Wine’s Naturalistic Fallacy: Thoughts on Style and Site Expression

Winemakers have never been so self-effacing. Discuss their aesthetic ambitions with producers in practically any region today, and typical responses will likely emphasize a desire to bottle the taste of terroir in as pure a state as possible. In formulations such as these, wines are seemingly more discovered than made. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear the very term “winemaker” disavowed: it has no literal translation, one is reminded, in French (a distinction that is far from unique). This philosophy, eloquently encapsulated by Chalone’s eminence grise, the late Richard Graff, as the aspiration to “add nothing and take nothing away,” is far from new. And indeed, when defined in contradistinction with a more explicitly interventionist approach to wine production that seeks to impose bland, commercial conformity on a beverage that is, at its best, intensely individual and diverse, this philosophy represents and has represented an important corrective. But as a consensus rather than a corrective, and carried to its logical conclusions, how tenable is any philosophy for wine production that seeks to minimize the importance of production itself? And does the pursuit of purity and “transparency” end in authenticity, or merely in homogeneous neutrality?

Underpinning what I call the wine world’s naturalistic fallacy is the notion that wine itself is immanent, existing in some sort of idealized state independent of actual wine production, waiting to be revealed. From this perspective, any sort of producer signature or style amounts to “makeup,” inevitably to a greater or lesser extent impeding our sensory access to the wine’s authentic identity. One young Northern California winery even takes its name from the charming idea that wine is nothing but rain, mediated by the grape vine—which informs it with a sense of place—and transformed by the grapes’ own bloom of yeasts. Making wine, it is to be understood, consists of not much more than gently gathering grapes: nature will do the rest. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have approved. Far from being the exclusive preserve of the natural wine movement, this fallacy—as I think it is—appears to premise many so-called conventional winemakers’ thinking about what exactly they are doing. 

Of course, it’s easy to see how intimacy with their vineyards and immersion in a tradition can lead producers to feel the myriad decisions they make are so self-evident as to be “natural.” Conversely, wine commentators that lack such blinding familiarity with production tend to reduce technique to a handful of metrics: picking dates; percentages of stems and new oak; parts per million of free sulfur dioxide. Yet the reality is more complicated. Every choice, big or small, ramifies; and even negative choices ramify, so abdication is seldom an option. The decision to leave a red wine unracked, for example, will shift its redox chemistry in the direction of reduction, and the wine may pick up endogenous aromas and flavors from its lees. Similarly, a white wine fermented and matured in “neutral” stainless steel will be more reductive, slower to clarify and more likely to suffer from protein instability—necessitating subsequent intervention—than the same wine fermented in new oak barrels. In such instances, the decision not to do something is just as decisive as the decision to take an action. Every wine, in other words, is unavoidably the product of intention.

In theory, the winemaker is faced with an almost infinite variety of combinatory choices; in practice, the constraints of logistics and the conventions of tradition limit options to a more manageable range. Bottling date, for instance, is often determined by cash flow or the availability of a bottling line, and Bordelais winemakers mature their wines in 225-liter barrels and Burgundians in 228-liter barrels because they always have. In imposing parameters on the possible, such considerations lend a certain consistency to production practices within a region. But contrasting choices are still sufficiently numerous to explode any assumption that there is one “right” way to make any given wine. To anchor such abstractions and hypotheticals in a material example: which Clos de la Roche was the more “authentic,” Jean-Marie Ponsot’s or Jacques Seysses’s? Their approaches could hardly have been more obviously different: the one wine destemmed, the other whole cluster; the one aged in old barrels, the other entirely in new oak. At their best, both made compelling, soulful wines because they answered the innumerable questions posed by wine production in a coherent way: they adapted their vinification to their grapes and their élevage to their vinification. But those answers were informed by two very divergent aesthetics. Who is to say which was the truer to terroir—which resulted in the “definitive” Clos de la Roche?

To acknowledge that terroir is a text to be interpreted and not a law that demands adherence is also to accept that any winemaking style that seems to be more “transparent,” offering a less obviously mediated expression of grape and place, is in fact only a subtler and more deceptive form of artifice. Rather than being measured against the totalizing standard of transparency, a wine’s style should be assessed as a more or less compelling aesthetic, and the choice between process and place is a false one. Implicitly, our wine culture acknowledges this: the world’s most sought-after wines are frequently also among its most stylized. No one could deny that the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s wines, for example, exhibit a strong producer signature, a point underlined by their new cuvée of Corton, a wine that’s immediately recognizable as a wine from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Nor, even though we commonly stigmatize new oak as an obfuscator of wine’s native authenticity, would many argue that the domaine’s wines would be improved by maturation in exclusively used barrels. 

Today, the concept of “patina”—accepted in French, but largely absent from Anglophone wine discourse—is increasingly important to how I understand wine and its élevage. The wines that excite me the most, I have come to realize, are all intensely patinated: the creations of strong personalities and clear visions, they are marked by the hands that made them even while they express the place where they were grown. Henri Jayer, Jean-François Coche, Gianfranco Soldera, Anselme Selosse, Emmanuel Reynaud—the list could go on, but were there ever any great winemakers that didn’t stamp their wines with an indelible personal imprint? And just as a beautiful beurre blanc and judicious seasoning can elevate the freshest, firmest Turbot, so the winemaker’s individual patina can amplify and complexify the vineyard’s message. That personal touch can often be deceptively subtle—so effortless, indeed, as to give superficial credence to the notion that wines come into being by themselves. But sometimes, even a youthfully obvious patina—the influence of stems and new oak, for example—proves a substrate that time in bottle can transform into something seamless and special. 

So, it concerns me that our collective conversation about wine, embracing the naturalistic fallacy, tends to mitigate against the creation of patinated, personal wines. Already at risk from the imperatives of globalized commerce—which suggest that powerful flavors may alienate consumers, and that idiosyncratic choices entail risks that are too expensive to take—intensely individual styles are also beset by a discourse that attempts entirely to efface winemaking, defining authentic wine as the unmediated expression of place. Producers that accept this discourse’s premises can follow two paths. The first is the pursuit of ever increasing “purity,” paring away anything that might impart or merely amplify aroma, flavor or texture. Sometimes the results are indeed compelling, like the best modernist cuisine; too often, they combine asperity with neutrality, leaving one wondering what might have been. For a wine to taste of somewhere, after all, it must first taste of something. The other path is simple laissez faire, an approach happily more often espoused than practiced. Yet every great bottle of intensely individual wine is a reminder that between the aseptic and the feral, there exists not a middle ground but a third way. Process is important, and we must both embrace and discuss it if we are to liberate tomorrow’s great winemakers to create tomorrow’s great wines. 

More articles from this author