The Celebrity Winemaker

June 24th, 2014

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

I really have a big problem with the whole idea of the celebrity winemaker. And that’s primarily because I think its more a marketing thing than anything else. I also think many of these winemakers have subscribed to a similar style (generally called “international”), that for me is big turnoff.

This whole subject was brought to mind by Steve Heimoff’s post, “Are consultants “killing” wine?” Which can be found at: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2014/06/19/are-consultants-killing-wine/, which is well worth reading.

First, the idea that there is any great secret to great winemaking is something of a myth. There are certainly things you can do, and can refrain from doing, with a bunch of grapes, which will impact the final wine. And two winemakers presented with the same grapes will turn out different wines. But let’s not get too hot and bothered by all that. The similarities will, barring some major screw-up, outweigh the differences. And the differences will be stylistic—differences in what the winemaker wants to achieve in the finished wines, not the capabilities of the winemaker. Two different but well made wines are just that. One winemaker, because he is a cult or celebrity figure, isn’t by virtue of that fact better than the other. As with celebrity chefs, they are what they are because they have the skills of their profession with the flair of the entertainer. The equally skilled practitioner who lacks the entertainer’s flair is equally capable at making food, or wine, or whatever.

If you start with good grapes and don’t commit some major error, or suffer some unfortunate stroke of bad luck, then you should end up with a pretty good wine. You may add more or less acid (or none) than another winemaker, more or less oak, etc., etc. At the extremes, wines produced will be noticeably, and even dramatically different. But most of the wine will be similar in overall quality, even if there are, as I say, stylistic differences. There’s not a lot of magic tricks when it comes to winemaking. The most important “trick” is to make damn sure you’re starting off with good grapes. If there’s a point where there really is skill, it’s blending, but even here, there’s a lot of disagreement about what is the best blend when you do a blending trial. So, like so much with wine, this is more subjective than objective.

And certainly the “international” style represents one of those extremes that you can produce from the same grapes. Round, soft wines, low in acid, high in oak. And when you are talking about the celebrity winemaker, you’re pretty much talking about winemakers who make wines in that style. I don’t so much have a problem with that style of winemaking per se. My problem with it, aside from the fact that I myself, personally, don’t like it, is that it has pretty much monopolized what the public perceives and expects of wines to a degree that freezes out other styles. Of course, that’s not entirely true, as most Pinot Noirs are not (in fact could not be) made in an international style. But it is largely true for Cabernet Sauvignon, which is very unfortunate, as that variety has been largely consigned to and identified with that style.

So I would very much like to see the celebrity winemaker thing toned down. But since marketing drives the wine world, and many new wineries with lots of money behind them are looking for that hook that will generate publicity and sales, it’s not very likely I’m going to get my wish.

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Good Reads Wednesday

June 18th, 2014

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

Every Wednesday I post my recommendations of the best of last week’s postings concerning wine, whether blogs or news. I list them in the order I read them, so you shouldn’t infer anything about the order in which I list these posts.

On “blindfolded monkeys” and blind tasting

Steve Heimoff

http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2014/06/10/on-blindfolded-monkeys-and-blind-tasting/

“No, I mean only to suggest that, if you consistently taste wines blind, wrapped in their little brown paper bags, you will find results quite different from those published by the majority of famous magazines and newsletters.”

Uncorked! in Suisun Valley continues on June 21, 2014

Wine Blog

http://www.wine-blog.org/index.php/2014/06/12/uncorked-suisun-valley-continues-june-21-2014/

For those of you who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m hoping to see you at Uncorked next Saturday.

Anti-Winery Sentiment is Building

SVB on Wine

http://svbwine.blogspot.com/2014/06/anti-winery-sentiment-is-building.html#more

An interesting discussion of how things aren’t nearly as friendly as they once were, or at least as friendly as they were once perceived to be.

For keeping up to date with what’s going on the in wine world, the best all around source is http://winebusiness.com.

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More on “natural” winemaking

June 16th, 2014

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

After last week’s post on “natural “versus “unnatural” winemaking, this post appeared in Palate Press:

“A touch of sulfur”: Sulfites (or not) in Natural Winemaking

Erika Szymanski

http://palatepress.com/2014/06/wine/touch-sulfur-sulfites-natural-winemaking/

I think this post goes to show that when you want to reach a given result, you can do it. Albeit, you may need to twist logic out of all proportion, but it can be done.

I think this post epitomizes the worst of the worst when it comes to the natural winemaking movement.

By some logician’s magic, the addition of sulfur dioxide, something that for all intents and purposes does not exist naturally in wine (in fact, it does, but only in microscopic quantities) is deemed to be natural, while the additional of Tartaric acid, the main acid in grapes, and a critical ingredient for wine to taste anything like wine, is unnatural.

It would be far more reasonable to just face up to the obvious fact. No matter how natural a winemaker you want to consider yourself, you had better damn well throw some sulfur dioxide into your wine if you want it to be any good. Because if you want to rely on the idea that you are totally natural, then you can forswear sulfur dioxide, and make a go of trying to peddle oxidized vinegary wine. Since “natural” winemakers are as interested in anybody as anybody else in selling their products, they aren’t about to take this suicidal route, so they throw in the so2, and rationalize it as best they can.

