Wine Should Be Good As Well As True

The masterclass at February’s Rootstock Sydney wine and food festival was obviously meant to be provocative. The topic was Truth and Love in Wine.

The blurb read, in part:

‘Honesty and transparency, truth and love in wine. Wine is a thing of beauty, of passion, of heartbreak and seduction. We need to stop pretending we can be objective about this bottled poetry. We need to embrace subjectivity, loosen up, love wine more!’

Some of the leaders of today’s ‘natural’ wine movement seem to believe that quality no longer matters. Anything goes. Indeed, the idea of quality is just an artificial construct, and has never really existed. Faults should be embraced, just as bum notes played in musical performance should be forgiven because they are a ‘faithful, unpolished record of a performance, glitches and all’.

I have nightmares about a wild, tousle-haired winemaker climbing onstage with a violin, and sawing away at the strings with no idea how to play the instrument. It emits a hideous noise which has no relation to music, but the audience cheers because it is that man’s natural, unedited and uncorrupted self expression. 

Save me.

On the panel of this masterclass (it would be more correct to call it a workshop) were ‘natural’ wine gurus Max Allen and Alice Feiring. Both professed not to be critics, and not to like the idea of a wine critic. They seemed to cringe at the idea of making a judgment about wine quality.

Just minutes later, however, they were relating stories that revealed that they, too, are constantly making judgments about wines and wine-people. They use their critical faculties. Feiring even admitted there was a Burgundy producer she really liked and wished she could write about, but she didn’t because the wines weren’t good enough. Well, bingo! You’re a critic, Alice.

There was the inevitable tirade against scoring wines, too, following one of Max’s suggested talking-points: “- why scoring wine is philosophically indefensible”. Just why scoring wine is philosophically indefensible was never explained. I was permitted a chance to defend scoring, which I did, saying I viewed scores as a simple, easily understood way to communicate instantly just how much we like a wine. Scores are only useful in conjunction with a tasting note, though.

As for the assertion that we (presumably ‘we’ means wine writers, but it wasn’t clear) need to stop pretending we can be objective about wine, I find this bizarre. If we don’t taste blind, clearing our heads of any knowledge of who produced the wine, and if we don’t have in our minds a clear set of quality parameters, we certainly will have a lot of difficulty being objective.

Maybe total objectivity is impossible, but we can get close. I believe in taking whatever steps I can in order to try to be objective, otherwise what value am I to the wine-buying public?

I’m not singling out Max or Alice here, but I doubt Max would protest, as he has made it clear over many years that his writing is happily biased towards those who cultivate biodynamic, organic and ‘sustainable’ vineyards, those who make ‘natural’ or at least minimally manipulated wines – even better if they’re alternative varieties.

Obviously Max and myself are quite different as people and as wine writers. And we approach our métier in completely different ways. I would view someone who only writes about ‘natural’ wine or ‘sustainable’ producers as too narrow in their coverage of the field of wine. And perhaps he would view himself as having a moral obligation to do what he does. 

Biodynamic guru and Loire Valley winemaker Nicolas Joly famously says: “Before being good, a wine should be true” (‘true’ meaning ethically produced and faithful to the place where it was grown).

I say Monsieur Joly has got it back-to-front. Wine is for drinking and enjoying: if it tastes terrible, as some ‘natural’ wines do, nobody will gain any pleasure from it.

What winemakers should be striving for, is that all wine be good as well as true. 

(First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, April-May 2014)

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