In Paris and Burgundy complaints were plenty about the state of the wine world. What happened to reading and researching? Were people going into wine as going into acting, for fame? And could they really do this on knowledge based on Twitter and Instagram?
Some of the more cogent complaints were:
"In these days even the sommelier's have to have a gimmick. Whether it's a saber or a variety. This is what people are basing their reputations on, the obscure cépage.
"They aren't representing wines they are representing themselves."
I'm just sick of mouse taint. Sick of it I tell you. Mouse taint is (to me) that awful, noxious rodent breath at the finish of a wine. It's a taste that is actually a smell, and to me it is a big fault of natural winemaking and one that is hard for me to swallow. The French call it goût de souris. It mostly shows up in sulfur free wines where something has gone wrong. And you know what? It is showing up more and more. Last week I found a mine field of them, and though I escaped unscathed, it wasn't pretty. The whole explosion of wines, (perhaps, but not always) sloppily made is driving me crazy and making me very careful in my selections for the newsletter, which I want to be a sulfur and mouse-free environment.
What is it? What's to be done with it? I ran a three-part series in The Feiring Line with some of my favorite experts on the subject (like Eric Texier) chiming in. Here's a snippet from the series.
Enologist Maya Salee drinking some Bordeaux that surely don't have mouse!
I have a hard time explaining what mouse is to people who haven’t thought about it. how do you handle it?
It’s a little bit like trying to listen to someone in the distance on a very windy day. If the person is very far away and the wind is blowing towards him/her, you won't hear anything. The person will have to come closer (a small amount of wine) and change directions so the wind comes to you with the sound (change the pH of that small amount of wine) in order to hear what he/ she is shouting.
Do we know what causes it?
Brettanomyces has been accused of being responsible for the mousy off-flavor for a long time. Nowadays some research has proved that ...
I hard love cider and I love that there is finally a movement that parallels the natural wine world. Last week I went to see one of the champions, Kevin Zelienski and his no additive E-Z Orchard apple wines. The place of course was New York City's hard cider restaurant, Wassail.
His is stunning and ageable stuff. Mostly bone dry with a bit of a prickle, very thirst quenching and food worthy. If you get a chance, give them a whirl. (Whole Foods in NYC has them, and more coming to outlets outside of Oregon.)
Why am I filled with the cidery thought today? Because somewhere in a secret upstate New York zone some have clustered to discuss what is natural cider... exactly. They will be questioning whether natural cider can come from culinary apples or domesticated and dwarfed apples, or from non-organic apples. They'll spend a whole day around the arguments, making merry and bringing on the conversation. The idea that these are ideas and ideals and discussion springs up around them, well, try imagine that happening in a marketing meeting? I rest my case.
To all of my The Feiring Line Subscribers.
Last week there was a request to update your information.
The more elaborate reason for this is we lost the interface with Amazon and so there is no way to keep you in my data base (as Amazon rightfully so, doesn't transfer your CC#'s to my new provider.)
So, in truth, unless you take a few minutes from your day to update your information per the link we sent out last week, the TFL is absolutely in danger of continuing.
Technology has sunk many an institution and if you don't help, this, and not a lack of interest, might sink the newsletter.
For new signups, nothing has changed, so get off your duff and subscribe! As Jon Rimmerman of la Garagiste said,
Now then, if you are seeking wine journalism that is neither ill-informed nor overwrought – a parcel of pages that are well written, interesting and worth every penny of their subscription cost – I urge you to take a chance on the periodical below...for education's sake alone. You’ll come out on the other end far more knowledgeable than you were before with actual insight and new-found inspiration.
How many newsletters can legitimately make that loaded claim and back it up (Jancis, but few others)? Where most fail, the journal below succeeds in spades. It gives notice to worthy up-and-coming winemakers, their vineyards and their particular movement with both the positive and negative illuminated (yes, even those dreaded no-dosage Champagne houses)... Subscribe and be enlightened."
With great appreciation,
I first fell for Lettie' Teague's new book, Wine in Words: Notes for Better Drinking (Rizzoli Ex Libris. $29.95) because of its looks. Was I that shallow, I wondered.
With its vintage typeface, it's sturdy dust-jacket free, embossed cover in butter-yellow, the feel of the book in hand felt like a legacy. So, I started to fan through this collection of essays, and then sat right down and started to read the 40+ short pieces.
