27 October 2010

Careful with that axe, Eugene

Baby One More Time (1)Thomas Matthews has an axe. And he is going to grind it. Observe:

Call me hard-hearted, or wrong-headed. But as I read the outpouring of admiration and love for Marcel Lapierre following his untimely death in early October, I thought of Georges Duboeuf.

Now, look: there are a lot of people who like the wines of Georges Dubœuf. And there are a lot of people who like the wines of Marcel Lapierre. I seriously doubt anyone other than Thomas Matthews has ever thought of tragedy afflicting the one and been reminded, immediately and with purpose, of the other.

Ah…but there’s the word: purpose. Matthews has a purpose. That, and an axe. And a grinding stone. (How does he have free hands with which to type?)

Lapierre [..] was an early and faithful adherent to a traditional, non-interventionist approach to grapegrowing and vinification. This made him a hero to the proponents of "natural" wine. And they, in turn, have positioned him in opposition to the wines they judge as industrial or even immoral.

Not exactly. Many have positioned him as an alternative to wines not made Lapierre’s way. Opposition is a loaded word, full of baggage that has arrived in the hands of Mr. Matthews; Lapierre was far more interested in “because” than he was in “rather than.” So already, Matthews is sliding off the track, attributing to Lapierre actions that he really means to attribute to commentators (whether they be winemakers or not). When he gets done grinding this axe, I bet we’ll be eyeing the necks of those commentators, not Lapierre. Anyone want to take that bet?

…oh, and as for his allegation of immorality: um, what? I hope he has a citation handy. I’ve heard Dubœuf’s wines called a lot of things. (I’d call them uninspired and unfortunately but consequentially popular.) But “immoral”? Really? Who said that? Whoever it was, they have a high-speed grinder and a tiny axe, but apparently a very poor sense of the target.

I’m going to edit & paraphrase for brevity here. (Hey, I can do it for others. Just because I can’t do it for myself…)

Eric Asimov: "[Lapierre] and a group of three other producers were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that Beaujolais had far more to offer than its often insipid mass-market nouveau wines." And Alice Feiring: "There are stars in the world, leading men and women, ones that make a difference. You can smell them, see them vibrate … The saving of Beaujolais was mostly his heavy lifting in his quiet way … he left behind a legacy of commitment, [that] belief + action changes the world."

Wow. Yes, just look at how many times they called Dubœuf immoral. Just look…hey, wait. They didn’t do anything of the sort.


I regret to say that I never met Lapierre. […] I don't know his wines well, either. Based on our reviews, I can tell they were exemplary […].

No one is requiring Matthews to have been fishing buddies with Lapierre, or to have consumed his wines by the truckload. But it’s not like he’s some hooch-swilling bumpkin who just fell off a navet truck and is now forced, absent knowledge or preparation, to make his first wine purchase. He has a rather major position in the wine assessment industry, with access to as many different wines as anyone on the planet, and he can certainly afford to travel. I suspect he has not lacked for opportunity in either regard. Moreover, the wines have been around, hyped, and laden with reputation and oenological importance (whether one is for or against that style of oenology) for rather a long while now. What, exactly, was he waiting for?

And also: what, exactly, are we to take from the above admissions? I mean, I’m happy he made them, rather than pretending an experience he didn’t have. But let’s try it this way: “reading musicians’ outpouring of adoration for bandleader Robert Fripp the other day,” (don’t fret, Crimheads, he’s not dead) “I thought of Britney Spears.” Well, great for you. What does one have to do with the other, other than they both make their money from music?

Oh, but see, I’m already going to be in Matthews’ ill graces here, because I’m implying all manner of insult against the brilliance of M. Dubœuf by comparing him with Mlle. Spears. Well, let’s all rest easy on that score, because I’m not implying anything. I’m stating my opinion outright: Dubœuf’s wines, which used to be manipulated in a most unfortunate way, are now merely somewhat manipulated and are qualitatively mediocre. In other words, the Beaujolais equivalent of eminently forgettable pop music. Hey, wait…there’s an analogy in that, somewhere…

[Matthews drinks a Lapierre Morgon.] Was it balanced, lively and refreshing? Yes, indeed. Was it transcendent, somehow on a different plane than other delicious Beaujolais I have enjoyed? No, I couldn't really go that far.

Among those for whom Lapierre was a transformational figure, there aren’t that many who would disagree that the wines aren’t as transformational as those of others who’ve followed in his footsteps. Once, perhaps. Now, with so many alternatives, less so. And it’s important to realize that Lapierre wasn’t precisely a trailblazer, either. He built on the nearly-lost work of others, demonstrated its value, and spread the knowledge thus gained. That there is a core of natural, or at least non-industrial, winemaking in Beaujolais is almost solely due to his knowledge-sharing efforts, and that there is a groundswell of such wines around the world is, again, somewhat attributable to his success and his generosity with this knowledge. But transcendence? Has anyone made that claim? Lapierre himself would have been the very last, even under duress.

