Monday, October 17, 2005

"Authentic" wines

"Well, it's the real article ... genuine double-rectified busthead, aged in the keg."
John Wayne as "Rooster" Cogburn in
True Grit

Authentic. Real. Genuine. True. Established. Unadulterated. Bona fide.

The claims recently for authenticity in wine are interesting ones, one part demand from consumers for assurances on how their wines are made, and one part holdover from the esoteric religious movements from the mid 1800's to early 1900's.

That seems like an odd combination, doesn't it? While doing my source reading for this post I came across some rather interesting items, some of which I had suspected, others that were quite new to me.

Yes, during the end of the Enlightenment and all the way to today, there are calls for a "return to nature" - a rejection of technology in favor of primitivism and intuition. It hasn't really cropped up in the wine world until the last 25 years or so - that is, until the first true large scale multinational wine companies started to emerge. It was at that time that people started to wonder about the "industrialization" of wine. Here is a product which has always been touted as magical and unique (wine as "art", and terroir concepts), what arrogance that humans could debase such an expression of Nature by twisting it to their whims? Winemakers are solely to use "intuition" in their pursuit of fine wine, aren't they?. I don't think the image of a collision of Man, Nature and Wine is realistic. As a friend of mine once stated flatly-
"Nature doesn't make wine. Nature makes vinegar. Only by interfering with the natural process do we stop it at the stage of 'wine'. In fact, wine wouldn't even exist without mankind."

So if Man needs to be present for wine to exist, is there any wine which is truly "natural" wine? Some interference of one sort or another must take place, so is the call for "natural wine" reduced to a call for nothing added to it at all? But the friction is more complex than just that...

This perceived conflict was fueled over the 80's & 90's by the anti-establishment counter-culture, which viewed the consolidations largely as just more examples of large corporations destroying competition in pusuit of nothing more than increased profits. In that world view, human industry is reduced to an extension of the ego, and is never altruistic. Larger companies which make items that were universally viewed as small artisan products were labeled as profiteers, and derided about quality - even IF their products were similar or better than the small producers. This continues to this day in films like Mondovino, and in views of winemakers like Nicolas Joly, among others. It's an easy image for small winemakers to invoke, afterall who hasn't heard the parable of David and Goliath, regardless of their religious views?

The birth of ecology was in the late 1800's, and was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. People rightly started to wonder if mankind's incessant changes to the world were going to produce long term negative effects. Monopolies and Barons of Industry ruled the increasing rate of changes to the world. And Mankind should be concerned with the effect of its actions, and the environment should not be unnecessarily degraded for short term goals. But that doesn't mean we need to return to an idealized era before industry - an era which never really existed, in essence a Utopian agricultural society, if you will. There is no competition, money, or large scale agriculture. Services are bartered (which doesn't help you if you're a brewer and the plumber whose help you need doesn't like beer...etc.) and are somehow always traded fairly.
This place doesn't exist, in fact it's never existed.
This is just romantic idealism about the past.

Somehow these same ideals are supposed to be applied to the wine trade, with tradition - not quality - the mistress of all endeavor. Make what you will, they claim, and stand by it as "authentic"...somehow there is no need for profit, and if the public doesn't like your wine...well, they get a bit fuzzy there, don't they? The bank won't foreclose - but if they do your supporters won't think highly of them anymore (fat lot of good that'll do you while you sit on the corner begging for handouts). Your product will be acclaimed - not for its quality, but for it's uniqueness (as Joly stated, "A biodynamic wine is not always good, but it is always authentic." Joly's italics, btw).

Authenticity is only an issue when someone is trying to sell you something which it isn't.
Perhaps a $6 central valley red which was thrown into a Petrus bottle...or something simmilarly fraudulent.

Drink what you like, regardless of how it's made. That's the only true yardstick for you to use.
Evaluate with your palate, not some idealistic romance-novel views of what the world should be...

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Blogger Tom said...


Interesting thoughts here.

I think you nail it when you suggest one of the reasons we are seeing more "support" for natural wines is the meta-cultural reaction to globalization.

Today in all product fields it seems "smaller is better".

Yet, from a technical and sensory perspective, I do think it is hard to argue with the idea that you are likely to get "better" wine when the wine is produced with a "minimalist" perspective. That is, less fining, less filtering, smaller batches that allow hands-on work.

Granted, wine is not wine without human intervention and this,interestingly enough, is the same factor that masks terroir.
Good post.

October 17, 2005 4:32 PM  
Blogger Huge said...

I think there are some good examples of larger producers making good quality products, and that they then suffer from the reputations of other "mass plonk" producers.

