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David Schildknecht on Nossiter, Natural Wines

2011 December 13
by Mike

Based on the headline, you may be wondering if David Schildknecht is now splitting blogging duties here. After all, it’s the third time in recent weeks that I have handed over the microphone to David. But appearances to the contrary, he has not become a co-Wine Diarist; he has simply been kind enough to let me post some things he has written that I thought would be of interest to Wine Diarist readers.

David, as you probably know, writes for The Wine Advocate. In addition to being a wonderful critic, he is one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking journalists working the wine beat, and I always enjoy corresponding with him, even when we disagree. In this instance, however, we are in complete agreement: neither of us is a fan of Jonathan Nossiter or the natural wine movement. Nossiter is a filmmaker best known for Mondovino, a deeply misleading documentary about the globalization of wine. A few years ago, he wrote a book called Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, which was even more execrable, no small achievement. As for the natural wine fad, I share David’s view that it is long on dogma and rhetoric and woefully short on intellectual coherence. (However, we both admire many winemakers who are working in a self-proclaimed “natural” way.)

Last month, Nossiter spoke at a natural wine conference in Zurich. Not surprisingly, the subject of natural wines showed Nossiter at his most tendentious and smug, and nor is it surprising that when David read an attendee’s account of Nossiter’s talk on JancisRobinson.com, he decided to post a rebuttal. With his and Jancis’s permission, I am re-posting his response here:

I cannot resist some comments pursuant to Jonathan Nossiter’s contribution, as described, to this colloquium.

Nobody is more interested than am I in proclaiming and explicating “the importance of independence in our homogenised world” assuming that Nossiter meant this title for his presentation to encompass the encouragement of wine growers to take chances and do their own thing methodologically and stylistically. But for an address to take place under that rubric and in this particular context immediately suggests that both a false dichotomy and a contradiction underlie that conjunction. In the Manichean world inhabited by many if not most self-proclaimed naturalists of my acquaintance (including many growers and commentators whose work I greatly admire) no allowance is made for the existence of distinctively delicious, site-specific, soulful, safe-to-drink wine grown with the assistance of Roundup for weed control; chemical systemics to combat oidium (thereby reducing reliance on copper sulfate); drip-irrigation; yeast cultures; sulfur above some unspecified maximum; or a great many other tools and techniques that these folks either cannot – or refuse to – specify with any pretensions to completeness but always seem to inherently accept or reject when you quiz them. I have tasted enough of the world’s both profoundly and simply delicious wines and know enough about how they are grown and vinified to call that out as false dichotomy. What’s more, if you consider the freedom of the grower paramount, then it’s a contradiction to deal in a list of moves you forbid him or her from making on grounds that it’s “unnatural.” Vineyard expression and self-expression are not only compatible, there are also many routes to either one.

And about the aforementioned lists, no self-described natural winemaker I know has been willing to rest content with Nossiter’s claim that “the regulations for … natural wines are actually [this] simple: no chemicals in the vineyard, no additives, no cultured yeast, and very little or no sulphur. That’s it.” Does Nossiter consider sugar an additive? What would be so bad or unnatural about adding water? Does he deem it ok to irrigate one’s vines? (Most self-proclaimed naturalists with whom I deal insist that’s not kosher.) Is it ok to add fining – which afterward drops out – for clarification, and if so which sorts? What about must concentration – that doesn’t involve adding anything to the wine, but self-described naturalists are far from the only ones who would make it a poster child for The Enemy? How about tractor compaction – no problem there? To plow or not to plow; compost or not to…? In short, it’s evident that Nossiter has not taken time – though lord knows, he’s had more than enough of it since becoming a wine celebrity – to think about the issues involved or to ponder hard cases; indeed, one presumes that like polemicists and politicians of most other stripes, he would not recognize a hard case if he bumped into it face-first, much less consider testing his principles against it. That being the case, it’s a shame we are asked again and again to consider what he has to say about these issues profound and important.

As for the alleged impossibility – and, more importantly, the alleged illegitimacy – of asking that “natural wine” be clearly defined, the analogy Nossiter offers is so weak as to be laughable. “It would” he alleges, “be like saying to the great directors of the time, like Fellini and Goddard, ‘now that you are making neo-realism let[']s set up rules to determine what neo-realistic cinema is.’” The question at issue with natural wine however is how can its adherents routinely reject wines because of one or another thing that was done to them, while refusing to draw the logical conclusion that some subset of practices serves as a litmus test of legitimacy? Now, it might be that Fellini and Goddard had their differences with film makers whom they considered non-neo-realists. But although I am not a student of film, I doubt very much that these famous directors were going around – let alone preoccupied with – pooh-poohing the films of anyone whom they deemed not to be a neo-realist. Granted, artists can certainly do this sort of thing, but not every artistic movement or style represents a reaction to some other one, much less does having a style or employing distinctive practices imply that any other style or alternative set of practices is unworthy, even bogus and must be inveighed-against. But I have met very few self-proclaimed natural wine growers – including the dozens among them whose wines I love and drink regularly – who did not adopt their stance and practices in reaction to certain alternatives and who did not consider it absolutely essential that those alternatives be condemned. And while I must defer to experts in the relevant field concerning whether Nossiter’s opinions about film – his acknowledged area of expertise – are more profound and nuanced than his views on wine, it’s clear from his references to films that “make you think” as contrasted with “the current Hollywood industry,” that spurious dichotomy is to him second nature.

42 Responses leave one →
  1. gregt permalink
    December 17, 2011

    I like Ned’s take. The idea of making wine with as little harm to the planet as possible.

    The problem as always is that the polarity is obvious – a wine is natural or it’s unnatural. And that’s a load of crap.

    As pointed out endlessly, there’s nothing natural about wine. It’s a product resulting from a long series of decisions. It’s ridiculous to claim that you have a “natural” product when it’s the result of grafted plants.

    In fact, as a though experiment, imagine that a new grape was developed that was utterly resistant to phylloxera and all disease, and that produced grapes that fermented regularly to 12% alcohol and tasted a lot like Pinot Noir.

    Would that be accepted by anyone? What if it were developed by genetic engineering?

    And is it natural to ship wines in refrigerated containers and keep them in refrigerated cabinets to that they can be enjoyed in all their naturalness after they’ve crossed the great blue sea and have been served in a too-warm New York City apartment?

    There is nothing about the planting, harvesting, production, transportation, or consumption of wine that is particularly natural so one adopts some random item as the determining factor. “Aha!! The wine must be made with minimum sulfur!”

    Is the implication that this is a revolution against the sulfuring overlords who mandate equal parts sulfur and wine?

    Or “native” yeast? As a baker, I can say that there are some yeasts that really do affect flavor, but there are others that can be as “native” as you wish and that have in fact, very little effect on flavor but that are unpredictable in their ability to leaven the dough. Which is superior?

    I am, as often, in agreement with David and Mike and others – I would prefer that my wine be made from grapes that have received no fertilization or spray, that are comfortably ripe without producing burning alcohol, and that produce wine with some personality beyond generic juice.

    But why the need to define something by what it is not? Why not just say “this is something I like” rather than set up a straw man to bash? And why does Parker’s name have to come up in every discussion of wine, usually by people who purport not to be concerned with his preferences?

  2. David Schildknecht permalink
    December 17, 2011

    Bill,

    Thanks for the correction! I very stupidly transposed peronospora and oidium (confusing “downy” and “powdery” stuff I guess!). From what I’ve seen of literature addressed to growers needs and heard from growers, peronospora (downy mildew) almost always ultimately demands treatment with copper sulfate but may growers have told me this is for them the sticking point of – and thus their sole exception to – what is generally certified as an organic regimen, since they would prefer to initially make use of other chemical means for dealing with outbreaks of perosopera, saving copper sulfate for the last and thus minimizing its use. (Of course, it too as by any sensible definition a “chemical treatment,” but a time-honored one, and one that Steiner grandfathered into his protocol.)

    Ned,

    Thanks for your reminder about the significance of environmental motivations. I did (as Bill put it in another context, “somewhere in there … !”) allude inter alia to sustainability as among the many concerns that carry over from discussions of agriculture in general (and specifically concerns on the part of those who speak of achieving “more natural” or “non-industrial” agriculture, to whose views I’m very sympathetic, though here too, I advocate avoiding ideologically-freighted slogans and false dilemmas).

