28 June 2010


[bagged bottles]Outside, all is grey or white and soft. The snow falls, and it’s gentle, but it’s also persistent. It’s the kind of snow that will be with us for a time. It blankets the city of Nizza Monferrato with silence, muting the usual urban din but also suppressing the local urge to roam. Why not stay inside where it’s quiet, and enjoy the peaceful monochromic recasting outside the window? It’s going to be a beautiful afternoon and evening.

As for our little barbera band, reassembled in a bright, open space that seems to be nearly all windows, there’s a chance to do this. For a time. We listen to another lecture, this time on the meaning and intentions of the newly-designated Nizza subzone and its producers, while yet another tasting is assembled. To be honest, the information flow is a little dry, and largely the sort of procedural and rote stuff that wine writers have heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Besides, it’s so nice out. Can’t we go have some fun in the snow?

Oh, but we only need wait. If it’s cooling outside, it’s heating up inside. And it’s about to explode.

In the meantime, there’s a tasting to get through. It’s true that many of us find visiting producers a more interesting use of our time, but the organizers undoubtedly find what we’re doing now a more valuable use of our time. And hey, it’s their show, their dog, and their pony.

While we might not be overly enthused about another procession of foil-wrapped bottles, it must be admitted that this one is admirably focused: all 2006, all barbera d’Asti, and all from the subzone of Nizza. Some of these wines are new, some we’ve had in a different vintage, and some are repeats from this morning’s Nizza tasting. This is, at least, purposeful blind tasting, which our forays thus far have not always been.

What might not be apparent to our hosts and the producers (who are represented in near-entirety), however, is that there are two concurrent purposes being pursued here. One is theirs: to demonstrate the character, style, and (dare it be mentioned?) terroir of Nizza. But the other is ours: to attempt to judge whether or not that purpose is being achieved. Does Nizza have an identity? A meaning beyond the simple marketing trick of differentiation?

We’re about to find out. Maybe.

Avezza Paolo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Sotto La Muda” (Piedmont) – Big purple fruit. Tannic. OK in its brutish style.

Bava 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Piano Alto” (Piedmont) – Garbage, stewed weeds, and sour acidity. Those of a younger bent might opine that this “tastes like ass.” I’m not sure I can get away with such phraseology, but they wouldn’t be wrong.

Bersano 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Red licorice Twizzler and unidentified Jolly Rancher. To wrest an old Texan saying: all candy, no cattle.

Isolabella della Croce 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Augusta” (Piedmont) – Supple. Solid purple fruit, but it’s all up front. New World in style, and good in that idiom for a few moments, but the finish is nowhere, and what’s left in the glass is much more akin to Chartreuse than it is barbera.

Giovenale 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ansema (Piedmont) – A soup of modernity. Very ordinary.

Guido Berta 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Canto di Luna (Piedmont) – Gritty, heavy tannin. The wine’s got good texture despite this. Very purple in both aspect and aspiration.

La Barbatella 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Vigna dell’Angelo (Piedmont) – Flat. There are a few mineral-enhanced soil notes, but otherwise this wine is dead. Dead nose. Dead palate. Dead finish. A shame. I don’t even think I can make the funeral. I never knew the wine that well.

Lana 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Sludgy cherry milkshake. Could be anything, from anywhere.

Garitina 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Neuvsent” (Piedmont) – Brett, rosemary, and loads of tannin. Plus, some bonus volatile acidity. Ugh.

Coppo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Riserva della Famiglia” (Piedmont) – Sour, lactic, hard, and unpleasant.

Dacapo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – A wallop of fruit with a good, graphite-like texture. And then…it dies.

Erede di Chiappone Armando 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Ru” (Piedmont) – Big, ripe fruit dominated by strawberries and sour cherry candy. There’s a weird lactic note competing for attention, but overall this isn’t bad.

[bannered ceiling]Franco Mondo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bigna della Rose (Piedmont) – Hot, tongue-scalding fruit soup. Burnt powdered sugar. Very confected.

Gazzi 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Prajot (Piedmont) – Stale paper. Horrid. (Post-facto edit: I have reason to believe that something may have been wrong with this bottle.)

Guasti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Barcarato (Piedmont) – A friendly burst of fruit dusted with pepper. Pleasant enough.

La Gironda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “Le Nicchie” (Piedmont) – Soupy fruit circling a black hole. In other words, not only is the center of this wine void, but that void is sucking everything else into it into nothingness.

