Les Caves de Pyrene is an importer, agent,, distributor and retailer of many wines around the world. We believe in 'real wines' that express their origin. We work with winemakers who show respect for nature.
A couple of years ago I was in a San Francisco natural wine bar and proffered my card to pay my tab at the end of the evening. The young French manager looked at it and handed it back to me with a shake of his head.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t accept this.”
Being British I naturally apologised profusely and started yanking $20 bills out of my wallet.
He put his hand up to forestall me and smiled. “No, I meant that it is an honour that someone from the famous Les Caves de Pyrene is in my bar. Put your money away!”
I experienced a momentary thrill as if the voice from the Amex ad had just announced that the CDP charge card signified more about my status than money ever could. In the same instant, I was whisked back to some of my first ever “phonetic cold calls” as a rep, which followed the following invariable pattern:
Doug here from Les Caves de Pyrene
Lay Cow Doo Peer-On?
Um…Les as in Les Dennis (who?), Caves as in our where our ancestors lived, De as in Marquis de Sade, Pyrene as in the sort of Pyrene.
Lay Cows doo Marquis de Sade?
Lez Cows Pyrenaze?
No, Pyrene – Hercules’ girlfriend.
Pyrene was Hercules’ girlfriend.
Where did you say you were from?
And endless variations on these themes.
One of the great life lessons was that I learned that it was an undeniable advantage to be able to thoroughly mispronounce the name of the company you work for, in order to find common ground with a potential customer. The trouble is, that by reinforcing the error, when they did ultimately find out the truth, they perceived you as a complete idiot.
What has prompted all these recollections is that our thirtieth birthday is tolling this year. And the feeling that we are in a different place to where we began as two men, a woman, a battered van and a tiny clutch of unpronounceable wines.
Fast forward back to San Francisco and now I didn’t even need to pronounce – or mispronounce – Lez Cows Doo Peer On. I had the visible Lez Cows aura, and the company credit card to boot. Respect had been given. And in case the inflated ego needed any more priming, then a notable journalist started an interview with a statement that we were one of the universally recognised wine companies. Although I do believe that there are remote Amazonian tribes and the soupdragons in deeper parts of Alpha Centauri who literally have no idea who we are.
What has prompted all these recollections is that our thirtieth birthday is tolling this year. And the feeling that we are in a different place to where we began as two men, a woman, a battered van and a tiny clutch of unpronounceable wines. For a start there are many more of us now, the family has proliferated, and several ancillary businesses have been spawned. The barely local flicker has become a kind of global flame. At least people keep on telling us that. And it was worth a free drink in San Francisco on one occasion.
And so I thought I might retrace the timeline, the ups, downs and myriad cul-de-sacs of CDP. It would be instructive to bear witness to how a company could grow from virtually nothing to virtually something. Business gurus and commentators would have you believe that there is a perfect formula to success. But I don’t believe that success is inevitable, even with hard work or lofty ideals. It is also founded on dumb luck and there-but-for-the-grace-of-etc-etc moments mixed with stubbornness and stupidity. But there is beauty in trying to do the right thing, and we have become great believers in karmic realisation. Our transformation from ugly ducklings to slightly scrawny geese is perhaps more akin to a wild fermentation (no inoculation of investment capital if you please) but driven by a raw native intelligence with the product developing organically. We never existed to grow; we simply existed and grew.
As it were.
Our progress, such as it is, and the wine that we love, such as it is, has been occasionally pure and simple, and equally flawed and complicated.
Business gurus and commentators would have you believe that there is a perfect formula to success. But I don’t believe that success is inevitable, even with hard work or lofty ideals. It is also founded on dumb luck and there-but-for-the-grace-of-etc-etc moments mixed with stubbornness and stupidity.
There is no point at approaching this tale logically or sequentially. At this point in time the narrator inevitably becomes an unreliable one, memory being what it is. Perhaps, the best way of chronicling our adventures is to examine how our wine list grew from a ten-page document sprinkled with a few unknown south west French growers into the 400 + bin doorstopper that it is today. Like a seed that has somehow become an enormous prize turnip, the list grew and grew like Marvell’s vegetable love, reflecting our excitement at discovering new growers and ever-so-tasty wines, allied to no-little-success in selling some of these wines. Curiosity piqued, our journey (it is always a journey) began to take us all over the world to explore wine cultures old and new.
Accountants and purchase managers are employed either to protect margins or ratchet up the gps. This usually entails pressing the supplier for greater discounts, trying to prevent price rises, deferring payment and a host of sleight-of-hand clawback methods. For the true bean-counter a net strong gp is as important as a busy restaurant, because economic variables can be understood, managed and monitored. It is said that accountants know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. This is not entirely fair – their brief is to analyse figures and set targets, not to suggest creative methods on how a restaurant might succeed. The typical business spreadsheet is the classic example of financial wish fulfilment. A spreadsheet posits theoretical profit-and-loss scenarios according to purchase and selling prices, but does not take the psychological temperature of customers, nor does it factor in macroeconomics (recession and depression). There is a “tip-over point” in the fortune of every restaurant when customers perceive it as poor value-for-money, which is as much a qualitative as a quantitative judgement. You may build your house on stone in the flexible economy, but you should still be prepared for shifting sands. (It should be mentioned that there are enlightened accountants who understand that to grow you need to loosen the stays on margins).
There is a “tip-over point” in the fortune of every restaurant when customers perceive it as poor value-for-money, which is as much a qualitative as a quantitative judgement.
The GP, qua brute GP, has long been the consolation of bean counters and the bane of wine drinkers. Restaurateurs, fancying themselves as entrepreneurs, enamoured by the notion of exponential growth, also began to recite the mantra about hitting their “GPs”. Mark-ups have become more punitive as a result. Over the years the scale of the margin increased steadily from 65% to 70% and beyond, until now it is not unusual to see 75% and 78% averages. The magic gross profit targets cited by accountants are always shifting northwards and that is the result of a very fixed financial model. It is also part of the trend for single restaurants to grow into small groups and thus to “scale up” their operations by reducing costs and increasing gps.
Ergo, bottles of wine are now routinely and shamefully marked up four – even five times – with the expectation that customers won’t bat an eyelid. But they will. Wine is already taxed to the hilt, and every time there is a duty or price rise, restaurants use that as an excuse to increase their net profit margin. Because they are so adamant about maintaining a consistently elevated GP, a wine which has increased by, say, £1, can and will be marked up by £3.50 (a net extra cash profit of £2.50). Bear in mind also that since the whole meal will have an “optional service charge” added to the bill, the customer will be paying a further % increase on the wine. Meanwhile, other restaurants dig deep in their search for cheaper wines to hit rigged price points. Until buyers perceive that glass ceilings on prices are just that – ceilings which must be shattered – wine lists will become all the poorer as choice steadily diminishes.
Bottles of wine are now routinely and shamefully marked up four – even five times – with the expectation that customers won’t bat an eyelid.
To survive in an inequitable financial climate – when the bases are loaded against the restaurant (rents, rates, services, wages and other costs) restaurateurs are bound to do inequitable things and call them “financial realism” or “necessary survival strategy”. The rot is certainly endemic in a system which allows smaller enterprises to be discriminated against. So, blame it on government (local and national) for not supporting the hospitality industry, for the regressive taxation system and the lack of regulation of business rents. It is sad that many restaurants may have to close their doors before the message seeps through. And blame it on the culture of gross profit. Chasing growth is a short-term fix, and usually results in the consumer for paying more and more for less and less.
Each one of us is a consumer. We express our choices individually and buy we like, or what we can afford. Wine journalists – and people throughout the wine trade – invent a consumer-archetype; they may characterise (or caricature) them as “my readers” or “the paper’s readers,” or “my customers”, which not only gives them a sense of ownership over their audience but implies reciprocity in that their audience has a moral ownership of the medium through which they are expressing their opinions (in the case of wine writing) or have fixed buying patterns that should be respected.
What is it about this drink that elevates it above others, that has inspired poetry and prose, art, and music for hundreds/thousands of years?
This reductive profiling arises from market research which seeks to identify the behavioural patterns of groups of people, and pinpoint the stimuli required to change – or tap into – such behaviour.
