Flying the Friendly Skies

Here’s what I’ve been feeling the past few weeks.

We were on this large jet flying to somewhere beautiful, some sort of Paradise, we thought, when it was hijacked and now it’s headed toward a skyscraper. We had no idea there were even hijackers aboard, though we should have known, they’d been making a lot of noise back here in economy class. We certainly didn’t think they could overpower us, take over the plane and fly it into a building. If I’d known the pilot had orange hair, I’d have stayed at the airport. My mother always told me, “Never get on a plane with a pilot with orange hair. Nothing good can come of it.” What’s odd is that the hijackers seem exuberant about going down with us in a burst of inescapable flames. It will take years to clean up the wreckage.

But, then, I lean toward the dark and the fatalistic. The hijackers seem to think it’s going to be turbulence-free flying. Though this isn’t exactly the Friendly Skies. I don’t know about you, but I’ve buckled my seat belt, gracefully tucked my head between my legs, grabbed the seat cushion to use as a flotation device, building or no building, and kissed my ass goodbye.

So much of what there is to talk about in the wine world seems overwhelmingly trivial for the time being. It always was trivial, and always will be trivial, but now, at least to me, it feels mindlessly trivial. Arguing and writing about natural wine, for example, feels to me like debating the pros and cons of the Designated Hitter. They’re two different leagues, people! Just get over it.

On a single day last week, I read a piece in the “New York Times” by Eric Asimov about natural wines and the RAW fair in New York City, and a piece by RH Drexel published here that talked about the wines of Amplify, a California natural wine producer. And then a day or two later, I read a piece by Matt Kramer in “Wine Spectator” that talked in part about natural wine, and his tasting “blind spot” for them. (Kramer saying he has a blind spot for some wines is like a vegan saying he has a blind spot for some meat.) After reading those three pieces about the “controversies” surrounding natural wine, the only image my mind conjured up was that of the band playing as the Titanic sank.

We all have prejudices when it comes to wine. That’s the damned fun of it. Though if I were you, I’d be very careful of expressing your wine preferences in a public place by saying, “You know, I just don’t like whites.” There are a lot of Second Amendment supporters out there with orange hair triggers. I’m not much for Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is just a mutant of Pinot Noir, wine’s version of the Elephant Man. “I am not animale!” I’ve never understood Petite Sirah's or Pinotage’s appeal either. Petite Sirah goes with food like skiers go with avalanches. And Pinotage is what happens when you leave the lovely Pinot Noir in a room with Bill Cosby—an offspring to avoid.

Yet it’s all wine, and every wine has something to say. How different really is natural wine from, well, whatever other wine is? (Eric Asimov argues that, “I have always considered the lack of a definition of natural wine to be a great strength.” So like “terroir,” “96 points,” and Arnold Stang. Lack of definition, it turns out, is a great strength running for President as well.) Natural wine is different, in way too many cases, because the person making it says it’s different. Here’s Kermit Lynch, “I’ll take some credit for pioneering natural wines, starting way back with Jules Chauvet and Marcel Lapierre, for example, but how some winemakers have convinced anybody that they are more natural than thou—I, for one, know better. Ask winemakers today if they make natural wines and they all say yes.” Ah, yes, lack of definition.

I live in Sonoma County, a very liberal and very Democratic county. And there is no joy in Mudville, Mighty Clinton has struck out. For the first few days after the election, every wine I tasted was bitter. It was the taste of my own dismay. Which will be worse disjanuary. Everyone I know and love was disheartened by the election results. Perhaps you are not. I’m OK with that. I learned early in life that predicting the future is a fool’s game, and, thus, by definition, we’re all pretty much fools. You just might be right, and just maybe you elected the right person. And monkeys might fart twenty dollar bills.

Most of the time I write satire about wine and the wine business. Satire isn’t about subtlety, nor is it about acceptance and forgiveness. Satire adopts a point of view, hopefully ironic or combative, or both, hopefully funny as well, and drives its point home fearlessly and relentlessly. I’ve gone after natural wines, sommeliers, wine writers, wine bloggers…just about everything and everyone. I confess, there were times it seemed important. In the same way that your third grade report card seemed important.

In my real life, I try to find the good in every wine I taste. I don’t really care if the wine is considered natural wine, or cheap wine, or cult wine, or unicorn wine. The headline of Asimov’s article is, “Wine That's Not Only Natural, It's Alive.” I’ve never met a wine that was alive. Are grapes alive before you crush them and make wine? I guess so. If they crushed you and made a cocktail from your bodily fluids, would it be alive? Don’t answer that. I know I’m not supposed to take the word “alive” literally (and Asimov probably didn’t write the headline), but is that just another case of not having a definition being a good thing? Words don’t matter? Getting a bit silly, if you ask me. Can we just talk about stuff that has a definition?

The first wine that lit me up post-election was the 2014 Fleurie from Domaines des Terres Dorées. It was the Saturday after, and something about it brought some joy back to my life. Most folks would consider it a natural wine, by non-definition. I don’t give a shit. Another wine might have succeeded at the same task. The Fleurie was so beautiful, it sort of broke my heart. Or, perhaps, applied the paddles and electrostimulated my heart back to its old rhythm. The wine broke through my despair and made me happy to be alive, to be having dinner with my gorgeous and brilliant wife, and to know enough about wine to know that it was quintessential Fleurie, and thus, indefinable, which is its strength. Hey, Eric, I’m getting the hang of this.

Wine’s not going to help me through the next four years, not on its own. But even the most desperate prisoners seek tiny bits of beauty and laughter during their imprisonment, try to scribble a goodbye note as the plane heads for the skyscraper. And those glimpses of the beauty in life, even in the darkest days, glimpses good wine can supply, are what help us endure, what keep us from madness, what, even, can civilize us in the face of incivility. Natural or un, domestic or non, hybrid or God’s creation, it’s all just wine. I won’t drink more (were that possible), but I will try to see a little bit of beauty and value in every wine that crosses my lips.

I hope that wine provides many bursts of beauty in your life this Thanksgiving week. If you’ve lost heart, then it’s even more important that you give it that chance.

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