Malgrà 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Mora di Sassi (Piedmont) – Massive mega-purple fruit. (For the record, I’m not suggesting MegaPurple™, but the descriptor is too evocative to eschew.)

Noceto Michelotti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Montecanta (Piedmont) – Sour and disgusting garbage aromas, weeds, milk and bitter chocolates. Mmmmm.

Chiarlo 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza “La Court” (Piedmont) – Sweet plum and even sweeter strawberry. Girly wine.

Poderi dei Bricchi Astigiani 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Preje (Piedmont) – Juicy, plummy fruit with good acidity. Fair.

Scrimaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Ascè (Piedmont) – Fun fruit, with a gloppy texture. In its idiom, fairly pleasant.

Olim Bauda 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Very sweet strawberry jam, but then taking a detour through a tar-producers’ convention hall. That’s both an aromatic and structural comment. Fruit Roll-Ups™, big and structured, but lacking any sort of finish whatsoever. Ugly. This is like drinking ittle Miss Muffet after she’s been beat up by a gang of roving thugs and left for the spider to find her, bruised and sobbing, beside her tuffet.

Tre Secoli 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza (Piedmont) – Candy powder, pollen, cotton candy, and Starbursts™

Vietti 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza La Crena (Piedmont) – Brett and sourness. Thankfully, it’s extremely short, so it’s all over quickly. But, like ripping a bandage off a scar, there’s still discomfort.

Villa Giada 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Dani (Piedmont) – Dominated by olatile acidity. Nasty, overworked fruit. Wretched.

Vinchio e Vaglio 2006 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza Bricco Laudana (Piedmont) – Stale oils. Nothing else? No, not of note. Vile.


Conclusions? One inevitable one is just how bad this sort of mass-production blind tasting is for both wine and taster. There were six wines that appeared in both the morning and afternoon tastings. Two of them have completely different notes, both organoleptically and qualitatively: the Gazzi, suggesting something wrong with the afternoon bottle, and the Guasti, which I hated in the morning session but was more receptive to in the afternoon, and didn’t describe as anything like the same wine. The other four match fairly well in qualitative assessment and less, but still forgivably, well along general organoleptic lines. One might think that two out of six isn’t bad, but of course that’s just over the wines common to the two tastings. If one extrapolates those results over the entirety of our blind/group tastings, that’s a lot of mistakes and inconsistencies. Too many. Whatever this says about a taster’s (or this taster’s) skill might be notable, but is really irrelevant in comparison to the level of unfairness with which a so-afflicted producer is burdened.

[expectant glasses]So how about Nizza and its signature characteristics? There’s absolutely no way to say, because the wines are too variable and, in so many cases, too tricked-up. I don’t mean actual fakery…because that’s an accusation I wouldn’t make without evidence…but modernizing, fruit-enhancing techniques in vineyard and cellar coupled with the increasingly nefarious influence of new wood. If they really want to showcase the Nizza terroir (if indeed it has one worth identifying), they’re going to need to show us the unoaked, “traditional” versions they seem to be hiding in their cellars as shameful, deformed cousins. Given this evidential set? Nizza means very close to nothing.

Of course, even if we can’t discern a terroir-based similarity, that’s not all an appellation can mean. Is there at least a typicity? No, decidedly not, outside a vague uptick in structure…though much of one structural element likely derives from the wood. How about a marketing advantage? Possibly, though of course it’s far too early to tell. The whole “d’Asti” designation is soon to be dropped on these wines, leaving just “Nizza” on the bottle; whether or not that will be a help remains to be seen, but certainly shortening label verbiage and simplifying wine identification is rarely a bad thing. (Are you listening, Germany?) Aside from the place name, there’s some tightening of standards: 100% barbera rather than Asti’s required 85%, for example. Excluding other, and especially international, grapes is at least a step in the right direction, if the goal is to produce something with an identifiable, individual character. And it’s still very early in the game. Ten years from now, such a tasting might provide a surprisingly uniformity of purpose. And maybe even terroir.

But really, the only arguments that can and will ever be made for this subzone are the wines themselves. And neither collectively nor qualitatively do they support the petition under consideration. I can’t go to the other extreme and call this a “vanity appellation” (even though Michele Chiarlo will say some things later that make me wonder), because there’s no way I can be in these producers’ heads. Still, this remains: if there’s an argument for Nizza, it hasn’t been made today…and any wines that are making the argument have been lost in the fog of techno-oenological war.

