The Alternative

If “mansplaining” was the word of 2016, “alternative” is in an early lead for taking this year’s top prize. Thanks to Kellyanne and Das Führer we now have “alternative facts.” This is an oxymoron though I guess that if there are parallel universes there could be alternative facts. However, given the available science, I’m going to stick with the premise that even if there are other universes this is the only one I occupy, a fact is a fact, and that’s the fact, Jack!

Now that the Trumpeteers have left the room, let’s turn to wine. Earlier in February in a Decanter article, the eminent wine author Hugh Johnson proposed calling “natural wine” “alternative wine,” alternatively. A number of folks in the natural wine world were none too pleased. Alice Feiring gave a swift response. It came up in conversations I had with a couple of people but as my attention has been more focused on what is happening in our country and the world at large I didn’t give it much thought. However, as “alternative” is now being used ad nauseam, I’ve been thinking more about its usage and how it is wrongfully applied. William Safire, I could use you now.*

 

Definitions evolve and change over time so first, what does alternative mean in 2017? Alternative can be an adjective, verb or noun. I referenced the definition from both American and British sources.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, alternative in the adjective form, which is how Johnson uses it, means:

  • Offering or expressing a choice.
  • Different from the usual or conventional such as
    1. existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social or economic system <an alternative newspaper, alternative lifestyle>
    2. of, relating to, or being rock music that is regarded as an alternative to conventional rock and is typically influenced by punk rock, hard rock, hip-hop, or folk music or of, relating to, or being music of a genre other than rock that is similarly regarded as an alternative to the conventional music of that genre <alternative country>
    3. of or relating to alternative medicine <alternative therapies>
  • Occurring or succeeding by turns.

Here’s the Oxford English dictionary’s definition:

  • Attributive (of one or more things) available as another possibility or choice. ‘the various alternative methods for resolving disputes.’
  • (of two things) mutually exclusive. ‘the facts fit two alternative scenarios.’
  • Relating to activities that depart from or challenge traditional norms. ‘an alternative lifestyle.’
  • One of two or more available possibilities. ‘audio cassettes are an interesting alternative to reading,’ ‘she had no alternative but to break the law.’

OK, who uses audio cassettes as an example these days? Oxford needs a bit of an update.

The word alternate comes from the Latin “alternare,” which means interchange. If we are going to be originalists, that would mean alternative facts are interchangeable and that the “alt right” is the same as the “right” and as I have some self-professed right-wing friends I truly hope this is not the case. That would also mean that alternative wine is the same as wine. Since “alternative” first came into the English language sometime around 1580, I think we can let this slide.

It would be easy to take the stance that since natural wine came before *conventional* (synthetically influenced) wine, natural wine is the norm. As follows, everything else should be called “alternative wine.” However, since the majority of wine has been made with chemicals somewhere if not everywhere along the line for six decades, Johnson seems to feel that the appropriate term for natural wine is actually “alternative wine.”

 

The Decanter article starts out with this supposition, “Can you send a ‘natural’ wine back because it’s horrible to drink or have you implicitly accepted the possibility and committed yourself to paying when you ordered it?” Is this not true of any bottle you order? Unless it is corked, you’re rolling the dice if it is a wine you’ve never tried. Even if you have, there is bottle variation. We may also ask, “Can you send a highly sulfured wine back because you feel an SO2 headache coming on with one whiff?” Still, Johnson is not implying that all natural wines are horrible, not yet.

He states, “Wine depends on certain assumptions (of clarity, stability and a balance between strength, sweetness and acidity) and the sort of conventions enshrined in appellation systems.” A major reason why so many French natural winemakers are bottling as Vin de France is because the AOCs throughout the country have clung to a rigid idea that conventional wine is the benchmark, and anything else is not worthy of the AOC name. Johnson continued, “Natural’ doesn’t come into it; these are works of craftsmanship; even, occasionally, art. Does a winemaker, then, have the right to sell me something that ignores, or flouts, the winemaking conventions that I rely on?”

Hold on right there. Isn’t so much of art about flouting conventions? True, he says, “If I go to an art gallery, the evidence is before my eyes: I can see, judge and not buy.” Art is also about placement and viewing a painting in a gallery is not the same as having it in your home. Another form of art, film, is just as subjective as wine. If you go to see a silent, foreign, experimental or otherwise outside of the mainstream movie should you dismiss the entire genre as lesser if you did not enjoy watching it?

When people purchase wine it is understood that they cannot sample from the bottle, at least with rare exceptions. This is true no matter how the wine was made and I think wine drinkers are as likely to be disappointed by conventional wine as they might be pleasantly surprised by a natural wine. 

Furthermore, what he says is akin to claiming that Nestle (which is made from sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, milkfat, soy lecithin, natural flavors – whatever the fuck that means) is the standard for chocolate and the artisan who makes chocolate with pure ingredients – cocoa, cocoa butter or oil, sugar – is doing something different that is not as real based on the accepted convention. The problem is that when convention twists the original meaning to the point where it loses authenticity it becomes a falsehood. When the main ingredient is sugar should you still be calling it a chocolate bar or a sugar bar? 

