This weekend there was a wine article in the New York Times by Bianca Bosker, but it was not in the Food Section, you had to veer over to the Opinion Section to find it. These days the Opinion Section of the New York Times has been a refuge I seek out when trying to reclaim my sanity in these insane political times in the United States. However, today there was little comfort there as, in addition to the missives from both the right and left assaulting Trumpism, I found a piece about wine. Well actually not about wine, but about the business of a beverage alcohol product that also uses the noun wine to describe itself.
“Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine,” screamed the headline in the New York Times, but the word wine should have really been replaced by, “beverage alcohol produced from grapes,” but that would not have gotten nearly as many clicks. There certainly are cheap, delicious wines and I seek them out all the time. Oddly enough, considering this article, these cheap wines I like to enjoy on a regular basis are made in a natural style. Cheap does not have to mean “Two Buck Chuck”, which is produced with less integrity than Coca-Cola. At least Coca-Cola is honest about containing sugar, which industrial wines are not. Cola-Cola has to list the ingredients it puts in the bottle. Two Buck Chuck does not. Most people are all in favor of ingredient labeling for food products, yet for beverage alcohol not so much. The big wine producers shouldn't worry about ingredient labeling when it comes to their products. Those that grab their bottles of “Cheap, Delicious Manufactured Wine” are unlikely to be deterred.
The author, Bianca Bosker, says, “The time has come to learn to love unnatural wines.” It seems to me the world, or at least Americans, love unnatural wines already. Most of what is thoughtlessly swilled down under the name “wine” is beverage alcohol made from grapes, and not very good ones at that. Americans need to understand that natural wines are good values too. Not every “natural wine” comes from some ultra-chic biodynamic Burgundy domaine, but they also come from impassioned winemakers selling under $20 Beaujolais, Muscadet, Valpolicella and includes wines from California, Oregon, Washington and the rest of the New World. There is a lot to choose from.
(You can read my recent article on what I feel defines natural wines here.)
In her article, Ms Bosker describes the process of producing industrial beverage alcohol from grapes. It made me realize that although soon I will have been in the wine industry for four decades, never once have I knowingly met one of these technicians and know essentially nothing about that end of the business. What was clear from this article is there are two winemaking worlds. One where a winemaker makes what they believe in and then seeks out customers that share their vision and those that make whatever beverage the marketing department says the consumer wants. Oddly, this last group includes everything from the cheapest to the most expensive wines. At least those on the low end of the price spectrum possess the integrity of honestly knowing the value of what they produce.
Winemaking technicians that pursue the corporate winemaking way are not to be disrespected. What they achieve is a technical marvel. To take an agricultural crop and produce hundreds of thousands of cases of a uniform, repeatable and stable commercial product that exactly matches the flavor profiles that your marketing department has defined is an amazing skill. I have no idea how they do it.
As a winemaker on the other end of the world from those described in this article, I was comforted by the support on Twitter from wine writers Eric Asimov and Alice Feiring and the general rage against the article on social media, but I think the wrath aimed at the writer was off the mark. She was simply reporting the truth. The beverage alcohol side of the wine business appears to dwarf those of us committed to terroir, sustainable agriculture and natural, or what I would call real wine. Real wine is an expression of time and place, while industrial beverage alcohol produced from grapes is, very simply, just another alcohol delivery system. Consumer flavor trials do not produce poetry in a glass, but they do provide a solid buzz.
In between the excesses of the extreme edge of natural wine movement and dull industrial wines, there is a whole world of excellent, more-or-less natural wines being made without one consumer focus group being involved. The article says, “the time has come to love unnatural wines.” But why? The shelves in wine stores throughout the United States are full of wines from Spain, Italy, France and the entire New World that are made in a natural way with minimal handling. Writes Bosker, “when it comes to sub-$40 wines - the winemaking process can be surprising high-tech.” That’s only true if you insist on buying neutral wines from big industrial producers. The simple truth is that the vast majority of winemakers in the world are small and make their wines in a more-or-less natural way. That under $40 price range is full of beautiful wines from Beaujolais, the Côtes du Rhône, Valpolicella along with New World Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and many other examples of delicious, more or less "natural" wines. There is only one thing the under $40 consumer, or those at the $9.89 average price quoted in this article, needs to do to drink natural wines and that is stop buying wines made from famous varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay from famous places like Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Oh, there is one other thing, stop buying wines in most grocery stores and take the time to find a decent wine merchant. Buying wine from a real wine merchant that you have developed a relationship with is the most important thing you can do to save money in the long run.
When I first sit down and think about what kinds of wines we will produce at Troon in the next vintage, my first thoughts do not go to the consumer. First I think of the varieties and the vineyards we have and what I believe will be the best wines we can make from them. Then, when we make the best possible wines we can, I go out in search of consumers that agree with the vision that we have expressed in the wine. That is the advantage of not making very much wine. We can make what we believe in. The wine we make is an extension of us as people working in agriculture. I understand that those making hundreds of thousands, if not millions of cases, do not have this luxury. However, when you take all the small producers in the world making natural wines based on personal vision and nature and combine our productions we too make millions of cases.
The world is filled with both millions of cases of processed industrial wines and millions of cases of natural artisan wines. Often the prices are the same. You do have a choice.