The order and outcome of that battle? Coming soon. Don’t miss the exciting conclusion!

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See http://barbera2010.com/ for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

25 June 2010

Paris, naturally

My submission for saignée's inspiring 32 Days of Natural Wine event, found here in its original form. Go read it there, and then read everything else in the series. You'll be a better person afterward.

[nouveau ad]Paris may not be the heart of the natural wine movement… that and all the other vital organs reside in the cellars and the regions whence the wines emerge…but it’s almost certainly the head. It’s got a critical mass of consumers, from enthusiast to hipster (and wannabe-hipster), and a vibrant commerce that serves that mass.

Natural wine nirvana, right? In a sense. If there’s a bright, or even popular, future for natural wine, Paris is what it looks like in its ascendance. One can revel for weeks – perhaps even months – in the unsulfured and unyeasted with the right list of purveyors and a fat carnet, or at least sturdy shoes.

Except…I did that. Ate, drank, cooked, and shopped as naturally as I could. And the shocking (to me, anyway) takeaway was that I found it a little boring. What’s more, it made me realize something: not everything is lit with rosy natural light in La Ville Lumière. There are some shadows lurking on les routes ahead.

This is going to require some explanation, I suspect.

What can destroy a wine category these days? Lack of quality, certainly, but this is a slow actor; the general unsaleability of Mâcon or the turning away from Tuscany didn’t happen overnight, but over decades. What can kill it a lot faster, even from a position of apparent desirability, is the reality or perception of over-uniformity. Of externally-enforced conformity. Of cynical boredom. By way of example: remember when muscular Australian reds of both gravitational and evaluative endowment were the point-laden rage? Notice how, just a few years later, one can barely give them away? There’s more than one factor at work in that Icarian tale, but a major contributor is that the thermonuclear fruit devices that were so lauded by critics and consumers are available from just about everywhere on the planet (including Australia) at a much lower cost than those paragons of pricey (purported) pulchritude.

Now, let’s be honest. There are those who drink for predictability. Who – though they would probably object to the metaphor – crave a certain McDonaldization of product, in which consistency and the comfort of the familiar are atop the pyramid of virtues. Rather obviously, those folk aren’t buying natural wine. At least not on purpose. The market that rejects the standardization of industrial viticulture and outcome-oriented winemaking is, by definition, counter- and anti-. This market seeks sensation, but the sensation it seeks is that of authenticity, of difference, of deviance. Among the principal appeals of natural wine are its unfamiliarity and unpredictability. Both of which are, as they must be, measured against the norm…which is, in this case, traditional (which is inclusive of, but not of necessity, industrial) wine. Without that contrast, much of what is unfamiliar and exciting about natural wine is decontextualized.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that without the alternative, natural wine would be less appealing. But then again, there’s probably a cohort of devotées that would experience that little twinge of dismay that all adherents to the alternative feel when their private affection goes mass-market. It’s true in music, and maybe it’s true in wine. That said, we’re talking about a nano-niche within a micro-niche here, so let’s move on to a more important conjecture…

My somewhat leisurely encounter with Paris’ natural wine scene delivered a lot of sensation, difference, and authenticity. No question. But viewed through the contextual lenses of time and post-facto consideration, it delivered something else.


It’s not that any given wine demanded this reaction. Mostly, I drank very well. Extremely well, actually. I could have gone many more months without repeating a libation, without going back to something a second time (though that did happen once, for which I must blame Jean Foillard’s uncanny skill with Morgon), without being forced to act not as an eager dabbler on the frontier, but rather as an actual wine consumer stocking up on quantities of favored bottles. That’s the wonderful breadth of potential natural wine experiences that Paris provides, and it’s unquestionable that had I been in Paris long enough, I’d have had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of wines that were otherwise no more than ephemeral dalliances. There’s great value in that, for sure, and I look forward to suffering that burden in the future.

No, it was the commercial face of my natural wine crawl that brought on the ennui. Wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant…wine bar, store, restaurant: the same list, the same selection, the same labels. Almost without fail.

The immediate objection – why is this bad, exactly? aren’t most of the world’s wine collections the same boring and industrial (or at least traditional) wines, over and over? – is both taken and acknowledged as correct. Yes, the sin of boredom is committed so much more frequently outside the natural wine world that it hardly bears mentioning inside it. But the special thing about Paris’ genre concentration is that it previews the consequences of a triumph of the alternative. And in that triumph is born a redundancy that looks an awful lot like all the familiar redundancies. I’d like to see natural wine avoid that fate.