Our commitment to wine as a beverage (as opposed to beer, spirits, cider, alcopops or Coca Cola) is a distinct choice. We have chosen to ingest it above all others. What we should ask is what this liquid – that we allow inside our bodies – comprises. Is it more than booze – fermented grape juice with added chemicals? Is it the result of farming and careful winemaking, is it crafted by artisans, the product of culture and place? What is it about this drink that elevates it above others, that has inspired poetry and prose, art, and music for hundreds/thousands of years? If it does not matter to us, why does the origin and personality of wine matter to other people?
The stereotypical passive consumer who slavishly follow trends is a caricature, but one that has become a convenient for consumer acceptance panels, commentators, appellation controllers, people and organisations that want to have a handle on “taste.”
“Customers don’t care”. The stereotypical passive consumer who slavishly follow trends is a caricature, but one that has become a convenient for consumer acceptance panels, commentators, appellation controllers, people and organisations that want to have a handle on “taste.” People, if I may generalise positively, are not cyphers, but are individuals capable of interrogating or absorbing information and changing taste accordingly. There is a lot of talk of “my customers think this”, “my customers would not like that,” which is to suggest that people have identical opinions (so identical that they morph into an average consumer).
It is important to convey meaningful information and to challenge so-called passive consumer acceptance of the status quo.
It is important to convey meaningful information and to challenge so-called passive consumer acceptance of the status quo. Might it concern a drinker, any drinker, that potentially toxic chemicals are being sprayed over the vines from which the grapes will be used to make the wine? Were you to see a list of chemical additives on a wine label, how would that affect your buying choice? We are led to believe that consumers make active choices, so why wouldn’t we care about whether, for example, a wine was made from organically-farmed grapes?
It is a modest proposal to suggest that wine writers should have a mission to explain and enthuse, and also to educate. Instead, there is still too much second-guessing the demographic, reflecting “perceived” opinion and kowtowing to advertisers and supermarkets. It is not the fault of wine writers, but rather an editorial imposition. The same holds true for sommeliers and wine buyers. They have a unique opportunity to expose customers to new and interesting wines and to start them on a journey of discovery.
Nacho Gonzalez farms his family’s vineyard, which his grandmother had worked all her life, and is patiently restoring its vitality. He has also purchased other small plots and rents a couple more, with the total vineyard holdings comprising some 3ha – all old vines (40 yrs minimum). He released his first vintage in 2013.
La Perdida is situated Larouco, in Valdeorras, where the Atlantic bumps into its continental counterpart. This ensures that the vines receive enough sunlight and heat during the relatively short summer, whilst rainfall is high, and temperatures can drop to below zero during the winter. In addition, there are also risks of late frosts and hailstorms in spring, excessive heat in summer, and violent storms caused by the mixture of the sea breezes and the dry air of the Castilian plain. Who’d be a farmer?
The typical Galician soils are either clay or granitic sand on a bedrock of slate or granite, depending on the site. Farming is organic with some biodynamic practices. Nacho allows native plants and grasses to grow between the scraggy bush vines.
He makes a variety of wines, all from native grapes and all in the natural, low-intervention way. All the wines have an interesting granular quality with agreeably chewy tannins. They are mouthfilling without being heavy and somehow combine the ripeness of fruit you might expect from a warm climate with the nice acid structure of a cooler place. Definition of terroir in a glass!
The skin contact Godello (O Pando) is peachy, in both senses. A blend actually of Godello 70% and Doña Branca 30% from the 40 yr old O Pando vineyard in village of Larouco, the vines grow on clay soils covered by natural plants all year round. The primary fermentation takes place in 400-litre amphorae and then spends a further five months on skins in old barrels where the wine also does its malo. No fining, no filtration, no sulphur. The amber/orange wine displays an appealing balance of apricot skin, warm white spice and salty minerals. This year we have a white called A Chaira Blanca, which is chiefly Doña Branca. This grape, meaning “white lady”, is grown primarily in Galicia and throughout Portugal from the Douro northward. The variety is a permitted grape in Valdeorras and Monterrei in Galicia and Bierzo in Castile and Leon. The grapes have thick skins, which perform well in the humid maritime climate of Galicia, but that can also impart some astringency and slight bitterness even with the briefest of skin contact during production due to the high proportion of polyphenols in the skin. The vineyard is in Seadur on granitic sandy soil and the wine spends five days on skins with natural yeasts, part fermented in old open-topped barrels and part in tinajas, followed by ageing in barrel & tinajas, and natural decanting into bottle with no sulphur added.
O Trancado Tinto, from a 70-year-old vineyard that Nacho inherited from his grandfather, is a blend of whole bunch of Garnacha Tintorera (which you may know better as Alicante Bouschet) and Mencia. The whole bunches are fermented in 400-litre tinajas for 20 days and then transferred to larger barrels to mature. The vinification is entirely natural and no sulphur is added to this wine. The colour is rich purple and the wine gives off warm smells of wet stone, pureed black fruits and plums, whilst the palate is grippy and mineral with some roasted herbs thrown in. Serve cool to focus the fruit and enjoy how this wine develops and how the respective personalities of the grapes both emerge and mingle.
Interested in finding more about the wines of La Perdida? Contact us directly:
I come from a dairying family: my mother’s grandfather was a Swiss dairy farmer who emigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, and she grew up on the family’s dairy farm in southern California. My own ambitions as a child were geared toward science, but after studying biochemistry at university, I spent two years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in Senegal. Returning to the US, I turned towards working with food, and spent a year working at a winery and a small cheesemaking dairy before coming to the UK to do a Master’s Degree in Anthropology, where my dissertation focused on Protected Geographical Indications (protected food names) and their complex relationship with concepts of tradition. As part of my research, I visited Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and took a job there as a cheesemonger on completion of the course. A year later I became the buyer, and now I manage the buying, technical, and new cheese development side of the business.
We take it for granted that people know how cheese is made but it’s useful to have a straightforward definition! Would you quickly describe the process from cow/goat to final cheese?
Making cheese is a way of preserving fragile, perishable liquid milk in a form that is much lighter and longer-lived. This transformation entails two different processes: the removal of extra moisture from the milk to concentrate the milk solids (‘drainage’) and fermentation, which in this case is a bacterial process during which milk sugar (lactose) is metabolised into sour lactic acid. The way in which the drainage and the fermentation are coordinated (does one come first, or do they happen simultaneously?), and the amount of moisture that’s removed, gives rise to the many styles of cheese, from the soft and oozy to the hard and crystalline.
Cheeses made from unique and interesting milk from extensive, low-input farming systems are sold alongside others made from commodity milk as if they are exactly the same.
You may have heard of rennet, the enzyme that is used to turn liquid milk into a jelly-like permeable curd from which moisture can be removed through cutting, stirring, and heating. The most common form of this enzyme is an extract from the stomach of a baby ruminant (calf, lamb, or kid), though plant enzymes from cardoons or thistles can also be used to set the milk. Today, most factory cheeses are made using enzymes synthesised in the laboratory, though we encourage farmhouse cheese producers to use the more expensive natural enzymes.
You wrote a book with your husband Francis called Reinventing The Wheel: Milk, Microbes and The Fight For Real Cheese. What prompted you to write the book and can you explain what you mean by “real cheese.”
Writing RTW was a labour of love. Part of the impetus for writing the book was meeting and collaborating with French and American microbiologists who are studying the microbiomes of milk and cheese, who are making the case that if we are to make unique and interesting cheeses that tell us something about where they come from, we need to rethink milk production. It’s a fantastic story because it inverts the standard line about white-coated scientists ruining a traditional food; here, it is the scientists with the cutting-edge research labs who are realising how much we have lost on the path toward cheapness, consistency, and efficiency, and pushing the cheesemakers they work with to work in a different, more holistic and sophisticated way.
It is the scientists with the cutting-edge research labs who are realising how much we have lost on the path toward cheapness, consistency, and efficiency.
Meanwhile, in my work at Neal’s Yard Dairy, I began to recognise the extent to which production practices with integrity are not rewarded by the current conversation within the industry. Within the cheese industry at large, cheeses made from unique and interesting milk from extensive, low-input farming systems are sold alongside others made from commodity milk as if they are exactly the same, and gimmicky starter cultures (the equivalent of cultured yeasts designed to give particular flavours) are used to add flavours that are overtly appealing yet totally without intrinsic personality or character. We’ve coined the term ‘real cheese’ to describe those that have something unique and interesting to say, and that allow us to taste a complex and laudable farming system in its entirety. If we don’t do something to help cheese-lovers recognise and appreciate the meaning of these rare, endangered flavours, we may lose them altogether—and that would be a tragedy.
