Wine At The End of History: How the New York Times (Sort Of) Saved the World From the Natural Wine Revolution

Posted by | Posted in Commentary | Posted on 06-26-2015

(Flickr: winestem)

(Flickr: winestem)

Whether you know it or not, you’re witnessing a revolution. Being a wine drinker in recent years has meant taking sides (or refusing to take sides, which is just another version of a side) in a revolution in how wine is made and consumed.

While the battle has been waged mostly beneath the radar of the non-wine geek world, a recent article in the New York Times Magazine has changed this.

In “The Wrath of Grapes,” Bruce Schoenfeld embeds himself on the front lines where upstart winemakers and sommeliers have been fighting for balanced and “natural” wines — against overripe, alcoholic, bombastic “Parkerized” wines — in the very territory where the enemy seemed to have the surest hold: California.

The revolution took shape in all the regular ways. There was the overbearing, conservative dictator (Robert Parker) who controlled the information and, increasingly, seemingly, the means of production. There were the radical gorilla fighters (the biodynamic winemakers) getting their hands dirty while other rebellious ideologues (sommeliers, bloggers) pursued the Manifesto of Balance online and in the coolest new restaurants. Across the disputed zone, in underground wine stores and restaurants — and deep in the bunkers of certain online wine blogs and boards — weak and staticy instructions were sent out to the comrades and a counter-market of natural wines gained foothold on both coasts. And there’s been a lot of carnage; just ask the Australian wine industry.

Perhaps more than anything else, the Times article makes clear that The Dictator is all too good at playing his role. Like any good dictator, he ignored the voice of the opposition. And then, precisely at the point his power was most tenuous, he only acknowledged the counter-movement to say that it didn’t actually exist: “The jihadist movements of non­sulphured wines, green, underripe wines, low alcohol, insipid stuff promoted by the anti-­pleasure police & neo-­anti-­alcohol proponents has run its course as another extreme and useless movement few care about.”

In his inimitably gruff, paratactic writing style, Robert Parker speaks with immodest certitude, disregarding the opposition while issuing his 100-point decrees.

Admittedly, no matter which side you’ve been on, it’s been exciting times to be a wine drinker. But I’m ready to climb out of the trenches. I’m going AWOL.

The reason for my defection is another major theme in the article — namely, just because a wine is biodynamic, natural, exotic, un-spoofed, or otherwise “honest,” doesn’t mean it’s good. While Parker is surely wrong in his crass dismissal of the movement — and also, in my opinion, about quality in general — his argument reflects (rather than embodies) certain ideas worth taking seriously.

Schoenfeld, fully embedded, sips on a “really good” Shafer, which is regarded here as a paragon of Parkerized California (although I think Shafer was the wrong example). He also tries an “actively unpleasant” (and expensive) natural wine from Rajat Parr’s Domaine de la Côte, the model for the “New California” winery that has embraced balance over bombast.

We’re told that Parr, and other ideologues, defend such wines for their transparency to place and the “honesty” of their expression. And I get it — for a long time, I was a doctrinaire revolutionary on this point.

But letting ideology guide my wine consumption has left me too bloodied up. I’ve bought too many bottles of wine, highly regarded by the internet taste makers, hipster sommeliers, and important New York wine stores, that were flawed to the point of being undrinkable. Moderately expensive bottles of wine, stinking of Band Aid from all the Brett, muddled from being shipped overseas with no stabilizing sulfur dose, or <shudder> re-fermenting in bottle.

This is because I valued the ideology of “intellectual interest” over pleasure.

I’ve come to realize that my position, even though it carried with it the romance of the revolution, was no more sophisticated than the position of those who buy wines based on Parker points. Or for the critters on the label, for that matter. The fact is, wine quality is a matter of taste, taste is opaque, and therefore by definition wine quality is not intelligible. You can’t be talked — or intellectually stimulated — into liking wine you don’t like.

