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The Frank Prial Fellowship

Two weeks ago I attended the 11th annual Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium. During dinner on the last night each of the Symposium fellowship winners were named, and I discovered I won the Frank G. Prial Fellowship, an award given to the writer whose application submissions scored top honors from the judges.

Frank Prial Fellowship, with Linda Reiff + Jim Gordonwith Linda Reiff and Jim Gordon at the end of the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium

My submission pieces included an in depth profile in World of Fine Wine on Varner and Neely wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains, and a cover story for Wine & Spirits on intentionally growing rosé in California. Following is an interview of me by Luke Sykora for Wine & Spirits Magazine online asking me to talk more in depth about writing about wine, what led me to wine, my wine drawings and more.

To read the interview, check it out here at Wine & Spirits: http://www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/S=0/news/entry/elaine-chukan-brown-wins-frank-prial-fellowship

 

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Billy Collins on Writing

Last week Billy Collins addressed the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium in a key note address with his thoughts on writing. Following are some ideas he shared.

What it Means to Write

In considering various forms of writing, Collins admitted to differences in his level of comfort versus insecurity. “The prose writer in me is riddled with insecurity. The poet is not.”

In explaining the practice of writing, Collins hit home with a reference to Thomas Mann. He gave the entire room a good laugh with this one. It is far too true. “As Thomas Mann said, a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

Collins used a point from W.H. Auden on how to recognize when your writing is complete. “W.H. Auden compared writing to cabinet making – the just rightness about the words.”

Considering Poetry

Later Collins continued the comparison of forms of writing. “Poetry and prose, for me, are like two different musical instruments.”

As a poet, he explored that approach further, using it to give insight to writing in general. “Poetry offers the highest level of imaginative freedom of any writing. It doesn’t have to stick to its topic.” And, “The poet seeks to get lost in the woods of his own imagination.”

He considered, finally, how the means of concluding a piece gives insight to the method of the whole. “All poems are about one thing – how do you get out of there? That can be extended to all writing, I think. The conclusion is about reaching that point where you have nothing else to say, and the reader doesn’t want to read anymore.”

Part of Collins point in exploring poetry was to encourage us as writers to pull inspiration from beyond the walls of wine writing. How? Collins suggested that the conventions of wine writing could be improved, or undone, by interjecting the conventions of other writing forms. He offered several tips, and examples, some drawing too from other styles of writing.

Wine As Discovery

“Start out writing about something other than wine so then wine comes in as a sort of discovery.”

“If you get the reader to accept something simple at the beginning of the piece, they’ll be more willing to accept something more complex later. […] Once you’ve established something human at the beginning of the piece, you’ve established absolute authority.”

“Be an interesting speaker.”

The Love of Strangers

Collins considered for a moment writers’ relation to others first by referencing American Essayist Roger Angell. “Roger Angell said, that’s what writing is all about, the love of strangers.”

Collins continued the idea by taking a look into why writers write. “We have people all around us that love us but their love is often incomplete. So, we seek out the love of others – strangers.”

He used the idea of seeking attention from others to drive home a fundamental point about what makes some writing work – we are all in a sense alienated. Writing, when it works, becomes a site to connect with others. How?

“We can always assume the indifference of readers. To get over that indifference, move off into other topics. Have some drift in your writing.” The drift becomes what Collins called our “something human” that gives us authority in the piece. Not in the sense of dominating the reader, but in the sense of pulling them in.

Building a Scene

Collins considered other ways to pull the reader in by again turning to other forms of writing. “Writers of novels do not proceed by explanation. They proceed by scene-by-scene construction. It is certainly good to begin with a scene. All sorts of things can happen in a scene. Is it raining? Put some rain in there.”

Collins considered advice from Nelson Algren. “Make them laugh. Make them cry. But most of all make them wait.”

Collins then riffed on Algren’s point by considering again conventions from other forms of writing. “Plant a suspense scene or clue in the beginning, then go to describing the weather, or the scenery outside the window.”

The Writer’s Ego and Interest

As he continued, he referenced Joan Didion and her technique of borrowing stylistically from fiction to deliver her non-fiction prose. He also pointed to a more extreme example, Hunter S. Thompson, in which “the reporter replaces the subject of the story. They inject their ego into the story.”

In describing that generation’s styles of reporting where the journalist suddenly became (overtly) integral to the reporting, he joked, “Everyone wrote like an only child.”