How far back can we date cheesemaking?
Cheesemaking has been practised for thousands of years, and it’s a testament to human ingenuity (and the power of trial and error) that people managed not only to evolve cheesemaking methods suitable to their environments and farming systems, but also perfect them, long before anyone knew about microbes and their role in the process!
What were cheeses likely to have been like then? (do we know?)
To be honest, we have no idea. But a really exciting part of the work that is being done by cheesemakers now is to go back to old books and sources and try to imagine—and even attempt to recreate—those processes. Of course, as I alluded to above, recreating a cheese as it would have been made 150 or 200 years ago requires more than a recipe; it is a process that starts with rethinking farming practices. What would the stocking rates (number of animals per acre that a farm could support) have looked like then? What sort of animals would they have been farming, and what sort of yields would they expect? How would the milking be done, and how—in a world without commercial starter cultures—would the fermentation be encouraged? The cheesemaking process itself has changed much less over the years than the things that have changed invisibly in the background.
If we don’t do something to help cheese-lovers recognise and appreciate the meaning of these rare, endangered flavours, we may lose them altogether—and that would be a tragedy.
What’s clear from the old books on the subject is that British cheese has changed dramatically, even in the past hundred years. With the popularisation of starter cultures (and the delegation of cheesemaking to paid employees rather than woven into the fabric of the day’s activities), the process has got much faster, with the result that many British cheeses taste far more acidic, and are far more crumbly and short-textured than they would have been even a few generations ago. In a book from the early 1930s, a Cheddar instructor talks of how a ‘sharp acidy flavour’ will result in a cheese being downgraded from first- to second-quality. But today, when almost all cheese is made fast, we have redefined Cheddar as a ‘sharp, acidy’ cheese. We’ve completely lost our collective memory of the ‘rich, mellow’ Cheddars that defined the style a century ago.
When did more commercial cheesemaking come in, and in what ways did an artisan process become homogenised?
The first cheese factories appeared in the north-eastern United States in the mid-nineteenth century, and it wasn’t long before cheap factory cheese began to displace the more expensive farmhouse version—most people bought on price, even as they accepted that the quality of the mass-produced article was not as good.
It only takes a couple of generations for irreplaceable knowledge and skills to be lost.
Developments such as starter cultures and pasteurisation (heat-treatment to kill pathogens and many of the native microbes in the milk that participate in the cheesemaking process) resulted in more uniformity and consistency, and probably raised the standard of a lot of so-called ‘tainted’ cheeses made from poor-quality milk. Today, it’s possible to get very respectable mass-produced cheese; block Cheddar from a factory is made using more-or-less the same process as a farmhouse Cheddar, and sells for a cheaper price. But any connection between the flavour and the farm is lost, just as mass-produced factory wines workshopped to appeal to a mass audience don’t tell us anything about the character of a specific site.
Why did this happen?
At the outset of the project, we half-expected to find ‘The Big Bad’: the one person or company (ideally long-dead or out of business to avoid us getting sued!) at fault for the catastrophic decline of real cheese. Instead—and in retrospect, unsurprisingly—the culprit was the changing selective ecologies in which those cheeses found themselves over time. When farmers suddenly find, as they did in 1933 when the Milk Marketing Board was formed in the UK, that they can make a better living selling liquid milk than making cheese on the farm, they react rationally and stop making cheese. Likewise, when consumers decide that price is more important than flavour, producers intensify their systems to make their products less expensive, even if that has unfortunate consequences for the flavour. It only takes a couple of generations for irreplaceable knowledge and skills to be lost.
Did people write down recipes for cheesemaking? Are people recreating cheeses by trial and error or are there written records/archives?
For a straightforward process, cheesemaking is maddeningly difficult to write down in an accurate way. There are a lot of variables involved (temperature, the progress of the acidification, the speed at which the curd is contracting and losing its moisture) for the cheesemaker to react to, and a change in one of these will have knock-on effects on the others. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the process’s reliance on sensory information: the feel, taste, appearance, or even smell of the curd as it acidifies. This is the information has been lost as farmhouse cheesemaking became less and less practiced, and the practices of the few producers that remained drifted—in some cases beyond recognition—over the intervening decades. The cheesemakers who are experimenting their way back towards those old cheeses are relying on clues gained from the sometimes-maddeningly incomplete information in old books, coupled with information from contemporary dairy technologists (often from places with better technical infrastructures supporting farmhouse cheesemaking, such as France) and tactile feedback and experience: is the curd behaving itself? Is it cooperating? Does it look and smell good? And finally, when it is ripe, how does it taste?
Can cheese exhibit “terroir”? If so, can you give some examples of ways that it manifests itself?
As we say in the book, cheese, even more than wine, is an agricultural product that allows the consumer to taste the decisions made by the farmer-producer. This works on many different levels: the ‘macro’ (the biodiversity of the plants growing on the farm that the animals are eating), ‘meso’ (the breed of animal used to transform these building blocks into milk with characteristic properties), and finally the ‘micro’ (the native microbes that inhabit the raw milk, whose identities are linked the farming inputs and the way the milk is handled). Taken together, the ultimate quality potential of the cheese is set by the quality of this milk—the cheesemaker can then just do their best not to mess it up! Unfortunately, even if the milk produced is excellent (and there’s plenty of faceless milk out there) it’s still all too easy for the cheesemaker to erase or cover up the inherent character of the milk. It can be pasteurised, which levels the playing field between boring and interesting milk by killing many of the native microbes that might otherwise participate in the cheesemaking process. But even raw-milk cheeses can use strongly flavoured starter cultures which impart their own designer flavours to the cheese. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those flavours—many of them are designed to be overtly delicious—but using them is a moral hazard: it means that the quality of the farming, and the character of the milk itself, doesn’t matter. And those same flavours can be produced in a large factory down the road at a fraction of the price, just as easily. If it doesn’t bear a clear stamp of place, making farmhouse cheese is a waste of energy and time: customers should save their money and eat factory cheese instead.
Do we overvalue consistency in cheese? Or should there be a consumer-friendly standard or should we educate consumers to assess cheese on look, smell and taste?
Of course, consistency of quality is important: cheesemaking requires control, and a loss of control that results in faulty cheese is as much of a problem as a cheese whose character is smothered by added flavourings. In both cases, we aren’t tasting the potential of the farm, but rather a form of convergence, whether it is ammonia gas or bruised paste or sandy blue veining. Some people enjoy those things that others would consider faults, and of course it’s up to the individual what they choose to spend their money on; it is not my job to be prescriptive. But helping people to recognise what they are seeing, smelling, and tasting when they pick up a piece of cheese is something the industry needs to do better. It’s not difficult to learn the signs: how we can tell if animals have been eating grass or fed concentrates, the tell-tale tastes of adjunct cultures, or simply the aroma and sensation of cheese that’s been suffocated as it matures. We need to share this information with people, not to dictate what they choose to buy, but so that they can make an educated decision for themselves.
Describe some of the experiments that are currently being conducted at Neal’s Yard Dairy.
It’s an exciting time right now. There’s a lot of experimentation going on at farms and new cheeses in the pipeline. Working with producers who are developing new cheeses is not new for us, but some of these new cheeses are particularly exciting as they’re an evolutionary step forward towards what we can expect to see more of in the future: people making British territorial cheeses without added starter cultures, using only the microbes from their farm and milk, and cheeses made from the milk of rare-breed animals with minimal inputs from outside the farm. If we want to understand what cheeses might have tasted like a century or two ago, we have to think beyond recipes and start looking at systems. There is tremendous potential.
What is unpasteurised cheese? When tasting an unpasteurised cheese against a pasteurised cheese, what would we be looking for?
I prefer the term ‘raw-milk cheese’ to ‘unpasteurised cheese,’ as the latter can hide a multitude of sins! Pasteurisation is a process that involves heating milk to a certain temperature (72C for 15 seconds), which has been shown to kill the most heat-tolerant pathogen (bacterium that could make us ill) associated with milk. Some producers might sell ‘unpasteurised’ cheese that has undergone a heat treatment less than pasteurisation, designed to kill the more heat-sensitive pathogens but also sacrificing many of the interesting and beneficial bacteria as collateral damage. Raw-milk cheese uses milk that has not been heated above the temperature of the cow before the cheesemaking process starts. It retains all the microbial potential of the original milk—it also means that the milk production practices must be absolutely fastidious.
