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Drinking Out Loud

It's All About Authenticity

Forget about scores. They're not the problem

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 19, 2010

In response to my previous column "Total Transformation," various reader comments maneuvered around the subject of what caused the worldwide transformation of wines and winemaking styles starting in the 1970s.

No one disagreed that such a transformation occurred. Indeed, it's pretty indisputable. But the cause of it is open to differing views. Some readers fingered the 100-point scoring system as a driving force in the worldwide change of wine styles.

For example, Jeffrey D. Travis submitted that "one influence, above all others, changed the way consumers evaluate and convey wine preference," citing the 100-point scoring system. Interestingly, he further noted that it changed wines "irrevocably for the better."

Everyone knows that the 100-point scoring system is the horse—dead or alive, it doesn't seem to matter—everyone likes to beat. I'll say flat-out that if you think that scores were the change agent, I respectfully beg to differ. Granted, scores have an influence, if only because they are so instantly and intuitively understood. You don't need to know anything about wine—hell, you don't even need to know how to read—to grasp that a taster considers the wine at 91 points to be better than the wine at 87 points.

Forget scores. They're just the way the message is sent. The message itself is something much deeper. In the past 20 years—and especially in the past decade—what has really driven the changes in wines is the issue of authenticity.

I realize that invoking the term “authenticity” invites ire among some observers. It presumes a certain standard which, again, to some observers, seems fixed, rigid and arbitrary. While I understand this view, I don’t agree with it.

We live today in a fine-wine world that has been set up for us primarily by the wine producers themselves, who in turn have asked their respective governments to codify their declarations of self-definition.

Whether it’s controlled appellations in Europe, AVAs in the United States or comparable designations in Australia and New Zealand, the fact is—and it is a fact—that the producers themselves have determined that we have a right to expect certain features to their appellation-designated wines.

Consequently, there is such a thing as “authenticity.” And it’s more than mere legalisms. We are told by the very people growing and vinifying the wines what those wines are supposed to be.

Let's get to the nub: What if we don't care? What if I, as a professional taster, really don't care if what I'm judging is or isn't "authentic"? What if you, as an interested consumer, say that as long as it tastes good, you don’t care about "authenticity"?

I can hear you already: Who is to say what is or isn't "authentic"? And how can anyone know? These are fair—indeed, fundamental—questions. Here we enter into the realm of the ambiguous. It's obvious that there's no single, definitive "authentic" in a particular wine. I'm not suggesting that there is. And I know of no producer anywhere in the world who suggests that the “authentic” could or should be so narrowly defined.

Rather, I am saying that the authentic does exist. And that it can arrive in different styles. We all know, for example, that Pinot Noir can be fermented for differing lengths of time, with or without stems, and so on. But the “authentic” quite reasonably requires that we—both critics and consumers—be able to recognize the wines as, at minimum, Pinot Noir.

Knowing the authentic is not dramatically difficult, although it does take time and application. There are such places as Howell Mountain and Stags Leap District, at least through the vehicle of Cabernet Sauvignon. With not a lot of study, you can distinguish these districts in the glass—assuming the wine is, you guessed it, authentic.

"Many of today's shallowest, most facile wines are created by winegrowers—and sometimes celebrated by wine critics—who dismiss, disregard or are even contemptuous of authenticity."

Take the Italian grape Sangiovese. It's quite distinctive, typically proffering a dusty, wild cherry scent and usually displaying a bright acidity. Rarely is it especially dark in hue and, unless vinified in an extreme fashion, never is it an opaque black the way, say, Syrah can be.

Upon visiting producers and tasting numerous versions of Sangiovese, after a while you can get a pretty good handle on what is, in fact, authentically Sangiovese. Yes, it can occupy a spectrum of hues and tastes, but that spectrum does have inherent limits. A Sangiovese that looks and tastes like a Syrah is suspect—and should be.

Let's get specific. Brunello di Montalcino should be 100 percent Sangiovese. Italian wine law says so, further noting that it must be composed of not just any Sangiovese, but of a strain locally called "the little brown one" (brunello) which is recognized as creating a wine that is longer-lived and more deeply colored than some other clones or strains of Sangiovese. Remember, it was the local growers themselves who promulgated this, not outsiders.

