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Friday 28 February 2014

The Force is with me. And so is Robert Parker Jr, Promoter of Natural Wines

Wow! the Universe really is Infinite and Abundant, and it seems to be looking out for me. This time it's delivered a huge helping hand to me (and other 'naturalistas') via Robert Parker's latest pronouncement on natural wine. Here. Basically, he predicted (along with 14 other predictions for the wine world in 2014) that natural wine would be exposed as fraud. Extraordinary! At first I couldn't believe that he, obviously a very intelligent and knowledgeable man, could say such a thing. But then I just couldn't believe my luck. Publicizing the existence of a category of wines called 'natural wine' to all his followers and subscribers! An advertising campaign with a similar outreach would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars - certainly beyond the marketing budgets of any natural wine producer, distributor, outlet or association. All I can say is "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!"

Now there will be thousands and thousands of wine consumers who have been exposed to the phrase 'natural wine' and some of them will be curious to find out exactly what it's all about. And some will actually go out and taste some. And some will like it and become customers!

I feel that I should also address RP's claim that 'natural wine is a fraud', but I'm at a loss as to how to do it! I am in fact having difficulty understanding how he can possibly be serious. I mean, there are thousands of genuine, hard-working, sincere producers, distributor and retailers out there, and possibly tens of thousands of consumers who genuinely enjoy natural wines for many valid reasons. Are all these people members of some giant conspiracy to hoodwink the unsuspecting public? Obviously not. Are they all being brainwashed into admiring the emperor's new clothes? Obviously not.

But maybe RP was just referring to some silly claim possibly made by some individual natural wine proponent at some time in the past? I don't know. The quote in the post doesn't go into details.

Or maybe he was referring to the semantics of the word 'natural', along the lines of Tom Warks's numerous posts on that topic? Again, I don't know. But if this is the case, then I've already addressed the semantic question in some of my own previous posts here and here.

The most puzzling thing for me though, is why do intelligent and knowledgeable men like RP and TW make these absurd claims? My latest theory is that they in fact really know nothing at all about the reality of making natural wine, or about the reasons that it's made, or the reasons why so many consumers like to drink it; I believe that they've just synthesized a whole complete natural wine fantasy world in their own imaginations from out of nothing (or maybe from out of a few scraps and anecdotes); and they now really believe that there really is a natural wine movement out there, with its leaders, champions, dogmas, beliefs, and of course a team of evil marketers, constantly scheming to deceive the public. A great fantasy for sure, but nothing to do with the real world!

Another theory I have, (or rather, a related theory) is that the Infinite and All-Powerful Universe is using all the means at its disposal to promote natural wines, and therefore environmentally friendly viticulture and chemical-free products for human consumption. And that includes using the words of supposed adversaries, who are in fact helping us! One thing that's clear, though, is that the Universe works in mysterious ways! Who would have thought that the world's most influential wine critic would actually help the people he most disparages.

Another thing that has become clear to me is that at last I've found my place, direction and mission in this life; and it's also become clear that critics like RP or TW, far from being adversaries and enemies, are in fact allies who are helping me and others all the way.

My mission, I now know, is to make as much and as many wines as possible, from native grape variety vineyards, from as many different places as possible; to save, preserve and give productive, and profitable and sustainable use to these vineyards, to keep alive and thriving as many grape-growing and wine-making and cultural practices as possible, all this by means of partnerships and agreements with local grape-growers; by means of making many, different, beautiful, delicious, complex, terroir-expressing, minimum intervention, comment-worthy, natural wines; by means of promoting, marketing and selling all these wines honestly and transparently to people who appreciate such wines and efforts; and all this by means of sustainable, non-polluting, environmentally beneficial viticulture.

I just need to carry on doing what I've been doing all these years; just keep going with the flow; now I just need to find a model that will allow me to produce more wines from more vineyards, but without losing the quality, genuineness and singularity that I've attained and maintained so far over the last 11 years. Now I need to somehow expand my one-man-band operation and make arrangements with local grape-growers, and other players to make all this happen.

Anyway. Enough. here's to the future! :)

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Long Live Natural Wine - in this Infinite and Holistically All-powerful Universe! Vive le vin Naturel!

Thank you, Oh Infinite Universe, for putting Tom Wark in my path!

