April 28, 2012
Something about the name itself has a ring of fantasy to it, as if it’s one of those mythical places like Shangri-La or Brigadoon. As it happens, the place is something of a Shangri-La for wine grapes. While the phylloxera plague was laying waste to vineyards through the rest of Europe in the late 1800s, the vines in Colares, oblivious to all of it, just kept getting older. Phylloxera doesn’t take well to sand, and the vines of Colares, fronting the Atlantic coast a few miles east of Lisbon, were literally buried in the sand. Today, Colares is one of the rarest wines in the world, appearing for sale outside its local markets with the approximate frequency of someone stumbling upon Shangri-La or Brigadoon, because that sand is nowadays more valuable for beach houses than for winegrowing. There were 8,000 acres of Colares at the turn of the twentieth century; barely 50 acres were left by the beginning of the twenty-first.
Colares is not the only place in Europe where the original, ungrafted vines survived because of the sand, but to understand what makes Colares unique you have to—forgive the pun—dig a little deeper. The thing about sand is that while it may be inhospitable to phylloxera, it’s not all that hospitable to serious winegrowing, either. In a 2000 talk, Randall Grahm listed sandy soils as one of a dozen “enemies of terroir” because they are poor in exchangeable minerals. In contrast, if you want a soil with a high cation-exchange capacity, you’re looking for clay.
According to soil microbiologist Claude Bourguignon, who has advised a Who’s Who of elite wine estates, great terroirs are fundamentally about clay. Sure, everybody has their own pet theory of what makes a terroir great, but Bourguignon has some compelling data to back his up. Bourguignon conducted measurements of the internal surface area of clay layers in a number of terroirs and made some interesting discoveries. “All the great white wines have been planted on soils containing small internal clay surfaces and all the great red wines have been planted on soils containing large internal clay surfaces,” Bourguignon reported in an interview in Jacky Rigaux’s Terroir & the Winegrower. “The smallest internal surface measured in France is that of Coulée de Serrant at 52m^2/g. . . . The largest surface currently measured is that of Pétrus at Pomerol, followed by Bonnes Mares at Chambolle-Musigny: 671 m^2/g.” Bourguignon added, “When Bordeaux owners tell me, ‘I have a very good terroir, I have good gravel,’ it makes me smile. . . . The only function of the gravel is to drain water as fast as possible so that the root reaches deeper into the subsoil, there where the good clays are found.”
If clay is a good thing and sand is a bad thing, then why should we expect anything out of an obscure red variety planted on a Portuguese beach? The answer is that Colares is not like other beaches. Dig beneath the sand, and you hit clay. Lots of it. Here is how Raymond Postgate, in his 1969 book Portuguese Wine, described the soil of Colares and the effort required to grow wine there:
Its soil is sand, sometimes as much as ten feet deep; underneath that is a foundation of clay. No vine can grow in sand, and the wine-growers have to dig the sand away, revetting it on the sides lest it fall back on them. A cone-shaped hole some twelve feet across at the top is necessary, and the diggers throwing the sand stand on different levels. When the clay is reached the vine root is driven into the clay nine inches or a foot deep, usually into a hole made by an iron bar. In due course the vine will rise, sand will be built up again round it and it will flower and fruit in the open air. . . . But the travail of growing Colares does not cease with the planting. Because the topsoil is sand and because the summer is long the layered vines have to be propped up to keep them away from the hot earth, which would otherwise burn the grapes. However, they cannot be raised any great distance, for the wind from the Atlantic is violent, and until the month of June at least can damage the vines seriously. They must therefore be protected, and palisades of willow and osier enclose each vineyard.
It’s safe to say that there is no terroir in the world quite like Colares.
And you no longer have to go there to buy some. Importer José Pastor, who specializes in Spanish wines in the natural and traditionalist camps, has added to his portfolio a set of wines from the Adega Regional de Colares, a cooperative representing several dozen growers. (There are almost none left making and bottling their own wine.) The cooperative’s Colares is sold under the label Arenæ and bottled in 500-milliliter format (hey, this stuff is precious); there is actually both a red and a white version, the red from ramisco grapes and the white from malvasia. The current release, the 2004 vintage, retails for $40 at Chambers Street Wines in New York and K&L Wines in California. There is also a cheaper bottling ($15/750ml) with the designation Chão Rijo (“hard soil”) from lesser inland plots in the region without the sandy topsoil and with considerably higher yields.
Chão Rijo does not have the intrigue of true Colares. The Adega’s bottling has some of the carbonic spritz one finds in a lot of natural wines these days which don’t aspire to be much more than everyday quaffers, but the fruit profile is a little too rich and warm to achieve that sort of easy drinkability. The carbonic spritz presents another obstacle because wines made in this fashion tend to require a long decant—sometimes even overnight—to compose themselves, which is more fussing and forethought than anyone wants to invest in a $15 quaffer. Yet when I did manage to come back to the leftovers of the Chão Rijo a few days later, the fruit had mellowed and revealed an interesting earthy quality, so there is indeed more to the wine than you can get from the pop of the cork. Maybe this is the kind of wine where a short rest in the cellar of a few months to a year can eliminate a lot of its awkwardness.
There is nothing awkward about the Colares Arenæ, which has the grace of a ballerina from the first sip to the last. One of the features that growers have consistently observed about vines growing on their own roots is that they manage to ripen grapes somewhere between a half a degree to a full degree lower in potential alcohol than grafted vines. That may not seem like a huge difference, but balance is an inherently precarious thing. A wine at 13.5 degrees alcohol has 8% more alcohol than one at 12.5 degrees; how many things can tolerate an 8% margin of error on a major structural element? Or to put it in aesthetic terms, a little difference becomes a big difference when it’s the difference between just right and not-quite right, which in wine often means the difference between effortless grace and something clumsy or clunky.
By reputation, Colares is tannic and foreboding in its youth, but that’s not the case with the Arenæ, at least not in 2004. With its feminine figure and satiny touch, there’s nothing getting in the way of enjoying it today, and plenty going on in the wine to hold one’s interest from the first sip to the last. Its fruit profile is an immediate contrast to the primary, sunny style of the Chão Rijo; the Arenæ is far more restrained, red-fruited, and just-plain wine-like, in the style of an old-fashioned claret. It’s augmented at first with the enticing, succulent aromas of hanging game and then develops a vivid smokiness as if you had just walked into a cigar shop.
That smokiness seems to be a characteristic of aged Colares, too. I found some 1955 for sale from Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva, who also happened to be the producer of the only other Colares I’d ever managed to try until Arenæ hit the market—a 1995, which certainly fit the reputation for being tannic and in need of long aging. The ’55 had certainly achieved that. At first it had me worried that it might have aged a little too long for its own good, because while it was still in fine condition it wasn’t showing all that much personality. But with an hour in the decanter it developed a more distinct character, with scents of smoke and herbal greenery. It also began to reveal what I can only describe as inner strength—remaining light on its feet but somehow becoming both more insistent and more defined. It’s labeled at 11% alcohol, making it a relic in more ways than one.
For further reading:
- Randall Grahm’s speech at the Terroir International 2000 symposium (scroll down).
- Everything you ever wanted to know about cation-exchange capacity but were afraid to ask.
- Interviews with Francisco Figueiredo of the Adega Regionale de Colares at the Reign of Terroir and Slotovino blogs.
- The last five bottles of Antonio Bernardino Paulo da Silva 1955 Colares Chitas Tinto Reserva at WineBid.com.
March 25, 2012
There were only six known copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio in private hands in late 2001, when Abel Berland elected to auction his copy at Chrstie’s along with hundreds of other rare books and manuscripts. It had taken Berland decades to assemble his collection of English literature, philosophy texts, and incunabula—books from the first half-century after the invention of the printing press—and he had previously resolved not to part with them in his lifetime. He changed his mind and decided to sell them off, he said, because “I owe it to the next generation.” He quoted the nineteenth century bibliophile Robert Hoe, who had explained his own decision to auction his legendary collection with the rhetorical question, “If the great collections of the past had not been sold, where would I have found my books?” Berland said he felt a similar responsibility to “nourish the cycle,” as he put it. “Someone has to replenish the supply; if not me, then who?”
Nicholas Basbanes, from whose books on book collecting I pulled this story, dubbed the hobby “a gentle madness.” That gentlemanly respect for the cycle in the rare-book world struck me as a dramatic contrast to the latest scandal to pollute the wine world, where the bequest to future generations from the biggest hoarder of the rare and the great over the last decade is not so much a First Folio but a jeroboam-sized flaming bag of shit on our collective doorstep. If those non-existent Ponsot wines Acker-Merrall tried to auction off a few years ago were the tip of the iceberg, federal authorities seem to have found the iceberg. His name is Rudy Kurniawan, also known, as the feds’ complaint helpfully reminds us, as “Dr. Conti,” and now known as inmate no. 62470-112.
Like most people, I had never heard of Mr. Kurniawan or Dr. Conti or whatever else he calls himself until he initiated an infamous thread on Robert Parker’s discussion board in 2004 headlined, “Last weekend where I tried to kill John Kapon with legendary wines!!” Those more plugged in to the auction circuit surely knew of him sooner. A 2006 L.A. Times puff piece reported that he had been spending over a million dollars a month at wine auctions over “the last several years,” or nearly as long as he could legally drink. “For many years, he was the biggest buyer of fine and rare wines on the planet and basically cornered much of the mega-market,” Kapon later posted on Parker’s board. During that period, sightings were regularly reported of Rudy holding court in restaurants and treating his friends and those aspiring to befriend him to generous quantities of priceless wine, the sheer number of bottles never seeming to militate against the necessity of brandishing a few magnums or methuselahs or other ostentatiously sized bottles. But nobody ever reported at the time that Rudy was having the empty bottles shipped back to him for reincarnation as future auction consignments. That allegation is only one of many bombshells to come out of the FBI investigation. The stacks of homemade Lafite, Lafleur, and Petrus labels seized during the search of his house is another.
They were thick stacks. There was never a whole lot of 1947 Lafleur to go around. If you’ve ever seen one, it seems a safe bet it came from Dr. Conti’s kitchen.
The revelations and arrest have triggered a mass outbreak of schadenfreude of the type last seen when Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley were facing hard time. But I am going to go out on a limb and speculate that very little of it has to do with righteous anger over the alleged fraud operation, the same way nobody ever really cared what Martha knew or when she knew it about ImClone stock. However many Romanée-Contis Dr. Conti doctored, only a small proportion of the people remarking on the story could have been buying bottles expensive enough to come within the potential victim class. The rest of us have felt our wallets lighten in a more indirect fashion, and that’s what most of the schadenfreude and righteous anger is about.