What happens when producers of Brunello di Montalcino start blending in other grape varieties, such as Merlot or Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon? You know the answer: The wine is not authentic. (You also know of course that just such a scandal—that's the only word for it—has occurred.)

No less an authority than Ezio Rivella, the former winemaker for Banfi (a large producer of Brunello di Montalcino) and today head of the local Brunello producers consortium, acknowledged in a recent interview with an Italian journalist that “Eighty percent of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese” and that adding “3 percent to 5 percent of grapes other than Sangiovese” was “widespread” and “commonly accepted” among Brunello producers. Others submit that the percentages of unauthorized grape varieties are significantly higher than what Mr. Rivella suggests.

I do not flinch in saying that critics play an outsize role in establishing matters of authenticity and, consequently, in setting a standard. A fellow critic once said to me, "If I like it, it is good." I was floored by this. One's preference is hardly a benchmark for goodness.

Brunello di Montalcino became mired in deception because, in part, too many critics either didn't know or didn't care whether what they were tasting could plausibly have come solely from the Sangiovese grape variety. This lack of interest in—and lack of demand for—authenticity actually encouraged producers to pursue a deviant course. After all, if the critics didn't care, why should the producers? (The parallel to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports is obvious, I would think.)

This is hardly confined to traditionalist Europe. Did you know that in California a wine with an AVA district name such as Oakville or Stags Leap need only be composed 85 percent of wine from that district? Out of a standard 750ml bottle, that's about 4 ounces, or a half-cup of wine; if it were missing, the partially filled bottle would be what auctioneers call a "low-shoulder" fill. Why is this allowed? Because it makes life easier for the producers—authenticity be damned. (It also saves money, increasing profits.)

The same, er, flexibility, applies to vintages as well. In Champagne, for example, a so-called vintage Champagne can contain as much as 15 percent of wine from a vintage other than that designated on the bottle.

Is it so much to ask that our wines come entirely from the place they're proclaimed to be from? And entirely from the vintage designated? And that they're composed of what they're supposed to be made from? In short, that they are demonstrably and perceptibly "authentic" in their origin of grape(s), place and vintage?

The authentic in wine is not a matter of an unvarying prescription. Rather, it's a contract between what growers and winemakers themselves say we should expect and what, in fact, we're handed. After all, we consumers are not the ones who created and defined, say, Stags Leap District, insisting, à la Gertrude Stein, that there’s a “there there.” It was the producers who said it was there both in the land and in the glass.

Authenticity is rooted in honesty. Is a wine authentically 14 percent alcohol in ripeness when, in fact, it's been picked at the equivalent of 17 percent alcohol and "watered-back" by diluting the juice, or been run through a spinning cone to lower the alcohol?

The authentic in wine is not an abstraction. Quite the opposite. The fine-wine transformation of our time is rooted in seeking the authentic, from the vines to deferential winemaking to the glass. It's a matter of recognizing that there is indeed a real deal—and getting it.

Authenticity is the transformative force right now. The best wines made today—the most persuasive wines—come from the regions, the zones and, above all, the producers and consumers where the demand for authenticity is strongest.

Conversely, many of today's shallowest, most facile wines are created by winegrowers—and sometimes celebrated by wine critics—who dismiss, disregard or are even contemptuous of authenticity.

Those who refuse to acknowledge authenticity—either as producers, critics or consumers—are certainly numerous. But look around: Are they convincing anyone? Growers who use reverse osmosis and spinning cones to deconstruct and reconstruct their wines are furtive, not evangelical, while those who pursue authenticity are winning the proverbial hearts and minds and, not least, palates.

Today’s transformation of fine wine is rooted in authenticity. Because without a belief in, and an adherence to, authenticity, why bother?

Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 19, 2010 3:30pm ET
Matt,

I cannot help but note that your call for authenticity would seem more.....well, authentic....if you didn't continually ignore the issue of chaptalization. In your recent Wine Spectator magazine column you listed additions that, in your opinion, that needed to be listed - but failed to mention chaptalization. In this online column you call out watering back - but not chaptalization. And in your book, Making Sense of Burgundy, you went so far as to say, "It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the practice of chaptalization is highly desirable when help to a maximum of 1 to 1.5 degrees of alcohol."