I've learnt a lot from him over the years, though it's taken me years to realize it. Over the years of interaction with him (always on the topic of natural wine, in the form of comments to his posts) I think I've gone through all the emotional phases, starting with anger, hate, resignation, frustration, pity and finally now, acceptance and gratitude.

His latest post on natural wine, here, just brought it all home to me. I now realize that we humans are just extraordinary in our diversity, and that all our diverse points of view represent richness and complexity and wondrously different ways of seeing the same world in which we live. This applies at all levels of philosophy, not just the limited and trivial world of wine which we wine geeks think represents the entire universe!

But anyway, even though I disagreed completely with everything he wrote, here's what I enjoyed about Tom's latest post on natural wine, which could be seen as yet another rant in a series of over 20 similar posts, but which I believe is not:

The first thing that struck me was his extraordinary tenacity in clinging to the primary dictionary definition of the word 'natural, despite the fact that native English speakers (and proficient foreigners) are perfectly aware that words in the English language can have many, many different meanings, and sometimes even apparently contradictory meanings too. Tenacity is a quality to be admired, IMO, and success is often built on it. I like to think that I have my fair share of it too.

Allow me to be really boring for a few paragraphs here and actually provide the links to several reliable, recognized and respected linguistic sources, just to prove what I said above, ie that the word 'natural' really does have multiple meanings, including the one used by people talking or writing about natural wine, and that it wasn't just invented a few years ago by the evil scheming marketers in the employ of some natural wine producers:

- Mirriam Websters (Definition 2: not having any extra substances or chemicals added : not containing anything artificial)

- FDA ("...the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.")

- Oxford English Dictionary (1991 edition) (subscription only) gives as part of meaning 7a: 
manufactured using only simple or minimal processes; ”
- Encyclopedia Brittanica (1888) edition). (That's eighteen eighty-eight). A long article on wine in general, where 'natural wine' is discussed in the same sense as we do today.

- Do bianchi. An interesting post with explanations and links to an Italian text from 1896 on natural wines.

- French Wikipedia article on the uprisings and riots in Languedoc in 1907 where the slogan "Vive le vin naturel. A bas les empoisonneurs" was used.  (Translation; "Long live natural wine. Down with the poisoners!"  Can you imagine anyone using that slogan today? ha ha!)

Text of the speech given by Marcellin Albert on 9th June 1907 in Montpellier during a demonstration of around 500,000 protesters, during which he uses the phrase "natural wine".

To summarize: the main primary meaning of 'natural' is "existing in nature; not man-made" (eg, an ocean, a mountain), the meaning that Mr Wark believes is the only one; but other meanings exist, have been around for a long time, and are used by many, many English speakers in a perfectly natural way.

Basically, what I'm saying here, by providing all this evidence, is that the use of the word 'natural' is more than justified and legitimized by these authorities and by the length of time that the term has been used.

But in addition to that (as if it weren't enough), sheer common sense and intuition should be enough for any native English-speaker to realize that words have more than one meaning. Just think of the word 'organic'. The primary dictionary meaning is 'containing carbon atoms', or 'applying to living things'; historically the word has been used in phrases like 'organic chemistry', 'organic compounds', 'organic growth', 'organic waste', 'organic history', 'organic molecules', 'organic synthesis';

Then at some point in history (1970's?) the word started to be applied to agricultural products made in a certain way, and we got 'organic farming', 'organic fruit', 'organic vegetables', 'organic wine', 'organic soil', 'organic agriculture', etc.  Wow! A new meaning for the word 'organic'! Now it means, not only 'containing carbon atoms', but ALSO the meaning we all know and love and accept today, ie "grown without the use of synthetic chemicals". I wonder if there were people back then who fulminated against the 'organic' movement and accused the marketers of organic fruit and veg of deceit?

The second thing that struck me was the wonderful and amazing leap of logic that formed the basis of his latest post, showing incredible ingenuity and creativity:

1. Take a set phrase in the English language ("as nature intended")
2. Interpret the words separately and literally
3. Provide a long list of links to blog posts that used this phrase in connection to wine
4. Allow something wondrous to happen in the language processing centers of your brain
5. Lo and behold: the conclusion is that the "natural wine movement" believes that Nature has consciousness and intentionality!