Reflect on what Kapon said about Kurniawan: he cornered the market. Cornered the market! That 2006 article also reported: “Since he started buying, prices for rare wine have skyrocketed. As he stepped up his acquisitions in 2004, a dozen other ultra-rich buyers emerged to compete with him for the best bottles. And the market for old wine exploded.” The article quoted Allen Meadows as stating that older Burgundies “are selling for 20 times what I used to pay only a couple of years ago” and reported that Meadows “believe[d] Kurniawan’s heavy buying has been a significant factor.” The effect was not limited to people buying $75,000 cases of 1971 Romanée-Conti. It trickled down to new releases and less-grand wines and assured that unless you were willing and able to spend Rudy money, you would never get the chance to drink them again. With respect to the prices for the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there is Before Rudy and After Rudy. The “After Rudy” price of the Domaine’s Grands-Echezeaux is roughly the same as the “Before Rudy” price of the Romanée-Conti. “After Rudy” Echezeaux costs more than “Before Rudy” La Tâche. In Bordeaux, Château Lafleur used to cost less than a tenth the price of Petrus, but Rudy took a fancy to it and now they’re both in the $1,000-a-bottle club.
The philosopher John Locke had a theory that man is morally free to pluck something out of nature and make it his own so long as he leaves “enough, and as good,” behind for others. Rudy’s bankroll, wherever it came from, was apparently enough to make even the most treasured wines as freely available to him as a fruit plucked off a tree. But he never evidenced any regard for others who might have shared his passion, or left enough, and as good, behind for them.
If he also felt himself entitled to flood the market with counterfeit wines in order to finance his own habit, that adds a more sinister variation to the theme—but it’s the same theme underneath it all. The image of Rudy sitting alone in his kitchen consuming one treasure after another like a feudal lord exercising his droit du signeur and then recycling the defiled bottles for auction sales borders on sociopathic. For a generation hence the awkward scent of a California pinot noir wafting from a legitimate DRC bottle will serve as a mocking proclamation that Rudy got to it first.
It actually compounds the offense that his appreciation for wine seems to have been genuine. Even the fraudsters hawking fake Vermeers or Van Goghs didn’t destroy the originals to make their copies.
Every hobby has its scoundrels, but some are classier than others. One of the “collectors” profiled in Basbanes’ series is Stephen Blumberg, whom the FBI tracked down after he’d stolen over 23,000 valuable books from libraries and curated collections in 42 states. Basbanes’ account is almost sympathetic, because he senses that the mania that drove Blumberg to serial thievery is the same mania that drove others to cultivate legitimate collections. Blumberg confessed to Basbanes that he’d rationalized what he’d done as acts of rescue. Surely some of them had rested in anonymity before being whisked away to a place at least one person would cherish them. His agony when the feds seized and—worse—recategorized his books should ring with familiarity to anyone who shares the collector gene. One of the conditions of his bail was that he not enter any museum or library. I noticed that one of the original conditions for Rudy Kurniawan’s bail, which has since been stayed given the flight risk, is that “the defendant is not to consume alcohol.” For a moment I almost felt some sympathy for the devil. If any part of the show he put on over the last decade was genuine, the prospect of months or years without wine must be striking him as an unbearable agony. But the rest of us are better off for it. Rudy’s already consumed more than his fair share.
For further reading/viewing:
- A two-hour program on the Abel Berland Rare Book Library Sale at Christie’s, on C-SPAN’s BookTV.
- Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness and Patience and Fortitude at Amazon.com.
- Mike Steinberger’s indispensable shoe-leather reporting on the Rudy affair, with links to the complaint and smoking gun(s).
- The epic Wine Berserkers Rudy thread (including a copy of Rudy’s original Parker board post), for those with time to spare who haven’t relished every word already.
February 5, 2012
Not long ago I was in a restaurant and wine bar deciding what to drink when the waiter came by and mentioned that if we were interested in natural wines, he had a number of exciting ones he could recommend. I didn’t have to ask him what he meant by “natural wines.” I understood, and he understood that I understood. Among the wines on offer were Champagnes from Anselme Selosse and Vouette & Sorbée, Rhônes from Thierry Allemand and Dard & Ribo, Loire Valley reds from Thierry Puzelat, Beaujolais from Marcel Lapierre and Yvon Métras, and Burgundies from Philippe Pacalet and the De Moors—exactly the names you would hope and expect to see on a list specializing in natural wines. So it is a little strange to read complaints by intelligent people like Mike Steinberger and David Schildknecht complaining that the term “natural wine”—even the idea of natural wine—is illegitimate because it lacks a clear definition. If the term is so poorly defined, how come there are so many people who understand exactly what it means?
Steinberger recently wrote a blog post following up on his 2010 Slate article, “Down with the Natural Wine Movement,” whose teaser was: “The word ‘natural’ is meaningless.” The occasion for the post was a recent Eric Asimov column defending the movement against its critics. While the thesis of Asimov’s column was that some such critics ought to try actually drinking some of the wines before decrying the genre, all three pieces have a lot more to say about the nomenclature than the wines themselves. Apparently the wines don’t need defending, but the name we have to call them by does.
As it happens, Steinberger, like others who have complained that the term “natural wine” is meaningless, has said enough to reveal that he’s fully aware of its meaning. Natural wines, he writes,
are described as those that have been made with minimal involvement by the vintner. As with organic and biodynamic wines, the grapes must come from vineyards that have not been treated with synthentic chemicals; what sets natural wines apart is that the same hands-off approach is supposed to be carried into the cellar. The winemaker performs only those tasks that require midwifery, such as crushing the fruit. Apart from that, the wines are left to birth themselves. . . . This means relying on ambient yeasts—those floating around the cellar and vineyard—rather than commercial ones, eschewing high-tech toys like spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines, and neither acidifying wines nor otherwise tinkering with their composition.
Steinberger now asks, “If they are going to classify wines as ‘natural,’ aren’t they obliged to explain what it takes to earn that distinction?” Why bother? He’s done such a good job explaining it himself! His definition seems accurate, and nearly comprehensive. Elsewhere he mentions other additions such as powdered tannins and oak chips, which are also verboten.
So what’s the problem that leads to the charge of meaninglessness? Well, you see, there are certain additions like sulfur dioxide or sugar for chaptalization that are not considered per se disqualifiers from natural-wine status. “Hardliners” and “strict constructionists” might eschew them, but other naturalistes don’t. For his part, Schildknecht proposes a few other alleged borderline cases, such as fining agents.
To hear these sorts of complaints, you would think that “natural wine” is the only phrase in the English language that has ever described a fuzzy set or a gray area. A few months back, Steinberger used the words “traditionalist” and “classic” to describe the Barolos of Mauro Mascarello. These were apt descriptions because, as Steinberger wrote then, “although they have made some concessions to modernity—stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation vats, for instance—you will not find roto-fermenters or French oak barrels in their cellar.” And yet nobody complained that the word “traditionalist” was meaningless, or that it was illegitimate to call anyone a traditionalist so long as someone among them was willing to make an allowance for modern temperature-controlled fermentation vats. Had anybody done so, it probably would have provoked little more than eye-rolling, because if you compare what Mascarello does to what an unabashed modernist does and deny that there are material differences between the two, it will be understood either that you are fantastically ignorant or that you are playing cheap rhetorical games.
The current critique of “natural wine” is one of those cheap rhetorical games.
Steinberger says that “the biggest problem” with the concept of natural wine is that it’s subjective, because “there is no official classification for natural wines, no sanctioning body that decrees whether or not a wine qualifies.” If that’s the biggest problem, one can only conclude that the concept is practically problem-free. How many words in the dictionary need an official sanctioning body to decree what comes within their definition? Is there an official sanctioning body in Piedmont declaring that Mauro Mascarello’s practices are “traditionalist”?
For Schildknecht, the problem is that proponents of natural wine “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.” I can resolve that problem for Schildknecht by stating that I personally am not at all uncomfortable with there being some litmus tests of legitimacy. If a wine has been in a reverse-osmosis machine, it’s not a natural wine. If it contains Mega-Purple or grape concentrate, it’s not a natural wine. I doubt that anyone who accepts the reality that there is indeed such a thing as natural wine would disagree with those judgments. Sure, eventually we will exhaust the easy litmus tests and face some debatable propositions as well as some questions that can go either way, depending on the totality of the circumstances. This has been true of every school of thought, philosophy, and movement in human history, none of which have ever been denied the right to call themselves by whatever name has stuck.
Like many schools of thought, the idea of natural wine is based on a collection of principles of varying levels of importance and relatedness to one another. Together, they sketch out an ideal, and the fact that some may hew closer to that ideal than others doesn’t make the definition meaningless, any more than the definition of the color blue is rendered meaningless by the fact that some shades of blue are more or less blue than others.
The realities are these. There exists a set of wines made according to a particular ideal. There are enough similarities between them, in execution and in result, that people who find themselves enjoying one of those wines will surely enjoy a good number of the others. In addition to being enjoyable, these wines are interesting, and some people who like to drink them also like to talk about them. To talk about them, they need a vocabulary for doing so, words for describing the set and the ideal. The word that has stuck is “natural.” If some people don’t like that word, it’s incumbent upon those people to propose another word to describe the concept, and get it to stick. But it has to stick among the people who are actually interested in talking about it, not among the people who only participate in the discussion to protest that the thing being discussed doesn’t exist and isn’t worth talking about.
* * * * *
At least part of this backlash against the people who like to drink and talk about natural wines is motivated by the belief that they are being self-righteous about it. Steinberger accuses “journalists, importers, and retailers” of turning natural wine into “an ideological crusade.” Apparently, they stand accused of the high crime of believing that some wines are better than others and that it is interesting to talk about why.
I believe that myself, wholeheartedly. But I’m not on any ideological crusade for natural wines, which probably represent a minority of the wines that I drink and cellar. They are a worthy genre of wines. There are other worthy genres, too. I could not pretend to know by tasting alone whether a wine was made with native yeasts or cultured yeasts, but I have had many profound wines that I know to have been made with the latter. Indeed, if there is any criticism to be made about the natural-wine movement, it’s that it seems to have been far more successful producing tasty wines than it has producing truly profound ones.
And yet many profound wines might fit within the definition of natural but don’t choose to associate themselves with the movement. Steinberger says pretty much the same thing, but pitches it as some kind of indictment of the naturalistes: “Aubert de Villaine and Paul Draper have worked in a ‘natural’ way for decades, but they have never categorized their wines as ‘natural’ or peddled the kind of dogmatism that is standard fare with the natural crowd.” Let’s unpack that sentence, because it presents two separate issues worth dealing with.