I am fond of my colleague, Lettie, the wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal. It's true that she and I often don't exactly see wine through the same lens. We often have agreed to disagree. This was reinforced several times over in the book, and I have come to understand that is just the way we are built. She is a natural ectomorf. I'm, to my dismay, an endo.
Turns out her book is neither memoir nor wine guide, but a selection of thoughts and whims Teague believes the wine drinker should know.
The book is organized capriciously enough. With no particular arc, it's sectioned off into three parts. +Fun to Know. +Need to Know. +Who Knows. But even if I feel some fun to knows are need to knows and vice versa, the more I jumped into it, the more I appreciated how her prose sat on the juncture of, let's say, A.J. Liebling meets Judith Martin. It's when Lettie effortlessly steps into a Miss Manners role she is most charming and even sage.
Each entry is no longer than a blog post. For today's texting attention span these are measured spoonfuls for those who have not yet worked up to reading the full meal of wine encyclopedias for sport. I imagine that she really could guide reader and a drinker through blunders that no one wading into the wine swamp wants to make, especially the beginner who fears looking like one.
For example, in her discourse on the wine glass, she professes her love for the Zalto (check!) and artfully dismisses the notion that a glass is needed for every country and variety.
We all have tried to fake it at one time or another, like the time I truly had no idea who Pierre Overnoy was and sensed I couldn't admit it. Likewise, Lettie confessed in the Pitfalls of Pretending, about the time she claimed to have tasting knowledge of a wine in a certain vintage. Turns out the wine was not made in that year. She also recounted the tale of a misguided sommelier who when confronted with a customer request for the sold out gewürztraminer, offered a 'similar' wine. The replacement was an ill-advised sauvignon blanc. The grapes bear no similarity to each other except perhaps they are both aromatic, even if they boast different aromas. Moral of the story, there's no humiliation factor in learning. Or as she penned, "Better to be an ignoramus than a fraud."
It's these little stories, told with no artifice, with old-fashioned advice that I find fresh.
There are still the moments when I shake my head, "Oh, Lettie!" Such as her entry on orange wines, Orange is the Old Black. There she address skin contact wine as a fad ( of 8,000 years? That's more a rediscovery than a fad, methinks.) though I did learn from it that a few "oeniphiles" believe orange mean that the wine has been infused with the citrus fruit.
But when reading one of her final pieces, Worst Wine Word, I had another revelation. Lettie, believes the worst wine descriptor to be 'smooth.' As it turns out smooth is a bit of a bête noire for me, and its use annoys me almost irrationally. And as she wrote, "A wine--like a person--requires a bit of friction to be interesting."
It was then I understood that Lettie and I actually do agree more than I had ever given us credit for.
Last week one of my talks at the Ballymaloe Lit Fest was about natural wines changing lives. When I came up with the topic, I had some fantasy of getting work as a motivational speaker and sparking new energy in old lives. In fact, I started to feel all comic and hyperbolic about the topic. But then I thought, it has changed the path of my life.
There is just something about drinking a wine that starts with the soil. Then the journey takes you through the vintage. The sips end up embracing us in its life and transition and imprints us.
I asked readers of The Feiring Line, if and how natural wines had changed their lives, would they write be a few lines to tell me if and how?
The notes were heartfelt. They came from all ages and ranged from wine pro to enthusiast. I bet every one of my subscribers had a story to tell too. Some have been shortened, but no words have been changed. Here’s a little snapshot.
If you have your own story, please, take a moment. Share it. Would love to hear it.
It would be fair to say that natural wine has changed my life completely in the last year.
I was a senior teacher six years ago in the North East of England when I visited Mas Coutelou in the Languedoc during my summer holidays. I had been drinking wine for 30 years, indeed it was on a teaching visit to Germany that I first realized the beauty of wine. However, Jeff's wines were unlike anything I'd ever tasted, brimming with elegance, freshness and vitality. A visit around his vineyards revealed a completely different approach to the environment and viticulture. The life flowing out of the glass was a clear reflection of the health of the soil and the vines.
A friendship grew and when I retired last July my wife and I had little difficulty in choosing to live in Languedoc. Jeff invited me to spend time with him on the domaine and to write about the experience. My blog, now occupies my time along with vineyard and cellar work and wine tasting. The natural wine community have become friends, their bottles enrapture me. My palate has changed, I avoid heavy, unbalanced wines and their sulphur.