    Bear in mind, while we’re on this subject, that as in so many of the examples I cited in replying to David F., it’s by no means always clear what is most protective of the environment, and sometimes the ideologues of “natural wine” are my no means unambiguously on the right side. I already alluded to the question (to which I believe the answer is an at least qualified “yes”) whether use of certain systemic chemical treatments or topical treatments can diminish the need for applying copper sulfate in combating peronospora , whereas most self-proclaimed natural wine growers, following the protocol of Rudolf Steiner or simply deferring to time-honored methods, permit the use of copper sulfate (which leaves a toxic, nearly non-degradable heavy metal in the soil) but not of other chemical treatments. As another example, Eric Texier – a physical scientist by background and an eloquent champion of individualism and terroir-expression in wine – has inveighed insightfully against the carbon price hidden in the labor-intensive methods of many organic growing regimens in a piece called “A Taste of Petrol” that was (laudably and refreshingly) published as part of an on-line series called “32 days [largely in praise] of natural wine.”

    * http://saignee.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/day-33-a-taste-of-petrol/
    And, incidentally, in her contribution to this same series, Alice Feiring addresses some of the issues I raised on this occasion, which I had expressed to her (as well as in published pieces) in the past.

  3. Bill Hooper permalink
    December 17, 2011

    Hi Mike and David,

    You are a both clearly a gifted writers and I enjoy reading your views. I’d like to point out though, that copper sulfate is used to combat Peronospora (Downey Mildew) in the vineyard, not Oidium. Organic and Biodynamic wineries in Germany (and elsewhere) use Sulfur as well as baking powder at different stages throughout the development cycle of the vine. Both are very low-impact. There are also many labor-intensive non-chemical measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of Peronospora, Oidium and Botrytis in the vineyard (the three major threats to vine-health in Germany). One of the most important steps is simply eliminating chemical nitrogen treatments (fundamental in organic viticulture) and relying on legumes, clover, and organic mulches to provide nutrients and to ensure that nitrogen run-off is reduced. More nitrogen and chemical fertilizer means more green-growth (dense canopies, more leaves, bigger bunches, higher yields) which means less air-flow, more compaction of grape-bunches, burst and split berries, all of which contribute to higher infection rates of fungal disease which in turn leads to more chemical fungizide and more intervention in the winery. It is an insane circle of cause and effect.

    What a lot of people fail to recognize is that the drinking water for many of the towns in wine-growing regions comes from underground wells located directly under vineyards. Personally, I’d rather not drink round-up or fungizide. No wonder bottled water is so popular.

    The natural wine debate has certainly gotten out of hand, but I think that people on both sides of the aisle need to be better informed of the measures and consequences before they take their stances.

    Cheers,
    Bill

  4. December 16, 2011

    Interesting thoughts, Ned. But aren’t “natural” and “organic” synonymous in this context? My problem with (many) natural wines comes with the decision by their producers to do without (or nearly without) SO2, and the production of wines that are often fundamentally unstable. (Something that is also true of wines deemed to be organic wines in the US, but not elsewhere).

    The bigger argument here concerns the desirability or otherwise of consistency. Some people find waywardness (through vintage, cork and unstability) part of the appeal of wine. To my mind, this is rather like being a concert-going fan of Van Morrison or Bob Dylan – singers who sometimes give woefully disappointing performances. My own preference is for performances by musicians who take no pride in disappointing their audiences.

    The problem with wayward bottles is that they are often not like faster or slower or more romantic performances; they’re like performances in which the wrong notes are played and the tune forgotten. (qv Tom Waits’ The Piano Has Been Drinking).

  5. Ned Hoey permalink
    December 16, 2011

    I’ve read and skimmed through this post and its extensive comments. I looked for but did not see this one small but important aspect with regard to natural wine mentioned or considered in the discussion. While it may be that it goes without saying, I’m not going to assume so. One of the single biggest elements or motivators driving the natural wine folks in my understanding anyway, is to produce wine within a broad environmental consciousness. To make wine itself not just “naturally” but to make wine in a way that does none of the modern common agricultural harms to the planet. It isn’t that very wonderful wine can’t be made from chemically weed sprayed and treated vineyards, or with various modern technological tricks, (although for that is the case for many) it’s that many modern vineyard (especially) and cellar techniques are contributing to ecological degradation of the planet. To me, natural winemaking is about returning to making great wines, as part of an evolution or progression, in ways that can preserve the terroirs virtually forever. Sure they get bottled glass bottles and shipped around and that has a significant carbon footprint but the point is to strive to minimize all that to the greatest extent possible. Some of the effort is hindered by laws, others by commercial reality, but the point is to begin to move all aspects of the grape farming, wine production and distribution as close as possible to zero negative impact.

    I can and have enjoyed excellent “conventional” wines, but I can’t help but be conscious of the fact that their production degrades the planet, even if only slightly. Use of chemical weedkillers like Roundup is creating new “superweeds”, stronger stuff kills the biodiversity and life of the soil, chemical fertilizers leach into ponds and streams. The discussion has focused entirely on whether great wines can reliably and consistently be made by so called natural methods, whatever they are, and whether that is acceptable, worthy or legitimate. Confining the discussion to only that, misses one of the prime motivations of the so called “natural” wine movement.

  6. Vincent Bonnet permalink
    December 15, 2011

    Dear Mr. Steinberger,

    Instead of replying to the content -what was said or not in Zurich- you continue instead to dig up your old rage against Mondovino and the book, making schoolyard name calling of Nossiter your main activity, using game of angered small children to say “he is so mean. And I am not only one to say so. My friend Eric and Joe and others also say.”

    This pettiness is demeaning to all, but most of all for his author.

    It also allows you to avoid the substance of my letter: that the entire account of Mr. Schildknecht is expressly inaccurate, whether he takes responsibility or not for recycling and amplifying it.

    Incredibly, you suggested we look on the Ms. Fiering site for her account. I did. And she contradicts in every way what you, Mr. Schildknecht and his source claim!

    Here are her remarks so your readers can understand how without shame is your continued -and now we understand also deliberate- misreporting even when presented with facts.

    (ALICE FEIRING WRITES:) The day was long and ended up with my past neighbor, Jonathan Nossiter (Mondovino) gave some random thoughts. He is eloquent. He speaks six languages (or is that seven) fluently, who studied ancient Greek, and studied painting, claims Brazil and Italy as homes and frankly, makes me feel like the village idiot. But the talk was a good one. Jonathan said with some dejection said, “There is no room for film as cultural expression any more.” And that was his lament, also about wine. As far as definition? It is useless to define. He riffed more on my dogme thought from another side of the film divide, saying, ” Rules for natural wines is like telling the Italian film directors of the 1950’s, Rosselini, Visconti, Fellini let’s make rules for neo-realism. If you don’t make films in this way, you’re out of the movement.”

    He then switched to the Nouvelle Vague, “We need to change our head, the same way that the films of Godard changed the film world. I didn’t like all of his films, but Godard made people question what is the basis of making the film. He turned narrative on its head and it makes people question what is the reality. There isn’t one person since, even conventional films in Hollywood, who don’t question what it is they are making, who hasn’t rethought what is a film narrative.

    The natural wine movement is doing that to any winemaker. (end of ALICE FEIRING)

    So you’re right Mr. Steinberger, pity is more correct. But not for you, but for your sincere readers who expect a minimum of good faith from a self-created wine critic. And you say the object of your jealousy is not honest?

    Thank you readers of this board for your time. I will not return of course, because it is too much like the Parker-Mark Squires board (interesting that all three of you come from the general area -shall we say terroir- where are the smokestacks and Burger King from Mondovino that gets you so angry) . Like their board, this one is spoiled not by the members but by the inflamed chip on shoulder of its chief, camouflaged as righteous democracy.
    Sincerely
    Vincent Bonnet

    p.s. Like Tea Party, you spit on your opponents with conscious false labels: “Nossiter groupie”? If you read my letter, it clearly states that I have serious differences with much of his work. But he is an adversary I can respect.
    p.p.s My only regret is making fun of you for your visit to France. For this I apologize to all. It was also petty for me….incredible how we all, each one of us fall into the trap when the ambiance is set.