The first is the fact that two benchmark producers of what are indisputably the greatest wines of their respective appellations don’t choose to associate their wines with the natural-wine genre despite working more-or-less naturally. I don’t know their reasons. Both are clearly sympathetic to the ethos, even if they’re not interested in or not comfortable with the label. That’s their own decision, and it should not function as an indictment of anyone who makes a different decision and wants to make their allegiance to natural processes explicit. (As it happens, Henry-Frédéric Roch, the other gentleman whose signature appears on every bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti along with Aubert de Villaine’s, makes ultra-natural Burgundies at his personal estate Domaine Prieuré-Roch which are intensely sought after everywhere natural wines are drunk or sold; and Lalou Bize-Leroy, of course, has made every effort to define her domaine as biodynamic.)
Then there is the matter of dogmatism. I can’t think of any examples of the offense myself, and Steinberger doesn’t mention any, but I’m willing to stipulate that it’s out there somewhere—though hardly in a form any more strident than some of the dogmatism that has been deployed in defense of other winemaking philosophies, such as, for example, traditionalist Barolo. (Some quotations from traditionalist Barolo makers: “A modern winemaker is like Berlusconi. He is the model. He embodies this way of looking at the market, at the economy.” —Maria-Therese Mascarello. “The damn shame was that, instead of saving the tradition of this land, they followed the way of the modernist, in other words, the way of the market. . . . Any use of the barrique is crossing the tradition, because it is not part of our tradition.” —Giuseppe Rinaldi. “There is one and only one Barolo, defend it!” —Bartolo Mascarello.)
I don’t see anything wrong with a little dogmatism when it comes to wine.
Tonight, tens of millions of Americans will be overcome with passionate intensity over a football game, and they’ll scream and howl at their friends and their spouses and their television sets over which group of hired millionaire thugs will carry a ball over more yardage than the other one. The outcome of this game will have no wider significance to anything else in our culture, but still people will yell and brawl and probably get stabbed in the head over their differing viewpoints on which team ought to win. Any dogmatism over how wine is made is completely insignificant in comparison. And yet the question of how wine is made carries a lot of cultural significance, because it is a microcosm of our larger cultural dilemma over whether we still value genuine articles over their synthetic imitations, and how far along the spectrum between the two we are willing to travel before we lose the ability to draw any distinctions between them.
Let’s get back to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Bill Nanson of Burgundy-Report has a new book out on the region that seems to aim for a more democratic outlook than the typical Burgundy tomes, which have mostly run out of novel ways to express their rapture over the most elite of the grand crus. He makes an interesting observation about DRC that I’ve never previously seen crystallized quite so well, which is that even though prices have made the domaine’s wines inaccessible to a majority of the people who might appreciate them, DRC is more relevant to Burgundy drinkers than ever due to the “trickle-down” effect of its practices’ serving as an inspiration for others to reach for the same heights. I think the natural-wine movement is starting to have a trickle-up effect in a similar fashion. Producers in historic regions have taken note of what the best producers of natural wine have managed to achieve in humbler zip codes such as the Touraine and Beaujolais, and this gives them confirmation that there are ways of making their product relevant other than hiring fancy consultants to ratchet up their Parker points. It doesn’t make a difference whether they choose to call their wines natural or something else. What matters is that natural wines represent something important and worth talking about, and that conversation can’t happen if we don’t even have any words to describe them.
For further reading:
- Eric Asimov’s New York Times column, “Wines Worth a Taste, but Not the Vitriol.”
- Mike Steinberger’s “Down with the Natural Wine Movement” at Slate, and related posts on his Wine Diarist blog by Steinberger and David Schildknecht.
- Thor Iverson dispatches with the cheap rhetorical objections to “natural wine” in two posts at oenoLogic, “Dispatches from Naturalia” and “The Utility of ‘Natural.’”
- Alice Feiring interviews Paul Draper about natural wine and other things, and drinks a Prieuré-Roch.
- “No Barrique, No Berlusconi: Collective Identity, Contention, and Authenticity in the Making of Barolo and Barbaresco Wines,” the classic Stanford Business School study on modernism and traditionalism in Piedmont.
- Bill Nanson’s Burgundy-Report on Domaine Prieuré-Roch, and his new book The Finest Wines of Burgundy on Amazon.com.
- Previous articles on this site about natural wine in Paris, and reviewing some recent books on the subject.
January 15, 2012
For people who collect wine, one of the nice little perks of a New Year rolling around is how it officially ticks up the calendar age of all the bottles in the cellar. Those 2002s which might have seemed too young to enjoy at nine years old may finally be knocking on the door of drinkability at age ten! This sort of thing can take the sting out of our own birthdays, too. Sure, each one brings us a little closer to the date our limbs start creaking and our pants won’t stay up without suspenders, but our wines are there to grow old with us.
The problem is that it really does require growing old. For most wines meant for aging, two years in the cellar or five years or even ten isn’t enough to take a wine to any place more compelling than it was on the day it came out. In fact, most are likely to taste quite a bit worse since that’s the age at which the shut-down phase of a wine’s evolution can be at its fiercest. Planning to age these wines five or ten years is like setting your warp-speed drive to a coordinate in the middle of an asteroid. You came so far but you picked the worst possible place to stop.
The uncomfortable truth is that great Bordeaux and Burgundy almost always needs at least twenty-five years of cellaring to be worth your while, sometimes more. When I think back to my most memorable Burgundy experiences over the last few years, the youngest vintage that offered truly magnificent and perfectly ready-to-drink wines was 1985—26 years past the vintage date in 2011. And that was a relatively precocious vintage. After that, you have to go back to 1978 and 1971. Bordeaux actually fares a bit better, mostly because 1989 and 1990 offered some wines on an atypically fast track to maturity. But if you restrict yourself to the more classic vintages, everything younger than 1986 is best kept undisturbed, and frankly even the ’86s seem to me to need a few more years. None of them offer the satisfaction of a perfectly à point claret that you can get nowadays from the best of the 1975, 1971, 1970, 1966, and older vintages. Twenty-five years, then, doesn’t even take you to the summit, only to the very beginning of the period in which you finally don’t have to feel like it’s a waste to open a bottle.
I don’t think enough wine collectors have put as much thought as they should have into the significance of this fact. Pause, then, to consider what can happen in a period of twenty-five years. It is the span of time in which a person can be born, grow up, finish college and graduate school, spend some aimless years wandering Europe or occupying Wall Street, and start procreating on his own.
Where will you be in twenty-five years?
Where were you twenty-five years ago?
I was 10. And if I had traded in my baseball cards for 1986 Bordeaux futures, I’d still be sitting and waiting on most of them.
One of the industry’s favorite ways to hype modern Bordeaux vintages is by comparing them to the ’47s. If the greatest bottle of Bordeaux you drink this year has a 1947 vintage tag on it, your 2009 will get there in the year 2074. Babies born in 2009 will qualify for Medicare in 2074.
People sometimes joke about a wine that it’s so backwards they’re really buying it for their grandchildren. It’s always a joke—a figure of speech, an expression of hyperbole. You seldom hear it lead to the dawn of realization: Hmm, I guess I really am buying this for my grandchildren.
The time frame necessary for wines to evolve from release to maturity wasn’t much of a problem when they were purchased by English aristocrats who actually were passing them on to their children, because they had inherited a drinking stock from their parents. The situation is a bit different now that most wine collectors picked up the interest on their own and had to start from scratch. They tend to view wine like any other consumer product and think that owning a wine is as simple as buying it. The reality is that even when those bottles are actually in your hands, you don’t really possess them. What you have is more like a contingent future interest, at best a postdated check. Someday it will mature, if all goes well. But the idea that you actually have in your possession the wine you thought yourself to be buying is a dangerous illusion that has had unsettling effects on the market. Does anyone doubt that the unprecedented price escalation of recent years owes a lot to the thrill of acquiring coveted symbols of wealth and taste? Does anyone think that other such symbols—take, for example, a Picasso—would fetch the prices they do if instead of getting a Picasso, you got a certificate promising to deliver a Picasso in twenty-five years?
None of this means we should forget about the long-agers. It is probably good for the soul to have so much invested in something that demands so much patience. But a smart collector definitely needs a strategy other than acquiring as much as possible of the best wine one can afford. Here are some of the things I do:
Take advantage of deals when a vintage tastes its absolute worst. Wine collectors can be a fickle and demanding lot, always asking what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Most great vintages go through a long stretch in which they don’t do anything at all, which inevitably leads to nervous nellies fearing that they were never any good in the first place and trying to get rid of all those impulse bottles they bought when the hype was irresistible. For years now, the 1995 Bordeaux vintage and the 1996 Burgundy vintage have been in this category. Buying either one gives you roughly a decade’s head start over the 2005s in the aging marathon. A quarter-century wait can try anyone’s patience, but if a ten-year wait sounds manageable you can buy these ’95s and ’96s now and be rewarded with twenty-five years of bottle aging once the decade’s up. And they’re priced fairly because if you were to open a bottle now, you probably wouldn’t be very impressed.
Sure, perhaps the prices also reflect a risk that the nervous nellies are right and the wines will never be as good as people initially thought. But I’m willing to bet otherwise. The thing is, it’s only recently that we’ve developed this compulsion to follow every vintage obsessively as it ages and reevaluate its worth in a state of constant realtime flux like brokers shouting “SELL! SELL!” on the New York Stock Exchange floor when a bad earnings report hits the wires. Previously, it was simply understood that wine was to be put away until it was ready. So there’s every likelihood that if we had a fossil record of people revisiting all the legendary vintages of the past at age 15, there’d have been all kinds of worrying about those wines, too. Which leads me to…
Resist temptations to “check in.” Or at least don’t do it with bottles from your own cellar. It’s one thing to sacrifice a bottle for the sake of science when you can easily go and buy more. It’s another thing when they’ve already run half the marathon. The investment you’ve put in cellaring a bottle for ten years can’t be replaced by anything. You have the peace of mind of knowing that it’s spent its whole life in perfect conditions and will likely emerge showing better than any bottle of the same wine you can find anywhere else. These are the most precious bottles in any wine cellar: not necessarily the most expensive or the rarest, but the ones that have had the most invested in their care and upbringing. We should be just as hesitant to open these as we are with “special occasion” bottles. You can always buy another trophy wine if you’re willing to pay for it, but time is more precious than money. Respect the investment you made.
Don’t forget the short-term agers. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions out there about what kind of wines reward short-term aging, which I’ll define as anywhere from three to ten years. The most oft-repeated bad advice is to buy lesser wines from great regions, such as appellation or village wines in Burgundy or basic Langhe nebbiolo in Piedmont. The problem is that hierarchies in wine tend to be defined by the heights a wine can reach, not by the time it takes to get there. A basic Gevrey will never manage to push all the buttons that a Chambertin can, but the time it will need to reach the point of tasting like a mature wine is not substantially less. Open some cheap 1999s if you don’t believe me. They still taste like young wines if they aren’t closed up altogether, and they are ten years past release. By the time they’ve peaked, you might wish you’d shelled out a few more dollars for the premier crus, anyway.
