24 January 2011

Blood, sweat, & Theise

[wrestling]One of the worst consequences of the myth that those who sell wine can’t be trusted – the result of decades of trade-sliming from critics whose own monetary interests depend on you believing this lie – is that some of the best, most passionate, and most insightful writers on the subject are marginalized or dismissed.

This is a crying shame. Especially when one encounters someone like Terry Theise, whose annual catalogs have long been among the most enjoyable wine writing available. Self-interested? Yes, they are. Theise is, after all, trying to sell us something. It’s not like he hides it. But only a fool would thus conclude that the content of that salesmanship isn’t worth their time, for few know as much about their chosen subjects as Theise, and even fewer write about it as well.

Brevity may not always be Theise’s strong suit (take it from an expert), but he can turn a pithy phrase when the need arises. As, for example, this, which is as close to essential reading for oenogeeks as anything I’ve seen of late. Theise offers his take regarding an issue on which this blog has been harping for a while: categories are useful, philosophies are nice to have, but categorical dismissals are silly, and one can’t drink a philosophy.

Let me assert, before I begin to contradict myself at numbing length, that I wholeheartedly endorse most of what Theise writes in the linked essay. And even when I don’t, he makes an effective case for his thesis. That said, I do have some quibbles. And one of them is precisely what I’ve otherwise defended above: the way in which self-interest has the potential to deform one’s views.

[T]oo often aficionados feel the need to turn [...] knowledge into intractable wine dogma. Then, when they encounter a wine that unnervingly threatens their new knowledge […] they spring to protect their theory. "All serious wines must be dry," is a classic (and egregiously wrong) example.

This is an interesting opening example for Theise to use, considering the fair amount of pushback he has received – more of late than in the past – against his continuing defense of German wines with residual sugar. Among certain groups (German drinkers, for example), his position is increasingly the minority one. It’s not fair to say that Theise has always been against dry German riesling, but it’s eminently fair to say that he hasn’t always been its most enthusiastic supporter, either. The realities of German wine production have influenced his views on this point, both in terms of wine quality and commercial availability. But it’s amusing that the first category of wrong thinking that comes to his mind is so closely related to the exact reverse of the one of which he has most often been accused.

When we are insecure — we don't think we're knowledgeable enough, experienced enough, have good enough taste — we latch on to doctrine.

I don’t think this is entirely fair. There is more than one reason to embrace doctrine, and most reasons are not the result of insecurity. Some people really, truly, passionately believe in their preferences…organic vs. non-, local vs. non-, “natural” vs. industrial, terroir wines vs. branded wines, lower-alcohol vs. higher-, fruit vs. dirt, brett-free vs. not, and I could go on and on listing oppositional categories…for reasons that have nothing to do with insecurity. I have my own preferences, Theise does as well, and they’re not plucked from thin air nor mired in insecurity. They’re based on our experiences.

May they be in error? That’s not a relevant question; preferences can’t be wrong. Are they be subject to future revision as new data arrives? Certainly, and (as Theise argues), a wise taster is always open to such revision. Still, this is not the same thing as insisting that, faced with contradiction, a person must perforce abandon preference (or “doctrine,” as Theise puts it). It is both perfectly normal and eminently reasonable for someone to acknowledge that a given wine demonstrates an exception to one’s beliefs without modifying actions based on those beliefs. A continued refusal to do so despite overwhelming contradiction by data or anecdote is pointlessly stubborn and resembles religion more than sensibility, yes, but the question must be asked: so what? A counter-argument can only be made so many times. If someone won’t acknowledge it, sometimes it’s better to move on to those who truly don’t know, rather than beating one’s rhetorical head against those who have dismissed the possibility of same.

Even the wisest of tasters may fully acknowledge a cornucopia of caveats, exceptions, counterarguments, and counterfactuals, yet still possess firmly-held conviction as to the general utility of their preferences. Isn’t that what preference is, after all, once it’s backed by experience? It’s not black and white, X ≠ Y absolutism, but it is a trustworthy guide. When it’s not – if it repeatedly fails to guide – it’s not useful anymore, and the choice will not usually be the abandonment of preference, but the modification thereof. Choosing to term this doctrine rather than preference only burdens the concept with external judgment, rather than shedding light on the evidentiary basis for the choices themselves.

For instance, someone says that low-yield vineyards produce better wine, and it makes sense; the fewer grapes per acre, the more flavor each grape has. So you assume it's true, until you taste a wine you really like, made from yields you've been told are too high. Now what? A reasonable person would throw out his assumptions about yield. But many will instead question their own taste.

