20 December 2009

Mystify me

[ghostly vines]Didn’t I just get done saying that no one wants to read (or write) yet another holiday wine column? OK, this is me swallowing my words – mea gulpa – and starting off with a seasonal theme. Don’t worry, it won’t last long.

This is a time of year in which many celebrate the various mysteries and miracles particular to their beliefs. The rituals will differ, but except where it is disallowed almost all of them will involve an alcoholic beverage, even if only as part of a communal gathering of like-minded celebrants. Sometimes, those beverages will be mere quenchers. But in many cases, there will be something else at stake…some sort of symbolism or cultural/historic reference.

Throughout the history of our species, we’ve had no problem assigning liquids this sort of secondary meaning and import – not just ferments or brews that sate our thirst and alter our mood, but something more – within the boundaries of practices spiritual, ritualistic, and social. And in fact, it’s probable that wine has fulfilled this transubstantiative role more than any other beverage.

So it passes strange that the first thing just about every journalistic wine writer must promise, as they make their entry into the field, is to “demystify” wine. This promise is usually extended to the readership, as well. Hell, I’ve done it myself, back when I was first starting out.

The appeal of the idea of obvious. Wine’s a reasonably complicated subject around which there has been built an unreasonable amount of cultural fear, and in most cases those with expertise and a forum are inherently charged with the duty to make themselves understandable to other than their peers.

But let’s once again compare fields of inquiry. A newspaper column on the merits of, say, a pitcher acquired by a baseball team does not stop to define the position, iterate the various pitches that can be thrown and their most accomplished practitioners, and delve into an explanation of how the physical structure of the baseball interacts with the pitcher’s musculature to produce certain physical effects. Why not? Because no one interested in baseball wants to read those explanations time and time again, no one interested enough in baseball to write about it wants to write those explanations over and over, and the practice itself would bring any interesting narrative to a screeching halt. Yet a wine column on Crozes-Hermitage will almost always have to locate the appellation, define its cépage, identify its best producers, and talk about its uses with food.

The same is true for coverage of equities, in which a columnist need not explain and define the workings of the stock market and the history of the Dow versus the S&P 500 to cover the day’s news, and in most other fields as well. Yet a column on how to select a wine by identifying its importer will inevitably find itself mired in an explanation of just what it is that importers do (which should be obvious, I would think) and their role in the three-tier system, which will start referring back to Prohibition…and suddenly, we’ve got the history of the alcoholic beverage industry in the United States, when all we wanted was an explanation of what Neal Rosenthal vs. Eric Solomon means for the consumer.

No, for some reason wine writing, unlike other types of specialist coverage, must somehow appeal to the lowest common denominator or risk the heavy hand of an editor’s (electronic) pen. Referring to Morgon in a column? Better explain that it’s a Beaujolais, that’s it’s made from gamay, that all Beaujolais isn’t Nouveau (and the yearly ritual of Nouveau must then be explained for what must be the ten-thousandth time), and so forth. Is a micro-buying guide for spätlese-level riesling on tap? It’s not sufficient to talk about balance as if everyone knows what that is, it’s necessary to attempt a ground-up explanation the interaction between acidity and sugar in wine, why that is of particular interest along various German riverbanks, how this philosophy differs from that operative in the Wachau or the Bas-Rhin, and so forth. In other words, wine writing in its journalistic, general-interest form, must be presented as if utter novices comprise the entirety of the audience, novices who must be gently coaxed from square one with the first paragraph of each new column, and led no further than square two by the conclusion.

But aren’t (you might object) novices the actual audience? Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. The question remains: why does this matter so much when the subject’s wine, and not hockey? Mergers? Senatorial shenanigans? Contract negotiations? All may occasionally hold back on the most arcane terminology, but none will suffer the editorial supposition that the reader is new to this planet, that the audience is comprised of dull children, that it might not be interested enough in the subject to read more than just the one column, as if it would be impossible to infer information that’s not spelled out in painstaking and word count-chewing detail.

I have little idea why this state of affairs should be, though I have theories. But those theories aren’t actually the point of this little rant. Instead, I propose an alternative philosophy to all this wine-for-dummies pandering.

Knowing that Morgon is Beaujolais, and that Beaujolais is gamay, is – I suppose – useful. It may, to the dedicated seeker of vinous knowledge, even be interesting, though in all cases I’d argue it’s reference material, and not the sort of thing one expects to find in the immediacy of a journalistic or columnar setting. But it is certainly nowhere near as interesting as the story of Marcel Lapierre and what he represents for all three of those above-referenced nouns. And it is unquestionably less interesting that the sensory revelation possible in a glass of Lapierre’s Morgon.

Wine writing limited to the first of these three modes of inquiry will never be more than a pale shadow of what’s possible. It should aspire to the latter, even if this isn’t quite achievable without providing samples of the wine in question. But the potential stories in a glass of wine are myriad, they’re very much beyond a rote recitation of facts and figures, and they’re best told from a position not of mere expertise, but of expertise fired by passion. They’re something elevated, something symbolic, something more.

The mere act of experiencing a wine that, more than any before it, somehow reaches or speaks to the taster can be as powerful and as unquantifiable as any mystery. We celebrate, honor, or at least respect those mysteries elsewhere in our lives. Why must wine suffer the dishonor and disrespect of demystification?

15 December 2009

Semi-regular reminder

What's a wine blog without tasting notes? A wine blog with a dysfunctional fraternal twin, that's what. All the notes -- all of them -- are over at oenoLog. If reading lots and lots of tasting notes is your thing, seek professional help head over there and feast your senses until your insomnia is cured.

10 December 2009

In the Can

[cathedral tomb]We’re led to a table in the front, where they seem to have grouped most of the non-locals, and pretty soon they’re wheeling a pair of large wooden carts – they looked like sawed-off lecterns –in our direction. These are the wine lists…and yes, that word is plural by design, rather than finger-slip.

…continued here.

09 December 2009

Holiday leftovers

[bungee jumper]In the comments section of the Eric Asimov article to which I linked a few days ago, there were some interesting responses. Most, it seems, agreed with the central premise that wine writing constantly revisiting the same ground is as tedious to read as it is to write. (NB: it’s much more tedious to write. Says the writer.)

Some, of course, disagreed. Journalists need to know their audience, and the audience is not knowledgeable…or so the argument runs. Since is this is the standard position taken by editors of wine columns, the argument is well known to writers, and to a certain extent the source of much of wine writers’ angst as they endlessly revise well-worn subject matter, decorating it with different adjectives and newer vintages, but still adorning the same steaming pile of tedium. (Says the writer, with more than a bit of whine in his voice.)

And then there was a middle ground, in which some tropes were indeed found to be tiresome, but others were worthwhile and even necessary. Here, for example, is Asimov himself defending one of them:

I’m with you — except on holiday columns. Have to distinguish between no-longer-relevant boilerplate and service pieces that readers continue to find useful. You would think, for example, that in the age of Google a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey would no longer be necessary. Yet people still want this, preferably a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. Same with the annual wine column. The trick is to find new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion, and perhaps new and different wines to recommend, though the wisdom remains the same.

My first instinct is to ask whether – “in the age of Google” – people still look to the pre-Thanksgiving newspaper or magazine for their turkey recipe and wine recommendation in anywhere near the numbers they used to. I rather suspect that those seeking a current newspaper or magazine (print or electronic) source are declining, while the number looking at Epicurious or just Googling is rather ascendant. So while Asimov’s argument may be true now (and may, for all I know, not), I see nothing to support the notion that it will be true much longer.

The second is to wonder what the “new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion” would be, having become cynical enough to think that we’re pretty much sold out of frames at this point. What we’re left with is recommending different wines, which Asimov has done, to the point where just about every wine that can be recommended to go with bird and bloating, has been recommended to go with stuffing and the stuffed. Is that really reframing the discussion, or is that simply narrowing the consumer’s choice to “everything”…in which case: how is this helping, exactly?

And the third is to ask something that I’ve always wondered: where’s Paul Krugman’s annual pre-holiday mutual fund gift article, which leads nicely into his annual tax advice column and his very popular “American companies to watch for July 4th” feature? Where’s George Vecsey’s fantasy football roster, his table tennis power rankings, his list of the ten most gut-busting YouTube videos of terrified cats on soccer pitches? I mean, certainly these articles are all very popular and perhaps even necessary for them to write, since they get written by someone over and over again, right? And shouldn’t they be writing gentle into that good column, for the novice who might know what a dollar or a base are, but might be intimidated or confused by talk of derivatives or slugging percentages, not to mention the completely impenetrable Austrian school or Moneyball?

Oddly, it seems that neither their audiences nor their editors think so.

For example, read this. Everyone follow that? Anyone lost at any point? Any terms that might have benefited from definition, references sitting there without explanation, assertions made without the entire history of economic theory appended as a supportive footnote? Yeah, I thought so.