  7. Bill Klapp permalink
    December 15, 2011

    Mike, certainly there are too many uber-naturalistas that will not be satisfied with label disclosure, nor anything else, for that matter. They are paving a very particular road to hell with their good intentions. As David suggests (somewhere in there!), their like decline to define “the object of their affections”. Not only decline, but cannot, I suspect. Those folk have made it seem dangerous and unpopular to believe in “natural wine” (along with motherhood and apple pie), as I suspect you yourself have experienced a bit at times, perhaps manifested as a hesitance to write much on the topic when the main thrust of a piece leads you to “natural wine”. But know this, Michael Steinberger: if my 2009 Marcel Lapierre Beaujolais Morgon S (light sulphur) goes to shit, I will be coming after you and Schildknecht, not Alice Feiring or Jamie Goode!

  8. December 15, 2011

    David, your points are appealingly balanced and thoughtful. You liken natural wine to playing with ancient instruments; it tends to put me more in mind of free jazz. In either case, the practitioners are sincerely trying to do something different (I agree with Katherine’s preference for the vintners rather than the followers; it reminds me of Baron Corvo’s fictional Pope Hadrian VII’s “You know I love the faith but I hate the faithful.).
    However, I think one has to acknowledge that free jazz, like unpredictable wines, will always be a minority pursuit. And, given the choice I guess I’d opt for Miles Davis over Coltrane; and Duke Ellington or Bill Evans over Thelonius Monk…

  9. December 15, 2011

    Bill, you make an interesting point. A lot of naturalistas have actually called for greater disclosure on the labels. But would they really be satisfied by that? Some of these folks seem to judge wines not by how they taste, but by how they were made (or how they think they were made). More importantly, how much value would this information offer the typical (i.e. non-naturalista) consumer? None of these additives, in the quantities in which they are used for winemaking, are known to cause harm, yet one could imagine that a lot of ordinary, non-wine geek consumers would be scared by references to enzymes, mega purple, etc. It is an interesting topic, and perhaps one that is worthy of a blog post in itself (with full attribution to you, of course!).

  10. David Schildknecht permalink
    December 15, 2011

    David F.,

    In answer to your questions (which took longer than I had hoped and might make Evan sorry to get what he wished for, but thanks for asking!) …

    Q.: “Can a specific definition be created to distinguish “natural wine” from conventionally produced wine?”

    Certainly one can stipulate a definition, but it would inevitably be controversial and arbitrary. And that’s just another way of saying that if we take a hard look at those aspects of wine production which make important differences in how wine tastes; how and why we drink it; how land is cultivated; &c. we’re bound to come up against hard cases of precisely the sort against which any definition would get tested. Researching and reflecting on those cases is what will lead us to better understand and appreciate the sources of quality in wine (about whose nature, certainly – for aesthetic reasons – opinions will differ) and thereby among other valuable consequences enhance the pleasure we take in drinking it. At that point, why worry about there being no definition?

    My beef with self-proclaimed natural wine proponents is not their unwillingness per se to explicitly define the object of their affections. What I object to is their insistence, ABSENT an explicit definition, on treating growers and their wines as being either within or beyond the pale, in the process repeatedly, implicitly treating specific criteria as litmus tests. This represents in my opinion an unwillingness to come to terms with the hard and interesting cases, and thus a bit of bad faith.

    What sorts of cases or principles do I have in mind? I’m tempted to ask instead “what ones would NOT qualify?” Put most wine growing and vinificatory techniques – whether time-honored or new-fangled – under a conceptual magnifying glass; subject them to serious scientifically-based study and, where appropriate, to blind tastings … you’ll very quickly, I believe, come to a couple of humbling and fundamental realizations.

    First, we are in ignorance of much of the basic science that would (and eventually can) help us achieve wine growing goals (whether aesthetic or ethical). Serious scientific consideration, for instance, of the origin and identity of those yeasts that are operative in fermentation and what these contribute to flavor has scarcely begun, in the absence of which, talk about a possible terroir signature of yeasts mere speculation (and claims about the alleged perfidy of cultured yeasts tendentious). And did I just say “terroir”? I’ve been on something of a crusade trying just to clean up that concept in order to protect it from debasement, abuse, and muddle, and I DO believe that a good case can be made for considering certain parameters and not others part of terroir, which you might choose to call offering a definition. But I wouldn’t dream of using my notion of terroir evaluatively to put down someone’s place or wine, as I consider this among the more confused abuses to which the word is routinely subjected (as in: “I’ve got terroir; all you’ve got is dirt;” or compare “Ours is a neighborhood; where you come from is just a bunch of streets and houses where people live”). As to framing and testing hypotheses about the ways in which not just physical but chemical characteristics of vineyard soils impact flavor, scientific work has scarcely begun (and, I would submit, that includes really serious work on the part of wine professionals to engage in blind tastings that might enable us to organoleptically better-specify the characteristics we intuitively refer to as signatures of terroir). The role of microbial soil life in determining wine’s characteristics has also only just begun to receive serious study. And I am sure I don’t need to tell you that only in recent years – thanks to commercial imperatives and the evolution of synthetic alternatives to natural cork – has basic research really gotten going on how wine ages and on the sulfur chemistry that is fundamental to how it tastes, all of which are surely prerequisites to making intelligent, optimal decisions about sulfur dosage.

    Secondly, it’s true about an enormous range of techniques and tools in wine growing and vinification that they carry potential benefits as well as risks. So as not to run-on yet more excessively, I pick just a few at random. Chaptalization: Take a look at the issues that were hotly debated on both sides of the “Naturwein” controversy among early 20th Century German Riesling growers. Or consider the practice of fractional chaptalization practiced as a means of extending fermentation by a sizeable percentage if not the majority of today’s Burgundy’s acknowledged top Pinot practitioners. And yet, it’s also with good reason that so many growers wear the fact that their wines aren’t chaptalized as a badge of honor. Sulfuring: Surely it plays a vital role in flavor-determination and preservation of most of the world’s best wines. There is now good evidence – thanks precisely to some of the self-proclaimed proponents of natural wine – that wine can be delicious and even evolve positively in bottle without added sulfur. (Whether the chemistry of its evolution is fundamentally different under such conditions is another important open question.) But for now, early spoilage in bottle and consequent inability to achieve bottle-ripeness is a huge problem in many regions, so it’s hard to overlook the potential drawbacks as well as potential payoffs of low- (let alone no-)sulfur. Filtration: Again, we know of the gustatory pay-offs that can come if growers refrain, but also the pitfalls and down-sides. In matters viticultural, consider irrigation. Certainly it can lead to dependency, shallow root-penetration, salinization … all sorts of vices. But a great case can also be made (poster child, Danubian Austria) for drip lines as promoters of quality in arid or extremely fast-draining conditions. Clones: their insidious role in rooting-out diversity and with it the precious genetic memory of generations, even centuries of vine selection, is in my opinion insufficiently appreciated; indeed, it’s one of the issues that sends me to the barricades. But I am not about to deny that clones have also been a tool in advancing wine quality and at times saving old or making possible new growing regions.

    Haven’t we enough to do trying to understand and then weight the consequences of these tools and techniques – indeed, in trying to get people to do this rather than stick to mere slogans – without arguing about the alleged degree to which they are “natural” or “unnatural”?

    Q.: “[I]s [there] a tangible difference in terroir-expression (the whole point of it all right?) between the ['natural wine' and conventionally produced wine]?”

    First (to your parenthetic point), terroir expression is only one of the factors that in my experience motivates growers or consumers in their viticultural and vinous preferences, and I daresay it motivates only a tiny segment of either group. Even among self-proclaimed proponents of natural wine or organic viticulture and among wine snobs, terroir is only one among numerous motivational factors. To see this more clearly, just consider the analogy with comestible agricultural products as a whole. (This is another area in which I have considerable experience, as well as another in which – given my concerns about vegetable- and livestock-raising and my pronounced locavore proclivities – I can easily become insufferable.) Among those truly obsessed with issues of sustainability; heirloom diversity; taste diversity; or nutritional ethics, I find only a small minority that has even considered the notion of terroir signatures. And while I am quite sure that I can in some instances identify such signatures depending on where an animal was pastured or the soil in which a particular cultivar raised, I cannot imagine such distinctions ever acquiring the fascination or allure that accrues to fermented grape juice. There are battles – or perhaps one could say there’s a food war – with many combatants determined to fight under the banner of “natural” (though not I, for analogous reasons to those I mentioned in connection specifically with wine). Terroir plays at most a minor role in this global conflict. But most of the divisive issues in agriculture generally also apply to wine … before we even get down to considering wine as a reflection of terroir.

