I don't mind that you think slowly, but
I do mind that you publish faster than you think.
An open letter to Matt Kramer
by Clark Smith
You aren't the first to have named me the anti-Christ in "the fight for the soul of wine," but in your role as conscience of the Spectator, I'd like to tussle with you for the moral high ground in light of your December 15, 2001 article of that name, viewable online.
You do good work. I happen to be among the minority of winemakers who actually think Wine Spectator and Robert Parker Jr. have a better handle on wine appreciation than most California producers. The so-called scientific training our winemakers receive makes them skeptical that people share a commonality of experience, and believing this can wreck them as artists. Imagine studying music by reading oscilloscope printouts. Wine Spectator never commits this silliness and it puts you leagues ahead when it comes to advising buffs what to buy.
William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism showed us that newspapers often color outside the lines of factual reporting to survive and prosper. In the 1970s, Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and Connoisseur's Guide broke from the pack based on willingness to slam the occasional bad actor, leaving guys like Jerry Mead in the dust. Mead wrote only good wine news and reserved his considerable bile for the Federal and State governments.
Good for you. But when you wander too far from the facts, the other scribes come agunnin', cause they wanna sell their rags, too. So Cyril Penn's given me a chance to state here the case for innovation, and we'll let the readers judge who's ethics they prefer.
Wine writers typically know about as much about winemaking as Washington columnists know about running the Presidency. Mostly they judge results. Sometimes they opine on the acceptable limits of the means employed, but without enough real training to offer helpful coaching in the artful compromises that constitute the actual daily job.
Mind you, I don't really think wine is like law and sausages. The process does matter. The burning question is: Who is qualified to select the tools? Does your notion of wine's nature qualify you to restrict the Real Winemaker's artesanality, or are you content with what's in the bottle? The great wine scribes -- Lichine, Schoonmaker, Johnson ‚ created educational roles for themselves, and none chose to be the winemaker's conscience.
In my experience, winemakers care a lot more about the spiritual nature of their work than consumers, and more than the gatekeepers who seek to advise them. For demonstration, let's think about who wants wine to be a natural miracle, and who doesn't.
Natural Miracles vs. Inconsistency
I first heard this notion from the lips of Walter Schug when I was a retailer in 1978 visiting Joseph Phelps. Over a glass of his stunning '75 Late Harvest Riesling, he informed me that its breathtaking price derived in part from the expected failure of botrytis three years out of four. He went on to explain that he could control vineyard moisture conditions artificially and make top quality wine every year...but then the wine wouldn't be a natural miracle. I was appalled. I'm thinking SO WHAT? Better wine, cheaper price...is this equation hard?
To a real winemaker, such unabashed pragmatism from retailers is disappointing, even shocking.
The tables are turned 24 years later. Last month I visited the brilliant and ineffable Paul Frey at his eclectic all-organic winery in Mendocino, where we tasted his astonishing 2000 Zinfandel, as near perfect a Zinfandel as I've seen, with wonderfully focused fruit, fine tannin, and great mineral vibrancy, yet made without sulfur dioxide at any stage and being given away at $7.99 a bottle. If ever a wine was a natural miracle, this is it. Two days later it won "Best Zinfandel" at the West Coast Wine Competition, and has been doing well elsewhere. I called a good friend who is also a major U.S. retailer to tip him off about this amazing wine, and he told me that he wouldn't carry any wine without sulfites because he was concerned about bottle-to-bottle inconsistency.
Although I have strong sympathy with your naturalist view, the sad fact is that the importance of the natural can be overstated. How do you really strike a balance between technique and substance? Will you buy the apples with spots and recommend the inconsistent wines because they're authentically organic?
Conversely, if new technologies really work -- give us wines that are rich, deep and visceral -- are you ready to forgive Dr. Frankenstein if his monster can really dance?
This is a trick question, of course. Our impression of weirdness of any given technology alters daily, especially these days. An ancient Egyptian winemaker would comprehend a Nineteenth Century cellar much better than a Nineteenth Century vigneron would recognize even the most primitive winery today. But none of us want to give back our electric lights, refrigeration systems, and freeze-dried yeast, or trade in our stainless steel.
Although we all accept these as part of traditional winemaking, they are not. The Twentieth Century utterly redefined the normal. The consumer accepts most of these innovations without thought because they now appear in her kitchen. A winemaker attempting to revert to candles and hand pumps might be sued, cited or committed. The pundits of 1910 who decried electric lighting, the better to flog their rags, seem silly to us today; perhaps our own ways will seem equally ludicrous in the future.
To gage the weirdness of a new tool is a slippery slope. We ask ourselves how Jefferson could own slaves. Perhaps our descendants will wonder how we ate animal flesh. If William Younger is to be believed, the Romans had entirely abandoned sulfites by the end of their millenium of winemaking, and perhaps we will, too. Maybe none of us have ever even tasted the true greats.
It's clear to me that the Twentieth Century was terribly destructive to winemaking. Any scrutiny of today's winemaking at all reveals, as you put it, "techniques which so distort a wine that it could not possibly have come from nature." Electricity, stainless steel, pesticides, herbicides, sulfites, inert gas, packaged microbes and enzymes -- all have lead us in the direction of convenience, safety and consistency, and removed winemakers further from direct experience of their wines.