There’s a whiff of straw hominid, here. Who are the people who’ve pursued the latter path? Are there actual examples of such?

Further, I don’t think a reasonable person would actually “throw out his assumptions about yield.” That’s an overreaction just as unreasonable as the alternatives of rigidity or mindless relativism. A reasonable person might prefer to conclude that yield is a complicated subject, that different grapes and different places have different relationships to yield, that what works for pinot noir on one patch of land may bear little relation to what works for riesling on a different patch of land.

Theise’s lurking point – that successful wines follow many different and often contradictory paths from start to completion – is an excellent one, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But this is a different argument than the one against holding too tightly to doctrine. One is an argument about a process, the other is a criticism of a person. And still, one may demonstrate that a belief is factually inaccurate or inconsistently applicable without successfully influencing personal preference. (The reverse is also true.) Fact-based deconstructions of procedure are worthwhile. Criticizing people’s preferences might be fun, but it’s not very enlightening.

In the wine world the newest and sexiest doctrine is the so-called "natural wine" phenomenon. […] Hearing what these (mostly admirable) producers do not do, we're tempted to think the alternative must be unnatural wine, riddled with chemicals and fake yeasts. What's the alternative? "Partly natural" wines? The very use of the word "natural" tempts us into an all-or-nothing position. Doctrine.

For years I’ve been reading this argument. For years I’ve been wondering at who it’s aimed.

Are there people who, abandoning sense and rationality, worship at natural wine’s fundamentalist altar? I’m sure there must be. I’ve met a lot of the people who make, sell, and drink so-called natural wines, and this applies to almost none of them, but for any belief one can imagine there is almost always a puritanical adherent. And maybe Theise is, hourly, oppressed by hordes of such fundamentalists, though he offers no evidence for it in this piece. But I have to say that I simply don’t know these people. Not even the loudest philosophy-thumpers of my acquaintance, the ones who sometimes defy commercial sense in pursuit of their beliefs, insist that there are only Natural and Unnatural, and that the line between them is impenetrable, razor-sharp, and inherently obvious even to the most casual observer.

Do I know a few people who are, for me, far too quick to start categorizing and prejudging wine? Yes. Do any of them have a strong public voice? Yes, though only a very few among the few. But that’s not restricted to the natural crowd, nor was hyperjudgmentalism invented by them, and in fact I see at least as much, and possibly more, dogmatism among the pro-intervention gang. Most often, however, this is a situational and transitory fault. I would accuse myself of falling into the trap from time to time, for example, and I’ve also heard the charge leveled at Theise. We all make mistakes, from which one hopes we learn.

In one sense, I again wonder: so what? Cannot the proverbial multiplicity of flowers bloom, each with their advocate?

The thing is, the case for rigid adherence to doctrine is almost never made by natural wine folks. Yes, they decry industrial process in vineyard and cellar (and so, incidentally, do many who would never attach themselves to the “natural” crowd), but the people insisting that we must have either tablet-etched commandments or babies discarded with bathwater are rarely the naturalistas. And I bet if we all agree to remove one (and only one) particular writer from consideration, examples to the contrary would be extremely difficult to find. What, then, is the overwhelming power and influence of this one writer that must be so aggressively resisted by both philosophical enemies and potential allies alike?

I’d point out that some of the answers suggest themselves. No one likes to be at a marketing disadvantage, and the gauzy appeal of the word “natural” is not easily countered. It’s mindshare, it’s commercial self-interest, it’s the never-ending war of marketing vs. marketing, and one does not have to grant the accuracy of argument or counter-argument to see this battle played out. On the other hand, sometimes the resistance to concept comes from theoretical allies, in which case it often takes the form of a Chamberlainesque ceding of ground to the “other side” before a disputed claim for that ground has been adjudicated. I don’t really know why this happens. Fear that if a perfect defense can’t be mounted, it’s better that there be no defense at all?

Natural wine doesn’t actually require a detailed defense. Everyone understands the fundamental, foundational precept of more vs. less natural, more vs. less interventionist. Everyone with a functioning neuron understands that wine does not actually make itself (centuries of winemakers blathering otherwise to the contrary) nor is it actually “made in the vineyard,” and understands that the entire categorical debate is a matter of degree, of a preference for not-doing over doing, that natural is no more than the amorphous cluster of producers and practice at one end of that motivational and philosophical axis. No one in the natural wine milieu is demanding fealty oaths. The insistence that this state of affairs cannot exist, that there must either be iron-clad definition or wholesale abandonment of concept isn’t an argument, it’s Asperger’s.