The problem is self-segregation. Natural wines have…by the deliberate choice of their selectors but also by a somewhat surprising inertia…ghettoized themselves into a self-referential niche. It’s a reasonably successful niche, and the marketing advantages probably go without saying, but a niche it remains. I know there are some who prefer this state of affairs – there’s your alternative music analogue writ vinous, in which the magi of secret knowledge tremble in fear of the moment in which their favorite becomes known to The Other – but there is also a legitimate argument against this preference.

In various cities around the U.S., cities in which natural wine is decidedly alternative and hard-to-find, there are a few stores, wine bars and restaurants to which one goes to be guaranteed a selection from the genre. There might, for example, be just one “natural wine bar” in an otherwise wine-soaked metropolis, or a sommelier whose iconoclasm is rewarded by a dedicated but niche fandom. In that situation, rigid orthodoxy is a marketable virtue, and should neither be gainsaid nor challenged. In such locales, rigidity of concept is a virtue.

[mccafé]But in Paris, where it would seem to be thrilling that there are considerably more than a handful of such establishments, the effect is somewhat different. The wines are no longer hard to find, for the interested. What they are, instead, is gated within a neighborhood of like-minded peers, largely unchallenged by dissent from within or without. It’s an oeno-epistemological closure that just can’t be good for the category.

“Well,” one might ask, “why not?” Given that both the old and the modern ways have been dominant everywhere and everywhen, shouldn’t natural wines be allowed their own time in the sun? (Or rather, their time in a humid, slightly chilly environment in order to avoid the much-feared instability allegedly inherent to the genre?) Wouldn’t it be better if even more establishments went au natural?

No. That is to say: sure, I’d like to see a lot more natural wine, presented however a given establishment wishes, as long as that method gets it to my glass. But what I’d really like is, when forced to go to some standardized culinary purveyor of comforting mediocrity by out-of-town guests who’ve heard the chef’s name on the Food Network, to have natural wines on that wine list. I’d like to walk into a wine shop in Nisswa, Minnesota and be able to buy something that’s not industrial. I don’t want natural wine to be something one must go to Paris (or New York, or San Francisco) for, I want it to be part of the everyday experience of oenophilia. An equal voice in the conversation inherent in every glass. An accepted part of the landscape, neither feared nor a cranky curiosity, but just another typical geographical feature

That may be an impossible dream, since natural winemaking doesn’t necessarily scale all that well. Sure, OK, I get that. But if there are a lot of natural wines (and ideally, as time passes, there will be more), why not spread the wealth a little? Why not some intrusions into enemy, or at least unfamiliar, territory? If there’s a reason one loves natural wine – whether that’s taste, philosophy, or something else – then it’s hard to understand a lack of desire to see that taste/philosophy/etc. exert influence outside the fold. It’s great to welcome a new addition to the natural family. But wouldn’t it be more valuable if, say, Villa Maria abandoned inoculated yeast thanks to the influence of natural wine? If, for example, Drouhin and Jadot massively reduced their use of sulfur? If Wolfberger decided against chaptalization? No, it’s not a clear path to perfection, and the wines still won’t be “natural” by anyone’s definition. But the perfect – as the cliché goes – must not become the enemy of the good. Progress is preferable to the alternative.

That said, I don’t think industrial wine can go away. Nor should it. The demand for crushed grapes outstrips anything the natural set can provide, and especially so if I don’t mistake the generally anti-corporate inclinations of those in the natural wine cohort. Traditional wine can’t (and won’t) disappear, either. But I’d love a wine world in which the two éminences (pinot) grises were not the entire story, and in which natural wine was more than a brief appendix…or worse, a screwily-fonted footnote. To expand to chapter form, natural wines are going to have to expand the range of their thought and worldview. They’re going to have to deal with their competition. Face to face, vino a vino.

It’s easy to miss that they’re not doing this. Are you a Beaujolais booster? A Loire lover? A Jura junkie? You – and I – are in luck: the best of the appellation could very well be represented on the natural wine shelf. But what about Irouléguy? Bandol? Burgundy? The Rhône? Bordeaux?