Finally, Collins turned the attention back to the state of the writer while writing. “Keep yourself interested. If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep anyone else up at night. You have to make yourself a stranger to your own writing. Step back from each paragraph, and ask, would a stranger be interested in this?”

***

For Amy and Meg.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

 

 

Writing as Writers

selfishly stolen from Michael Alberty who no doubt selfishly thieved it from someone elseLast week wine writers and editors from around the world flew to Napa Valley for the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium to learn together how to better our work as writers.

We were urged by Dave McIntrye, wine writer of the The Washington Post, to remember that wine is the adjective that modifies the noun writer. Our job first is to write well.

Will Lyons of the Wall Street Journal urged, “If you want to keep your writing fresh, you need to read widely.” Then, continuing, he chided lightly, “keep your writing fresh, enthusiastic, and bright, but that will only get you so far. You also have to research.”

Writing About Wine

Turning specifically to our work as writers of wine, S. Irene Virbila, food critic and wine reviewer of The Los Angeles Times, pushed into the personal, advising us, “find a way to go back to that emotional core when you first discovered wine. Give people that experience somehow.”

For Virbila, one way to accomplish that is to consider that we “have a relationship with wine. It is not the same with every sip.” (Cathy Huyghe explores this idea in her review of a fictitious good wine below.)

As lovers of wine, that relationship is no small piece. Our love of wine pulls us back again and again, elongating those moments of our nose in the glass. We can deliver that intimacy to our readers but go too far and our work becomes too precious.

Considering her work writing for a general audience in a daily newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, Virbila reminded us to “never forget how many people never think about wine.” In a position like that of a newspaper wine writer, she explained that we are asked to “convince a wider audience why they should even be interested in wine.”

Remembering Relevance

Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, reminded us at the end of his keynote speech that for writing about wine to be accessible to that broader audience we must remove it from its privileged lifestyle.

Wine becomes relevant when we take it out of the wealth and comfort of the finest wine country, and return it to the tables of any home.

To explicate, Collins (half joking) pointed to the most relevant of writing, the obituary. “I know obituaries very well,” he said, “better than wine.” His point, ultimately, “break that circle. Reach a non specialist audience.”

The Billy Collins Writing Challenge

Finally, Collins presented the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium with a writing challenge. The point was to generate quality writing while also making fun of our own conventions.

The assignment? He invited every attendee (there were 50 of us, along with 20 or so speakers and coaches) to write an over-the-top wine review for an imaginary wine in one or both of two categories.

(1) A good review for a wine that gives “spiritual transcendence,” is “orgasmic,” and “life transforming.”

(2) A bad review for “an absolutely damning” wine “demeaning to your spirit”

At the end of the week he selected both a 1st and 2nd place winner for each category. Here they are.

Over the Top Wine Reviews

Billy Collins Writing Challenge Bad Asseswinners of the Billy Collins Writing Challenge
from left: me, Fred Swan, Billy Collins, Kort van Bronkhorst, Cathy Huyghe

Second Place: the Good Wine, Cathy Huyghe

In the glass, there is a nuance of color. On the nose, it evolves as time passes. It’s meant to. It’s meant to breathe, and expand and contract, and stretch its legs. There is something on the nose that rings a bell in my memory. In the mouth, it has something to say. It takes a stand. It has an opinion, and it is not afraid to say it. Sometimes it wants the spotlight — it earns it, and deserves it. But, over time, it takes a step back too, to self-deprecate, to tease, to hide, to beguile, to make me want to come back for more. And every time I do come back, every sip, is different. That too is how it’s meant to be. It leaves me with a taste in my mouth of, “Oh.” And “Oh. Yes, I get it.”

Second Place: the Bad Wine, Elaine Chukan Brown

Reeper Vineyards 2013 “Chariot” Sauvignon Blanc – pungent presentation of sea cucumber, grandma’s feet, and the dust from Shakespeare’s first edition. 14.5% $120

First Place: the Bad Wine, Fred Swan

It starts with a cringe-inducing, sphincter-puckering screech of rusty iron on rusty iron. Then comes impact: a sudden, heavy blow to the mouth. There’s the taste of blood and gravel, the feel of shattered glass on the tongue. Burning diesel, overturned soil and the pungent earthiness of one hundred pairs of pants filled by panic assault the nose. One’s throat burns and, eye’s watering, victims drag themselves along the floor looking for safety and water. The 2009 Chateau de Plonk is a a Bordelaise train wreck. 65 points.