Now read this. If you’re a devoted baseball fan, that probably all makes sense. If not – even if you’re seen a baseball game or ten – well, it probably makes only marginally more sense than this, an article on cricket.

So where is the push…from editors, the audience, or even the writers themselves…for repetition of themes, for simplified language, for an abandonment of jargon and expertise in favor of a theoretical common man’s understanding in any of these opinion pieces?

There isn’t one, of course. So why is wine different?

It isn’t. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

But, more on this later…in which it will be necessary to face up to and defeat the enemy of wine writing, the cancer at its heart, the bane of all it can and should be: the destructive and yet inexplicably popular compulsion to “demystify.”

08 December 2009

Eric + Eric

Two great things today, elsewhere...one accessible, the other high-concept wine geekery:

Eric Asimov on what wine writers should leave unsaid.

Eric Texier on the theories of Jules Chauvet, hero of the no-sulfur movement. Which it turns out he maybe shouldn't be.

03 December 2009

Speech, broad & bent

[the billionaire’s vinegar]Brewer-Clifton isn’t the only entity that would like you, the consumer, to just shut up. (Note the lack of a “please” in that request.) Oh, no. It gets much worse.

(A bit of background is necessary here, for non-obsessive followers of titillating wine gossip. I’ll try to make it brief.)

Once upon a time, there were these bottles of wine that were, allegedly, owned by Thomas Jefferson. They were auctioned for an awful lot of money to the rich and famous, who either seemed to do desperately stupid things with them, or display them as the (undrinkable) jewels of their collection.

Except it turns out that they might have been fakes. There’s a lot of that going around the high-end wine world now, but that was a more naïve time, and people may not have been as wary as they should have. Most of the current attention has focused on the alleged sources, but a little has soiled the collars of their facilitators: collectors and auctioneers. One luminary thus tainted by association was the very, very famous writer, taster, and auctioneer Michael Broadbent, whose self-described friendship with one Hardy Rodenstock – the source of the Jefferson bottles – is now as much a liability as it was a benefit, in those earlier days.

The guilt or innocence of the various parties isn’t what I’m interested in here, and so I’ll leave a discussion of lawsuits and investigations for another forum. What matters to this backgrounder is that a book on this very subject, entitled The Billionaire’s Vinegar, was written by a guy named Benjamin Wallace.

It turns out that Michael Broadbent didn’t much care for his portrayal in the book, for reasons I’m still not going to adjudicate here. So he sued for libel (in the U.K., where such matters have a much easier standard of evidence to meet than they do in the U.S.), and the case was settled out of court by the publisher…who paid Broadbent some money, issued an apology, and so forth. It was a “victory” in a very limited sense, as it only applied to the U.K., and unquestionably brought more attention to the book’s contents elsewhere in the world than there had previously been. Nonetheless, I presume Mr. Broadbent got what he wanted, the publisher and the book weren’t adversely affected outside the U.K. market (if anything, the opposite), and post-settlement life should have gone on as before.

Except that it didn’t. Michael’s son Bartholomew (who I have met on more than one occasion, and have liked very much on those occasions) decided that it was in his father’s best interest for Bartholomew to engage mid- and post-trial discussions of the case around the internet, something most lawyers probably would have told him was a little unwise on the face of it. Broadbent fils got in a few snippy exchanges with the author of the book in various locales, and perhaps this added to his understandable feelings of agitation over the state of his father’s reputation, but on Jamie Goode’s blog, he went much, much too far in addressing some commenters in the case. Emphasis mine:

[name redacted] doesn't know the specifics of the case and clearly his views are a reflection of nothing more than reading the book. My father won the case and they will not hesitate to win damages from further defamatory remarks made by others who continue to ignore the ruling. [name] would be better off accepting the court's decision and the Publisher's apology. He has no idea about the true facts and his statements show incredible ignorance. However, his views are precisely the reason that this case was won. [name] is actually setting himself up to be sued too, if he continues to repeat such defamatory views which have no basis on truth. As Jamie's Blog is published in the UK, it and its commentators fall under the same defamation and libel jurisdiction.

The thing is, Bartholomew was probably right: were his father especially litigious, he could have gone around suing anyone who continued the debate, and may even have won. Thankfully, and to Broadbent père’s credit, this does not appear to be happening. But the threat issued by Bartholomew was at best distasteful, at worst a reprehensible way to quash debate, and in practical terms an entirely unhelpful way to “help” clear his father’s name. And it was one more instance of someone – this time in the trade, which Bartholomew most certainly is – trying to squelch online discussion of topics they do not wish to have discussed, or at least not in the manner in which they are being discussed. As with Brewer-Clifton, my personal interest in supporting the wines he sells with my purchases is diminished as a result.

In any case, it could have ended there, too. But it didn’t. The discussion, inevitably, roiled across the U.S. wine scene, where similar legal threats wouldn’t have carried much weight given the very strict legal standards for proving libel. Something not everyone was happy about:

here's a vote for libel laws in the USA as strict as they are in the UK

Who said that? Before I answer, it’s the same person who said the following (NB: the following quotes have had to be edited for grammar, spelling, and readability, though the words are unchanged):

bloggers...or should I say blobbers since they are the source of much of the misinformation, distortion, and egregious falsehoods spread with reckless abandon on the internet


[bloggers’] passion can be a great asset, but it can be dangerous as well...the Taliban has passion is just one example...

That’s right. Bloggers are analogous to the Taliban

(No, he didn’t call bloggers the Taliban. But unfortunate-yet-revealing analogies extend well beyond those covered by Godwin’s Law, and here is one more example of same.)

Who is this paragon of free discourse, this defender of the right to speak against entrenched interests? The same person who endlessly crusaded against the established writers he supplanted. And the same person that wrote the following:

It has been said often enough that anyone with a pen, notebook and a few bottles of wine can become a wine critic. And that is exactly the way I started…

Yes, joining Brewer-Clifton and Bartholomew Broadbent in a heartfelt desire for all you rabble to just stop your bloody contradictions so they can be accorded the respect they deserve: your Wine Advocate himself, Robert M. Parker, Jr.

02 December 2009

The Brewer's art

[pig’s rear end]Grapes can be thin-skinned. So can critics. To their great credit, winemakers usually aren’t. As with any other producer of a critique-able product or work, they’re the constant recipient of feedback, both good and bad. The good can go to one’s head, the bad to one’s heart, but the majority of winemakers take it pretty much in stride, accepting the fundamental truism that taste in all things is personal.

Oh, there are some exceptions. Angry rebuttals in the press, lawsuits, dogs set upon visiting critics as they exit their rental car. I’ve had a few run-ins myself. And even the most mild-mannered winemaker can be pushed beyond their limits by what they perceive to be a particularly egregious slight.

But at least critics know to expect this sort of thing, given what they do. Consumers don’t. It didn’t used to matter, but in this evolving age of many-to-many communication, the consumer who voices an opinion becomes as much of a potential target for retribution as any critic. Perhaps even more of one; a winemaker may not wish to burn a bridge to a powerful critic, but an everyday consumer might be dismissed without a second thought.

Not long ago, the denizens of one of the web’s various wine fora got into a discussion about Brewer-Clifton, a well-known producer of pinot noir and chardonnay from California. As with any robust discussion, there was both positivity and negativity, and a full range of opinions was aired. But I’m sure no one expected what happened next.

“You have received this notification from Brewer-Clifton because you are a registered user or you or some other registered user requested some information for you from our store.

Dear [name redacted],

Your profile at Brewer-Clifton has been deleted.”

This reads as it looks. Step one: criticize Brewer-Clifton in public, or at least appear to do so. Step two: get dropped from their mailing list.

Putting aside the dubious sensibility of shedding customers in a flailing economy, Brewer-Clifton had three choices when faced with public criticism. One, ignore it (the path chosen by almost everyone in the wine world). Two, respond to it (a path with its time-sucking and image-destabilizing dangers; only those with quick wits, faster fingers, and a taste for the arena usually survive this sort of thing unscathed). Or three, punish their critics.

Did they choose wisely? Not in the view of some of those dropped, some of whom hadn’t even criticized the winery or the wines, but instead had been critical of the scores accorded the wines by famous critics. As one dropped customer objected:

“Of course, I was not referring to BC or their wines as ‘a complete joke’ but rather referring to The Wine Advocate’s lazy review [of] their wines.

It’s important to note, after the fact, that those deleted have reportedly been reinstated. But what went on here is worth examining a little more closely, because it has fairly profound implications for the open and collaborative world of wine commentary into which we are decisively moving.

What was behind Brewer-Clifton’s move? Simple pique. Read for yourself (both excepts edited for clarity):

So I decided to call Steve Clifton to see if this was the case. He returned my call about ten minutes later and indeed confirmed that my post was the reason. Steve went on to explain to me that these kind of posts on wine boards are extremely hurtful, and that because it’s a bottle of wine doesn't mean that there aren’t real people behind the scenes, and if I don't like the wines why should I be on the list?