My own personal oenopiphany of ennui occurred, I suspect, because I’m an advocate of Alsace. Now, it must be acknowledged that not many natural wine folk share my enthusiasm for the region. There are various and entirely supportable reasons why, and the whole “natural” ethos is just one of them. That said…looking at what’s on commercial offer within the category, who can blame them? Aside from Barmès-Buecher, the offerings are wildly inconsistent at best, and too often downright wretched at worst. And so, in store after bar after restaurant, the same labels appear. The same, awful wines. Or maybe the good stuff, but in any case that good stuff is still identical to the good stuff at the last place. And the place before that. And the place before that. Worse, in no sense are the pinnacles of the appellation – the benchmarks that define that potential for a region – represented. Alsace is hardly alone in this, but it is (for me, as a self-professed fan) a convenient stand-in for the complaint.

[le verre volé]Herein resides the gnarly core of the problem. It’s not that I care that much if Boxler, Weinbach, Josmeyer, Trimbach, or whoever one wants to name as their flûted standard-bearer is available in a given venue. But when they’re not available in any of them? And when the natural alternatives are similarly absent in the non-natural establishments, for reasons I dare not guess? I don’t want to overstate this as vinous apartheid, because that would be an abrasive and confrontational step too far, but it’s a separation that need not be, and the wines as separately-presented are most definitely not equal.

(A caveat: natural wines cannot always stand against alleged “benchmarks” due to the particulars of their élevage. If the pinnacle of a place is considered to be some forty-year-enabled wine, an unsulfured alternative is unlikely to be equipped to challenge that supremacy. And fair enough. But when comparisons are apt, they’re also quite valuable. Not because one should drink with winners, losers, and hierarchies always in mind, but because the qualities that make natural wine appealing are – as noted zillions of words above – most clearly defined by their alternatives. By not pointing directly at this distinction, natural wines are missing their…pardon the pun…raisin d’être.)

Natural wine needs to shed the yoke it has secured ‘round its own neck. The concentrated focus of its endorsers should continue, and should expand everywhere that is and isn’t Paris, but there’s so much more it could accomplish once it gains a firm foothold on the foundation. A full engagement with the marketplace of wines will engender a crucial, corollary engagement with the marketplace of ideas. As it stands, natural wine’s separatism allows – even encourages – a destructive factionalism. Here, for example, is a (representative, unfortunately) California winemaker on this very topic amid a recent wine forum debate about the word “natural”:

“[…] but if they say what they do is ‘natural,’ then that is a direct marketing attack on other wineries.”

To answer this: it’s mostly not (there are always exceptions), and the winemaker is being needlessly defensive, but he’s also expressing a widely-held opinion. What’s more important is that it’s a reflexive and resentful feeling that need not be. When natural wines self-segregate, they require the argument for their quality to be conducted solely with words, with philosophy, and with rhetoric. This is, necessarily, unequal to the task. Were the wines physically coequal with their otherwise-identified peers in the marketplace, the dialogue wouldn’t be one carried out in the strident, bickering, posturing tones of blogs, web fora, and print, but by the character and quality of the passion represented by each bottle. The wines would, perforce, speak for themselves.

And isn’t that what natural wines should do? Isn’t the fundamental philosophical purpose of natural wine to express without mask or interpretation? Without interlocution? Without filtering?

The Paris of my desire – and the stay will be longer next time, and much longer the time after that – should not be a carefully-constructed list of naturalia with GPS coordinates and hours of operation. It won’t be a parallel universe. It won’t be a matter of choice, of division, of convention vs. dissension. In my idealized Paris…and eventually, elsewhere…“natural” will no longer be separate, only, and first.

It will be…only natural.


Cory Cartwright is doing a sequel. His 31 Days of Natural Wine was a watershed moment in the genre, and now he's attempting to surpass it. Numerically, I mean. This year, it's 32 Days of Natural Wine.

I'm not saying you need to love, like, hate, or be indifferent to natural wine, as a category or a concept. But this is as much of a wine bloggy event as can be conceived. It is, to the extent that anything is in the genre, "important." (Though Cory would unquestionably twitch at that descriptor. And I don't blame him. It sounds a little like a "very special episode of Blossom") If you want a definition of natural wine...well, just read the series at saignée. If you still want a single, bright-line definition at the end of the series, you may have missed the point. (But that's OK.)

Cross-promotion? Why, yes. Thanks for asking. My contribution goes up today, assuming Cory doesn't reject it for confrontationalism. Or invented words. Or length. Though I can't imagine it suffers from any of those three problems...