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Lately I’ve been frustrating my customers, which is never a wise thing to do. We get asked all the time for analytical stats on the wines we offer and details about our winemaking practices. My catalogues tend to pass over such things, because I’ve reached a place in my drinking career where I find them otiose. This might seem snooty. So let me explain.
First, a wise quote from Peter Jost (of the estate Toni Jost), who said: “Judging a wine by its analysis is like judging a beautiful woman by her X-ray films.” Second, and further support for my theory, a remark I received from esteemed German winemaker Helmut Dönnhoff many years ago, when I asked him for the figures of a wine in my glass. “You don’t need these anymore, Terry,” he said. “Analyses are for beginners.”
But there are beginners, I must remember, and they’re curious, and it’s peevish for me to deny them the understanding they seek. If a drinker is interested in knowing how a wine was made, or in knowing what its acidity or residual-sugar or extract might be, this is entirely valid if she is trying to collate her palate’s impressions with the facts of the matter. That is a useful way of thinking — until it isn’t anymore.
ZESTER DAILY CONNECTIONS
The ecstasy of defeat
I well remember traveling with an earnest young colleague who sought to guess how a wine was made strictly from its taste. He was especially eager to identify cask versus stainless steel aging. I loved the guy, but I knew the perplexing denouement that quivered a few days down the road. For indeed, at one winery where all the wines were done in cask, my pal was sure they used steel, and yielded to his dismay; however hard he tried, he just wasn’t getting it. When I told him he’d crossed the Rubicon into a place of far greater wisdom, he thought I had a screw loose. I tried to reassure him that being right was reassuring, but being wrong invited epiphany; you ascended to greater understanding through your mistakes.
I remember, though, the urge to understand, to find explanations, to learn the causes and effects of flavor. We mustn’t frustrate that urge — it’s human to be curious and I think we should respect curiosity. But we also have to help drinkers understand the limits of this vein of knowledge. It is a closed system that gives the simulacrum of expertise while actually leaving us in an airless chamber of our minds. We feel terribly knowledgeable discussing the details of a wine, but there’s a big-picture glaring at us that this approach won’t let us see.
If you’re hungry for knowledge of how a grower trains his vines, prunes his vines, binds his vines; if you seek to know the density of plantings per hectare and the space between the rows; if you’re curious about which clones were used, how the canopies were worked, if and when the winemaker did a green harvest, if the grapes were picked by hand, with what-size teams and with one big bucket or several smaller ones, then these are things you ought to know. Shame on me for finding them ancillary and ultimately trivial.
More than the sum of its yeasts
If you want to know the wines’ total acids, the amount of its sweetness, the must-weights of the grapes at picking, whether it fermented with ambient or with cultured yeasts, how it was clarified, what vessel it fermented in and at what temperature (and if the temperature was technologically controlled), whether it sat on its gross or fine lees and for how long, and whether it was developed in steel or in wood — I don’t mind telling you. But it worries me some. Because I fear that for each one of you who sincerely wants to compare what his palate receives with what’s actually inside the wine, there are many of you who want to enact value-judgments prior to tasting, because you’ve decided what’s permissible and what’s despicable. (This nonsensical approach is rampant in Germany.)
I am decidedly not in favor of excluding tasters from any wine because they disapprove of the effing yeast that was deployed, or because they won’t go near a wine with more than X-grams of sweetness. Who wants to enable something so repugnant?
Nor am I willing to abet the sad phenomenon of people talking about wine with what seems like authority, because of the “information” they’ve accumulated, whereas they’re actually blocked from attaining true authority by the rigid limits of their approach. If you’re stuck in the “how,” you’ll have a rough time finding your way to the “what.” And that is where true wisdom lies. The wonky isn’t a bad place to be, for a while, but it’s a dangerous place to stop, because like all objects of beauty, wine is more than the sum of its parts. If you’re busily probing into technical minutiae, will you remember to consider not only the application of technique but the expression of a vintner’s spirit? Will you remember to pause for just a second and consider how a wine makes you feel?
Photo: Terry Theise. Credit: Anna Stöcher
Wine is dauntingly unruly. So many places it comes from, so many grapes it’s made from, so many different people making wine as they interpret it should be made. And then its taste changes every damn year.