“A complete joke” is what led Greg Brewer to terminate me from Brewer-Clifton's mailing list. He felt like if I, or anyone really, thought the wines of Brewer-Clifton were a complete joke then why would that person want to be, or deserve to be, on the mailing list?

As pointed out by some, including one of the above-quoted victims, everyone was within their rights here. People were free to say anything they wanted about Brewer-Clifton, short of actionable defamation. Brewer-Clifton was free to drop anyone from their mailing list, for any reason they could come up with. And in an earlier world of wine communication, that’s where the story would have ended. Except, of course, we’re no longer in that world.

As it turned out, everyone else knew what Brewer-Clifton was up to while it was happening. Some, even those that counted themselves fans of the winery and their wines, weren’t too happy, and their relationships with both soured. In the end, despite the reinstatements, the move counts as a minor PR disaster for the winery, for they have now set as an apparent condition of receiving their wines that one may not engage in public conversations that the winery principals find disagreeable.

I, for one, reject that standard, and while I don’t enjoy Brewer-Clifton’s wines, I do appreciate wines from the related Palmina label. This new situation calls my support into question, and I am most certainly less likely to choose those wines in the future. The winery is free to act as they will, and so am I, by my lack of future support. (As a consumer only; a critic’s responsibilities are somewhat different.)

But all these personal acts of retribution and counter-retribution are insignificant in the face of the greater danger they pose to the very nature of many-to-many wine communication. The new paradigm has positives and negatives, but one of the of the unquestioned benefits is the free flow of a wide stream of information. Whether for good or ill, someone with information is going to bring it in front of the public.

In the world that Brewer-Clifton apparently seeks, this flow of information can no longer be trusted. People may post their experiences with Brewer-Clifton’s wines (or the winery itself), but they may now only post positive reports, lest they risk losing their access. The information stream is tainted. It is no longer reliable, which is always a danger, but in fact it is now worse: it is actively untrustworthy.

Think about what this means for an entity like CellarTracker, which trades on its community of tasting notes and ratings. Think anyone who values their presence on the Brewer-Clifton mailing list is eager to post a negative review or score now? Don’t count on it.

The effect will be no different than if one of the winery principals or their hired guns were to “spike” the database with hyped-up notes and ratings…an action which I suspect few would endorse. But in a sense, I suppose Brewer-Clifton has done something awfully clever here. Because rather than fouling the waters themselves, and paying the price, they’ve gotten their customers to do it for them.

Which makes it all the more important that they, and any other winery that tries the same trick, suffer equivalent public shaming. It’s the only defense the consumer has against such practices.

The hiatus ate us

OK, so...I'm back.

Apologies for the long hiatus. Batteries needed to be recharged. Energies redirected. And also, the oenoLogician needed a haircut. (Still does, actually. No one trusts a wine writer with a double mullet.) But the hiatus is over, and the controversy and carnage friendly debate will soon resume anew.

02 September 2009

Bottles made of sand

[mustang & vines]The current state of the wine business is enough to drive anyone to drink. Consider, for instance, this report from France:

French wine and spirits exports fell by almost a quarter in the first half of 2009…Champagne sales plummeted by 45% in value with Bordeaux declining 24%...Burgundy exports fell 30%

That last number might also be slightly elevated by the ongoing, and as yet not convincingly solved, premature oxidation issue affecting some of the region’s whites, but I suspect the majority of it is a simple matter of (over)supply vs. (under)demand.

In Champagne, however, they have a plan:

With sales falling, producers may be ordered to leave up to half their grapes to wither on the vine in an attempt to squeeze the market. Merchants are pushing for an historic reduction in yield as they seek to ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. “Everyone agrees that production has to be cut because no one here wants to see prices fall,” an industry insider said.

I suppose some might be moved to a fair bit of offense at the naked avarice of the folks who make Champagne, but I’m afraid I’m too cynical to be upset at this sort of thing anymore. And it is a good business/marketing decision, given what they sell is no longer wine (more on that in a moment).

But the news isn’t all bad. Referring once more to French wine:

The vin de pays category was less badly affected, while vin de table grew by 1.2%.

This matches what I’ve heard from retailers and restaurateurs: people are still buying alcohol, they’re just spending less when they do. But still, those drops in Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy are dramatic. Aren’t these in-demand luxury products, with a worldwide audience and a steady stream of new buyers?

Yes. Therein lies the problem. Champagne, and to a slightly lesser extent Bordeaux, are not – in the market’s imagination – wines any longer. They’re luxury goods. They’re sold on their names and admired for the same reason, probably more than they’re admired for the contents of the bottles. Don’t believe me? Heed the source:

“Champagne is the drink of dreams and of parties,” [Patrick] Le Brun [chairman of the Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne] wrote in La Champagne Viticole, the trade magazine. “Its image, its universe are endangered when the term ‘crisis’ is associated too often with it.”

Note the absence of any talk of Champagne’s gustatory qualities. It’s all about the image, the prestige, the “event.”

This is a situation certain regions have engineered themselves. In boom times, it helps their sales, and – especially in Champagne – it neatly separates desirability from quality, making the former rather than the latter the driver of popularity (were that not so, people wouldn’t buy so much mediocre Veuve Clicquot). But as we’re now seeing, there’s a downside. People might remain true to a beloved beverage during hard times. But a status symbol? Those can be replaced, or abandoned, with ease.

On the other hand, not everyone suffers in a downturn:

The South African wine industry could face wine shortages within five years if sales continue to rise at the current rate, a leading South African producer has warned. In 2008, total exports increased 12% to a record 405 million liters but vineyard planting has not kept pace with increasing demand. Merwe Botha, financial director at Distell told decanter.com, “We need to look at the demand and supply situation. There are signs that in the next five years the industry could face shortages in supply. Producers have been under severe pressure because of margin and cash flow problems so they have not planted as much as they should have,” he added.

This was a topic of much angst last year when I visited South Africa. The ten-rand-to-the-dollar exchange rate that made the trip a ridiculous bargain has, for a while now, helped the wines make significant inroads into territory that once belonged to Australia, New Zealand, and California. But the too-cheap prices received by the producers have a significant downside, one that’s been plaguing South American countries as well: the money to plant (or replant, a significant issue facing a good number of South African growers), the money to upgrade facilities, and the money to work the market simply doesn’t materialize, even though the bottles themselves might be flying out the cellar door.

20 August 2009

Drunk in translation

[hansa ad]Jumping into the deep end of an orange-colored pool, it turns out, draws notice and comment, some of it even from non-wine geek circles. Which means that an audience not already familiar with the text is asked to take a similar leap, nose first, into the self-referential and semi-lunatic world of wine description.

It’s a scary universe, and understandably some are disapproving (.pdf). Others, though, are merely perplexed. As one correspondent asked over email:

Do you have a page someplace on the blog that gives you the “code” for certain words – like, when you say that something tastes of “metal and charred orange, maybe even a bit of ash.” I know some of this is evocative, but is there a “dictionary” of understood wine/descriptive terms?

There are several answers to this. One is that there are, indeed, attempts to formalize wine verbiage: the U.C. Davis tasting wheel, for example, or this chemistry-laden approach. Neither has met with much success or enthusiasm among the note-taking (and note-reading) community. Why not? Not having done a survey, my suspicion is that people find it both restrictive and a little boring. Detailing the wonders of a wine is an act of personal expression; using details supplied and constrained by others is not. And anyway, those who prefer cognitive shorthand likely prefer the shortest hand of all: points and other ratings.

Another answer is that most of what one sees in a tasting note is pure subjectivity. There are objective things to be said, but they’re limited in what they can describe to some very basic chemistry, structural outlines, and the identification of actual flaws. Without chemical analysis, we’re left with the world where one taster’s “black raspberry jam” is another’s “smoked strawberry seed with black truffle,” and who’s to say which is right? Both and neither, probably.

But I think the best answer is that it doesn’t matter. Most tasting notes are written as much for the person writing them as they are for anyone else. And even those produced for an audience contain a lot of information that’s of very marginal value. For example, how often do you go to your local wine purveyor and ask, “might you have a wine that tastes of pineapple and indelicate slashes of papaya skin, with a suave finish?”

I can hear the crickets already.

Aside from a few basic assessments – the wine’s overall size; the relative levels of things like oak, acidity, and tannin; placement on an aging curve – most of what comprises a tasting note is, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, fluff. Those who view a note as a list of descriptors with which one should attempt to find agreement have the wrong idea. It’s not about everyone finding blackcurrants or Earl Grey tea, it’s about communicating the experience of drinking the wine.

That’s a distinction not everyone grasps, so let me expand upon that at a little more length. When I tell you, via a tasting note, that a wine tastes like X, Y, and Z, your natural reaction will be to look for X, Y, and Z in the wine. In other words, you have read me as suggesting what you should think about the wine. From your ability, or inability, to find these specific characteristics, you will likely then draw a conclusion about your own tasting abilities (if you’re a novice), my tasting abilities (if you’re more experienced), or the compatibility of our palates (if you’re a reader looking for utility). This is no longer a dialogue about the wine, but rather a dialogue about you, me, and our proficiency at tasting and communication. And what does that have to do with wine?