If we want to understand what cheeses might have tasted like a century or two ago, we have to think beyond recipes and start looking at systems. There is tremendous potential.
Assuming the cheese is made with interesting milk—milk with a healthy and diverse microbial population—and that the make has been optimised to express that, raw-milk cheeses have a longer and more-complex flavour than pasteurised-milk cheeses. It’s not surprising, really: flavour in cheese comes from the breakdown of the milk proteins and fats by enzymes produced by microbes during the making and ripening process, and the greater the microbial diversity, the more different types of enzymes will be present, and the more aromatically complex the finished cheese will be when it’s ripe.
We are used to using descriptors and metaphors for wine tasting notes. When you are tasting cheeses, what are some of the common descriptors?
I’m familiar with the UC Davis wine aroma wheel, with its numerous aromatic descriptors, and I must say that I believe the ‘fruit salad’ approach to describing the character of a wine or cheese is pretty useless. I’ve seen some data where even trained wine professionals had an abysmal success rate matching such notes with the wines that they described in a blind tasting, so the evidence is against them as well.
When I taste cheese critically, the aromatics (does it smell of coffee or of burnt butter?) are the least important thing; they are an afterthought. Instead, the important things are the structure of the paste, the texture, the acidity, and absence of things like bitterness or soapy or metallic flavours. If these elements are in place, and the milk is characterful, chances are excellent that that cheese is going to have something interesting and worthwhile to say when it’s fully mature.
I do think metaphors, particularly shape metaphors, can be very useful: describing the flavour of a cheese as ‘round’ as opposed to ‘angular’ immediately tells you a lot about its character, even if you aren’t someone who has vast tasting experience. It’s a very interesting area for exploration, particularly in how we can guide customers quickly to the style of cheese they’re looking for, even if they aren’t quite sure how to express it themselves.
What are the main difficulties with being a small cheese producer?
It’s not an easy life. Small farmhouse producers (who own the animals and make the cheeses themselves) have milk demanding to be processed non-stop, and if they’re committed to making the best quality of cheese, they must do it every day. You can’t put fresh raw milk in a refrigerated bulk tank and come back twenty-four hours later and expect it to be the same raw material you started out with: different microbes become active at cold temperature, and they’re never the ones that make cheeses better. So there’s a non-stop requirement to be making cheese: one of the reasons why milking animals seasonally makes so much sense; it’s not just the animals that need a break in the wintertime!
We underpay for the very best cheeses today—and we need to pay more if they’re to continue more than a generation.
There’s also the problem of price: we’re all benchmarked against supermarket prices now, and while artisan cheeses have the reputation for being expensive, their price is only a minute fraction of what they would have been—adjusted for inflation—a century and a half ago. With intensive agriculture, food in general has got much, much cheaper. But working within those same sorts of systems today is just as expensive as it would have been long ago: there is nowhere near the same economy of scale, the raw materials are produced less-efficiently, and the labour cost per unit is off-the-scale by comparison. Yet we expect two-to-three times the price of the industrial product to be sufficient to make ends meet. We underpay for the very best cheeses today—and we need to pay more if they’re to continue more than a generation, or we want more diversity of cheeses made this way to be available.
You mentioned it is nigh impossible to make certain types of French cheeses in the UK. Which ones is it almost impossible to replicate and why?
Ahh, we’re back talking about terroir again! The truth is that each style or family of cheese evolved as a rational solution to a set of social, climatic, and environmental contingencies. British cheeses are a perfect example: our wet climate makes it very likely that British milk will contain spores of a bacterium that causes what’s known as the ‘late-blowing defect’. When this occurs, cheeses inflate with gas produced during the maturation process, leaving gaping fissures in the paste and the flavour of vomit. But even if these spores are present, their growth can be controlled by curd that is higher in acidity and salt. Classic British styles of cheese—the Cheddars, Cheshires, Lancashires, and even Stiltons—evolved to have higher acidities than their Continental counterparts. The practice of mixing salt into the curds rather than brining or surface-salting contributes still further to controlling these spores. (Today, it’s also possible to cheat by adding antimicrobial agents like the enzyme lysozyme or nitrates, but that seems a disappointing patch.) With extremely careful farming and seasonal production, it might be possible to make an acceptable alpine-style cheese in the UK without chemical additives, but the deck would be stacked against the producer. But life is a lot easier (and the end results are often far better) when we work with—rather than against—our raw materials.
Any inspiring stories of small producers who have taken risks or changed the way they have done things?
The world of farmhouse cheese is full of inspiring people—nobody gets into this business because it’s an easy life, or for the cash rewards. The odds are against farmhouse cheesemakers in the English-speaking world: there is very little support or technical infrastructure available, and there’s a high bar for the knowledge required to make a cheese that’s adequate, let alone extraordinary. Everyone who makes a great cheese in this country has done it through sheer force of will. The frustrating things for me are that (a) it’s so difficult for people to succeed (b) there’s so little financial reward for those who do. Under these circumstances, we’ll most likely continue to find a few superhuman cheesemakers who are in it for the love of the craft, but it’s fairly unlikely that their children will be tempted to continue down the same path. We don’t yet have anything close to a system or a market that will promote the redevelopment of a thriving, vibrant, and secure ecosystem of farmhouse cheesemaking.
Do you give ever yourself a break from eating cheese?
Did you have a cheese epiphany, an experience that made you change the way you perceived cheese taste and cheesemaking practice?
There was no single momentous epiphany, but my taste in cheese now is completely different than when I started out as a cheesemonger years ago. I remember working in the shop and not being able to understand why the favourite cheese of the person who was training me was Kirkham’s Lancashire: I thought it was boring, and too much like what I thought of as supermarket cheese. I liked powerful blue cheeses and oozy, creamy soft cheeses, not something white, crumbly, and just a few months old. The subtle, warm, milky length of flavour of the Kirkham’s was completely lost on me. Now it is amongst my favourite cheeses as well, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can..
Statement: There are discernible wine faults, there are also legitimate wine flaws.
Wine cleanliness is wine godliness. This notion of the paramount important of cleanness in winemaking is inculcated at every stage in every wine course. No wonder wine professionals believe there are strict lines in the sand. On one side of the line are clean, fault-free wines, on the other, flawed/faulty (makes no difference) wines that are fatally compromised, and ought not to be present in the market.
Flawed and faulty are not interchangeable terms, however. There are plenty of flawed wines present, being bought, sold and drunk, which either implies that millions of people are drinking stinky, vinegary abominations unaware of the fact, or that particular individual wines speak to different people in a distinctive idiom.
What is beautiful, what is memorable, what is singular, what is lasting, may be the very irregularities and exposed nerve endings in flawed wine.
Flaws are perceived imperfections. For some they are not imperfections at all, but a characteristic of the wine itself. For others their manifestation is acceptable to a degree. For others still, they are evidence of microbiological malfunction during the winemaking – and should be seen as faults. Our palates are conditioned by our training on the one hand, and our personal taste, on the other, to determine what is acceptable. The training, however, is designed around the idea that wine is a chemical numbers game and that these numbers can and should be regulated to indicate what is correct, and what is not.
What is beautiful, what is memorable, what is singular, what is lasting, may be the very irregularities and exposed nerve endings in flawed wine. Because living wines are constantly mutating and often in a way that defies scientific predictive logic, the flaws are then not only part of the character of the wine, they make the wine what it is. Everywhere in life we discover imperfection and celebrate it: in art, in sculpture, in live music, in the plays of Shakespeare, in an unpasteurised cheese, in the apple that falls from the tree, in the idea of wabi-sabi. Are wines that are lacking colour and clarity flawed?
Flaws in wine are a healthy phenomenon.
There is another way of looking at this issue. If flaws are natural defects, then how about unnatural defects? The overuse/abuse of sulphur, over-filtering and the several dozen denaturing or flavour/texture-adding impositions that may damage the wine? Bad winemaking cuts both ways. Just as absence of supervision may result in brett, mousiness, mercaptans and other undesirable dominant characteristics, so too much sulphur will burn the wine, certain yeasts may give it fake flavours, and filtering may remove so much of the energy and texture of the wine. These faults are no less for being the result of human intervention as opposed to human non-intervention.
