Authentic Wine and Mistaking the Tail For the Snout

Authentic_wineI don't like the idea of taking issue with Jamie Goode. He's smarter than me. He's a better writer than me. And he's better looking than me. But on this issue of "Authentic Wine", the topic of his latest book, Jamie gets it wrong.

In fact, it's the very premise of his and Sam Harrop's "Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking" that can't be justified. In their introduction they write:

"Wine is now at a metaphorical fork in the road and from here it can go one of two ways. The first is to continue down the road taken by New World branded wines: huge volumes, a reliance on technology and marketing, reliability at the cost of individuality, an emphasis on sweet fruit flavors and a loss of terroir….The Other road involves a retracing of steps and a celebration of what has made wine different and special: a respect for tradition, a sense of place, and an acknowledgement that diversity is valuable and not just a convenience."

Jamie and Sam have penned a false choice and they've done so based on a fiction.

The great defining aspect of the world wine industry in the last 20 years is DIVERSITY. In California alone the vast majority of wineries are small or medium sized wineries that focus on an artisan approach to winemaking that values terroir, estate vineyards and single vineyard wines with the goals exposing terroir. This isn't opinion. This is fact.

Yet the set up in "Authentic Wine" would have you believe that unless the right choices are made, wine lovers will be hurled down into a pit of sameness, no long able to access unique, terroir driven wines.

The authors go on to offer another great fiction: "The middle ground, once flush with diversity, has rapidly eroded, and those still in the game are seeing their access to market dry up."

Wrong. Right now, within seconds, I can locate 1000s of wines from 50 different states. Give me a few more seconds and I can locate many thousands of wines from countries such as France, Australia, Germany, Uruguay and Canada. There's no erosion in the wine marketplace. There is hyper diversity.

I honestly don't know how Jamie and Sam come to this conclusion that diversity in wine is diminishing. It's a notion that is undermined by logging on to the Internet and marveling at the huge, vast diversity of wine in the marketplace and available to all. It's a notion that is undermined by tasting the wines from various vineyards and regions in California, Oregon, Texas, Washington, New Zealand and nearly every other serious winemaking country.

But it occurs to me that there must be a good reason to write a book that attempts to define and explore  "Authentic Wine". That reason has to be based on the defense of something. The "Natural Wine" movement has a very evangelaic quality to it. Those who adhere to this undefined realm of winemaking either imply or say that they are trying to save the wine industry from itself, from forces that are pushing what was once an authentically artisan, craft-laden endeavor toward eventual sameness. Marking a metaphorical fork in the road is one way to do that…even if it doesn't exit.

In many ways the "Natural Wine" and now "Authentic Wine" movement is well behind the curve. Winemakers the world over have long embraced the notion of exposing terroir and connecting a wine to the plot of land from which it derives. Sustainably farmed vineyards proliferate all over the globe. Minimalist cellar techniques are common place. Native Yeasts have long been favored by many winemakers without even knowing there was such a movement as "native wine".

Those currently pushing the idea of "Natural Wine" think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.

19 Responses

  1. Marcia M - December 20, 2011

    Perhaps they fear the “Taco Bell” -ization of the larger brands swallowing all the little guys. I don’t see it either, but I’m interested in everyone’s upcoming comments on your POV, Tom.

  2. Doug Wilder - December 20, 2011

    Tom, I understand your viewpoint. Because of what we do and where we live we have a unique perspective on the world of wine. You are correct about the diversity that exists. When you consider the amount of wine available in every wine shop, super market and liquor store across the united states, you will not see those small brands represented even in the single digits. There are items available in St. Helena that you would be hard pressed to find in Vallejo. Like anything else, most consumers look at wine the same way they buy other products; it is convenient. I think it is fine that Jamie and Sam put the effort into the book. I’m not likely to read it. But there is no argument that there are hundreds of millions of bottles produced and consumed each year without a thought to terroir by either the producer, reseller, or consumer. People who care about the difference do otherwise. How about you and I write a book, Tom? 🙂

  3. Trick Dawg - December 20, 2011

    Ironic how the pretentiousness that these people (the natural wine movement followers) pretend to eschew, in fact, are actually promoting. This is nothing more than a fashion show and there is no rhyme or reason as to why one producer is “authentic” and another is not.
    Wine is a contrived beverage not found in nature. Even traditional production methods of growing grapes and making wine exist to convert grapes into something that is more a reflection of human culture than nature.
    Taste evolves, and wines from these prized “natural wine” producers will inevitably change as well.

