Wine Lovers, Get Woke
What’s more cliché than accusing the wine world of being a bunch of snobs? We have strong opinions about what people should drink, we’re particular about what goes in our glass, and which kind of glass, we use lofty, “intimidating” language to describe a fermented grape beverage...we’re assholes! Nothing new. But wine is a complex subject and most of us have earned that title by spending years learning about wine, visiting regions, talking with winemakers and mindfully drinking their produce. The depth of knowledge a Master of Wine holds over a newbie is like comparing baby’s first words to those of a tenured linguistics professor. Dr. Know-it-all doesn’t have to condescend to the infant in a squeaky tone of playful gibberish, but the two aren’t going to have an involved conversation either.
People who truly care about wine, who went into the business because of their passion for the magic elixir, its history, and culture, understand that it is more than a cocktail replacement, as Eric Asimov so eloquently said in a New York Times article in early March. Our responsibility to newcomers, above all else, is to instill that passion in their lives and lead them to bottles that reflect and encourage the same. Which is why Bianca Bosker’s March 17 article in the Times, “Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine,” has caused so much ire among wine writers.
Bosker’s article was adapted from her new memoir, Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. When I first saw the article, I rolled my eyes. Here’s a writer I’ve never heard of talking about how Treasury Wine Estates, one of the largest wine conglomerates on the planet, is crafting wines by working off feedback from amateur drinkers in focus groups. By crafting, I mean using chemistry to add flavor, texture and color to an inferior base wine in order to create a beverage said focus groups claim they desire, all at nice little price points that average $9.89 per bottle. Yawn. Clearly a pleeb, or a shit-stirrer. But as the rebuttals began to roll in, my own distaste for the article grew stronger. Bosker is suggesting we embrace these wines. “The time has come to learn to love unnatural wines,” she writes.
Chasing the bottom line, which is all Treasury Wine Estates is after, is indicative of a larger, looming American problem: Our obsession with money. These manufactured wines, the ones “the people want,” have no connection to the earth, no respect for the earth, no history, artistry or culture. They are soulless concoctions that should be labeled with something equally low brow. Alcoholic Grape Beverage, or AGB for short, perhaps. Put it in tall boys and 40 ounce cans.
Esther Mobley wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle a great rebuttal to Bosker’s argument, pointing out the gaping chasm between unnatural and natural wines, which Bosker calls trendy. “But there's an important difference between caring about a wine's ‘purity’ or ‘honesty’ and caring whether the chickens you eat were jacked up on antibiotics their entire life. The former is an aesthetic consideration; the latter has implications for ethics and one's own health.”
I agree with Esther on the first part. It’s irresponsible to pose an argument that positions the two extremes - unnatural wines and biodynamic natural wines - in a way that completely dismisses the middleground. It’s an excellent point. But I have to disagree that seeking out a wine of “purity” and “honesty” is merely aesthetics. There is an ethical difference.
It’s about being environmentally conscientious and about prioritizing human relationships above, beyond, and before money. It’s not the same as caring about whether or not your food contains hormones and antibiotics. Wine is a luxury, not a necessity. Nor is it food, though it is a lovely metaphor. And it’s not the chemical enhancement of the wines alone that offend me. You’re just cheating yourself with that plonk. But I am concerned about how the land from whence the base wine was grown is treated, and if they’re counting pennies at the winery, you better believe they’re watching them between the vines.
The cheapest way to grow grapes? Eliminate risk by relying on herbicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers and mechanization to ensure, barring natural disaster or extreme climate conditions, a crop size that makes the bean counters smile and wink. Then there’s the matter of water usage, energy and labor costs, and working conditions. Given what we know today, indulging those practices to save a few dollars at the register carries a strong, ethically sour odor.
As far as natural wine being a trend, having “recently supplanted kale as the ‘it’ staple of trendy tables,” writes Bosker, that's taking a narrow view, and one that conveniently argues for the promotion of "unnatural" wines. I’m hardly militant about natural wines, but it’s the extremists on the edge who bring the center into the next evolution. PETA helped build a beauty industry where "no animal testing" is now the norm. GreenPeace helped stop the brutal clubbing of adorable baby seals. Staunch advocates for biodynamic farming and the hippie grocers of Berkeley in the 60s helped bring organic produce and ethically raised meat to nearly every supermarket across the country. Sometimes the fringe are the leaders.
