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What do winemakers mean when they talk about “authenticity”?

15 comments

 

I meet a great many people in the wine industry. They are of all ages. Many of the older ones are big successes, while many of the younger ones are just starting out. They may someday be big successes, but not yet.

Part of my job at Wine Enthusiast–an increasingly bigger part–is to be alert to trends. Magazines perceive their role, in part, as educating the public to what’s happening before everybody knows it. (I remember a criticism of the old Esquire magazine was that it was always discovering the avant garde when it already had become the rear guard.) So, when I’m chatting with people, I invariably ask, “What’s new?”

From Millennials I am hearing about a focus on “authenticity.” Now, I know what the word “authentic” means: it means real, not phony. There’s an authentic hundred dollar bill, for example, and a counterfeit one. But I’m never sure what “authenticity” means when someone in the wine industry tells me they’re trying to be authentic. I mean, there are gigantic brands out there that lay claim to the mantle of authenticity, and there are tiny little family winemakers who don’t claim to be authentic, but nonetheless are, if you know what I mean. (And of course, each of us is going to be the judge of what we perceive as authentic.)

But this isn’t about what I perceive as authentic, it’s what Millennials mean when they say they perceive a lack of authenticity in the older generation, and wish to replace it with the real thing. This is where the Socratic method comes in handy. When I don’t understand what someone means, I’ll ask, “What do you mean?” They need to explain it in terms that a simple guy like me can comprehend.

Now, I don’t want to get anyone into trouble or embarrass anyone or for that matter harm any friendships I have with millennial winemakers, so I’m going to avoid identifiable specifics. But I was talking to a young winemaker yesterday who told me he and his Millennial gen friends don’t think the older generation of winemakers is authentic. Well, I did my Socrates thing and as it turned out, he had a difficult time explaining to me just what was unauthentic about the older generation, or how he hoped to replace it with authenticity. He’s making the same kinds of wines as people in their 50s and 60s, is charging the same [high] prices, so he didn’t seem to be doing anything differently from the older generation.

The journalist in me has had a long time to develop a radar that picks up on inconsistency, vagueness, spin and just plain incoherence. That radar detects these things, and something in me can’t let them go unchallenged. If you tell me you’re seeking to do business in authentic ways that the older generation did not, then I’m afraid you have to explain to me (a) how and why they’re inauthentic and (b) how you plan not to be. And you’re going to have to be specific. You can’t just say “Well, I won’t hype anything.” That dog won’t hunt. Give me a specific example of a wine brand that hypes (and where do they hype?). In their marketing? In the production of the wine itself? Do you mean you’ll make unadulterated wines while everyone else is adding Mega Purple? Then say so.

I believe that these younger winemakers mean it when they say they want to be authentic. I want them to be authentic. But if they can’t explain to me what authenticity means, then how can they be? It’s just a word to express a feeling. If I can insinuate myself into their heads (never easy or guaranteed, but you have to try), it may be that they see a certain stuffiness that’s infiltrated the wine industry, especially in a place like Napa Valley; and they wish to air the place out, make it more accessible and friendlier, more human, as it were. If that is their goal–if that’s their definition of “more authentic”– then I’m all in favor of it. Young people, in particular, don’t like people who put on airs; they sense them the way Gus smells stuff on the sidewalk. I’ve recently met a lot of young winemakers in Paso Robles (I’ll be writing about this in the magazine in a few months) and am thrilled by their attitude down there: Let’s not do things the old way, let’s try new things. They’re not just talking about it, they’re doing it, with wacko (but very good) red and white blends that no one in Napa could or would ever consider (because Napa is so tradition-bound. It would be like someone in Pauillac making a blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc).