To get a handle on it, you sniff the air for clues. Every time you like a wine, you check how it’s made. “Wow, he fermented this in stainless steel at 58 degrees; that must be the way to make great wine,” you might say to yourself. Or, “Hmmm, this terrific sancerre was grown on marl; I bet all the best sancerres are.”
But too often aficionados feel the need to turn such enjoyable new knowledge into intractable wine dogma. Then, when they encounter a wine that unnervingly threatens their new knowledge — a lovely limestone-grown sancerre, for instance — they spring to protect their theory. “All serious wines must be dry,” is a classic (and egregiously wrong) example. “Only dry wines are good with food,” is another (and equally erroneous).
If you’re truly open to wine, it will lead you inexorably away from strict doctrines. If you need absolutes, you are not truly open to wine.
This doesn’t mean that wine lovers don’t form opinions. Of course they do. But to love wine, preferences have to remain fluid. You have to be able to respond spontaneously to new stimulus, to absorb new evidence. Each new wine demands open eyes to be individually seen. In Zen there’s a saying: “Truth means that all ravens are black, until you see a white raven.”
When we are insecure — we don’t think we’re knowledgeable enough, experienced enough, have good enough taste — we latch on to doctrine. We gather our opinions (or, often, others’ opinions) and calcify them into a rigid crust. For instance, someone says that low-yield vineyards produce better wine, and it makes sense; the fewer grapes per acre, the more flavor each grape has. So you assume it’s true, until you taste a wine you really like, made from yields you’ve been told are too high. Now what? A reasonable person would throw out his assumptions about yield. But many will instead question their own taste.
In the wine world the newest and sexiest doctrine is the so-called “natural wine” phenomenon. It’s an offshoot of the organic/biodynamic movements, and as wine doctrines go, this one’s as attractive as they get. It has a ring of sublimity about it: No added sulfur! Only natural yeasts!
Hearing what these (mostly admirable) producers do not do, we’re tempted to think the alternative must be unnatural wine, riddled with chemicals and fake yeasts. What’s the alternative? “Partly natural” wines? The very use of the word “natural” tempts us into an all-or-nothing position. Doctrine.
I’m a wine importer, and a few years ago a customer, a sommelier, wanted to know what each of my 35-plus German producers did and didn’t do in the vineyards and cellars. So I asked him to design a survey, which I then broadcast. And thus commenced as bitter a moral outrage as I have ever witnessed among my normally peaceable wine growers. A cynic could have supposed they were annoyed that this organic thing wasn’t going away, which would now increase their workloads and expenses, besides which they didn’t give much of a rat’s ass about the environment. In fact, they found it arrogant that someone who didn’t make wine for a living would dictate such standards. A survey to determine how environmentally “pure” they were came across like a green pogrom wrapped in piety.
As tempting as any doctrine is, organic purism is doubly so, because it feels as if we should embrace it. However desirable organics are — and I agree that they are — it’s undesirable to oversimplify just to make our moral choices easier. It is much easier to imagine toeing the only-organic line until you get to know hundreds of traditional wine growers who all care deeply about their land, their grapes and their wine. Suddenly the best and most sustainable doctrine is to eschew doctrine altogether.
Still, my growers know that I favor organics and applaud every step they take in those directions. They also know that my prevailing value is to not guilt-trip them about the steps they haven’t taken. It is a better world if 90 percent of growers are 90 percent organic, than if only 20 percent are 100 percent organic. If our natural wine doctrine only is all or nothing, too many people will choose nothing.
It goes without saying that anyone is free to prefer the tastes of natural wines. I like a lot of them. If they’re the only wines you want to drink, fine with me. But the best growers, to my mind, are the ones who have principles and practices that express them, but avoid being wrapped in a strait-jacket of their own creation. They are aware of the complexities at play, and know that if their growing principles are durable, they will withstand examination.
Wine is, in fact, a lovely means of training ourselves to examine a question from all angles and resist precepts. What we can’t do is establish a single matrix whereby wines are either acceptable or unacceptable. If we do that, we stop not only thinking; we stop experiencing. And that would most certainly defeat the purpose of wine.
Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Terry Theise is recently the author of “Reading Between the Wines” from the University of California Press. He has imported wines from Germany, Austria and Champagne for 27 years.