Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why are serious wine journalism and "natural" wines so incompatible?

My piece on the RAW Wine Fair has aroused a lot of interest and some good, thoughtful responses. Some of those responses have also illustrated the gulf that lies between what I think of as "journalism" - an attempt to cover the facts of a story - and the way of thinking of some "natural" wine fans. To put the story in a nutshell, I wrote that I had found the fair interesting and worth attending, that I had tasted some very good wines, and had found some that were - in my opinion, and that of others who were there - horribly faulty.

Several respondents objected to my focusing on the faulty wines rather than the good ones, preferring Simon Woolf's approach - on - which was to talk almost exclusively about the wines he enjoyed 

Woolf admits to having "skipped most of France" at RAW despite - or perhaps because of - having  "tasted more French "natural" wines that I have intensely disliked, than in most other countries"
This meant that Woolf sidestepped over 50 of the 180 producers present at RAW, but even so, he he still encountered some questionable bottles:

Inevitably, with so much diversity and experimentation not everything was successful. There were wines being shown that I found challenging, if not downright faulty. But they were in the minority"

But that was as much of a mention as the "challenging" wines received. Applause for this strategy came from the US blogger - and "natural-wine" fan, Arnold Waldstein:

-Focusing on the positive and what you found interesting is so much more interesting and valuable than being polarizing, which while it affords the great writer the opportunity to exercise word smarts is really boring as it accentuates the negative. Who cares about people [sic] don't like really."

Unlike Mr Waldstein, I for one, certainly care about what critics - restaurant, movie, theatre, literary and wine critics - don't like. I find little interest in a critical column that simply includes recommendations without any context.

Would Mr Waldstein apply the same logic to literary and movie criticism? If there was a movie that included some very good parts as well as some horribly unpleasant scenes of gratuitous violence, would a critic be wrong in drawing attention to the latter as well as the former? Should a restaurant critic skim over the badly cooked vegetables and stale prawns in a review of a restaurant that serves great steak?

If Simon Woolf as a fan of "natural-wine" found some wines "challenging, if not downright faulty", doesn't he have a responsibility to offer some kind of warning about these to his readers, many of whom might be less prepared for the "challenges" they are going to encounter?

Like Woolf, I applaud any wine producer who wants to try to do something different, but unlike him, I see no reason to turn a blind eye to the experimenter's failures - especially when I find them, in Woolf's own words, "intensely dislikable".


  1. I find it disappointing that anyone who is purporting to represent a balanced representation of a wine show can be criticised for talking about the negative as well as the positive wines.

    Surely it stymies progress if journalists can't openly report on the weaknesses as well as the strengths of a particular movement in wine and perhaps shows that we're at risk of becoming a too PC. Just because 'natural wine' is in essence a noble aspiration doesn't mean we can't say when it doesn't work (especially if some of the wines are "intensely dislikable").

    If a motor journalist only reported the good aspects of the latest Skoda and didn't tell his/her audience that the one negative about it is that it can only drive forwards and not backwards, are they doing us a service or a disservice?

    1. Thanks for the support Stephen. And I agree about the "noble aspiration" by the way. but what do they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions?

  2. 'intensely dislikeable' is and was the grounds for the definition of faulty. We will see if the palates of the people change the definition of faulty. There is some form of group consciousness forming here, a merging of all wine lovers to horse lovers. Time to draw a Venn diagram including those who favour the following; sweat aroma, fecal matter, horses, mouse urine, onions and cabbage with a hint of vintage egg, cider, sparkling reds, biogenic amines, surprises in wet boxes and gambling.

  3. How many critics though report on the use of flavour-enhancing yeasts, acid additions and the unbalanced use of oak at a conventional wine tasting? Not many, though you're right. Arguably we should.

    1. If wines taste "wrong" - over-oaked, over-acidified, over-alcoholic, etc... of course one should say so. We all have different thresholds and different Achilles Heels. I happen to find vinegar and mousiness less palatable than some of the more technological failings...

    2. This is an important discussion, but you are talking to each other and not on the intended recipient of your criticisms -the potential buyer. Taste is a learned experience based on what we eat rather than drink. At one time oxidised white wines were the norm and no one complained. Natural wine tastes are not the norm but it is the responsibility of the critic to point this out. This wine may not be to everyone's taste is a good starting point. How do you assess Vino Verde in comparison?