  4. Mike Tommasi - December 21, 2011

    Jamie’s thesis is basically correct, though I think he is a little overly generous towards the natural movement.
    I naturally mistrust the “natural” movement because I know from experience that only 20% of the frequent exhibitors of this movement are sincerely being minimalist, and only 20% (not necessarily the same 20%) are truly skilled winemakers interested in making, above all, truly great wine. That leaves about 10% who make great natural wine, and a majority of loose intellects that take liberties with the undefined rules.
    Most of the winemakers in the clique are there because they get along well with the others or because they are opportunists who benefit from the skilled marketing going on in these circles.
    Conversely, there are many winemakers that do not spend most of their time in those very frequent exhibitions / get-togethers that happen every 2 weeks; these guys quietly do their job, with great skill and a light hand, with no funny astrological stuff, and their wines are truly great and natural too. Nobody talks about them.

  5. Thomas Pellechia - December 21, 2011

    Except for the “thesis is basically correct, comment, I agree with Mike Tommasi and also with Trick Dawg. The notion of “authentic” is as vacuous as it is offensive.
    The “fork in the road” premise is a way to sell an idea–and a book, I suppose. Tom, as a PR man, you must know that inflating one’s concept is one way to create a buzz for it.
    On a side not, my man: He’s smarter than me…better writer than me…better looking than me.
    The word you sought is “I.”
    There’s any easy way to remember the rule: if you can’t add the word “am” at the end to make sense, then you’ve used the wrong pronoun. …smarter than I am, not me am.

  6. John - December 21, 2011

    I don’t think the “natural” wine promoters are the tail wagging the dog, or that they are behind the curve. The natural “movement” is marketing, pure and simple, and marketing is myth-making – myth-making as in: “creating a narrative from whole cloth.”
    The basic truth is that there is nothing – nothing at all – new here. Everything espoused by the “natural movement” has been in practice throughout winemaking history, everywhere and without interruption.
    Industrial winemaking is new, as is industrial farming of all sorts, and it has the same aim: to make an inexpensive, reliable product of adequate quality available to the broadest market. There is nothing wrong with that.
    Industrial winemaking irrefutably is not driving out more traditional winemaking. If anything, more wines produced by traditional methods are being made, and are more widely available, than ever before.
    The marketable myth is that “natural” is David to the industrial Goliath. Also part of the myth is an explicit logical fallacy, the marketer’s tried-and-true appeal to tradition: older ideas are better. Both elements have strong track records of reliably gulling the susceptible consumer.
    I also believe that some of the compulsion to “go natural” among my cohort is pushback against the so-called “international style.” From experience I can tell you that a certain fraction of wine is heavily manipulated in order to garner higher scores. I suggest that the objection is not to the manipulation itself, but to the high market appeal of the result. In part, the “natural” myth is directed at discounting the value associated with this style of wine.
    The final element to the “natural” myth is the redemption narrative. Everyone loves the story of the Damascene conversion: “I used to make industrial wine, then I made wine heavily manipulated to get high scores. One day the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the evil of my ways.” Ahem. I mean – amen.
    Wine is the product of artifice. Therefore, at one level “natural wine” is an oxymoron. On another level, for those of us who “…quietly do [our] job, with great skill and a light hand, with no funny astrological stuff…” it is a tautology.

  7. Paul Sequeira - December 21, 2011

    Perhaps the semantic lynchpin here is “diversity,” which is an ambiguous term that has provoked many arguments over the years. Though I haven’t read the book, I do subscribe to this idea of “natural” winemaking, and I do think it flies in the face of the predominant style. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of diversity in the market, but stylistically most of that diverse selection follows similar dictates. Though I do agree that “natural” and “authentic” have been coopted by marketing departments across the food and wine universe, there exists a small subset of producers pursuing a more terroir-driven approach to winemaking. The author is right in noting the tradeoff: reliability versus individual expression. To a certain extent the author is bemoaning the corporatization of wine (100K cases of product must be reliable, whereas 1K of product can afford to be individual). It could be argued that many smaller producers with the capacity for individual expression are producing safer wines in the corporate model out of ignorance or fear or personal preference. The quote you provided may read like a sticky-sweet over-romanticizing of the craft of winemaking (true about most wine writing, it must be said), and an exaggerated demonization of production winemaking, but this does not diminish the author’s recognition of a movement that is verifiable and growing in size and influence.

