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.


Samantha Dugan said...

" As in wine reviews, ignorance is surely the reviewer’s most specialized and valuable tool" now I understand why wineries and marketing wads send wines to bloggers!

I love you

David Fish said...

Ron, I am starting a very sh*tty day, but your newsletter made me laugh and made it easier to tread the merde ahead of me....


Robert Millman said...

Ron--simply fabulous. You were wise not to read her book. Surely this would have caused mental problems for which there are no vinous cure--either natural or otherwise. Every religions needs apostles and vinologians as it were. The natural-movement is ure to spread to Coatian and Bulgarian growers soon enough. Bob Millman

Thomas said...

Naturally good piece, Ron.

Did you know I once had a dog named Elf? She spoke the language too.

Daniel said...

Thanks for not reading this book so I don't have to read it either. I feel so smart from all the things I haven't read! Just like my parents getting all their 'perspective' from our fair and balanced friends...

also, love the new quote on your masthead. Does he know that Aaron Hernandez was actually a brilliant football player? now as a human being...not so good.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
One of the rare guys to send me wine is right below you. Figuratively, I hope. That's my spot.

You know better than anyone that almost nobody buys wines based on wine blogs. It's just about someone doing a search for a particular wine online, and all these reviews pop up! Wow, it must be good! It's the online equivalent of the huge floor stack. It's really just a lazy way of actually marketing a wine.

I love you, too!

Hey Common Taters,
I hesitated before writing another piece about Natural Wine. I've written about it too often, and I'm preaching to the choir. But then I saw an interview with the author of "Natural Wine," and little of what she said made sense. And she's an MW. Though, I believe, if you're French, you get one automatically, if you want one. I could be wrong. Anyhow, that interview made me decide to blind review her book.

I tend to believe that a book named "Natural Wine" actually makes the concept even more ridiculous. It's not ridiculous to make wine any damned way you want, but it's rather silly to put it up on a pedestal, segregate it from other wines and bluntly state that it's more evocative of terroir and expresses the vineyard more fully, and is more authentic because it's had less human intervention. That's doubletalk. It's sure as hell not better for you--the alcohol is the same.

The good news is that the Natural Wine movement is a fringe movement. It gets a lot of press because, hell, there aren't that many things to talk about when it comes to wine. I think it's cool and fascinating that people make wines in all kinds of fashions. Labeling them does them all, even Natural Wines, a huge disservice. It's a wine cubbyhole, and, therefore, broad and meaningless and stupid. If I made a Natural Wine, I'd sure as hell keep it a secret from Isabelle Legeron MW.

Charlie Olken said...

RE the WBAwards, are you not proud that the Awards have gone from joke to farce? A good farce is hard to find--even rarer than a good natural wine.

I have always loved a good tour de farce.

Thomas said...


Of all the arguments against the way so-called natural wine movers and shakers present their case, yours is the most reasonable and articulate that I have read.

I am pissed off that you said it first, but hell, this is blogging, so that shouldn't stop me from claiming your ideas are actually mine. Maybe I can write a piece for the all-natural new blog, Pressed Palette.

Angela Reddin said...

A braille reply to the subject. From an across the pond fan.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Charlie,
If we are judged by our enemies as much as we are our friends, I'm damned proud of the clowns who don't like HoseMaster--Blinky, David Honig, Evan Dawson...the list is pretty damned impressive. I like it better than my list of accolades. I just decided that when I read something critical of me, something actually rather interesting, I'd put it in the headline. It's fun.

Though I'm not sure what Pallet Press, the home of wooden wine writing, contributes to the conversation, except for ending it. And, yes, farce is precisely the point of my blog, so, as I contend, its your critics who pay you the greatest compliments.

Thank you for the compliment. I was always taught that in a debate you don't bother with the details, but attack the basic premise. The premise of Natural Wine is pseudo-religious fake science promoted with messianic force. Wine isn't food, though they want it to be thought of that way. They are the Amish people of wine. Denial of pleasure is saintly, progress is the enemy, and those who disagree are pathetic outsiders. We don't really take them seriously, who the hell takes them seriously?, we simply point and stare and take pictures and wonder how such a group could exist in the 21st Century world of wine.

Thanks for visiting, and the braille response. Though I think it screwed up my monitor.

gabriel jagle said...

most of the "natural winemakers" i've met recently are urban winemakers who spend about five days a year in the vineyard. I'm just gonna let that sink in for a minute...

Douglas Hillstrom said...

The great thing about America is that it's the land of the second chance. Now Hosemaster, read book and give it another try!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Read another wine Bible? Not likely. Apostles of Natural Wine, True Believers of Wines with Lower Alcohol Have More Terroir, Preachers of Orange Wine--it's all just so much marketing noise to me. If I want to read about wine, I'll read books about wine, not books about the authors.

Plus, I didn't get a free review copy.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

That's an interesting point, though that's more an American trait than European. I'm certain the best producers of Natural Wines make fantastic wines--well, I've had many. But too many rank amateurs focus on natural winemaking because it's hip, yet they don't have the talent or knowledge of chemistry to pull it off.

Again, I'm in favor of folks making their own wine any way they like. Just don't offend me with stupid notions of how those wines are better simply because they're made "naturally." Great winemakers, and there aren't that many, work in all kinds of different ways. In the end, it's the wine that is great, not the way in which it was produced. Just as a person may be great, whether he/she was made naturally, or conceived with in vitro fertilization. Or are natural people, like me, superior?

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

The esteemed Joe Heitz came down fully on the side of winemaker intervention.

(See his interview with Bob Benson in the seminal book titled “Great Winemakers of California” circa 1977.)

Let me paraphrase his sentiment (I’m still looking for an authoritative source for the full quote):

“Mother Nature is a mean old bitch who, if she had her way, would turn wine into vinegar.”

And yet he alongside AndrĂ© Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard (a fellow interventionist who was Heitz’s mentor) turned out the best wines of their generation.

The “take-away”: less emphasis on dogma . . . more emphasis on the actually hedonic drinking experience in the glass.

gabriel jagle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dale Dimas said...

It just seems so unnatural to read this on a computer. I suppose I should be grateful I don't have a Kindle. Nonetheless, an appropriate epistle of complaint is being hand crafted. Do you have an actual mail box I could to which I could address my missive?

Dale Dimas said...

Also, comments need "Like" buttons since I can't cut them, along with the article, out and paste them in a scrapbook.

About Us said...

The lack of elegant, complex notes of cherries, cat pee, and sulphites in natural wines gives me headaches.