Does an importer of self-identified natural wines have a commercial self-interest in defending the concept? Yes. And to the extent that they may on occasion attempt same, a careful reader will hear their arguments and defenses through that filter. But the exact same sort of filter must be applied to those who commercially represent that which is in competition with the self-identified natural category. And Theise, while he represents a few producers who hover around the perimeter of the movement, falls into the latter group. In no way does this invalidate his arguments. But it does contextualize them.

Here’s the rest of the context, though: earlier, both Theise and I were suggesting what we thought a “reasonable person” might think in the face of contradictory information. My argument was that the most reasonable person might soon conclude that a practice that works in one place, with one grape, might not work in another place, with another grape. The core of Theise’s portfolio is German wine (mostly riesling) and Champagne. The latter can’t ever be “natural” according to any ultra-fundamentalist view, because it cannot exist without human meddling…though there are unquestionably producers who craft and hone less than others, and some of them are in Theise’s portfolio. As for the former, it’s worth observing that the techniques and anti-techniques of the natural set are virtually nonexistent in Germany. Since almost everywhere there’s wine, there’s a group of enthusiasts exploring oenological minimalism, and yet no one seems to be trumpeting their success with same in Germany, it might just be possible that the techniques don’t work there, or with the grapes common to Germanic wine regions. Certainly sulfur use alone, especially as employed with residually-sugared wines, would disqualify most producers from even the softest possible definitions of “natural.”

Again, is there someone, somewhere, who is arguing that because this winemaking path is largely unfollowed in Germany, that German wine can thus be categorically dismissed as qualitatively inferior? I don’t know of that person, but he or she might exist, and maybe Theise knows who it is. Most people of my acquaintance whose drinking comes largely from the natural world make an exception to their philosophical preferences for several styles of wine, and riesling (especially German) and Champagne often make up the primary population of those exceptions.

Let’s face facts: the natural wine movement, no matter how many zillions of words have been expended on it of late, is a micro-niche. These are ultra-small production wines, curated by a tiny number of commercial gatekeepers, and sold in not very many places to a passionate and loquacious, but extremely small, number of consumers. And I think, frankly, that a lot of the people along this commercial chain like it this way.

What they are, however, is competition for the attention of the relatively small group of wine consumers whose tastes are not informed by mass-marketing or by point ratings in major journals. The very group that Theise, Lynch, Rosenthal, et al have been selling to their entire careers. Does the emergence of yet another set of competitors for this finite market spell trouble for such importers? In theory, I suppose so. But no more than any other form of competition. If one is doing a good job of expanding the audience for such wines palate by palate – perhaps, and paradoxically, easier in these days of fractured wine media than it was when there were just a few editorial powerhouses – the net effect should be a wash.

Instead, we have this internecine bickering among niche entities, fortifying their little philosophical empires and lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other, further factionalizing the audience that they need to be expanding, not dividing. You know who benefits from this? Not Theise. Not us. Instead: Constellation Brands and their megalithic counterparts, whose sides would be splitting with laughter at such bickering if they amounted to anything more than a rounding error on their balance sheets.

And so, here I am contributing to the problem, lobbing my own IEDs at an importer whose wines I adore and whose words I admire. Why? It was this paragraph right here:

I'm a wine importer, and a few years ago a customer, a sommelier, wanted to know what each of my 35-plus German producers did and didn't do in the vineyards and cellars. So I asked him to design a survey, which I then broadcast. And thus commenced as bitter a moral outrage as I have ever witnessed among my normally peaceable wine growers. A cynic could have supposed they were annoyed that this organic thing wasn't going away, which would now increase their workloads and expenses, besides which they didn't give much of a rat's ass about the environment. In fact, they found it arrogant that someone who didn't make wine for a living would dictate such standards. A survey to determine how environmentally "pure" they were came across like a green pogrom wrapped in piety.

I feel like there’s a whole lot more to this story that we’re not getting. Did the sommelier say, in his survey, “your answers to these questions will determine your place in heaven and your worth as a person?” Or did he ask not because he wanted to pass moral judgment on the growers, but because he wanted to refine a wine list that reflected his own philosophy and needed information to make that reflection an accurate one? In the absence of any evidence of the former, I’d rather strongly suspect it’s the latter.