I think that all native speakers of English understand what 'set phrases' are, and use them accordingly in everyday speech and writing. Just look up a dictionary to see what "as nature intended" really means; as you can see, the phrase just doesn't mean that nature actually intends anything, like Mr Wark suggests. It's just a set phrase that has the general meaning of "not interfering too much in a process or situation".

Here are some more set phases:

Let nature take its course, Nature abhors a vacuum, To answer the call of nature, Mother Nature, The call of the wild, Silence is golden, Money talks, As chance would have it, Put your cards on the table,...

There are thousands of them in English, and not one of them means what the individual words mean literally. It's quite intuitive really, and actually more difficult to explain than it really is!

Thirdly, I was saddened to read that Mr Wark is continuing with his personal crusade against Isabelle Legeron MW. Very saddened. At least there were no direct personal insults, like in this previous post of his; this time he just used some indirect denigration by associating her name with Wiccans, Pantheists and Druids, and April Fool's Day. Not much good karma there.

Fourthly, there's the question of setting up straw men (that's another set phrase, not men made of straw!!!) so as to proceed to knock them down. I think it's rather pointless and silly of Mr Wark to do this, because attacking distorted or fictitious aspects of natural wine does not really address the actual real position at all, let alone engage in a constructive dialogue.

But getting back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post, I believe that at last I've found peace with myself, and with this whole 'natural wine' thing, thanks in part to Tom Wark's posts over the years. Basically, I think that the semantics and history of the word 'natural' is irrelevant (even though it's interesting in its own right, especially to people with an interest in linguistics and etymology. Like me!). No, the important aspect for me is the qualities and characteristics of the wines that are made in a "natural" way, and which for me boil down to three aspects:

1. Can natural wines express their terroirs better?

2. Are natural wines safer and/or healthier?

3. Are natural wines better for the environment?

Obviously, I believe that the answer to all three of those questions is YES. That's why I find myself in the natural wine camp, not because I think it's a great marketing idea. I was in fact making wines for 7 years in this way with no contact with the outside wine world, until I "discovered" blogging, and social media etc in 2009, at which point I also "discovered" natural wine! And the rest is history! Was I happier in those days? Was I making better wines? No, I don't think so. I think I was probably making worse wines, and that I've become a lot stricter with myself and more demanding, especially over the last 3 or 4 years.

Am I going to promote and market my wines as 'natural wines'? Yes, but not exclusively. There are several inconveniences about using the term natural wines to market my wines, that I have to bear in mind. The main one is that most consumers don't know what it means! Because there is no official or legal definition. Another inconvenience is that there are a lot of bad, faulty and extreme wines out there that I don't want to be associated with. I want to produce interesting, complex, terroir-expressing, comment-worthy wines, not wines that can just be slotted into a marketing category. I want to make wines that smell good and taste delicious! Just like the majority of natural winemakers.

Since my family hasn't been making wine for generations, and customers aren't beating a path to my cellar door, I have to promote and market my wines somehow or other. The use of the category of 'natural wines' may or may not be good for me: I will have to decide. Not only do I have to be a good winemaker, but I also have to be an astute marketer! I will just go with the flow and try to keep some grace while under pressure :)

The obvious advantage for me in marketing my wines as 'natural wines' is that ALL my customers, and contacts in the trade, know exactly what is meant by 'natural wine', and the quality and characteristics of my wines can speak for themselves. This is because my production is so small, that all my sales are within the 'natural wine community' or wine-lovers who already know what natural wine is all about. If and when I ever significantly increase my production and have to reach out to the wider wine-loving community, then I will have to think about it. A problem of plenty, really!

Interesting times we're living in!

Sunday 9 February 2014

Tasting and Pruning With Gabriel

I spent the other day (Sun 2nd Feb) pruning with Gabriel, my first ever "intern" who spontaneously volunteered to work for free in return for whatever I could teach him! Wow! I was honoured that anyone would want to do that. Lots of people have helped me in the vineyards for free over the years of course, but they were always people I already knew - family, friends, regular consumers of my wine, etc.