With the exception of those few legendary wines that seem ageless and immortal no matter how old they get, the rate of evolution for a wine seems to me to depend more on the simple fact of what type of wine it is (region, grape) than where it stands in the quality hierarchy of its type. So rather than buying basic wines from the most elite regions, focus on the very best wines in categories that just age faster. Beaujolais offers some options; a wine like Lapierre Morgon seems to offer real tertiary character seven or eight years after release. New World regions are also useful for this and needn’t require any stylistic compromises so long as you avoid the sort whose winemakers appear on magazine covers. For example, Henschke’s Mount Edelstone shiraz and Mount Langi Ghiran’s shiraz at ten years old are packed with the same character one craves in mature northern Rhônes. Over really short timespans, though, white wines of course deliver the biggest payoff. The best Sancerres from producers like the Cotats, top albariños such as Do Ferreiro’s Cepas Vellas, and, in a similar category, Henry Marionnet’s ancient-vine Provignage romorantin all show a visceral awesomeness with as few as three years in the cellar that’s not even hinted at in the pale, gossamer liquid they are on release. And of course there is riesling. People hear stories of transcendental German rieslings at forty years of age and assume they all need to be put away forever. But a typical spätlese at eight to ten years old is already a very different animal than it was on release, and there is a good argument to be made that this is their real peak period inasmuch as further development can come at the expense of energy and vibrancy. This is not at all a bad time to be drinking 2001s, 2002s, and 2003s.
Support producers who age their wine for you. The current releases of Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Bosconia and Viña Tondonia Rioja Gran Reservas are the 1991s. Renaissance Winery is still offering six cabernets and claret blends from 2001 or earlier. Calera and Mayacamas regularly offer library selections. And there are tons of 2002 Champagnes just recently put on store shelves, which, if you do the math, are already ten years old. Some of them will only need a few more years to get where you want them to be.
Don’t believe the bullshit. For the same reasons that lots of folks who buy thousands of bottles of wine wouldn’t get so carried away if they understood that it meant a decades-long commitment, people who buy publications reviewing thousands of bottles of wine might lose some interest in the chase if the reviewers were honest about how much time those wines really needed to make the purchase worth the while. But sometimes telling the truth isn’t as clear a path to fame and fortune as telling people what they want to hear. I recently looked back at the initial Wine Spectator reviews for the 1995 and 1996 Bordeaux vintages, which is where I got my own start in this game. Here are some of the actual drinking windows they projected back then. 1995 Lafite-Rothschild: “Best after 2000.” 1995 Haut-Brion: “Best after 2001.” 1995 Latour: “Best after 2002.” But the review of the 1996 Latour takes the cake. It concludes: “This is how they built clarets in the great years of the 1960s and 1950s. Best after 2005.” This was worse than blind speculation; it was a willful denial of reality. How many first-growth clarets from 1961 or 1959 or 1955 were at their best six years after release? If you’re going to make the serious monetary investments that wine now requires, you have to do it with your eyes open. It would be great to see that investment pay off in as little as three years, but that’s just wishful thinking.
Don’t doubt for a moment that it’s worth it. We live in the age of short-attention spans and instant gratification. Most of us don’t volunteer for many undertakings that require a whole human generation’s worth of planning and commitment before bearing fruit. But if you want to experience wine at its most sublime, there are no alternatives. A lot of producers have reconciled themselves to (or cynically embraced) the new reality that there are a whole lot of people who want to fancy themselves wine connoisseurs without having to put in any time waiting for their prized acquisitions to develop. These producers offer wines designed to provide thrills on release, making the implicit promise that they may offer a different kind of pleasure than the satisfaction of drinking a perfectly mature, classically made wine from a great terroir but that both are equally profound experiences that ding at the same point on the pleasure-o-meter. That’s snake oil, of course. Nobody’s obligated to read the classics all the time. It’s nice to lose oneself in a trashy page-turner on occasion. But one is no substitute for the other.
Everybody with a wine cellar should make an effort—at least once a year, more often if you can—to consume one majestic old bottle that reminds you exactly why we’re in this. Even if it requires a flagrant defiance of your comfort zone in an auction, a splurge at an expensive restaurant, or a flight to Tampa. The wine should be at least thirty years of age, ideally forty or more, and come with provenance you can trust. My bet is that it lingers in your mind like nothing else you drink all year and puts all those ten-year-old bottles in perspective. I can’t think of any better way to instill the patience and fortitude necessary to get some of one’s own bottles carried along on the same journey.
December 31, 2011
One of my law professors, the late E. Allan Farnsworth, was fond of a parable about a crew of baseball umpires gathered at a bar after the game to talk shop. (While not essential to the substance of the story, it works best if you imagine the appropriate local accents and period details: This is definitely a bar nearabouts the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field; figure there’s a newsboy outside in a tweed cap shouting “Extra! Extra!” and perhaps a few fruit carts.) Each one of the umps has something to say about how to do the job.
“Some o’ dem pitches are balls, and some are strikes,” says one. “I calls ’em as I sees ’em.”
“Sure, some o’ dem are balls and some o’ dem are strikes,” says the second ump, twiddling a toothpick. “I calls ’em what they are.”
The third ump chomps down on a cigar. “Now, some o’ dem pitches look like balls, and some o’ dem pitches look like strikes. But they ain’t nothin’ ’til I call ’em.”
* * * * *
Apparently the new issue of the Wine Advocate is out, which is a big deal everyone is talking about because it contains the first report on California’s Napa Valley since the Emperor of Wine bequeathed coverage of the region to his designated successor, Antonio Galloni. Galloni may or may not be calling them as he sees them, but to many of his readers the wines ain’t nothin’ ’til the Wine Advocate calls them. Consider, for example, one of the common locutions in modern winespeak: phrases of the form “95-point wine” to refer to a wine rated 95 points by the Advocate or a selected number of other wine publications with a similarly authoritative aura. (Wine Spectator qualifies, but the Wine Enthusiast doesn’t. Don’t ask why; it’s just something everybody knows.) The idea seems to be that the point rating is an intrinsic, physical property of the wine, as if the ritual of scoring actually transsubstantiates the liquid from mere wine to 95-point wine. And that property remains with it for its entire life and beyond. A 95-point wine is always a 95-point wine, even as it closes down, matures, fades, and dies (a process which can take decades in some regions, but which can take barely longer than it takes a carton of milk to go bad in the case of many highly rated California wines).
When the transition to Galloni was first announced, a chorus of writers and merchants let themselves get excited by the prospect that it might represent a revolutionary philosophical change at the Wine Advocate and that the overblown, cartoonish wines that Parker had scored so ridiculously high for so long would finally get their comeuppance. I never bought into this fantasy. Galloni went on record stating that “[i]n terms of critical evaluation, one of the main things I look for is conviction. The style of the wine is less important to me than feeling that a winemaker is 100% behind what they are putting into the bottle.” I really mean no disrespect to Galloni, who has proven himself a man of discerning taste, but to me that approach is a wholesale abdication of the duties of critical evaluation—equivalent to calling a pitch two feet wide of the plate a strike so long as that’s the target the pitcher was aiming for. Criticism in any field is supposed to involve an exercise of judgment, which necessarily entails inquiring not only whether something is a good example of what it is aiming to be, but also whether what it is aiming to be has any value to it in the first place.
Oscar Wilde put it best in his dialogue “The Critic as Artist”:
Ernest. Well, I should say that a critic should above all things be fair.
Gilbert. Ah! not fair. A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless. The man who sees both sides of a question, is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all. . . . One should, of course, have no prejudices; but, as a great Frenchman remarked a hundred years ago, it is one’s business in such matters to have preferences, and when one has preferences one ceases to be fair. It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of Art.
As in any other creative field, there is a spectrum of sensibilities that wine can be made to appeal to—which is the most politic way I can think of to say that there are highbrow wines and lowbrow wines. But the peculiar thing about wine is that it seems to be the only creative field whose critics utterly refuse to distinguish between the two. You will not find a music critic willing to argue that bubblegum pop music is as important as Beethoven, or even one who reviews both on the same terms as though they are the same kind of thing. But that is exactly what is occurring in wine criticism today. Sure, most critics don’t take the mass-produced commercial brands all that seriously, but many of the wines they do take seriously and esteem as truly great hew to the same vulgar aesthetic. Occasionally a gadfly might come along and proclaim that the emperor has no clothes. But a critic who aims to be indifferent to style is in no position to do so, because it can be said even of the most appalling styles that “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like,” as the old saying goes.
The other problem with this sort of style agnosticism is that it is never applied consistently. Suggest that a critic ought to malign an expensive, sought-after wine and you will immediately be reminded that there are readers who like the style and are only interested to know whether the wine is a good exemplar of that style or not. But the same supposed obligation to meet the wine on its own terms is never enforced in the case of wines with less mainstream appeal. You will never see a 99-point mondeuse. That is, of course, fully justifiable if a critic believes in fundamental standards of excellence and has made the determination that even the finest mondeuse does not have the virtues of a great cabernet. But what’s the justification for that disparity if the critic isn’t even purporting to judge the intrinsic value of one style or another? Surely any number of quirky, offbeat wines can be made with at least as much “conviction” as a glitzy cabernet in a heavy bottle with a celebrity consultant and a waiting list for its waiting list.
* * * * *
Unfortunately, the new Wine Advocate continues the familiar pattern, with most of the big scores awarded to the same kind of wines that got those numbers from Parker. In fact, as Alder Yarrow concludes at Vinography, “Galloni’s scores match Parker’s with an almost scary precision.” Which is why a lot of folks can’t help but suspect that Galloni isn’t exactly calling ’em as he sees ’em. Nothing in Galloni’s biography or body of work to date suggests that if he could choose to drink anything at all, he’d be inclined to choose a truly epic piece of trash like, say, Kongsgaard “The Judge” Chardonnay (a “98+”). Probably he just thinks he’s being fair, as Wilde’s Ernest would have had it.