So, my life is completely altered, for the better. I am happy, learning and living a dream. Thanks in large part to natural wine.
Retired Park Ranger. Current wine merchant
My natural wine journey began one Friday evening in late July 2011 in a used bookstore in Bowling Green, Kentucky, while two friends and I were waiting on our dinner reservation at a local sushi restaurant. I had retired from the US National Park Service’s science program the previous year and had not found a “retirement years passion” until I discovered The Battle For Wine and Love Or How I Saved The World From Parkerization at the used bookstore. I couldn’t put the book down and the next day I decided to look Alice up on the web and found a contact address listed on her blog: “The Feiring Line.” I sent her an email figuring I would never hear back anything, but maybe she would at least see my email and at least know she had a new fan in Kentucky. I did hear back from her in a nicely written email response in which she remarked that “wine was a journey.” Indeed it is and that used book, and Alice, gave me my retirement passion of pursuing and understanding natural wine. I had previously thought all wine was natural, not realizing there is a whole world and history of wine and wine making that was and still is being trounced into the dust of the past by among other things, nonsensical and irrelevant numeric rating systems. I now work in a wine department in a large liquor store in our area. I and at least one other sales person try to nudge the local market and our customers toward taking the journey that I feel has so benefitted, not just my wine choices, but my life choices as well.
I decided to do my own company which is trying to bring in wines made with conscience and that I am not ashamed of with some wines that I truly love to drink… eventually would love to get all I love… but then love is relative… you can have a wine you love but love shrink and fades when you discover after several years that the winemaker is not just the exactly on the same page on human values, that’s another topic though, but still hits you hard … like… a maverick?
Natural wine making has changed everything. It's as if we've fallen down the rabbit hole. In this Wonderland we have found many new kinds of madness, but more importantly we found Alice.
Wine Merchant (mainandloire.com)
Long story short, my fondness (zeal) for natural wine led to meeting my wife and for us deciding to open our own shop to sell the stuff.
It's certainly a more delicate and complex story than this tag line, but it is absolutely true that I wouldn't be where I am today -- a happily married father and wine merchant -- if I hadn't been enchanted, stunned even, by a bottle of Olivier Cousin Grolleau in 2002.
Wine maker in Franken, Germany
I grew up in a small conventional winery. I never saw any ideas, tastes, wines attracting me so I learned something else (I studied philosophy and then worked in media). The first bottle of Simonutti’s Boire Tue changed everything. After a couple of months, “non-natural“ wines started tasting more and more boring while at the same time the whole natural winemaking philosophy started making more and more sense (I could write for hours about the philosophical bit ... Alfred North Whitehead’s ideas about truth and beauty are e.g. a wonderful connection).
And so the idea arose to take over may parent’s winery and turn it upside down. We quit our job, moved back to the small town I grew up at and here we are now working on vintage #3.
New York Lawyer
Natural wine has changed my life in some important ways. First, drinking natural wine aligns my views about food with the wines that pair with it. I would never eat processed food nor would I choose what appears to be a natural food in which the label lists a ton of other ingredients and preservatives. I want that in my wine as well.
They have also changed my life in that it is almost impossible to discuss wine with extended family members and coworkers. No one understands what I am talking about. They think I am a wine snob,
Euopean Wine Importer
It helped me make direct connections between nature and the quality of human life.
It helped me adapt my eating habits (going more pure, more eco), altering my body and mind.
It made me more sensitive in supporting the work of the "little man" vs a corporation. It provided a platform to develop a "business" i fully believe in, more than in any that i've done so far. Actually this business is not a business at all...it's a way of life. Quite an achievement, I think.
It has been the cause of a rebirth for me, and a (partly) successful way to deal with a mid-life crisis I did not know I was experiencing,
Someone hadn't received the memo that ever since 2008 when I penned an editorial slamming the bold Californian wines, I had been banned from a number of West Coast-centric tastings. And so believe me I was appreciative when I received an invitation to celebrate and examine Cathy Corison's 25 -years of history under her own label. I said, "Thank you!" before anyone could change their mind.
But, Cathy, actually never read the memo about how California was supposed to taste, and instead she followed her own vision, very much owning her vigneronne voice, never paying attention to the style of the moment and very much intent on having her wine be the best it could be within the parameters of the vintage.