Flaws in wine are a healthy phenomenon. They get us arguing about the taste and perception of good and what is true and what is pure. Deviation from the norm will never appeal to those who prefer their wines “faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null”, but for those who enjoy wine as a truly artisan product, the flaws implicit in many wines make them amazing, challenging and unique.
Statement: Received commercial wisdom would have us believe that cheap wines are necessary to bring new consumers into the wine-buying market.
The argument goes that it is patronising to tell people what constitutes good taste, when a large part of the population can only afford to buy inexpensive versions of a product. As if good taste is only something that can be afforded by materially well-off individuals. It is not patronising, however, to inform the public about where their food and wine comes from and what actually goes into it (including the processing and chemical additions).
It would be wrong to pretend that consumers need to buy industrially-farmed and chemically-manipulated wines before they graduate to organic, hand-crafted wines.
Cheap wines can be produced if the costs of production are reduced to a minimum. This usually entails winemaking on an industrial scale – vineyards which are irrigated and intensively farmed, grapes which are machine harvested, and fermentation with yet more additives in large temperature-controlled tanks. Formulaic wines which might come from anywhere. Or it may involve shipping from countries where workers are paid below the minimum wage.
Just as we don’t need battery chicken eggs to exist as the gateway to appreciating organic free-range eggs, nor to enjoy Primula cheese spread as a precursor to eating raw milk Stichelton, it would be wrong to pretend that consumers need to buy industrially-farmed and chemically-manipulated wines before they graduate to organic, hand-crafted wines. We should not be satisfied by the glib assurance that cheap wine is a good thing because it introduces the notion of wine as a beverage (horrible term!) to a wider market. We should not be so passive in our choices and be prepared to interrogate the provenance of wine and the practices that make it. Our environment is too valuable and fragile a resource to be plundered for the industrial winemaking required to produce plentiful cheap grapes.
Our environment is too valuable and fragile a resource to be plundered for the industrial winemaking required to produce plentiful cheap grapes.
Extreme weather events have seen a succession of vintages where there is a shortage of grapes. Prices are inevitably being pushed up. If we allow that wine can – and should – cost more, and that more money should be finding its way back to the growers to encourage good sustainable farming practice and that this in turn will guarantee wines of better quality, then, by taking cheapness out of the equation, we may find that the wine world has renewed integrity.
The other day I was hosting a masterclass on orange wines and opted to commence proceedings with my favourite Niels Bohr quote to the effect that “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” So too with orange and natural wines. If they don’t physically realign the molecular structure of your palate, they should make you think about wine in different way, provoking you to challenge long-cherished wine assumptions.
As I was uttering the words, many thoughts were churning through my mind, ranging from images from my recent trip to Georgia, to the contents of an article that had come out in The Guardian that very day on the history of natural wine. Something to the effect that you may understand something better if you retain an open mind and a sense of wonder, an approach that poets might term as “feeling on the pulses”. By losing our sense of shock, awe and wonder, we distance ourselves from our sublime feelings, we dilute enjoyment, and we put criticism above craftsmanship.
They should make you think about wine in different way, provoking you to challenge long-cherished wine assumptions.
Natural wine means different things to different people. As it should. For some it’s all about the wine, what’s in the glass being the precursor to delicious enjoyment. For others, it is a sociable activity, migrating from fair to fair to catch up with friends and drinking in the atmosphere every bit as much as the wine. For others still there is a political dimension – for growers to assert their freedom by working outside appellation rules (for example), and for others who go further and would create their own manifestos and structured definitions of naturalness to work towards. The debate leads to discussions about what connotes wine culture (or counter-culture) and what the emergence of a natural wine movement (if it is a movement) says about our changing tastes and habits.
Conversely, when I travel to Georgia I am affected by the deeply-rooted wine culture that exists there. Although I didn’t sup wine on my last visit from a corn horn or a clay bowl, I had a sufficiently immersive experience to suspend the kind of over-critical judgement that tends to warp enjoyment. By constantly focusing on what should be good, what may be correct and what is commercially acceptable, we tend to ignore the cultural significance and symbolism of wine. Put a classic wine in a jug and place it on a table and it becomes just wine. Objectify wine, and it is transformed into a product to be stripped down to its component parts and analysed to the nth degree.
A Georgian qvevri
In Georgia wine is part of the holy trinity of hospitality, the other two elements being food and friendship (often expressed in toasts and prayers). Wine comes from the ground literally; it issues from the buried qvevri with all the pregnant symbolism that that suggests. Wine is a gift to be shared. It is written into the very blood-history of Georgia. It has a powerful social function. And it is always on the table. How simple – and natural – is that?
That ole nat wine argument
Then I cast my mind back to the tasting masterclass in 2011 at Vagabond cited by Stephen Buryani in his article. This event was called forth by the leading sommeliers in the UK to account for a phenomenon that was just beginning to seep into the public consciousness. In short, it was to be an interrogation of an idea, rather than celebration of a new and alternative style of wine. People were suspicious of the “other” as if some fully-formed trendy movement (sporting the latest in the emperor’s new clothes) had sprung from the collective imaginations of a few wine importers. I read numerous negative newspaper pieces about natural wines, and a roster of critics and journalists (and some growers) lined up to excoriate both the wines and the people behind them. Everything was lumped into a single countercultural clod, be it a juicy cold-carbonic zero-sulphur Gamay or an extended skin-maceration wine, as if a whole wine spectrum might be distilled down to an argumentative opposition – clean versus faulty; good versus bad. And in our Manichean wine universe we love a reductive argument even more than a reductive wine! Georgia is a long way away when you are bogged down in swapping opinions about chemical correctness in wine.
By losing our sense of shock, awe and wonder, we distance ourselves from our sublime feelings, we dilute enjoyment, and we put criticism above craftsmanship.
The difficulty in arguing against an idea such as a natural wine is that you invariably become entangled in a rage of contradictions. The first is to state categorically that there can be no such thing as natural wines, and then, in the same breath, damn the wines for existing. The second is to lazily caricature the wines as if there was only one style of wine, whilst condemning them at the same time for exhibiting a variety of faults. Moreover, to caricature the people involved, when these real wines made by real farmers and growers and drunk by real people. And to assert that natural wine is merely a trend and that this too shall pass. Whereas a trend is, by definition, ephemeral and rootless, natural wine is nothing if not a truly organic phenomenon – with more and more people making, buying, selling and drinking naturally-made wines every year. To damn it for existing you must damn the artisans themselves, wine merchants, some journalists and even the public itself for participating in a kind of grand collective fraud. Some commentators do exactly that. Accusing people of being fundamentalists because they like to drink and promote a certain kind of wine, is a kind of fundamentalism.
Another means of trying to discredit the increasing popularity of the wines is a quasi-analytical one – to call on science itself as a witness for the prosecution of the argument, and to state unequivocally that the wines cannot be any good because of the very way they are made (even though, per se, natural winemaking methods are never uniform). When we are speaking about a wide spectrum of wines made in a variety of styles by a variety of methods, resorting to airy generalisation flies in the face of scientific methodology. The wine is… the way it looks, smells and tastes in the glass. Perhaps the most dishonest approach is to taste the wines with the pretence of objectivity when all you are doing is looking for the opportunity to ascribe faults to the self-same wines. It has been said a lot recently that we are living in a post-truth world, where it is more important to protect an entrenched argumentative position for the sake of it, than to acknowledge actual evidence. This is a world where people have ceased asking questions because they feel they have nothing left to learn and feel most perfectly assured in their private sense of taste.
How do you know antiquity was foolish? How do you know the present is wise? Who made it foolish? Who made it wise?
Wine is – or rather, can be – a natural product. It seems right that wine comes from grapes from vines which are cultivated in a natural environment as opposed to one in which chemical treatments are the order of the day. Organic and biodynamic farming are a long way off the kind of invasive chemical spraying that not only damages biodiversity, but fundamentally alters the relationship between the vine and its surroundings. The choice is simple – either the vineyards are farmed with respect for (and in respect to) nature, or the process is simply about maximising yields of grapes at all costs to produce juice in order to make large quantities of wine. If there is no life in the soil, there can be no life in the wine – nothing may come of nothing after all – but when the purpose of these wines is to be consistent and mediocre, then what is added to the wine in the winery becomes far more important than what the vines take from the vineyard.