But maybe this pattern makes more sense if one considers the possibility that calling ’em as they see ’em isn’t really the main service that many collectors want their critics to perform for them. Sometimes it seems as if the desired service is not recommendation but ratification. Perhaps it’s within the realm of theoretical possibility that somewhere in the world there is a new Wine Advocate subscriber, perhaps recently emerged from a coma or released from long captivity in an Iranian prison, totally unaware that the anointed trophies of the new issue are mostly the same names the Advocate and the Spectator have been pumping for umpteen years, and he’s war-dialing wine retailers as I write these very words trying to capture those must-have bottles of Abreu, Bryant, or Kongsgaard. More likely, however (and no need to flog me!—believe me, I am so deeply ashamed of the cynicism that I shall administer the flogging myself), the typical Parker subscriber already has a capacious cellar stocked with the approved selections and a regular incoming flow of more of the same, and his interest isn’t necessarily in being told what to buy but in having the sagacity of his existing investments reaffirmed. Even if he wasn’t forced into buying the same Napa wines year in and year out just to keep his place on the mailing list, he’s already got a relatively settled array of names on his radar screen and he’s not about to revert to tabula rasa and wrap his head around an entire new universe of wines any sooner than Antonio Galloni is going to go and give 99 points to a mondeuse. But all those wines coming in . . . “they ain’t nothin’ ’til I call ’em” . . . where’s the pride in ownership supposed to come from, if they’re just wines? They need to be 95+ point wines. A critic has to step up to the plate.
For further reading/viewing:
- Antonio Galloni interviewed by Tyler Colman at Dr. Vino.
- Commentary on Galloni’s Napa Valley report from Fred Swan, W. Blake Gray, and Alder Yarrow, and, in case you’re tired of the cynicism but not yet tired of that stock photo of Galloni, an alternative perspective from Matt Latuchie at Terroirist.
- The parable of the umpires as retold by Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy.
- Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist.
- On YouTube, a classic Kids in the Hall skit which is always the first thing I think of when I see a cellar full of high-scoring California wines. (I know, I know! More flogging! First column of 2012 will be a ray of happy sunshine, I promise.)
December 16, 2011
Two of my biggest wine-collecting regrets pertain to the same wine. A number of years ago I took the advice of a critic and bought half a case of a 2001 Côte-Rôtie which the review had described in enticing language as a powerfully earthy, old-style wine. But when I opened the first bottle and stuck my nose in the glass, instead of the funky thrill ride I was expecting, I got nothing, nothing at all. And it tasted so frail and vacant it seemed like one of those generic older red wines that might have aged just past the point of having any personality left to offer—hardly a promising attribute in a wine just released. A half case of Côte-Rôtie was a not-insignificant investment for me and I felt utterly frustrated that I had five more bottles and absolutely no desire ever to drink one again. I ended up getting rid of them one by one in the time-honored method of disposing of regretted purchases: I brought them to the houses of non-wine folk I figured wouldn’t know the difference. And that was my second regret, because years later I had occasion to drink a vintage with a quarter-century’s worth of age on it, and it was, of course, glorious and brimming with all the personality and depth one craves in a mature Côte-Rôtie.
The wine was Bernard Levet’s Côte-Rôtie La Chavaroche. And since tasting that ’83, I made an effort to restock Levet’s wines in my cellar and taste newer vintages of it to see what I might have missed in the 2001. It seems to me that when a wine or a type of wine you’ve always been bored by suddenly delivers an amazing experience, one of two things usually happens. Either it turns out to have been one of those chance alignments of the stars and leaves you with a memory that’s no less true for being impossible to recreate, or it has an effect uncannily like flipping a switch and somehow activating the area of your brain that can make sense out of the stuff—and once that switch goes on it never goes off. Every subsequent bottle delivers something you’re never quite able to figure out how you missed before.
But Levet hasn’t seemed to fit neatly into either one of those categories for me. Some of the bottles I drank after the epiphany ’83 showed a textural allure I had never noticed before, maybe because it wasn’t in the popularly accepted textbook definition of Côte-Rôtie, which tends to fixate on savory flavor components like bacon and olives. But truth be told, some of the bottles seemed just as anonymous in flavor as the 2001 was years ago. Under other circumstances one might wonder if it’s another case of “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” but that doesn’t accord with the history of this estate. At Levet, they make ‘em exactly like they used to.
Levet Côte-Rôtie is just one example, albeit a particularly demonstrative one. The point of the story is that a whole lot of ageworthy wines are in the same bucket: capable of transformation but not into a form one can discern by extrapolation from how they taste at a young age. And yet an awfully large amount of the verbiage generated about wine seems obsessed with trying to accomplish just that. The standard form of the tasting note has become the familiar catalogue of component scents and flavors followed by a prognostication about the wine’s “anticipated maturity,” and the fact that the person doing the prognostication has almost never personally experienced an example of the wine’s aging in that fashion is, quite astonishingly, not thought by anyone to discredit this exercise.
What’s to blame for this credulousness? Above all, it seems that many of us have some difficulty reconciling ourselves to the idea that anything in wine is truly dormant and beyond our powers of detection. We see the wine as a deterministic universe whose perceptible characteristics at two years of age will dictate what happens at every subsequent frame of development, in the manner of the character from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia who ruminated, “If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future. . . .” The problem is that wine evaluation is not algebra and the soul of a wine is not the sum total of the so-called “descriptors” one reads in the tasting notes. The things that determine how it might develop are not necessarily things you can taste or feel. I once bought some bottles of a relatively inexpensive Graves because it tasted eerily reminiscent of Haut-Brion. A few years later it didn’t. Why? Because it wasn’t Haut-Brion.
But still the idea of aging-by-formula remains the subtext in so many tasting notes purporting to see into the future. In its simplest form, the thought process goes something like this: Tannins help a wine age, and this wine is tannic; therefore it needs time. There are endless variations on the theme: As wines age they lose their baby fat, and this wine has a lot of baby fat; therefore it will be a long time before it fades. Or: Wines integrate with age, and this wine seems very disjointed; therefore it just needs some time to come together. Or: Wine ages on its balance, and this wine is perfectly balanced; therefore it will age effortlessly. You can pluck any one you want to justify any arbitrary prognostication. For example, one person tastes a heavily tannic, backwards wine and concludes it’s structured for long aging. Another person tastes the same wine, decries its lack of balance, and quotes the late Henri Jayer: “If it tastes too tannic, then it is too tannic.” Which one is right? Answer: It depends. Some wines have a track record for starting out punishingly tannic and eventually becoming exquisitely finessed, while other wines that might seem structurally indistinguishable from the starting gate never manage to shed the harshness–or, just as disappointingly, they do shed the tannin but don’t reveal anything interesting in the material that remains.
It’s true that aging is just a series of chemical reactions; it isn’t magic. So if we perceive some of the necessary inputs for those chemical reactions, then choosing to cellar a wine on the basis of an early taste isn’t an entirely blind gamble. But of course the character revealed by aging is of vastly more importance than the mere attainment of longevity. Accordingly, the fact that a wine is “built for the long haul” or “has the stuffing to age” or (insert your favorite cliché here) tells us very little about what we really care about.
I recently opened some newly released Barolos and Brunellos from the 2006 vintage, trying to decide whether I wanted to buy additional bottles of any of them for the cellar. I’m not sure exactly what I was hoping to see. Some of the bottles were beautiful, especially Brovia’s Barolo Rocché. Others were so tough and backwards they hardly offered any pleasure at all, such as the Francesco Rinaldi Cannubbio and Conti Costanti’s Brunello di Montalcino. And this tells me . . . absolutely nothing at all about which ones I will be glad to have bought fifteen or twenty years from now. The 1985 Rinaldi Cannubbio is one of the greatest wines I’ve ever had in my life. Maybe the 2006 will end up in a similar place. But tasting the wine now doesn’t give you any hint of how it might get there.
My proposal is this: Let’s put an end to this silly and misleading practice of opening young wines for the sake of science. Let’s instead resolve that every bottle we open will be for the sake of the satisfaction it can deliver on that day. That doesn’t mean I plan to give up drinking young, newly released wines. That’s not something I’d want to do even if I had an unlimited supply of mature stuff. But I will make an effort to avoid listening to that devil-on-the-shoulder that keeps trying to trick me into trying to sneak a preview of those wines that everybody knows aren’t designed to offer any reward for a long, long time.
For further reading:
- Importer Neal Rosenthal’s profile of the Bernard Levet domaine, concluding with the much-needed warning that “Bernard Levet’s wines are well-structured wines that are built for aging and experience significant improvement with time in bottle.” It is interesting to observe that Levet owns old vines in the La Landonne vineyard which comprise his Côte-Rôtie Les Journaries bottling and which would cost a few hundred dollars if, for whatever reason, you felt like buying the version from Guigal instead.
- A book by a famous wine critic characterizing Levet’s wines as “vegetal” and “mediocre,” rating them in the 70s, and advising against aging them.
- Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in print, or on CD.
September 23, 2011
I do not like that sommelier.
Can I see your list of wines?
Please, oh please,
Before we dine?
Our list is fine,
Our list is fine.
But won’t you try
This orange wine?
I will not try
That orange wine.
I’d rather have
A glass of Rhine.
I do not drink
Those orange wines.
I do not like them,
Will you drink it
Here or there?
I will not drink it
Here or there.
I will not drink it
I do not drink
Those orange wines.
I do not like them,
Will you drink it
By the glass?
I recommend it
With the bass.
I will not drink it by the glass.
I will not drink it with the bass.
I will not drink it here or there.
I will not drink it anywhere.
I will not drink those orange wines.
I do not like them, anytime.
Will you drink it
In a box?
It’s quite tasty
With the lox.
Not in a box, not with the lox.
Not by the glass, not with the bass.
I will not drink it here or there.
I will not drink it anywhere.
I will not drink those orange wines.
I do not like them, anytime.
Would you? Could you?
On the roof?
Try it! Try it!
It’s not spoofed.
I would not,
On the roof.
I would not,
Here or there.
I do not drink them
Would you drink it
With the uni?
I would not.
It sounds so loony.
You may like it,
You will see.
Would you try it
In a tree?
I would not, could not,
In a tree.
Those orange wines are not for me.
Sommelier, just let me be!
Will you try it
On the house?
Will you try it
With a mouse?
Not on the house! Not with a mouse!
Not in a tree! Just let me be!
I would not, could not, on the roof.
I would not, could not, that’s the truth.
I will not drink it in a box.
I will not drink it with the lox.
I will not drink it by the glass.
I will not drink it with the bass.
I will not drink it here or there.
I will not drink it anywhere.
I will not drink that orange wine.
I do not like them, anytime.
In the dark?
Here in the dark!
It’s not orange in the dark!
I would not, could not,
In the dark.
You do not like
These orange wines?
I do not like them,
You do not like them,
So you say.
But take a whiff
Of this bouquet!
One whiff and you may, I say.
Just let me say,
I don’t care
If that bouquet
Will make me
Bend my knees to pray.
And I don’t care about the bass
If orange wine’s inside my glass.
And I don’t care about the place
They grow these silly orange grapes.
I don’t care if far away
The sky is orange every day,
And fields of orange vineyards grow
Around an orange-brick chateau,
And grapes are stomped with orange feet
Until the orange wine’s complete
And songs about the wine are sung
In sing-song foreign orange tongues
By tribes of little orange dwarfs
Called the neffer-neffer-norfs!
