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When it comes to wine, why do we think less is more?



In reading about the great Eastern religions, I’m struck especially by the Taoist notion of wu-wei: “inaction.” Joseph Needham, the British sinologist, defined wu-wei as “refraining from activity contrary to nature.”

When I read that I thought of two things: First, it reminded me of the maxim, so popular today in some winemaking and critical circles, of minimalist technique. The allegedly artisanal, or natural, method of winemaking stresses a less-is-more school in which winemaker interventions are kept to a strict minimum. Many wineries promote the concept as part of their marketing. Google “minimalist winemaking” and go through the search results: you’ll see many familiar names.

The other thing I thought was that the concept of “natural law” has been used wickedly by ideologues and religionists for years in order to persecute behaviors which they find objectionable, because they think that such behaviors are “contrary to nature.” Whenever I hear that, it makes my blood boil. Who defines this “nature”? What is the source of this “nature”? Who’s to say what’s “contrary” to it and what isn’t?

Call me skeptical. Many things that are uttered sound good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface you begin to see the contradictions pile up. A winery may boast of its “minimalist approach” but—not only do we have no real way of knowing what goes on in the cellar—we also have to wonder what’s so minimalist about pruning, using commercial yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, sur lie aging, pumping over, sulfuring, racking, and so on. Tom Wark, some years ago, blogged on this topic, remarking that “Those currently pushing the idea of ‘Natural Wine’ think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.” (The quote is courtesy of John M. Kelly’s blog.)

I think most people would agree that “doing nothing” is a silly idea, both in winemaking and in one’s life in general. Wu-wei has, of course, been exaggerated in the Western mind over the last century or two (ever since sinology arose as a serious pursuit) into the image of the robed monk sitting in full-lotus on some Himalayan cliff, subsisting on a teaspoon of rice a day. (Who cooks the rice anyway?) In order to live, you have to do things, and doing implies making judgments about what you ought to do, what’s the right thing to do, and how to prepare yourself for the consequences of your action.

These things are obvious. So why are we so attracted to this idea of “minimalism” in winemaking? We would not trust an automobile manufacturer that bragged of its minimalist approach to production. We might have a taste for minimalist art, but we would not condemn a highly-articulated painter—Renoir, say—for his acute detailing. I, myself, enjoy a film or television show that is decidedly not minimalist: True Detective, for instance. And minimalist restaurants that charge $150 for a decorative configuration on a huge plate? Not my style.

But when it comes to minimalist winemaking, people get all wet. I wonder why that is?

  1. This essay is heavy-laden with hidden meaning. It is pregnant with unexpressed disapproval. Someone or something specific is bugging you, and I don’t like guessing who or what is at the root of your dyspepsia.

    I was once accused by the former headboy at the SF Chron of waging “jihad” on him. He was partly right even though it was the idea of “less is more” that was bugging me and he was the conduit of that idea.

    On whom are you waging “jihad”? This is a scathing attack on the idea of minimalism, but it cannot have come into being without a deus ex machina out there in the weeds.

    What is it that has “pushed your buttons”?

  2. I have two unrelated hypotheses:

    First, I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with our cultural notions that nature is good and romantic and artistic, and science is cold and sterile and clinical. “Interventionist” winemaking sounds suspiciously close to chemistry, and who knows what such winemakers might be up to — they could be putting (gasp) CHEMICALS into the wine!

    Second, if winemaker intervention is good or at least neutral, then it suggests that the variations caused by weather, soil, and other vagaries of nature and geography can be compensated for, or smoothed out, or even replicated if desired, by skillful winemaking. Wine would be more like beer — wine geeks would much more than they already do about winemakers, and less about vineyards and vintages. Which, I cynically note, would make a lot of the knowledge of existing wine experts (professional and amateur) redundant — what’s the value in knowing what harvest conditions were like in the such-and-such region in 20-whatever, if what mostly matters is what the winemaker did?

  3. Bob Henry says:


    Perhaps Steve read this Wall Street Journal column by James B. Duke professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely:

    “Why Are We Drawn to Products Labeled ‘All Natural’?”



    “. . . our preference for the natural applies largely to things that go into our bodies, such as food and medications.

    “Such findings can be explained by what I call the ‘cave man theory,’ which holds that, no matter how technologically advanced we may become, many of us still believe that our bodies were designed to function best in a long-ago era. So we try to eat what our ancestors ate and shun engineered products.

    “But this is just a belief, and it has little to do with reality. Some synthetic components are less harmful than their natural equivalents, and quite a few natural products (sugar, salt, cholesterol, saturated fats) are dangerous for us. Still, when we hear that a product is ‘natural,’ we see it as part of the way that things should be.”