No, Lapierre’s “different plane” was in the philosophy behind the work…in the vineyard and in the cellar. The result would, he believed, take care of itself. And it did. His legacy is not one of a specific paradigm or practice, but a demonstration that – while accepting the premise that no wine actually makes itself – a philosophy of control and outcome-orientation is not the only way to make successful wine. There’s another. To the extent that anyone has even suggested such might be codified, that’s the genesis of the “natural wine movement.” But that wasn’t Lapierre’s purpose, and while I hope he was satisfied that he made an impact beyond his bank balance, he never seemed to be all that enthused about movements and labels. He’d have been pleased that Matthews at least tried the wine, happy that he liked it, and confused at the notion that it was supposed to exist on, or even represent, some materially elevated plane.

Matthews’ inability to derive a more useful and applicable conclusion from Lapierre’s work is not due to any insufficiencies as a taster. I wouldn’t speak to those even if I could, and I can’t. In any case, taste remains personal and subjective, and Matthews will either find something in the wine or he will not; others can point to what they taste, but only Matthews can taste what he tastes. No, the failure (as such) is the philosophy that understanding is to be found in the glass, and here arriveth the full-stop punctuation. An understanding that founds Matthews’ work. An understanding that is mis-.

Within the confines of the glass, Lapierre’s goal was to make a pleasurable wine. If there was understanding to be had, Lapierre intended that to be acquired well outside the drinking vessel. And there is, in fact, rather a lot of understanding to be had and dealt with in Marcel Lapierre’s work, whether one ends as a disciple, a contrarian, or an agnostic. “Understanding Lapierre” is not sniffed, swirled, spit, and scored. It is a story of how the wine was made, and an ever-evolving cornucopia of answers to the why of the wine. If Matthews is looking for that in a bottle over dinner, he’s looking in the wrong place, and his quest is bereft of hope. To find those, one must – as Matthews does not – know the wines. And that requires more than just drinking them.

I don’t fault Matthews for not having done this, though given the growing importance of the concepts behind Lapierre’s work, it’s an unfortunate oversight. He can’t, after all, know everyone and everything in the overwhelming universe of wine. But here he is nonetheless, opining on the wine, the context, and the philosophy. I would (gently) suggest that to do so from a position of knowledge would have mitigated some of the exasperation that this paean to Dubœuf is now generating.

But, as I suggested earlier, Matthews’ topic isn’t actually Lapierre, or even Dubœuf, which is how we begin at the rather absurd leap from one to the other and move quickly on to the sharpening of hatchets. Witness:

I imagine Duboeuf knew Lapierre, too, and knowing Duboeuf, I am sure he admired the principled vigneron from Morgon. I suspect he feels that much of the praise now being lavished on Lapierre is a veiled attack on him. I suppose you could cast the two men in a morality play that pits worldly success against traditional virtue.

I suppose one could, yes. Has anyone? Other than Matthews, I mean? Straw men are pretty, especially as the corn around them browns into an autumnal tangle and the crows realize their season-long error in judgment has left them tragically undernourished. But I rather think that most of the comparison between the two – typically utilizing them as icons for competing philosophies rather than actual personages – comes down to a discussion of homogenization vs. its alternatives. Dubœuf’s flattening effect was an all-too-easy target in the days of the 71B yeast and its overwhelming banana aromas. Now it’s thermovinification (unless my knowledge is out of date), which still has a homogenizing effect, and which is still a fairly easy target. No sensible observer misunderstands the commercial appeal of homogeneity. No sensible observer thinks Dubœuf is going to convert to Lapierre-ism (even were there such a thing, which there isn’t) in the 2011 vintage. But there is a clear and identifiable philosophical gap between the two, which leads to a clear and identifiable difference in practice, and which thus leads to a clear and identifiable difference in wine character. (Note: character, not quality. Quality in this usage is subjective, no matter how many times Matthews references his publications’ scores to assure himself otherwise.) And that is the script of the play, oft written and rewritten by observers, that stars the two in their metaphorical rather than actual roles. It is about what they do, not who they are.

(This is not to suggest that there isn’t criticism of Dubœuf aside from this basic contrast. There is, and not all of it is purely academic. For that matter, there’s criticism of Lapierre as well, and some of it is as personal and hostile as that directed at Dubœuf. But both are minutiæ compared to the much more important and vastly more common debate about how wines become what they are.)