Gabriel tries his hand at pruning

On this occasion it was different, as I'd only met Gabriel (Sánchez Blocona) about 2 weeks ago at a tasting that we were at. As it happened, it was a tasting of the wines of Basilio Izquierdo, which would merit a whole post to itself, as there were some really incredible wines there. Including some really old ones (for me!) like a CVNE 1948 which is the oldest everest wine I've ever tasted in my life. But I won't go on about that - I've been getting paranoid lately about turning into a wine-bore! I think that's what happens when you read the Hosemaster of Wine!

Anyway, that was in the morning. After lunch (here) (which, btw, was the most expensive lunch I've ever paid for in my life, and where I witnessed for the first time a bottle of wine being opened with a pair of heated tongs!) we (Gabriel and I) decided to gate-crash another tasting in the evening.

This one was one of these wine-tasting clubs of friends who get together regularly to taste and comment on interesting wines. I knew a few of these friends (including Alfredo Maestro) so I figured that they wouldn't mind. As luck would have it they were doing a blind tasting, which I love, even though I never identify any of the wines.

The only clue we had was that all 6 bottles were non-Spanish. Incredibly, I was the only one who identified the country of provenance of 4 of them (Georgia)!  I think this was because no-one else there had tasted Georgian wines before, while I had - once, two years ago in London at RAW fair. Amazing! Then of course I had to explain that I'm not an expert or even experienced taster and that it was just luck that I remembered those wines. This is true, I'm a very inexperienced wine-taster, as the only tasting I ever do is of my own wines, and even then just checking for faults/off-tastes/strangeness/etc. I'm practicing though, and I try to get to whatever tastings I get invited to, time and tasks permitting!

Gabriel on the other hand is a wine-geek, an experienced taster, and collector of old rare wines. But he doesn't know much about grape-growing, vineyard work, pruning, etc. So, there was a win-win situation if ever there was one.

Now pruning is quite a skilled task, it's not just manual labour; so it's a bit of risk to just let anyone loose in your vineyard with a pair of pruning sheers! :)  A bit of a risk only in the sense that he/she might snip off a bit too much, or the wrong canes, and hence reduce the production of a few 'mutilated' vines!  I mean to say, it's not a catastrophy or a disaster. Vines can survive a lot worse than a crazy pruner :)  But in any case, why do it wrong, when it's so easy to do it right?

Here's me pruning a vine

So this is what we did: First he just followed me and watched, while I pruned and explained. But that gets boring after a while and the 'student' doesn't really learn anything new, after so much theory. So I sent him a vine ahead of me to do some pre-pruning. This entails snipping off all the obviously unwanted little canes, the canes growing from obviously wrong places and those growing in obviously wrong directions (all of which I explained beforehand).

Nice ladybird. Super-predator. Eats up all those nasty aphids

Contemplating ladybirds :)
I also got him to snip back all the remaining major canes but leaving 5 or 6 buttons. Then I myself would either prune these canes right back to the wood, or prune it to 1 or 2 buttons, as appropriate.

Those tasks that I set Gabriel to are very useful for getting to know those obviously useless canes, which can then just be snipped off without a second thought, and also for learning to handle the pruning shears, getting to know their weight and balance, how far they open, possible angles of entry, etc.

Nice earthworm. Sign of healthy living soil

His final task was to pick up all the snipped canes from where they fell and to put them in little piles in the middle of the lanes. Now that really is pure manual labour, but it saved me a lot of time :)  Come on, I had to do SOME brutal exploitation!  :)

Vine and thistle

The next time he comes out to help me, I'll teach him how to actually choose which canes to prune and keep, and which ones to prune right back to the wood. That is of course the most important piece of knowledge in pruning. How well you do that impacts not only the quantity of grapes that the vine will give you that year, but also long-term it will affect the health, vigour and longevity of that vine.

Ready, steady, prune!
Gabriel is also an awesome photographer, and he took all the photos in this post (except for the one of himself, obviously!).

His camara has also got this function that makes speedy videos. (For UK reader: think Benny Hill!) Check it out:

I'd be happy to teach anyone who wants to learn what I know. It's just a question of arranging to meet. Which is actually more difficult than it sounds because I usually don't know when I'm going to prune until a few days before! Anyway, feel free to contact me if you're interested.

Another really useful thing to do when short of time and you have thousands of vines to prune, is simply to temporarily duplicate yourself:

Me and my double ready to go
 After a hard day's work, our just reward:

In a bar, back in Madrid

Very pretty, but is it art?  ha ha!

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