First Place: the Good Wine, Kort van Bronkhorst

Toasted Head Cannabis Sauvignon

Oh Em Gee. This is a mind-blowing wine! Wooooooo! In the glass, it’s like a magenta kaleidoscope of shimmering, uh, wineness. On the nose, it reeks (and I mean that in a good way) of stoned fruits and wet earth. And if ever a wine was herbaceous, it’s this one. In the mouth, it turned my tongue into Playland at the Beach. Especially the Fun House. Yeah. Wow. Look at my head in that mirror! And Dudes, you really must pair this wine with food. Lots and lots of food. Like especially Taquitos, and Cheese Puffs, and that Munchie Pack that Jack in the Box serves after 11pm. Awright awright awright! Best of all, it’s only $4.20 a bottle, but I highly recommend getting a magnum so you can pass it around at your next party.

***

Thank you to Cathy, Fred, and Kort for letting me share their pieces here.

Funny thing. It occurs to me only now that Kort and I both wrote about Sauvignon though with entirely opposite reactions. Cheers!

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

Grimm's Bluff olives + vines looking into Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard & olive grove from the hilltop above, Nov 2014

Before he and his wife Aurora planted it, “this was all native grasses,” Rick Grimm tells me as I step onto their ranch, Grimm’s Bluff. Grimm’s Bluff stands at the southern most boundary of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA in Santa Ynez Valley. At 859 ft, the property lifts above the Santa Ynez River to the south, the rest cupped by the rolling hills of Happy Canyon.

We pass a large-ish personal garden as we head towards the vineyard. It looks to be a mix of flowers, and vegetables — aesthetic and produce plantings. A comical mix of spotted hens cluck after us briefly as we walk but stop before we reach the vines.

Establishing a New Vineyard

“We knew what type of wine we liked,” Rick Grimm explains, “but not how to grow it.” Happy Canyon itself proves one of the younger zones for vines in the county and includes an array of aspects, and elevations thanks to the varied hills and peaks that surround the canyon. Prior to establishing their site, the Grimm’s subzone of Happy Canyon had no vineyards.

Even vineyard companies through the region “didn’t know what would grow best,” Grimm explains, “since they hadn’t grown in this area.”

The Grimm’s reached out to celebrated winemaker Paul Lato for winemaking. His own label, Paul Lato Wines, has earned him regard from critics and wine lovers alike. Then they also connected with Philippe Coderey to help establish the vineyard. Coderey’s well-respected work in biodynamics includes tenure at sites ranging from Domaine M. Chapoutier in France, to Grgich Hills Estate in Napa, Tablas Creek in Paso, and Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley, among others.

Together, the team discussed their goals for style and expression while studying the property. They chose Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon as their varieties — two grapes that have done well in the appellation — then researched to best match clones and rootstock to site and intention.

“Paul had been tasting different clones,” Grimm says. “We researched what rootstocks would do well here. Then, it was, head trained, or, VSP? We chose both with some clones of each, and both rootstocks on both sides.” By diversifying planting within the property vintners mitigate their risk while also increasing knowledge of the site over time.

Biodynamic Farming 

Wishing to create the highest potential for quality through the health of the vines, the team established Grimm’s Bluff using biodynamics. While other vineyards in the region are farmed biodynamically, Grimm’s Bluff remains one of the few done so from the start. Integral to biodynamic principles is biological diversity.

“We have chickens.” Grimm says, referencing the hens that greeted us when I first arrived. “They’re part of our biodiversity element, but then Aurora turned them into pets so we’ve been considering other birds,” Grimm laughs. “Birds are like a walking insecticide.”

Besides vineyard, the Grimm’s have also planted olives, a personal garden, and wild flower insectariums. “Aurora does a lot of gardening,” Rick tells me. “She is good at seeing every part, and how it will fit into the big picture.” Her vision has helped guide the overall design for the property and their family home.

They’ve also kept both untouched and pasture land. By leaving uncultivated, and wild plant zones including forest, and natural transitions of scrub brush and grasslands, greater insect, and animal stability is held through greater plant diversity. The increased health of insect and animal populations helps balance the health of the vines as well. It’s a focus on the biology of not just the vine but its surrounding environment.

Pasture land with cattle helps the team’s need for organic compost. “We make all our own compost.” Grimm explains. “We started from day one making our own. It is difficult to make sure [purchased] manure is all organic with no antibiotics.”

