We're all having fun over on Eric Asimov's blog, The Pour, commenting on his article When Technology is Worthwhile. Check it out for the full range of opinions on this subject.
My second post in that conversation is as follows.
I’m saddened to see the extent to which responders to your article by alarmists pointing at the wrong enemy. The problem is not the tools, but the aesthetic (or lack of aesthetic) with which they are directed. And that includes all winemaking tools, not just the fairly trivial ones being demonized this week. I share with the other contributors to this week’s column a love for what great wine is, but many of them seem to have little or no winemaking experience, and thus tend to collapse important distinctions in order to demonize what their journalistic champions, at best, have failed to investigate, or at worst, have intentionally ignored.
Alice Feiring and Matt Kramer have signed on as my sparring partners in thrashing about these important matters. They are good people who champion deeply held beliefs many of which I share. It’s not easy for them to see when we are on the same team.
I am personally interested principally in wines of distinctive terroir which also please people just because they taste good. I have invented tools for winemakers, be they small artisans or corporate mega-boutiques, which unshackle the harvest decision from brix and permit picking on proper phenolic ripeness instead of brix.
Proper ripeness doesn’t make wines taste all the same. What could be more silly? Writers should show up and work a vintage in order to appreciate the wonderful power of this technique instead of armchair-quarterbacking.
To my palate it is equally obvious that wine grown in living soil with a vigorous earthworm population exhibits flavor energy as well as staying power over time as compared to a conventionally farmed wine. I am able to observe this first hand by the way the wine reacts to oxygenation.
Alcohol fine-tuning enhances terroir expression. Micro-oxygenation (properly practiced) extends longevity. These are facts. If you need to find technologies which make wines taste the same, look elsewhere, for they are certainly rampant. They inserted themselves into the winemaking process when there was much less scrutiny than today’s innovations.
The Germans really won World War II when the French “modernized” their cellars to reflect new German technology and started making cabernet with techniques developed for riesling. Where was the outcry attacking inappropriate uses of electricity? Stainless steel? Inert gas? Enzymes? Packaged microbes? Sterile filtration? These are the real breaks from traditional winemaking.
Alice, in truth you that have no natural wines in your house. Wines that please and excite you were not brought forth by luddite inactions, but by artisanal mastercraftsmen. The characteristics which excite you (and me, too) are the product of respect for nature supported by the hand of a skilled artisan who fine tunes the blend until it sings.
Winemaking without sulfur is possible, but it requires very special vineyards and consummate skill. If you’re authentically interested, I have six successful vintages of Roman Syrah now, and they are beautiful proofs of postmodern artisanality..
I don’t think we want different things. But I have to question your sincerity when you opine that you want to taste the excessive alcohol, acidity or poor color of a vintage. This goes too far. Critics love to go on and on about naturalness, but come on – basic winemaking involves moving what nature gives us in the direction of something pleasant to drink. Nobody wants to drink crappy, artless wine which accurately reflects the watered-down or excessively acidic or weakly colored character of a vintage.
You could write more pointedly about what you want. Wine is one of those few commodities — like books and movies and newspapers — which we don’t want to be like the one we got last week. A winemaker is like a chef – he takes some greens or vegetables or a bird carcass and renders a soulful expression of his art which he hopes will honor the origins he worked with and also please.
You grant us technologists too much possibility, Alice. You invented the fear of the magic variation eraser. It just doesn’t exist. Winemakers are never able to eradicate vintage distinctions, and that’s not our goal. First and foremost we are asked to make good wine.
Market forces, not tools, are your proper enemy. Although I would have it different, most wine marketing people don’t give a damn about terroir. Almost nobody does.
That’s the real problem. To blame the new tools for sameness is to waste pointlessly whatever clout you have. The tools are not the problem. They are good tools, and have as much place in $100 wines of terroir distinction as any other sector. They don’t align with the axis of evil the way Alice and Bertrand and Dennis fear that they do. I can’t prove that in a blog, because it requires direct experience of the tools from a skilled practitioner with an open mind. To date we have over a thousand converts, and they’re not for the most part making centrist crap.
Secondly we are asked to make wine which fits some box – a slot on the typical wine list, the retail feeding frenzy-of-the-month, etc.. This is the main demand of the market. Nobody with half a palate thinks today’s wines actualy all taste identical – it’s just an invented straw man. But today’s wines do indeed lack depth and interest.
There are real issues worth attacking. Today’s big reds are too damned ripe, and lack finesse and longevity. Today’s New World winemakers are unskilled in the vineyard and the cellar, and tend to employ draconian measures which diminish flavor expression. And Wine Marketing trends are marginalizing the power of the creative winemaker at precisely the wrong time.
I look through the respondents to Eric’s blog and I see many earnest, passionate people with whom I would like to be in collaboration to combat these forces. Exposing consumers to a higher standard for wine expression coupled with a clearing in which winemakers can speak their minds is a good first step.