It may be easier in a place like Paso for a young winemaker to be “authentic” than in Napa Valley, because the marketplace inserts itself more potently in the latter than in the former. Doing business in Napa is expensive, no matter your age, and you have to sell your stuff, so you have to hew to a tighter template in order for the marketplace to take you seriously. This means, in effect, that regardless of how “authentic” a young Napa winemaker wants to be, he or she is probably going to end up making an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon–which may or may not be “modest” in alcohol. So where is the authenticity? Is it in the tasting room, where Rhianna is playing instead of Bach? Is it at a winemaker dinner, where the winemaker shows up in blue jeans and tattoos instead of a suit and tie? Is it in the places the young winemaker hangs out–dark, hip clubs instead of The Restaurant at Meadowood? Is it because the young winemaker is hot while the 60-year old winemaker no longer is? And what does any of this have to do with the actual quality of the wine (or, if the wine is authentic, maybe quality doesn’t matter?).

You see where this is going. It’s one thing to talk “authenticity” but quite another to pull it off. Whatever “it” is.

  1. I can’t speak for other young winemakers, but I can say for myself that the desire to make wines that are “natural”, “real”, or “authentic” is by no means a slight to the many great winemakers that came before me. I don’t know how things work in California, but in Oregon, the older generation teaches the younger generation freely and openly, and almost everything I know about winemaking was taught to me by a winemaker from previous generations.

    As for winemakers that are not “authentic”, the best example I can think of (possibly because I am mostly a cellar rat) is that there are a lot of so called “winemakers” who pay someone else to do all the dirty work, while they take all the credit. I consider winemaking to be a craft done by hand, not a cerebral exercise. If you’ve never racked a barrel, run lab tests, or cleaned a tank, then I don’t consider you an authentic winemaker.

  2. It warms the heart of a philosopher to see Socrates mentioned on a wine blog.

    Being neither a winemaker nor a millenial, I probably can’t contribute directly to answering your question. But I think “authentic” in the world of food and wine means something like “distinctiveness in the face of homogenization”. Food and wine identities root us in the local and particular as opposed to the global, homogenized, bureaucratic world, and authenticity is perceived as a cure for excessive homogenization. The contemporary discourse about taste seems to assume that “natural”, rooted, artisanal products taste better than mass-produced ones. And knowing the producer adds some imaginary value. So winemakers that project the personal touch, hands-on winemaking, cognizance of local traditions, and a concern for originality would be “authentic”.

    This is, of course, deeply ironic in the age of Facebook and Twitter and I can’t defend its coherence.

  3. Keasling says:

    Another definition of authenticity: The old guard in Napa were authentic. Built their wineries from scratch, with loads of debt, worked the land themselves, and did everything from vineyard to table. Oh, the stories they can tell. Millennials view that as “authentic”. Where the millennials jump ship on that idea is when the term “sell-out” comes into play. When big money pockets come buy a winery to add to their financial portfolio, it does lose it’s sense of authenticity. There are still authentic old guards out there, but big money has tarnished the regional authenticity in our eyes. To be able to pick up and start a winery from scratch (similar to John Shafer and others in the early 70s) would be nearly impossible in Napa for a millennial. Therefore, their chance at being “authentic” is happening in places like Paso… And millennial consumers are buying from their generational brethren.

  4. Fred Scherrer says:

    What a great subject to ponder.

    Trend, Authentic, Terroir: Pick the word that does not belong with the other two. (Hint: It’s the easiest one to define.)

    To me, an ‘authentic’ wine is made by people who have a sense of the grape material, the means to showcase its best (and hopefully unique) qualities and the will to bring it to completion for its own sake. It is not a wine made according to an aesthetic decided upon ahead of understanding the material. It is a ‘translation’ of the material. It is not a wine made merely to fit a profile handed down by a marketing department. It is production-driven rather than marketing driven.

    I think the biggest challenge those making ‘authentic wines’ have is finding ‘their’ audience who shares their sense of aesthetics so they may continue their work. Those that started years ago had less difficulty than those just starting now due to the sheer number of labels now competing for attention. The biggest challenge to those that started years ago is to remain ‘authentic.’

    Does ‘authentic’ wine taste better than ‘designer’ wine. That’s up to the taster. Is it a harder path to follow? One might say it is impossible because there is no path until one actually goes there.

