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Postmodern Winemaking

 

Natural Wine Nonsense

May 2011
 
by Clark Smith
 
 
The consumer has never had it so good. We have 20 times the choices we had two decades ago, and incidence of poor wines has nearly vanished. If what you are after is drinkable quaff, you will find it more consistently and cheaply than ever before.

But there is growing discontent with fruit-forward styles that die young and global monster wines that are hard to tell apart. The Internet now resounds with voices demanding “somewhere-ness.” Many critics, newly aware of the recent technological revolution in winemaking, have sought to demonize new winemaking techniques as sources of shallowness and sameness.

The rapidly expanding availability of new winemaking tools coupled with a decreased willingness to share knowledge has led to a substantial information gap between winemakers and their customers. A sudden sense of betrayal has emerged, leaving wine lovers with a desire to get back to basics.

Certification programs that have laid down strict rules for organic and Biodynamic wine have left many consumers unsatisfied, either by sins of commission or omission. This malaise has coalesced into a group advocating for natural wine. But what is it?

My attempts during the past three years to encourage natural wine proponents such as wine writer Alice Feiring to state what they are after have led me to a clear conclusion: These leaders, at least, want to rouse discontent and sell books.

Why then, after a decade of harangue, has this movement failed to develop standards? My belief is that it isn’t a movement at all. Natural wine proponents are instead an uneasy coalition of strange bedfellows whose agendas can’t all be satisfied by a single set of winemaking rules.

The Players
Blogger Joe Dressner writes, “The problem is that there was never an official faith and never a doctrine. The blogosphere and media created a construct, milked it for publicity and then deconstructed an ‘ideology’ that they had helped to define and promote.”2 Joe advocated well for the natural wine movement within the context that the movement was, by his own admission, mostly a movement against things, not an advocacy for anything in particular. It’s a good article, a remarkable defense in which he claims it doesn’t matter. (He seems lately to have changed his mind.)

Below are the eight constituencies of the would-be Natural Wine Movement, each with a few words describing its motivations. See which you identify with personally.

Non-interventionist: Wine should not be casually fooled around with. Traditional winemaking is fine, but techniques that cheat or hide flaws are to be avoided if possible. The best wine makes itself.

Environmentalist:
Winemaking should not damage the environment. Concerns include erosion, petrochemicals, deforestation caused by barrel production, carbon footprint and recycling.

Conventionalist:
I don’t want to drink anything I can’t pronounce. Give me standard winemaking without all the weird stuff.

Traditionalist:
Prefers time-tested methods, the older the better. Suspicious of all recent technological innovations including use of electricity, chemistry, microbiology, genetic manipulation and petrochemical agriculture. Older manipulations like isinglass fining or chaptalization are invisible because they have withstood the test of time.

Health-conscious:
Wants to control food sources and protect the health of winery personnel as well. In addition to restricting the use of chemicals in vineyards and in wine, prefers moderate alcohol wines and needs full disclosure of potential allergens.

Collector: Serious investment in age-worthy wine requires dependable microbial stability. Passion is great wine that improves with time. Don’t take chances on my nickel. Nervous about experimental techniques and changes in processing, especially among established houses.

Authenticity purist:
Wine should be made from grapes alone, with as little addition and manipulation as possible in order to present a distinctive expression. More extreme than the non-interventionist: If nature gave us a difficult vintage, let’s taste it!

Terroirist:
Passionate about the unique flavors of a place. Please don’t obscure the wine’s distinctive expression with excessive alcohol or wood, or employ practices that make wines all taste the same.

The issues
Winemakers have been marching for naturalness a lot longer than consumers. If our parade seems aimless, a clear set of instructions would help.

The movement’s tacit assumption—that traditional winemaking is in sync with the agendas of environmentalists, the health-conscious and the terroirists—is quite simply false. These groups require radical change in the way winemaking is done, not more of the same.

The natural wine movement coalesced around two sources of consumer dissatisfaction: boredom with industrial standardization and mistrust of disingenuous winemakers.