With the knowledge that this was going to be a very special event, I headed to taste through her vinous history, from that first solo vintage of 1987 to her most recent release of 2011.
sorry for the crappy foto: Cathy at March Skurnik office tasting in March.
In view of the industry's love of following trends, from concrete eggs to cold soaks to whatever, Cathy has remained true to one grape ("I'm a cabernet chauvinist."), the same vineyards and one way of making wine. Her wines were true reflections into the vintages, a window into the year's history and changes in the vineyard, just the way it used to be when people embraced vintage instead of fearing the differences. Here were some of the highlights. But wait! After browsing them, don't stop there. In honor of her anniversary, I have reprinted a copy of her email interview to me, of 2010.
Some selected wine impressions
1987: Her first attempt. A very remarkable nose, and a taste of sanded down stones. Gently, with a touch of old-fashioned Napa mint. Refreshing, as it should be as this was a long and cool season with no heat spikes. An easy birth for her first child.
1988- More of a plummy aroma with a nice tang of acid on the Kenya coffee made in a French Press. Good bit 'o tannin and a patchouli finnish which I like on wine and dislike on people.
1989-- At first there's the pencil shaving and tired nose then it goes all gentle and sleek even though faded Bordeaux-like with black Nyon olive and oregano. The critics said forget the vintage. Idiots.
1990- lots off flat and snuffed on the nose but inside, there comes the savory and a superpacked blackberry finish. Surprise!
1992: Exotic touch of coffee, the tannin evident, the fruit muted, but lots of wine.
1993: Milk chocolate sweetness, never overpowering yet a little one or two notes.
1998- Touch o' funk on top of a power-fruit foot forward of raspberry.
2001: It's not just the youth, but something is different and continues through the rest of the wines. the rootstocks? Big. Complete. Young. Classic. Culty cab stand in, but one done by a pro with style. Tannin and fruit dance with savory, pepper and a happy finish. Let's see it in another ten.
2004: Fruit and ash and acid with a long, grippy dusty finish and medium Napa fruit sensibility.
2006: This was picked late, near November, but the wine is balanced power and a touch of orange-like acid.
2008: Fruit reigned in balance with acid, elegance, long finish with vibrancy of young muscles. look for that long roasted heirloom carrot painted in raspberry flavor.
2009: A cool season package that is tight, silty classic.
2010: Also a lot going on here, with chocolate and cocoa but with balance. Has quite a lot in common with 2004.
And......here's the interview.
All is well here. I'm expecting a terrific vintage with all this cool weather. Thank you so much for the Portland connection. I've come to love the serendipity of Twitter.
I've been observing the maelstrom of the 'natural' wine discussions from the corner of the room. Like most everything, the truth often sits in the gray area between black and white. (And the truth is different for each person.)
In a day when I am shocked by the manipulation I see in winemaking everywhere, I wonder what happened to growing grapes well in a great vineyard, crushing the grapes and letting Mom Nature do the rest. Our roll should be one of shepherding; we don't want our charges to go over the edge of a cliff.
For me the less manipulation the better. I think of a winemaker's bag of tricks like a doctor's black bag. You hope you don't ever need to use them, and you seldom do, but you're glad they're there. Sadly the tricks have become a routine part of much winemaking.
I don't think anything precludes me from being considered a 'natural' winemaker.
As to specifics, I have not acidulated a Cabernet for nearly 30 years. Fresh out of UCD, over 30 years ago (!), I had been taught that no sound wine could have a pH higher than 3.3. I quickly learned that that was rubbish. That said, I believe that good acidity is one of the most important components of a great wine, both from a winemaking standpoint and wine enjoyment. There are far fewer technical pitfalls in making a wine with a healthy pH. For me, it boils down to growing the grapes well on a great site and picking properly. If I need to wait for flavors to come arounduntil 25°+ Brix and the natural acidity has plummeted, I've failed in the vineyard (or I'm growing the wrong thing in the wrong place).