  5. Steve,

    Great blog post. I’ve actually been thinking about it all day. In retrospect, I am sure that there are plenty of people that don’t consider me an authentic winemaker, because I don’t spend enough time in the vineyard, or because I don’t own a winery, or because I use too much so2. I suppose authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. But I do think that there is something good about people wanting to know how their wine is made. If a winery can be honest and open about how they make their wines, then the consumer can make their own decision about whether those wines are authentic. But plenty of wineries are not being honest about how their wines are made. If you’re not honest, than you can’t be authentic.

    cheers

    gabe

  6. Dear Fred, thanks for weighing in.

  7. george kaplan says:

    Fine wine wasn’t commoditized in the 70s . Now it is.

  8. Michael Mahoney says:

    Socrates, “authenticity” is like “terroir,” some people use the term for marketing, but others truly believe it, practice it, and their wine expresses it. The world needs more wine adhering to this philosophy, not less of it. You, and I, and the rest of us should be praising the younger generation for demanding it.

    The commoditization, profit motives, and scoring of wine has led to its lack of authenticity.

  9. Michael: what is younger will be older, and then they will stand accused of inauthenticity, and wonder why. And so it goes.

  10. Hmm. Pretty pithy, Mr. Heimoff. I’m still waiting to see what you really think since you seem to have it out for this “young winemaker” without anything to offer for your point. Nothing wrong with embracing authenticity, regardless of perspective, old or young. In Ann Noble’s class in the 80′s, we discussed “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in the context of how difficult it is to define quality. I think there’s some of that here, too, in the best of discussions. Dumping on Napa (which has found something valuable in tradition) and celebrating the new frontier of Paso as a higher standard seems outright mean-spirited and steeped in jealous rage. I remember when your discourse was more measured and your reviews were insightful.

  11. Scott M. says:

    Steve,

    It shouldn’t be any surprise that a younger generation is skeptical of the older generation and perceived attempts to trick them to eat their broccoli.
    Wine with its leeways on labeling from alc. to varietal, its often grandiose marketing, and its massive price range sets itself up as the prime suspect for deceit.
    Authenticity is the perception that they aren’t being tricked or mislead.
    Unfortunately, it isn’t simply pure generational skepticism. I’d like to think that no wineries mislead customers in the tasting room with misinformation, use legal production allowances to drastically change the nature of what’s bottled, omit pertinent information in marketing materials, create a false sense of exclusivity, or even bottle different lots claiming they are the same. I fear I know better.
    Marketing is often propaganda and borders on trickery, but in a luxury market like wine, with few quantifiable standards, it can seem more so. “Inauthentic”, I think, refers to the sense that the consumer is being deceived or played upon in order to purchase the product and vice versa.

  12. Michael Terrien says:

    My wooden nickel goes to Giuseppe Comollo for authenticity.

    http://blogs.wineandspiritsmagazine.com/blog/entry/the-coldest-vineyard-in-california

  13. If I may, just a few thoughts on authenticity: In the most simple sense, it is being true to your self. But, for some it is something more. It is about sourcing wine from estate farmed vineyards and making a wine that is in keeping with your “image”, whatever that is. For us, as biodynamic farmers, we try to source everything for the vineyard on site. We go to great lengths to do this, such as keeping our own herd of Highland cattle to provide us with the – well, no nicer way to say it than manure – compost for our vineyard. We talk about our wine in ways that truly describe who we are and what we are doing – both in the vineyard and in the cellar – and we, our selves, grow the grapes, make the wine and are the ones who answer your calls to the winery. Because we are Lake County winegrowers, we are not trying to be “Napa” or France or any place else. Our aim is to grow the finest wine grapes and produce wine which is expressive or our red volcanic mountain vineyard. Biodynamic and organic farming are key.

  14. Dear Tracey, thanks. My problem with “authentic” is that anyone can use it, regardless of the facts. It sounds cool. But it’s turning into the modern equivalent of “sustainable.” It can mean anything, and seems designed to appeal to credulous people rather than the well-informed.

  15. Steve,

    I think your premise is flawed. Anyone can say they have “integrity”, but that doesn’t mean that people will believe them.

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