The arguments in favour of sustainable organic and biodynamic farming are straightforward enough. The first is moral: we simply don’t need to create environmental deserts and monocultures, because, ultimately, we don’t need mediocre wine. Good wine may indeed be a pleasure and even a nourishment, but to despoil the land, to pollute the soil and to abuse water – which is a vanishing resource in certain parts of the world – simply in order to create an alcoholic beverage, is a luxury that we can easily live without. The second point concerns quality. Vineyards that are farmed organically produce stronger and more efficient vines, wherein the energy of the vine goes into producing healthy bunches of grapes. This is not to say that the final wine will be better – that is another story, but the greater natural part of winemaking is the quality of vine-farming that goes on in the vineyard.
Winemaking itself is complex. Many dozens of decisions – and revisions – can be made to adjust and alter the process. Philosophically, one begins with the simple choice of whether to make the wine from scratch into a “cleansed” product with a consistent profile, or instead to accompany the wine on the transformative journey. The first approach views the grape juice as the mere wherewithal to mould into a preconceived product, whether it is a denatured, chemically-assisted wine to hit a very specific price point, or one of sufficient quality that it can take on layers and layers of other flavours. This kind of winemaking revolves around manufacturing something which is functional and able to withstand critical scrutiny and the judgement of tasting panels. The natural vigneron has a wholly different view – if the wine is functional then it is about freshness and drinkability, or the function may be to express as truthfully as possible the nature of the vintage and the particularity of the terroir. “We farm the land, we harvest the grapes by hand, we ferment them naturally and then bottle them with a touch of sulphur,” said a natural vigneron.
Good wine may indeed be a pleasure and even a nourishment, but to despoil the land, to pollute the soil and to abuse water in order to create an alcoholic beverage, is a luxury that we can easily live without.
When I started presenting wines in this idiom for the first time I urged people to be curious, to taste outside their comfort zone (in other words, not to apply rigid classical aesthetic standards) and endeavour to understand what the vigneron was doing/or not doing – and why. Debates are sterile if one side assumes that all the wines are a priori faulty, simply because they are made without the safety net of additives; they stall also when the same person states unequivocally that certain aromas and flavours are inherently faulty – and that those faults are absolute.
The Natural Wine Fair, a growers’ event that preceded Real Wine Fair and RAW, prompted some prickly discussions about the technical correctness of the wines being exhibited. It is interesting to revisit the debates of those times, if only to see how far things have progressed. No doubt, winemaking has improved also; if you are making wine sans safety-net, you need to be extra vigilant and work with superb grapes, have a clean cellar and make the appropriate “physical” interventions to ensure healthy fermentations and trouble-free maturation.
Back to basics
It sounds childishly simple to say this, but the wines that have always interested us were the result of people farming grapes in the best way possible and not putting stuff into the wine. In other words, not denaturing what nature gives. The argument against natural wine has always centred around the idea that no wine could ever be natural. Wine, after all, is the net result of myriad choices and actions, be they intellectual or instinctual, chemical or physical, and thus the wine is born through a succession of transformations into a single articulation. These approaches though are very different – one seeks to achieve a specific outcome and to deny other potentially undesirable outcomes, one seeks the simplest transformation without a range of controls. The critic or consumer acceptance panellist can then come along and declare that the natural wine is a misfit, in that does not conform to some arbitrary manifesto of correctness or good taste. If you examine the history of art, music or poetry you will find so many examples of craftsmen whose work was rejected by their peers at the time, and yet now are considered to have pushed the boundaries of their particular art form. Winemaking may be a science, but it is also much more than that.
Rising above issues such as how much VA is too much (one of the themes of the Vagabond masterclass tasting), it is salutary to return to the roots (literally and metaphorically) of wine in whichever place we happen to be. The roots of wine draw nourishment from the macro and the micro: from the geography, the geology, from the climate and the soils, from the social and family history of a place, from local farming practices and traditions, from the yeasts, from the individuals who farms the grapes and make the wines. When you visit a region and meet growers you begin to glimpse the subtle connections, the complex circuitry of causal factors which dynamises the people, the wines and winemaking.
If you examine the history of art, music or poetry you will find so many examples of craftsmen whose work was rejected by their peers at the time, and yet now are considered to have pushed the boundaries of their particular art form. Winemaking may be a science, but it is also much more than that.
Often when we speak of natural wine we speak of a specific methodology (to sulphur or not to sulphur, that is (not) the question), when we should be focusing on these deeper origins. What matters more than the commercial imperatives of the wider wine industry is sustainability, that the land should be nurtured and respected and the environment cherished. The human involvement here is stewardship. Farming is a rhythmic and vital interaction, yet when discussing wine – all wine, not just natural wine- we rarely mention this activity. Wine has a fundamental relationship with the place and the community of people that live there. Destroy that and you have an isolated organism.
What is this sense of place? When we invoke the “T-word”, it is to suggest that a wine is more than just the sum of its objective chemical and microbiological parts. I have spent time in vineyards that were throbbing with life, where there was something palpable above and below, seemingly radiating what one can only describe as a healthy energy. How do you measure something that is intangible, a latent force that elicits imaginative and emotional responses? Can you taste this “energy”? In a personal way, yes, because it is transformed (somehow) into aromas, flavours and feelings (sensations). Many vignerons would be the soft interpreters of their vineyards and try to guide the wine to the bottle in such a way that the unique code of soil, geography, natural energy reaches the drinker. The decoding of the wine, of course, depends on how responsive that person is. The responsiveness depends on who the person is.
A Brief History of Natural Wine – again
Back to The Guardian’s long read, a well-researched and well-written article, which created a compelling natural wine narrative and referenced some of the key players who themselves influenced a generation of moving-and-shaking vignerons in the Loire, Jura, Beaujolais and elsewhere. In any reading of history there are headline moments, but to understand how movements come into being and progress you also need to identify and describe the catalysts, the myriad individual journeys, the wine tastings and events, even the social forces at work, in order to fully comprehend that natural wine is a complex weave comprising many strands.
Olivier Cousin and one of his beloved horses
For me it was reading Alice Feiring’s early books, drinking a half-crazed Olivier Cousin wine in a Parisian natural wine bar in 2005 (such things are epiphanies made of), my own personal tastes changing as I sought intrigue, challenge and purity in the wines that I was drinking, the feeling that I wanted to demythologise wine and make it less stuffy for others, just loving the vibes in Terroirs, Brawn and associated wine bars, and, above all, meeting the most generous and genuine people – all these impulses and incidents and relationships have been my education and (re)invigorated my love of wine.
There’s more to wine than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio
A glass of wine contains more than the crushed grapes of a single vintage. That statement might be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, that a glass of wine may be the aggregate of lots of interventions, many of them chemical in nature. The other interpretation is that the glass of wine has the capacity to connect us to special places and finer feelings, especially if that wine shimmers with a beautiful natural nourishing energy.
All these impulses and incidents and relationships have been my education and (re)invigorated my love of wine.
Since wine became a commodity it acquired a token value; standards were set up; quality had to be codified and constantly assessed, bodies were instituted to monitor this, experts nominated to sit on these bodies, and so on. Politics invaded the world of wine, and with politics came the bureaucracy that loves to colonise our lives and assume control over our language. When you call something a product, you make a big production about it. So, wine gradually changed from a drink that farmers made for their families and friends, into a product manufactured and sold by companies, something that had to be consistent in taste and clean by analysis.
Bluntly speaking, we live in an age of limits, boundaries defined by groups of people not wanting others to achieve anything. Nothing is allowed to step outside the norms, definitions of possibility set as an act of self-definition by these groups themselves.
Natural wine respects the artisan ethos which is that wine is about farming and individual choice and the freedom of self-expression. Every corner of the globe we live in is packed with tales, a world of proliferating narratives, all equally of respect. Unification under one banner, or creating hierarchies, is not the natural wine way. The natural way is to celebrate the diversity of cultures and their different stories, the diversity of weather conditions and places, the diversity of human beings.
One of the problems with charters is the administrative burden that they levy on individuals. If they are to be worth a candle they have to be rigorously enforced – without fear or favour. The cost to the growers (who would presumably have to foot the cost of getting their wines tested), and every year every wine would have be tested, every vineyard visited, every form scrutinised and every claim verified in the interests of 100% accuracy.
One of the problems with charters is the administrative burden that they levy on individuals.