The Stages of Light

RickGrimmsBlufflooking north into Happy Canyon from the top, with Rick Grimm, Nov 2014

Exploring the property with Rick Grimm, gives glimpse into intimacy with a special site. We stand now on the highest point of the site on a hill looking over the vineyard to our east, and the rest of Happy Canyon to our north. The view leaves us dumb for a time. Then, reflecting, Grimm slowly names four stages of the Bluff’s day.

“There is early morning mist on the lake, animals and birds everywhere,” he says, describing the ranch as the sun comes up. “Then, low morning light. The animals have left. There is still a lower, clear light but no mist.”

Finally we come to afternoon when the direction of everything switches in the Santa Ynez Valley. Thanks to the transverse mountain range that defines the valley with an open mouth to the ocean, the region’s wind moves in and out in regular daily rhythm. You can almost set a clock by when the coastal influence reaches your portion of the valley.

“Around 1 PM,” he says, “it’s the heat of the day, and the wind picks up. Then, there is evening. It’s totally clear. There are tons of stars. At night we’ll build a bonfire and just see the clear sky.”

The Wine the Site Gives

Rick and Aurora’s time with Grimm’s Bluff has begun to give fruit. The Grimm’s Bluff 2013 Sauvignon Blanc marks the first release for the project. They have also harvested and vinified their first Cabernet Sauvignon in 2014, yet to be released.

Descending the hillside back towards the vineyard, I ask Rick how he enjoyed bringing in the Cabernet for its first fruit.

“I’d never tasted Cabernet right after it’s been pressed, before it goes into barrel. Is it supposed to taste good?” He responds smiling. “When Paul offered me a taste, I thought he was joking. Then I tasted it and I thought, you know what? I could drink this.”

Grimm’s Bluff 2013 Sauvignon Blanc


Grimms Bluff 2013 Sauvignon click on image to enlarge

Grimm’s Bluff
Sauvignon Blanc
Grimm’s Bluff Vineyard, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

13.8%
3.27 pH
0.696 TA

all organic & biodynamic farming
clone 1 & musque clone, first fruit

$40
90 cases

Grimm’s Bluff 2013 Sauvignon Blanc delivers lifted aromatics, and a palate of mixed citrus — kefir lime, grapefruit, and hints of mandarin — in both fresh fruit and blossom all carried on a nice backbone of mouthwatering acidity, crushed oyster shell, and saline accents. Winemaker Paul Lato weds crisp focus with a creamy midpalate for a beautifully balanced wine — both refreshing and giving, lithe and supple. Ultra-long finish. Nicely flexible with food. Recommended.

***

To read more about Paul Lato, check out my previous interview with him: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/01/15/living-courage-paul-lato-wines/

I had the most striking photos of Grimm’s Bluff — it is a beautiful site — and of Rick and Aurora. Then my computer crashed and I lost them. Remember to back-up, dear ones.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

Champagne & Patisserie
An interview with Cheryl Wakerhauser of Portland’s Pix Patisserie
by Elaine Chukan Brown

Walk into Cheryl Wakerhauser’s red damask–walled Portland patisserie, and the first thing you’ll notice are the empty Champagne bottles surrounding counters filled with multicolored macarons, chocolates and fancy desserts. “Bubbles excite me,” Wakerhauser, owner and head chef of Pix Patisserie, tells me. “There are so many different styles—big and weighty, or bright and fresh, perfect for a summer patio.”

Wakerhauser began stocking Champagne to go with her pastries at Pix five years ago. Today she’s up to 400 selections, plus 100 other sparkling wines. Contrary to popular opinion, dry wines do just fine with dessert, she finds—when they are Champagne.

Cheryl Wakerhauser, image from Pix Patisserie website

The Champagne Connection
Champagne wasn’t in the plans when Wakerhauser started Pix in 2001. The restaurant began as a stand in the Portland Farmers’ Market, something to keep her busy after she lost her catering job in the post-9/11 economy. Within a year, Wakerhauser was doing well enough to open a fixed location, offering Belgian beer pairings to go with her French desserts.

“Belgian beers go great with pastries,” she explains. “I grew up in Wisconsin. Out there we drink beer. When I moved to Portland I didn’t know anything about wine.”

While out for a birthday her attention shifted. “Because we were celebrating, I ordered a split of Gaston Chiquet and a dozen oysters for the table. It was so delicious, we had a second round of both,” she says.