I do not like those orange wines!
I will not drink them, anytime!
So spare me please the blow-by-blow.
I think it’s time for me to go.
Wait! Just wait!
Before you go,
There is something
You should know.
I did not bring
The list of wines
Although the list
Is mighty fine,
Because our list,
My friend, you see,
Has a certain specialty.
We have a thousand
And every wine
With which to dine
Is mighty fine,
But all our wines
Are orange wines.
If we have to play that way,
My stubborn goateed sommelier,
Then play that way we will, I say.
Play that way we will, I say.
Pour me please that orange wine.
I will drink it, this one time. . . .
Say! I like this orange wine!
I do! I’d drink it anytime!
I would drink it by the glass.
And I would drink it with the bass.
I would drink it in a box.
And I would drink it with the lox.
I would drink it on the house.
And I would drink it with a mouse.
I would drink it with the uni.
I don’t care if it sounds loony!
I would drink it here or there.
I would drink it anywhere!
Thank you, Mister Sommelier!
But there’s one thing I hate to say.
I do not need this orange wine,
Because it didn’t come in time.
It seems that while you stood there bleating
I’d already sat and eaten.
Thank you, Mister Sommelier.
But I’ll just pay and go away.
September 2, 2011
If the summer of 2011 is not the Summer of Natural Wine, it is at least the Summer of Books About Natural Wine, just like the summer of 1998 was the summer of movies about disco. The two offerings to choose from are Alice Feiring’s Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally and Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking.
Feiring already wrote a tome on the subject three years ago, called The Battle for Wine and Love: Or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization. Of course she didn’t actually save the world from Robert Parker’s influence, but it was an endearing, page-turner of a story of how she came to save herself. While it initially seemed to style itself as a polemic, it was really more sentimental than argumentative, alternating between wine commentary and autobiographical reminiscences and unapologetically schmaltzy in both areas. One of the chapters chronicles Feiring’s quest to find the producer who made the 1968 Barolo that first opened her eyes to the wonder of wine. From there she managed to pick up occasional wine-writing gigs but couldn’t put her finger on why so many of the bottles she opened bored her to tears. The Eureka moment comes when she notices that many of the wines that satisfied her came from the same importer, and she calls Joe Dressner hoping to learn why (and to score some free samples). “The problem is bigger than oak,” Dressner tells her. “Yeasts. It’s the yeasts.” If The Battle for Wine and Love has a villain, it’s not really Parker, but commercial yeasts. The good guys leave their wine to ferment with the yeasts that (ideally) come in from the vineyard on the grapes. The bad guys sterilize the vat to kill those yeasts and add commercial yeasts designed to ensure smooth, efficient fermentations (and, in some cases, to impart specific flavors).
That book did not, however, say a whole lot about sulfur. It mentioned a few producers such as Dard & Ribo in the Rhône that had had some success making wines without adding sulfur. But Feiring called those producers “the ultranaturals of the naturals,” admitted that “[s]ome are more successful than others,” and specifically declined to disqualify sulfured wines from the natural-wine club, suggesting, “On a naturally made wine, the ingredient list would read simply: Grapes and minimal sulfur (100 parts per million or lower).”
You can read quite a lot more about sulfur in Naked Wine. With The Battle for Wine and Love having vanquished commercial yeast, the role of the antagonist (if not exactly the villain) of Naked Wine is played by sulfur. The definition of “natural wine” offered in Naked Wine, unfortunately repeated enough times that its earnestness begins to grate, is “nothing added, nothing taken away.” And sulfur is of course something added. Many of the producers Feiring talks to are still content to use sulfur because making wine without it is like tightrope-walking without a net, and with a fragile tightrope. But we are still left with the impression that it’s a deviation from the ideal. Perhaps fashion is to blame for this sudden fixation. Unsulfered wines are hip. There are Parisian shops and wine bars and festivals devoted to them and plenty of other places where inquiring whether a bottle is sans soufre is the shibboleth that can get you promoted from dumb tourist to winking co-conspirator. “[T]his whole natural movement is kind of a cult thing,” laments one of Feiring’s vintner friends. “You do your best; you make your wine with nothing, and you add sulfur, and you get booted out of the club. And that eats at me, because we’re totally natural except for sulfur. Yet sometimes I just want to be in the club!”
But this is not a “battle” story. Naked Wine, for the most part, does not pit the good guys against the bad guys. Instead, it’s a story about the tensions within the natural-wine movement itself. The story begins with Feiring being invited to put her ideas to the test and make her own batch of wine, and through a twist and turn of events it turns out to be a California sagrantino. It quickly becomes apparent that the grapes got too ripe on the vine and unless something is added or taken away, the wine will be frightfully alcoholic. She bites the bullet and acquiesces to adding water. Alice Feiring adding water to a wine! The reader is inclined to react like the guy who yelled “Judas!” at Bob Dylan when he went electric. But the episode is in keeping with the theme that non-interventionism may be the ideal but it isn’t religious dogma. The same theme recurs when hardcore natural winemaker Andrea Calek admits to using sulfur on occasion,”if a wine needs it.” “If I need it, I put in one gram. What I do know is that I won’t go to hell if I use it. Sulfur is to sleep well. If you need to sleep well, you use it.”
But the most important tension addressed in the book is this: the whole reason one aims to intervene as little as possible in the winemaking process is to create a wine that’s maximally expressive of the place it came from rather than the person who made it—and yet it can’t be denied that a significant number of these wines, whether they come from the Loire Valley or the Rhône or Basque country, taste more like each other than they taste like the typical wines from their respective regions. There is a particular flavor profile—something like fresh berry fruit with a tingle of juicy acid—that you could encounter in a blind tasting and instantly know you are drinking a member of the natural-wine set while having no clue at all what region it might come from. Even if they are more palatable than the spoofulated, international-style of wines consisting of heady fruit and toasted oak, there is a sense in which they are just as anonymous and predictable.
The reason for this, as Feiring elicits in a conversation with Eric Texier and the late Marcel Lapierre in chapter 5, is that vignerons from all over began practicing the carbonic maceration technique that Jules Chauvet popularized for making Beaujolais—to the point, Lapierre says, that “[p]eople believe that if you make a natural wine, it has to be made in the so-called méthode Chauvet.” But Chauvet believed the technique was uniquely suited for gamay grown in Beaujolais’s granitic soils and never advised exporting it anywhere else. When it’s used elsewhere, the result still tastes more or less like a carbonic Beaujolais, but in a generic fashion because it lacks the Beaujolais terroir. They’re vins de soif—thirst-quenchers. “The Chauvet method has become a recipe,” Feiring remarks. “Disciples have accepted the dogma, no? Semi-carbonic maceration, no matter what. No sulfur, no matter what. Chauvetists’ wine seems to belong, in taste and style, to a club. I prefer it more than other clubs, though.”
The penultimate chapter poses the question whether the proliferation of all of those carbonic vins de soif reflects the influence of Chauvet himself or his protégé Jacques Néauport, who consulted with a number of producers outside Chauvet’s turf and taught them the method. The question is left unanswered, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Néauport is surely closer than any man who’s still alive to being present at the creation of the natural-wine movement. One might expect him to have something profound to say about what they were hoping to accomplish. Instead, he says, it was all about the sulfur. They wanted to make sulfur-free wines because they drank a lot and thought eschewing sulfur would spare them from hangovers.
* * * * *
If Néauport leaves you craving a more philosophically rigorous defense of why we ought to care about natural winemaking, you can find it in the preface to Goode and Harrop’s Authentic Wine. “We believe that wine is special,” they begin, “and one of the things that make it special is that it is, in essence, a natural product. We argue that this naturalness is important for wine, and any attempt to make wine less natural by allowing winemakers greater freedom to make more additions could severely damage the image of wine and its continued specialness.” That formulation offers the best counterargument to the prevailing politically correct let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom mindset that sees something unseemly in any debate about what winemakers should or should not be doing. The reason it’s legitimate to care is because the proliferation of manipulative techniques makes the whole idea of wine less interesting—and when that happens, the people and cultures that have sustained themselves on wine won’t continue to prosper or to live as they have before.
It’s somewhat reminiscent of the debate over steroids in professional baseball. Most people tend to see the steroid users as cheaters. But there is an increasingly vocal group of people who defend steroid use on the ground that it leads to superior athletic performance—and superior athletic performance is the whole point of sports, is it not? For example, the baseball analyst Bill James broke his virtual silence on the subject in a 2009 essay called “Cooperstown and the ‘Roids” in which he argued that the stigma on steroid use was unsustainable because “we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants.” More explicitly, the baseball blogger David Pinto has argued, “[W]hy not use them? . . . [I]f fans don’t like it they can stay away from games and kill the sport.” And that’s exactly the point. Even if steroids make people better baseball players, they also make baseball boring. Nobody has any interest in watching athletes compete to see who has the best pharmacist. Of course the analogy to wine isn’t perfect because wine isn’t a competition, at least not in the same way. But both wine and baseball have a mystique to them which is a large part of why so many people find them to be worthy of devotion and study. Mess with that mystique at your peril.
By the second page of the book, Goode and Harrop have already destroyed another tired chestnut that keeps resurfacing in debates over the merits of natural winemaking—the notion that there is no such thing as a natural wine because grapes won’t turn into wine without someone to pick them and prevent the juice from turning to vinegar. The argument that all wines are equally unnatural is a favorite talking point among producers who are especially promiscuous with their interventions; if you’re willing to intervene to pick grapes, the logic goes, than how in the world can you object on a principled basis to running wine through a reverse-osmosis machine and adding chemicals, oak chips, and Mega-Purple? Goode and Harrop ask us to consider an analogy to a garden. “The term garden implies some sort of human intervention,” they write, but it is still possible to “raise questions about degrees of naturalness, as you can with wine. Does a garden gnome, or a water feature, or a bench make the garden unnatural? There are all sorts of gardens, from formal Regency-style English gardens to botanic gardens and more functional vegetable gardens. In a way all of these are natural, but some are more natural than others.”
They proceed to propose six elements of what they call an “authentic wine”: natural winemaking, sustainable viticulture, a sense of place, appropriate ripeness, freedom from chemical faults, and sensitivity to the environment, which they define specifically as “[m]inimizing the carbon footprint of the wine through all stages from grape to shelf.” I am afraid, however, that I am going to have to call B.S. on that last criterion. Even if one stipulates that environmentalism is a value of critical importance, it doesn’t belong here, any more than a requirement that winemakers not commit robberies and murders would belong here. If the only way to bottle a Chambertin was with a machine that operated on whale oil and necessitated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the resulting wine would not be any less authentic an expression of Chambertin, no matter what other objections one might have to it. More fundamentally, absent a comparison of the carbon emissions produced by winemaking with the carbon emissions produced by other activities (such as, for example, the private-jet flights of anti–global warming activists), we are not given any basis for believing that wine production represents a contribution to greenhouse gases material enough for anyone to fret about it. Readers are therefore advised to skip chapter 12, “The Carbon Footprint of Wine.” Those who prefer self-flagellation can begin reducing their carbon footprint right now by shutting off their computers.