Dedication to quality is still independent of the winery's size, though with some of the more competitive market segments (say $6 & under/bottle) it seems to be all about getting the wine out as inexpensively as possible. Even so, there are still some good examples of "hands on" wineries which are big producers.

Your comment that one is "likely to get a better wine" is true for many situations with minimized handling. Though I could argue that some of the "cheapest plonk" is handled the least - to save money - and that doesn't increase the quality of the wine in the end. But then that's due more to GIGO (eg, cheap-ass lousy fruit sourcing) than to better handling philosophies.

Smaller bathces? Absolutely!
When will the Mega Central Valley Wineries get that picture, eh?
You can't make good quality wine when you just throw everything into one batch and ferment it. All you get out the other end is 'average' wine because you don't blend selectively with that system.
Certainly anyone who's making wine by fermenting 250,000+ gallons at the same time in one fermentation tank (not all that unheard of in the Central Valley) would have a hard time convincing me that they were looking seriously after the quality. (BTW, that's ~100,000 cases in each tank! And it's not the only tank they've got going at any given time, either...!)

But in my opinion it does leave the door open for large producers who make wine in small batches and then blend them later by quality level. Though these are harder to come by these days...

Terroir, there it is again...
If man has to interfere to make wine, wouldn't that make man part of the definition of terroir (e.g., viniculture is part & parcel of what we call 'the terroir')? Climate would still be the leading factor, soil & viticulture tied hand & hand, then viniculture...?
Wild thoughts...might just be the time of the morning & the coffee talking.

Thanks, Tom. Lots for me to think about tonight while I'm out in the vineyards.


October 19, 2005 1:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, entirely accurate yet profoundly flawed.

The issue here is how, as a culture, we preserve diversity. Thus the criticism against the international style does not pivot on the issue of "naturaleness" but on homogenization.

When, in the wine world, market forces meet technology we get a series of "Yellow Tails" aimed at different price points.They are all correct, some even delicious, yet ultimately they represent a small subset of what is possible in the world of wine. And they represent a taste point that is sadly specific to the vagaries of contingent taste aesthetics.

Of course all serious wines try to maximize the expression of the categories that form the parameters by which we judge wine quality: flavor intensity, complexity, balance, etc. However welding of these parameters into a final wine does not have a unique solution. There are many possible great wines.

What distinguishes terroir driven wines is that they do not follow the compass of market taste in trying to reach this point.
Since each piece of land dictates a sort of delimited set of solutions to the problem of making great wine, what we end up getting is wine diversity.

When we make wines by using technology to create wines targeting marketable taste points, we chase a globalized and fairly homogeneous taste fashion point and we reduce the universe of possible wines.

The first paved street was a thing of wonder. The endless ribbons of potholes that now make urban america, leave much to be desired. The difference if that we will probably always have countryside. The fear is that one day, we may no longer have the diversity of artisanal wines, and that would be a loss.

October 19, 2005 6:52 PM  
Blogger Huge said...

One component of the argument against an “international style” is indeed based on the fear of the large-scale homogenization of wine. But it’s not the sole premise in that argument. Nossiters' Mondovino utilizes the Tech vs. Nature argument to such a degree against micro-oxygenation it cannot be ignored either.

Technology is viewed by some as the tool used to bring that fear into reality.
“Authentic”, “natural” & “purity” are some of the buzzwords used to combat that end, being used in ways which insinuate that something unsavory takes place when any sort of ‘technology’ – oft invoked in a fuzzy, broad and all encompassing sense of the word – is applied to winemaking. Somehow in their argument the two are mutually exclusive…and it discounts the fact that mankind has continually changed how wines are made and introduced technology into the process. Somehow clay amphora, treading room floors, and basket presses of the Greeks and Romans, or wooden barrels of the Celts don’t qualify as technology, but that is just what they are, and those inventions have been copied & promulgated to this day. The Tech vs. Nature argument does exist, and is dredged up to support the homogenization argument. Witness also the organic wine and biodynamic wine rails against technology, biotechnology, and GMO’s, as a Tech vs. Nature conflict - although I digress, and that will wait for another post…

Yes, you have a point when you say that when market forces and technology meet a “series of Yellow Tails” may be produced at different price points. And if there’s a market for those wines, then great. But it’s not the only outcome of that meeting. And neither is global homogenization the only outcome, nor even all that likely in my view.

Damn it! Why do wines always have to be serious?

I’m not sure what to say about “terroir driven” wines. If they don’t follow a market compass, that’s all well and good for them. Sounds to me though, is that what they’re engaged in is a really expensive crapshoot. If they want to cry “foul!” later because the rest of the world passes them by and tastes evolve, that’s too bad. I’d invite them to pursue that business plan as far as their nerve and finances allow – diversity is after all the essence of competition.