To read more, check out the rest of the article (including recipe, pairing tips, and video) at Wine & Spirits Magazine here: http://wineandspiritsmagazine.com/news/entry/champagne-patisserie

This article first appeared in W&S, December 2014.

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Coriston Cabernet 25 Vintage Vertical Tasting

Cathy Corison celebrates 25 years of her eponymous Napa Valley Cabernet with her current release of the 2011 vintage. In a special event hosted at the Corison winery some of us were able to taste all 25 vintages. 4 of the first 5 vintages were poured from magnum. The remaining 21 wines came from 750s.

It’s truly a special occasion to taste the complete portfolio of an iconic wine such as Corison Napa Valley Cabernet. To commemorate the tasting and Cathy’s work, an illustration of the 25 vintage vertical…

Congratulations on 25 beautiful years, Cathy!click on image to enlarge

Congratulations to Cathy Corison and the entire Corison team on 25+ years of excellence!

***

Post Edit:

By request, suggested drinking windows for the various vintages. At the time I did not record specific drinking windows but instead have just drink or hold impressions.

1987 – 1991: Drink
1992 – 2006: Drink or Hold
2007 – 2011: Hold

I would recommend drinking anything in the first five vintages now, and the next five vintages either now or within the next two to three years. Corison Cabernet readily ages well 18-20 years from what I can tell, and longer by vintage. The youngest five vintages are actually quite lovely currently but of course are young Cabernet. I like their expression quite a bit with all its freshness and taut focus but you’ll get much more out of holding them, if you have that option.

The original of the above image is drawn as a 19″x22″ wall piece.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

 

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La Clarine Farm 2013 Petit Manseng

La Clarine Petit Manseng 2013click on image to enlarge

La Clarine Farm
Petit Manseng 2013
Fenaughty Vineyard, Placerville, California

13.5%
dry
2.9pH
14.1 g/L acidity

six months ambient yeast fermentation
rested on lees until bottling in August

Aromatics and flavors of almond, apricot, pineapple juice and dried lemon with touches of anise, and a long sea salt finish. Screaming acidity, delicious fleshy texture, endlessly mouth watering. All about freshness. Pairs well with chicken, chicken pho, hard cheeses, grilled salmon, or black-eyed peas with pork belly.

31 cases bottled

p.s. Happy New Year! Cheers! See you back here Wednesday. Je suis Charlie.  

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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Happy Holidays from Jr & I

with Jrwith Jr this spring

It’s time to take my end of year break here on Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews. I’ll be slowing down my time on social media as well, only occasionally sharing updates from work elsewhere. You can still reach me by email.

In the meantime, I’ll be tidying up other work projects, and most importantly spending time with my little family — Jr, and our dear pets.

My heart goes out to those grieving the loss of loved ones this holiday season. My thoughts are with all of us as we face the unrest that comes with important change. May we each find our way forward to peace.

See you in 2015!

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I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air…. A riot is the language of the unheard.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In recognition of the mourning our nation continues to face after the Ferguson verdict, this week’s column has been postponed until next week.

May we all find within ourselves the courage, calm, and compassion needed to face these challenges honestly, and move forward for positive, equitable change.

My best to everyone who is enjoying time with family and friends during the holiday this week here in the United States.

***

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For those looking for ways to help, here are a few donation sites that can assist people in Ferguson.

Schools are closed right now in Ferguson. Donate to the Ferguson Public Library, which has remained open for area children. Every bit helps. http://ferguson.lib.mo.us/

Schools in the region suffer massive under-funding. Though schools are closed this week in the midst of the turmoil, they reopen after the holiday. Choose from a range of classroom projects to assist area teachers. http://www.donorschoose.org/help-right-now-in-ferguson?id=20522545&active=true

The Foodbank has greatly increased its aid in the Ferguson area to help people particularly affected by the events of this week. To learn more, visit the St Louis Food Bank website, and to donate write “Ferguson” in the comments section of your donation. http://stlfoodbank.org/

For those looking for more information on the reality of the situation, excellent, very real coverage can be found by Antonio French on Twitter. He is live tweeting events from Ferguson, while also retweeting information from others worth following. https://twitter.com/AntonioFrench

***

Post-edit:

Help small business bakery & shop looted during the Ferguson riots continue and rebuild: Natalie’s Cakes & More. http://www.gofundme.com/NataliesCakesnMore

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The Challenges of Natural Wine

One of the criticisms regularly leveraged against the so-called Natural wine movement is its lack of definition. Critics of the phenomenon repeat the point as a central proof of the movement’s lack of legitimacy.