Here’s an example of what I mean. One of the biggest dangers of producing “natural” hands-off wines is Brettanomyces — a powerful yeast that lives everywhere and takes over fermentation fast. It sometimes happens with natural wines that use more delicate ambient yeasts over powerful industrial varieties that the ambient yeasts don’t work fast or thoroughly enough. Enter Brett. Nearly all winemakers, even the radicles, agree that Brett is a taint; remarkably, however, in my experience, the majority of winemakers of Bretty wines don’t even realize it. Call it cellar palate. While you may question my expertise in detecting Brett, I insist — as will anybody that has taken Jason Whiteside’s sensory defects course in Washington, DC, a group rapidly growing in number — that anybody can learn to detect it reliably.

The fact is, the majority of “natural” wines that I’ve had are at least a little tainted by the stuff, including and especially the wines promoted by the gurus of the revolution. For me, Brett diminishes pleasure. And while some profess to like Brett, the thing is, Brett is just as counter-terroir as new American oak — Brett tastes the same no matter where it appears. Brett breaks down the natural fruit flavors in wine and steamrolls over terroir expression. Brett not only diminishes pleasure (for me), it also (objectively) obfuscates expression.

The truth is, I don’t always mind a little Brett “spice” myself. And of course the over-ripe Parker wines also lend themselves to Brett infection. But there is simply too much wine out there for me to be stuck with it if I don’t want it. Without making an absolute claim, if I got to taste a wine from a vineyard that had Brett and another that didn’t, the vast majority of the time I’d prefer the clean one — both because I prefer clean flavor but also because I’m interested in the purer expression of fruit and terroir.

And, while remaining respectful to claim to like Brett, I submit that nearly all of us would prefer the Brett-free wine given the choice, especially those of us that claim to be interested in terroir expression — a group that, ironically, also has a disproportionate number of Brett defenders. And the thing is: we generally do have the choice.

Again, it’s fine if you like Brett. But logically, you can’t then be dismissive of people that enjoy those other “uncool” flaws, like new oak (and, yes, I personally agree that too much oak is a kind of “flaw”), that obfuscate terroir. Per force, if you claim to like Brett, you claim to find pleasure in a component of wine over and above the intellectual interest that comes from the wine’s honesty or transparency (not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that).

And I’m not making a claim for technical perfection above all else. Actually, I still privilege honesty over technical perfection. I still listen to the “low-fi” punk and indie rock I grew up on. I understand the “perfectly imperfect” in wine. And this is not a contradiction.

In short, I understand if you don’t want to include Brett as a flaw if it’s something you enjoy; just understand then that other parts of the argument for natural wine are made problematic by this admission.

And furthermore, you don’t have to agree with me on Brett diminishing pleasure to buy my larger point that the ideology of the wine revolution too often comes at the cost of pleasure. Even Marx had to say, in a statement that also sounds like a contradiction but isn’t, “I am not a Marxist.” I bet at least that we can agree that a re-fermenting Riesling from the Schlossberg vineyard in Alsace is not a wine you should buy if you can buy one from the same vineyard that is not re-fermenting.

One might, however, argue that I’ve gerrymandered an argument into existence here by cutting my definition of “flawed” so close that I’ve drawn blood. So let me expand: even for those of us that prefer un-spoofed wines, Parker is right that we should only ever buy wines that taste good and give pleasure. Parker has a point to the extent that the revolutionaries have too often promoted ideology and metaphysical concepts like “honesty” over the experience of the thing itself. Of course, Parker is maddeningly wrong when he says that natural wines are categorically without pleasure, or that the wine revolutionaries are “anti-flavor.”

Shoenfeld asks if intellectual interest or pleasure should be the criteria for buying wine; I’m arguing that Parker is right that pleasure, not ideology, should always be the first consideration. I’m also arguing that because we have nearly endless choices, this position doesn’t have to be in any way incommensurate with an appreciation of natural wines. But I see no virtue in the strident position that defends flawed “actively unpleasant” natural wines.

