"One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts."--Samuel Johnson
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
"Natural Wine"--A Blind Book Review
The endless and tiresome debates about natural wine that are raging around the wine world finally convinced me that I should make it a point to not read Isabelle Legeron’s “Natural Wine,” and to review it blind. Reviewing a book without having read it is the only way to objectively analyze its content. It is no different than reviewing a wine blind. Actually reading “Natural Wine” would only bring my knowledge and experience into play, qualities that have no place at the reviewing stand. As in wine reviews, ignorance is surely the reviewer’s most specialized and valuable tool. One has only to scan Wine Spectator scores for this to be self-evident.
First, allow me to note that I have a fondness for natural wine. I also like Renaissance Faires, and think Amish people are just so damned cute. Critics who don’t like proponents of Natural Wine, like Isabelle Legeron, MW, need to remember just how adorable they are, all anti-progress and anti-science. So sweet! Come on, who needs sulfites when you have Luddites? Come to think of it, I also like cookie dough, or as I like to call it, Natural Cookies. Cookies baked in newfangled ovens are just so fake. Some flour, some raw eggs, some yeast--cookies make themselves! And here’s a tip: Nothing goes with Natural Wine Pinot Noir better than some juicy Salmonella you contracted from Natural Cookies.
Isabelle Legeron is one of only 312 Masters of Wine in the world. She achieved this distinction by learning about, writing about, and learning to identify blind all those second-rate, obviously poorly-made wines not produced in the natural way. Crap like d'Yquem, Vega Sicilia, and all of those stupid First Growths. This must have been murder on such a delicate, sophisticated, discriminating palate. Her accomplishment of earning an MW is, for her, akin to going undercover and passing as a sex trafficker. As a society, we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for uncovering firsthand the nightmare that is modern wine, and can only imagine the suffering and indignities she witnessed and endured. I mean, come on, Clive Coates was always hanging around. What must that have done to her?
For those of you who have been living in a cave, and are, therefore, the target audience for Natural Wines, it would probably be useful to define “natural wine.” Yup, sure would be. The book is filled with hints, but an actual definition is elusive. It seems to start in the vineyard. Natural wines can only come from vineyards that are farmed organically or biodynamically. OK, this is starting to make sense. I like that Natural Wines give diseases a fighting chance. I think we all agree that vaccines are bad things, too, causing problems like autism, overpopulation, and unattractive scabs. Diseases are natural, and deserve a chance to impact the wine. So I’m in complete agreement on this count.
Also, according to “Natural Wine,” which I have not had the pleasure of reading (amazingly, English is Legeron’s third language, after French and Elvish), natural wines are made with as little intervention as humanly possible, sort of like Mexican cures for cancer. Frankly, I agree with Legeron on this point as well. I’ve long said that the best way to improve wines is to reduce the number of winemakers, though I advocated automatic weapons and anthrax. Grapes evolved for tens of thousands of years without human interference, and, honestly, made the finest wines in history. Bill Koch has some in his cellar he bought from a very reputable auction house. Amazing the vines were able to bottle.
If the ordinary wine buyer of today actually knew how wineries manipulate wine, knew all the tricks and additives they employ, they would be outraged. And for what? To make them taste good? That’s hardly justification. As Legeron points out, we constantly worry about where our food comes from and how it’s handled, why shouldn’t we apply the same criteria to wine? (Legeron is our Michael Pollan of wine. Yet the laugh is on her—grapes are self-Pollanating.) I think she’s right. When I dine at a fine restaurant that uses only sustainably grown produce and responsibly raised meats, I sure as hell don’t want a chef screwing it up. And wine is exactly the same as food, when you think about it—a luxury item. Not everyone in the world needs it. Oh, sure, people will complain, but someone has to draw the line and tell them, No, natural is the only way and if there isn’t enough, if it’s unavailable, you’ll just have to do without. The best food available, just like the best wine, is all that matters. Well, when you’re at the top of the food and wine chain anyway.
As I neared the end of the book, having not turned a single page, I found myself in agreement with almost everything Legeron writes about Natural Wine. Of course, this isn’t surprising given that she is a Master of Wine, and their opinions are oenological Apostolic Exhortations, no matter how oeno-illogical they might seem. Legeron also declaims the overuse of sulfur (a certain sign of the presence of Satan) in winemaking, as well as sulfites at bottling. I think she’s right. Nearsighted critics of her work complain that the natural winemaking methods she outlines will almost always lead to faulty wines. As though this were a bad thing.
First of all, faults are in the eye of the beholder. It’s no different than falling in love. Are we going to let chemistry get in the way of recreational sex? Hell, no. Chemistry is just as detrimental in wine evaluation. It robs you in its relentlessly logical and unforgiving way of the pleasure of just holding your nose and getting drunk. And getting drunk on a beverage that was made the right way, has all its wet spots in the right place, to further my analogy. Chemistry has no place in winemaking.
Secondly, with time, those “faults” go away. How do we know this? Legeron tells us so, and if there is one thing you learn from reading “Natural Wine” it’s that what separates Natural Wine from all other lesser wine is Faith. And, truly, the wine business needs Faith. Faith is what separates man from lowly, filthy beasts. Faith is what separates Natural Wine from Stupid Wine. Faith that manure from a lactating cow buried for six months, blended with fermented flowers and specific herbs, mixed with untold gallons of water will restore micro-organisms to the soil. Faith that a winery is so clean you can ferment wine in it without fear of contamination. Faith that your senses are lying to you when you stick your nose in and then taste a “faulty” wine, not the salesman serving it. Faith that your purity of intention and love for the Earth will guide you to select the bottle of Natural Wine from the displayed case of Natural Wine that is the bottle variation that is drinkable and delicious. Faith that wine is meant to be sackcloth, a lesson in humility, and not hedonistic pleasure.
I very much enjoyed Isabelle Legeron’s “Natural Wine.” I just wish they’d printed it with natural ink.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
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