Wine’s paradox of polarity

Today, ‘conventional’ and ‘natural’ wine are more alike than any urbanite millennial or snooty boomer would dare admit, each woefully depriving. Natural wine—atavistic and pure—laments intervention, believing wine to be born, not made, chastising an increasingly exhaustive list of allegedly sinful practices. Meanwhile, traditional oenological training, well-suited to making ‘clean’ and consistent wine, has distanced conventional winemakers—large and small—from practice and tradition, reducing wine to merely a sum of its parts. Albeit useful in eliminating unpalatable defects, the ‘solution model’ rarely yields wines of any lasting interest.

Impeached by luddite commentators and pliable consumers, well-meaning winemakers are less likely to risk making wine today than ever before. As one critic observes, they have ‘never been so self-effacing’. Now, ‘minimal intervention’ winemaking, natural wines soft-core spin-off, instructs the mantra of the modern tasting room, where jars of soil adorn shelves and tables, a nod to wines’ supposed parthenogenesis. Meanwhile, those producers still opting to ‘intervene’—small or large, publicly or in private—are, as author Clark Smith muses, led astray by a formula unfit for making wines of ‘great structure or mystery’. Beneath a torrent of journalistic fire, fault lines form chasmic voids, a polarity characterised by trite homogeneity at one extreme and formulaic mundanity at the other. Criticising either ad nauseam is banal; instead, we might reflect on our arrival at—and possible departure from—this unrewarding juncture.

Since the Etruscans happened upon it, humans have found use for wine, whether spiritual, ecclesiastic, sanitary or to tolerate premodern life. But as an intellectual and aesthetic pursuit, it is an altogether modern phenomenon. In fact, until the mid-nineteenth century, most wine was unpalatable by modern standards; unstable, sour and regularly mixed with spices, herbs and honey. Poet Richard Ames decried wine quality in seventeenth-century London, opining that he would ‘sooner leap into the Thames or Severn, than venture on the wine in any tavern’. So, unexpectedly, amidst a flurry of newly-imported stable alternatives—namely beer, tea, coffee and liquor—vin ordinaire fell out of favour in important urban centres.

Fortunately, some wines of particularity did exist. As early as 1663, English diarist Samuel Pepys recalls ‘Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste’, a wine made by Arnaud de Pontac, who was revolutionary in selling his wine as the product of a single chateau. Having found an audience among a nascent bourgeoisie, these vin fin, scant as they were, made ‘saving wine’ a worthwhile endeavour. Subsequent advances in winemaking began with Lavoisier and then Pasteur in 1860, whose revolutionary research ushered in a more concrete comprehension of wine. Chaptal’s technique of adding sugar to grape must pre-ferment also helped strengthen and preserve wine, as did the systematic use of sulphur dioxide during fermentation and bottling, perfected by 1900. Widespread access to electricity and refrigeration also helped improve quality. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, researchers-cum-consultants began disseminating new learnings from recently established universities at Montpellier, Geisenheim and Bordeaux. These advances changed wine forever, so much so that before he died in 1870, famed writer Cyrus Redding recognised these ‘modern wines’ as being truly new and ‘much more perfect than those of the ancients.’ 

The next great shift came post–World War II with the popularisation of stainless steel, inert gas, pumps, mechanised pressing, and sterile filtration. Concomitantly, in Bordeaux, the ‘Peynaudization’ of wine was underway. Emile Peynaud believed ‘only an ignoramus made good wine by accident’ and, declaring oxygen the ‘enemy of wine’, kickstarted the age of solution winemaking, revolutionising malolactic fermentation and encouraging thermal temperature regulation as well as riper picking and new oak barriques. Legions of youthful university students embraced Peynaud’s, learning—for the first time—from teachers, not parents, in many cases doing away with tradition. Simultaneously, industrial wine production increased, catalysed by UK supermarkets that heavily promoted cheap plonk.

