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Tuesday Tributes
Back to Nature...Again

By Stephen Eliot

WARNING: All Winemaking Is Manipulative

Yet another year is drawing to a close, and the journalistic world is fixated on inevitable compilings of hierarchical lists of the best and worst of everything. As far as wine-writing goes, the rush has begun to name top wines, rising stars, notable novas and the most important stories and trends of 2011. The latest Wine Spectator trumpeting the Top 100 wines showed up in my mailbox last week. The same from the San Francisco Chronicle arrived yesterday. Tom Wark posted an insightful piece on the “Top Wine Stories of 2011,” and it is one of his nominees that has set me to thinking.

Tom has, I think rightly, tagged “the mainstreaming of natural wine” as among the year’s significant stories, and it is a topic about which I continue to struggle. Not that I have any problems with the passion of the new crusaders for “natural” and “authentic” wines, I just have difficulty is assessing the aims and parameters of the “movement”. I confess to some confusion as to just what it all means.

Any number of new books on the topic have appeared of late, and it is next to impossible to read through more than a few wine reviews without “authenticity”, “the lack of manipulation” and “the proper expression of terroir” being invoked as the standards by which success can be measured. There are a good many interpretations to be had about what each of these terms means – what is natural to some is abhorrent to others – but what often seems to get lost in the various versions of vinous truth is whether a wine tastes good! Being delicious does not seem to be enough, and, more than once, we hear that warts are just fine so long as a wine adheres to one of many minimalist regimens.

I cannot help but think that there is a certain “back-to-nature” swinging of the pendulum in response to new wine globalism at the root of all this. While I see the point, the scholasticism of authenticity comes with the undisguised notion that something precious has been lost, and that fine hand-crafted wines that speak to place are under the threat of extinction.

Now, maybe I am being naïve, but I do not see the enormous proliferation of simple, mass-market wines as a threat to those wines that I love, nor do I see a landscape scoured clean of skilled and conscientious producers. Quite the contrary, I would argue that there have always been great wines to be had, and that there are more now than ever before. As McDonald’s and Arby’s pose no threat to the French Laundry, Charlie Trotter and such, so too the likes of Yellowtail, Charles Shaw and countless “industrial” wines not about to undermine the standing of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa Valley or the Sonoma Coast.

Smaller, singularly thinking, artisan producers abound as never before and with them endless schools of winemaking philosophies and thought. And, those who with some justification would decry the homogenizing influence of cooperate giants like Diageo and Constellation should not forget the brilliant bottlings of Joel Peterson’s Teldeschi Zinfandels, Mondavi’s To Kalon Sauvignon Blanc or Beaulieu’s Georges La Tour Private Reserve Cabernets, to name but a few. Quality has its own voice, and I do not believe that it is dependent on any one set of rules.

It all comes down to what is in the glass be it something made by minimalists or proactive winemakers. Heresy, perhaps, but complex and compelling and delicious are for me what the search is about…philosophy be damned. I do not need to know how the winemakers came to the craft, just when and what epiphanal lights changed their lives, their family lineage or the names of the winery dogs. If a wine has a story to tell, it will tell it. To some extent, all winemaking is manipulative, and I suppose that, short of employing carcinogens or methods that encourage genocide and/or the eco-destruction of dear mother earth, I do not care how a wine is made.

I remember a noted winemaker who had a culinary background addressing my students and likening winemaking to “cooking in big pots.” I like the idea and have long regarded winemakers as chefs. I have had wonderful meals that were the essence of simplicity...quickly seared fresh Ahi, the first corn of summer, the perfect late-season heirloom tomato. I have had others of breathtaking complexity wrought from hours of painstaking work in the kitchen, and I would no more damn and dismiss Thomas Keller and Joel Rebuchon as “manipulators” than I would the skilled artisan in the cellar.

Yes, it does come down to what is in the glass. With that thought in mind, I offer thanks and a year-end salute to winemakers of every stripe, and my toast is with a glass that is half full, not one that is half empty. You’ve got to admit it’s getting better…

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what's in the glass...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:12/6/2011 8:07:31 AM

"It all comes down to what is in the glass be it something made by minimalists or proactive winemakers."

While that is a true sentiment, the real divide between the so-called natural wine movement and the so-called industrial wine production world is that the former would olove to have the percentage of wine consumers that the latter has.

In that regard, it does not come down to what's int he glass--it comes down to what's on the price tag for the overall general consumer market.

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