    The nub of your question though is surely this: “Are there certain circumstances, tools, or methods (forget what, if anything, we might choose to collectively call them) which – when applied to wine growing –conduce to wines whose place of origin we can discern by taste?” I am quite sure that the answer is “yes.” But for all of the reasons I adduced already above, I think we can at most give a very tentative account of what these are. What’s more, even as a self-proclaimed terroirist, I am not about to claim that I can in every instance draw sharp distinctions between those organoleptic characteristics that are born of terroir and those I would instead attribute to cépage, vintage character, or “outside intervention.”

    Just to take one example from the realm of cellar technique, I tend to find, in those instances where I have actually been able to make comparisons and virtually all else is equal, that the un-filtered lot of a particular wine will have pleasurably enhanced aromatic and textural dimensions vis-à-vis a sterile-filtered lot of “the same” wine. I am also very sure from considerable experience that the differences between two such lots do not diminish over time, on the contrary. It strikes me as a reasonable speculation – even if only speculation – that the very sterility of the one makes a critical organoleptic difference; or, put another way, that whatever remains literally alive in the other accounts for some of its distinctive and evolving sensorial features. Unfortunately, sometimes an unfiltered wine is acted-upon in ways that I would characterize as spoilage. Is bacteriological influence in bottle part of terroir or not? I don’t have a ready answer. Perhaps even more significant might be the question “Is the difference between what enhances aromas and textures in an unfiltered wine that I find desirable and what spoils another unfiltered wine a fundamental matter of kind, or merely a difference in degree?” Again, I don’t know. And I hope you can see without dragging this out that a similar situation arises with regards to dosages of sulfur and many other details of élevage and bottling.

    As to the viticultural side of things, certain approaches – including how one treats (or doesn’t) or works (or doesn’t) the soil – seem at the very least to conduce to more distinctive-tasting wines. And I’m all for getting to the bottom of this. But it will no doubt take a very long time to unlock major mysteries about the interrelationships of soil and other aspects of site with vine and wine … behind which, in the very nature of things and of scientific endeavor, will stand new mysteries. In my polemical work, I have tried to correct tendencies I detect as indefensible short-cuts in trying to explain why wines taste as they do (and by implication trying to show how we might make a greater number of them taste more exciting and site-specific). One such – again, merely as an example – is the conceptual muddle that constitutes discussion of so-called “minerality in wine.” (Put baldly, the muddle consists in an equivocation on “minerality” between the ways in which we struggle to describe our sensory experience and whatever influence mineral content in soil, sap, must, or wine might have on those experiences; between words and things, if you will.)

    So, there are tendencies or things that conduce to distinctiveness – which is a prerequisite for a wine tasting site-specific or “of a place” – as well as things that conduce to our being able to identify place or site by taste. (If there weren’t, then we wouldn’t be able to do things in the vineyard or the cellar to OBLITERATE such differences; but we know that this is possible, based on more proof than most of us wish we had ever tasted.) Which tools and techniques are conducive to these (as most readers of this blog will perceive it) felicitous characteristics of wine? My experience gives me only very limited confidence that I can identify them. And for every generalization I am tempted to make (or that a wine grower avers) I am very aware and have frequently experienced that a counterexample is lurking just a few more bottles (or a few doors) away.

    But I am quite sure of this: those tools and techniques that conduce to vinous virtue and tastiness don’t line-up along any simplistic or easily-discernable lines; and if they did, I doubt these lines would be ideologically defensible. There is enough conceptual complexity, scientific ignorance, poetry, and pleasure to keep us all challenged and entertained by wine for a lifetime. Why politicize it or deal in caricature?

    Bruce G,

    As you might have noted from the above (though if you hadn’t the patience or stomach for it, I completely understand), I merely cite chaptalization as among countless practices about which one could get a fruitful discussion going and which, at least in some times and at some places, have been the subject of heated ideological debate (some of which – as in the case of German Riesling that I mentioned – have been tied to attempts at defining “natural wine”).

    I am not totally unsympathetic to using “natural wine” as – in your trenchant phrase – “a convenient short-hand to convey a general philosophical direction.” (I have considerable sympathy for the often admirably clear- if single-minded protagonists of the aforementioned Naturwein battle in German Riesling history, a conflict whose historical record I have followed in some detail.) As I also tried to clarify in my original comments on Nossiter as well as immediately above, I’m not even against a slogan if it serves as a rallying cry to DEBATE and reflection; my beef with most self-proclaimed naturalists I read or listen to is that “natural” is used to shut-down discussion and a bit of bad faith seems to me to be exercised in refusing to be pinned down while treating certain criteria as implicit qualitative litmus tests.

    Robert,

    Among many other illuminating points you make are the sense in which much so-called “natural wine” can be maddeningly unpredictable in its performance and the sense in which it represents an attempt to turn back the clock. But there is as a virtuous side to each of these aspects as well, I think (in fact, I’ve devoted columns to arguing and illustrating these points).

    Without dreaming of using this as an ideological tool to put down anybody or -thing, I like to distinguish between wine (and other foodstuffs) viewed under the aspect of contingency and under that of commodity. The contingencies of growing season, vintage variability are to me part and parcel of what makes good wine-drinking (and good eating) soul-satisfying. Chance-taking growers who are willing to make their wines hostage to the vicissitudes of nature often make what I find the most intriguing and ultimately satisfying beverages, and this can include what goes on – or does not – in the cellar (as for instance in matters of racking regimen, filtration, or sulfuring). That said, risk takers should try not to “reward” their customers with wines that are utterly capricious in their bottle evolution or whose quirks it becomes impossible for most of us to see as beauty spots rather than blemishes. Like so many of the factors I wrote about, it is a matter of degree.

    As to anachronism, that too has proven to have some terrific fruits. I like to draw parallels here (which I alluded to above and have elaborated repeatedly) to attempts – from the 1950s on – to imaginatively and with attention to the historical record recreate “early music performance practice.” Much ridicule was heaped on its proponents and some of what struck listeners as perverse and provocatively raw was just that, but in the end this movement revolutionized classical music performance practice not just of “period pieces” but as a whole. As exercises in self-discipline, Zen-minimalism, stylistic self-reflection, or sheer self-expression, the increasing number of wines whose growers are trying to hew to earlier, even ancient practices represent one of the more exciting developments of our time. But I would frown on any foolish attempts to claim authenticity or superiority for practices imaginatively modeled on any particular place and time, and where wine growers or wine critics (as is also true of musicians and music critics – consider the case of controversial conductor René Jacobs) start pointing and wagging fingers at one another, I lose interest and ask why we can’t simply seek pleasure in the wines (or other performances) rather than argue about their historical or ideological fidelity.

    Vincent,

    As Mike would confirm – though I’m afraid I have not saved the e-mail record of this and must ask you to take my word – I let him know when he approached me about republishing what had been a posting on Jancis Robinson’s site I expressed concern that it be explicitly indicated (as it was in my original posting) that I relied on a fairly detailed account of Nossiter’s remarks (by Walter Speller, a frequent collaborator and author of feature articles on that web site) not on any notes of my own first-hand nor on an official transcript of the Zürich proceedings. So to whatever extent, if any, the remarks Speller disseminated on Jancis Robinson’s site proved to offer an inaccurate account of Nossiter’s talk, my criticisms were regrettably misdirected and I thank you for your attempts to provide a more accurate version. But I would say that this misdirection is solely a function of any misattribution on Speller’s part. In addressing what I believed (with what I took to be good reasons) were Nossiter’s verbatim opinions, the validity of my arguments against the positions attributed to Nossiter can stand or fall on its own.

    You have however made your own big mistake of attribution: I never made any claims about cinema, of which I know little (including, as you noted, too little to have caught a misspelling of Godard’s name). I merely repeated what Speller (from whom I copied the misspelling) had reported, namely that:

    “[Nossiter] also argued … against a definition of natural wines. ‘It would be like saying to the great directors of the time, like Fellini and Goddard [sic.], ‘now that you are making neo-realism let[']s set up rules to determine what neo-realistic cinema is’.”

    So if anyone “confuse[d] the French Godard with Italian neo-realism” it can only have been either Nossiter (insofar as he was correctly quoted) or else Speller (insofar as he – inadvertently, I’m sure – incorrectly or too incompletely recorded what Nossiter spoke). In attacking Nossiter’s argument, I made clear that my objections were to the presumed line of argument and did not turn on any matters of cinematic history.

