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Absent-minded winemaking and the Romantic tradition

Posted by Stephen Meuse  March 29, 2012 07:31 AM

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If you haven't at least heard about the natural wine movement, it's likely you haven't been paying  attention.  If you have been paying attention you probably know that it's an amorphous phenomenon with heroes but no real leaders, that it's fueled by a good deal of rhetoric and earnest manifesto-making, that it frequently marches in step with the agricultural theories of Rudolf Steiner (biodynamics), that it's obsessed with the particularities of place and with regional, sometimes hyper-local, vine varieties, that it has a bone to pick with the use of sulfur, and that while some of the people pleased to be associated with it are of the talented and reasonable variety, some appear to be neither - or so it strikes me. 

The whole business has become rather contentious, to the point where to merely suggest that contention exists is now considered a contentious statement.  

I don't plan to say anything contentious here. I merely wish to point out that at its base, the natural wine movement rests on a series of assumptions about the natural world and our place in it that received their classic formulation in the works of poets, painters, dramatists, and musicians whose work we have long used the art history term Romantic to describe and that these assumptions inform every meaningful aspect of this school of winemaking.  

I was thinking about all this yesterday while reading a recent post on Alice Feiring's blog The Feiring Line.  Feiring, whom I have met and respect, has emerged as an important advocate of natural wine and an interpreter of the movement associated with it. Her recent book Naked Wine  as an extended meditation on the natural wine movement, its history, personalities, and approach to winemaking. In her post, California winemaker Hank Beckman responds to a Feiring request to explain his process in vineyard and cellar. He begins this way:

I use pretty common technologies: hands, feet, brain, and a really nice, gentle pneumatic press. Some of the folks from whom I buy grapes also use tractors. Specifically, I prune in the late winter (using a device called pruning shears), and then watch what happens. After a time, I may go back into the vineyard to remove some excess shoots to allow some sunlight and air into the vine's canopy. I rarely remove any fruit. Then I watch some more, and wait. When the grapes taste good, and they still have very nice acidity, I pick them, stomp on them and let whatever yeasts are around do the alcoholic conversion. When that is complete, I press the new wine into tanks or some old barrels, and leave them alone. I do taste the wines occasionally, just to see where they are "at". I rarely rack any of them off of the lees, as I find the lees protect and nourish the wines. When I think the wine is ready, I'll rack it into another tank, add a very small amount of SO2 (often its first encounter with a sulfur compound), and bottle straight from the tank.

Beckman's casual tone reinforces what he presents as a casual approach. A sequence of events unfolds of which the winemaker is mainly an observer, not an agent. He watches, he waits, he sees, he allows things to happen, he leaves things alone.  Grapes have their own ideas about what sort of wine they ought to become and the winemaker has no intention of providing direction. Grapes have no house style to hew to, no reputation to maintain, no target market to please, no objective at all except that, at the end of the day, there will be wine - and grapes knows best what that wine should look, smell, and taste like. This is the absent-minded method of winemaking. At least, that's how I read it. 

The sentiment expressed by Beckman sent me rummaging for my copy of The Prelude, William Wordsworth's autobiographical poem and canonical Romantic source document. You don't read far before hearing the familiar chord struck:  

"I look about, and should the guide I choose
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way . . ."
  

The idea that an individual can look to nature for cues that will set him on an unerring personal path is a defining Romantic insight.  It is distinct from the orthodox Enlightenment view which also takes nature as as an infallible guide but construes it as providing a universal message for all men and women, not a distinct one for each individual. 

In the same post, Feiring mentions Abe Schoener whose Scholium Project wines she admires. Schoener has used language similar to Beckman's to describe his approach to winemaking. 

In a 2008 profile of Schoener for the Boston Globe published under the headline "Romancing the Grape," I highlighted this winemaker's Wordsworthian penchant for letting his steps be guided by an inner attentiveness to the voice of nature.  That piece read in part:

Schoener says that as he tastes freshly pressed juice he asks himself 'what direction the wine wants to take.' It's surely a different approach than one that starts with a preconceived idea of what the wine should be and then tries to make it that - but it's also pretty obvious that any conversation with a grape is really a conversation with oneself. 

Ways in which the natural wine movement reflects fundamental Romantic insights don't stop here.  The emphasis on the localized and particular; the impatience with formality, standardization, and rules; the deep mistrust of technology; the adulation of the solitary genius and hero; the attribution of mystical powers to specific sites (terroir); a fascination with the more frankly occult aspects of Steinerism; a delight in the bizarre and disproportioned; a preference for the wild over the cultivated (or, in Levi-Strauss' famous formulation, for the raw over the cooked) -- all express primary Romantic prejudices, preoccupations, and anxieties. One could go on.   

To its critics, Romanticism has always been less a freestanding philosophy than an exercise in imagination and personal psychology; when Romantics say they are looking through a window onto the world and responding to it, some believe all they are really doing is looking into a mirror.  

There may be many schools of winemaking, just as there are many ways of approaching painting or the writing of novels. I don't reject natural winemaking, but I have a robust skepticism about its claims.  Particularly because they seem to me to be just the latest offshoot of a long-standing and widely-acknowledged aesthetic tradition in the West which is emphatically not made of the kind of stuff that could ever be demonstrated to be right or wrong.  Both the naturalists and the anti-naturalists should bear this in mind. 

We don't try to prove that music of the Classical period is inherently better than music of the Romantic period, or assert that music written in the style of either is of higher quality.  We enjoy the best examples of each. Shouldn't that be the way it is with wine?  


Stephen Meuse can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com

Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

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