The science in the rest of the book is more pertinent even where it becomes too technical for laymen to follow. Goode previously authored The Science of Wine, and it seems that much of that information makes its way here. A good chunk of Authentic Wine is devoted to detailed explanations of what, exactly, is happening on a chemical or molecular level during vegetation, ripening, fermentation, and élevage. And this is an underappreciated aspect of natural winemaking because it is often presumed to be the domain of hippies and Luddites, when in fact getting it right requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of chemistry. In order to get away with doing nothing, you have to know quite a lot.
* * * * *
The difference in tone between Naked Wine and Authentic Wine could not be more dramatic. The latter is written with the formality of a textbook, organized with the structured logic of a flowchart and brimming with information. Discourses on science are interspersed with sidebars profiling particular producers. It’s mostly written in an objective voice, laying out the implications of particular winemaking decisions but seldom taking a firm stand on where to draw the line. Like any textbook, you can hop around to the parts that interest you and feel free to skip pages.
Naked Wine, by contrast, is as much a book about Alice Feiring as it is about natural wine. There is a lot of information here, too, but it is conveyed by means of Feiring’s narrative, written in her characteristic voice and organized in no particular way other than the order in which things happened to her or the ideas struck her. She will set the scene with a lot of details you don’t care about, like when she found a scorpion in the room she was staying in France. Perhaps her schtick is not for everyone. But, like her previous book, it makes for an engrossing page-turner from beginning to end.
* * * * *
I think the book the world needs about natural or authentic winemaking still remains to be written, although many books over the years have touched, each in their own way, on one or another aspect of what’s at stake. The book I would like to see would be titled something along the lines of Why Wine Matters. Goode and Harrop gesture at one of the answers when they write in their conclusion, “People have a hunger for the authentic.” Alice Feiring touches on it, too, when she quotes the great Barolo grower Teobaldo Cappellano as saying, “The more there’s fake, the more there’s need for real.” Most of us in the modern world can spend a typical day without coming into contact with anything handmade or anything that exists in the same form in which it existed a hundred years ago. When we sit down to dinner and open a bottle of wine we have the opportunity to experience a compelling exception to that.
There are many people who claim to believe, when it comes to wine, that “it’s what’s in the glass that counts.” They say they don’t care how it was made as long as it tastes good. And yet, in discussing what it is about wine that makes some of us so passionate about it, I have never—not once—heard anyone give as their reason, “I like the way it tastes.” There are a lot of things that taste good. Few of them inspire the devotion that wine does, and it’s not because of how it tastes, but because of what it is. We are uncomfortable with interventions in the winemaking process not because they violate some arbitrary rules about what is “natural,” but because we understand that to change the way wine is made is to change what wine is.
For further reading (and listening):
Alice Feiring’s Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally and The Battle for Wine and Love: Or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization—and her interview on GrapeRadio.
Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking.
My December 2010 column on the 2009 Beaujolais vintage and Jules Chauvet.
Saveur‘s feature on Marcel Lapierre and “The New Beaujolais.”
Dylan goes electric at Manchester Free Trade Hall.
August 5, 2011
(With apologies to Ambrose Bierce.)
Alcohol, n. A product of fermentation, the degree of which in wine is seen as roughly proportionate to its ability to intoxicate a person and directly proportionate to its ability to intoxicate a critic.
Auction, n. The process by which one seeks to obtain a bargain on a wine by paying more for it than anyone else on the planet was willing to pay.
Beer, n. A beverage essential to the production of wine.
Bordeaux, n. An investment vehicle not regulated by the Securities Act of 1933 or the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 which does not mature until thirty years after liquidation.
Bordeaux Superieur, n. Bordeaux inferieur.
Brunello di Montalcino, n. [1.] A wine made from Brunello grapes grown in the hills of Montalcino. [2.] A wine made from grapes other than Brunello grown in locations other than the hills of Montalcino.
Bubble, n. An economic cycle in which greed for supranormal returns results in the inflation of asset prices far above their intrinsic value and which is recognized always to end in a panic and crash unless the asset is wine.
Bubble bubble, n. Krug Clos d’Ambonnay.
Cellar, n. A place where wine and self-control are stored for future use.
Chardonnay, n. The grape variety used in Burgundy for the production of sherry.
My Burgundy’s hue is nothing like the sun;
Last night’s leftover tuna smells more fresh.
If wine is life, well, then this life is done.
To find its fruit would take a mighty stretch.
I’ve tasted chardonnays both lean and luscious,
But there is something odder in this glass.
To call it tired wouldn’t do it justice;
I should have drank it in the distant past.
I yearned to taste this juice, yet now I know
That Two-Buck Chuck’s a far more pleasing drink;
For fifteen years I held this fine Meursault,
And now I pour it down the kitchen sink.
No more of this for me. I’m done. Screw it.
Next time I’ll buy myself a case of Huet.
Closed, adj. A wine that does not taste as good as its label or price indicated.
Connoisseur, n. A person who prides himself on his ability to discern minute gradations of quality and excellence and who distinguishes himself from an elitist by his firm conviction that all such discernments are subjective and illusory.
Cooper, n. A winemaker with a bigger œuvre than most care to admit.
Cork, n. The only non-grape substance permitted to contaminate a natural wine.
Critic, n. An instrument used for the detection of points in wine.
Double-blind, adj. Of or pertaining to a wine whose identity is unknown to the person or persons tasting it, universally recognized as the only method of service capable of eliciting praise of inexpensive wines or of domestic wines from states other than California, Oregon, and Washington, and consequently the only method by which such wines are ever served in the company of connoisseurs.
Drinking window, n. Two numbers separated by a hyphen and dispensed with a shovel.
Finish, n. An alleged attribute of wine, often subjected by critics to measurement by stopwatch, which has the same relation to wine consumption as the appendix does to the human anatomy, and the same utility.
Grenache, n. A variety of grape used for the production of wine in climates unsuitable for the cultivation of grapes.
Großes Gewächs, n. A marketing strategy intended to highlight the uniqueness of Germany’s greatest vineyard sites by ensuring that they all taste identically brutal.
Hedonistic, adj. Of or having qualities which inspire a taster to hold a glass of wine to the light to assess its depth of color, swirl the glass to take note of the multiplicity of aromatic compounds, partake a measured sip constrained by the wine’s dense concentration, gurgle air into the mouth, expectorate the wine into a sink or bucket, and assign the wine a quantum of points no fewer than 96, presumably so called because of the obvious similarity of such routines to the hedonistic lifestyle of antiquity associated with such figures as the Roman Emperor Caligula.
Hipster, n. The species of wine consumer who buys his clothes in a thrift shop and his Große Gewächse by the case.
Kabinett, adj. Spätlese.
Mailing list, n. The means by which a wine producer in California renders his wine coveted by those who are not allowed to buy it and resold by those who are.
Off-bottle, n. Any wine you liked less than I did.
I’m sorry to hear that you hated that wine.
When I drank it last, it seemed mighty fine.
Could be that you happened to have an off-bottle,
Or one that the mailman could better have coddled.
Perhaps it was closed, perhaps slightly corked.
Or maybe it would have shown better with pork.
How long did you let it sit in the decanter?
Not enough air time! That could be the answer.
Unless!—if it happened to breathe for too long,
And it shut down before you could hear its sweet song.
Maybe you served it too cold to stay fruity?
Maybe you served it so warm it got soupy?
And haven’t you heard about sickness in transit?
How long did you give it to sit since they shipped it?
Yes, all of a number of things could have happened
To make your wine taste like a cow went and crapped in.
Once, in a night of extravagant dalliance,
My bottle of wine got abducted by aliens.
They probed for the points but somehow erased them.
How else could mine differ from Parker’s huge rating?
Others tell tales about changelings and elves
Who sneak into your cellar and ransack your shelves.
Sometimes, they leave you some bland chardonnay
In a bottle that’s labeled Grand Cru Montrachet.
You see, there’s so much that can gang oft aglee,
So the source of your problem’s no real mystery.
Go and choose whatever fault comes along.
The one thing I’m sure of, I can’t have been wrong!
Point, n. A unit of measurement used by critics to indicate the degree to which a Bordeaux resembles a California cabernet, a Burgundy resembles a Rhône, a Rhône resembles a shiraz, and a shiraz resembles crude oil.
Shelf talker, n. A cardstock measuring roughly two inches by three inches posted next to a bottle of wine in a retail store containing a tasting note and point rating for a different bottle of wine.
Snob, n. One who surveys the available wines, then resigns himself to beer.
Sulfur dioxide, n. A chemical compound consisting of one part sulfur and two parts oxygen, used to protect a wine from spoilage or from consumption by hipsters.
Spätlese, adj. Auslese.
Tasting, n. An assembly of people and wine at which either a large quantity of wine is tasted and none drank or a large quantity of wine is drank and none tasted.
Tasting note, n. A genre of prose which customarily attempts to describe the experience of drinking a wine in terms never used to describe any experience worth having.
Varietal, n. A shibboleth for the irritation of grammarians.
Well-made, adj. Being made according to accepted standards of commercial merchantability and having no evident flaws other than the inability to deliver pleasure or satisfaction of any kind.
Wine list, n. A collection of wines curated by a sommelier and sold by an extortionist.
June 25, 2011
Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Spider-Man taught that with great power comes great responsibility. But the superhero it might have profited you the most to have emulated is Kyle Baker’s Al Space. Al Space tried to teach the youth about the folly of investing in speculative bubbles.
Al Space debuted in 1991′s Epic Lite, an anthology of short pieces published under Marvel Comics’ Epic Comics imprint, which tended to feature underground or alternative comic artists like Baker. Al Space wore the cape, tights, and underoos de rigeur for costumed crimefighters, except he had a bit of a pot belly. Instead of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he spends six pages talking to little Billy Brown about his comic-book collection. “Well, this sure is a big stack!” Al Space remarks. “Let’s take a look at—Wait… This is all the same comic.”