Some writers, however, have also asserted that lack of definition could be an advantage. Eric Asimov takes up the subject through an article in 2012 and describes the lack of definition as “one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans” as they “refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument.” Part of the advantage means they can pursue what techniques best suit their motivations within the reality of what’s available to them.

In her book, Naked Wine, Alice Feiring considers a key trouble with Natural wine lacking definition. There she says, “The danger lurks in the word’s being legislature resistant and therefore easily commandeered by commercial wineries looking to keep their market share” (2011 31). Such an event would work against the roots of the Natural wine movement, which places itself against such commercial wineries.

Definitive to the origins of the Natural wine movement rests a defense against pollutants associated with large scale farming, and additives used in the cellar.

While organic and less-interventionist wines have been made for centuries, Natural wine as a movement took form precisely at the point industrialized farming and winemaking began to dominate entire regions. As Feiring describes, chemical farming took hold in France from the 1960s, with serious changes seen in the health of the land by the 1970s (2011 38). By the end of the 1970s, winegrowers in France were beginning to assert a position in viticultural politics. By 1982, the political position had expanded from producers to sales with Natural wine bars appearing.

Natural wine as a project moves outside France as well. It takes similar form in Italy, for example, where, like France, Natural winemakers tend to also grow their own grapes.

In the New World, it becomes more difficult to carry forward a comparable model of Natural wine. In California, for example, of those that assert themselves as Natural wine producers, few also control their own farming, though there are exceptions. It is simply a different sort of grape market. In such cases, an implicit gap between cellar and vineyard changes the politics of the movement, but also the reality of what winemaking activities a producer controls. While winemakers that source fruit may retain control of their fermentation, élevage, and bottling, many enjoy limited input on viticultural choices that produce their fruit. When possible, they can of course choose to work with farmers they trust.

Motivations and needs differ between origins as well.

Influential in the difference is a contrast in regulatory board. In France, regional control groups demand particular farming practices, rather than just claims of origin, as in the United States. For producers in France, then, a Natural wine movement arises from very real need to protect against what proponents see as legally enforced ecological damage. There Natural wine proves an actual fight, with producers facing court battles, and substantial fines.

In the United States, ecological damage also stands as a real concern but without such direct legislative weight. That said, Natural wine doesn’t belong to a particular region. It’s a global phenomenon that happens to take strong form in some areas thanks to specific laws and regulations.

At the same time such politics take place, many other producers have continued to make wine through essentially organic and less interventionist means without claiming to be part of a movement. The range of wines that eschew industrialized technologies proves, then, to be broader than those claiming membership in a cause.

It appears, then, difficult to find a cohesive idea of what Natural wine is.

Still, Feiring finds the word useful for how it gives the public “a general word to indicate the kind of wine it is looking for” pointing out that while there may be issues with natural as a concept it “is good enough” (2011 13).

While many critics of Natural wine would target Feiring at exactly this point, seeing such hand waving as exactly where the illegitimacy they keep repeating shows up, her point here, I take it, is precisely made. Natural gives us a general word to get at an idea. For any of us discussing the issue, whether we’re for or against or agnostic for Natural wine, referencing Natural wine as an idea is good enough. We all basically know what we’re talking about, even if not precisely. When we want and actually need to be more careful, we can do that.

What Being More Careful Looks Like

In truth, any definition of Natural wine does have a certain vagueness to it. The point, however, is that such ambiguity is not inappropriate to the subject, nor a lack of legitimacy. Further, we can do more to resolve it.

Winegrowers farming organically and then using less interventionist cellar techniques; winemakers reducing cellar input but purchasing grapes; and producers refusing the subject while using methods appropriate to the title of Natural wine — they’re all relevant to the discussion.

(In grape buying markets, there are also organic and/or biodynamic grape growers but the discussion of Natural wine seems defined by its product — wine. So, while these growers are crucial, they’re a different piece of the puzzle. Strictly speaking, I’m not excluding them. My point is only that organic grape growers not making wine are precisely that — growing grapes but not making wine. We need and want them. However, winemakers can purchase organically farmed grapes and then chapitalize or acidify, as examples, thus not making natural wines. When we discuss Natural wine, we’re discussing what’s in the bottle, even if also what got us there. So, I am not excluding the growers but in a grape sourcing market, the winemakers choose to use such grapes or not and they can clarify that for us in discussing their wines.)

