The passionate Alice Feiring and her new book, The Battle for Wine and Love, have fanned the flames of the natural winemaking debate. In particular she has bruised the feelings of the California wine industry, to which she has not been very complimentary. This has resulted in some lively back and forth on the side of the Californians in The Los Angeles Times, hardly a surprising forum for the pro-California view. I applaud Alice’s spirited attack on industrial wines and support of wines with personality and a sense of place. Her intensity has helped keep the debate a debate.
Extreme positions help sell books and it looks like Alice has done a good job in riling up the Californians and keeping her book in the headlines. I’m sure if the truth came out Alice, like me, has a long list of California wines she loves.
It’s becoming the spoofulators vs. the natural movement and the main spoofulators seem to be in California. Yet this raises the question of what’s really natural or not and at what point the line is crossed from one to the other. It’s not as clear as it may seem. At some point it is just as bad to do too little to the wine as it is to do too much. Bad wine is bad wine, natural or not.
Let’s take a look at the revered (I agree) wines of Josko Gravner in northeastern Italy on the border with Slovenia. Gravner ferments and ages his white wines on the skins and seeds for six or seven months in terra cotta amphorae coated with beeswax. This has a somewhat dramatic (to say the least) impact on the flavor and color of his wines. Is this natural winemaking or a kind of natural spoofulation? The wines of Gravner are extreme wines manipulated to that style by the hand of the winemaker. Are the techniques of Clark Smith more intrusive than this? I’m not sure this is a question that has been answered.
There are a few buzzwords out there that seem to define the natural wine forces: biodynamic, indigenous yeasts, little or no sulfur and never, never any machines. Yet there are a whole array of interventions other than these that winemakers impose on their wines either because they dream of crafting great art like Gravner or because they are commercial winemakers that must put out a good tasting stable wine year-after-year to keep their jobs. It seems a bit preposterous to return to primitive methods of winemaking that more-often-than-not have the potential to produce faulted wines. Not all progress is inherently bad and any good winemaker will do everything needed to improve their wines. Many winemakers resolve this conflict between their desire to be part of the natural movement and the realities of putting better wine in the bottle by forgetting to talk about certain things when they talk to the press.
Great wines are made, they don’t just happen. That’s why they call them winemakers. There is an incredible array of tools and knowledge available to today’s winemakers. To not make use of any of these tools and techniques does not make any sense. However, what you do with these many new tools is all important. You can’t make wine without manipulation, but without a doubt you can’t make great wine with with over-manipulation. I believe in terroir. I have tasted it in wines way to often to have any doubt. As long as a winemakers manipulations are designed to enhance that terroir I don’t have any problems with them.
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