These advancements and mechanisations improved overall wine quality; however, wine science and industrialisation did away with generations of tradition and ravaged local ecology too. Perturbed by indiscriminate agrochemical use and ‘overly-manipulated’ wines, a small band of French winemakers rejected ‘conventional’ winegrowing. In the 1970s, Jules Chauvet—a chemist, negociant and gifted taster—began experimenting with san soufre winemaking and carbonic maceration, though he ultimately abandoned the latter. Inspired by Chauvet and his aide Jacques Neauport, the so-called ‘Gang of Four’—Lapierre, Foillard, Thevenet, and Breton—gave birth to today’s natural wine ‘movement’, exporting their formula across provincial France, where it took on a progressively more platitudinal identity and prose.

Around the same time—shortly after the Judgement of Paris threatened European superiority—the city-dwelling, English-speaking wine press helped reify an altogether more romantic translation of tasting dirt. From this, wine quality and character came to be understood as an ineffable, quasi-mystical reflection of soil. And, before long, popular commentators imbibed the hypothesis that set winemaking choices constituted manipulation, inevitably diminishing overall quality. This doctrine quickly percolated into major publications and writings, putting a price on techniques and tools arbitrarily defined as intervention. Impaled by critics, winemakers—poorly-equipped to defend their decisions—grew more self-effacing and fearful of making distinctive wines. Instead, they did less, or worse, chose not to disclose their work at all. From this, ‘minimal-intervention winemaking’ was popularised, wherein anything other than a ‘transparent’ interpretation of place is considered blasphemy. 

By the ‘90s, natural wine had escaped chic Parisian wine bars and found American shores; in 2000, New York’s first store dedicated to natural wine opened its doors, followed shortly after by London’s own Terroirs in 2008. Colourful labels and rebellious vintners attracted young, well-educated, middle-class metropolitan types who might otherwise have considered wine stagnant and unappealing. A decade later, natural wine caught fire among urban millennials. So too had the notion of wine as a reflection of place, not person—the latter penetrated the popular press too. But, alas, like Saturn, the revolution devours its children, and what began as a healthy corrective quickly mutated, birthing ‘zero-zero’ and ‘clean wine’—natural wine’s commercial counterpart. Canadian writer Laura Milnes attributes this transformation to a co-opting by ‘spiritual bypassers’, less concerned with what natural wine is than what it is not. Most notably, these modern parishioners were willing to disregard and justify faults and mediocrity for what Sandford’s residents might coin ‘the greater good’

Wines metamorphosis from unpalatable intoxicant to aesthetic luxury marks its most profound development in recent history. A handful of characterful, idiosyncratic wines—admired by a bourgeoning intellectual class—gave cause to save wine itself. In contrast, the peculiar sentiment that wine is born not made is a recent phenomenon popularised by modern communicators. But, of course, this fantasy defies experience. As in fine cuisine, distinction demands a mediating hand transform raw material; vision and craft turn raw seafood and rice into Jiro’s own dreams. Similarly, today’s most coveted wines—whether one likes it or not—are intimately connected by technique, each a characterful and harmonious representation of both person and place. 

Paradoxically, commentators increasingly reject signature, disparage ‘intervention’ and disincentivise winemaking. Instead, readers are led to believe that great wine simply makes itself, and that winemakers need only chaperone fruit from field to glass. Amidst hostility to perceived ‘manipulation’, winemakers are reticent to share advancements or celebrate the skill and attention required to appear invisible. This bad marriage benefits nobody. Forcing ‘intervention’ underground limits technical progress, meaning conventional winemaking rarely deviates from orthodox modern oenology. Meanwhile, young winemakers are incentivised to do less, or to conceal what they do. All this leads to a growing homogenisation of styles, irrespective of ones persuasion. Sadly, within this paradoxical polarity, neither modality—conventional or natural— is well-suited to producing truly prodigious wine. And so, in staying this course, we might deprive ourselves of those wines we desire most, risking the very essence of fine wine—its aesthetic. Perhaps we might strive toward a more wholesome state, whereby wines are judged as simply more or less pleasurable, irrespective of means and method. What stars we might find, I wonder.

3 thoughts

  1. Having started my career in wine in 1977 and being in the same graduating class as Clark Smith – I also have lived this wine evolution on both sides of the Atlantic . Much of these ” trends ” have been encouraged at the interface between wine writing critics and marketeers . Winemakers used to be happy to make their wine to their own standards – now they are beholden to many sirens

  2. Fantastic article! As someone who hates “natural wine” with the heat of a thousand suns, I could go on forever. In terms of the process, I will only say that “low intervention” just means “not doing your job.”