So what's "the real deal" when it comes to your thoughts on chaptalization?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  October 19, 2010 4:25pm ET
Matt,
I suppose one could argue ad infinitum, ad nauseam about how many hairs a man must lose before he's bald. But most of us have little difficulty in saying "X" is bald (or not). Likewise, "authenticity" may have some vagueness about it--or even ambiguity--but much of the time, "we know it when we see (taste) it." It may be hopelessly out of touch to hope that winemakers might aspire to be farmers, but in our cosmetically-oriented virtual world where technology has given us incredible powers over the "natural/real" world, a splash of wine that is authentic to the grape and its environs is a welcomed transformation.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  October 19, 2010 6:36pm ET
Mr. Lee: You ask, "What's the 'real deal' when it comes to your thoughts on chaptalization?" Such a question makes it seem like more than one deal is in play, which is far from the case.

My thoughts on chaptalization--which, as you know, is the addition of sugar to the fermenting juice in order to raise a wine's alcohol level--is of a piece with my opinions about many other winemaking practices.

It's captured in the following question: Could this wine have existed in nature? This is, for me, the bright, shining line.

For example, a wine presented to us as 14% alcohol that is, in fact made from overripe grapes that would conventionally create a 17% alcohol wine, literally could not exist in nature. Its overripe flavors are impossible in a true 14% alcohol wine. It has crossed the bright, shining line.

As commonly practiced in California, one of the purposes of watering back is to take a wine that would, if left unwatered, be 17% alcohol "by volume"--a key phrase, that. Then, by adding water, it's presented to us as 14% alcohol by volume on the label.

Like Hollywood starlets, such winemakers want their audience to believe that what they're putting in front of us came straight from nature.

Chaptalization, for its part, is not premised on such duplicity. Nothing about the practice of judicious chaptalization alters a wine's essential "truth". If done to a maximum of 1 degree to 1.5 degrees of alcohol, chaptalization is benign and non-distorting. (In fairness, one could say the same of watering back, if used with comparable restraint.)

The key point--indeed, this is the nub--is not which practice is employed, but rather, to what end? Winemaking has numerous techniques, any one of which--and I emphatically include spinning cones and reverse osmosis--has its place and its legitimate uses.

But what's the intent? Every detective looks at motive. So, too, should wine lovers.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 19, 2010 7:44pm ET
Matt,

Good to see you responding here. And, yes, I do think that two deals are at play here. Why else, in your magazine column, would you list many of the additions that needed to be listed on the label but fail to list chaptalization? -- Every reader should look at a writer's intent as well, I think.

In fact, it is entirely possible for a 14% alcohol wine to be made from grossly over-ripe grapes. I have, in fact, made a 13% alcohol wine from exactly those grapes. We dealt, for a few years, with a vineyard planted on 5C rootstock. 5C is notorious for shutting down if not given consistent water. The grower (and Dianna and I at the time) didn't know this -- and the vines shut down - leading to grapes that were shriveled and yet at only 21 brix. The pH was also that which you might see in much riper fruit (in the 3.8 range).

Let's look at your chaptalization example. 1 - 1.5% potential alcohol is an addition of 1.5-2.5 brix. That a starting level of 21 brix that is a 10-12% increase. Almost as substantial as your example of 15% from other appellations. Like fashion photographers, such winemakers want us to believe that all women are size 1. -- You wish to argue that such a change doesn't alter the essential "truth" of a vintage?

Indeed, Mr. Kramer, I think your Burgundian slip is showing.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines




Brady Daniels
London —  October 20, 2010 6:33am ET
Adam,

Surely you agree with Matt's basic premise that wines should taste of variety and place? Picking nits is easy, but do you really think that identifying one "weakness" in Matt's opinion undermines his message?

I don't believe that Matt's comments are directed at you in particular, CA Pinot more broadly, or even new world wines in general. He spent more time in this entry discussing Brunello than any other region. So your "Burgundian slip" comment seems excessively defensive.

Finally, I think the fact that you can make and sell so many different Pinots demonstrates Matt's point better than any argument I could make. Customers enjoy different expressions of the grape, or terroir, if you will. Or as Matt might say, your customers seek authenticity.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  October 20, 2010 8:00am ET
Spot on, Brady!