Ideally, a note does not merely provide a grocery list of ingredients which the reader may then check off in their comparative sample. I find it much more interesting for a note to communicate not just the wine’s qualities and components, but how the note-writer responded to the wine (and not just a qualitative judgment, either). For example, consider this note:

Josmeyer 2001 Pinot Gris “Le Fromenteau” (Alsace) – Pristine and mineral-driven, fruited with crisp pear and ripe apple, and seasoned with just a bit of salt. (No, really…there’s a hint of salinity that I’ve never found in an Alsatian pinot gris, though it’s fairly common in certain coastal whites.) Neither fat nor aggressive. The finish is long, suggesting hints of the spice that will emerge with more age. While this is drinking well now, were I to own any I’d wait a while, because it’s still holding back, and because the crystalline minerality that’s slowly being revealed is a little more zirconium than diamond at the moment.

Objective traits of the wine, if any, are absent from this note. The length of the finish could be considered a semi-objective assessment, perhaps, but it’s not like I’ve provided a specific duration. There’s also a contextualizing phrase (the bit about salinity not being typical for Alsatian pinot gris), which is as much about bringing external knowledge to the note as it is about the wine in question. The rest of the note can be divided into two parts: descriptors, and comments on the experience. The former are easily identified. The latter are little more difficult to sift from the text.

Easiest to understand are the last two sentences, which could be summarized thusly: the wine’s too young, and aging will reveal a more interesting minerality and spice (that, one may read between the lines to learn, is something to be expected from this wine). The rest is simply a matter of repositioning perspective. “Neither fat nor aggressive” means essentially the same thing as “possessing balancing acidity and moderate intensity,” which is a form one would much more often find in tasting notes, but recasts that communication as being about the experience of the wine rather than an essential property of the wine. Similarly, “pristine” could be reworded as “clean” (or “fault-free”), but also suggests something unsullied that’s beyond the mere absence of chemical or biological faults. These thoughts are, for me, more important to communicate than a list of fruits, minerals, and structural elements.

Thus, and to (at long last) answer my correspondent, I’m fairly indifferent to whether or not “metal,” “charred orange,” or “ash” have specific and one-to-one translatable meaning for the reader. I certainly don’t think I or anyone else would suggest to people that beverages that taste of actual metal, charred orange, and ash would be popular, or even palatable; wine descriptors such as these are meant to be read as “the suggestion of…” rather than real ingredients. I’m much more interested in saying: this wine is not a fruity, friendly, familiar beverage like many you (and I) have had. It is not easily approachable…in fact, it’s rather difficult. It’s probably not a wine for the timid or novice drinker, as the aromas and textures are decidedly out of the ordinary. If that has been communicated – and I think those particular terms pretty much have to communicate something along those lines – then the note has achieved its purpose, whether or not a future taster finds all, or even any, of those elements in their own glass.

03 August 2009

Blue note

[retreating sheep]Anthony Dias Blue apparently didn’t get the memo. The one that says: do not, under any circumstances, pick a fight with your competitors and successors if they have a bigger podium. Some excerpts:

The latest assault on the establishment media by blogger barbarians […] And who are these bloggers anyway and, more important, what is their motivation? […] But the image that presents itself is of bitter, carping gadflies who, as they stare into their computer screens and contemplate their dreary day jobs, let their resentment and sense of personal failure take shape as vicious attacks on the established critical media.

…and so forth, along similarly tiresome and unoriginal lines.

Criticizing the blogosphere, Twitter, etc. is nothing new from the establishment side of wine writing; at least Dias Blue, unlike Robert Parker, didn’t compare bloggers to the Taliban just because they pointed out a few inconvenient truths. And it’s usually a bad idea even when the criticism is justified, because the online world can be rather unforgiving as it piles on. Dias Blue’s complaints were particularly silly, and so he probably deserves everything he’s been getting. Worse, he’s contributing to the very problem he’s attempting to identify (albeit poorly) by helping turn the next generation of consumers of wine information against the self-entitled establishment he’s defending.

But lets not be too hard on the guy. Granted, he has some odd enthusiasms that do deserve opprobrium, but truth be told he’s only saying what an awful lot of wine writers – and in fact journalists across disciplines – are thinking: how, in this emerging world, am I going to make a living?

As I’ve noted before, the way forward isn’t paved with loot for the wine enthusiast who wants to do something other than sell or move boxes around. Not that it ever was, except for a very few top writers, but the future is grim indeed. The bottom (that supported burgeoning writers looking for the first step towards a career) has already fallen out, and it’s taking the intermediate tiers with it. Where will tomorrow’s stars come from? It’s not that we don’t know who the good new writers are – actually, we’re better at identifying them than ever before, thanks to the internet – it’s just that there’s not a whole lot for them to do that’s more than anecdotally compensated. And there’s less opportunity each year. Developing a writer from a level where they’re good enough for a self-published blog to a level where they’re good enough for paid, edited media requires not just practice, but also professional feedback. Successful bloggers probably don’t want to hear this, but it’s the case. And it’s not that many of them wouldn’t pass that test – in fact, the quality of many the new writers is far more impressive than their critics realize – but that they’re not likely to be given the opportunity as venues for those opportunities fall away.

Lacking those avenues for development, the sources for compensation that used to come with advancement remain as problematic as they are in the rest of the failing mediasphere: advertising, as-yet-ephemeral for-pay content, or outright sponsorship. The latter is anathema unless it’s a non-wine entity, and thus we’re back to advertising. How many wine bloggers or deliverers of content in other media don’t have “real jobs” that pay the bills? Ten? Five? Fewer? I hope for change sooner rather than later, and I wouldn’t rule it out, but it seems a long way off.

The best path forward seems to be collation, which is a function of the mass media that is only newly-arrived to the online wine world. But who makes the money in the collation business? Not, as a rule, the creators of the content…which also replicates the mainstream media model, and still doesn’t help the next generation of writers very much.

So amidst the admittedly justifiable savaging of Anthony Dias Blue’s poorly-considered column, lets spare a kind thought. Not for him in particular, but for the onrushing crisis of compensation that he represents. Blogging, tweeting, vlogging, making a little loose change from running ads…this is all well and good for the skilled hobbyist. But professionalism is not to be dismissed, and that’s a stage that will remain largely unreachable unless someone, somewhere, opens a wallet.

01 August 2009

Adventures in the skin trade

[levi dalton]“Show me some skin!” That, at least, was the plea. Skin there was, and a lot of it. Flesh everywhere, on naked display in a steamy den of iniquity, itinerancy, and ice buckets.

Maybe I should explain.

All and sundry – or perhaps mostly just the sundry – gathered from far and wide at Convivio’s swanky Tudor City digs, under the glowering eyes of Ivan Lendl-look-alike (and, it must be admitted, ultra-talented restaurant wine dude) Levi Dalton, for food, frolic, and bitterness. The latter stemming from an intense, in-depth assessment of a wine so unusual that it required an entirely new color category – orange – to go along with the previously-sufficient red, white, and pink.

What is an orange wine? I’m not particularly glad you asked, because I have no better handle on the label than anyone else. In general, the idea is that it’s a white wine produced with the extended skin contact characteristic of reds, which (especially among the darker-skinned white varieties) does indeed produce deeper, more intense colors ranging from straw through strawberry, and also renders the wine noticeably tannic. The wines are usually (but not always) left in the un-clarified, overtly cloudy state that seems to result. And that, at the core, is that. There are other philosophical branches and fields of practice within the orange wine family, some of them quite populous…non-filtration, avoidance of sulfur, aging in custom-made amphorae, and so forth. The category as a whole also maintains a good deal of contact with the ever-growing “natural wine” movement, but in truth the orange wines would more correctly be accused of being throwbacks to a much, much older type of winemaking, and “natural”-ness is no requirement for the style.

For some, in fact, orange wines are anything but natural, no matter how historical a vinification they might represent. The transformation of a white wine into such a state, the argument goes, is as profound a manipulation as any. There’s merit to the argument, with only the caveat that the manipulation in question belongs to the class of grape-native cellar techniques that do not add or remove anything from the wine that doesn’t already exist in the grape, a distinction which, for some, makes a difference. The wines bear no relation to the truly transformational field known as molecular gastronomy, but they do share one thing in common with that realm: a direct and forceful challenge to one’s expectations of identity and typicity.

