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False Vinous Dichotomies

By |  January 4 2009

Such dualities are most attractive to those who would like to appear as though they have a well-thought-out theory of wine growing, whether or not that’s the case, or those who are employed by people wishing to extol or demonize someone or somebody’s wines. In matters of wine above all we can ill afford to leave assumptions untested, because so few established answers or theories apply even to the most obvious questions. If we do not know what role oxygen entering a bottle (or not) has in how that wine ages; or what role (if any) the chemistry of soil plays in determining flavor; or how it is that we can recognize wines’ vintage character, sometimes across regions or grape variety-and of these, only the first topic, and then quite recently, has even really been studied-then we should humbly confess our profound ignorance of wine’s mysteries, rather than mask it with blustering, ill-fitting polar conceptions. Each of those touched on below merits detailed attention in some future column.

A sure sign that a contrast in methods is suspect or highly politicized is when no vintner seems willing to describe himself as a partisan of one of the purported approaches. Nowadays, for example, all vintners are selfproclaimed "non-interventionists,"

but if they aren’t intervening, then how is it that their job works up such a great sweat? Whether we speak of wine growers or makers, we’re speaking of actors, not passive bystanders, and "non-intervention"- the phrase-distracts us from myriad options that vintners face practically minute by minute, or from serious answers to "Why do this rather than that?" or "Why now?" or "Why not?"

The vigneron who first said, "The art of winemaking is to do nothing, yes, but at the right time" extracted from non-interventionist credos their one drop of truth. Another unpromising twosome is "wines of terroir" versus "wines of technique." Every wine was grown somewhere, and if it is able to testify to its origin, some technique was essential to make sure the signal, not noise, was received.

Speaking of terroir, a contrast is now often drawn between "fruitdriven" and "terroir-driven," as if the expression of fruit or the flavors of certain fruits were not among traits that could vary with site, and as though terroir character-if it exists-could get into wine by means other than a vine’s fruit. One also hears "mineraldriven," but in wines of genuine interest, provided we feel we must try to describe them, we’re bound to resort to fruit, vegetable, mineral, or even animal similes in the attempt. No one of these classes of descriptors rules out our using the others. The whole realm of style invites endless conceptual mischief and bogus dilemmas. Are finesse and power mutually exclusive traits of wine or goals for winemakers?

Who says so? They certainly are not for surgeons or gymnasts. And anytime one reads of "old style" and "new style," two safe bets are that the criteria are controversial and that no grower entirely fits them.

The latest wine buzzword is "natural," with various labels of shame applied to the supposed alternative. One reads of "natural wine" that it’s a movement. Forget that you cannot find anyone making unnatural wine, and that if this were not oxymoronic, then those who succeeded would probably capture the market by storm. ("Our wine is supernaturally good!") One waits for a well-defined concept of "natural" to emerge from those who style themselves thus, but that wait might be long. How much better to ask, for instance, what the alleged virtues and the risks are of a wine with low or no added sulfur? Then there are "natural ferments"-here referring to ambient yeasts-as if cultured yeasts weren’t also natural, and as if using them would be crass "intervention" that violates the self-fulfillment of grape juice. There are fascinating, perhaps even vital issues worth discussing here, and again there is much of which science is ignorant.

However, to insist on two mutually exclusive concepts and act as though all virtue lies on one side is as misguided as it is tactless. With all respect for their intentions and for the hard work that wine growers of biodynamic persuasion take on in the service of their high ideals, why must they so often feel compelled to pretend as though theirs is the unique alternative to wholesale despoiling of the environment and of mankind? True, many of them have had Tarsus experiences, and conversion can make Manichaeans of those who believe. But organic methods, or carefully considered and sparing use of herbicides or pesticides, also represent regimens that deserve respect. Here, again, one can only say "Look at the details!" Copper sulfate, for instance, is no less-indeed, surely more of-a poison than glyphosate (Roundup). Why should using the former for fungus control get a free pass or the imprimatur of biodynamic practitioners, while use of the latter for weed control is not allowed? Let us study results but not forestall discussion with conceptual sleights of hand.

Can there be any better time for swearing off false dilemmas in wine (or in any other field) than the wake of a US election campaign that has been analyzed the world over?

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