    ~~ Bob

  4. Hi Steve – Just FYI – no bit – your link in the piece references Tom Wark’s excellent post on mistaking tails for snouts, but the actual link is to the post on my blog where I reference Tom’s post.

  5. John M. Kelly: I know the link is on your blog. I tried to go there and it apparently is a dead link, so I linked to your blog instead. Thanks.

  6. Bob Henry says:


    A contemporary (August 13, 2015) blog piece by Steve Heimoff [] brought me to your 2011 “got natural?” post.

    Regarding your assertion . . .

    “marketing is myth-making – myth-making as in: ‘creating an appealing narrative from whole cloth.'”

    . . . your broad brush stroke paints all marketing as a complete fabrication; a lie with no basis in the truth.

    (That is the etymology of the idiom “out of whole cloth.”)

    I demur.

    The general public holds in high esteem Consumer Reports.

    When they tout themselves through their subscription drive direct mail marketing campaigns, are they being myth-makers? Fabricators? Liars?

    Or do you believe there is an earnest effort to convey the facts (as best they know them), in a pursuit of the truth?

    Legendary ad agency guru David Ogilvy stated:

    “Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”

    — and —

    “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”

    — and —

    “Can advertising foist an inferior product on the consumer? Bitter experience has taught me that it cannot. On those rare occasions when I have advertised products which consumer tests have found inferior to other products in the same field, the results have been disastrous.”


    ~~ Bob

  7. At the minimum in the vineyard, from my experience, I mean the bare minimum is pruning each season. I’ve seen vineyards with not much more than pruning, produce quality wine grapes. However, consistency in this hypothetical “minimalist” vineyard is an issue. Bumper crops and zero crops. Ultra-ripe and ultra-green flavors. Peaks and valleys. Extremes. Not ideal for high-quality wine making and a broken clock is correct twice a day.

    Minimalist on the crush pad would be whole cluster, native yeast, low/no Sulphur, punch down, free-run only, native ML, no aging program, no fining or filtering, probably one racking and bottle that sucker. If you happen to make Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannins would probably rip your face off if the VA didn’t. Don’t use plastic bins or stainless steel to ferment anything either, those aren’t traditional. Glass, wood, concrete or clay are your options.

    My great grandparents made wine in their basements, with a minimum of technique and intervention and my parents tell me the wine smelled and tasted more like a musty, raisiny undrinkable port. They’d rather drink jug wine or $3 wine from Trader Joe’s. My great grandparents were the epitome of minimalist wine makers and I have no interest in moving that direction. I give them credit for making the wine and keeping up the tradition of making wine at home, but they also lived as “minimalists” in Fresno without an air conditioner, which I will give them more credit for.

    Air conditioning (glycol) is a modern interventionist measure, right?
    Minimalist and natural winemaking are codes words, dog whistles for the extremists/intelligentsia/style writer. It’s always easier to be the polar opposite of Napa Cabernet than it is to simply be in the vast competitive middle, making Sonoma Cabernet. Consumers/Wine and Food Writers need a Good vs. Evil story, Modern vs. Traditional, Big vs. Small story line.

    If someone made Craft/Artisanal Oreo’s, a food writer would pick it up!

    Making a minimalist Mataro with biodynamic grapes in a LEED certified winery is attention getting. Making Alexander Valley Cabernet as an alternating proprietor on a non-descript crush pad has no particular appeal or marketing angle for a culture magazine…except if making high quality, consistent AV Cabernet and selling it out each year is your primary business.

    Wait till there is another recession Steve, when the 150-500 case “artisan/craft/lifestyle” winery can’t pay for its grapes or crush fees or bottling or tasting room lease anymore and the crowdsourcing has dried up, then you’ll see the stories of how “value, comfort, consistency, traditional, reputation” have come back into favor from the big wineries/big brands, just as Budweiser sales go up.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    The esteemed Joe Heitz fully came down on the side of winemaker intervention.

    (See his interview with Bob Benson in the seminal book titled “Great Winemakers of California” circa 1977.)

    Let me paraphrase his sentiment (I’m still looking for an authoritative source for the full quote):

    “Mother Nature is a mean old bitch who, if she had her way, would turn all wine into vinegar.”

    And yet he alongside André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard (a fellow interventionist who was Heitz’s mentor) turned out the best wines of their generation.

    The “take-away”: less emphasis on dogma . . . more emphasis on the actual hedonic drinking experience in the glass.

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