Putting out mission statements tends to erode credibility, but, as the song goes, we want to accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives in our list. Those positives that we aim to promote are: wines of terroir and typicity; delicious, tasty, unmediated wines; diversity of style and indigenous grape varieties; the endeavours of small independent growers; and the importance of sustainable, organic viticulture. We work from the point of view of understanding the wine by trying to understand the country, the region, the microclimate, the vineyard and the grower. Every wine tells a story and that story deserves to be told.
150 different grape varieties and counting…
The future, we believe, lies in reacquainting ourselves with “real wines”, seeking out and preserving the unusual, the distinctive and the avowedly individual. The continuing commercialisation of wine has necessarily created a uniformity of style, a reduction of numbers of grape varieties and a general orientation towards branding. We therefore applaud growers and estates such as Mas de Daumas with their rows of vines from ancient grape varieties, Henry Marionnet from Touraine for working with French rootstock, diverse Alpine growers for upholding recondite traditional indigenous grapes (life for us is no cabernet, old chum), those who work the land and harvest by hand, those who apply sensitive organic sustainable solutions and achieve biodiversity whatever the struggle. Talking about terroir is not mad-eyed mumbling hocus-pocus nor misty-eyed mysticism (though the French wax so poetical about it); it concerns systematically highlighting the peculiar qualities of the vineyard, getting to the roots of wine itself so to speak, and analysing how flavours derive from sympathetic farming. Quite simply it is the main reason why things naturally taste differently. Ultimately, we want wine to taste of the place it came from. As one of our Italian growers puts it: “We seek to express exactly what the grapes give us, be it power or structure, or finesse and elegance, rather than transform or to impose a style that the wine would not otherwise have had”.
Putting our oak chips on the table, wines that appeal to us have to be well-made, earthy, mineral, not necessarily commercial, yet certainly more-ish, sapid, refreshing, digestible, and capable of accompanying food. In the words of Hubert de Montille in Mondovino we like chiselled wines. A wine should offer pleasure from the first sniff to the draining of the final dregs, although that pleasure may evolve according to the complexity of the liquid in the glass. The pleasure, of course, is personal. We each bring something to what is there in the glass and interpret the result differently. Over-analysis is invidious in that you frequently end up criticising a wine for what it is not, rather than accepting it for what it is.
In the wine trade we seem to be in thrall to notions of correctness. We even say things like: “That is a perfectly correct Sauvignon” Criticism like this becomes an end in itself; we are not responding to the wine per se, but to a platonic notion of correctness. This is the zero defect culture which ignores the “deliciousness” of the wine. We cannot see the whole for deconstructing the minutiae, and we lose respect for the wine. We never mention enjoyment, so we neglect enjoyment. This reminds me of the American fad for highbrow literary criticism, imbued with a sense of its own importance. Wine is as a poem written for the pleasure of others, not a textual conundrum to be unpicked in a corridor of mirrors in the halls of academia. If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.
And why should wine be consistent? There are too many confected wines that unveil everything and yet reveal nothing. The requirement for homogeneity reduces wine to an alcoholic version of coca-cola. Restaurants, for example, are perhaps too hung up on what they think customers think. Patrick Matthews in his book The Wild Bunch quotes Telmo Rodriguez, a top grower in Rioja Alavesa. “We were the first to try to produce the expression of terroir, but people didn’t like the way it changed the wine. The consumer always wants to have the same wine; the trouble is if you have a bad consumer, you’ll have a bad wine.” And, of course, if you push wines that are bland and commercial, then the public will continue to drink bland and commercial wines.
The Stepford Wines
The philosophy of selling the brand is much like having your glass of cheap plonk and drinking it. To satisfy the thirsty market wines are produced in vast quantities which, by definition, have to maintain a minimum level of consistency, yet the rationale of a brand is to sell more and gain greater market share which in turn necessitates bringing more and more land on-vine at higher and higher levels of production. Thus we can view cheap branded wine as no more than alcoholic grape juice, a simulacrum of wine, because it aspires merely to the denominator of price rather than the measure of quality.
Why should we call it wine at all? Quality wine is what growers make: it is an art as well as a science; it is also, by definition, inconsistent, because it must obey the laws of fickle Nature. Real wine-making is surrounded by an entire sub-culture: we speak of the livelihood of small growers, of the lifestyle and philosophy of the people who tend the vines throughout the year, of how the vineyards themselves have shaped the landscape over centuries and the way the wines have become a living record of their terroir and the growing season. You only have to stand in a vineyard to sense its dynamics. Terroir, as we have said, concerns the farmer’s understanding of the land and respect for nature, and a desire to see a natural creation naturally expressed.
This cannot be said for a commercial product, sprayed with chemicals and pesticides, harvested by the tonne, shipped half way across the country in huge refrigerated trucks and made in factories with computerised technology. For factory farming read factory wine production. The relationship with the soil, the land, the growing season becomes irrelevant - if anything it’s a hindrance. Flavour profiles can be, and are, determined by artificial yeasts, oak chips and corrective acidification. The logical extension of this approach would be to use flavouring essences to achieve the style of “wine” you require. Nature is not only driven out with a pitchfork, but also assailed with the full battery of technology. The fault lies as much at the door of the supermarkets and high street multiples as with the wine-makers. Volume and stability are demanded: stability and volume are produced. Style precedes substance because there is a feeling that wine has to be made safe and easy for consumers.
Such confected wines are to real wine what chemical air-fresheners are to wild flowers or as a clipped hedge is to a forest. Paul Draper, of Ridge Vineyards, highlights this dichotomy in what he calls traditional wine-making as opposed to industrial or process wine-making.
Whilst it is no bad thing to have technically competent wines, it does promote a culture of what Draper calls Consumer Acceptance Panels and an acceptance of mediocrity. To adapt Hazlitt’s epigram, rules and models destroy genius. Wines are being made to win the hearts and wallets of supermarket buyers by appealing to a checklist, a common denominator of supposed consumer values. Result? Pleasant, fruity, denatured wines branded to fit into neatly shaved categories: vini reductio ad plonkum. Those guilty of dismissing terroir as romantic whimsy are just as much in awe to the science of winemaking by numbers (or voodoo winemaking as I prefer to call it). But where is the diversity, where is the choice?
Man cannot live by brand alone
Research shows that branded wines dominate the market (i.e. the supermarket); these wines must therefore reflect what people enjoy drinking. This is a bogus inference, not to say an exaltation of mediocrity? Where is the supposed consumer choice when week after week certain influential journalists act as advocates for boring supermarket wines rather than pointing people in the direction of specialist shops and wine merchants? How do we know that consumers wouldn’t prefer real wines (and paying a little more for them)? Those companies who commission surveys to support their brands are not asking the right people the right questions (otherwise they’d get the wrong answers).
There will always be branded wines, and there is a place for them, but the dead hand of globalism determines our prevailing culture of conservatism. Mass production ultimately leads to less choice and the eternal quest for a consistency denatures the product of nature with all its imperfections and angularities. We would like to give customers the opportunity to experience a diverse array of real wines produced by real people in real vineyards rather than bland wines that could be produced (and reproduced) in any region or country. There is enough mediocrity, vulgarity and cultural imperialism in our lives. It is time to reclaim wine as something individual, pleasurable and occasionally extraordinary.