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Monday Manifestos
Winning An Argument In Wine Country

By Stephen Eliot

Philosophical arguments are by nature unwinnable. When they take on a moral edge they can become downright nasty, and any pretense to verifiable fact is abandoned in the name of faith and true belief. We see that brand of unwinnable argument on all kinds of topics these days, and none is fought with more ferocity and blind polemic than those that see saviors and charlatans alike in the “natural” wine movement. Those arguments are again in the spotlight, and the already tenuous bonds of civility are being stretched very thin.

The latest salvo against those who champion a wholly “natural” winemaking regime – and, please, let us agree that nobody actually seems to know what that means – comes by way of Italy’s prestigious wine review, the Gambero Rosso. Noted critic Michel Bettane goes off the deep end in damning the natural wine movement which with the “complicity of numerous sommeliers, wine merchants and irresponsible journalists”, he claims, has resulted in a literal invasion of failed wines that are malodorous, devoid of terroir and all taste the same because of the native yeast from which they are made. He argues that they are unstable and cloudy and too frequently “nothing more than a bad wine whose only intention is to give you headache.”

The other side, of course, has been quick to respond, and debate is turning into bitter diatribe. Alice Feiring, with her self-admitted “messiah thing”, is naturally unable to rein in her own brand of righteous retort *, and, on behalf of hundreds of Italian winemakers, or so he alleges, Sicily’s “natural” wine guru, Frank Cornelissen, has published an open letter expressing dismay at Gambero Rosso’s sacrilegious affront. **

Now, it seems to me that it is time for everyone to take a deep breath and reach for a glass of whatever best soothes their wounded spirits.

Winemaking, it has always seemed to me, is equal parts science and art with a bit of luck tossed into the mix. It takes a long time to master and you only get one chance a year to learn and reflect on what is and is not right. It is not like a working on a recipe in the kitchen where you can head back to the “drawing board” and start from scratch several times in a day. I am as wary of wholly intuitive winemaking as I am of those who worship science above all.

The big problem, as I see it, is that true-belief advocacy is rarely sufficiently critical of itself, and, on this issue, both sides of the battle are guilty.

All “natural” wines are not diseased and fatally flawed, and those quick to dismiss them need to recognize this simple fact. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Cornelissen that winemakers who chose to make their wines in whatever manner they think is natural should not be automatically accused of being “ingenious or incompetent.” Those who would have us believe that “natural” wine is inherently flawed need to recognize real achievement where achievement exists and accept that a one-size-fits-all mentality does no one good.

On the other hand, those who proclaim their virtues (usually loudly) must be willing to admit that there are some pretty sinister “natural” wines to be had, and that unsubstantiated claims these natural wines are inherently somehow more healthful and digestible are without merit. Oxidized, volatile and bacterially active wines have never seemed all that healthful to me.

Once again, what matters is what is in the glass. It is imperative, I think, to listen to what a wine has to say. Good ones have plenty and need no philosophical justification. Compelling, involving, downright delicious wine comes in all shapes and sizes, and most assuredly one size does not fit all.



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