The reported reaction of the producers is emblematic of the laughable, borderline insane, overreaction I’ve been harping about for a while now. Just how powerful was this sommelier? Was he the beverage director for the Starwood Hotels chain or the buyer for Walmart, and thus of overwhelming commercial importance, or did he just craft the lists at a restaurant or two? If the latter, why the angst and acrimony? Is he not allowed to write a list that reflects his own sensibilities, his own philosophies, his own tastes? Isn’t that, in fact, what Theise himself does? One could argue that it’s deeply misguided of Theise to not stuff his portfolio full of industrial Marlborough chardonnay and goopy pan-Californian zinfandel even though those aren’t the wines he’s interested in, and even though they don’t reflect his preferences. But that would be to misunderstand what Theise does and why he does it. If Theise was the gateway through which all available wine flowed, there’s be a reason to carp. But he’s not. He’s one source among many, and consumers have freedom of choice.

I’m reminded of the constant whining and sniping aimed at Mark Ellenbogen…what a coincidence that his name should come up just now…when he was doing the wine list for The Slanted Door. The crime of having a point of view on both the wines and their utility with the restaurant’s cuisine was one for which he could never quite be forgiven by differently-minded consumers and producers, who would serially lambaste him for not carrying more California wines, more high-alcohol wines, more burly reds, and more familiar grapes. As if, in San Francisco, it was impossible to find Napa cabernet, or Cakebread Chardonnay, or super Tuscans, on any restaurant list in the city. As if the very possibility of a list without them was a crime for which Ellenbogen could not be excused. As if he was not allowed to actually make choices, but was instead required to satisfy the tastes of all potential customers…even though they were allowed to arrive with their own wine if they just couldn’t abide his choices. As if the job and purpose of a wine director is no actual curative job at all, but rather little more than receiving shipments, slotting bottles into bins, and checking for typos on the wine list.

These were asinine complaints, and to say so I don’t even have to make a claim about the sense or lack thereof of Ellenbogen’s choices. Maybe he was a genius with exquisite taste. Maybe he was ridiculous and wrong about absolutely everything. I have my opinion, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still just one guy, and one list. Those who didn’t like it were free to spend their money somewhere else.

And so, we have a similar-smelling outrage and existential agony from the producers who received this survey. I hope they’ll pardon me (as I continue to restock their wines in my own cellar, because they’re terrific) if I’m not particularly sympathetic. Can’t they answer a simple question or ten? If the response is really that they can’t, then return the survey uncompleted. Are they afraid to have their practices known? If so, that’s not particularly admirable. And if the core issue is that they’re proud of their practices but are afraid that they will be misinterpreted by the unknowing masses…well, then, do a better job of defending the practices. Arguing that we can’t know what a producer does because people who don’t know any better will get the wrong idea is ridiculously paternalistic, and helps neither us nor the producer.

But no, I suspect I know what actually went on in their heads. Last year, in the Piedmont, I listened to producer after producer lambaste everyone who was making different choices than they were, as if the choices weren’t just different, but a threat to their own existence. A few weeks later, in Alsace, I got to enjoy a repeat performance…my favorite producer’s winemaker calling ambient yeast advocates “idiots,” and another beloved winery returning the favor a few days later by labeling the previous producer’s wines “industrial garbage.”

Overheated rhetoric. And deeply misguided, since both producers make excellent wine. This is, it’s worth remembering (since I’ve been a little harsh on him over the last few thousand words), Theise’s core point: there is not One True Path to wine quality. But the thing is, despite his claims to the contrary no one other than Theise is saying that there is. So when Theise reaches the pinnacle of his argument, here:

It is a better world if 90 percent of growers are 90 percent organic, than if only 20 percent are 100 percent organic. If our natural wine doctrine only is all or nothing, too many people will choose nothing.

…again I wonder: at who is this argument aimed? The first sentence is so unquestionably, powerfully correct, it should be repurposed for deployment in every other wine-related debate. It is, after all, just a restatement of the old trope that the perfect must not become the enemy of the good.

But the second sentence? Natural wine advocates are not the ones insisting on all or nothing. It’s their detractors who are doing so, in much greater numbers and with much greater rhetorical force. And since they’re criticizing ephemera, one must again wonder at their motivation in doing so.