    I have no disagreement (subject of course to my ignorance of film) with the position you report as having in fact been Nossiter’s about imposing rules, namely

    “that it’s as pointless to impose strict rules for natural wine makers as it would be for Italian neo-realists like (early) Fellini, De Sica and Rossellini. Natural winemakers are equally heterogeneous artisans, from Dominique Lafon’s Macons to Claude Courtois. Each one an individualist with his own beliefs.”

    My objection was with citing an analogy of this sort in defense of those who champion certain wines and condemn others according to whether they are deemed “natural,” and for whom specific practices (or their omission) are utilized as touchstones of legitimacy. In my experience, this is routine practice among self-proclaimed defenders of “natural wine,” and while I have huge respect for the craftsmanship and artistry not to mention the finished products bottled by a great many growers who style themselves proponents of natural wine, I find many growers ideologically defensive and dismissive of the methods that other growers employ, and that includes growers who dismiss or even ridicule the methods of self-proclaimed naturalists every bit as much as it does the latter insofar as they profess abhorrence of practices deemed insufficiently natural. As I mentioned, I’m sure that artists of various sorts have sometimes judged one another’s creativity through an ideological lens or devoted time and attention to polemics, but I don’t think it’s the rule, nor that it generally makes those who have done so look good. (In music, for instance, even some of the most infamous ideological rows – “Brahms vs. Wagner” for example – were carried out largely by music critics acting as alleged proxies for the artists; Boulez, after emerging as a serialist on steroids, then declared Schönberg “dead” and his system imprisoning … but 60 years later he’s still arguably Schönberg’s foremost champion in the concert hall.)

    As for the value of provocateurs or radicals, or their slogans, as my response to Bruce and to Robert intimated, I recognize that these can serve as useful stimulants, which seems to agree with your intentions in pointing to filmmakers whose work proved “very useful for pushing esthetic boundaries.”

    And insofar it’s true, as you suggest, that “Nossiter was making a case for tolerance and plurality” I wholeheartedly share his sentiments, as should be evident by what I have written here and in many other places. But I cannot say that from Mondovino, Liquid Memory, or interviews I have seen or read that these struck me as being Nossiter’s themes – nor need they be, if his purpose is to evoke and provoke, rather than to engage in detailed discussion of or to test both practical wine growing and aesthetic hypotheses. This sort of discussion and testing is something I champion and to which I have devoted considerable effort, and not – as you seem to imagine – in such complete ignorance of the practices, theories, or history of wine growing as I am of cinema!

  11. Bill Klapp permalink
    December 15, 2011

    The natural wine debate needs to be murdered in its sleep, for want of adequate existing science and ongoing research, and for want of anything remotely resembling a common language with which to discuss and debate it. (The accompanying banishment of the idle musings on the subject of Jamie Goode and Alice Feiring would be sweet icing on the cake as well!) The best thinking and writing on the subject almost invariably proposes a larger context with different yardsticks. I do not propose what I am about to say as an adequate larger context, but it seems to me that what everyone with naturalista leanings really wants is grower and winemaker ACCOUNTABILITY. That, of course, could manifest itself in dozens of ways. It just seems to me that if Parker can point to a few of his favorites and make an excellent case that they are “natural” wines (and he can), despite the baggage that he carries these days, and the certainty that the naturalistas would be silenced by a wine bottle label that disclosed, say, “This wine has been chaptalized by the addition of X grams of sugar per liter and aged for 36 months in 100% American oak from the outskirts of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, as well as having been steeped in X pounds per foudre of oak chips made from used Francois Freres barrels, subjected to reverse osmosis , dosed with X grams of sulphur per liter at bottling and corked with a natural cork from a producer whose corks have an abnormally high incidence of TCA taint,” the real issue is knowing what you are buying, and that would necessarily lead back to accountability…

  12. December 15, 2011

    Vincent, thanks for stopping by.

    I find it amusing that you would castigate David and me for relying on a second-hand account of Nossiter’s speech based on…the second-hand account that your cousin provided you. I can tell you that I read not only Walter Speller’s account of Nossiter’s talk, but also Alice Feiring’s, which squared with the information that Spelling relayed. Last I checked, Alice, who is a dear friend, is still an ardent champion of natural wines (that’s why she was at the Zurich event), so she can hardly be accused of these dastardly Tea Party tactics.

    I will concede to you that I didn’t need to write a review of Nossiter’s book, and in retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have; it may have been overkill. I made my views known with my review of Mondovino, and it wasn’t essential to take aim at the book, however pretentious and self-satisfied it was. I can certainly see why Nossiter groupies would be chagrined that, on top of those two reviews, I have now published David’s takedown of Nossiter.

    But I can assure you, Vincent, that Nossiter doesn’t intimidate me. What bothers me about him is that he is such a singularly awful advocate for an aesthetic that I happen to share. As I said in my review of Liquid Memory, Nossiter’s preferences in wine are basically identical to mine. But because he is such a pompous ass—let’s be candid here—he casts these wines, and this aesthetic, in the most unflattering light. And it’s not just me saying this. I had a conversation a while back with a winemaker who is a very good friend of Nossiter’s, and he freely acknowledged that Nossiter’s obnoxiousness trumps his message. Eric Asimov is the most fair-minded wine writer that I know, and even he considers Nossiter unbearable. That ought to tell you something.

    I am certainly impressed by Nossiter’s credentials, as you clearly are, too. And I recognize why some people find him appealing: he is an American but with a European sensibility and outlook, and in Mondovino, at least, he catered to a very dark and condescending view of American power and culture. He scratches an itch for some people—I get that. But here’s the thing: he doesn’t do it in a sophisticated way. In fact, he is astonishingly juvenile. There’s that scene in Mondovino in which Parker is being interviewed while driving in Bordeaux, and while he is talking, the camera cuts to a billboard for Burger King—it was the sort of sophomoric stunt that I thought was beaten out of you during the first year of film school. Ditto the scene in which Nossiter is taking a train to see Parker in Maryland, and the camera cuts to the smoke stacks and factories of northern New Jersey. Such subtlety—clearly, the work of a deep thinker!

    Nossiter, in Mondovino, was also dishonest. While globalization has certainly caused problems for small growers in France, the reality, as I explained in that scandalous book of mine, is that the biggest problem facing French viticulture is the French themselves—the decline in French wine culture, the insane regulations, etc. Nossiter didn’t acknowledge any of this, which is why he is not trustworthy.

    But perhaps you are right: maybe Nossiter just operates on a higher plane than dolts like David and me. After all, he speaks multiple languages and has been a sommelier on three continents. Perhaps it is as you say: these things are just beyond our grasp. In which case, Vincent, you should pity us, not scorn us.

    Lastly, with regard to that scandalous book of mine: I am flattered to learn that my “uproarious” four-day visit to France to promote the profane text (a trip made at the behest and expense of Fayard) caused “dozens of journalists and observers” such amazement. I didn’t actually meet with dozens of journalists–more like a dozen, at most–so I don’t know who these other “dozens” are, much less who these “observers” are. The funny thing is, the book received quite positive press in France, and no less a figure than Michel Troisgros said unequivocally on Complément d’Enquête (France 2) a few months ago that what I had written was true. But what would he know–he’s just a cook, right?

    Anyway, Vincent, thanks for the comments, and if you have anything to contribute to the discussion about natural wines, please feel free to join in.

  13. December 14, 2011

    Thanks, Katherine, for the comment, and glad to hear that my observations square with yours. Most winemakers have neither the time nor inclination to engage in ideological posturing, and the best ones, of course, are content simply to let their wines speak for themselves.

    Jay, I know Eric is a bit more positive about the whole “naturalista” thing than I am. But it seems to me that the more you know about the intricacies of wine production, the less inclined you are to accept the dogma peddled by many naturalistas.

    Bruce, that’s an interesting point, and you may well be right. I don’t see it that way, but I suppose I’ve announced myself as something of a partisan in this matter. Do you feel that my views, or David’s views, are expressed with the same kind of stridency that we decry in the “other” side?

  14. December 14, 2011

    Chris, I agree completely–”natural” is just a bad choice of words, and that choice of words is the source of so much of the controversy and rancor surrounding this issue. But “Less Interventionist,” while more accurate, isn’t nearly as catchy or marketable. And as you say, stridency is what gets attention. That’s true in wine, and it’s true in many other spheres, not least politics.

