Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pure and Simple

After two days of solid rain in the San Francisco bay area, I’m waiting. For the power to come back up. For the wireless to reappear. And for a better understanding of natural wines. Specifically, the Italian ones.

Before anyone thinks I’m about to take on the sacred cow, invoking the “N” word with unabashed acceptance and reverence, turn away. While I am a devotee of many natural things in life, I know things aren’t always what they seem. In essence, the words I heard uttered by one of the Renaissance men of the 20th century, Bucky Fuller, who told me to my face, “Anything that nature lets you do is natural.”

So, given a wide berth, I’ll dig in.

It started on the drive over the Bay Bridge from Berkeley to the City, on my way to Biondiviono to see a friend who brought in some winemakers for the Gambero Rosso tasting earlier in the week. A small reception for the winemakers and their wines in a convivial neighborhood setting in only the way one finds in San Francisco and other cities who have devoted their urban spaces to a accommodate the human scale. With dogs. My kind of place. The pump is primed.

I took my son with me, who, at 34, has been around the wine world, but is not of the wine world. But definitely with a vegan sister in the East Bay and a mother, who lives in the wilderness of New Mexico, is more than able to detect the natural things of life. If that weren’t enough, his quasi-Texan sister in Austin, who doesn’t believe in shaving anything or eating anything that has ever breathed, save a leaf of lettuce, completes the triad. Let’s just say he has been primed for the natural life from day one.

We taste through a flight of Vitovskas, Malvasias and Sauvignons and were talking to each other about how the wine tastes.

After tasting two of the wines from one producer, a Vitovska and a Malvasia, he looked at me and asked, “Are these wines supposed to taste alike?” Out of the mouths of babes, incredible. Something that I had never thought of but in the back of my head, this had been bouncing around.

Flash back to 1965. I was a high school student and decided to make wine for a science project. And my first foray in natural wine and natural winemaking. My mom crushed the grapes with her feet. We used open top fermentation and used no sulfur, natural yeast, no oak, no stainless steel, no concrete eggs.

Flash forward to 2008. I’m in New York City at Terroir wine bar, waiting for a future friend, and ordered an Asprinio. Upon tasting this wine, I time tripped back to those heady days of youthful winemaking. The wines tasted identical! I put that info in the vault.

Flash back to 2006, at the Gravner winery in the cellar. What, I’m talking about Graver, after so mindlessly forgetting to work it into our recent Friuli trip? Ah, yes, to those who wondered, I have been to that mountaintop. And tasted those rusty, wines. And sold them. Or tried to sell them. I remember hauling a bottle of Breg to NY and opening it with Alice, who at the time offered a little puzzlement about the aura of this wine. But with a selection of cheeses and an evening under the spell of the wine and a unusual setting in Battery Park, she and I both explored, albeit briefly, the mysteries of Breg. Ain’t too proud.

Look, growing up in California in the 60’s and 70’s, I got my natural on. Ate tofu before anyone knew what it was. Skulked the aisles of the natural food stores of Santa Cruz in search of granola and straight haired lasses with flowing dresses and long white shiny legs. I’ve got natural in my veins. Or so my proto-natural champion Bucky would assert.

All this because my son said those few simple words, “Are these wines supposed to taste alike?”

Sure, Gravner doesn’t taste exactly like my homemade tub. But it resembles that effort more than it does the Friulano or Sauvignon flights we went through last week.

Is that bad? This identity card of naturalness? Let me put it this way. For my way of living, sometimes it is cold and I put on a sweater and a jacket and warm socks and a hat and gloves and a muffler. But in July, floating down an inner tube on the Guadalupe River, nah-ah, not gonna do it.

And that’s really my bottom line with wine, natural or otherwise. It has to fit the occasion.

I’m in an office in Napa, talking to one of my Italiano importers. He tells me of this time he was in NY, and the wine steward (maybe a sommelier) is pushing this amphora style wine. “What kind of food that I am interested in tonight, will go with this wine?” he posits. The natural enthusiasm of the young server wasn’t hearing that. “You know these kinds of wine will go with anything. It’s just a decision one must make to accept these wines to go with whatever you are having.” Ok, I get it. I’ve had a steak with Chardonnay and loved it. I eat spinach with Grenache, not the usual choice. I get it.