Perhaps Adam's question RE the "real deal?" needs to be addressed back to him.
Jim Mason
St. John's —  October 20, 2010 8:20am ET
So it's ok for us to spike our organically raised beef with salt and pepper to make it taste better but Brunello producers can't spike their wine with a bit of Cabernet to improve structure and flavor profile? Yet if they declassify the wine they can blend it any way they like, call it a Super Tuscan, and double the price. Good on them for not being slaves to "authenticity". IMHO it is this exploration outside traditional boundaries that has created a global market for wine and improved wine quality at all price levels.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 20, 2010 9:00am ET
Brady,

Thanks for the comments. I think "authenticity" is a perfectly fine criteria for an individual to set. However, when it comes down to enforcement of it, I think it becomes enormously difficult. The Thevenet wines in the Macon, for example, were not allowed to use the Macon designation because they were not "typical" or authentic enough for French authorities. Matt's Brunello example is easy - because the law states the actual grape component. But his arguements regarding style (too dark for Sangiovese) or winemaking techniques (chaptalization okay apparently, water additions not) and how they relate to authenticity are a much more slippery slope.

Finally, I wouldn't say that my bringing up chaptalization is "picking nits." I read Matt Kramer's original edition of "Making Sense of Burgundy" every year before harvest - and it probably has more winemaking notes in it from me that any other book I own. In it, he devotes an entire section to chaptalization. He singles it out as being 'highly desirable." Yet it has been noticeably absent from any of his blogs or columns on winemaking techniques that need to be dislosed on the label. That's why I bring it up.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
R M Kriete
Indialantic, FL —  October 20, 2010 10:04am ET
Adam,
Maybe chaptalization could be considered "authentic" if the sugar added is obtained from sugar cane grown in the same vineyard:)

I gotta agree with Adam. Adding sugar seems a LOT more "in-authentic" than adding water. Moreover, who gets to be the judge of authenticity? Perhaps winemakers should just list all their interventions (on their website) and let the consumer be the judge.
Paul M Hummel
Chicago, —  October 20, 2010 10:10am ET
Gentlemen,

It really always comes down to tasting and experience, as Matt's comments on Howell Mtn cabs discusses.
Over the years, authenticity changes as wine making changes, and personal preference develops.

Without tasting experience, the 100 point scale may well be the most important factor in consumer preference, which then drives wine-making styles so one can stay in business.
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  October 20, 2010 12:09pm ET
Seems to me that "authentic" is the word (and concept) that the "natural wine" combatants have been groping for, with no apparent success, and the concept at the heart of the interventionist versus non-interventionist camps. (Unhappily, the discernible "natural wine movement" harbors too many all-or-nothing radicals whose politics and polemics obscure, rather than illuminate, the true issues.) The chaptalization issue seems to be where the rubber meets the road these days. Many California winemakers and wine lovers (save Ridge, Rhys, Mount Eden and a few other Santa Cruzers who seem able to make quality 13% alcohol wines, WITH their Burgundy slips showing) understand that if the popular taste pendulum now swings away from the ripe, high-alcohol style so lauded by certain wine critics (there! I did it! I did not name names!), maintaining market share gets a lot harder. At times, I read posts that seem hell-bent on legitimizing watering back in an almost pre-emptive manner, to make sure that the technique is available and accepted if the pendulum so swings.

I believe what Matt says about the lack of impact of judicious chaptalization, and it is laudable that he accepts a comparable level of watering back as philosophically non-interventionist. However, the posture that chaptalization, that dreaded European evil, is "unnatural", and thus, that by cutting chaptalization some slack and awarding it "natural" status somehow justifies the widespread use of the watering back technique as equally "natural" (oops, "authentic") just does not, well, hold water, so to speak.

It is a question of degree, and also a question of necessity. Chaptalization has history on its side. Watering back is a creature of recent invention (unless one accepts the ancient practice of watering wine to increase profits to be "watering back", but I suspect that practice would rightfully be called "watering forward"), employed almost exclusively for wines of a style of equal brevity that is now under seige in many quarters.
And the evidence is that, at least for now, global warming (or whatever one chooses to call the phenomenon) is rendering chaptalization unnecessary virtually all over Europe, but at the same time, it is making watering back at increasingly higher levels essential for the survival of some wineries (and winemaking styles)...
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 20, 2010 12:57pm ET
William,

In point of fact, wine was routinely watered back by the Greeks to decrease its alcoholic content. They even had a type of vase for this practice called a kratiras.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Morgan Dawson
Rochester, NY —  October 20, 2010 1:48pm ET
Matt,

You write, "No less an authority than Ezio Rivella, the former winemaker for Banfi (a large producer of Brunello di Montalcino) and today head of the local Brunello producers consortium, acknowledged in a recent interview with an Italian journalist that 'Eighty percent of Brunello was not pure Sangiovese' and that adding '3 percent to 5 percent of grapes other than Sangiovese' was 'widespread' and 'commonly accepted' among Brunello producers."