The charter, which may have originated from a high-minded ideal to promote good practice, inevitably results in a kind of snooper’s charter, dividing what it once sought to unify. And all to prove something that the grower already implicitly knows and doesn’t need validated. And is the proof positive? All one is doing is putting numbers against a bottle of wine; there is no qualitative judgement, nothing other than statistical segmenting. The adamantine science of such an exercise can never take account of the individual, nor comprehend the notion that growers and winemakers work in an artisan spirit, rather than make wines to fit the description of the charter. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: “Once you label something, you negate it.”
“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”
I am against labelling and charters as a matter of (lack of) faith; the systems are flawed and bamboozling and require a policing that borders on the interfering and is not itself policed. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes indeed. I also dislike the way that language is invigilated and then colonised by the politically correct few. If a wine shop, for example, wishes to proclaim that it is selling natural wines or naturally-made wines it should be free to do so, and for its potential customers to apply the principle of caveat emptor – as with everything else with life. We have seen in Italy that you cannot legally use the expression “natural wines” to advertise, as you cannot prove that the wines are natural – because there is no way of proving it, which is either logically absurd or an example of stark insensibility. It’s more to do with the falsification of language than a comment on the wines, which bureaucrats are in no position to judge as they do not have a priori knowledge of those wines. The state nevertheless has appropriated the term “natural” either as a drive towards ideological correctness – which I doubt– or to serve the narrow interests of certain oligarchs and traditional powerful families and institutions (possibly), or because prosecuting a tiny wine shop is easier than dealing with endemic corruption. Who knows?
Corn can’t expect justice from a court composed of chickens. -African Proverb
Bureaucracy is more than the clunky arm of clumsy government; it is a self-perpetuating, huggermuggering entity, picking on small individuals rather than big institutions, imposing a kind of thoughtcrime that both inhibits freedom of expression and effects restraint of trade. The charter, the label, the legal proscription are no longer tools to enshrine and protect consumer rights; they tend to segregate by putting producers and products into neat-and-narrow semantic boxes. They operate on either a presumption of guilt (in other words all wine growers need to be monitored and approved) and capture the odd minnow whilst allowing sharks to swim free. As Jonathan Swift observes in his A Critical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind, 1707, “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”
The charter, the label, the legal proscription are no longer tools to enshrine and protect consumer rights; they tend to segregate by putting producers and products into neat-and-narrow semantic boxes.
We have a culture wherein certain words and meanings have become trivialised, for when one examines commonplace statements in forensic detail they rarely stand up to scrutiny. The pernickety bureaucratic bent that insists that natural wines be subject to regulation fails dismally to apply the same exacting standards to other “claims of status”.
Organic wines are a classic case in point. It is surprising that a positive philosophy that should connect people divides on so many levels. We believe – as do many of the growers on our list – in the relationship between terroir and organic viticulture, in agricultural sustainability, in sensible and sympathetic farming practices, in nurturing the soil and protecting the environment. Sounds fine and dandy, but there are a group of certified growers who strongly believe that the use of the word “organic” (now sanctified in legislation) is heretical unless appropriate certification is produced. Given that the growers in question have submitted to a regime of inspection one can understand that they might feel aggrieved if people started bandying around the term willy-nilly, but I think they are being over-defensive for a variety of reasons.
Organic became a buzzword for the wine industry many years ago and was used as a marketing tool. Some farmers were seeking the accreditation by doing the minimum amount to qualify for the status; they were still using chemicals (but not proscribed ones), they were still farming in an industrial fashion; they were still adding chemicals during the process of wine-making. What is acceptable in practice for some growers and certifying bodies is not acceptable to others. If the language of the label is not simply a commercial smokescreen there has to be an ethical or qualitative dimension to being accorded organic. Real quality depends on good provenance, which depends on the relationship between the consumer and the supplier, and not between the consumer and a label – no matter how worthy the body that confers it. As a wine merchant we are in the position to give more information to our customers than a mere blanket certification – including our own caveats. It makes commercial sense for us to educate, which entails giving our customers as much information about the product as possible. Just because an estate describes its produce as organic tells us nothing about the quality of farming (when the grapes are picked, the yields) nor does it give any indication of competence in the winery.
Real quality depends on good provenance, which depends on the relationship between the consumer and the supplier, and not between the consumer and a label – no matter how worthy the body that confers it.
We live in a culture in thrall to the certificate; where information is packaged like fruit in a supermarket. We’d rather read a label than touch or smell something. Wine labels contain much information that is crass, pointless, patronising or just plain bogus. We want to celebrate great organic wines, not wines with labels where “organic” is the unique selling point. As Jean-Gerard Guillot observes in Patrick Matthew’s The Wild Bunch, “C’est une question de liberte. I have the necessary paperwork to go organic. But in some cases it’s a racket, anyway. Let’s face it, either people like the wine or they don’t. The whole philosophy is in the wine, not on the label”.
If you believe that systems lack credibility should you boycott them, or by gaining accreditation, be absorbed into the mainstream and try to become the standard bearer for better practice? A lot of producers choose to “declassify” themselves and their products because they don’t believe that the system recognises or even understands the exceptional ethical and artisan nature of their endeavours. Meanwhile, the consumer has a responsibility as well as the producer, to educate themselves about provenance and originality, and not to let the label or the charter mark or some half-assed legislation do their thinking and decision-making for them.
Ah, but you counter, the apologists for natural wine stand to gain by advertising their wines with affirmative credentials which they cannot prove. It is a moot point – since many people regard natural wine as anathema, even as unnatural, whilst conversely there are people who like these wines simply because these are the kind of the wines they like – it is therefore probably useful for the minimal-intervention wines to be generally grouped in such an ad-hoc way and for this to be regarded as a qualitatively-neutral term.
We should always be prepared to define terms and defend definitions, with the understanding that natural wine concerns a spectrum of wines and growers and is consequently a relative term. In the way that words and phrases do, natural wine has become part of the common parlance and accrued a kind of validity (whether you agree or not with the idea or the techniques involved). People use if only to abuse it! The growers, however, are the true arbiters of what is done in the vineyard and the winery; we are merely describing the activity. In a convenient shorthand.
We live in a culture in thrall to the certificate; where information is packaged like fruit in a supermarket.
There is no doubt that the issue of labelling, charters and bureaucratic intervention is controversial and creates tension amongst the growers and winemakers – even those who work in a similar spirit. The full story of a wine can never be contained within an official charter-mark, couched in a neat epithet or inscribed on a back label. It is not a bad thing to try to define something or lay out parameters of good practice; it is not a bad thing to have bodies that certify good practice and it is good idea that like-minded growers can effectively unionise themselves by forming groups and associations. However, we should acknowledge the rigidity of systems that cannot accommodate individuals who don’t believe the rules work or that they are intelligently administered. Systems are never fool-proof; set up with the best of intentions they are eventually corrupted by frailty, foolishness and self-interest. When an artisan product becomes a political football you know the system has failed and the bureaucracy has succeeded.
Tensions can be creative and lead to progress; the world of wine is constantly renewing itself around the edges. Styles of wine that were previously dismissed as aberrant are now recognised; groups have sprung up to look after the interests of the growers and publicise their unique products; wine bars, restaurants and retailers focusing on the artisan are flourishing throughout the world. These are spontaneously generated movements, fuelled by exchange of information and ideas, and lubricated by the viral effect of the new media. Ultimately though, we are talking about what’s inside the bottle and not what’s on the outside, the provenance of the wine, not the particularity of the label.
The hoary chestnut roasting on today’s open fire is the thorny thicket of labelling.
Part of me fantasises about serving the überinterventionist winemaker with the lengthiest of self-inflicted writs –that they must stick (or swathe) a gigantic label detailing their 100 plus additives on every bottle of wine and then discover whether people still want to pour its contents down their gullet. The other part of me believes that labels are essentially meaningless, providing undifferentiated lists rather than qualitative information. And how much information is too much? Does one itemise the yeasts and enzymes in a wine on the back label? Is acidification an additive or a wine making technique?
Will all winemakers have to declare everything? Will not the ones who put nothing on their labels become guerrilla winemakers, the champions of natural wine? Real winemakers are, after all, vignerons, not lab technicians. Should we trust any governing body to administer a labelling system sympathetically? We’ve seen, for instance, how consumer acceptance panels in South Africa have refused to give export accreditation to low sulphur wines, thereby arrogating to themselves disproportionate power about what constitutes physiological correctness in wine, what is an example of terroir and what customers in other countries might themselves judge to be good or bad. For the grower it is about the right to export the fruits of his or her labour; for the panel the label becomes a badge of discrimination. Ironically, these judgements throttle the initiative of people who might very well be the best flag-bearers for their region and country.