But no matter one’s philosophical view, the wines are different, and – naturally – divide opinions. Some cannot abide them. Others love them with a religious fervor. For both, the price – usually elevated in comparison to “normal” whites – is a limiting factor, but one surpassed by availability; there aren’t many of these wines to begin with, total production often ranges between limited and anecdotal, and thus they’re notoriously hard to find. Many enthusiastic wine drinkers will pass their entire drinking lifespan without encountering an orange wine. But for the seeker of vinous sensation, or at least of individuality, the opportunity to assemble and experience a (to my knowledge) unsurpassed collection of such wines in one place cannot reasonably be ignored.

It is often said, and widely believed, that the geographical heart of the orange wine movement is the Friulian/Slovenian border. There’s a certain truth to that, especially as its controversial father-figure – Josko Gravner – is located there, but the world of orange wines is a wider one these days. Italy still provides a majority of the names, but there’s also Slovenia and Croatia, and even France and California are now in the game.

But enough introduction. What about the wines?

One of the vexing issues with the orange wine cohort is finding amenable food pairings. The one ingredient on which everyone seems to agree is sea urchin – not exactly everyday fare for most – but the trick seems to be focusing on the structure and weight of the wines rather than a particular set of aromas. For example, the familiar tannin/fat counterpoint works as well here as it does with similarly-structured reds. Still, there’s a bit of a guessing game involved, and even the most inspired matches don’t necessarily meld with the wines, which are inherently cranky, iconoclastic, and less than enthusiastic about playing well with others.

For example, here’s what Convivio came up with. Despite the difficulties of the food/wine marriage, all of it was of uniform excellence. Did it enhance the wines? Sometimes, yes. Frequently, no. Yet I sincerely doubt any alternative choices would have improved matters. Such are the pitfalls of dining on the vinous edge.

olives, marinated mushrooms, several types of bruschetta, arancini

sliced yellowtail crudo, olivada, caper, pistachio

Mediterranean snapper, fava bean purée, cuttlefish, radish, mint, almond salad

Sardinian saffron gnocchetti, crab, sea urchin

grigliata mista
grilled pork belly, house-made sausage, lentil salad, ricotta salata


[ribolla gialla grapes]There was also a valiant attempt to impose a certain order on the tasting, which succeeded about as well as the food/wine pairings. Again, there is no fault to be laid at the feet (or the mind) of anyone responsible; the wines are just too unpredictable, and react to each other in surprising ways, confounding even the most careful organization. More successful were thematic micro-groupings…for example, a series of wines made by the Bea family, or a comparison of older Gravner and Radikon in matched vintages…from which certain continuities of style and differences in approach could be identified. The most unfortunate outcome of the organizational effort, however, was that it kept Levi Dalton on his feet, serving and explaining, for the vast majority of a tasting that one would have hoped he could sit back and enjoy. Alas. Perhaps there will have to be a sequel.

The only other misstep, minor and soon corrected, was the temperature of some of the wines. The room was warm (and got warmer as the well-lubricated badinage escalated), so in an attempt to keep wines from overheating to unpalatability, ice buckets were employed. This was a fine idea, except that it meant many of the early wines were served chilled. This is almost always a mistake with orange wines for the same reason it’s problematic with structured reds: tannin overwhelms the wine, and complexities are muted. As the evening went on, this was corrected (another way in which our generous host was overworked), and even for the affected wines a little hand-warming of glasses soon brought the liquid into form.

The notes that follow are not presented in the order in which the wines were tasted. And – an important caveat – they’re much shorter than I’d prefer. My typical orange wine note is a lengthy paragraph, which seems justified for wines that defy convention and easy categorization, but given the format and the speed of new arrivals, there was simply not much time to spend with each wine, teasing out each hidden notion and ribald suggestion.

Cà de Noci 2007 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Stale paper with a bouquet of flowers in slow emergence. Acrid. This needs…I don’t know. But it needs something. And less of some other things. (7/09)

Cà de Noci 2006 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Lush pear and apricot. Almost buttery. Somewhat flamboyant, but its an appealing showmanship…flirtatious, yet classy. (7/09)

Cà de Noci 2005 “riserva dei fratelli” (Emilia-Romagna) – Sparkling, though it’s more of a slushy froth than a proper pétillance. Apple and acid, with light bitterness and a fresh finish. However, the nose is odd, and mostly absent. Some are moved to a tentative declaration of cork taint (oddly, all such are female), but the importer (who is present) says not. Still, he agrees that the wine seems off in some fashion. (7/09)

Casa Coste Piane 2006 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Tranquillo” (Veneto) – Dry as a desert, and rather desert-like in its lack of visible life. I liked this wine a lot more last month. (7/09)

Castello di Lispida 2002 “Amphora” Bianco (Veneto) – Rich, dark, dusted with cocoa, and luxuriant with the texture of cocoa butter. A very full and blossomy wine, and one that would easily fool many into thinking it’s a red in a true blind tasting. (7/09)

Castello di Lispida 2002 “Terralba” (Veneto) – Soft and pretty apricot flowers with a little kiss of sweet nectar. But then, the wine just sort of disappears. Where did it go? (7/09)

Clai Bijele Zemlje 2007 Malvazija “Sveti Jakov” (Istra) – Solid, by which I mean uniformly dense rather than well-executed. Plays at being interesting, but it lacks the depth to follow through on its initial promise. (7/09)

Cornelissen 2007 “MunJebel 4” Bianco (Sicily) – Pine, melting cedar candle, orange rind, and coal. There’s a medium-toned brown hum to the wine, but a sharp declension on the finish; with a little more linger, this could be a star. As it is, it’s merely fascinating, but the fascination is brief. I somewhat preferred a 3 (from 2006) tasted earlier this year. (7/09)

Damijan 2003 “Kaplja” (Collio) – Fat tangerine. Short and blowsy. It seems that some orange wines can’t avoid being victimized by this vintage, though there are exceptions. This isn’t one of them. (7/09)

Damijan 2004 “Kaplja” (Collio) – A lovely nose of ripe fruit, flowers, and confiture, but the palate is separated and disappointing. (7/09)

de Conciliis 2004 “Antece” (Campania) – Bitter almond soap with the texture of a whiteout blizzard, and a little sherried throughout. Simple and direct. (7/09)

Massa Vecchia 2005 Maremma Toscana Bianco (Tuscany) – A bit of a brett bomb, though eventually the wine starts to show things other than fetid stench, including a silky palate that glides and skates as if on the smoothest ice. A little more attention to hygiene, and this would be a beauty. (7/09)

Gravner 1997 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Heavy, but it’s a good weight. Lush with mandarin-scented Madeleine, plus cotton candy whipped with tart threads. There’s a slightly bitter, Campari-esque note which seems like it should be an “off” character, yet the wine benefits from the counterpoint. This is aging very nicely, and while it doesn’t seem to be showing signs of decline, it’s very likely that I have no idea what those signs might be for this particular wine. (7/09)

Gravner 2000 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Sweet yellow cherry with some oddities I can’t quite identify. Whatever’s going on, it’s tasty enough but a little distracting. Long. (7/09)

Gravner 2001 Ribolla Gialla “Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Slightly bitter, and this time the bitterness takes the form of vanilla, especially on the backpalate. Leafy. A sharp left turn from the pre-amphora ribollas. (7/09)

Gravner 2001 “Breg Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Bitter almond and apple, with tight layers of complexity and minerality pressed together like an Austrian pastry. There’s a swaggering confidence to this wine that few others of its type can pull off. Yet this is not to say that it’s better, necessarily, just that it’s more overtly self-assured. (7/09)

Hautes Terres de Comberousse 2001 “Cuvée Roucaillat” (Languedoc) – Fat, overly lactic, and kind of nasty. (7/09)

Kante 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Carso) – The most identifiably-varietal wine in the room, and by a wide margin, though much of that is the familiarity of sauvignon. Is this actually a skin-contact white? It shows few of the characteristics of one, with its vibrant, zingy gooseberry, sharp-edged minerality, and lavish acidity. A good wine, but it seems out of place in this crowd. (7/09)

Angiolino Maule “La Biancara” 1996 “Taibane” (Veneto) – Soft. Strawberry, peach, and blood orange. This needs a lot more structure, which is something I didn’t think I’d be able to say about an orange wine. (7/09)

La Stoppa 2004 “Ageno” (Emilia-Romagna) – Dark metallic orange with a heady rush of deep minerality. Sophisticated and striking. Absolutely delicious. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Simple grapefruit rind, with a light spicing dominated by white pepper. And is that celery? It’s like a stealth grüner veltliner has entered the room and is masquerading as a “baby” orange wine. This is initially fairly disappointing, but gains a measure of weight and texture with extended aeration. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to explore this in more detail. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2006 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Bigger and fuller-bodied than the 2007, showing a blend of red and Rainier cherries. Round, yet there’s a washed-out quality to the finish, as if the wine rather clumsily gives its all right at the start, and has nothing left for the duration of the race. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium Rusticum” (Lazio) – Extremely tannic. Metal and charred orange, maybe even a bit of ash. Acid-dominated on the finish, which is extremely long. Tight and no fun. My last bottle of this was a stunner. What happened? (7/09)