Which of these you’re getting at, and how you’re considering their activities depends on what motivates your point to begin with. That is, what is your purpose or focus? The specifics, in other words, are provided by you.

Let me explain. There are various types of definitions. (For the sake of clarity, I do need to address what might seem like a purely lexical point, but I’ll be brief.)

For example, in discussing wine, located as I am in California, I often reference wines from this state. In doing so, it’s (basically) easy to understand what I mean as the boundaries of California itself provide my definition. I mean wines made from within the state of California, and let’s assume from grapes within the state as well.

In cases where an Arizona winery, for example, is making wine from California fruit trucked across state lines it doesn’t really make sense anymore to call such wine simply as “from Arizona”, nor only as “from California.” Boundaries have gotten mixed. The wine comes from California fruit made into wine by an Arizona winery. We have a specific idea when we say “from California.”

As an example of a different sort, I might refer to Napa Cabernet. In one sense, such an idea is rather straightforward as I could simply point to every example of a wine made by a California winery using and bottling Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Any one of them would count.

However, it is common these days for people in wine to refer to Napa Cabernet as a stylistic point referencing the riper, big boned, more extracted styles associated with the 1990s. Not all Cabernet made from Napa Valley during the 1990s fits this genre. However, whether we’re for or against this type of wine, we all basically know what we’re talking about when we refer to Napa Cabernet in this way, even if the edges of the category get a little smudgy.

In which of these two ways we intend to use the idea of Napa Cabernet usually gets cleared up by the context of our conversation. When it doesn’t, our point might get confused. That’s when it’s our job simply to clarify.

In the case of Natural wine, something else is happening. To sum up before I illustrate my point: we do generally know what we’re talking about when we talk about Natural wine; that is, there is a definition already. We just haven’t quite recognized it, partially because it’s just not the same sort as either of the previous examples.

In his 1953 book, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein puts forth a now famous account of what he calls family resemblance. He’d actually begun developing the idea decades prior, but it is in Investigations that it becomes well-known. The basic idea is simple. One of the key implications of Wittgenstein’s ideas is relevant here. It is this.

Wittgenstein pointed out that sometimes we expect things of the same type or definition to be joined by one common feature, all from California, for example, or, all of the same style, for another.

However, in many instances, a group of things or an idea are instead defined by overlapping similarities without one single feature common to all. Even so, however, we do still recognize and understand these overlapping similarities as a connected group. In such cases, asserting the group has no definition is a misunderstanding, rather than a genuine assertion of illegitimacy.

Here’s how it works.

Game Playing with Wittgenstein and My Family

When Wittgenstein discussed his idea he would often refer to the notion of similarity in families.

For example, my parents, my sisters, and I are all of the same family. My sisters and I have in common that we are each a daughter of our two parents. But my parents don’t share that similarity. They have in common that they are both parents of their three girls. My sisters and my dad share the trait of being obstinate, while my mom and I have in common often being right. (Just kidding. I thought we could use a laugh at this point.) There is no one common element that all five of us have in common, yet it is quite clear we are all from the same group.

As another of Wittgenstein’s famous examples, he looked at the notion of games. His point here was similar. That is, different games have a lot in common, but there is not one feature shared by all games. Wittgenstein describes games as a type of family.

We can take Wittgenstein up on this idea (as the entirety of Western thought has since) and consider too types of games, or parts of a family as a notion of subgroups.

Certain types of games might share more in common than another type of game. Card games are played with cards, while board games require a playing surface, for example. Similarly, my sisters and I have in common being the children of the family, while my parents share their being the parents.

In other words, there can be subgroups that share a resemblance not shared by all of the larger group, yet the subgroups together are parts of the larger group. Card games and board games are still both games, just not the same type. The children, and the parents are both part of the same family.

We can apply this idea to Natural wines.

Types of Natural Wine

As already discussed, there are different types of Natural wines.

(1) There are Natural wines made by grape growers that practice organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices, that then go on to practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives.

(2) There are winemakers that practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but that purchase their grapes.

(2a) We might want to add that they purchase organically and/or biodynamically farmed grapes but of those producers that have been included in the Natural wine community so far this is not true in every case. There we’ve been willing to allow Natural winemakers less defined by viticulture. It might be this forms two subgroups.