Nothing divides the natural wine movement more sharply than the issue of sulfite-free wines. The requirement imposed by the Organic Food Production Act and written into federal requirements for the organic wine designation in 1990 resulted in excluding mainstream production of organic wine and confining it to well less than 1% of producers. The category is generally avoided by connoisseurs and collectors because of its reputation for inconsistency and poor shelf life. Bingo: a schism between connoisseurs and health activists.

We do have a short list of things the eight constituencies could agree on, but it’s nothing to build a movement around. Reduction or elimination of chemical herbicide and pesticide sprays and encouragement of cover crops is good for the environment and for wine balance. The use of GMOs goes against tradition and also raises environmental and perhaps human health issues. Additives such as tannins, enzymes and Mega Purple, though commonplace conventional tools, are outside the scope of traditional winemaking and provide no environmental or health benefits.

But there is room for lively debate among these groups. I’ll touch on a few more points of difference.

Chaptalization and acidulation: Corrections of deficiencies in musts (sugar in France and tartaric acid in the U.S.) have been so commonplace for hundreds of years that most traditionalists forget that the Bordeaux First Growths really should sport a “contains beet sugar” ingredient label for most vintages. Without this adjustment, much great French wine would be thin and sour, so collectors wouldn’t have it any other way, but purists understandably balk.

Similarly, consumers of New World wines interested in balanced alcohol and rich terroir expression will prefer the removal of excessive alcohol via technology. Something like 40% of French AOC wines and a like percentage of California wines are alcohol adjusted to correct their balance to 13%-14%.

Balanced wines not only taste better, they better reflect their place of origin. As journalist Alan Goldfarb commented upon comparing my 12.9% Faux Chablis against the original 14.8% version, “The unadjusted is more authentic, but the 12.9% has more terroir expression.”

Barrels vs. alternatives: For the traditionalist, French oak barrels symbolize the epitome of artisanality, separating the sacred chapels of the boutique elite from the immense tank farms of the typical Central Valley industrial mega-producer.

Yet to the informed environmentalist, a new French oak barrel as a flavoring device represents the grossest form of wastefulness and affluent display. French oak barrels are made from 200-year-old trees, and 75% of the prime wood of these venerable trees is discarded because it cannot be fashioned into a piece of watertight fine furniture. Used instead as sources of oak extractives, chips and other barrel alternatives could reduce this carnage four-fold.

Barrels today are no longer primarily consumed by small wineries. Decades ago, Robert Mondavi chose the device of installing 100,000 barrels to distinguish his infant Woodbridge within the big valley. Not to be outdone, Bronco and other competitors followed in short order with six-figure installations of their own. Today, the lion’s share of barrels is housed in vast valley warehouses, resulting in deforestation on a scale never before seen.

Gluten-allergic consumers also have raised questions about wheat paste commonly used in repairing barrel leaks. Oak alternatives avoid this issue and permit winemaking in neutral stainless steel on any desired scale.

Micro-oxygenation, a technique that caused Alice Feiring in 2001 to declare, “Wine is made in the lab, not the vineyard,” poses a conundrum of equal depth. On the one hand, what additive could be more natural than the air we breathe? MOx reestablishes winemaking traditions excluded by recent technology, as stainless steel and inert gas that have permitted modern winemakers to exclude oxygen in ways unavailable to traditional winemakers during the previous 6,000 years.

Still, it is reasonable for collectors to be suspicious of the prospects for longevity of wines subjected to an experimental technique, and for purists to oppose the restructuring of tannins. In time, some will come to understand that oxygen is essential to red wine evolution, and as we age these wines their enhanced longevity becomes increasingly apparent.

For now, the most important benefits of MOx are for health. Conventional tannin management strips excessive astringency with animal proteins from milk, chicken eggs, sturgeonfish and beef tendon—all possible allergens for sensitive individuals. Any winemaker will tell you that the procedure of stripping wine of tannin with fining agents is detrimental to terroir expression and also robs wines of soulfulness by deleting the tannin structure responsible for aromatic integration.

All these problems are averted by the refining of tannins with oxygen by a skilled hand. The process is akin to the conversion of cocoa into chocolate (conching), for which I have discovered very little popular resistance!