The innovations aren't evil, but they have made us lazy and forgetful. The real crime of the 20th century is not what we learned ‚ it's what we forgot. Fireflies in the fields. A night ceiling of stars. The hearth. And the structure and vibrancy of real wine. We are taking steps to remedy this.
Don't shoot the piano player -- He's doing the best he can.
"Reverse osmosis" is a silly and confusing way of referring to a flavor-proof membrane. And it is accurate to explain that we like to create from this flavor-proof stream so we can remove the wine's alcohol without harming the flavors, which remain in the tank. But when you assert that the technique "is to deconstruct wine and then reconstruct it, eliminating water, alcohol or volatile acidity," this is like calling your breakfast omelette "denatured chicken embryos." It is accurate but gross. Do I sense a hidden agenda? Gee, could this be why the great Bordeaux chateaux using this technology are "not eager for you to know this?"
With respect to RO applications in California allowing producers to harvest "ultraripe" and "overripe" grapes, the point is to pick when the grapes are simply actually ripe instead of underripe, which in much of California, due to its dry harvest season, commonly occurs at elevated brix.
Why we are doing all those awful things (condensed from www.grapecraft.com)
Enology's fundamental view of wine chemistry has utterly altered in the last decade. We increasingly reject the chemical solution model of wine in favor of a growing understanding of structure. Wine isn't like Kool-Aid Ć, it's like chocolate milk. This shift has given rise to a system of post-fermentation "Člevage" techniques beneficial to the typical expression of wines. In consequence, winemakers have been forced to begin to re-evaluate our approach to every phase of winegrowing.
Once considered the enemy of wine, oxygenation has proven a powerful tool to enlarge and refine wine tannin structure, enhance stability and longevity, integrate aromatics and vegie, weedy, the horse sweat of Brettanomyces, and oak toast or vanilla are all woven together into a visceral whole if the tannic structure is well refined. These benefits are only possible when grapes have healthy, ripe color which is still vibrant -- not your "ultraripe" or degraded fruit. Optimum ripeness and winemaker re-education are critical prerequisites to positive work, and the best wines come from balanced vines on living soil.
Thinking like a grape
Grapes want to attract birds ‚ it's how they reproduce. But the seed must mature first, and that takes a set amount of time. Riesling flavor develops in early October in both Geisenheim and Philo, but at 16 vs. 24 brix.
Sugar and acidity vary greatly with climate, hot or cold, wet or dry. But color, flavor and tannin develop nearly independent of climate. Reverse osmosis membranes can be used in several ways to extend the hang time of wine grapes, freeing the winemaker's harvest decision from consideration only of sugar and acidity. In Bordeaux, true ripeness often means hanging into the rain, and an RO can squeeze this rain back out so we can obtain flavor concentration and alcohol balance. La tradition, per Napoleon's Dr. Chaptal, ignores the dilution and corrects the alcohol imbalance with beet sugar.
In California, we don't have much autumn rain, so we often have excessive alcohol at true ripeness. Skipping past the Michael Jackson analogies, the notion that wine from grapes picked at optimum flavor, color and tannin rather than at 23.5 brix is somehow "reconfigured out of all recognition from the original" seems to suggest that California is not entitled to harvest their fruit when it's really ripe.
Ten years ago, we just picked it all at 23.5 brix so the alcohol would be "normal." There aren't many winemakers that want to go back.
Shouldn't we only grow grapes where alcohol adjustment isn't necessary? My favorite corollary of Murphy's Law is "nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself!" There really is no such thing as an ideal location, any more than there is a perfect "10" human body type. I love the Bordeaux communes' recognizable personalities, and it's OK with me if the winemaker applies a technique like reverse osmosis to accentuating them.
No vineyard is always balanced. Wine's mysterious nature is incredibly robust. In a strange turn of events, we've found in hundreds of trials that wines have alcohol "sweet spots" ‚ exact points of harmonious balance with poor wines in between. Every wine needs careful tuning to make it sing in harmonious balance.
What to do
Matt, let's articulate together a consensus about what we mean by Real Wine, and apply these criteria to new tools. Here's a proposed list:
1. Real Wine possesses visceral power. Like great music or great cooking, it moves us, resonates with our souls, and shows us, by being so moved by another human being's creation, how connected we are to each other.
2. Real Wine derives its character from the place it was grown. It is therefore made from the action of biology on grapes, without added ingredients. But history and good sense provide exceptions. Blending to improve quality is axiomatic. Grape acids and sugars may be augmented in regions where deficiencies are unavoidable. Wood is part of wine, and it seems sulfur dioxide is necessary to the barrel's use. We endeavor towards simplicity when nature lets us.
3. Real Wine labels do not lie.
Real Wine's prime directive is expressiveness of place. This is the whole point of Vinovation. We and our clients have a right to your respect for pursuing it.
There's no free lunch. Improved understanding begets new techniques, which only become traditional with time. If you really look into it, I'm afraid you'd find that most of the real wines you love are using techniques that are not in sync with your personal notion of tradition. I invite you to collaborate with progressive winemakers in educating your readers to be comfortable with appropriate advances towards real wine.