I would have far more respect for them if they would call themselves something more like “minimalist” winemakers, which in fact more accurately describes what they profess. But since consumers like the word “natural” and could easily confuse “minimalist” with some avant-garde art and music trend, “natural” it is.

Of course, all of this involves a certain amount of hypocrisy. But if the real goal is to sell wine, then that is something that can be readily tolerated.

It is worth focusing in on another point of this post: “Feiring’s definition is useful precisely because it discriminates: it includes some wines and excludes others. It is, moreover, relatively clear about what falls on either side of the line. Nothing added: no acid adjustments if the grapes come in too ripe, no sugar if they’re not ripe enough, no commercial yeast or “yeast food,” certainly no MegaPurple to punch up color and sweetness. Nothing taken away: no reverse osmosis to strip volatile acidity or other faults or to reduce alcohol, and not filtered.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, most of these interventions are undertaken precisely because there is something wrong with the wine. If, in fact, the grapes come in too ripe, then is it really better to leave them that way in the interest of being “natural”, or throw in some tartaric acid to make them more palatable.

Well, correct me if I am wrong, but I thought being palatable is what wine was all about.

I could go on and address the other interventions, but you get the point. I am certainly not an advocate of making interventions right and left for no particularly good reason, or as a matter of course. My experience has been that most interventions don’t work out quite as well as you expect. But I certainly would not refrain from adjusting the acidity if the wine needed it, and I certainly would not refrain from adding “yeast food” to avoid the yeast becoming stressed and doing all sorts of nasty things.

But once you have made the choice to do something different than what nature would do to the grapes without human intervention (which of course all winemakers must do if you want to end up with something called wine) then it’s just a matter of which interventions you choose to make. In that sense, all wines, including “natural” wines, are unnatural, as they should be.

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Good Reads Wednesday

June 11th, 2014

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

Every Wednesday I post my recommendations of the best of last week’s postings concerning wine, whether blogs or news. I list them in the order I read them, so you shouldn’t infer anything about the order in which I list these posts.

Coravin halts sales because of exploding wine bottles

Dr. Vino

http://www.drvino.com/2014/06/02/coravin-exploding/

I find this pretty surprising considering that most systems which use inert gas to preserve wine operate under very low pressures, much lower than most bottles are supposed to withstand.

For keeping up to date with what’s going on the in wine world, the best all around source is http://winebusiness.com.

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“Natural”

June 9th, 2014

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

“Natural” and “unnatural” are really very charged words. But they are words that we use and accept superficially, and which, on examination, really have nothing to do with much of anything, really.

Take, for example, something that I’ve heard many times in my life, “homosexuality is unnatural”. Well, it only takes a second’s thought to realize that this statement is factually false. Homosexuality exists in nature. When someone says homosexuality is “unnatural,” that is not a comment on whether it is really natural or not, but the moral judgment of the speaker. And that’s generally the case when it comes to “natural”. When someone says something is unnatural, it’s not a comment on whether it exists in nature (which it always does), but the moral condemnation of the speaker.

Which brings us to wine. And the “natural” wine movement. If you can call it a movement. I guess when it comes to “natural” wine, there is a little bit more validity to the idea in that it bespeaks an adherence to low-tech wine production (though there is no real agreement about what qualifies and what doesn’t, since there are no clear standards on what you need to do to qualify as a “natural” winemaker).

For example, I think most “natural” winemakers would at least tow the line that they are against the use of chemicals. Of course, since everything is chemicals, that really doesn’t advance the discussion one whit. Now you can say it’s okay to use naturally occurring chemicals, but not those made in a laboratory. But is it okay to use sulfur dioxide? If you want to talk about relatively noxious chemicals, sulfur dioxide certainly meets the bill. But only the most extreme of “natural” winemakers eshew the use of sulfur dioxide for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to make a good wine that will last very long without it. So orthodoxy has to yield to expediency.

What about something like a centrifuge? In a sense, this is pretty natural since all it does is spin something around to clarify it. But I don’t think most “natural” winemakers would have much tolerance for centrifuge use.

So, “natural” winemaking really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what is truly natural, but with what a group of self-proclaimed prophets want you to buy. Which is, not surprisingly, their wines.

I do think that there is a type of “generally” minimalist winemaking which “generally” adheres to the idea that when in doubt, do less. I myself subscribe to this winemaking philosophy. But I think it is fair to say that to the extent someone describes this philosophy as “natural”, he is engaged in an exercise in marketing more than anything else. The things that you do to wine which are in excess of minimal, are every bit as natural, in the sense that they use natural processes and exist in the real world.

And much of what the most minimalist winemaker does uses techniques that are intended to inhibit what wine would otherwise do. After all, left to itself, the endgame for wine is not wine, but vinegar. And nobody wants that, except maybe on their salad.

For, truth be told, even the most minimalist schools of winemaking routinely use materials and techniques which, though natural, or not “natural”. But, then again, if “natural” is really just a marketing moniker, then what difference does it make as long as you’re moving cases.

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