A fascinating distinction is emerging from some recent intellectual sparring over wine manipulation. I have proposed that the unique flavors of a specific terroir are best displayed when the presented with a skilled hand. Winemaking is cooking, and this is basic culinary doctrine. Over-spicing or other sorts of clumsy manipulations can certainly get in the way of natural expression, but a skilled practitioner in the kitchen – by very definition – makes his work as invisible as possible and relies on the native flavors of his raw materials to carry the central themes presented at table.
For those who know my wines – in WineSmith Faux Chablis, Roman Syrah and Cabernet Franc and our icon cabernet sauvignon Crucible, even our Skinflint dry rosé – I’m confident that I’ve achieved this. The wines are gracefully balanced and their unique terroir characteristics are apparent. Tools such as alcohol balancing and tannin refinement with oxygen allow me to achieve native expression in an elegant suit-of-clothes without sacrificing perfect ripeness to picking on brix or excessive hangtime to resolve tannins.
I recently tasted these wines with Alan Goldfarb of Appellation America, and compared, for example, the evident terroir characteristics of Faux Chablis at its adjusted level of 12.9% against the aromatically masked original wine at 14.8%, also quite bitter on the back palate. Thoughtful fellow that he is, he posed the question whether the former wine, though less agreeable and less expressive of its terroir, wasn’t a more authentic presentation of the site.
In this case, I think not, simply because the degree of manipulation that gets us from grapes to wine is so much greater than the (to me) trivial alcohol tweak at the end of the processing chain of events. It struck me that if one were preparing an asparagus soup, one might choose to leave the salt out at the end for purity’s sake, but it would be silly to farm the asparagus in such a way as to have it carry to the pot the perfect salt content at the expense of good farming practices in the name of authenticity.
Still, I think there is a point here. Randall Grahm, who has experimented with every conceivable approach to winemaking, today is struggling more and more to find his bliss in the vineyard itself (which he is quite beautifully chronicling in Fine Wine Magazine), and seems interested in vows of enological chastity for their own sake. In such limitation can be our highest expression – think of the haiku and the sonnet, so rigorous that they bring out our best through challenging us to live within unreasonable limitations. Similarly the vegetarian Greens Restaurant kicks out spectacular meals by virtue of taking seriously the matter of full satisfaction without harming animals.
When the best among us triumph over such restrictions, we see some of our finest art. Alice Feiring’s passion for authenticity is easy to appreciate, “Call me a silly girl, but if it was a hot year I want to taste the heat. A wet one? I want to taste it. High acidity? Low acidity? Give me the best a winemaker can do. A fine winemaker can always make something fascinating. Vintage subtleties are part of the wine passion. I do not want ‘corrected’ wine.” And there’s the story of Christian Mouiex assembling the crew of Dominus to observe him dumping a tank of Cabernet without tasting it, just because somebody had adjusted the acidity.
This “authentic” wine is a different kind of goal than most winemaking pursues. It goes way, way beyond a desire for terroir expression, and in some cases opposes it. It has nothing to do with the wine tasting agreeable, and everything to do with the wine speaking eloquently of a place and time. Just as not all English communications should be in metered verse, many uses of wine benefit from artifice and refinement.
These hot ones and wet ones Alice wants are the essence of a window on the natural world. Those of us who have spent a season in Katrina's hell are not always so enthusiastic, and I reckon for the most part the lion's share of the public just want to drink tasty wine. With my whacky Faux Chablis and Roman Syrah, I can scarcely be accused of pandering to that crowd. I too think wine is one of those rare purchases like books and movies wherein you don't want the same thing you got last week, and I certainly expsct to offer my consumers an adventure they hadn't seen before. But commodity-thinking or even Parkerism is not what Alice means to exclude. She would rather have purity than balance, expectation than inspiration, convention than invention.
Fair enough. It's clear that these folks should be offered the opportunity to vote with their pocketbooks for a stand they believe in and will wish to articulate. From what I am hearing, we need a certification mark. These are established by ad hoc societies which are free to lay down specifications which the Federal labeling agencies of the TTB will enforce according to the criteria the society specifies.
It’s clearly time to set up a special category to proscribe this elite sort of wine. I don’t know how big a market this is, but let’s find out. I recommend the establishment of a Certification Mark for Authentic Wine. Hey, it worked for The Meritage Society. They were able to establish a clear, high end category which extended the possibilities for American super-premium wines beyond simple varietal categories, to the point that many top-end restaurants recognize a Meritage category on their lists.
Now apparent is the dilemma of defining Authentic Wine. Like sonnets and haikus, we need to know the rules. Alice says, “Give me the best a winemaker can do,” and in the next breathe says “I do not want ‘corrected’ wine.” What’s the difference? We need a guide that’s surer than simple gut feel.
Here’s a short list of matters the mark can consider as allowing or abolishing:
-Vineyard practices: irrigation, fertilization, herbicides, pesticides. Verification of claims of biodynamic and vine age.
-Alcohol adjustment through chaptalization, filtration, distillation, open-topped fermenters, or ageing in caves.
-New barrels, barrels of a certain age, barrel alternatives.
-Chemicals, fining agents and potential allergens: tartaric, malic, lactic, acetic and fumaric acid addition; sulfites; animal products, wheat paste, bentonite clay and activated carbon.
-Oxygenation: methods to discriminate and verify intentional exposure vs natural exposure, use of inert gas and stainless steel to exclude oxygen.
-Filtration: diatomaceous earth, cellulose pads, sterile membranes, crossflow clarification, ultrafiltration, nanofiltration, and reverse osmosis.
-Approved bottles and closures: glass, amphorae; cork, screwcap, synthetic corks.
With all the clamor about authenticity, surely somebody will step forward, please, and get to work on chairing a committee.