    3. Yes, Tony, though I'd take issue over the oxidised wines. Even a century ago, I believe that connoisseurs preferred fresh-tasting wines to oxidised ones.

  4. I need some help separating "serious wine journalism" from advertorial. As you say, accentuating the positive gives a skewed perspective on natural wine, but so much wine writing seems fearful of offending a potential income stream. I hear a lot about the Trophy winners at the IWC etc., but there is little naming and shaming of underperformers. Fiona is right about this: there is a danger that natural wine becomes the straw man of journalists; it's a soft, financially neutral target.

    1. Good points John. In fact, when Charles Metcalfe and I launched Wine Intl magazine, we listed and described all the wines we tasted - and had fun coming up with terms for the really filthy ones. We found that most consumers didn't want or need those negative reviews - unless they were of well-known wines they might have been in danger of buying. Movie reviewers write about have a dozen films, most of which involve an actor most of us have heard of.
      But you're right about the need to move away from advertorial writing - about natural or conventional wines. You may not need to name and shame all the duds, but you need to put the good wines in context.

  5. Thanks. I'd like to read those (archived?) tasting notes.

    1. Not so much archived as printed on yellowing paper. I'll try to dig some up for you...

  6. Robert,

    You make some very valid points here. I'd hate to think I'd shirked any responsibilities I might have as a journalist/writer/blogger (delete as appropriate. I'm not sure which apply to me).

    It is worth bearing in mind that my write-up of RAW is best considered an opinion piece or feature article – not a news column. That doesn't excuse me from sloppy or inaccurate writing, but I think the context allows for a personal viewpoint. Tim's site isn't a national newspaper.

    I'd also like to point out that I have no affiliation with RAW, any of the producers or distributors. So I don't think my piece can be considered advertorial. It's just my opinion.

    For all that, I feel I reviewed the event reasonably dispassionately – and I hope accurately. I explained the concept of the event (partly in the organiser's words), mentioned that it was well attended and that I felt the wines from Slovenia and Northern Italy showed particularly well. I finished with a selection of wines that I'd personally enjoyed, and made it very clear that this was a personal selection – which should not necessarily be considered representative of the event.

    I did indeed point out that not all the wines were good. I just chose not to make that the headline – but I didn't try to hide the fact (it's about halfway down on the page). I don't like faulty wines either!

    I felt your write-up of RAW was pretty fair, but at the same time, I think you sensationalise the faulty wines aspect over the positives. Readers have to get almost to the very end of your piece before they read anything positive. I find this a little skewed. So my take on that was to publish a positive write-up, to have some balance in the reporting. I deliberately linked back to your article so that readers could make up their own minds.

    I'm sure you know that I'm uncomfortable with the term "natural wines". I hate it more and more, because the use of the term tends to invite severe polarisation and distract attention from good and interesting wines that deserve to have more fuss made about them.

    But I will always support and promote those winemakers who are brave enough to push the envelope, and to work with integrity, honesty and passion to produce *high quality*, artisanal wines that speak of their origins. And this is the purpose of almost everything that I write.

    There is a good reason why I focus on positives: we live in a world where most wine that is produced and sold is a mass-market, industrial product. And there are massive corporate interests and concomitant advertising budgets that promote this stuff to us all. They don't need any help from me in promoting their wines.

    The wines that are exhibited at RAW, or sold in independent wine-merchants, receive next to no publicity, and when they are good, I think they deserve to be celebrated. Yes, it's a tiny segment, an insignificant piece of the wine retailing pie. But it's also a sector which is important for the wine industry – important to keep the passion alive. And if it creates joyful, unsnobbish events like rawfair, then in my opinion that's a good thing for the industry in general.

    For me, silence often speaks louder than words. I don't write about wines I don't like. If anyone values my opinion and asks me about wine x or y, I'll give them an honest answer. But I can't see how it helps to publicise bad wines in a blog post. And, I'm still of the view that there were more hits than misses at Raw.

    Finally, I think those consumers who attend such an event are ready to be challenged, and ready not to like everything they try. So I don't feel that I was in dereliction of duty in not issuing summary warnings!

