DROPLETS: The Week in Natural Wine

https://notdrinkingpoison.substack.com/p/droplets-the-week-in-natural-wine

Cody Putman’s stirring and tonic 2023 pinot blanc-riesling blend. One of the more surprising and delightful California wines I’ve tasted in recent years. Merci Cody!

DROPLETS is a bi-weekly round-up of quick takes, clapbacks, shout-outs, and other miscellany related to natural wine, wine-at-large, and the restaurant scene in Paris and beyond. It’s a smorgasbord of natural wine counter-propaganda to the Anglophone and French wine media. The first three topics in a given week are free, with access to the full deluge of ten topics limited to paid subscribers.

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FIONA BECKETT REDEFINES PET-NAT

The Guardian wine columnist’s recent piece on pétillant naturel was evidently written, as the old Arrested Development gag went, “For British Eyes Only.”

How else to explain how Fiona Beckett dubs pet-nat “Britain’s answer to prosecco” in the subheading? The way she employs the French spelling of naturel throughout the piece without once mentioning the origins of the wine style’s present popularity in France (and within its natural wine scene in particular) makes the column scan as a sort of demented cultural appropriation. It’s like dubbing whiskey “France’s answer to vodka.”

It is possible Beckett’s editor forbade her from invoking France or the French for fear of scaring the readership. (The word pet-nat, at two syllables, is over double what most British people can capably pronounce of the French language.) The piece contains a strong whiff of product placement for Marks & Spencer, who might indeed have objected to associating the launch of their new (false) pet-nat with Britain’s ancient continental rival. The company will presumably be pleased to see its (false) pet-nat cited in the UK newspaper of record alongside several actual British pet-nats (and, weirdly, one British piquette, which is a completely different beverage, composed mainly of water).

In addition to declaring that pet-nat is British and that wines that are not technically pet-nats are still considered pet-nats for the purposes of her article, Beckett pursues two more misleading claims.

“English grapes, especially organic grapes, are considerably more expensive than those grown in sunnier parts of the world,” she writes, a construction that suggests it is merely lack of sun that causes high prices for English grapes, and not the real estate prices that obtain in the surrounding advanced capitalist economy in which small-scale peasant agriculture has long since been eliminated. (Grapes are not exceptionally expensive in the Czech Republic, where it is not exceptionally sunny, either.) Beckett’s pat explanation also suggests that the négociant model of winemaking, in which winemaking is divorced from grape-growing, is the industry norm even in the aforementioned “sunnier parts of the world.” (It is not.)

Later Beckett states that “the premium price [pet-nats] fetch makes them a boon to winemakers,” a dynamic that will come news to just about anyone producing (real) pet-nat. In real life, quality pet-nat production is acknowledged to constitute quite a time-consuming finicky ordeal for the sake of a wine category that still confronts, among consumers, an unshakeable expectation of inexpensive simplicity. This is the reality of pet-nat production, which supermarket chains are nowadays helpfully stepping into supplant with ersatz pet-nat.

DOREY’S BALANCING ACT

Le Figaro wine journalist Alicia Dorey knows and appreciates natural wine, but finds herself in the delicate position of being Le Figaro’s wine journalist. Her best work walks a tightrope, managing to humor the prejudices of the conventional wine consumers who read her and the conventional wine producers who purchase ad space, while allowing rebuttal from actual natural winemakers.

Her recent article addressing the supposed contradiction between producing natural wine and exporting natural wine is an archetypal example. Its headline (my translation) summarizes a common whataboutist attack on natural wine: “These Vignerons Who Preach Local Consumption … But Who Export Practically the Entirety of Their Production.”

Those delving into the article hoping for confirmation of its headline’s fallacious reasoning will instead find the latter neatly filleted by two pragmatic rebuttals, which Dorey solicits from Philippe Pacalet and Pierre Overnoy, among others: 1) natural vignerons are simply remaining loyal to their early clients, notably Japanese importers, and 2) importers on export markets often pay up front, or at least in a one-off, timely fashion, a contrast to French and particularly Parisian restaurants and wine shops, who notoriously need to be reminded three times before paying a vigneron’s invoice.

