger can be is interesting. This is a fundamental and occasionally unresolvable tension, but it must be confronted with every post.