I asked James Suckling, WS's recently departed Italian wine critic, why he didn't further pursue the seriousness of this charge. He told me that Mr. Rivella claims to have been misquoted. Have you heard that Mr. Rivella denies making this claim? Have you spoken with Mr. Suckling about it? It seems to be a very significant point to get correct.

Cheers and thanks.

Evan Dawson
Finger Lakes, NY
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  October 20, 2010 3:38pm ET
Mr. Dawson: As is well-known, the matter of varieties other than Sangiovese being added to Brunello di Montalcino has been an ongoing issue, involving both official investigations as well as no little speculation.

My quote from Ezio Rivella came from a videotaped interview conducted by Carlo Macchi of Wine Surf, an Italian Internet site. Here is the link to the pertinent segment:

http://www.youtube.com/profile?gl=IT&user=WineSurfTube#p/a/u/0/BVh7RgCIN8M

The interview, conducted in Italian, has Mr. Rivella stating that 80 percent of the Brunello di Montalcino wines "non erano Sangiovese puro" (were not pure Sangiovese). Mr. Rivella says this at the 20:30 mark in the 23:39 minute-long segment.

He further amplifies his thoughts in succeeding comments, citing his observation that "two, three, five percent" of varieties other than Sangiovese were employed. This occurs at the 22:10 mark.

Whether Mr. Rivella feels he has been misquoted, I cannot say. The videotape seems pretty straightforward. What any of us chooses to make of his statement is, of course, a separate matter."
Morgan Dawson
Rochester, NY —  October 20, 2010 4:18pm ET
Matt -

That is wonderfully helpful, thanks. I had not seen the video. I can not think of another interpretation to his remarks. And even if he claims to be misquoted, I'd ask him to clarify the specific remarks he did, in fact, make.

Cheers on your continued excellent work.

Evan Dawson
Finger Lakes, NY
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  October 20, 2010 4:49pm ET
Interesting post Matt, although I object to many of your assertations. First, I agree with Adam that chapitilzation is a climate driven intervention in Europe, just as adding water is in California. Realistically, everything we do (tanks, barrels, yeasts, sulfites and on and on) is an intervention. If you really want to taste the terrior -- why not just crush the grapes and leave them in an open container...you'd get wine without any intervention save for the viniculture but it sure would not taste very good! Which brings me to my 2nd point -- While i understand the point of the laws which restrict Brunello to 100% Brunello clone sanigovessie-- I think when these laws get overly restrictive (as in the case of Brunello) you maintain "authenticity" but also impede innovation and potentially improvement. And I think that most wine drinkers want both.
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  October 20, 2010 5:05pm ET
Adam, I did not know that about the Greeks. Thus, I am fine with watering down as long as, in every case, a kratiras is employed. (Just kidding.) And I am guessing that every time some ancient Greek turned out a wine that was too tart, a little honey and perhaps a little water was added to make the wine at least drinkable. While true, that type of ancient historical argument cannot be relevant in this discussion. The focus needs to be what went on after the monks (and others elsewhwere) discovered what we call terroir after a lot of trial and error (not unlike what goes on in California, Oregon, Washington and other American wine venues today). And we need only consider wines with sufficient typicity to be recognized for what they are and how they compare to others of their type. Burgundy cut with Syrah in the old days does not count. Mead does not count. Your watered-back Greek wines do not count. Even Jeffersonian Bordeaux does not count. Sweet Barolo from the 19th century does not count.