At one point, Dorey repeats, rather risibly, the long form of the natural wine naysayer’s argument: “It’s due to such an imperative of loyalty that a good number of natural vignerons continue to honor distant orders, contradicting all environmental logic, all while taking the risk of imperiling wines reputed to be the most fragile, which perhaps won’t survive the hazards of aerial transport (variations of temperature, pressure, etc.)”

To my knowledge, the only wines being exported in professional quantities via plane nowadays are certain Beaujolais Nouveau to certain markets (notably Japan). It is not clear why Dorey emphasizes this idiotic practice as though it were commonplace in the natural wine world. (It is not.) I am, furthermore, not personally convinced that living natural wines (which can recover from transport shocks by dint of being alive) are necessarily more fragile than conventional wines.

In Dorey’s stead, I would have addressed the logical fallacy at the heart of the headline, and found a way to make clear to readers why there is no contradiction between producing natural wine and exporting it: because environmentalism was never, and is not now, the primary inspiration for the production of natural wine.

For early natural winemakers like the ones she quotes, the non-use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides (and not environmentalism-at-large or even organics per se) was, rather, a criterion for the maintenance of healthy native yeast populations, which are themselves a criterion for the production of great wine.

In Dorey’s place, I would also have found some winking way to call attention to the irony of quoting, on this subject, noted granola-eating, alfalfa-growing hippie Philippe Pacalet, whose big-spender négociant Burgundy is neither organic nor very natural these days, and who criss-crosses the globe on jets promoting it much of the year.

But that is (one reason) why I am not the wine journalist of Le Figaro.

JEFFORD: BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY

Many otherwise intelligent wine commentators applauded Andrew Jefford’s recent, transparently insincere olive branch to natural wine in The New Statesman, in which he declared that “lessons are being learned on both sides” of the asymmetric conflict that is the natural wine culture war. But even the most casual perusal of Jefford’s recent statements on (and, more often, around) the issue reveals his contempt for natural wine.

Take the tortuous title of this February 22nd piece for Decanter: “‘Biodynamically grown, artisanally crafted – and free of chemicals, of course. Not so’.”

“We ‘don’t want chemicals in our wine’, even though wine itself is a mixture of chemical compounds,” Jefford chides.

Like most rational-sounding, yet fallacious rebukes of natural wine (here lumped in artlessly with biodynamic wine, rather as if he was prevented from saying the N-word due to a Decanter editorial policy), Jefford’s argument (an equivocation fallacy) consists of a word game. He dismisses the concerns of people who avoid what they colloquially (and correctly) refer to as chemicals (the plural noun) in wine by pretending those same people are employing the scientific definition of chemical compounds (note the C-word is here used as an adjective).

When used as an adjective in the broad scientific sense, chemical does indeed mean “relating to chemistry, or the interactions of substances as studied in chemistry”; it is a category that excludes almost nothing.

When used as a noun, the same Oxford dictionary defines chemical as “a distinct compound or substance, especially one which has been artificially prepared or purified.” (Italics mine.)

As if aware of the thinness of his argument, by the fifth paragraph Jefford resorts to scare tactics, conflating enological products with modern medicine: “One day, synthetic chemicals in your body are going to save or prolong your life.”

By the same logic, we might liken the practice of wine filtration to any number of lifesaving surgical procedures: appendectomy, limb amputation, etc. But, as with ingestion of the synthetic chemicals of modern medicine, it is unseemly to do it in the same spirit that conventional winemakers use enological additives, i.e. for profit; similarly, it is inadvisable to ingest or undergo these things in the spirit of wine drinkers, which is to say, for recreation.

Subscribers can scroll down for 7 more curated links and quick takes, on topics including mouse disinformation; 2023’s drop in global wine production; the financial pressures on young California winemakers; democratic backsliding in Georgia, and more.


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