    But what I wish to discuss here is why people — mostly younger people — like the stuff. Yes, a big part of it is simple virtue signaling. I live in New York City, the virtue signaling capital of the world, and it informs everything. This is partly why so many restaurants are becoming natural wine only establishments, especially in Brooklyn. Yes, Brooklyn may be awash in rainbow flags and proudly exults in any life style you can name, but hey, if you don’t like natty wines then get the hell out. We will make NO exceptions for you! Such is “tolerance” in Brooklyn.

    Mostly I’ve long struggled with why people like wines that for the most part are flat, dull, funky, and one-note, dreadfully lacking any complexity or anything you’d call “enjoyment.” (And before anyone says “well you just haven’t had a good natural wine,” I’ve had at least 50 different natural wines — none has been other than mediocre, most far worse.)

    So why do the Millennials, especially, like it so much? Then it dawned on me. The Millennials are the generation that was raised on juice boxes. And what do natty wines taste like other than a juice box mixed with alcohol, and then left in an alleyway to get a little rotten? They actually ENJOY the single-note profiles of natty wines because it’s a comfort food to them. It suits their dulled palates and reminds them of dinners at TGI Friday’s, where all the food tastes alike. This is the same reason Millennials love to throw hot sauce on everything they eat: because anything you put hot sauce on tastes like… hot sauce. The same. The same. The same.

    It’s not coincidental that the rise in natural wine restaurants coincides precisely with the craze for making everything hot: chilies abound in food now, often crammed in for no reason other than to add otherwise meaningless heat. All of this harkens back to childhood for Millennials (so many dinners from Taco Bell), as do the typically stupid natural wine labels that look like they were crayoned by grade schoolers.

    One other aspect: Millennial sommeliers are OBSESSED with what I call “story wines,” which are usually natural. That is, they want to present to you a wine with a back story. “The grapes grow on the highest slope in Italy!” Or “This is made from a grape that was almost extinct!” (that was followed by a dreadful natural Schioppettino, which should be called Shitpettino). Or “The labels on this wine were drawn by the wine maker’s daughter in Slovakia!” Und so weiter.

    The actual FLAVOR OF THE WINE means nothing to these somms, if they even have any idea what good wine tastes like. They only care about the story. And the moment the somm kicks in to a story I know I’m about to get a dreary, single-note wine. Oh, but it’s “refreshing!” Just like a juice box. And it’s “drinkable!” Just like a juice box.

    Anyway, that’s my theory. The final nail in this coffin is pointing out the otherwise meaningless term they came up with to promote natural wines. Why, they are “crushable.” You know what else is crushable? A freaking juice box.

  3. Josh you put on the table right topic for discussion, the POV of winemaking – wine by it selfs as product is crucial
    same as philosophy of winemaking and understanding what winemakers are wondering. I can presume that your experience is is taken from the best of the best,

    Peterlike also made a good point most of those wines are not good, way below average with single- mono flavours

    I think to understand why it became so popular we have to take also marketing angle, communication with customer and new generation

    Have you ever wonder why what speciality coffee / craft beer, cider / natural wine have in common?
    apart of probably same group of consumers?

    The over simplify communication – Nuts / currant / chocolate
    Pickled pineapple / orange / clementines

    those descriptions can apply to any category of beverage they are simple to understand, simple to recognise and you don’t have to know exactly what is the product, no one really care if its single orgne coffee from Jamaica or forgotten barrel from middle of nowhere or just new line of craft beer made during another pandemic period.

    Why is like that?

    The same question is behind internet content creator
    Josh will be “more successful” if he will start to post Stories while he is drinking Gaja with Angelo on the yacht
    or at least he will get more viewers

    Everyone who remember Sideways is too old
    Now we are into Natural wines
    Is it good or is is bad – that’s not really a right question
    More likely we should ask Which Wine ( Winemaker) is taking responsibility of their wines no matter if its natural or not

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