    1. Thanks Simon. As ever, I enjoy debating with people like Arnold and yourself - on the basis that any belief - religious, political or otherwise - that cannot take a bit of robust treatment is unlikely to survive for long. I appreciate your move away from the "N" word, and question why someone with Jamie Goode's intelligence and scientific background is still so happy to embrace its vagueness.
      I'm not asking you to be a journalist; an opinion piece is just that: an expression of personal opinion. On the other hand, so was mine. And we both enjoyed RAW and noted the numbers of consumers who had a great time too.
      You want to encourage producers to be brave in trying to do new things. I share that desire; on the other hand, after 30 years of watching wine producers move away from what I consider to be downright faulty, bad winemaking, I see no reason for not ringing alarm bells when I see it reappearing. Especially when so many others seem not to want to mention it.
      My criticisms of these - by my standards - "dirty" wines have drawn a lot of flack from people who have been very ready to criticise what they see as over-oaked, over-alcoholic "clean" wines.
      I do not see those characteristics as faults, but as stylistic choices with which I disagree (but which find favour with others). Brettanomyces and acetic acid are not stylistic choices, any more than playing the wrong notes of a sonata. They're faults.
      Now, some people can cleverly exploit faults while others can choose to overlook them, but when both you and I think they make a wine objectionable, I believe that we do the producer and potential consumer more of a favour by focusing on it than by sidestepping it on our way to talk about something we've enoyed.

    2. Market Row Wines7:45 am

      I didn't attend RAW. It does seem however that it's choice of official shop was a corporate and slick operatation rather than any number of smaller indies who are doing so much for natural wine (I don't include myself in this)

    3. Hi David, The shop was run by Ottolenghi was it not? Arguably a strange choice, as they are not primarily a wine-merchant, but hardly corporate?

      I don't know why you wouldn't include yourself in the list of smaller indies who promote natural wine. Naming conventions aside, you've very successfully coerced Brixtonites into upgrading their wine purchases to something half-decent for over a year now. I salute you!

    4. Thank you Simon.

      I was trying say that Natural Wine is the biggest point of difference in terms of a wine category for indies. Its a very important product perfect for hand selling and communicating about on a face to face level. It does not suit larger faceless retailing and is a very real threat to that large part of the wine trade and is arguably the biggest weapon for smaller operators and Indies.

      Smaller wine retailers have long been fed the industry lines of quirkiness and education whilst the wider industry concentrates on price and profit. Ultimately that translates as indies do the leg work whilst online/faceless retailing takes the reward. I found it sad that an event such as RAW would promote this by overlooking the people doing the graft (and taking the financial risk) by using Ottilenghi, who it seems were allowed to launch their very slick wine website on the back of RAW.

      I didn't include myself as I was unable to attend RAW and don't want to be accused of sour grapes. As you know I do promote, enjoy and am interested in Natural Wine but do feel that there are a lot of other shops/people doing more than me.

    5. Hi David,

      Interesting stuff about the point of difference actually. I'd not joined the dots in my head, but I think you're absolutely right.

      One does occasionally encounter indie wine merchants who are staunchly traditional and even anti-"natural wine", but it's pretty rare these days.

      I didn't realise Ottolenghi were launching a wine website off the back of RAW. I'd have to agree with you, it seems a shame that the business couldn't have gone to a more longstanding retailer. Still, even for RAW, business is business I guess.

  7. Well done Simon. If nothing else RAW gives a voice to the one and two man bands. There were a multitude of gems there.

    1. Thanks Daniel! Glad you found some gems, I certainly did.

  8. Hi Robert....

    Few people do I respect and enjoy their writing more and disagree with more profusely than yourself;)

    We've had this conversation/argument prior. I'm sharing this link to remind you that this is a replay of the argument we had in the comments with some new twists.

    -->Natural Wine…an idea in tune with the times

    The journalism/natural wine shock blogging title, I'll leave alone. Clever but a bit silly in my opinion.

    I write about wine to inspire others to try something new and interesting. I firmly believe that a non-interventionist approach to winemaking (yes I call it natural) can produce wonderful wine of great interest made by individualistic artisans just following their own beliefs without much market regard.