And this brings me to a blind spot in Schoenfeld’s characterization of Parker’s ascendancy. Parker’s fame came not only because he challenged “highly regarded producers… passing off thin, unappealing wines as fashionable.” He also made his name by posing a challenge to the sloppy and dirty production methods of these wineries. He posed a challenge to both producers and production itself. Of course, Parker advocated for more than his fair share of flawed wines (in fact, judging from his notes, he too seems incapable of consistently identifying Brett). But he did for the most part succeed in cleaning up the top domains in Bordeaux.

Does the revolution need to come at the cost of cleanliness? Does not poor sanitation diminish both the pleasure of the wine and also the intellectual interest (unless you seek Brett, in which case you are arguing that your taste for a flaw gives you a pleasure that you hold above intellectual interest)? In the world of competing ideals, does the revolution even have the high ground over Parker when it champions wines that even a sympathetic reviewer calls “actively unpleasant”?

We need to favor wines that both express place and are clean. And we need a dose of practicality with regards to “spoof.” For instance, just because you enjoyed that delicate, delicious unsulfured organic wine in France or Italy doesn’t mean that you should fetishize sans-soufre — any wine shipped overseas without sulfur is unstable by definition and endangered. Sure, it might survive the trip, but who knows? While I’m not in favor of unnecessary spoof, I know I won’t think any less of you if you compromise your ideology and reach for a bottle that has been spoofed a bit to help ensure you enjoy it.

As a model for my “best of all worlds” aesthetic, I submit the wines of Trimbach. The opposite of a “hands-off” winery, Trimbach is also a paragon of terroir expression and elegance.

Comments (6)

  1. very good article. There is just one point that i disagree on, based on my experience as winemaker, and based on research on Sangiovese and indigenous yeast. Indigenous yeast fermentation properly conducted with a starter culture can actually help PREVENT Brett. This appears to be because a diverse culture with different strains uses up the nutrients in the must more, leaving less for brett to grow on. Other studies from M.Vincenzini of Unifi show that indigenous yeast often “take over” even when a commercial yeast is used. And finally, since climate change has increased the alcohol levels even in Chianti, once a fairly cool zone, wefind that IY are better at fermenting to high alcohol levels. So much for powerful industrial varieties of yeast!

  2. Excellent point about the double standard with Brett and oak. There is a degree of uniformity in the flavors they each add, thus true terroir-driven, terroir-expressive wines should limit both.

    But at the end of the day, you’re right, it’s about pleasure AND intellectual curiosity. I’ll TRY literally any wine out of intellectual curiosity. But if it’s not pleasurable, I won’t drink it again.

  3. You make an interesting point about just enjoying wine over intellectual interest. This comes up a lot in the field of design, where you need to balance what’s termed the ‘user experience’ against what might be more ‘technically correct’ design. And these days it’s generally regarded that whatever the customer prefers (in general) is best, as long as it still suits the purpose you want. In this case, you should enjoy the wine you drink, and people recommending wine should bear your style in mind, not theirs. Often tricky, but it’s the best way to enjoy something.

  4. How do you know “paratactic” but not “guerilla”?

  5. I actually rather liked his use of the word “gorilla,” considering the animal-like smell of some natural wines out there…

  6. Touche Jason Whiteside 😉

    Unfortunately I think voices of sanity and balance (not IPOB specifically) when it comes to wine too often don’t get to speak loud enough. Like our supposed perfect Sommelier who listens to the customer, and makes a recommendation based on that customers pleasure, everyone needs to realize that every person is different in what they like.

    I love tasting The Scholium Project, but I rarely buy them. They expose me to something new, and perhaps crazy, and very different. But generally I find them not something I’ll _want_ to just kick back and drink and enjoy.

    For me, personally, it’s less about “balance” or “natural” than having wine without excessive chemical manipulation (aka Gallo, Two Buck Chuck, etc) and one that is the expression of the winemaker communing with the land, the vines, and that years grapes.

    Don’t we all really just wanna drink some nice wine with some friends and relax after a long week? Who’s with me?!