What Would Duchamp Say About Natural Wines?
My friend, Jake Halper of Field Blend Selections, tagged me in a comment on Instagram that was part of an Ordinaire feed inspired by a post Jon Bonné wrote on Punch that apparently many felt was disparaging about natural wine. Follow that? His premise was that there is a lot of natural wine that is “flawed” be it from volatile acidity, brettanomyces, mousiness (which causes a popcorn like flavor) and other winemaking faults. Jon postulated that many natural wine drinkers have gotten used to the qualities created by the faults and think that’s just the way that natural wine is and that it’s acceptable.
He is not the only one who thinks this is a problem for natural wine. This has been an on-going discussion for years. Denyse Louis, a pioneer of natural wine importing in this country, said something very similar when I interviewed her in May. Here’s the excerpt:
PSB: Do you think it’s easier to sell flawed wines now?
DL: Absolutely. The kind of flaws you get in natural wines, lots of people think are wonderful because that’s how natural wines are supposed to taste. Funky.
PSB: What do you think about that?
DL: No, I think it’s wrong. I’m not saying people are wrong. If they like that maybe their palate has been developed like that but it’s not good wine. If you want good wine that really has clarity, it’s wrong to take flaws as a real characteristic of natural wine. It’s like a beginners mistake.
Marcel Duchamp said, “It’s art if I say so.” I can draw on a box and call it art. You can ferment grapes and call it wine. Who is to say what’s good? Who is to say what’s faulty? Everyone has a right to his or her opinion but to make a generalization, a lot of the way natural wine is perceived is generational, which leads to another Duchampism, this time in reference to pop art. “It’s entirely a new revolutionary spirit, as it should be. Every twenty-five years a new spirit brings up some new men and expresses new ideas completely unknown before, not influenced directly by the preceding movement at all.”
Millennials did not invent natural wine nor were they the first to buy them yet they have embraced it to a much greater degree than GenXers or Baby Boomers probably, in part, because they came of age during a time when overripe and highly manipulated crap was en vogue. It’s fair to say that natural wine has been influenced by previous popular trends, but in a reactive way. However, what is considered acceptable and even desirable has also veered off into uncharted territory, at least for the length of time that I’ve worked with wine. For instance, what is now called “glou glou” would have been and in a lot of older circles still is dismissed as thin and insipid.
When I hear people I’ve known for decades dissing natural wine, they remind me of the old person screaming at the kids, “Get off my lawn.” Shouldn’t we be open-minded, not territorial about what constitutes a good wine? I’m not talking so much about people like Jon and Denyse who are proponents of natural wine but others who are blinded by skepticism and even ignorance. Honestly, there are plenty of good, well-known restaurants with wine lists that if not for the vintage changes seem as if they were created in 2005. Are buyers being narrow-minded or lazy? More and more, I find myself wanting to bring wine into restaurants which, as a wine list consultant and former restaurateur, I don’t like to do.
There is a lot of shitty natural wine. But, there is a lot of shitty wine made, period. There is conventional wine that is great and might be even better if it was made naturally. I started drinking Foradori’s wines in the early 90’s before Elisabetta transitioned to natural viticulture and vinification and they were very good then but I think they’ve reached greater heights and have more depth now. There are wines that are made without SO2 additions that are clean and glorious, such as AmByth’s, but there are just as many zero-zero* wines that are bacterial infestations. If people want to drink these wines, who cares? There is beauty in imperfection and who is to say what’s imperfect beyond the norm?
To be sure, there is myopia on both sides. If “flawed” wines are the only wines people drink, they too are missing out on a lot. It is not hard to find folks in the natural wine world who are outright dismissive of wines that do not fit into a narrowly defined set of parameters and may even consider the flaws to be attributes. Again, everyone has a right to think what they want but a lot of people drink the proverbial Kool-Aid, swallow and regurgitate the dogma, no questions asked because they’re comfortable in the echo chamber. It’s scary how many people are followers and are afraid to go against the powerful/popular people or grain. In the larger scheme of things, conformity in the wine world is the least of our problems. Yet in every sphere, this is part of the human condition and it takes people such as Duchamp to shake things up. Whether or not you agree with what Jon said, I commend him for stating his opinion as he raised a good point. But I equally appreciate the feedback from those who disagree with him. Questioning, self-evaluation and self-criticism are necessary, at least in my book, if you want to be taken seriously and that goes for everybody.
So long as you’re alive and able to drink and think, embrace new stuff and especially, if you work in the business, you should make it your business to taste and learn as much as you can about all wines. We all have our preferences but you won’t grow if you don’t leave your comfort zone. Natural wine might be your jam but familiarizing yourself with conventionally made wines will give you a broader context in which to place the wines you most appreciate and love. I’m not saying go out there and guzzle the industrial poison but you can find wines such as Matthiasson’s that are farmed with integrity though not always organically, but at the same time are inoculated and sulfured. And at some point, everyone should try the poison, especially if you’re knocking it; a few sips won’t kill you.
Those who eschew natural wines are limiting themselves and missing out on a lot of great juice, some that even objectively speaking have “faults.” The truth is that all of us have been drinking some natural wines for years, aware of it or not. Château Musar is a case in point and it is riddled with volatile acidity. You can call it faulty if you want and I know people who don’t like it because they are very sensitive to VA yet even among the most stodgy, old fashion wine drinkers it is considered one of the world’s best wines.
I don’t expect every wine I order to be delicious. I’m ok with that. I don’t always go to movies to be entertained. There is something to be said for a really disturbing film that you think about for days, even years afterward. I realize I’m not the average wine consumer and the delicious factor is very high up there for most people – myself included – but delicious comes in many flavors.
We all have a right to express our feelings about a subject and try to impart our knowledge and expertise. Yet people need to figure out for themselves what they like and that means being exposed to different points of view but not taking anyone’s word as the gospel, trying a lot of different wines, keeping an open mind and turning down the noise.
And on that note, this October will be 50 years since Duchamp’s death but his irreverence and independence made an indelible mark and not just on the art world. Happy New Year to all…I’m concerned about the direction we’ve been heading in as a country over the last year but at least there are artists, including winemakers, who are still able to work freely and we shouldn’t take that for granted.
- Zero-zero wines are made without any additions, not even added SO2.