Careful introduction of oxygen is also the most benign method for balancing reduction, eliminating conventional copper treatment. Reduction, a tendency for wines to close up and get stinky, is on the rise in our wines because advances in vineyard practices, proper ripeness levels, improved cellar techniques and the use of screwcaps all increase tendencies toward reduction.

Indigenous yeast:
There is surprising fervor surrounding the desire to skip inoculating with packaged yeast cultures in the name of naturalness. The catalogs of yeast companies, with their outrageous claims to enhance aromatics, do sound scary. What consumers don’t realize, but all winemakers know by experience, is that these catalog promises are simply bogus.

In some wines I inoculate because I prefer to avoid sulfites at the crusher. If I allow grapes to sit the required 2-4 days until indigenous Saccharomyces arise, a host of other yeasts and bacteria produce dominant fruity ester characters that overpower the grapes’ aromatic expression. Notwithstanding the argument that this microbial picnic constitutes some kind of terroir expression in and of itself, these wines all taste the same to me.

For those concerned with health or those who report sensitivities to some wines, commercial yeast strains also permit winemakers to minimize levels of allergenic amines as well as the carcinogen ethyl carbamate.

Glass alternatives: Perhaps the widest schism looming in the natural wine movement has to do with packaging. The carbon footprint around the manufacture and transport of glass bottles outweighs all other wine industry inputs combined. Yet no collector wants to cellar plastic bottles, however ecological. Show me a cult producer ready to switch to bag-in-box, however hermetic the seal. As a rule, small artisans gravitate towards heavy bottles, which have been shown to subliminally enhance value perception.

What is generally referred to as “traditional” winemaking didn’t get started until after World War II. Conventional winemaking, with its electric pumps, stainless steel, inert gas and sterile filtration, is no more traditional than conventional farming.

The natural wine movement coalesced around two sources of consumer dissatisfaction: frustration with sameness and suspicion of winemaker dishonesty. I see signs that greater openness about production techniques can reunite winemakers and consumers. Consumers can only make informed choices if winema kers will be frank with them about their methods and their thinking.

Winemakers are a sincere and introspective bunch, with very few bad apples. They choose their techniques for good reasons, and often the rationale runs deeper than is reported by our beloved reactionary paparazzi. Once consumers begin to learn the trade-offs involved in each practice, every winemaking strategy can develop its own following of those it is designed to serve.

The real culprit in sameness is that most consumers want predictability, not uniqueness. Paradoxically, more diversity in product offerings leads to less diversity in the stores. Since the U.S. now produces around 100 times as many wines as it did 30 years ago, this allows Safeway to create a very tight competitive cluster: the expected Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. In this hotly competitive world, any stylistic wandering is a death sentence.

    REFERENCES
     

     
  • 1. Smith, Clark. "Spoofulated or Artisanal?" wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/515/Spoofulated.html
     
  • 2. Dressner, Joe. "The Official Fourteen Point Manifesto on Natural Wine." captaintumorman.com/comment/48/524/
The silent majority
What drove together the natural wine movement in the first place was a shared discontent with available offerings in stores. But there is little hope for distinctive wines of place in general distribution.

Of today’s 100,000 domestic wines, less than 2,000 have much play in the three-tier distribution network. Like many of his ilk, Joe Dressner questions whether natural wine can be made in the New World. In reality, greater diversity exists today than ever before, and in fact comprises 98% of our domestic labels.

Like the natural wines of France and Italy, America’s fascinating diversity is not to be found on the supermarket shelves. You have to go to the source. I will venture a guess that Joe has never tried a Snake River Viognier, an Iowa Brianna, a Conneaut Chardonnay or a Wisconsin Seyval Blanc, categories that include some of America’s greatest wines.

California itself abounds with unsung excellence: Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnays, San Antonio Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, Temecula Sangioveses, Suisun Valley Sauvignon Blancs and Fairplay Syrahs that put their mainstream counterparts to shame.

American wines got way better when we weren’t paying attention. The best have been tearing up the few competitions that will allow them to enter. The cure I recommend for the Natural Whine Movement is to load up the minivan and discover America.

Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith, founder of the wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures widely on an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking.

 
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