I think that Matt has focused the discussion in a useful way. For the most part, with a few exceptions perhaps, we are interested in wines made in the 20th century and this century. By way of example, a 1900 vintage port can be compared to a 1963 vintage port. If such a thing existed, an alleged "port" that contained 25% Sangiovese could be compared to the other two. Some, especially those that do not care for port anyway, might find that wine to be a great improvement over traditional vintage port. Maybe such a wine could be chaptalized or watered back, or subjected to micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis or spinning cones, as the winemaker wishes. But the point is this: such a wine is not an AUTHENTIC vintage port. (And, interestingly, the wine known as port before it was fortified to preserve it during shipment is not port.) You might say, "So what? People like it." Indeed. And many like Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay with its residual sugar, but it ain't white Burgundy, and does not pretend to be. For me, the production of fine wine is not a Darwinian exercise in survival of the fittest, as defined by technology, popular taste trends of the moment and marketing strategies. That gets you today's Robert Mondavi Winery. Authenticity counts, and I really do not believe that defining authenticity in any given wine is all that hard. That is not to say that a $25 Pinot Noir should not be produced in California or Oregon because it is not red Burgundy. But it is important to understand that, say, DRC La Tache is an authentic red Burgundy and not a $25 Pinot Noir...
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  October 20, 2010 5:13pm ET
matt,

as always, your article is well-written, well-thought-out, and very entertaining. however, your argument escapes me completely. man's hand is EVERYWHERE in the winemaking process. the new wineries look like friggin' missile silos with chemistry labs. if the end product tastes good, by God i don't care how they do it. why handcuff winemakers anymore than they're already handcuffed by the federal government, state governments, local governments, and global market pressures?

and i totally agree with adam in the sense that it doesn't compute to attack one form of intervention without attacking all forms of intervention. regardless of whether intervention has a historic basis, it's still intervention. if nature doesn't allow your grapes to ripen to an adequate level, and you want to make an authentic wine, make a crappy wine that year or sell your grapes to grape juice producers.
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  October 20, 2010 5:30pm ET
One other thought and I will give it a rest: Matt referenced the "if I like it, it is good" critic above. Without naming the obvious name, one very famous critic has floated from obscure and unknown amateur taster to what some accept as the world's greatest palate and its most reliable wine authority on just that premise. A wine critic can have value for many, by positive OR negative implication, as long as his palate is a relatively consistent benchmark (probably the greatest virtue of the critic that I have in mind). But he has run roughshod over the concept of authenticity. He likes what he likes. Quality is what is in the bottle, defined in his sole and absolute discretion. It does not matter how it got there. History counts for nothing, except to say that wines are better than ever now because they are custom made to suit his palate. But it has never occurred to him to say, "Well, this is what I think is good anyway."

A little modesty goes a long way in wine criticism, because, although many earn a living in that line of work, they are "professional" only in the sense that somebody (us, ultimately) is willing to pay them to do what they do. In truth, all started as amateurs and made it up as they went along. The best have become lifelong students of fine wine who keep themselves open to the evolving, the new and the different. Others just gas off from their personal frames of reference...

(Sorry, Matt! But I consider you to be a wine WRITER. Wine writing, in stark contrast to "wine criticism", is a noble profession that does hark from the time of the Etruscans, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans! And you are no stranger to modesty. Well, at least SOMETIMES, by your own admission, eh?)
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  October 20, 2010 6:00pm ET
William; RE: your comment "But it is important to understand that, say, DRC La Tache is an authentic red Burgundy and not a $25 Pinot Noir... " -- I have had DRC side by side with California and Oregon Pinots (some of which were in the $50 range) and preferred the new world versions (more expressive IMHO). Does the "authenticity" of DRC override the overall better flavors (again, in my opinion) of the "New World" pinots? i say this as you seem to imply that authenticity is more important than flavor.
Brady Daniels
London —  October 20, 2010 6:28pm ET
I still don't understand the resistance to authenticity.

If the only goal is to make wine "good" then let the sensory scientists at UC Davis derive the optimal blend of varieties to maximize the pleasure of the greatest number of consumers. Perhaps such an ideal formula exists, but what a boring wine world it would make. (And maybe one of the multi-national giants has already done it.)

Personally, I'd rather my Ewald Vineyard Pinot taste of Ewald and Rosella's taste of Rosella's. I'm sure winemakers manipulate more than i think, but I hope the good ones tweak as little as they need to. Call me a romantic.

Finally, I don't see Matt talking of enforcement. Rather, he is describing an ideal that consumers should desire, and as a consequence, winemakers should strive for. It is this ideal that makes wine worth more than $7 per bottle, right?