As far as a single ‘global’ style? I don’t think it exists, or even can exist. Perhaps there are several ‘regional’ wine styles that would evolve if the hypothetical homogenization in styles was carried to its logical end, but still I don’t think it’s likely to ever come to pass. I just feel tastes vary too much between the different cultures in the world for just one style to ever truly dominate. Californian tastes are too different from say Japanese, and/or Chinese, or Thai, or Turkish, or Malawi, or Finnish, or even North Carolinian tastes (etc.) for one wine style to ever take over the world. Rhetorically, one might wonder why anybody hadn’t ever raised this issue when the French dictated the ‘style’ of wine. Was it perhaps because they ruled it from the city-states of individual chateaux, perpetuating the idea of terroir and diversity? Is it now a response to the advent of single large corporations? Do drum machines really have no soul – even though the persons who created and programmed them did?...uhmm, sorry…I got a little carried away there…

And since you’ve brought it up, if any given piece of land has finite possibilities regarding the wine outcome, and diversity is of paramount importance, should anyone ever blend wines? Should it be recognized as a sin? Shall all of Bordeaux and Burgundy – nay, include all negociants as well– be forever vilified? I’m not trying to throw stones at you, but am interested in your viewpoint here. Blending is the cornerstone of the “homogenization” fear, and obviously reduces variation and diversity. But it can also be used to create beautiful & extraordinary wines! Yes, even on a large scale. True, homogenization is a bad thing if you envision just two wines in existence in the end – one Red, the other White (sorry Tom! No rosé, you’re going to have to conform, or mix quietly on your own – but like Fahrenheit 451, be careful the culture police don’t find out! Damn, I just had an idea for a new play…shoulda kept it secret! Got! Kaput ich mein Weinenheit 451…).

And how do we - “as a culture” – preserve diversity?
Ok, I’ll play Devil’s advocate on this one, too: what value do we put on diversity, and how much of it do we want to preserve? With the advent of each technology don’t we introduce the potential for more diversity, as not everyone’s going to be using exactly the same tools are they? And there’s really no modern production left of classical Phoenician, Egyptian, Roman or Greek winemaking styles, and the world is arguably better off for it. Was this wrong for us to allow this to happen? Over time, mankind has evolved, and wine, his constant companion throughout civilization, has evolved with him. My feeling is that diversity will always exist as long as mankind has a competitive spirit. Smaller producers may become harder to find on the store shelves, but that will largely be due to distribution and production limitations. They won’t disappear altogether or be driven into a global conglomerated wine style.

The overall positive contribution of paved streets to civilization is without question – potholes not withstanding. Small “artisan” wines, like the countryside, will probably always exist. The fear that “we may no longer have …diversity” is really unfounded.
In the end, neither the Bavarian Illuminati, nor Rosicrucians, nor Templars are trying to control how wine is produced. The global conspiracy of wine homogenization that some would postulate just isn’t there.

Yes there remains the competitive homogenization of wine styles, but those same companies that engage in that also want their wines to be better (more popoular) than their opponents’ products. The differences are perhaps not as great as they would be otherwise, but they will still exist.


October 20, 2005 5:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huge - I'm not sure I understand your reply to "anonymous", but I can say that I think Anon's logic is as flawed as Anon claims your to be. Anon starts with the premise that terroir-driven wines are superior, and states such as a given fact. I don't believe this to be automatically true as I've had some pretty putrid terroir-driven wines myself....


October 20, 2005 9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that many people hold up "old world" wines as those that promote diversity, yet many of the modern machines used to "manipulate" wine are designed and manufactured in Italy and France!!!


October 20, 2005 12:44 PM  
Blogger Merely Human said...

All very interesting. Unfortunately there's only one sentence in this entire thread worth reading:

"Drink what you like, regardless of how it's made. That's the only true yardstick for you to use. "

That and MAYBE the one after it:

"Evaluate with your palate, not some idealistic romance-novel views of what the world should be..."

I say that because there really is no argument going on here. Just tightly overlapping perspectives on the same realities. Realities which all lead back to the main point expressed at the end of Hugh's dissertation.

October 23, 2005 5:12 PM  
Blogger Huge said...


Anyway, its "Huge" not "Hugh". I'm just a hack, he's an actual wine writer of some note.

October 24, 2005 11:02 AM  
Blogger Merely Human said...

I'm sorry, I didn't make that clear. I didn't mean to demean your effort. The article was a very well written, informative read. I meant that comment in reference to all the responses on this blog.

Thanks for pointing out the spelling error. Peripherally, "Huge" registered as "Hugh" in my brain =) I will ammend instances of your blog name in the cave.

October 24, 2005 11:19 PM  

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