But my colleague didn’t get it. For one reason. Because it didn’t, in the end, result in a pleasurable experience. And that I really get. Something we talked about at the recent COF2011 roundtable. Samantha brought it up. “Aren’t we drinking wine because it makes us feel good?” Well, she actually said it a little more unfiltered (It’s all about the buzz). And yes, whether it’s the buzz, the alcohol, the lightness one feels, the effect of wine upon ones senses and inhibitions, doesn’t it always , for those of us in human cloak, come down to the “P” word?

If the “N” wines don’t convey the “P” effect, what good are they?

That’s my early rainy morning West Coast grumble. While I wait for the fog to lift and the smog to settle in for what looks like a sunny day by the bay.

I’ve had enough pain. I’ll have more in this life. I know that. Whether the wines are made naturally or not, whether they use ambient yeast or pharmaceutical strains, whether the oak in American or French or un oaked, whether the wine is micro oxygenated and spoofed to the moon or let alone to grow underarm hair long enough to braid, all these swirling dervishes of the wine world, all of them, for me, come down to this: What inside this glass, in front of me right now, will make me happy?

“You mean you don’t have the problem solved yet?” a bearded elder calls out to me in the lobby. “I thought I did forty years ago” I tell him. Boy was I wrong. Now I am older and no wiser.

But one thing I do know, and this is the nature of it for me.

I want it to taste good.

I want it to give me pleasure.

Pure and simple.


Samantha Dugan said...

Wow, a non dogmatic voice of reason in wine blogging?! Be careful love, you might end up with your name on a "somebody stop him or we will have NOTHING to talk about" list somewhere. Bravo Gigante.

Hank said...

As Bucky's friend John Cage once put it, "I prefer laughter to tears."

Wink Lorch said...

Thank you, Alfonso, and good on your son for putting his finger right on the button.

I dimly recall not that long ago a few loud voices complaining about certain trendy global winemakers' wines all tasting the same. And now, trendy wines at the other end of the spectrum risk delivering us this same errr... sameiness.

I agree, wine producers from around the world, Natural or not, please give us wines that convey pleasure, but please give us diversity too and maybe authenticity if you can squeeze that one in. Otherwise as you wisely asked "What good are they"?

Marco Eleusinio said...

Spoken like a dyed-in-the-wool disciple of Dionysius. Polluted, plastered or punch drunk?

Thomas said...

Oh, do I love this post.

It is quite the thing to treat every wine the same way--naturally. Then why would anyone be surprised when the wines all taste the same--naturally?

There is indeed a reason the person producing is called "the winemaker" and not "the night watchman/woman."

Incidentally, that "sameness" can have a lot to do with the injustices of oxygen exposure at the wrong intervals, which, oddly, can taste the same from exposure to exposure...evivva l'SO2!

Waynegrape said...

This could be one of the most straighforward and clear discussions of what wine should be I have ever read. A terrific and inspiring post...
THere's nothing here I can disagree with.
I love some "natural" wines in the right context.
I love some simple supermarket Prosecco in another context.
I DO believe that many "natural" wines tastes the same (bravo to your son for echoing my thoughts and bravo to you for being brave enough to say it).
I have had some orangy and oxidized white wines that have made me say "Wow".
I believe that there are occasions that render a big-ass, chunky 16% alcohol Schioppettino pleasurable.
I believe most of the time I want a fresh, clear, bright Friulano just because it makes me happy to sniff it and drink it on my terrace during the warm Friulian summer...
All of this complexity is clearly communicated in this post.
Thank you.

Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) said...

Vive la difference!!!

gsricks said...

Natural has its places in life. So does human ingenuity. I have always subscribed to the theory of relativity contained with a quote credited to Dr. Andrew Weil "If I have a cold, take me to an herbalist. If I am in a car accident, take me to the hospital."

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks all for the great comments. I've been traveling and haven't been able to reply asap, but it looks like y'all have it going on well, don't need me. carry on. Grazie

Amy Atwood said...

what Fabio said:)
and what Alfonso & Sam said, here's to pleasure
cheers, amy

Drew said...

Great post AC! I think some wines are good for making us think, if not for anything else. If these wines can expand our view and make us talk about them and what wine is supposed to be then they have done there job.

As for me. Been trying for years, I mean really trying, and I still don't ge them.

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