A debate seized the wine blogosphere in recent weeks, the consequence of an essay published in the New York Times about a month ago.
There, writer and sommelier Bianca Bosker tiptoed out on a limb where sommeliers rarely venture: She said nice things about wines seen as “industrialized, big-brand, manufactured.”
“In other words, what most of us drink,” she added while also ribbing the attention that several members of the wine community give “natural” wines, which, she notes, “have recently supplanted kale as the ‘it’ staple of trendy tables.”
OK, both these shorthand terms – “industrial” and “natural” – are ambiguous and unsettled, but let’s take a stab at defining them:
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“Industrial” wines generally are made in huge runs. They are wines of frugality and reliability because customarily they are relatively cheap and are styled to be consistent in expression from year to year. They may be blends, or they may be made solely or largely from a single variety of grape, which they tend to resemble in character more as tentative sketch than richly layered portrait. They are simple, pleasant and often at least a little sweet. They tend to be “cocktail” wines, easy to drink on their own. And they are among the more popular and accessible wines in today’s market.
“Natural” wines, on the other hand, constitute a small and obscure niche of the trade. They are more likely found on the wine lists of fashionable restaurants than at grocery stores. They almost invariably are made in small batches, from organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards. Rarely is anything added or removed before or during fermentation, such as cultured yeast, enzymes, sulfites and acid. After fermentation, they aren’t “cleaned up” with fining and filtering, and if they are aged in wood the barrels are likely to be older so the wine picks up little or no essence of oak. Their intent is to reflect transparently the place where the grapes were grown, the grape, the year and the vision of the winemaker.
Bosker’s essay was an excerpt from her newly published “Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste” (Penguin Books Original, 352 pages, $17).
Bosker recalls her visit to Treasury Wine Estates, a California wine producer whose labels include Beringer Vineyards, Beaulieu Vineyard, Chateau St. Jean and 19 Crimes. There she learned of wines engineered to satisfy the tastes of focus groups of “amateurs from the general public.”
Treasury isn’t alone, Bosker makes clear, in having all sorts of tools to apply to fermented grape juice to make it appeal to an audience – oak chips to mimic the flavor and feel of barrel-aged wine actually, fish bladder granulates to soften astringent tannins, grape concentrate to deepen color. “More than 60 additives can be added to wine, and aside from the preservative sulfur dioxide, winemakers aren’t required to disclose any of them,” she notes. She did not point out that little or no trace of such ingredients remain in the released wine. (Maybe she addresses in her book the contentious issue of whether a bottle of wine should bear a list of ingredients, but I haven’t read the book, and this is a topic best reserved for another day.)
Another of Bosker’s perception rankles some members of the wine establishment. She seems to share the view that mass-marketed, everyday wines eventually will lead a person introduced to wine through them to step up to more challenging wines. This perception isn’t without precedent.
I have a hunch that industrial wines will prompt neophytes who find that they enjoy wine to search for wines that have more to say. The modern California wine history is replete with examples of winemakers who rush to emulate a breakout hit. Yesterday, it was white zinfandel; today, it is blended sweet red wines with catchy proprietary names but little else to set them apart from each other. As with white zinfandel, people hooked on market-driven blended red wines will tire of their sameness and search for more profound and provocative wines, some of which may well be “natural wines.”
A growing number of farmers and vintners are ready with fresh styles, including wines made with varieties of grape that have been out of fashion but are being rediscovered.
Where does that leave today’s dinner-party host? Don’t even complicate the matter by asking “industrial” or “natural.” Put on the table one of each, provided you can find a “natural” wine. The wine world is all about diversity, with differences shared frankly but congenially. The trade has survived and thrived, and it will regardless of the current split over “industrial” or “natural.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.