Hugh Johnson's Modern Encyclopedia of Wine

Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encyclopedia of Wine

 

I respect Johnson. His books on wine have made enormous and lasting contributions. I bought his Modern Encyclopedia of Wine 30 years ago, before I got into the industry and think everyone who works with wine should have a copy. However, I also believe that he and millions of consumers have been duped by the chemical companies as well as growers and winemakers who have gone along with the second half of the 20th-century winemaking conventions, in essence pretending to be more of the authentic product than the unfettered version. As my friend Luc Ertoran from Terroir has said, maybe we should call everything that is not natural “shit wine?” In the post-war era, many people believed technology improved on nature. It hasn’t always worked out that way. There is no better example of this than the popularity of feeding babies with formula instead of breast milk. Draw your own conclusion.

Moving right along, Johnson harkens back to his younger days, “But I’ve also tasted ‘natural’ wines that remind me of Italy 50 years ago. Tipping grapes in the tub on the ox cart, breaking them up with a cudgel on the way back to the farm and leaving the rest to nature rarely had good results.”

It’s pretty clear that Johnson is using alternative not just to mean different but also to mean inferior. This is as derogatory as natural wine drinkers who think that all wines that are not naturally made are worthless.

 

The next question is why does Johnson’s opinion matter? In the way that history is written by the victors, those with power have an upper hand when it comes to influencing public opinion. Power leads to exposure; just look at how much media attention Trump got as soon as he announced he was running for president. It’s a vicious circle. I’m not comparing Johnson to Trump by any stretch of the imagination but the reason why Decanter interviewed him was because he is one of the most famous wine writers in the world; the guy has some clout, deservedly.  

Hugh Johnson is 77 years old so I assume that when he was first introduced to wine the chemicals that have become a staple in the industry – synthetic weed killers, fungicides, pesticides, commercial yeast, enzymes as well as many other additives – were already well on their way to becoming standard usage for many wineries. We are all a product of our times to one degree or another, at all levels of our consciousness.

Johnson, along with Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, (Jancis is generally more open minded about natural wine) have been the leading voices in the wine industry over the last three decades. Johnson’s influence goes back even further and insofar as GenXer’s are concerned, he has not had as much of an impact as Parker or Robinson. However, many from my generation share Johnson’s views and are even less accepting of natural wine, in part because they have been if not directly influenced by Johnson, they were swayed by his generation that had little tolerance for “flaws” such as brettanomyces and volatile acidity. It has resulted in a narrow-mindedness that sometimes borders on disparaging the youngins, who are more open to natural wine. There is a pervasive attitude that is a crotchety marriage of, “Kids these days” and “Get off my lawn!”

 

The loudest voice for natural wine in the United States belongs to Alice Feiring. For many, she is a guru. Whether you agree with her or not, Feiring is widely respected by natural winemakers throughout the world and her influence is YOOOGE! However, among the general wine drinking population, she is not as well known. Outside of natural wine, there are many drinkers, especially older GenXers and the Baby Boomers, who don’t even know who she is. To the contrary, I think I can safely say that the majority of Millennials who drink natural wine know about Parker and the Wine Spectator, even if they pay little attention to what they say. As natural wine becomes more mainstream, Feiring will almost certainly have a larger platform and wider reach. She is on the right side of history. Some may paint her as an extremist but I hardly see her that way. She is principled but doesn’t blindly love all natural wine and importantly, is not afraid to call out sloppy wine making. 

Johnson is entitled to call natural wine whatever he wants but I don’t think it is going to change what people call it or even how it is perceived. Those who are paying attention to this debate are either interested in natural wine and are likely siding with Feiring’s views or already have their mind made up about natural wine in the negative and are going to agree with Johnson. As said, in the long run, Feiring is going to have a greater say because natural wine is not going away.

 

As far as politics are concerned, the far-right and white supremacist use of the term alt-right, combined with the notion of alternative facts is not going to fly either. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time and I think more of us – even more Trump voters – are now on to them. We live in very troubling times. I thought Reagan was upsetting and W was awful but I never worried about the future of our country as I do now. Despots use double speak and are very adept at manipulating people. Of course, we should always challenge the accepted order, question what we are told is the truth and not accept anything at face value. But facts are facts, the end. Kyrie Irving, you need to accept that the world is not flat. If it were, you’d fall off shooting a trey. You’d make it, maybe even draw a foul, but have a broken ankle and miss the playoffs. 

 

I listed the very similar definitions given by two of the authorities of the English language. Neither one says anything about alternative being a euphemism (alt right) or a justification for putting falsehoods on an equal plane with undisputed facts (alternative facts). Johnson’s use of the word is tempered by a negative tone. Taken on its own it meets the definition but, as applied to natural wine, not the times. The only people who might start using the term alternative wine instead of natural wine are a minority who, like the white men presently running this country, are diminishing in numbers. So while some of us may not agree with Johnson’s statements, I think it is really no more than irksome. Semantics are important but in this case, I don’t see where it is going to have a major impact. Alternatively, we have much bigger things to worry about and not just semantically. 

  • David Adelson also called out to Safire in this article on “alternative rock.” http://articles.latimes.com/1993-12-05/entertainment/ca-64447_1_alternative-rock. Regardless of his politics, I miss his writings on language, in his Times Magazine column, appropriately titled, “On Language.”