On purity cults and arbitrary gatekeeping

A confession:

For much of my professional wine life I have succumbed to dogma.

First, it was the basic, acceptable opinions of WSET and the commercial world.

Then, when I discovered more traditional, low-intervention methods, I swung hard into that.

It was a lot of seeking "The Right Way". Because that's intoxicating. And it makes you feel like an intrepid discoverer of treasure that almost no one else knows about.

Perhaps you've felt the same at some point on your wine journey.

But in 2021, I've been revisiting producers I used to drink a lot of, then abandoned for the (admittedly) newer Instagram phenoms. I've also been asking more trusted friends (other industry experts) for advice, and then diving headfirst into the juice without worrying about where the producer fell on the latest and greatest purity-test scale.

Recently I was trying samples, whether to feature in tastings, or promote through Crushable.

Going back and forth with the winery, they mentioned that they included one SKU simply for completeness, but "you probably won't want to feature it, as it's not done with wild yeast."

It's a very tasty wine and exceedingly well-made. Of course I want to feature it. Had I really presented myself as that inflexible?

Sadly, I encounter naysayers, non-believers and general holier-than-thou hippie snobs on the regular, and admittedly, I often find natural wine enthusiasts to be more dogmatic than their conventional counterparts.

Suspicion of whether certain wines are actually natural hang like a bad stench, entire regions are written off because no one cares about them, and ignorant sermons - masqueraded as wisdom - wax on about sulphites, proliferating a belief that any amount is sacrilege.

Of course I love the idea of biodynamic vineyards producing fruit that is fermented with wild yeast and bottled unfined and unfiltered with no additions. When someone can pull it off and it produces delicious, unflawed wine, it's wonderful. But if there is a logical reason why the winemaker felt it best to guide the process, and the results are obviously solid, then I would be crazy to not enjoy them.

I try a lot of wine, and truthfully, a lot of it is bad, which makes the really delicious wines all the more enjoyable - and some of those gems are wines that have had some interventions done to them - and so what? A bad wine is not bad because of one wrong move - often, it's a series of poorly calculated, unsound decisions, and the flawed wine is a result of a cumulation of those poor choices.

That's why the term is "low" intervention, not "when we left in summer there were grapes, and when we returned in fall there were little puddles of wine on the ground that we bottled directly".

It reminds me of a winemaker who once told me about their out of touch winery owner, who naively assumed the grapes got picked, thrown in a bin, and the wine "just made itself". What a notion!

I'd like to think that one of the benefits of you taking my recommendations and reading this blog, is that I provide a service to vet the line between reasonable intervention and soulless extraction of place and time.

A final example of the ongoing balancing act:

In Burgundy, chaptalization (pre-ferment addition of sugar) is extremely common.

French wine reviewer, William Kelley, says the local joke after harvest -- upon seeing the giant bags of sugar being delivered -- is to say "looks like Grandma is making a lot of jam...".

William agrees the category of natural wine has taken this idea of "purity" a little too far - addressing the need for nuance in his recent piece "Wine’s Naturalistic Fallacy: Thoughts on Style and Site Expression", where he shares, "...the winemaker is faced with an almost infinite variety of combinatory choices; in practice, the constraints of logistics and the conventions of tradition limit options to a more manageable range."

The process of chaptalization is fairly tried and true, and has aided in the production of some of the most iconic bottles of wine on earth.

But, often it's not a matter of adding sugar or not. It's a matter of adding sugar versus adding acid.

Producers picking based on acidity may end up with a lower potential alcohol than they want. And so, they chaptalize to slightly raise the alcohol levels. Many prefer to pick early and add sugar, rather than pick late and add acid. Their experience shows them that the sugar addition (which does not in any way make a sweeter wine) enhances the final product, whereas the addition of acid detracts.

I often come to this crossroads when I drink Champagne - it seems certain categories (simply by being so delicious) are branded with a "get out of jail free card" by natural wine lovers: they happily set their virtue aside in place of a too good to pass up glass of bubbles.

Wine writer Josh Dunning put it best in recent article, "Demystifying additives in winemaking and viticulture" where he muses, " An unfortunate byproduct of growing public concern has been that unscrupulous charlatans are more able to sensationalize harmless additives and capitalize upon unsuspecting consumers."

Ultimately, as I harp on endlessly, I'm looking for a nuanced approach to winemaking from transparent producers.

As you head into the weekend, I hope you've got some drinks lined up with the Goldilocks (just right) level of guidance.

What do you plan to open?


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