I don’t wonder at Theise’s motivation. I think it’s clear. He believes what he’s writing, and he has a commercial interest allied to his belief. The latter does not invalidate the former, but the former does not render the latter nonexistent, either. Theise wants us to accept that one can simultaneously embrace multiple and occasionally contradictory modes of thinking about quality wine. About that he is certainly right. This is, after all, why readers should accord him that same benefit, considering his words neither because of, nor despite, his commercial self-interest. But he might want to view that assertion in a mirror for a moment or two.

In fact, we all should.


Thomas said...

Thor, are you coming around or am I?

Couldn't find one thing with which to disagree--well, I could find a few, really, but couldn't find one reason to make an issue out of any of them.

As an ex-retailer, however, concerning "natural," I can tell you that there are people out there who are as rabid as Theise claims. Still, I agree that unless they have influence (like the potential influence of the writer you refuse to mention by name) they are not worth that much ink as Theise gives them, but i think he may be referring to the writer and the lemmings.

thor iverson said...

As an ex-retailer, however, concerning "natural," I can tell you that there are people out there who are as rabid as Theise claims.

Theise just sent me a (unjustifiably, given my essay) kind email saying the same thing. I guess I'm sheltered, then.

Obviously, we all know the writer that we're avoiding naming (and I don't think it's necessary or useful to do so), but agree or disagree with her I just look at her "power" vs. that of, say, Parker, or Suckling, or Bettane, or Robinson, or scores and scores of other wine commentators, and wonder -- whether one views her as the devil incarnate or the messiah reborn -- what the huge fuss is about. If she was really all that powerful, the wines she champions would be impossible to get, considering their small production numbers. They're not.

On the one English-language forum where the naturalistas allegedly congregate, I see maybe two or three people who really segregate their drinking this way. Most of the rest don't, and would probably take the "side" that both Theise and I are on if it came to a debate, except that I don't think they see it as quite such a clearly-drawn battle either.

What I mostly see is that taking Theise to task for making such a big deal about this, at the number of words I employed to do so, looks kind of silly in retrospect. ;-)

Thomas said...

...ah, but words is your business therefore, you have many at your command.

Of course, there is such a thing as minimalism, but then you'd likely write like Philip Glass composes--ugh!

Re, the "rabidity" of said writer and the ilk (or elk if it fits): I believe that is where the producer's argument comes into play--the idea that those who haven't much of a clue over what it takes to produce grapes and wine being given a forum for militancy.

thor iverson said...

Philip Glass...ugh, indeed.

the idea that those who haven't much of a clue over what it takes to produce grapes and wine being given a forum for militancy

I don't know that "militancy" is a helpful word, here.

But let's grant that it's the right word, for the sake of argument. What has been the net effect? It seems to me that the absolute worst thing you could say as a result is that there's been some irritation caused. A market effect (aside from the sales of one book and one person's freelance rates)? An actual, measurable market effect? I just don't see it. Maybe others do.

If we were restricting the argument to Parisian wine bars, then maybe there'd be an argument to be had...but the person with whom to have the argument would be the guy that I'm told buys wine for the majority of them, not an American wine writer. Though actually, the real people to argue with would be the winemakers.

And if that's the case, then we have to revisit the producers' complaints, because the argument is once again commentators opining on how winemakers make wine.

Thomas said...

I agree that the harm is, if any, minimal, and so as we used to say where I grew up, I really don't give a "rat's ass," personally. But based on the method used to put forward ideas in an attack or us or them mode, a "this is the only possible way" attitude, militancy seems the correct word.

thor iverson said...

You're now recommitting my sin, re: the exponential expansion of molehills. In my opinion, of course.

Thomas said...

Mountains are far better to climb than molehills ;)

But yes, I admit it: those with a forum to express their ignorance do get on my nerves at times...godamm human that I am.

David said...

I've spent a great deal of time considering a response, and after reading and re-reading 4500 words (Theise's 800 and your 3700) I am left with the thought that excessive discourse on the internet (versus in person), as well as 24x7 coverage of nearly everything has left us focusing on the extremes. While there may not be many rabid proponents or detractors of natural wine, those on both fringes get the most attention, thus leading to an inappropriate overestimation of their number and influence.

thor iverson said...

It's funny, but that was more or less my argument over the course of an exceedingly pleasant few hours chez Theise. We didn't agree on this point, but it's pretty much the only important one on which we didn't.

The importer has given my kind permission to include his response (and the counter-, and counter-counter-, and counter-counter-counter-) arguments here, and that will happen before too long.