    And I believe that a healthy approach to growing our food and producing the goods that we consume is a mainstream belief that I see all around me even in NYC, one of the worlds most dense add urban centers. And possibly the strongest and largest center that has embraced natural wine as a category.

    But mostly we disagree or part on the intent of communications and education around wine.

    You are so astute, so knowledgeable but amazingly polarizing in your style. You raise hackles not questions. I'm interested in raising curiosity for the broader part of the market. Or just maybe you write for the industry that relishes a debate, I write for the consumer who just wants to find something interesting to drink.

    And finally, categories Robert, like natural wine are just that. There to help discover, not there to certify or define themselves buy what they are not. They are a guide, not a map, a direction not dogma.

    A pleasure as always Robert.

    I wouldn't have found this except someone pinged me from afar that you had chosen to honor me with some attention ;)

    BTW--Truly unfortunate that I missed the fair this year and the opportunity to share a drink with you. Life and work are just crazy busy for me lately.

  9. Market Row Wines6:59 am

    Winestars World "quality is not the only metric for success"

  10. Robert, Simon, Arnold,

    Thanks for this post and comments. It's a topic that interests me a lot.

    I agree that if a journalist/writers/blogger has any intentions of being objective, then he/she should mention the fact that a potential buyer MAY be in for a surprise on opening a bottle. But I see no need to focus on the faulty, supposedly-faulty and other non-standard natural wines, to write at length almost ad nauseam, to attempt to be humorous, to use extended metaphors, and generally to wax lyrical on the weird and funky, while ignoring or paying lip-service to all the completely normal tasting wines. This is just not the reality and not objective. It may make for good copy and give writers something interesting and fashionable to write about, but they are doing a disservice. Is it not sufficient to just say "Buyer Beware", or "Do some searching on the internet before purchasing"?

    It seems patently obvious to me that that "most" natural wines are perfectly acceptable (if not actually delicious) and not in the least faulty - because they have been produced for decades now and all the metrics (producers, sales, outlets, fairs) are rising. If these wines really were faulty, people would have stopped buying them, and the producers would have gone out of business and stopped making them!

    I am constantly amazed (perplexed?) about the lack of focus on all the positive aspects that are embodied by natural wines (and I hasten to add, not to the exclusion of other quality wines that do not include themselves under the 'natural wine umbrella'). For example, the environmental benefits, the health benefits, transparency in labelling, and equally importantly, the expression of terroir in a given wine.

    I don't suppose that any actual data exists on the percentage of wines that anyone found to be 'faulty' at RAW or any other wine fair?

    1. Sorry Fabio, but as I've said before and as some of the responses to my post have made clear, there are plenty of people who will focus on the "natural" wines they like. That's not my role. The point I - and others - sought to make was that the growth of the "natural" wine movement has been associated with a - to my mind - striking - renaissance of disgustingly faulty, acetic and mousey wines. Having spent 3 decades trying to help - again - to my mind - to eradicate this kind of bad winemaking, I see absolutely no reason to overlook its reappearance.

      No one has to read what I write. Interestingly, a number of people seem to agree with me...

  11. Robert, Yes that's fair enough. You can write about what you choose and no-one can say anything to you for that. It's also fair enough that you point out the faulty natural wines and bad winemaking, but I fear that you are misrepresenting the reality. Anyone reading your posts would think that most, if not all, natural wines are faulty, cloudy, or otherwise funky, when this is clearly not the case. I would say that it's exactly the other way around, ie that most natural wines are well made and not faulty at all..

    To repeat, I see nothing wrong in pointing out faults and examples of bad winemaking, but if the implication is that MOST natural wines are like that, then you run the risk of positioning yourself as an extremest and of losing credibility, just like certain natural wine talibans at the other extreme have lost it.

    1. Fabio, as in the past, I really do think that supporters of the natural wine are more than a little touchy.

      Please reread what I wrote (below) and explain how my use of the words "some" and "several" can be treated as synonyms for "most, if not all".

      but there were several that sent me rushing in search of something with which to wash out my mouth...