“I’m going to be rich,” Billy explains. “Did you know that last year three million copies of McFarlane’s first Spider-Man were sold?”—referring to Spider-Man #1, a fourth Spider-Man title that Marvel debuted in 1991 to accommodate the demands of its superstar artist Todd McFarlane to have total creative control of a title and the prominent byline that comes with it. Hoping to capitalize on the mania for McFarlane’s work, Marvel packaged it in a bunch of different formats. It was sold in a sealed plastic bag, requiring kids to choose between preserving the book in mint condition and opening the bag to actually read the comic. Or you could buy another version with a special black-and-silver cover. A second printing with a black-and-gold cover was released a few weeks later. There was also a special “chrome” edition printed on a metallic cardstock. The true collector had to have them all!
Al Space proceeds to remind Billy, “Did you know that according to the market research, there are about five hundred thousand comic book fans? That means that five hundred thousand people bought three million comics. Okay, so we can logically assume that these comics were bought as investments. That means that even if every fan reads one copy of the book, which they probably didn’t, there are at least two million, five hundred thousand copies in protective plastic bags. Which means that fifty years from now, there will still be two million, five hundred thousand copies of that book still in bags. There are two things which affect the value of a comic. Rarity and demand. That book will never be rare, and since every fan has multiple copies, there won’t be much demand for many years to come.” Billy is crushed.
Billy wasn’t the only one who succumbed to the mania for investing in comics in the early 1990s, and it wasn’t just kids, either. The June 13 issue of the Weekly Standard features an account by Jonathan Last of the boom in the comic-book industry in the early 1990s and the crash that followed. In Last’s account, comics became serious collectors’ items some time in the 1980s. Copies of Action Comics #1, which featured Superman’s debut, sold for $400 in 1974, $5,000 in 1984, and $82,500 in 1992. “Price gains for the high-value comics throughout the 1980s attracted speculators, who pushed the prices up further,” Last relates. Another major factor that fueled the speculative bubble was a change in the way distributors did business, which made it easy for nearly anybody to go into business selling comics. Mistaking the entry of thousands of new retailers for a massive expansion of their audience, Last writes, the publishers “upped their prices and began publishing more titles, adjusting the supply to meet what they thought was demand.”
* * * * *
In their book Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, economists Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Aliber describe the anatomy of a bubble as follows. It begins with an event that excites speculative interest. Rising prices encourage new entrants. The increase in demand presses against the capacity to produce goods, and new assets have to be created to satiate demand. Fraudsters get in the game. Historic gains lead to an overextension of credit. When gains begin to stagnate, distress and panic follow. Investors run for the exits, and then comes the crash. “The pattern is biological in its regularity,” write Kindleberger and Aliber. The same story happens again and again, whether it’s about tulips, dot-com stocks, real estate, comic books, or wine.
So I will not comment at length on the fact that the wine world is presently waiting anxiously for the Bordeaux first growths to release their 2010 futures prices, with many observers figuring that Château Lafite-Rothschild may well reach the $2,000-per-bottle mark. Buy some if you are a multimillionaire, but don’t buy any hoping to become one. The same principle holds true all the way down the hierarchy. There is a limited number of wine collectors in the world interested in owning these wines. There is a much larger number of speculators willing to exploit those collectors to make an easy buck. The Bordealais think the cash-flush Chinese will pay the unprecedentedly high prices they are asking. But who is actually buying Bordeaux futures: cash-flush Chinese, or speculators hoping to flip the goods to cash-flush Chinese when the wines ship in two years? I’m not sure I would want to be holding very many of those hot potatoes. Take a look at eBay: you can buy as many Spider-Man #1s as you want for just a few bucks.
* * * * *
In truth, however, the ridiculous prices being asked for Bordeaux over the last few years are only a small part of why I have almost completely lost interest in the wines. I started drinking Bordeaux in earnest with the 1995 vintage, and at that time back vintages were still plentiful on the shelves, so I was also able to taste through a number of older vintages back to the ’70s at prices I could make room for on a student’s budget. Most of the newer Bordeaux I have occasion to drink, even from estates reputed to be traditionalists, taste unrecognizable to me. It’s shocking to me how completely different the profile is from what it was as recently as a dozen years ago. And the further one goes back in history, the even more pronounced the difference is. In 1945, André Simon wrote that the wines of Burgundy “rarely possess quite the same light and delicate texture or body which is such an outstanding character of most fine clarets; they are as a rule more robust, more assertive, more immediately obvious.” Nobody today would characterize Bordeaux as light and delicate or consider Burgundy more robust and obvious.
The Bordeaux I remember, which were already considerably more modern than the wines Simon drank, were characterized above all by a sense of restraint. The physical sensation on the palate was overwhelmingly one of comfort, registering that feeling of instant gratification not unlike the feeling of sliding one’s feet into a perfectly fitting and broken-in pair of shoes. Attempting to catalogue the flavors with the usual taxonomy of tasting-note “descriptors” would have been a completely pointless exercise because the only meaningful way to describe the taste would be to say that they tasted like wine. No individual elements stuck out. Fruit was wholly immaterial. They did not taste like fruit any more than cheese tastes like milk. The new style of Bordeaux favors weight over comfort, multiplicity of flavors over integration, and fruitiness over vinousness—ultimately, the feeling they are trying to instill in the person drinking them is not so much a feeling of satisfaction or gratification, but a sense of being awed and impressed.
Which brings me back to Spider-Man.
If you page through the old comics of the so-called Golden and Silver Ages of the medium—the periods covering the introduction of the iconic DC and Marvel superheroes—the artwork seems rather plain and simple compared to the eye candy that turned a few of the artists like McFarlane into superstars. None of the work-for-hire pencillers and inkers of the ’30s or ’60s became stars. They worked for peanuts and died poor. But the thing about them is that they had learned to draw comics by studying life, whereas the star artists of the ’90s had learned to draw comics by reading comics. For example, John Buscema, who drew the Avengers and the Silver Surfer and pretty much every other superhero in the Marvel universe, trained as a boxer in New York in the 1940s and began painting portraits of other fighters—experience that doubtlessly came in handy drawing all those muscle-bound superheroes in tights, whose proportions might have been exaggerated a bit for effect but were still human forms that would have been recognizable to a Renaissance sculptor. The new wave of artists didn’t learn to draw the human form by studying boxers; they learned by studying Buscema—and just as Buscema exaggerated the proportions of the human form for effect, they would exaggerate the proportions of the heroes as drawn by Buscema. The images they produced were not drawings of people but drawings of drawings of people. The proportions were all wrong—any actual human so built would have broken into pieces from the impossible distribution of weight. Since they learned to draw from still panels, they didn’t have any anatomical sense of how muscles fit together and moved, so they tended just to draw a whole lot of bulges in the general shape of a person and divert attention away from the incorrectness of it all by filling in the spaces with a lot of lines and cross-hatching. Backgrounds were out of the question since they never learned perspective and didn’t have any experience drawing landscapes or much of anything else besides men in tights, so the negative space tended to be filled up with more lines and cross-hatching.
By far the worst offender was Rob Liefeld, who took the credit for creating X-Force at Marvel, got famous enough to appear in a Levi’s commercial, and whose style was vaguely reminiscent of McFarlane’s in its detail but much, much sloppier. In 1992, Liefeld and McFarlane quit Marvel to start their own comic company and recruited most of the other star talent at Marvel and DC to join them. The new company, Image Comics, promised contributors copyright ownership of their characters and total creative control, which in practice meant that the star artists began writing their own books despite having no demonstrated talent for writing and no training in the discipline other than reading comic books. The results were awful, but the artists’ star power and the type of collector’s-item gimmickry that McFarlane had previously deployed so successfully with his Spider-Man title instantly propelled Image to a market share competitive with Marvel’s and DC’s. It could not have been a coincidence that the total financial collapse of the comic-book business happened so soon after Image saturated the market with so many phony collectibles badly written and badly drawn. The formation of Image is the moment you can freeze and put in a gilded frame to pinpoint the precise moment the mainstream comic-book medium went irretrievably down the toilet.
Bordeaux has become the Image Comics of wine. There is a direct analogy between those artists who learned to draw from comics rather than from life and the contemporary oenologists who model their wines after other highly rated wines rather than fashioning wine for the function it serves in life—spreading joy around a table. Wine critics praised such legendary Bordeaux as the 1947 Château Cheval-Blanc because the exotic vintage took the wine’s usual opulence and exaggerated it; those hoping to curry favor with the critics today thus aim to create a profile reminiscent of what they imagine the ’47 Cheval-Blanc to have been, and exaggerate that, resulting in a wine not one step but two steps removed from the traditional form—and when that wine becomes successful, an array of copycats three steps removed from the traditional form proliferate. The critics don’t want their Bordeaux to taste simply of claret; they want it to taste of lead pencils, scorched earth, pain grillé, coffee, and tobacco smoke, so more toasted new oak and a malolactic fermentation in the barrel will add the requisite point-enhancing features just like all those extraneous lines and cross-hatching that give a badly drawn panel the illusion of detail. And of course every single one of these wines is a must-have collectible, and priced accordingly. I don’t know when that madness will end, but my spider sense is tingling.
For further reading:
- Jonathan Last’s “The Crash of 1993″ in the Weekly Standard.
- The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings. It has been ages since I laughed as hard as I did reading this.
- An opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit written by the illustrious Judge Richard Posner on a copyright dispute between McFarlane and writer Neil Gaiman, Gaiman v. McFarlane, 360 F.3d 644 (7th Cir. 2004). The best part is the understated frankness with which Judge Posner recounts the history of how McFarlane came to retain Gaiman to write a book: “In 1992, shortly after forming his own publishing house, McFarlane began publishing a series of comic books entitled Spawn, which at first he wrote and illustrated himself. . . . The early issues in the series were criticized for bad writing, so McFarlane decided to invite four top writers each to write the script for one issue of Spawn.”
- Three of the all-time best graphic novels: Dave Sim’s Jaka’s Story (despite its being volume 5 of his Cerebus serial, you actually don’t need to read any of the preceding ones to follow it), Dan Clowes’s Ghost World, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Season of Mists. The reason I mention these is that they were spawned outside the mainstream of the industry at precisely the same time the creative standards at Marvel and then Image were deteriorating into crap. (Clowes’s books were so far outside the mainstream that I couldn’t even get them at the comic-book store. I had to buy them in a coffee shop in the nearest college town, one of those places where none of the furniture or dishes matched and an androgynous folksinger was usually playing in the corner to an inattentive audience engrossed in Noam Chomsky books and body-ink magazines.) The originals of these comics actually turned into genuine collectibles and are rare enough to fetch very high prices, while the phony collectibles Marvel and Image churned out en masse can be bought today for less than their cover prices. I don’t think collectors will be sorry for missing the opportunity to add any of the highly touted Bordeaux made in 10,000-case quantities to their cellars. My bet is that in twenty years, it will be some of the esoteric wines brought in by small importers and sold in specialty shops like Chambers Street Wines that are most likely to be the ones exciting collectors’ passions. If you don’t believe me, ask Al Space.