Part of me fantasises about serving the überinterventionist winemaker with the lengthiest of self-inflicted writs –that they must stick (or swathe) a gigantic label detailing their 100 plus additives on every bottle of wine and then discover whether people still want to pour its contents down their gullet.
So discriminatory labelling creates extreme burdens of proof for the grower (akin to trying to prove a negative), whilst presupposing that those issuing certification have a clue what they are doing. It is nigh impossible for the arbiters to be arbitrary and agenda driven, precisely because many of the so-called objective criteria are, in fact, subjective. For example, we have had wines impounded because they were cloudy and deemed therefore not fit for purpose – to coin a cliché – and other wines held in other countries because they were considered atypical. Since when is this a valid reason? This is the same nature of judgement that decrees a pock-marked apple not suitable for the shelves of a supermarket. Slight imperfections signify character, denatured products are identical. Oh brave new world that insists on bland homogeneity!
Should we trust any governing body to administer a labelling system sympathetically?
The desire to warn against a product that may not be usual invites conformism. My comrade rival would ultimately have us label natural wines: “Contains sulphides, may contain high levels of VA or Bret.” I might label his or her wines: “Contains arguably no terroir expression whatsoever as well as unnecessarily high and discernible levels of sulphur dioxide.” Are we warning against possible faultiness, bad flavour, and lack of flavour or trying to describe what the wine is all about.
One of the reasons why people support labelling is that they want to warn us off the wines that they don’t like drinking.
Liable Was I Ere I Saw Labels
Play Mystification For Me
“A name is a label, and as soon as there is a label, the ideas disappear and out comes label-worship and label-bashing, and instead of living by a theme of ideas, people begin dying for labels…and the last thing the world needs is another religion.” –Richard Bach
The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office….
Ridge Winery were one of the first to append expansive bells-and-whistles labels to their wines. The educative motivation is commendable, a voluntary gesture revealing a desire to communicate clearly how their wines are made. However, I would not like to see this unilateral action translated into a mandatory code. Choosing to elaborate is mighty fine, but there should be no requirement to explain, for the information on labels is always open to interpretation and consequently to abuse. Buying is inevitably a leap of faith, expository label or no label at all; the wine, not the medium, should be the message.
The arguments in favour of certification in general and labelling specifically, revolve around the notion that the dissemination of verifiably accurate information acts as a bulwark against misrepresentation. This sounds reasonable yet often results in the victimisation of innocents rather than the institutional abusers. How often have we heard it said: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, a formulation that contrives to be both wishy-washy and sinister at the same time? The presumption of guilt tied to non-disclosure of information is the excuse used by governments to invade the privacy of their citizens and to strip them of fundamental liberties. These hundreds of little laws that set the actions of the individuals against certain arbitrary targets are nominally intended to protect the rights of the many (the many consumers). How true is that and what is the trade off?
Natural wine has hitherto entirely eluded the majority of critics and commentators because it is more to do with philosophy and a spirit of endeavour than a precise enumerable approach.
Wine is arguably too complex for pettifogging labels to make any real sense. In the first instance it is actually quite difficult to define. Those who would do so might say that wine is the net result of a combination of chemical, microbiological and physical reactions – which is no more the whole truth than to say that human beings are related to clouds because we are 60% water, or that since we share 50% of the same DNA as bananas, we must be partly bananas. Although some bureaucrats may be totally bananas. The truth in wine is rarely pure and never simple and these mechanistic classifications are necessarily limited, especially if you are trying to arrive at a catch-all definition. Natural wine has hitherto entirely eluded the majority of critics and commentators because it is more to do with philosophy and a spirit of endeavour than a precise enumerable approach.
Artisan vignerons who produce no-nonsense additive-free wines don’t use labels or certification to prove a commercial point about their wines. The proof is in the tasting. The loaf of bread you buy from the specialist baker, the unpasteurised cheese from the farmhouse – these are unlabelled products which undergo similar natural transformational processes as wine, yet wine is always perceived as a product which requires written evidence stamped on certificate to prove that substances are not added, and a natural wine can only exist per se if there is real evidence of absence of additives present. Absence seemingly requires a significant burden of proof. Any society that needs these disclaimers perhaps has too many lawyers and law-makers!
This is assuming a kind of natural absolutism when the positions are actually far more nuanced. Take sulphites. Most critics mistakenly believe that natural winemakers and supporters are unshakeably opposed to the use of any sulphur in winemaking and, moreover, that it is an article of faith, and that this issue is the be-all and end-all of natural wine. Even the most fervid of natural wine proponents would never claim this, but we see here that the very lack of a definition is used as a straw stick to beat the natural growers with. So the question is –to admit that natural is a loaded term, proscribe its use, or only apply it to winemakers who use zero sulphur, or, find another term that is more encompassing as if some pithy semantic formulation can truly circumscribe a relative and shifting concept.
The truth in wine is rarely pure and never simple and these mechanistic classifications are necessarily limited, especially if you are trying to arrive at a catch-all definition.
Parenthetically, you can actually make a wine with zero sulphur using chemical techniques – should you so desire. Since it is not natural to process wine in such a fashion, ergo a wine with sulphur stripped from may not be classified as a “natural wine.” Which is an unlikely way of proving that natural wine is not all about zero-sulphur!
One oft-rehearsed argument goes that the reason why wine needs a label is because we owe a duty of care to the end user (as the supermarkets call them) or the drinker (as we call them). Were you to ferment your grapes and put them in a jug or milk bottle and quaff it on your tod, you may call it natural till the cows come home, and no-one will give a hoot. If cows can give a hoot. Give a case of your best – or worst – peapod Burgundy to a friend – and still no-one is exercised. For the wine has not reached the stage of requiring a definition.
But selling creates contracts and contracts are governed by legal standards. Fermented grape juice becomes “wine”, wine is a product, products have consumers, and consumers theoretically require codified assurances that the product is what it claims to be. The product has to be measured and evaluated in order to see if it conforms to the norms of what that product should be. The commercial world turns and the red tape continues to spool.
“Mystical references to society and its programs to help may warm the hearts of the gullible but what it really means is putting more power in the hands of bureaucrats.”
Labels may provide useful information or gobbledegook. As those ruminatively munching their impeccably-labelled Shergar-burgers will be aware, they may be an accurate guide to what you are consuming – or they may not be worth the paper they are printed on. People increasingly insist on proof of purity, they want evidence that nothing is added, and when something is added, they want the numbers. Yet the story from vine to glass can never be framed in a certificate.
For all the bureaucratic huffing and puffing, oddly, you only have to list one additive in wine and that is SO2 (which may be naturally occurring in the wine in any case) and then not even the quantity, or even whether it is added. And 10 mg is the same as 210 mg in this cock-eyed world where some growers are apparently more equal than others.
A more creditable system might conceivably demand proof of all the additives from vineyard to bottling, detailing each chemical spray used to the constituents of the fining agents. If we are going to drown in bureaucracy let it be in a comprehensive warm ocean rather than a cold cheerless bath tub. As one delves deeper into the issues though, the clearer the mud becomes. When is an additive an additive? What constitutes a trace amount and what in all this finical detailing is relevant to the consumer? Is naturally occurring sulphur more natural than added sulphur? Who determines that 9mg does not require the label to state “Contains Sulphites”, but 10 mg does? Detailing additives is one thing; it is quite another to determine which are manipulative (in the sense of radical aroma-flavour-and-texture changers) and which are intrinsically part of the normal winemaking process. There are some 100 potential additives and innumerable tweaking procedures – at what point are you describing process and at what point are you talking about elements that have been added to the grape must to change it materially? Would you detail the yeasts and enzymes used in the fermentation as ingredients added to the wine (and how about if they add flavour?); or acids used to correct the balance of the wine or clays or other substances to clarify it; perhaps one should even declare the type of fermenting vessel – steel, oak, cement – as it deeply influences the texture of the wine.
And back to sulphur – should we not have to differentiate between total sulphur, free sulphur and natural sulphur on the label? After all, you can never have too much interesting information. And this is nothing if not interesting. If all this arcane stuff matters, then why isn’t it being done; if it doesn’t matter then why are people hung up about the accuracy of wine labels.