Sympathy for the Devil


Kudos to Eric Asimov of The Pour. His critical but sympathetic portrait of the much maligned Michel Rolland is a model for wine journalism, particularly in support of intervention in winemaking.

First time I’ve heard this truth written so succinctly. Of course winemakers intervene! That’s our job, just like any other chef. Do you want your dinner to “make itself?”

That said, the best cooks respect their raw materials and labor to keep natural elements at center stage. Rolland certainly knows oak flavors aren’t from grapes, for example. But a skilled artisan uses oak like a skilled makeup artist uses cosmetics – they are to enhance natural character, and shouldn’t be visible as separate elements.

Just as in sauces, this aromatic integration is achieved through refined structure. The problem with the “non-interventionist” ethic is that wines don’t refine structure by themselves, any more than eggs, wheat kernels, or cocoa beans or other ingredients “make themselves” into soufflés, croissants and chocolate confections.

While hangtime can be used to resolve tannins, wines excessively field-oxidized seldom retain the depth and nuance a skilled hand in the cellar can impart. The field is for growing; the kitchen is for cooking!

Physiological maturity isn’t related to brix, so French alcohols need a beet sugar boost but California alcohols for proper ripeness do run high. Practical tools like alcohol-lowering filtration are usually hidden from public view and (less often) even left unused in the name of non-manipulation, and the consumer literally gets burned.

The winemaker’s other job is publicity: telling you what you want to hear. Thanks, Eric, for helping legitimize the skilled artisan. Until columns like yours re-state the obvious often enough, winery marketing departments will restrain winemakers from revealing their true practices.

PS: Much as I defend Mondovino (See Regarding Mondovino) as a film worth making, Nossiter was slimy around Mon. Rolland, and failed to do his homework.