  8. Lisa M - December 22, 2011

    I bet Thomas P. touches himself while listening to the Grammar Girl podcast.

  9. Steve Heimoff - December 22, 2011

    This illustrates a very old, tired English attitude toward New World wines. They have always been dismissive.

  10. nancy hawks miller - December 22, 2011

    Great post, Tom! The majority of winemakers, world wide, do what’s necessary to get the wine sold and I don’t blame them. I don’t think location is an issue. There are still lots of small, artisan producers in just about every wine region on the globe. If we want diversity and authenticity we have to pay a little more. If we just want something to sip with tonight’s dinner that’s another matter.

  11. Randy Caparoso - December 22, 2011

    Tom, it’s your blinders that vex me, not the presumptuousness of Authentic Wine. I just don’t see the points being made by its authors as being terribly complex: sure, there may be more wines than ever produced all around the world, but what’s the point if the vast majority of them are focused on varietal sameness or predictable brand marketing? Very clearly, this is what they are referring to when they speak of that fork in the road. The tendency to veer away from terroir related connections is invariably part of this, and you know what? The vast majority of wines being produced as such are unoriginal, lacking artistic sensibility, and utterly boring.
    If this is what you enjoy or appreciate, so be it. I respect the fact that wine must be made for the masses, but I don’t think we have to accept that these wines must necessarily be industrialized. Authentic Wine obviously represents a push-back; whether or not you agree that natural or sustainability is the answer, what they’re arguing for can’t be such a negative thing. So why make it out as such?

  12. David Vergari - December 22, 2011

    Natural Wine!!! The wine-trend du jour brought to you by those WHO DON’T MAKE WINE much less SELL IT! Gawd, the irony is too much.

  13. Web design sydney - December 23, 2011

    I think it is fine that Jamie and Sam put the effort into the book. I’m not likely to read it. But there is no argument that there are hundreds of millions of bottles produced and consumed each year without a thought to terroir by either the producer, reseller, or consumer..

  14. John Lopresti - December 27, 2011

    In the local grocery market, I see erosion of both diversity and quality, shifted toward the sorts of wines Parker would characterize as undrinkable. The diversity of labels is deceiving, as the wine conglomerates are permitted by current northcoast CA law to keep the old label after a merger/acquisition, but then to substitute what is essentially bulk wine inside that previously independent label. This may not be the fork the writers saw in their progress-of-wine road, but the local grocer in the nearby town where I shop has embraced bulk wine contents in the same old independent boutique labels. Admittedly, the grocer’s buyer intersperses a few genuine, carefully crafted wines among the hundreds of labels on the shelves in the spiffy newly redesigned wine section in that retail outlet. This sort of merchandising style likely is followed by people who do not care about wine, yet, whose principal motive for dedicating lots of space to it on shelves is profit; and it is a policy which seeks to keep wine self-education minimalized, essentially looking for the inattentive consumer who is willing to stay captive to the limited array of brands the distributor is presenting.
    It does not seek to be exciting or experimental; it eschews placing foreign bargains on the shelves; it does not utilize foreign buyers.
    Indeed, one business magazine from out of state explained that the closely held chain of supermarkets one of whose locals I refer to here, refinanced some debt in 2010, relinquishing substantial new equity to a distributor from one of the large metropolitan areas; that distributor’s primary business is operating franchise convenience stores.
    I agree with the commenter who highlighted the unique opportunities to find some excellent wine retailers, however, here in the CA north coast. Those outfits ain’t put in an appearance in the city where I shop, yet, however.
    As for the matter of natural yeast, there is more than back-to-nature sensuousness in that area of wine chemistry; and, there I ought to defer, most likely, to ThomasP and the other winemakers in the comment thread. I studied the topic briefly long ago. Winemakers then had settled upon Saccharomyces cerevesiae Montrachet because of its tolerance of colder fermentations, its tolerance of high alcohol, and the way it utilized nutrients in must. Other, ‘natural’ yeasts yielded lower alcohol, had a different variety of chemicals they altered in must, and other less manageable traits.