Let Gallo be Gallo. That can be gluggable, I suppose. But wine lovers should look deeper and artisans should aim higher.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 20, 2010 7:09pm ET
Brady,

Specifically, where do you see authenticity being questioned here? I ask, because I see a lot of questions about what authenticity should entail and what boundaries are involved in the concept. But less questioning of the concept as a whole (and by all means, let Ewald be Ewald and Rosella's be Rosella's). And, fwiw, I think many boutique winemakers prefer to, and do, less rather than more.


William,

I recently broke my kratiras and thus my watered back wine just doesn't taste as good.

Seriously, the reason for mentioning historical examples is that, at least from what I can see from your first post, the primary criteria you seem to have for accepting chaptalization but not other winemaking techniques is historical. So I brought up (ancient) Greek wines.

But if you want to keep the discussion to modern day wines, would the use of smaller barriques in Piedmonte make the wine inauthentic? Or, with your Port example, the recent inability to transport wine via river barge and the substitution of tanker trucks make the wine inauthentic? How about Guy Accad in Burgundy, with his extended cold soaks? Burgundy in the 1970s was filtered much more than now (with smaller American importers being a large part of that) -- was that wine more authentic because it is more historical (but not too old)? Wine making techniques change continually. Using history as a guide to what is acceptable or authentic is a slippery slope, IMHO.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines


Fredrik Lorentzson
Heberg, Sweden —  October 21, 2010 6:42am ET
"Today’s transformation of fine wine is rooted in authenticity". Do you really believe that , or do you only wish it were so? If the former, I must quote Travis Bickle: What world are you from? Do you seriously think that Accad, Rolland, Cambie et al are striving for "authenticity"!? Or aren´t they part of today´s transformation?

It is a beautiful thought, though.
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  October 21, 2010 9:45am ET
Andrew, I cannot say from what you wrote, but nothing precludes the "authenticity" of the Pinot in your example. I see nothing in this discussion that suggests that authenticity is strictly an Old World phenomenon. Just as there is Central Valley bulk plonk, there is bulk unclassified Bordeaux and a lot of cash-crop, low-quality bulk wines throughout the Old World. I will say only this, outside of the confines of the authenticity discussion: about taste there can be no question, but I suspect that it is a very rare person who would prefer New World Pinots to perfectly stored, sufficiently aged La Tache (not that that matters).

Adam, the barrique example is an excellent one. I could make a pretty convincing argument that the use of barrique is not TRADITIONAL, but that the wines so raised are still, in the final analysis, authentic. How do I get there? All concensus traditional AND authentic Baroli (a relatively easy exercise, I think) have been raised in wood. Sometimes old chestnut or other woods, only more recently in new oak. The second factor is, except in the case of grossly overoaked wines, after a decade, it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell a barrique Barolo from an old-wood wine (this test has been perormed a number of times now). The wines all exhibit the classic violets or roses and road tar.

Accad is a very different analysis, but to me, equally easy. He was ridden out of town on a rail because Accad wines possessed an untraditional deep coloration, which may not, in and of itself, make Accad wines inauthentic. However, his wines generally had muddy flavors and often a "sameness" that obliterated any sense of place that is so central to red Burgundy. The real reason for the natural wine/authenticity discussion is, of course, the outgrowth that the palates of certain wine critics (one in particular) and wine consultants have homogenized wines so profoundly that it is sometimes hard to identify the varietal(s) involved.

On the other hand, Gaja's use of Barbera in his Barolos and Barbarescos poses a more interesting authenticity question. By deciding not to use "Barolo" and "Barbaresco" for his single-vintage wines (which, by Italian wine law, he should not), it can be said that he has declared his own wines to be inauthentic. In the past, he also chaptalized when it was not permitted in Italy. And yet, years down the road, his wines stand at the top of the Nebbiolo ladder, and nobody complains that the wines are marred by a distracting Barbera aftertaste. To me, this is a bright-line "slippery slope". But then again, many Langhe vineyards contain both Nebbiolo and Barbera (and sometimes Dolcetto as well), and who is to say whether or not the rogue grapes have not made it into the Nebbiolo wines of other producers from time to time?

