This review first appeared in 205food.com
Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking is a title one might expect to find on an academic paper, presented at an obscure symposium, or perhaps at a wine industry conference. It is a yawner, isn't it? The book itself is not. The first and last portions of Authentic Wine, which try to define authentic wine and how it might be promoted, are not always well thought out. The authors' commitment to natural wine making sometimes seems a bit shaky, and their proposals rather naive. But in between the mildly polemical chapters is the broader portion of the book, more scientifically based, with interesting observations on such diverse topics as terroir, vine grafting, wild vs. cultured yeasts, and how to make wine without sulfur additions.
Did you know?
* The concept of "minerality" in wine is almost certainly a misnomer, since vines cannot absorb the aromas or flavors of blue slate, chalk or any of the other soil types wine lovers praise. What is described as "minerality" is more likely a combination of high acidity and volatile sulfur compounds, perhaps with an assist by the yeast Brettanomyces.
* Robert M. Parker, who has been accused of promoting "inauthentic wine" is a part owner of Beaux Frères, a biodynamic winery.
* A 2008 survey of pesticides in wine found that every bottle of wine made from conventionally farmed grapes contained pesticide residues. While the levels may not be injurious to public health, wouldn't no trace (as in nearly all of the organic wines tested) be preferable?
* Producing a wine without sulfur dioxide may be somewhat risky, but is much less so if the fruit is high in quality, hand picked, has high acidity, sufficient tannin, and remains on its lees for an extended period. Good handling practices in the winery, high quality closures, and refrigerated shipping further reduce the possibility of oxidation or spoilage.
* Of the 800 or so flavor components in wine, at least 400 are produced by yeasts. Thus the flavor of wine itself can be manipulated to some degree by using engineered yeast strains. For natural wine makers using ambient yeasts, most of the work is one by only one strain, S. cerevisiae.
* Clark Smith, whose company Vinovation was the leading practitioner of reverse osmosis in the United States , believes that 45 percent of California wines are alcohol adjusted.
Leaving the world of facts, figures, and science, on which the authors are on firm ground, we enter a grayer area, namely, how do we decide what constitutes natural or authentic wine? The authors profess to be advocates for natural and authentic wine and who can doubt it given the title of the book? They take a "This I Believe" stance halfway through:
We believe that there are plenty of natural wines on the market that confirm that with the right level of attention to detail and intervention when needed, natural wine can always (my emphasis) be better quality, more interesting wine.
Yet, despite this pledge of faith to natural wine making, there is no "rah-rah, let's go natural wine makers!" in this book. They seem very wary, even a bit spooked, by the dangers of natural winemaking. Take for instance this bombshell, the last paragraph of Chapter Nine, dropped without elaboration:
Aside from quality, there's another issue to consider: health... Research shows that potentially carcinogenic compounds such as ethyl carbamate and ochratoxin A can be provided at higher levels in spontaneous MLFs (malolactic fermentations --my addition). This may be a factor to consider in choosing whether or not to allow a natural MLF.
In short, you, the natural winemaker might be responsible for another case of cancer, but not if you had used enzymes to control the MLF.
At other points in the book the authors use slippery logic or provide convenient rationales for practices that natural wine lovers abhor. Consider the following:
If a grower is stuck in a position where he or she is forced to choose between flavor development and sensible alcohol levels, whatever he or she does in the vineyard, might this justify the use of alcohol reduction technologies as a last resort? They do sound horridly manipulative... but the tantalizing possibility remains that wines that speak more eloquently of their origins... could be realized by the use of these tools.
This portion of the text is immediately followed by a quote from Randall Grahm, self-professed former user (of reverse osmosis) and "Jesus Units" (adding water to wine) who now decries the practices. Yet, the "tantalizing possibility" is not refuted by the writers themselves.
In discussing the problem of Brettanomyces, a strain of yeast that can lead to "off" flavors in wine, Goode and Harrop argue that
... inoculating with lactic acid bacteria for malolactic fermentation is advisable, and after it is complete, it's a good idea to add a dose of SO2, to protect the wine for the rest of its time in barrel or tank. Coinoculation with cultured strains of yeast and lactic acid bacteria has shown good results and may be of help here.
If these two are in the vanguard of the natural wine movement, does it have a future?
Apart from the technical issues of winemaking (a strong point of the book), two other issues are prime concerns. What should we call naturally made wine that respects the environment? How do we promote the production of naturally made wine? The answer to the first question can be found in the book's title. "Authentic Wine" is not only the preferred term; the authors get very ambitious, wondering --
Would it be possible to pool resources and create... a globally recognized standard for sustainable viticulture that is based on common standards and delivers a consistent marketing message? We believe that even more powerful would be an umbrella term, "authentic wine," with a single logo and message...
The "authentic wine" is naturally made, fault free, and expresses a sense of place. But it is more than that. It is also produced using environmentally sensitive techniques (e.g. reducing carbon emissions) through sustainable viticulture. These goals seem laudable and extremely ambitious. But what about the term "authentic wine?"
The nominal definition of authentic is "genuine" or "real." But all wine is real in some sense of the word, isn't it? All wine is made from fermented fruit, falls into a certain alcohol range, is contained in wine bottles, and so on. The true difference between the words "authentic", "genuine" and "real" is that most of us associate authenticity with the seal of approval of an organization or an expert. An art historian decides whether a painting is authentic. A committee in France decides whether a bottle of Savennières is an authentic wine of that region. So the term "authentic wine" would depend on the creation of some type of bureaucratic apparatus to certify the wines as authentic.
Would this be a good thing? Would the creation of such an organization tear the wine industry apart (My wine is authentic, yours is... "unauthentic")? Would it produce standards that are too lenient, given the need for all producers to agree on a single rule? Both of these outcomes seem quite likely. The current messy melange of "biodynamic", "salmon safe", "organic", "certified sustainable" and so on doesn't look so bad.
Before the dawn of "authentic wine" and a single set of standards, the authors have an interesting solution to the natural wine "problem," namely, better marketing. After admitting that "neither of us is a marketing expert," they nevertheless make an interesting point, that "...the New World has performed better than the Old World in sophistication and effectiveness of marketing activity..." But wait, isn't the Old World the locus for most organic and biodynamic winemaking?
Goode and Harrop have lots of advice to offer "key industry stakeholders." All of these stakeholders should know that "the millenials herald the demise of the supreme wine critic." Natural winemakers should realize they have the "best story to tell." Grocery stores need to "practice restraint in their cost cutting and margin hunting in the wine category." Specialist retailers must "sell the story, the point of difference, the experience."
Apart from the fact that much of their advice is glib and sometimes even silly or condescending, there are two curious omissions from the list of wine industry stakeholders, namely consumers and the government. Are not consumers "stakeholders" in the wine industry? Increasing numbers of us cast our votes for natural wine. But in this book "the majority of consumers lack understanding of what wine is, let alone what wine might be." In short, consumers need to be told what is good, through effective marketing.
It is especially odd that almost nothing is said about the role of government. Have they no suggestions for the U.S. TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) and its often bizarre wine labeling rules? Are not consumers entitled to a list of ingredients in a given wine, even if this list is only posted on the web? Shouldn't the TTB require winemakers to print the true alcohol levels on their bottles?
The belief of Goode and Harrop in natural and sustainable winemaking seems beyond doubt, and much of the scientific discussion in the book is extremely interesting. Yet, their willing exploration of ways to twist the logic of natural winemaking and to turn the advancement of natural wine into a marketing game is a bit creepy, even distressing. If this is their mantra, I for one favor the current state of chaos. Let's put our faith in wine consumers who, one by one, purchase bottles of natural wine and spread the word.