      On the other hand, some of the wines I tasted were first class by any standards ... . Both [Gerd Sepp, and Martin Moran] agreed that they had encountered some memorably faulty wines at RAW - along with some they'd have been delighted to buy and drink

      To be fair, Moran's, Sepp's and my distaste for some of the wines did not appear to be shared by the several hundred members of the public who attended the event when I was there. They all seemed to be having a great time, making their way from producer to producer and wine to wine. Are our professional palates too finely attuned to faults? Or did the non-professionals treat the exercise of sampling good and bad wines in the same spirit as they might have brought to riffling through the similarly varied garments on offer in the Vintage Clothing market in the building next door?

      All I can say is that I came across enough good wines to want to return to the RAW fair next year

      It may well be that "most natural wines are well made and not faulty". I'd also say that most bottles sealed with natural corks are not tainted by TCA. That doesn't stop me from getting angry with the one bottle in a hundred that's corked - and with producer who treat faultiness as something we just have to put up with, or worse still, part of the "romance of wine".

      A basket-weaver who takes customers' money for baskets he knows might fall apart is behaving fraudulently. And I don't see how that differs for winemakers.

      Unless there is a great big warning sticker on the bottle explaining that the producer works by different rules to the vast majority of his neighbours and counterparts across the globe (rather like the basket-weaver stickering his work as being "ornamental"), I see no reason not to continue to warn consumers against his wine.

      The greater prevalence of downright faulty wines within the "natural" category is hardly surprising, given the deliberate choice by producers not to protect wine with adequate doses of SO2,or alternative measures.

      My experience of your wine, Fabio, makes me believe that you DO care about your customers. If you choose to be part of a deliberately "loose" group, "some" of whose members do not share your integrity and/or skill, don't be surprised if you sometimes get tainted by the criticisms that minority deserves and receive.

  12. Robert, thank you for your response. I don't want to get all nitpicky and analyze your use of individual words. I just read your original article again, and despite your use of 'some' and 'several' the impression that one gets (or rather, the impression that I get) on reading the whole article is that you indeed mean 'most'! Due to the general tone and overall content. But then again I may be one of those more than a little touchy ones! :) Anyway, no matter.

    I also get annoyed and angry at the presence of faulty wines, even though we may differ on our definitions of 'faulty', (now there's a topic worthy of discussion, IMHO) as this minority of wines discredits and draws bad publicity onto a whole category of wines and onto the majority of producers who produce clean, unfunky, terroir-expressing wines. And you're right, I do care a lot about my customers, and I make a big effort to get feedback from them, from my outlets and from my distributors.

    1. Thanks Fabio. As we've agreed elsewhere, neither of us wants to indulge in argumentative ping pong. After 30 years of wine tasting, I'm pretty certain in my mind what constitutes a fault. Now, I may choose to overlook low levels of faultiness but I see no merit in pretending that a spade is not a spade. I may find that a small scar on occasion adds to the aesthetic appeal of a face, but I'm not going to pretend to myself or anyone else that scars are not generally undesirable.

  13. Coming into this late and from far away (ir unable to attend the tasting mentioned), I have not managed to read every single comment but would tend to agree a lot with Robert on this issue, and also with Simon Woolf whose arguments make sense as well. I consider that the term "natural", at least when applied to wine, is nonsensical and undesireable. Having been faced, at times with an unusually high proportion of blatently faulty wines when tasting wines from this self-named category, I do think that it is part of our job to print or speak warnings to potential consumers about these defects, putting them into perspective and, if possible, giving the reasons for the problems detected.
    There is probably a lack of understanding of many things related to these issues amongst consumers and a journalist's job is surely to inform as well as give opinions.

    1. Thanks David. It's good to have support from someone like you over the "unusually high proportion" of faulty "natual" wines and the "nonsensical" character of the term.

      The only point I'd make is that the "lack of understanding" seems to go a lot further than journalists. When some of the people who've waded into this debate question whether acetic acid and brett are faults - or treat them as equivalent to "bland" ness and over-oaking, I certainly feed thoroughly befuddled.

  14. ethanfries7:00 pm

    Interesting points. When I hear people denigrate natural wines for bottle variation or lack of longevity I can't help but imagine the comparison Artisinal bread and pastries to Wonderbread and Twinkies. Yes, Twinkies always taste the same, they last long, and there are void of "flaws". But I think we would all prefer eating a perishable, craft made Éclair.