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When winemakers and wine writers talk past each other

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My definition of a great wine book is one where there are things on every page about which I could write an entire essay. I don’t mean because the writers say such stupid things that common sense and good taste demand that they be challenged (which is the case with most new wine books). I mean because they’re so profound that they make you think about old subjects in new ways.

Benjamin Lewin’s Claret & Cabs  is such a book. Every other sentence ignites a neural storm in my brain, setting off ideas that are kaleidoscopic in their complexity and implications. For example, Lewin quotes Rémi Edange, Domaine de Chevalier’s assistant manager:

The role of the Grand Cru Classé is to carry the values of the history of French wines.

Whatever can this metaphysical statement mean? Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever the meaning, such words would have no place in the modern Napa Valley. We have, in California, no formal ranking system, so there are no “Grand Crus” that have a “role” to play. The valley does have a history, but it is nowhere near as long that of Bordeaux. Besides, one does not get the sense, in today’s Napa Valley, that history weighs heavily on many people’s minds. A few, perhaps. Modern Napa is, well, modern. It is all about the now, with little reference to (or reverence for) the past. A millionaire makes his fortune elsewhere, moves in, hires the best talent money can buy, obtains grapes from some esteemed vineyard, puts out a $150 Cabernet, gets 95 points and is suddenly hot. That is not history, it is parody.

And what are these “values” of which M. Edange speaks? Lewin again quotes him.

The idea here is to keep the savage taste, the typicity of Domaine de Chevalier is not the  technique of making Cabernet Sauvignon, it is to express the terroir.

Well, modern Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is all technique–and so may be modern Bordeaux, despite M. Edange’s assertion to the contrary. This is something Lewin, who is a Master of Wine, knows, since he immediately writes, in his own voice, “…savage is the last word I would use to describe Domaine de Chevalier: its style is the epitome of elegance, with a real precision to the fruits.”

This would not be the first time a proprietor made claims about his wine that did not bear up to the scrutiny of an educated writer. Proprietors always make claims about their wines that are not apparent to the most sincere observer. They may do this because they want to implant an idea in the outsider’s mind [yes, proprietors are not above manipulating critics], or because, being so close to their own “babies,” they actually believe [or have convinced themselves they believe] in what they claim. Does M. Edange really find Chevalier to be “savage”? What does “savage” mean? The word “Sauvignon” itself is said to come from the old French word “sauvage,” or “wild,” in the sense, not of some bestial, animal character in the wine, but because the grape was found growing in the wild. Cabernet Sauvignon certainly does not grow in the wild anymore. It is probably the best-cultivated grape in the world, the fruit equivalent of a cow, an animal that no longer exists outside of domesticity. So what can M. Edange possibly mean by Chevalier being “savage”?

I don’t know, I suspect you don’t know, and Lewin clearly doesn’t know. This confusion underscores the central point I want to make: Writers should never, ever simply pass along a quote from a winery principle, unless they’re sure they understand it completely and agree; or unless they’re willing to admit they disagree, as Lewin did, ever so diplomatically. Too many writers, unfortunately, don’t adhere to this rule, which is why there’s so much unhelpful wine writing. There’s nothing wrong or disrespectful about a writer telling an owner or winemaker, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That is the stuff real reporting is based on, as opposed to, oh, I don’t know…free P.R.

  1. Larry Brooks says:

    As a winegrower myself of 35 vintages I feel we must give M. Edange the benefit of the doubt in this case. To assume that winemakers are thinking about P.R. primarily when discussing such things as typicity does them a disservice. Because certain concepts in wine are subtle and complex and thus difficult to fully explicate in a short interview does not mean that they are not real and important to the producer. Whether they are important to, or even understandable by the casual reader is I suppose up to the writer to decide assuming that he understands them to begin with.

  2. Hi Larry

    This reminds me of a great story about Artur Rubenstein, the great pianist. He said that he didn’t perform some of the works of modern composers because he didn’t understand them. He would leave those to younger performers who might play them better.

    Now, I don’t know if any younger pianist played better than Rubenstein…the mind boggles….but I love the fact that he simply admitted that he didn’t understand the music.

    Steve comes from the American tradition, and readily admits it. And since I work with a lot of European producers, I understand that they tend to speak, and think, in metaphors–which are not always clear to those who do not share their cultural traditions.

    Brings to mind pro-cyclists who would describe someone destroying the field on a steep climb as being “out of this world.”

    Amateurs thought they were talking about superhuman ability. Inside the world of pro-cycling, they were using code words for doping!

  3. M. Edange most likely used the word “sauvage,” which has meanings other than “savage.” Paul’s insight into the European use of metaphors suggests he may have meant “wild” or “untamed,” and in the context I suspect he meant expressive of the terroir and history rather than “tamed” or civilized by winery techniques, additives or manipulation, etc. Rather than jump to the conclusion that the crafty Frenchman was trying to put one over on the writer, it appears he is drawing an implicit contrast between his wine and those from younger regions where such tradition does not exist.

  4. Larry, I agree with you but what I was criticizing was the kind of writer who would interview Edange, and then write about Chevalier and say it has a “sauvage” or “savage” taste that comes “from the terroir” without having the slightest idea what he’s talking about. Which is why I respect Lewin: He does not do that, but comes to his own conclusions, and when he cannot agree with the winewmaker, he does so in a subtle, respectful way.

  5. To clarify, and as Lewin mentions, Edange is not the winemaker. He’s assistant manager of the Chateau. There is a separate “technical manager” at the estate and the winemaker is Stephane Derenoncourt. So, Edange is a person who would very much, in accordance with his role, be thinking of PR when speaking about the winery.

    I would probably translate “savage” here as “native” or “unadulterated.” And I appreciate the point that Lewin made about Edange’s statement. At best, it doesn’t really say anything, certainly nothing unique. It’s impossible to count the number of wineries who say that their goal is to allow terroir to speak through the wine. At worst, it appears to be testing the limits of what one can do while still revealing terroir. Chevalier vinifies all it’s blocks and varieties separately and ultimately blends them with great care. The terroir is allowed to speak but its comments are carefully edited. That makes for great wine, but it is shaped by the winemaker.

  6. WineKnurd says:

    This blog post is an example of when a wine writer reads too much into a wine writer, like a game of “telephone” in kindergarten, when in the end the ultimate meaning is lost until you go and ask the first person what he said. An excellent writer would have gotten the explanation before simply supplying his own (especially when no doubt one of then is not a native speaker). This post is actually a pretty poor example of writing if you ask me, because you make Lewin’s conclusion’s for him, which YOU seem not to understand. Exactly what you claim is a no-no for wine writers.

  7. WineKnurd, I take it you are not a professional wine writer, and hence have never had to tackle the issues involved.

  8. Hello Fred Swan, thanks for weighing in. I would hope that a winery’s PR person and winemaker would be on the same page, but maybe mot.

  9. What’s the parody? The 95-pt score? The critic? The system? The Johnny-come-lately vintner? I’m confused about what you mean…

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