Bea 2004 “Arboreus” (Umbria) – Sweet spice. Round, pretty, and very complete. This is the wine version of Miles’ In a Silent Way, and that’s high praise from me. (7/09)

Movia 2007 Ribolla Gialla “Lunar” (Goriška Brda) – Delish. I know it probably wants to be serious, but really it’s more like a Greek island beach party…albeit from several hundred years ago. No tropical umbrellas here. Very appealing, and in an immediate way. (7/09)

[radikon bottles]Radikon 2001 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Tight, metal-jacketed plum. A bit hot, which is something I’ve not previously experienced from this wine. Somewhat indifferent. Perhaps an off bottle (or an off taster). (7/09)

Radikon 2003 “Jakot” (Venezia Giulia) – Some alcohol here, plus pear and raw, exposed metal. Fat. The heat lingers into the finish. (7/09)

Radikon 1997 Ribolla Gialla “Riserva Ivana” (Venezia Giulia) – Soft fullness and salty white soil. Seems more mild-mannered than it actually is…there’s a fair bit of complexity and depth…but the wine’s gentle in every aspect. There’s a very slight edge of heat creeping into the margins, but otherwise all is seamless. This isn’t aging so much as cohering, and in a very appealing way. (7/09)

Scholium Project 2006 “San Floriano del Collio” Rocky Hill (Sonoma Mountain) – The reddest of all the wines; this could easily pass for a dark rosé, rather than an orange wine, and at 16.9% alcohol it’s pushing what few boundaries remain. Par for the Scholium course, I guess. Grassy and greasy, yet with sharp-edged pistachios, some fatness, and (big surprise) noticeable alcohol. Anise, as well, plus maraschino cherries and rather intense minerality. In its less admirable moments, it also smells more than a bit like a fetid poire william eau de vie, but I don’t mean to be overly discouraging; I like this more than I’ve ever liked a Scholium Project wine (granted, the competition for this title has not been fierce). (7/09)

Vodopivec 2003 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Big blood orange, juiced and pumped full of oxygen (by which I don’t mean oxidation, nor microbullage, but a breath-inducing vivacity), with a core of steel and walnuts on the finish. Powerful. (7/09)

Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Clementine and aluminum. Fat. Short. And disappointing. (7/09)

Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska “solo | MM4” (Collio Goriziano) – Direct and forceful, but to what end? The power seems in service of vanishingly little. Maybe it’s just shy, but this is a rather intense void at the moment. Perhaps it’s a singularity of some sort. A black an orange hole? (7/09)

Wind Gap 2007 Pinot Gris (Russian River Valley) – Spicy pear with a slightly lactic note, but not enough to be unpleasant. Intense, big, long, and luscious. Way more interesting than anything the Scholium Project has produced. (7/09)

Zidarich 2005 Malvasia (Carso) – Full and spicy, but ends rather abruptly. Simple memories of walnut are all that linger. (7/09)

Zidarich 2005 Vitovska (Carso) – Mixed nuts. Very tannic, and edging towards desiccation. Simple, and in fact more than a little boring. (7/09)

After the orange lineup (during which I apparently skipped noting one wine, though I do remember end-of-evening confusion over an extra glass before me), there’s a bit of a reddish coda. Frankly, after the relentless surreality of this tasting, it’s like a return to “real wine”…not more natural or authentic, but at least recognizable ground. I can feel my palate sigh in relief, but what’s more striking is the way that the sensory realms of my brain sort of unclench, as if they’ve been operating in a state of high tension for the last few hours.

Cappellano 2005 Nebbiolo d’Alba (Piedmont) – Dusty red fruit, soft yet strong, with a nearly flawless texture. Absolutely classic nebbiolo, masterfully presented. (7/09)

Leroy 1983 Volnay (Burgundy) – Pretty. Very, very pretty. Showily so. And strikingly youthful; the structure’s resolved, but the fruit is still fairly primary and direct. I don’t quite know what to make of this, but admittedly my palate is completely exhausted at this point. (7/09)

My favorites of the tasting? The Arboreus, certainly, and the Ageno. The 2006 Cà de Noci, the 2002 Lispida (but not the Terralba), the Vodopivec 2003, and most of the Gravner lineup. And, it must be said, the Wind Gap, which was the most pleasant surprise of the night…especially considering my much dimmer opinion of the winemaker’s former project.

Disappointments? A few, most notably a couple of the Radikons, for which I cannot account (I’m normally a great admirer of the wines), and which I will thus chalk up to some brief weirdness in a food/wine, wine/wine, or wine/taster interaction. The other Cà de Nocis, both Zidarich bottlings…and I could go on, but won’t. Truth be told, a lot of these wines showed seams, lacks, and occasionally outright faults. However, I think there might be a reason for that performance. Read on.

[press & amphora]Tasting a bunch of wines is always fun (unless they’re terrible, which these most definitely were not) but from the above-noted level of focus and direction, one does hope that there are lessons to be learned and conclusions to be drawn. And I think there are.

The claim has occasionally been made that the orange wine regimen, like oak or botrytis, so heavily marks the wines that it trumps varietal character, terroir, and even individuality. This set of wines shows that to be mostly nonsense; there’s plenty of diversity evident, and the wines are as different as one would expect them to be in any other context. Grapes do show, though perhaps not with the consistency exhibited in more typical wines. As for terroir, there is at least (in many cases) sub-regional continuity between these and more prosaic wines from their neighborhoods, though to say more than that would be to claim an illegitimate expertise. So why the caveat “mostly?” Because of the tannin, which in some (not all) of the wines enforces an identifiable structural similarity…a sort of pedal tone around which the other elements must work. When it plays a harmonious role, it’s the foundation on which the wine’s art and architecture are built. When it doesn’t, it’s the squawky drone of a wheezing, decrepit bagpipe.

Another much-asked question is whether or not orange wines age. There’s really not enough evidence here to say for sure. Certainly the few older wines present seem to have aged just fine, softening in the way one would expect tannic wines to soften. As the tannin melts, creamier textures emerge. That said, many of these wines very much rely on that tannin for counterpoint. Once it's gone, the result is a lushness almost entirely opposite the face these wines present in their youth. As with any aging process, opinions will differ on the stage at which the wines are most intriguing. The only tentative conclusion I feel safe drawing is that the curious can probably age the better of these wines without fear of precipitous decline. On the other hand, one may reasonably fear biological instability in those wines that avoid filtration, sulfur, and other methods of stabilization; while their structure is itself preservationist in nature, not all of the wines are entirely clean, or have avoided oxidation. I would not age the more natural wines absent a properly-controlled cellar.

Some of the wines I’ve always felt I loved were, in this context, less impressive than expected. Others performed above their pay grade. Perhaps surprising, perhaps not, but this is why one holds tastings…to learn just this sort of thing. I must also presume that, as in any quick-take tasting of a fair number of wines, concentration and intensity are more favorably received than they might be in isolation, The corollary conclusion that delicacy is inevitably devalued or even lost must also be considered. As ever, such tastings do not replicate the experience of a slow encounter with a single bottle.

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion, for me, is that I didn’t enjoy tasting these wines in this particular fashion nearly as much as I had hoped. The dinner, the tasting, the camaraderie…all were enormous fun, and definitely worth the participatory effort (though I will admit to a savage headache the next morning). But while I adore a lot of these wines in isolation, in concert my affection for them dimmed, and I was surprised how indifferent I was to the qualities of all but a few bottles. It could be that the accumulated negativity is a result of the rather overpowering and aggressive nature of the wines, which were more of a chore to slog through than I’d expected. Also, there was an extremely draining mental aspect; teasing out the complexities and the wildly individualistic essences of orange wines is a difficult enough task to begin with, but doing it as bottles fly past, food arrives, and tablemates chatter away is a perhaps insurmountable challenge to even the most intense attempt at concentration. I was tired at the end of this tasting, but mentally far more than physically, and even writing about the experience several days after the fact brings forth a clear physical sensation of sensory fatigue.

It would be intriguing to explore this matter further. But as I write this, my overriding emotion is that I’d like – or perhaps I need – a short break from orange wines. My curiosity has been somewhat over-satisfied, and my palate is suffering burn-in. In the end, it turns out that the scolds and the finger-waggers were right: it’s possible to show too much skin.

24 July 2009

Alsace rolls the Deiss

[sommerberg rainbow]Alsace: France, but efficient. The Germanic influences run deep – the cuisine, the shape of their traditional bottles, the names of both people and places – and, usually, they’re helpful in directing the often unfocused, occasionally counter-productive French impulse of dissent and divergence.

Sometimes, however, they’re not. The problem seems to be especially severe when it comes to crafting the region’s (comparatively) new wine law. For example, the rush to designate grand crus fundamentally and permanently hobbled the effort, with borders politicked into meaningless expansion and unsupportable round-numbered-ness. And now, this. An (alleged) attempt to change the very nature of Alsatian wine, from one centered on the variety to one centered on the site but to the exclusion of the variety.