  15. December 14, 2011

    I need to defend myself against Monsieur Bonnet. First, I am no longer a consumer wine writer. I stopped being one when I became involved in winemaking in Languedoc Roussillon 6 years ago. I still write about the business of wine – as editor at large of Meininger’s Wine Business Intl – but never about any wine or region with which I have any involvement.

    As I said, I share some of Nossiter’s views but dislike his adolescent, unbalanced way of presenting them. I also love some natural wines but dislike the unthinking natural wine bandwagon. And, M Bonnet, as someone who lived for 6 years in Burgundy, produces wine in France and works for a German publisher, I know Europe quite well too. And know plenty of level-headed European winemakers who were less enamoured by Mondovino than you evidently were.

  16. Vincent Bonnet permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Dear Mike Steinberger,

    I have a great admiration for the US and for many of its people. As I hope my love for your language suggests (here helped a little by a native), the last thing I am is a French chauvinist (my country may be in worse condition than yours). I’m also not a wine professional like you and others, a simple amateur of wine and of wine culture. However, I feel obliged to write because of the poisoned display of ignorance, journalistic irresponsibility and, yes, smugness of your recent post (how odd that you accuse others of ignorant smugness when, in the rest of the world, this is the trait we identify with people like you, Robert Parker and his associates -whether an unmasked character like Jay Miller or a more sober operative like David Schildknecht). I followed your path a little since your uproarious visit to France to vigorously promote your book. You left behind dozens of journalists and observers amazed at how Graham Greene’s Quiet American can still exist in people as different as George Bush, Michael Moore and now even a centrist (opportunist) like you.

    I have my own significant reservations about Mondovino and the Nossiter book but I find it a little ironic that the legitimate targets of his work (self-satisfied -and self-proclaimed- wine critics and their cozy relationship to the business) has struck such a deep nerve with you. Your tragicomic (or kamikaze?) attack on his book -which won Nossiter new friends even among his skeptics like me- was surely enough to get your anxiety out of your system, no? Now you feel obliged to recycle a carefully misinformed second hand attack of third hand rumors?

    And since a cousin of mine was present at the Zurich conference, I can confirm (second hand of course) that Mr. Schildknecht’s source is completely mistaken about what was actually said. But even before I relay this different version, I have a question: has the blogsphere become so unethical that you don’t bother relaying to your readers that: the original report is made by a marketing consultant (Walter Speller), a traditional Nossiter target, posting on the site of one of the principal people denounced in his book (Jancis Robinson) and then passed on by an attack dog of his chief object of ridicule (Parker)! And we’re supposed to believe that through these three (four including you) pathologically anti Nossiter filters, we will know what he actually said???!!!! This is Wine Tea Party tactics.

    Firstly, for David Schildknecht to confuse the French Godard (one “d” please, as even the laziest google searcher will know) with Italian neo-realism ( an informal movement of strictly Italian cinema from the end of WW II to the late 1950′s) is simply absurd. It is bad faith and ignorance to attack somebody making such a confusion (in fact almost every aspect of his analysis about cinema is grotesquely erroneous.) And he cannot hide behind his childish demurral that he is “not a student of cinema” while ridiculing the “analogy that Nossiter offers is so weak as to be laughable!” (Exclamation point is his!) If you’re “not a student of cinema” and if you have the least respect for culture of any kind, then you do not dare to opine on a subject about which you know nothing! Let alone use it to bludgeon third hand an opponent who does. Because it is impossible that this confusion comes from a filmmaker with Nossiter’s pedigree.

    Like him or not, he has an unusually distinguished international career as a film director, nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, for the Golden Bear at Berlin and winner of Sundance. He knows Europe unusually well (speaks six of its languages) and has earned the respect of most independent vignerons in France and Italy because he has dared to expose thing complaisant insiders remain too frightened to reveal. Disagree with him? Yes, please. I disagree with many of his positions, but he is an adversary with significant enough credentials, including 20 years as a sommelier on three continents, to merit respect. But perhaps Mr. Steinberger, is it these qualifications that intimidate you to such fits of rage?

    So what did Nossiter say after he was asked about the need for rules? Simply that it’s as pointless to impose strict rules for natural wine makers as it would be for Italian neo-realists like (early) Fellini, De Sica and Rossellini. Natural winemakers are equally heterogeneous artisans, from Dominique Lafon’s Macons to Claude Courtois. Each one an individualist with his own beliefs. Nossiter was making a case for tolerance and plurality. His mention of Godard was apparently in a subsequent comment about the French New Wave (it was filmed so the conference organizers could no doubt provide a tape). He was speaking of a different movement in a different period in a different country (although all continentals look alike to some Anglo-saxons). He suggested that the experimentation of the more radical fringe of natural winemakers was like Godard and other French New Wave auteurs of the 60′s…not always pleasing, but very useful for pushing esthetic boundaries.

    But while these subtle, respectful and sophisticated arguments seemed to resonate well with the attending vignerons, they are clearly beyond the understanding of certain smugly ignorant (when not hysterical) wine blobbers.

    Please Mr. Steinberger and Mr. Schildknecht, some humility before things which are beyond your grasp.
    Sincerely,
    Vincent Bonnet

    p.s. I noted that a certain Mr. Joseph chimed in on the attack wagon which you set in motion. Would that be because he also is a wine merchant as well as a wine writer…an unethical breach of conduct unacceptable in most professions that Nossiter has highlighted for many years now? Oh well, plus ça change…

  17. Bruce G. permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Mike:

    Thank you for the response.
    Yes, some of the non-winemaking naturalistas are rather strident. But I think many non-producers who disagree with the “movement” are equally as guilty, and their comments seem to betray predispositions instead of open-minded discussion.

  18. Jay H. permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Asimov’s annual “best of the wine books” is on point:

    “What makes wine natural, and what prevents it from being considered so? The questions embrace the spectrum of grape-growing and winemaking practices, but can seem befuddling to those not already schooled in the intricacies of wine production.

    “Enter “Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking” by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop, (University of California Press, $29.95), which makes a valiant effort to address the questions raised by the natural challenge in a scientific, dispassionate manner.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/14/dining/four-reasons-to-turn-the-pages-the-pour.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=dining&adxnnlx=1323892801-XqJ/GMzdUPH9N65E6h4ZlA

    As for Nossiter, anyone who hasn’t read Liquid Memory may want to plop down with it at your local bookstore and read the one chapter where he decided to shut his mouth: a long lunch with Dominique Lafon, Jean-Marc Rulot and Christophe Roumier (with Alix de Montille along for the ride) where he turns on his tape recorder and lets them do all the talking. Utterly absorbing. It almost-but-not-quite redeems the book.

  19. December 14, 2011

    Thank you Mark. That’s the clearest definition I’ve seen – and it acknowledges the essential problem: that intervention of some kind may be unavoidable.

    The natural wine movement is a useful response to industrial winemaking, just as nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s was a retort to floury, creamy sauces.

    The problem only comes when extremists try to pretend that the new, new thing is intrinsically better than what went before. I have yet to taste a natural wine that comes close to eclipsing the greatest “unnatural” wines I’ve enjoyed in my life, and I don’t appreciate naturalists implying that this comment merely reveals the failings of my palate.

    There is, however another point worth making. Louis Pasteur, like Galileo, Newton and Fleming, was not an historic irrelevance. The earth is round and revolves around the sun; the laws of gravity apply and antibiotics are still an essential part of the medical arsenal.

    Producing wine with little or no SO2 is – or should be – a minority pursuit. Unless we want to return to the glorious days of yore when one had to play Russian Roulette between bottles of vinegar and wine.

    A recent experience with an Etna Contadino red from Frank Cornelissen – hero of the natural wine movement – in Artisan & Vine, one of London’s temples of natural wine – illustrates the issue. When I ordered the wine, the waitress asked if I was sure I wanted it “other people haven’t really enjoyed it”. We went ahead and, in a bizarre way, enjoyed the first third of the bottle. I say “bizarre” because it was definitely more like alcoholic berry juice than anything I think of as wine. As the wine reacted to air and developed cardboardy oxidised flavours, however, all pleasure rapidly evaporated and we gave up, leaving the bottle half full. .