I’ve noticed over the past year, after a long break from spending any meaningful time with winemakers, that an increasing number of them are practicing organic farming on some level. Are a few of them blowing smoke up my ass? Of course. But the fact that it’s become such a central focus for consumers, and consequently led the makers to fold their efforts into their own PR, is proof the movement is effective. This is better for us all, because until Elon Musk leads his pilgrims to colonize Mars, we’re stuck on this planet together.
“More than 60 additives can legally be added to wine, and aside from the preservative sulfur dioxide, winemakers aren’t required to disclose any of them,” Bosker continues. “This should have been the ultimate turnoff. Where was the artistry? The mystery? But the more I learned, the more I accepted these unnatural wines as one more way to satisfy drinkers and even create new connoisseurs.”
Create new connoisseurs? Thank you Eric Asimov for this response Tweet: "I adamantly don't believe that processed wines are the gateway to fine wine. Industry BS, like saying cheetos will lead to Époisses."
Bosker argues, seemingly on behalf of Treasury Estates, that these lab-constructed wine-like beverages are the Pull-Ups for the next generation of devoted quality bottle seekers. Next stop, the big girl potty. The draw of the well-crafted marketing line is magnetic. I get it. I write that stuff for a living. When there’s actual truth, the polished truth is easy to convey, and with a good conscience. Even when it’s just a theory, like this one from Bosker via Treasury, it’s easier to swallow. What’s the harm? It’s not like it’s another Flint, Michigan. Yet. And hey, maybe they’re right. In low light and hushed whispers, I might have bought it too. I was a huge Milli Vanilli fan back in the day. Those braids, the sweet dance moves! But then the truth came out, the Grammy’s were snatched back, and I discovered Bob Dylan.
Why didn’t Bosker see the truth through the sale?
Which is kind of what Alice Feiring’s response to Bosker’s article took issue with, and some factually misleading statements. “For me the Op-Ed’s problems were elsewhere; credibility and believability,” she writes. First, “In her book when at the same big table tasting yeasted, chipped, mega-purpled, reverse-osmosed, acidified, enzymed, Velcorined wines, she seems to have had a very different experience...In the memoir she couldn’t drink the wines. In the essay she embraced them.” Feiring further counters that Bosker’s one year of intense immersion into wine hardly makes her an expert, pointing out inaccuracies in comments like, “learning to savor the delicate aromas of aged Barolos from organic growers in Piedmont,” which doesn’t even make sense to me. It seems they’re two different conversations. Feiring writes, “That's a weird one? How old? This was one of the worst farmed areas for ages. Organic except for the very few is a rare thing.”
A more obviously misguided line from Bosker, “I spent long days studying the farming practices that distinguish the Grand Crus of Burgundy,” prompted Feiring to write what we’re all thinking, “Farming practices do not separate the Grand from the Village, geology and micro-climate do.” Maybe this is an editing issue. Maybe what Bosker meant to say is that she learned to decipher the farming practices between growers with plots within the same Grand Cru vineyard by tasting the wine, but that begs the question of élevage. Producers apply their own twerks in the cellar that effect style as much if not more than farming practices.
Or maybe this article isn’t for us, so they figured they could skimp on a fact or two. Still, the woke wine lover has to ask herself if this is fake news. Or maybe it’s just true-ish, which isn’t true enough if you’re presenting yourself as an expert. I know, I know, it’s an op-ed and she’s writing about her personal experience. So was James Frey in A Million Little Pieces.
Bridging that gap between the veteran and the freshman is not easy, but playing to the lowest common denominator isn’t the answer. Drink what you want is a great concept; it epitomizes America, right after guns and money. But just because we can doesn't mean we should. There’s self-respect in drinking responsibly, and I don’t mean moderation. Even attempting to understand what you’re drinking and why inherently makes the drinking experience better. Understanding that what you’re drinking is a product of the earth, and that bringing a socially and environmentally conscious approach to what you’re drinking improves the experience across multiple platforms. It's not only about you. The woke wine lover recognizes the strength of his dollar and chooses to do right with it.
Encouraging people to drink industrially produced, chemically enhanced plonk made in a science lab is irresponsible, condescending, and misses the point of wine entirely. You might as well argue for the end of agriculture. Why not save time and money by crunching on another flake of Soylent Green instead? They’re your kidneys. Or were.