Let’s Hear It for Inauthentic Wine

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smA new book was the subject of a review on Palate Press at http://palatepress.com/2011/08/wine/authentic-is-the-new-natural-reviewing-authentic-wine/

The book is entitled Authentic Wine and its by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop.

Put me down as one of the dissenters. There’s no such thing as authentic wine, if what you mean (which is what’s generally meant) is the absence of manipulation in winemaking. Because winemaking is manipulation. Unmanipulated wine isn’t wine at all, but vinegar.

To be honest, you have to grant that while “authentic wine” might mean unmanipulated in theory, it really means less manipulation than normal in practice (which is what it has to really mean if the wine is to be wine at all). Even with that caveat, I still have a major problem with the whole concept.

Wine’s main goal is to be good, not “authentic”. In fact, “authentic” is a pretty nebulous concept when everyone is manipulating the hell out of their wine, even those who would claim to be the avid adherents to the creation of “natural” wine. There are some who really take the non-manipulative thing pretty far. Maybe for them the use of the term “authentic” wine is a little more apropos. But based on my tasting, another term, “bad” wine, is equally apropos. Since wine that’s really not made with the full chemical resources at our disposal tends not to be very good, and not very long-lasting. I think most practitioners who preach “authentic” wines, but who produce high quality wines, in fact eschew the more radical “authentic” practices.

For reasons I’ve harped on at length, the theory that one wine is better than another quickly yields to the reality that trying to say what is a better wine is a really mushy endeavor. There’s no real agreement among wine tasters, since so much of what one means when pronouncing one wine better than another is simply that one wine meets that particular wine taster’s preferred wine profile. I.e., if you like big wines, the big wine is preferred. If you like lighter, wines, then a lighter wine is the “better” wine.

The one place where I would definitely recognize that one wine is better than another is where one of the wines has a serous flaw. I do think that a wine that’s horribly infected with volatile acidity, or one that’s totally oxidized, is clearly inferior to a clean, well-made wine. But that’s about it when it comes to superiority of one wine over another. And the more “authentic” a wine, the more likely it is to be flawed.

So when an “authentic” winemaker proclaims that his wine is superior, he’s expressing his own subjective, and highly biased, opinion. And, to my mind, that opinion is less than worthless when repeated studies have failed to show that Biodynamic farming, for instance, really translates into a superior product. And when he says his wine expresses the “terroir” of his vineyard, he’s mostly mouthing what has become accepted but meaningless “winespeak” of our age.

You get a bunch of wine tasters together, even highly experienced ones, and except for the most obvious examples (and maybe not even then), they will repeatedly fail to identify the vineyard, or even region, or even state, or even continent for that matter, of the wine they are tasting. If terroir had the meaning so often subscribed to it, then blind tasters should be able to accurately identify the wines pedigree. But they can’t.

None of what I’ve said means that I favor profligate spraying of all sorts of chemicals in the vineyard on a prophylactic basis. But spraying of certain chemicals conservatively when conditions require some sort of response to a bad hand nature has dealt you is far better than letting your grapes go to hell. And use of one chemical (gasoline powering a tractor) to try to control weeds through tillage (the “authentic” way) really isn’t in my mind, in theory, any different than using some other chemical for weed control.

So put me down as one who, when he hears the terms “authentic wine” or “natural wine”, really hears “bunk”.

By the way, I’ll be attending to family business for the next two weeks, so I’ll be posting archived articles while I’m away.

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7 Responses to “Let’s Hear It for Inauthentic Wine”

  1. Arthur says:

    One of your best pieces to date.
    Passionately written and well articulated.
    While I am 100% with you about the greater value (and meaning) of “natural” to marketing rather than to an identifiable essence of a wine, we will have to (as always) agree to disagree about the possibility of finding a consensus about a wine’s character.
    I have repeatedly stated that “experience” is not the same thing as “training” or “knowledge”.

  2. I’m afraid I didn’t like your post at all. It’s based on conjectures and prejudices and you obviously haven’t done any research or even read a little about what natural wines are really about. No offense intended, but basically, your post semmes to me to be what’s known as a content-free ‘rant’.

    Firstly, I wish all you detractors would stop harping on and wasting everyone’s time about the semantics and dictionary definition of the words ‘natural’, or ‘authentic’. Everybody knows that intervention and manipulation is necessary to make wine; natural winemakers and consumers reject unnecessary, excessive, unhealthy and polluting interventions and manipulations.

    Secondly your statement “Wine’s main goal is to be good, not “authentic” just beggars belief. You mean to say that you’d consume anything as long as it tastes good? No matter what the social, environmental and health consequence? Maybe you could try to widen your horizons.

    Thirdly, your apparant ignorance of organic agriculture is astounding. Maybe you could do some research in that area too, so you could write a well-informed and useful post on natural wines. Same applies to the concept of terroir - it’s not going to go away just because you don’t understand it.

    Fourthly, your statement “the more “authentic” a wine the more likely it is to be flawed” is so sweeping and ridiculous that it defies a sensible response. For a second I even thought that it was an attempt at humour!

    Lastly, your point about gasoline for tractors is just tendentatious nonsense. You must surely realize that the abuse of internal combustion engines is a global problem that affects all car-owners and not just a few tractor-owning grape-growers.

  3. NR Carlson says:

    Hello! I haven’t read the book yet, but the review of it which I did read seemed to say that the book made kind of the point you outline above. The authors point out that the ‘Natural Wine’ moniker is really deceptive, and that using ‘Authentic Wine’ as the replacement terminology makes better sense. Have you read it yet? It might be saying exactly what you are trying to say.

    It seems to me that wines made from simple ingredients like yeast, grapes and barrels, and with time-honored and craftsmanlike methods could be considered ‘authentic’ as could wines that are true to the tradition of their region and climate.

    Just as a talented chef can make authentic and delicious cuisine that is greater than the sum of the individual ingredients - the winemaker becomes a part of the trajectory of a wine, and I admire those who can make something beautiful by intervening no more, (and certainly no less!) than needed.

  4. Aummann says:

    getting tired of hearing another “winemaker” trying to justify his title. Absolutely there is such a thing as AUTHENTIC wine. Need you forget where your grapes came from or did they magically appear on your crush pad with humble thanks for having the opportunity to be squeezed by such an amazing and articulate alchemist?? Great wines come from great grapes, which in turn come from great vineyards. Regardless if it is a big wine or lean fresh wine, only the great wines come from the great vineyards. Get over your self, your ego and your self proclaimed title of the great “WINEMAKER!”. The greater the wine the less manipulation required. Authenticity and integrity is what the appreciation of wine is all about. They shouldn’t even call what you make wine, they should call it “fruity, woody wine grape beverage”

  5. Matt Thomson says:

    To the point and accurate. The fact is that oxidised wines mask the terroir. they simply taste of bruised apples that could have come from anywhere. Don’t stop writing on this subject!

  6. Ed Maass says:

    There is also the necessity to ensure that readers understand that there is a difference between “authentic” and “natural” wines, and emplore them to ask what those definitions are…these definitions are not mutually exclusive, but one does not eclipse the other, at a least in the terms of wine quality.

  7. I’ve written a post about ‘natural wine’ on my blog, here:
    http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com/2011/10/this-natural-wine-thing.html
    , partly inspired by this one, which you may find interesting.

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