    Cornelissen evidently doesn’t worry too much about his unsulphored wine oxidising – otherwise, he presumably wouldn’t bottle it in clear glass.

    To the natural wine movement, criticising Cornelissen is a little like standing in St Peters and denigrating the Holy Pontiff. Jamie Goode, A UK writer I generally respect, described the wines as “the peers of any of the world’s great wines. I don’t care how they are made: these are just fantastic, serious wines.” after a tasting in London, earlier this year.

    But, interestingly, his comment (on his blog: http://bit.ly/tqoAwT) aroused less enthusiastic responses from two other people, both of whom evidently had some knowledge of natural wine:

    “As an occasional retailer of Contadino, I think some of the wines are unquestionably good with lovely aromatics and real interest on the palate.

    I do find the whites so difficult as to be unenjoyable, and there are also clearly many of the red releases that are not worth the hype/money, but when things go well in the vineyard, I think these can be thrilling.”

    from one, and

    “I have a high tolerance for the “features” (defects? tates? aromas?) of natural wines, and I am well disposed enough toward them, I try to shut out some of the mystical hype around them and with an open palate I enjoy wines with moderate amounts of brett, VA, oxydation etc.. It is very rare that I come out and be so categoric about a winemaker.

    In this case, it is just too haphazard, if the guy makes so many, er, not just bad wines, but truly infectiously horrible ones, I would not want to play dice and buy one of his supposedly good ones, whose goodness will be as accidental as the badness of the bad ones.

    IMHO there is far too much great wine around to spend any time on Cornelissen, who is a master in creating an image and marketing around him, indeed he can almost hypnotize people into thinking the vinegar they are drinking is delicious.

    There are some natural wine makers (I can think of a dozen or more) that are capable of making good wine consistently, and if they happen to spoil a batch they chuck it out instead of bottling it…”

    from the other…

    The story of the emperor and his clothes springs to mind…

  20. December 14, 2011

    Mike’s comment re: “winemakers on balance are much more concerned with figuring out what actually works rather than laying down rules and making ideological pronouncements” is spot-on, in my experience. In the Willamette Valley, I have found, our soft-spoken vintners simply respond to what the vintage presents. Many follow as natural a path as possible, but when fermentation gets stuck, they’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do.

    Around these parts, I hear “natural wine” from the mouths of pundits, but never from the winemakers themselves.

  21. December 14, 2011

    Here is someone who has decided he knows exactly how to define natural wine http://www.morethanorganic.com/definition-of-natural-wine

    In the lead up “So we need to be clear exactly what we mean by natural wine” I am not sure who the “we” are

  22. Chris Wallace permalink
    December 14, 2011

    I too am happy to see Nossiter taken down a few notches, by Schildknecht, by Mike and the various other commenters here. I found Mondovino to be a self-aggrandizing piece of yellow journalism. As to David’s writing style, yes I can see how some may find it a bit flowery, but I have to confess, I am somewhat partial to those who can display a large vocabulary.

    On the whole natural wine movement, I think that it suffers when it becomes extreme. There is no such thing as 100% natural wine. Wine is the result of the interaction between man and nature. Nature alone will produce only a wild disarray of grapevines. Man needs to tend the vines, manage the canopy, control the crop load etc in the vineyard. And the last time I looked, the grapes don’t vinify themselves. The Naturalist Movement is actually a misnomer: it is really the Less Interventionist Movement. Unless man intervenes, you won’t get wine. The goal that the Naturalists really want is less intervention, not no intervention. But pounding the table for the middle path sounds like a contradiction, and certainly does not get you headlines. So a publicity hound like Nossiter has to advocate the extreme. It is the only way for him to get the attention he craves.

  23. December 14, 2011

    Bruce, I agree with you that a lot of the stridency comes from non-winemakers. As I pointed out in the Slate piece I wrote about natural wines, the most prominent “naturalista” voices here in the US are non-practitioners, and this unquestionably skews the discussion. And it was these advocates I had in mind when I talked about the different attitudes vis a vis chaptalization and acidification. And as I also noted in that Slate piece, winemakers on balance are much more concerned with figuring out what actually works rather than laying down rules and making ideological pronouncements.

  24. Bruce G. permalink
    December 14, 2011

    A lot of the false dichotomies surrounding the subject of natural wine seem (from my vantage point, at least) to be coming from those commenting rather than those making such wines.

    The suggestion, for instance, that chaptalization is not a problem for natural winemakers…. this strikes me as a complete fabrication. Most of the natural winemakers I know work very hard to produce grapes that do not require chaptalization, and are quite vocally self-critical if they miss the mark.
    Similarly, most of these producers freely recognize that the term “natural wine” is flawed, if perhaps a convenient short-hand to convey a general philosophical direction.

    Commentators on all sides would do well to listen more and pontificate less.

  25. Bill Haydon permalink
    December 14, 2011

    {{ I don’t think either of us is inclined to define “natural”, because it simply cannot be done (unless, of course, one is referring to vinegar).}}

    So acid adjustments are now ok?

  26. December 13, 2011

    Thanks, Evan; glad you enjoy David’s posts as much as I do, and, yes, Schildknecht on Nossiter was too good to resist.

    Bob, Mondovino had its moments, and was certainly better than the book. But overall, I found it very disappointing; subtlety is not Nossiter’s strong suit.

    David F, as Robert points out, truly “natural” wine is vinegar. So in reality, there is no such thing as a “natural” wine–it is a marketing slogan. Some wines are made with less intervention than others, and I think it is fair to say that these wines are “more natural.” But which interventions are acceptable, which ones are not, and why? That’s the point David S made in his response to Nossiter, and the problem with the natural wine movement is that it is very inconsistent/selective about which processes are kosher and which ones are not, and its advocates refuse to define what they mean by “natural” wines. I don’t want to speak for David S, but I don’t think either of us is inclined to define “natural”, because it simply cannot be done (unless, of course, one is referring to vinegar).

    Robert, I agree with you (obviously). There are valuable discussions to be had about what kind of interventions in the vineyard and the cellar are consistent with a desire for authenticity, etc. But wines do not make themselves.

  27. December 13, 2011

    This all reminds me of Jonathan Swift’s argument between the Big-Endians and Little-Endians over the best way to eat a boiled egg. Natural wine is as much of an etymological nonsense as natural bread or natural yoghurt. Nature has nothing to do with planting vitis vinfera in rows on carefully selected patches of soil. Nature has nothing to do with training or pruning, harvesting or crushing grapes. Nature has nothing to do with racking wine from one tank or barrel to another, or with bottling and sealing with cylinders of wood bark.
    Nature makes grapes, raisins, juice – possibly slightly fermented and even more possibly tainted by various forms of rot – and vinegar.

  28. December 13, 2011

    Mike – As a regular reader, here’s a vote for just as much David Schildknecht as you’d like to share. Your instinct is spot on. He’s a pleasure to read, particularly when he’s offering a literary pantsing of Nossiter or his ilk.

  29. Bob R. permalink
    December 13, 2011

    I’ll have to agree with much of DavidF’s comments. I too found David S’s piece difficult to read. On the other hand, I do respect him greatly as a wine critic. As to Nossiter, I enjoyed Mondovino, even while recognizing that it was propaganda (sort of like the way I felt about the movie “Z” way back in the 70′s). On the other hand, his book was a different story. It was as bad as reading Jay McInerney’s writings on wine. Pretension everywhere.

  30. December 13, 2011

    @Mike: Instead of this sometimes meaningless back and forth, is it worthwhile to finally come up with some answers pertaining to #1: Is there such a thing as “natural wine” and #2: If so, can we concretely define what it is? Lots of great arguments have been raised on both sides about the related viticulture and vinification processes. What I’m interested in learning about is whether a clear distinction can be made, and if it’s even necessary.

    @DavidS: Thanks very much for your reply. You’re not insufferable – in fact, your opinion on German riesling is one of the few that I trust. I just found your piece difficult to read – I’ve served my time getting a degree, can’t take it anymore :)

    I would pose the same question to you, as a leading wine authority. Can a specific definition be created to distinguish “natural wine” from conventionally produced wine? Or do we go back even further and ask if there is a tangible difference in terroir-expression (the whole point of it all right?) between the two?

    Thanks gentlemen!

