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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card

By Charles Olken


I went to a college where the grading was pretty tough. If you averaged a “B”, you made Dean’s List and would graduate with honors. A “B-“ was a pretty good grade because the answer to the question, what did you get in English Lit or Economics or Science for Dummies (not called that, but that was what it was) could be “B” and you would not even have to confess to the minus at the end. But there was another grade to which some of us were addicted. It was “C+” and was known as “the gentleman’s C” because it meant you were close to being able to say you got a B.

Well, that is how I feel about the authenticity debate. As smart as all of us are who entered into the quick firestorm over this latest buzz word, we really never laid a glove on each other’s arguments because we never established the ground rules. Who is it that definitively establishes the parameters of authenticity? Are they static or do they change? Does authenticity get defined by European tradition and the rest of the world is left to imitate or fester in a pool of failure to be “authentic”? Where does terroir enter into the picture? Global warming? Technological advances?

My writing partner, Steve Eliot, also teaches wine education at the California Culinary Academy. His unique take on the world of interventionist winemaking is instructive. One of these days, he will elaborate because this topic is simply not going to go away. Steve points out that the would-be chefs at his institution of learning are taught every tactic, trick and culinary maneuver that can be crammed into them all for one overriding purpose—to be able to cook more interesting food. Why then, he wonders, would winemakers be expected to ignore the tools available to them. Our tasting panel member, winemaker Matt Smith (his winery is Blacksmith and he also consults to several wineries including Rock Wall) is more direct. “My job”, Matt says, “is to make wine that tastes good within the style that I want to make. I don’t use every shortcut available, but why would I avoid things that help? Does Alice Waters ignore spices, brining, sous vide”?

Authenticity may be a useful concept, but not to me. I much more prefer notions of varietal consistency, commonality of character found in a given location, the use of oak when it helps, balance, cleanliness and the ability to taste good with food. I cannot see how authenticity fits into any of those concepts directly. Thus, the good but not perfect grades to all of us who have participated intelligently in a debate that ultimately has not provided us any new understandings of the world.


My winewriting colleague Laurie Daniels, writing in the San Jose Mercury-News, has penned a column called “On Wine: What Is Purity?”

I was buzzing around the Internet, having just wrapped up the article above, looking for interesting news items such as the report that sixty producers of Muscadet in France have gone bankrupt. Alder Yarrow’s blog, Vinography got there before me, so I won’t go far down that path except to remind everyone that wine is an agricultural commodity and this year’s scarcity is next year’s surplus.

Laurie’s column asks some good questions, goes too far for my taste in ignoring the usefulness of the winemaking tools that are discussed above, and then, just as I am scratching my head wondering if “natural” wine is not another synonym is some people’s minds for authenticity, she concludes with this—“But I do object to wines that profess purity and then, as part of a recipe, are tweaked and sculpted year in and year out to fit some sort of predetermined style. These aren't wines that reflect a unique site; sometimes they don't even reflect the typicity of a particular grape variety. They have more in common with people addicted to plastic surgery: They chase an ideal, but are utterly lacking in authenticity.“

I told you this discussion was not over.


It ain't over until...
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:10/28/2010 10:23:57 AM

Yes, Charlie, the argument isn't over, but it is for me.

As I've said before, and as you've pointed out with this question above Who is it that definitively establishes the parameters of authenticity? until the overall wine industry establishes achievable parameters for quality and definition, there is no argument; it's all belief system.

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