(2b) Some will likely want to exclude any wine made without essentially organic and/or biodynamic grapes all together.

(3) Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine.

Natural wine as a category includes each of the three types of wine. There is no one element shared by every single instance of Natural wine. However, that does not mean there is no definition, nor does it mean we do not know what we are talking about when we refer to the concept. We do. When we need more clarity, we can simply be more specific.

“I would like a grower-Natural wine,” for example, that is, like a grower Champagne, one made by the person that grew the grapes. “Let’s make a list of California’s Natural winemakers,” as another, that is, a list of Natural winemakers (of whatever subgroup) that make their wine in and from California. “Who is making Natural wine but not touting it as such?” as a third. In each case, we’re using that general term Feiring explains that gives us an idea of what we’re looking for, while also being just a bit more specific because we have a more specific need or sense of what we want.

Within these types of Natural wine we can also get more rule driven, when desired or appropriate. For example, organic and biodynamic viticulture have specific guidelines that are generally followed on principle for those that believe in such views, and must be followed for certification. In the cellar, Natural wine using few additives generally means nothing added to the grapes but sulfur, and being less interventionist doesn’t mean doing nothing, but does often include approaches like no invasive filtering, as examples.

For some critics, here is precisely where more rules should be drawn. It is not clear, however, that Natural wine is a rule driven category in that sense. It is in rules, rather than just definitions that the lawyerly argument takes hold, to reference Asimov’s point. There are ways to defend a demand for rules, but those are more case by case than general so I’m not going to get into it here. Further, there are many categories in wine and elsewhere simply assumed as legitimate without being subject to precise rules. It’s not clear rules are strictly necessary, in other words. Instead, I’ll point out that there are already some implicit guidelines in place in Natural wine, and guidelines are likely good enough. We do know what we mean when we say something like no additives besides sulfur, for example.

As an example, Jenny & Francois offer a list of general guidelines on their website that they believe help steer Natural winemaking. They then offer the following point that seems relevant to the spirit of Natural wine, and so is relevant here in relation to the question of rules.

For the pedants out there, it should be noted that all of these aspects are ideals. We accept that some may be on the path to these ideals and not quite there yet. We work with their wines because they share the spirit of these ideas and a desire to get as close to them as they possibly can. The road to healthy organic soils and wines is not a quick and easy path.

The point is this. What we have, and in fact have already had for a long while, is a definition of Natural wine, even if the edges get a little smudgy. It is one that we can better recognize thanks to the idea of family resemblence we get from Wittgenstein. This definition of Natural wine is good enough, as Feiring says, and avoids the lawyerly argument that worries Asimov too. In this discussion, we’ve all been talking for a long time like there is only one way to arrive at definitions, and Natural wine doesn’t have it. For a long time, that simply hasn’t been true.

Remaining Controversies

For critics of Natural wine, showing we already have a definition of the category doesn’t undo other problems. It does remove the commonly made claim that the category is illegitimate because it lacks a definition, but other issues still remain. Some of those are problems for proponents as well.

Many critics will still have issue with how Natural wine is marketed. In some cases, that depends on the marketers. In others, misunderstanding.

Implicit to many discussions around Natural wine there will still likely be hard dichotomies placed, with Natural wines on the one hand, and Industrial wines on the other. Looking at fights like those occurring in portions of France, such a view begins to make sense. In other regions, more fine-tuned accounts are better suited.

The idea of Natural wine is still not legislated. In parts of Europe, that has proven a legal problem for wine shops that know we know what we’re talking about but whose relevant legal systems don’t think we know it well enough.

The lack of legislation around the concept could put more work on the side of the consumer, but it should put more work on the part of the retailer and restauranteur to know what they’re selling and serving. The consumer’s job is to recognize whose views they trust.

People that don’t like use of the word natural itself have likely already lost the battle. In relation to wine, the category seems to have already chosen its name.

Problematic uses of the word reach back at least to the early local food movements, and health crazes of the last century. None of the claims that the word is misleading have too much weight when the truth is we all have to chose words to make our point, and the point is really made in the rest of the conversation, not just one name.

To make that last point another way (and borrowing from the late Leslie Feinberg), we can care about what word is used, but we can treat the subject (and each other) with respect using the wrong word, and we can be disrespectful using the right one. What matters is if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation.

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