  31. December 13, 2011

    Robert, thanks for stopping by. I agree–no surprise at all that Nossiter would jump on the natural bandwagon. Why the natural movement would want to be associated with him is harder to understand. He is exactly as you describe him, and is such a poor messenger. How he managed to turn Robert Parker into the hero of a documentary denouncing the globalization of wine was quite a feat. I suppose he was invited to the conference in Zurich because of his marquee value, and I’m sure his sanctimony and tendentiousness were not entirely out of place.

  32. David Schildknecht permalink
    December 13, 2011

    David,

    I’m all in favor of anyone interested in these (or for that matter most other vinous) issues reading Andrew Jefford on the subject.

    I remind you that it was not me, but (naturally, that being his area) Nossiter who introduced the film analogy and I merely called it into question on grounds that (as I noted) don’t require expertise in film. Believe it or not (and I’m sorely tempted to prove this by entering here, except I bet then you’d find me even more insufferable ;-) I wrote an outtake to this commentary on Nossiter in which I used Boulez’ polemics and modernism in music – about which I do know a bit – as an alternative and more fruitful analogy between the ideologies of art and wine.

    Bill,

    I completely agree with your points about the polemics of natural wine. Extremists are useful for provoking freewheeling discussion; but my beef is with extremists being held-up as the folks deemed best able to engage in such discussion, when in fact their black-white, false dilemma-ridden positions generally preclude that. I am sympathetic to many of those things that are dear to the hearts of self-proclaimed proponents of “natural wine” including minimalism as an aesthetic discipline; celebration of wine’s contingencies rather than treating it as a commodity; wine’s reflecting its place of origin; wine’s healthfulness; agricultural sustainability, &c., to many of which topics I have dedicated one or another of my columns in The World of Fine Wine and Vinaria. It’s just that I believe, pace Barry Goldwater (whom I’m old enough to have met and have had reason to despise even when he was alive), that extremism in the defense of most any good thing ultimately exposes itself as vice.

    On the professional issue, tasting thousands of wines; having the privilege of doing it in the company of the growers; having a platform for conveying my enthusiasm via reports and tasting notes to a huge number of wine lovers … and then to be paid well-enough for this to make it my livelihood … I’d have to be pulled kicking-and-screaming from my job at The Wine Advocate! (I can imagine the volunteers lining up now to do that, though … .) Anyway, even I couldn’t stand constant immersion in wordy wine commentary, especially my own. I spent most of my professional life devoted 90% to the commercial sector; and conveying enthusiasm for distinctively delicious wines is what nourishes my soul. (Incidentally, you may well have nailed my arrested development, as I in fact never did complete a PhD dissertation, though thanks to Barry Smith – now co-director of the “Centre for the Study of the Senses” – I have, unworthy though I may be, been given a couple of opportunities to present philosophical papers relevant to wine.)

  33. December 13, 2011

    Having suffered through a press preview of Mondovino, I’m interested but not surprised to see that J Nossiter has now climbed onto the natural wine bandwagon. Some of the points he sought to make in his film were valid, but like Michael Moore at his worst, his incoherent and often irrelevant modus operandi almost totally undermined his argument. (What relevance, for example, did Antinori’s parents’ behaviour in the 1940s or the Staglins’ taste in art have to the wine world of today?). The notion of natural wine raises some interesting issues, but few in my experience that have much to do with giving most people what they want: a reliably enjoyable drink.
    When I met Nossiter, he struck me as being a self-obsessed, precocious adolescent who would benefit from being cut down to size by a grown-up with some depth of knowledge of the subject. Eight years later nothing seems to have changed.

  34. December 13, 2011

    Bill, my sense is that people hold David apart from The Wine Advocate, even if he is part of it. Certainly, he has nothing to do with the craziness now unfolding over there (vis a vis Miller, Campo, and Parker). Whether The Wine Advocate is the best platform for David’s knowledge and talent is another story, but he is obviously a great credit to that publication. Not all of Parker’s hires have gone wrong.

  35. Bill Haydon permalink
    December 13, 2011

    Mike, David’s response (once one gets past his trademark prose reminiscent of an overcompensating, first year doctoral student ) is a thoughtful and valid response to Nossiter. Unfortunately, I think many may very well dismiss it precisely because of his relationship to Mr. Parker and TWA.

    For a valid response to the naturalistas’ extremism to carry true weight, it shouldn’t be emanating from the camp of the opposing extremists.

    Personally, I wish Mr. Schildknecht would end his relationship with the TWA. Whatever comforts and opportunities it provides him, it’s logical to assume that it does distract him from what I feel could be a more substantive and thoughtful body of work (no more need to fly around the world clocking his 5K tastes every year) and free him from having to (or at the very least the perception that he may have to) toe any institutional line on controversial topics.

  36. December 13, 2011

    Bill, I’m glad you enjoyed David’s piece, and I completely agree with you about why the natural movement has caught on to the extent that it has–it is not just a reaction against “industrial” wines, but a reaction against Parker, and the so-called Parker Palate. But like David, I find it intellectually flimsy, and the fact that natural advocates refuse to define the term “natural” is problematic. I think a lot of these people define “natural” in terms of personal preferences, and they arrange the goalposts in a way that accords with their own preferences and biases. An example: naturalistas always condemn acidification, but chaptalization is not a problem in their eyes. And why is that? I’m just speculating, but I think it has something to do with the fact that most naturalistas skew Old World in their preferences, and chaptalization is a traditional Old World practice, Acidification by contrast, is most commonly practiced in the New World, and therefore it is an intervention that must be condemned.

    All that said, I think you are absolutely right: the pendulum is swinging, and we could be entering a really exciting period for wine, in which no voice or style is predominate. And all this discussion is absolutely healthy and essential.

  37. December 13, 2011

    David F, thanks very much for the kind words; greatly appreciated. David S has a background in academia, and his writing style was undoubtedly influenced by his training. I don’t have an issue with it, but mileage will obviously vary. At any rate, I just thought it was a well-deserved takedown of Nossiter and a good summary of the “case” against the natural wine movement (even though, as I said in the intro, both David and I enjoy many wines being made in a so-called “natural” way and are friends with many naturalistas). And I agree–Andrew Jefford’s piece was excellent.

  38. Bill Haydon permalink
    December 13, 2011

    I guess we can close the door on ever having a quality, “naturally” produced Port since a chemical compound is added to arrest fermentation. ;)

    In a more serious vein, this was a thoroughly interesting and thought provoking read from Mr. Schildknecht. In short, much of winegrowing like much of life takes place in the grey areas and away from the realm of dogmatic pedants.. Unfortunately, I think their screeds are not only inevitable but perhaps necessary. Every revolution produces extremists. The key is to not let them start chopping off the heads of the movement’s more thoughtful and rational leaders. In fact I would posit that this extremism is a natural and inevitable reaction against the equally rigid and unyielding certainty of what constituted “good” winemaking emanating from the pages of the TWA for at least the last two decades and its smothering effect from Napa to Cape Town.

    I don’t see false dichotomy emerging but rather a multitude of voices–and some will undoubtedly come to be considered extreme, pedantic and just plain wrong. All, however, are necessary to swing the pendulum back. This will undoubtedly take ridiculous turns here and there whether in the speeches of Nossiter and hard-core naturalists or the random, sommelier who turns his nose up at the most anti-Parker producers in California while having a full section of overblown Priorats because, “Cali Bad; Euro Good!”

    My point is that a freewheeling discussion on winegrowing, winemaking and just plain what’s good is long overdue. Hopefully, the wheat will be separated from the chaff, and we’ll end up with a much more healthy and diverse community of views and discussions than existed over the last twenty or so years.

  39. December 13, 2011

    Mike, big fan of your work, and I’m sure Schildknecht is a great guy….but he’s no less full of himself than Nossiter is. His prose is tiring to the point of being unreadable – one of my economics professors used to write like this just to dick around with the class and lower the average.

    I’m no wine writer; maybe that’s why I was lost after the first paragraph. “…But for an address to take place under that rubric and in this particular context immediately suggests that both a false dichotomy and a contradiction underlie that conjunction.” What does that even mean??!!

    In my opinion, Andrew Jefford offers a much more lucid take on the natural wine movement, particularly in the August issue of Decanter where he argues against its dogmatic practices.

    But that’s just my opinion. Nossiter is a blowhard, but countering his arguments with this sort of petty ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ is no better. Really, Schildknecht thought it necessary to put his comment about neo-realism in film on blast in a pissing contest about how to define natural wine?

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