The Difference Between Great Chefs and Great Winemakers
Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, Michel Bras, and some other acclaimed chefs gathered in Lima, Peru last weekend for a food conference billed as the “G9” summit. Held under the auspices of something called the International Advisory Council of the Basque Culinary Center, the meeting produced a manifesto that was modestly titled Lima Declaration—Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow. In it, these gastronomic pooh-bahs proclaimed that “cooking is a powerful, transformative tool…we dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious and responsible for his contribution to a fair and sustainable society…through our cooking, our ethics, and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country. We can also serve as an important bridge with other cultures.”
Snark time! Actually, British restaurant critic Jay Rayner did the honors, dishing out a smackdown that included a generous helping of ridicule. “The night they all sat around the fast-emptying bottle of Fernet Branca hugging each other, staring intently into each other’s eyes and saying solemn things like ‘I am a bridge to other cultures’ must have been a complete doozy,” he wrote. Rayner pointed out that while the “G9” chefs were undoubtedly well-intentioned, there was something rather incongruous about these men who spend their days preparing highly stylized food for very rich people acting as if what they do is a “prescription for world peace.” Rayner was appropriately harsh: “Somewhere along the line they have got it into their heads that what they are doing matters on a global scale. In short they have made the terrible mistake of thinking anybody really gives a damn what they think.”
In addition to giving me a good laugh, Rayner’s broadside made me very grateful that the wine beat is generally free of this kind of gooey, self-aggrandizing piffle. Sure, the viticultural sphere has its share of pretentiousness and vanity, and I suppose there is a degree of moral preening with people like Nicolas Joly and some of the natural wine crowd. But I don’t see too many vintners running around claiming that cabernet can Change the World. Certainly, it would be hard to imagine a group of comparably eminent wine folk—say, Aubert de Villaine, Jean-Louis Chave, Christian Moueix, Manfred Prum, Roberto Conterno, and Paul Draper—coming up with something as pompous and presumptuous as the Lima Declaration. And I think that’s because there is an essential difference between how top chefs and top winemakers perceive themselves. The former tend to see themselves as creators, artists, even visionaries, and they are usually not short on ego.
The greatest winemakers, by contrast, view themselves simply as farmers, as mere custodians of the land (an attitude that goes a long way to explaining their greatness). For them, winemaking is not a form of self-expression; quite the opposite. Their aim is to make wines that reflect the character of a vineyard and that mask to the fullest extent possible the human intervention required to do that. A few years ago, I asked de Villaine what vintage he was proudest of. He immediately rejected the use of the word proud; to speak of any vintage as a personal accomplishment, he told me, would be to claim credit that wasn’t properly his. He said that as a winemaker, you can feel satisfied if “if you are capable enough at your craft to enable the terroir to express itself through your wines.”
Winemakers such as de Villaine and Draper bring remarkable humility to their work. Though they are just as eco-conscious, socially aware, and culturally significant as any of these chefs—and are subject to just as much veneration—I suspect they’d laugh you out of the cellar if you tried to get them to sign something like the Lima Declaration. They regard winemaking as an agricultural endeavor, and as a means of providing pleasure and of perpetuating tradition; I very much doubt they see it as a “powerful, transformative tool” that can elevate humanity to a higher plane. Unlike the chefs who met in Peru, they seem to have no confusion about where they stand in the grand scheme of things.
My advice to the winemakers of tomorrow (the Steinberger Declaration, you might say): in your work and your attitude, always follow the example of men like de Villaine and Draper, and never, ever engage in the kind of wankerism that was on display last weekend in Lima.