Not having been privy to the INAO’s internal deliberations, I can’t say whether producers’ fears on this count are justified. I can say that the idea is ludicrous, and if enacted would send the region’s wines back into the Stone Age, in terms of brand identity and, more importantly, sales.

What’s wrong with a little site designation? Nothing, of course, and certainly current Alsatian wine law both allows and encourages it. But the spiritual model for such site designation, at least in France, is Burgundy, and it’s a region with an important difference from Alsace: the grapes are singular and can be assumed just by the color of the wine. In Alsace, there’s no indication what a Schoenenbourg sans variety might be, and little historical precedent to suggest a preferred answer.

The driver of this bus full of hooey is the inimitable Jean-Michel Deiss, who – it must be disclaimed – makes wines I don’t particularly like. He has gradually moved his domaine from one making the usual range of varietally-designated wines to one specializing in site-designated blends, and in the process I think he’s lost both the wines’ essential balance and – somewhat ironically – the terroir signatures he craves. But my feelings about his wines are irrelevant; if he thinks he’s expressing terroir with his blends, he’s certainly welcome to continue. And in fact, Alsace wine law was modified to allow him and others to do this very thing. (Deiss argues that this is a return to tradition, rather than a new step. As with most such claims of historical precedent, it’s necessary to cherry-pick the “traditional” era’s span of years, because there are precedents for both his argument and the counter-argument.)

The problem seems to be that, having succeeded in taking his place within the expanded wine law, he now wants to move that law definitively into his corner. I can only suppose that he feels this would be a marketing advantage for him, because I cannot see any other reason for wanting or advocating for such a change, except perhaps overweening arrogance about the exclusive correctness of one’s position (which, it’s worth remembering, would not be an entirely unusual pose for Deiss).

But rather than further personalizing the debate, lets examine it on the merits. Would Alsace benefit from abandoning its dependence on varietal labeling, a practice nearly unknown elsewhere in France (except among low-cost table wines)?

[stork & stew]First, the organoleptics: as anyone who’s tasted Alsatian blends knows, one of the significant difficulties is the dominant character of several of the potential blending grapes. Gewurztraminer, unless picked very early, tends to bury everything else with its lurid perfume, weight, and tendency towards sweetness and/or alcohol. Muscat is lighter, but the aromatics are inescapable and obscure much else in the wine. Pinot gris brings spicy fat that texturally dominates. And while riesling provides laser-like acidity, its nearly unparalleled ability to express minerality cannot stand in the face of fatter partners.

One might think that careful blending could lead to wines with an interesting tension and balance, but the evidence is rather the opposite…only a very few sites (like the Kaefferkopf) seem to provide the terroir necessary to bring the various grapes into harmonious balance. Elsewhere, the result is much as one might expect: gewürztraminer with a disjointed spike of riesling crispness, muscat fattened by pinot gris to the diminishment of both grapes, convoluted messes of all four (or more) grapes that taste like lousy gewürztraminer, and so forth. Despite Deiss’ mission, and with one exception (pinot blanc and auxerrois), the grapes of Alsace tend not to play well with each other, as they do Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Bordeaux. The exceptions are delicious, but they’re most decidedly exceptions. And a wholesale expansion of the practice of multi-variety blending seems unlikely to prove counter to the prevailing trends.

Second, there’s the marketing challenge, which would be considerable. As Pierre Trimbach once opined in response to the semi-recent push for a raft of premier cru vineyard designations (and I’m paraphrasing, though just a bit), “that’s just what Alsace needs…another fifty unpronounceable Germanic names that no one knows anything about.” His words could almost apply to the site designations now in existence. The myriad lieux-dits which few have even heard of aside, even the majority of the established grand crus aren’t exactly household names. The known sites – Sommerberg, Brand, Rangen, and so forth – have qualitative reputations well-based in history, but they’re famous now because of the skill and fame of the producers that utilize their grapes, not because of the sites themselves. (Want evidence for this? Consider the Rosacker. It’s the source of Alsace’s most celebrated wine, yet few outside the region know its name, because that wine – Trimbach’s Clos Ste-Hune – doesn’t mention the grand cru anywhere on the label.)

I’m glad that the INAO relented from its overly-rigid stance and allowed Deiss and others the option to make site-designated blends if they wish. Options are good, albeit sometimes contrary to the French regulatory mindset. But to institutionalize site over variety in a region where the latter is traditional, and where the majority of such blends will end up tasting like bad gewürztraminer and carry confusing multi-syllabic names?

Dumb. Really, really dumb. This roll of the Deiss will come up snake-eyes.

16 July 2009

Natural science

[netted grapes]Clark Smith is an articulate guy. And there’s an odd schizophrenia to his eloquence; at times, he’s passionately defending the full suite of modern technological interventions that have made his name and his fortune, while at other times he’s lauding the primacy of the vineyard.

In this, he’s more right than many of the partisans on either side…both the ones who’ve never met an intervention they couldn’t excuse, and the ones whose winemaking ideal is impossibly utopian. And I say this as someone who is, with fair frequency, an enthusiastic endorser of the natural/traditional side of things.

In a recent issue of Wines & Vines, Smith gave voice to an inevitable outcome of this ongoing tension:

In the '70s, there used to be a clear, open channel of communication with the press and with wine buffs in general, but winemakers got insular. There are now fully 50 times as many wines on the market as there were 30 years ago, and the resulting heated competition has shut down the sharing of knowledge. Instead, today you scrape for every advantage. Winemakers thus tap eagerly into technological innovations from, say, the biomedical field or NASA. These have come so fast that it is difficult for even seasoned pros to keep track, let alone school the public and the romantic press corps. Amidst all this change, there is a growing realization that the modern principles we learned in school aren't adequate to the task of making great wine, and this has added confusion to deciding just what the post-modern path should be. So winemakers are really confused, just when a revolution in social media is demanding clear, honest answers.

This sort of transparency is something I’ve called for in the past. That it meets with resistance from concocters of industrial beverages is no surprise, but I’ve received significant pushback from those who’ve little to hide, and also – even more surprisingly – those who hide nothing. The usual protest is that transparency will, as one winemaker put it, “open [us] up for criticism.”

The thing is, that’s already happened. Arguments about techniques, sometimes more than the wines that employ (or deliberately don’t employ) them, rage across the world of wine discussion…in print, online, and in person. So the time to worry about the possibility of criticism has passed. It’s here. And now it must be dealt with.

Open secrets

What wine-related matters would benefit from the bright light of revelation? Ingredients, certainly…something Bonny Doon has already addressed. One of the great misapprehensions about wine is that it’s all just grapes and maybe some yeast, while others of a more suspicious bent hear “ingredients” and start thinking about artificial flavorings and all manner of nasty chemical additives. Wines of each type do exist, certainly, but there’s a vast middle ground of things added to wine that are, by almost any definition, quite traditional and well-established, like acid, or sugar. The availability of this information would remove the stigma of mysteriousness for people who, having just learned that most winemaking is not peasants foot-stomping tubs of grapes, are driven to question as blindly as they’ve accepted in the past.

But also, techniques. The modern winemaker has a lot of tools in their arsenal. Some are quite old and well-established, some are modern ways to accomplish the same result, and others are on the cutting edge of scientific winemaking. Some are deformative in expected ways, others are deformative on the sly. Some fix problems, others create new problems (which can sometimes, in turn, be fixed by other methods). Some are the outgrowth of a philosophy, including the philosophy of using as few as possible (or, for some idealists, none), some are employed as last-ditch damage control, and others are applied as a regular part of a rigid process.

Every technique has its supporters and detractors, but none is inherently good or bad, except as viewed through the lens of a winemaking philosophy. The problem is that, in the absence of transparency, the consumer is often left to develop their own philosophy based on insufficient, and sometimes even completely wrong, information. For example, the majority of Smith’s former clients hide the fact that they used his services. Why? Because there are some that consider those techniques to be of a special category of deformation, and those companies don’t want to deal with the possibility of negative publicity. The thing is, the actual number of people fundamentally offended by some of the technologies is fairly small, but by cloaking everything under a cloud of obfuscation, the result has been a wider net of suspicion falling on the entire wine industry…a suspicion now held by a greater number of people than would have actually cared, were the details supplied to them from a non-partisan source. The only escapees are those whose philosophy is rigidly spelled out, those already assumed to be using any and all techniques available to them (the industrialists), and the very few who have the courage to hide nothing.