Furthermore, are Matthews’ opposites really the only two choices? “Worldly success” vs. “traditional virtue”? I’d suggest not. First of all, Lapierre had rather a fair amount of worldly success, as have many that have admired his work. And moreover, it is manifestly incorrect to call what the dedicated non-interventionists do “traditional.” It is not. “Tradition” dictates that wine be brought successfully to market, conform (at least where such things apply) to the dictates of typicity, and not unduly rock neighbors’ commercial boats. What the non-interventionists do has deep historical roots, but it is not traditional winemaking, it is a deliberate philosophical distillation of traditional winemaking to its minima.

If what Lapierre did was actually traditional in Beaujolais, Dubœuf would stand accused of turning widespread regional succulence into a faceless corporate enterprise. In fact, that is neither the case nor an extant accusation against Dubœuf. While good “traditional” Beaujolais existed and was gradually rendered irrelevant during Dubœuf’s ascendance (I find it difficult, viewing the historical record, to blame him for it; people died and no one took up their oenological sword), it wasn’t and hasn’t ever been dominant. As everywhere else, swill abounded and still abounds…whether or not the producers of the region wish to sue me for using that word…and swill is not what Dubœuf produces.

No, the knock on Dubœuf remains homogeneity and the creation, though market dominance (which he undoubtedly possesses), of the expectation of same in both consumers and gatekeepers…critics, retailers, etc. Imagine making quality, individual Beaujolais of any style – not just Lapierre’s – and attempting to bring it to a market that responds with hostility towards your banana-scented products before having tasted them. Imagine trying to penetrate a market dominated by a single producer whose wines taste more or less the same and can be resupplied in nearly endless quantities, while yours are limited, different each vintage, and transient. Imagine trying to get people to pay attention, to open their minds, when someone else has convinced them through relentless example that there’s no more to understand. Imagine trying to convince an ennui-afflicted Beaujolais drinker that a wine of individuality, quality, and limited quantity may be worth more than what someone working in industrial quantities can charge. All those and more are the hurdles that Lapierre, his cohorts, and those that sold his wines had to overcome. (And to an extent did, it’s worth noting.) But that success came by chipping away at territory not only dominated, but overwhelmed, by Georges Dubœuf. Whether by intent or inertia, Dubœuf’s wines and the philosophies that bore them set those hurdles. When contrasts had to be made (and contrasts are necessary to sell wines of character), they had to be made with Dubœuf.

That those hurdles were fair-quality hurdles was, at least, a benefit to the Beaujolais name. That is, indeed, something for which Dubœuf can be justifiably praised. The need to resurrect a fatally diseased brand, as will have to happen one of these days in Chianti, was not the challenge faced by Lapierre. But one may be grateful for the success of white zinfandel in saving old zinfandel vineyards from the plow without the requirement of admiring the way in which the ubiquity of same inhibited the success of the red version (and it did, for a very long time), and in similar fashion one may be grateful to Dubœuf for preserving some semblance of saleable wine in Beaujolais without thanking him for associating that name with a bizarre, constructed wine bearing only marginal relation to unmanipulated Beaujolais. Put another way, one may thank Disney for keeping The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the public mind, but no aficionado of Victor Hugo need praise the way they’ve misrepresented the material.

My unsolicited advice to Dubœuf – and boy, is it unsolicited – would be to drop the thermovinification, demand the greatest possible natural diversity between his own wines, and thus leave as his legacy the preservation of a region and then, at the end of his commercial reign, an enthusiasm for and encouragement of the qualitative renaissance that has unquestionably come to Beaujolais. No one is going to challenge his commercial dominance for a long, long while, unless his children decide to dismantle his empire. But there would soon come a time in which no one would remember that his was once a problematic empire. That, far more than dozens of flower-laden labels, is a worthy legacy.

And my advice – equally unsolicited, but just as heartfelt – to Thomas Matthews? Look beyond the glass if you’re searching for saviors and transcendentalists in Lapierre’s work. And don’t set up false dichotomies that are no more than your own exaggerations and extrapolations from the arguments you believe others to be having with your own icons. Your axe, pointed at accurately-described targets, will be all the sharper for it, and you’ll even be able to drop it on occasion and enjoy a refreshing glass of Lapierre Morgon. Everybody wins.


CMM said...

OK, I can't stand it anymore. Who is that in the photo? I know it's not Marcel Lapierre, and I'm pretty sure it's not Thomas Matthews.

Shallow in Berkeley

thor iverson said...

The one, the only, Ms. Britney Spears.

But I like Thomas Matthews as an answer, too.