On Language and Dogma

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.

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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.

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