SO2 seems to be the other bugaboo. First of all, every cell in most people's body produces SO2 as a byproduct of metabolism, so most of us have enzymes in place to deal with it. It is also produced by yeast during fermentation. Some yeast strains produce more than others- a possible tool for winemakers. There IS widespread over- and misuse of SO2 all over the world. One of the things I took away from my academic background in enology is an understanding of how it works. People always say it's added as a preservative. That's true sometimes, but such high levels are sometimes necessary to inhibit microbial activity that the wine is ruined. Making wine from sound grapes and monitoring the health of the wine at all stages allows very minimal SO2 use. For me, the most important reason for SO2 use is to bind up aldehydes that are a byproduct of fermentation (and can occur during cellaring if practices are sloppy, mostly lax topping regimes). High aldehyde levels in wine mask fruit.
Personally, I do something that results in very low total SO2 in the bottle but is frankly very risky. I don't use ANY SO2 at all until after the malolactic fermentation is complete. SO2 added to must to inhibit wild yeasts, gets bound up by acetaldehyde as it is produced during primary fermentation, resulting in a new wine with a basement of significant total SO2 but no free SO2. It is free SO2 that protects the wine in the barrel from spoilage organisms, notably Brettanomyces. This is very risky because of the possibility of a "ferocious" Lactobacillus spoilage (by species related related to the benign ML bacteria) that can produce so much VA during alcoholic fermentation that the wine is spoiled before it goes dry. Again, my best defense is picking sound grapes that don't come into the winery already spoiling. That said, someday I will likely encounter a Lactobacacillus spoilage and need that bag of tricks I mentioned. (Though maybe not- I've been doing this for over 30 years.)
This is turning into a tome and I'm out of time. Natural wine is a big subject. After harvest I should have more leisure to elaborate if you want.
Next Wednesday, March 25th, along with Pascaline Lepeltier and Bill Fitch, I'm helping to produce a wine dinner for one of my favorite vigneronnes, (make that favorite vigneronne) from Burgundy, Claire Naudin. I am absolutely insistent you need to come. You won't be sorry. (only two spots left)
We have figured out a very fair price for some rarely seen and lovely wines. I hope you can join us at Vinegar Hill House's Hillside. Please click on the link for the particulars, and if you have any questions, ask here, or email me.
For French speakers/ readers, why not see what Le Rouge et le Blanc had to say about her?
Oh! And Philly dwellers. Come see me next Thursday! March 26th ! Three different events for Philly Wine Week.
In 2002 I tagged along to my very first Dive Bouteille. I had hitched a ride with the Dressner crew, on my way to the Salon de Val de Loire. At that oyster-shelled tasting, with wines that were more like lab experiments and more than a few flashes of brilliance, we seemed to be the only Americans. In fact it was pretty much a French only crowd. Unlike today, where it's a cross between the Burning Man and the Vin Expo of the monde du vin, there were no Asians, no Scandinavians, no Italians, no Brits, no Aussies, no Germans, no Israelis.
Witness: Unlike 2002, in 2015, there were plenty of Americans
Sylvie Augereau, the organizer (who in year three took over from Catherine and Pierre Breton) couldn't have projected the revolution it sparked. If back in 2002 I'd have told her that in thirteen years a group of Americans--including two women--would be showing their wines, she would have thought I was talking dirt.
But that is exactly what happened.
After all of those years of being an American wine apologist, I was proud. The buzz was fierce. Wine in Vermont? The bloggers encircled Deirdre, probably to flirt first, but then the wines hooked them.
The creator of Tronches du Vin wrote me a letter asking me to beg Deirdre to come to his tasting in Paris. He wrote, "Great juices, mysterious grapes (well mysterious to me). Couldn't chat with them a lot since it was quite crowded, but that was a WOW for me. Maybe the single WOW in La Dive this year."
Look who showed up from Australia! Yup, that's Anton. Around the corner from Deirdre, Hardy & Joe.
Then there was Bianca, positioned right at the beginning of the cave so all could see her as they entered (and hear her friend and illustrator, Matthew Rose play his mandolin). Francois Morel of Le Rouge et Blanc told me her vermouths were the single most intriguing wines he tasted that day.
"Andrea Calek came to taste with me," she said, smiling a Martian-like smile, about to pass out.
Calek didn't know what to make of them. "What are those," he asked, as we were sipping his sparkling shiraz experiment outside in the chill. "Explain them to me," he said.
I tried, but the concept was a little beyond his ken.
Nevertheless, the two exchanged some bottles at the end of the tasting, and both lives were changed forever. That's what happens at La Dive, all the time.