  15. Warren - December 31, 2011

    I doubt that Tom even read this book in its entirety or really needs to add in the introduction that these authors are of a much higher intellectual bracket, willing to consider ideas other than their personal bias. I don’t understand how bloggers can just make blanket statements without any real discussion of the content of the book which is highly scientific so not surprisingly over Tom’s head. Tom, you have grossly misinterpreted the notion of this book, to CHALLENGE the notions of “authentic” wine not gratuitously support it . The authors present many viewpoints that include your own barbaric views of what wine should be. It is ironic how subjective you are about an objective book! Glad to see you and your cohorts care nothing for the sustainability of our industry which is quite different than natural. Boo!

  16. Dan - January 1, 2012

    All of your quotes are from page 4!! The introduction, i.e. the hook, the most provocative part of the book. I guess it got your feather in a enough of a ruffle to not make it past that point?!?!?! Should have read the conclusion 🙁 you may have actually liked it!!!

  17. Patrick - January 3, 2012

    I am perplexed at the stance taken by the author or the blog and by all but 1 of the commenters. I am certain that almost all of those responding have not read the book and I am not sure the author fully read it or took time to understand it.
    Harrop and Goode attempt to address a critical issue in the global business of wine, the commoditization of wine. This is a real threat, not something made up. Harrop and Goode state that “there is much more diversity now than there was 40 years ago”. The great defining aspect of wine over the last 2 decades is not diversity, even though it did become more diverse. The great defining aspect has been the corporate influence on wine and the lack of diversity in the marketplace. I too, can find 1000s of wines in all 50 states from small, artisanal wineries and then a 1000 more on other continents. However, what is the total production of those wineries? Is it more than a year’s production of Yellowtail? What about Italian Pinot grigio? Now consider the total case production of Constellation, Gallo, The Wine Group, CIV, Pernod Ricard, Beringer/Penfolds/Rosemount…just to name a few. Now, go look at the wines at Costco, your grocery store, your cookie cutter corporate restaurant, on the kitchen counter of your middle to upper middle class wine consumer. They are all wines made by these companies, not small producers. While there is diversity, it is drowned out by the torrential flow of wine that does not taste of Spring Mountain or Coonawarra or Meursault or the Collio…it tastes like ripe fruit, oak influences and usually higher alcohol. It is a formula and it sells extremely well, too well. Now, the industry is Manipulating wine in ways that threaten to turn it into a commodity rather than a work of art and wonder. That may jeopardize those wines which most of us here would rather consume.

  18. Patrick - January 3, 2012

    Goode and Harrop understand the need for both interesting, authentic wines that will be appreciated by the consumer who seeks a unique wine with character and individuality as well as a wine for the not so serious wine consumer. And we must face it, while more people are getting turned on to finer, more serious and challenging wines, most consumers just want something not so serious. It would not be good for the wine industry and all the small, artisanal producers if wines were too manufactured and formulaic. That is what Harrop and Goode say in this book and I am not sure why anyone here is arguing against them. The book does well to objectively look at multiple sides and shares some very in enlightening insight and technical discussion. This book views this important issue from 30000 feet when I am afraid many here (With the exception of Warren) are viewing it from sea level.
    I would advise all to read this book and try to think of this from a business and global perspective. The seriousness of this book have been tragically played down by Tom

  19. Patrick - January 3, 2012

    Harrop was a winemaker for Villa Maria in NZ, about as New World and untraditionally British as you can get! Later, he worked at Littorai! If you read the book, you will clearly, clearly, CLEARLY see that there is nothing of an “old, tired English attitude toward new world wines” in this book. In fact, the viewpoint is quite progressive and complex.
    I certainly hope this is not the same Steve Heimoff who is the well known blogger…to publicly make such a flippant, brash, inaccurate and ignorant comment would be quite embarrassing and unprofessional. Fortunately for you, no one else (except one or two) on this blog have read Authentic Wine and don’t know any better.

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