Bent finger-pointing

So the transparency that Smith calls for is laudable and, at this point, necessary to restore rationality to the discussion of winemaking science and philosophy. However, that Smith has issued the call for such transparency is a little problematic. First because much of his business has been built on a lack thereof, and second because he cannot help but grind personal axes in the process. For example, elsewhere in his statement, he goes awry when he personalizes the debate:

More than ever, consumers have become inspired to love wine as the "one pure thing" unaltered by 20th century fiddling. The lack of straight talk from winemakers has spawned a whole generation of Internet piranhas who make a living devouring ill-prepared winemakers, the poor saps. These predators have learned they can trade on the public's growing fears of technology in winemaking's sacred ground. While wine lovers may not agree at all with these sensationalists, they can't help being drawn to their rhetoric. The public needs to create an entrée for honesty before most winemakers will come clean. That's beginning to happen with real journalists like Jamie Goode and Eric Asimov writing without an ax to grind. So heroes like Randy Dunn and Michael Havens are now willing to speak openly.

Oh dear. Those poor, poor winemakers, who sound awfully set-upon by the bloodthirsty “internet piranhas.” It sounds unendurable, but it’s mostly untrue.

It’s not that Smith’s carnivorous fish don’t exist, though someone who wasn’t deeply immersed in the battle himself might more fairly and reasonably call them advocates for a philosophical position, rather than some insulting name. And it’s not even that they’re incapable of the occasional bout of rhetorical savagery – who isn’t? – or that they are always fair – who is? – or even that they all make sense. It’s absolutely true that some advocacy is unfair, badly communicated, and outright incorrect. But Smith rides this fence too hard; either it’s his ox being gored, or it isn’t. He can’t simultaneously claim special aggravation as the target of attacks and the pretense of objective distance. And in any case, those he believes to be his tormenters…aren’t.

In examining why Smith is pointing an accusing finger at the wrong target, it’s necessary to ask where the “natural wine” advocates come from. Did the cohort of philosophically rigid interlocutors that annoy Smith so much spring fully-formed from the ether? No. They arose as a response to an existing dichotomy in the world of wine, one in which the majority of winemaking either embraces or is unconcerned by matters of technological meddling, and in which exists a small but very vocal opposition from winemakers who espouse positions of (occasionally extreme, occasionally not) traditionalism and naturalness. It is their work – their wines, which exist as evidence for their counter-argument to the modern norm – that gives rise to a segment of the professional and enthusiast commentariat that are the media-saturating advocates for the wines, and as a result the philosophy. This is no different than an encounter with great Barolo giving rise to enthusiasm and advocacy for Piedmontese nebbiolo, it’s just newer, and thus seems more jarring…especially by those who were unaware of the existence of, or have reason to be antagonistic to the promotion of, an alternative to the norm.

Thus, the “problem” for defensive winemakers isn’t the commentary on natural wines, it’s the natural wines themselves, and also their most passionate advocates: their winemakers. Did they not exist, and in ever-growing number, there would be little or no media advocacy to worry about.

[cowc exterior]The best defense is a good offense

So what’s the path forward? Still transparency, after which an honest debate can take place, Yet all too often the actual debate takes the form of a defensive crouch, expressed as a “yeah, but what about…” argument and often employed by winemakers, who respond to questioning of their methods with veiled accusations about others’ methods. There’s a good point buried within this argument, one which examines the value judgments in considering (say) reverse osmosis to be fundamentally deformative, but chaptalization to be more or less OK. But the defense fails in two rather basic ways. First, it is unresponsive, and merely returns accusation with counter-accusation. Second, and worse, it assumes either ignorance or hypocritical motivation on the part of the questioner. Yet not all who question are hypocritical; some distrust chaptalization and reverse osmosis in equal measure, and others are innocent in their ignorance of the philosophical difference. As detailed earlier, it is the very lack of transparency – a situation exacerbated by this tennis match of volleyed accusations – that creates misunderstandings by which reverse osmosis and chaptalization are judged by different philosophical standards that have little foundation in reality.

What would be preferable is an argument that allows for, or defends, ingredients and techniques the same way the natural wine cohort does: with the wines themselves as the star witnesses. “Here is wine A, made with technique 1 but eschewing 2, 3, and 4. Here is wine B, made with all four techniques plus ingredient X. Here is wine C, made with those four techniques but without ingredient X. Which do you prefer?”

There will be those who will like and dislike wines in ways that go beyond organoleptics – usually for reasons philosophical – and that’s a justifiable response. There will also be those who would not dream of choosing on any basis other than taste, and that’s no less justifiable. And there will be a third group that will learn something about the intersection of nature and man, and how the choices enforced and made by each are reflected in wine. Armed with that knowledge, and a transparency about how other wines compare, they will be able to make more informed choices about new wines they might like or dislike, and why. And winemakers will no longer have to atone for the unproven sins of their brethren, but will represent their products for what they actually are. In this scenario, everybody wins.

So why is there such resistance to this notion? As before, the motivations of the true industrialists are clear: they fear rejection if their actual practices are made public. (A fear that is certainly overblown given that most consumers don’t really care how wine is made, but are only concerned with a personal quality/price ratio.) But the greater problem is that this is a battle for micro-shares of potential consumers in a highly saturated market, and as with any such battle a lot of it is fought by waging a propaganda war. What’s important in such a campaign is not that the consumer knows, but rather that he believes…in a carefully constructed myth of “hand-selected” grapes that have never been touched by a hand, in the benefits of new oak barrels to a wine that has never seen wood that didn’t come in chip or liquid form, in the primacy of a named plot of land without regard to the quality of the actual products of that land, in the traditions of pastoral farming at a winery that owns no grapes, in the need to preserve land from the meddling of foreign corporate interests so it can be gobbled up by domestic corporate interests, in a hodge-podge of scientifically-unsustainable mysticism and nonsense that presents itself as more-holistic-than-thou, and in the ability of one person to carefully nurture an “artisanal” wine produced in industrial quantities while doing a simultaneous nurturing job for several hundred other clients around the world.

Testing one’s meddle

Whenever winemakers or wine drinkers start talking about “intervention” – a catch-all term for winemaking practices, but usually employed to mean only that subset of practices the speaker doesn’t like – the counter-argument comes, again, in the form of a game of counter-accusation and reductio ad absurdum. “Isn’t all winemaking intervention?” Well, yes, of course it is; wine can come into existence through absolute non-intervention (grapes and ambient yeast, a wound on one of the grapes sufficient to connect sugar to yeast and start fermentation, causing other grapes to split and add themselves to the fermentation, etc.), but it can’t end up in a container that way, and it isn’t anything one would want to drink if it could.

But no one who brings up intervention is arguing for that, and I doubt anyone ever has, so said response is more than a bit of a straw man. Advocates of the philosophy sometimes (perhaps unfortunately) called non-intervention don’t actually mean non-intervention, they mean less intervention, and even the hardliners only mean least-intervention. Not a recipe as rigid as any industrialist’s, but a mindset by which the preferred choice at a given stage in grape-growing or winemaking is not to “do something,” but to do as little as possible (with nothing as the philosophical ideal) in response to that choice. To claim a lack of difference between these practices and the free exercise of oenological wizardry is sophistry, and rather weak sophistry at that.

But that’s just the philosophical side. Many of those who argue for less intervention do it for reasons that have little or nothing to do with philosophy, and more to do with organoleptics: in general, they prefer the way wines made with less intervention taste. For such people, the usual straw man arguments achieve even less traction, because they’re interested not in intervention as a general category to be embraced or avoided, but in knowing which wines are more likely to satisfy their palates than others.

Drink the debate

So, having – like so many other industries – lost full control of the podium to the uncontrollable scrum of the internet, the battle has joined over who gets to hold the microphone that’s now roving through the audience. The sort of nonsense iterated above is no longer met with blind acceptance from all quarters, and so – to the blindsided – this must now be the fault of the bloggers. Words and numbers on a bottle are increasingly called to back up their claims with results, not merely with ad campaigns, and so this is now to be blamed on wine fora. Wines that “must” be made a certain way are now challenged by wines of comparable or superior quality that are not made that way, and so this must be the fault of some wine writing harridan.

If the battle is to be fought this way, the lesson of countless others like it is that those who refuse to participate with honesty and as much openness as they can muster will lose. Not because their potential arguments lack merit, but because the internet always “wins” this sort of tussle…and also because they will have failed to actually engage the arguments themselves, ceding ever-larger portions of the field to those who argue from the foundation of a philosophy rather than the needs of marketing.

Here, for example, is a long series of passionate arguments for (and occasionally against) natural wine. There’s some incredible writing there, and some less so, but what jumps out at me is a strong reliance on wines as foundations for the debate…or, in some cases, the entirety of a given argument. And these wines-as-arguments succeed because they’re open books in terms of conception and process. Someone can taste one, know everything about its guiding philosophy, and judge the merits of both. That’s the direction we need to go, but we need everyone participating in the discussion.

Someone much more interested in snarky but unproductive brevity than me probably could have boiled this entire post down to “Clark Smith should stop whining.” But no, that’s not really the point. The thing is, he isn’t going to win this fight via verbal artillery. What he should do is let his wines, and others, speak for themselves. Because articulate or not, wine makes a more compelling and complete argument for a philosophy than Smith ever could.