Saturday, December 24, 2011

Making Authentic Wine

One of the wine world's most authoritative, creative, and combative bloggers is Tom Wark.  If you don't check out his blog periodically or follow him on Twitter, you're missing out on some of the best insights on our industry.  That, coupled with the fact that he has been working tirelessly to free the grapes (shippingwise) makes him one of my favorite reads.

His most recent post (http://fermentation.typepad.com/fermentation/2011/12/authentic-wine-and-mistaking-the-tail-for-the-snout.html) got me thinking about authenticity of wine.  I'm not going to try to define wine here--that would be like trying to define art, something only an idiot would try to do (see my last post)--but rather think about what it means to try to make wine here in Pennsylvania.

Tom's post takes on a recent book about "authentic wine", basically destroying the premise the book was written from.  The book tries to say that the wine industry is heading in an industrial/commodity driven direction and that the uniqueness of wine is being lost, or at least championed by a select few.  Tom's point is that there is a huge diversity to wine these days and that there are more artisanal wineries than ever.

My jumping off point here is that we're all trying to wag the dog to some extent.  Yes, I make wine in the backwaters of an industry that prides itself on pioneers from hot climates and respects cool climate entrepreneurs with a backhanded compliment smacking of condescension.  Am I bitter?  Perhaps.  At the tail-shakers?  Not really.  Let me explain.

As with most things American, there has always been a drive to succeed, and in this country, it usually means making  boatload of money by selling stuff.  Suply and demand is what built this country.  And the wine industry is no different.  The reason for the oceans of wine that has been created in this country is simply that there has always been a demand for it.  And as the demand grew, supply rose up to meet it as that's where the dollars were.

The problem with mass-producing anything is that you have to make sure the majority of the people are going to like it, or else you defeat your purpose.  But there's hardly anything out there when made in bulk doesn't lose its originality.  Beer, cars, chairs, hamburgers, wine.  It happens to everything.  Name one mass-marketed item that is unique.  It is, by definition, impossible.  An oxymoron.

So what does this mean for wine, and specifically my wine?  I can assure you that Allegro wine is not at all mass-produced.  We're a small place in southern PA, growing grapes for almost 40 years.  We have Cabernet and Chard vines older than most of the ones in CA.  So, why haven't you heard of us before?  Because we make small amounts of wine.  Would we like to make more wine?  Sure, but here's the kicker: there aren't enough buyers.

This is not because of the current "economic situation."  No, most people in this country cut there wine-teeth on Mateus, wild Irish Rose, or Sutter Home.  They then "graduated" to "real" wine....from California, where it all seems to taste like sunshine and fruit.  Slightly homogeneous?  Maybe.  Sure, there are subtle differences, but I would argue there's more difference between a St.Estephe and a Margaux than a Napa Cab and a Napa Merlot.....

And people--i.e. wine consumers and more importantly the wine retailers--like those wines.  What's not to like?  They're fruity and alcoholic and easy to drink.  Quite unlike what we're making here in Pennsylvania.  we're more akin to France 40 years ago than anything else.  Are we authentic?  We damn well better be, or our few customers will leave us.  But will we ever get the respect and success we hope for?  It all depends on whether America decides to follow what their brain and conscience tells them is right, or if they're slaves to their hedonistic palates.

This is what happens to "authentic" or "natural" wine.  When a wine speaks of place, is truly terroir-driven, is truly unique, that's when you find authenticity.  The problem is that most terroir-geeks only like certain terroirs, and if you're not on the short-list, you're probably in the backwater with me.....

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In Defense of Winemaking as Art

I tend not to read very many wine writers these days, nor wine bloggers.  Usually I get turned off by their arrogant attitudes or lack of actual winemaking knowledge.  And it really doesn't interest me to read about what others think a wine tastes like if I can't taste it with them.  It's like my own personal version of hell.

 But a couple weeks ago, a couple writers had a thread about whether wine was art, something that I feel pretty strongly about.  My family--specifically my dad's side--is full of artists.  It's not a big family, so there aren't many actual people involved, but here's the breakdown.  My brother, Dave, builds custom motorcycles after graduating with a degree in art and spending 3 or so years in art grad school doing ceramics.  My dad has been an artist--pen and ink, etchings, watercolors--whenever he wasn't professorializing about physics.  Even supported our family on it for a couple years in the 1970s.  His dad ran a construction firm building houses.  His dad was as an artist, and his respective dad's wife's dad was a court artist to the King of Sweden.  Art, art, art, art, art.

Notice, though, that this could be a long post, because I brought up the idea of motorcycle-building and house-building as art.  This speaks a bit to the concept the ancient Greeks had called "techne" (where we get our concept of "technology" from.  "Techne" was debated in Plato's dialogues as to its nature and whether or not is was an art.  (So, this argument has been going on for a really long time.)  Some translated "techne" as "craft" other as "art", but I think that's splitting hairs on the wrong side of the dialectical engine.

My sense is that "techne" or its end-product--whatever is created--is more about why it was created and how we interact with it at any given time than whether it's even a quality product. 

My young boys--when they were really small--would draw pictures of things on paper.  Would most think this is art?  Probably not, but for them it was.  They were trying to create something with meaning that people would derive meaning from.  They knew that their scribbles would elicit a response from me and that was why they were doing it.  For their enjoyment and the added benefit of getting a reaction from their audience.  Now, I know they probably weren't being conscious of it, but as parents we know that's what they're doing.  No way a kid is going to draw something without showing it off.

For me, the drive to create is art.  It moves us.  It moves us forward.  Moving forward, in many respects, is what technology does.  "Techne."

I remember as a 13-year-old boy being dragged to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Not fun, and not the first time my dad had forced art upon us.  After standing for an eternity in different halls trying to get him to walk faster--or at least walk, as he stopped and stared at stuff constantly--I remember getting numb to all the paintings of pastoral settings, still life scenes, and portraits.  Then we came to the "Night Watch."

This was a monstrous piece.  My first impression was of the armed guard who stood watch over it.  (Kind of ironic, I know.)  The painting must be fifteen feet long and ten feet tall.  And dark.  After viewing all the other more uplifting artwork, this was in a different world.  This was Rembrandt's world.

The "Night Watch" was one of the first paintings done on such a scale that showcased common folks doing common things.  It's basically a picture of a bunch of guys strolling around a dark street, making sure everything's ok.  But after seeing what had come before, it really hit me.  Rembrandt amazed me at first, and then later as I started seeing his other paintings, especially the ones Biblical in nature concerning Jesus.

But the feeling I got from the "Night Watch" is how art reaches me.  It's subjective in that it requires a drive from the artist to create something and then it requires an audience, someone to appreciate it.  Both sides are involved in a messy dialectic that dances seemingly without purpose, but you know it works when it works.

My boys artwork needed me, but only they could have produced it.  My brother's motorcycles need riders.  My dad's drawings need people to see them.  Art is a two-way street.  It doesn't exist in a vacuum.

I've seen some art galleries where mundane pieces are placed next to paintings.  The aim is to get people to view them as art, but I think this is missing half of the equation sometimes.  If the creator of the toilet wasn't thinking they were producing art, then the viewer in the gallery will only see a toilet.  I think this is something we just know.

And here's where wine comes in.  Most wine is a commodity, produced to be sold.  Produced to hit a certain market segment,  Produced for enjoyment, to help with cash-flow, to control market-share.  I make that kind of wine.

But I also make art.  Not all wine is art, but without art in wine I would never want to be a winemaker.