Matt, what say you about Signor Gaja and authenticity?
William R Klapp Jr
Neive, Italy —  October 21, 2010 9:50am ET
Adam, distinguishing evolution in winemaking techniques from inauthenticity is, admittedly, sometimes a toughie. It takes some time and analysis to form an sustainable position. However, as pointed out above, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that both Accad and Rolland have employed techniques that have produced concensus inauthentic wines that have no sense of place or tie to tradition...
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  October 21, 2010 9:57am ET
While there is plenty of room for debate on the details of your premise the basics stand up and help, at least, the non-professionals among us including me gain a stronger base for a truer perspective on our common love. Thanks for the sanity.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  October 21, 2010 10:27am ET
Mr. Lorentzson: You write: "Do you seriously think that Accad, Rolland, Cambie et al are striving for "authenticity"!? Or aren't they part of today's transformation?"

I take your point to be sure. But I must say that one of the things that a longer-term view offers is that, while there are always forces pushing in different directions, it is possible to discern a stronger current in a river amid all the swirling eddies and, yes, cross-currents.

As you know, Mr. Accad's winemaking techniques back in the late 1980s (extended cold maceration for as long as two or three weeks) failed to persuade. His winemaking influence in Burgundy today is virtually nil.

As for Mr. Rolland, there's no disputing his business sway. But while he has had an undoubted commercial impact, I don't see that he has captured the hearts and minds. I very much doubt that, 20 years from now, anybody will be able to say that Mr. Rolland changed the way the world saw fine wine. (One could make a better case for the late Émile Peynaud in that respect, I think.)

For its part, the pursuit of authenticity is demonstrably revising our collective notion of goodness in fine wine. It is a lens through which an increasing number of both wine producers, as well as wine drinkers, are now understanding the depths and dimensions of fine wine.

Whether a producer pursues this dimension by using an extreme non-interventionist approach (Frank Cornelissen in Sicily), the use of amphorae (Josko Gravner), skin contact for white whites (Stanislao Radikon) or any of a ever-growing number of producers worldwide who are attracted to the precepts of biodynamics, a personal vision of "authenticity" in wine is the prime moving force of our time.

Of course this does not mean that it is the only such force. Much of commercial winemaking remains in the realm you describe. But even commercial powerhouses are being swept along by this current of authenticity. Look, for example, at the highly commercial likes of the Cono Sur brand in Chile, which is owned by Chile's largest producer, Concha y Toro. Some of Mr. Rolland's clients, such as Quintessa in Napa Valley, also employ biodynamic techniques in the vineyards.

I grant you that all this is still emerging. And it is not easily, if at all, quantified and "proven". Nevertheless, can one doubt that it exists?

Look at the transformation of so many wine regions today such as Burgundy, Friuli, New Zealand, Sicily, parts of the Loire Valley, many part of Italy, Oregon, Hungary, much of Spain, Greece and yet others.

The finest, most ambitious wines from all of these locales are driven not by the commercial calculus of winemaking consultants but rather, from a deep, even emotional, need to create wines that speak to, and about, some sort of authenticity--whether by using indigenous grape varieties, varying philosophies and degrees of non-interventionist or deferential winemaking approaches or a variety of organic or biodynamic viticultural methods in their vineyards.

This is why "authenticity" is the transformative fine-wine force of our time.
Brady Daniels
London —  October 21, 2010 1:08pm ET
Mr. Kramer,

My turn to nit-pick.

I'd like to agree with your last sentence, "This is why "authenticity" is the transformative fine-wine force of our time." I really hope you are right.

That is rather different from your statement in the main article, "In the past 20 years—and especially in the past decade—what has really driven the changes in wines is the issue of authenticity."

Your most recent sentence is about the present and the statement from the article is about the past. I don't think I'd be alone in stating that fifteen years ago, I bought based on scores from famous critics. That was still largely true five years ago. Fortunately, I'm doing much better recently. :)

Perhaps scores and powerful critics dominated the last twenty years, and authenticity will drive the next twenty? I hope so!

Thank you for your thoughtful article.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  October 21, 2010 6:12pm ET
Interesting the many directions taken in the responses to this article--so, I may as well go further. First of all, I embrace the notion (generally Old World) that wine is a "food group" rather than simply an alchoholic beverage. When Europe battled US meat producers over hormone-treated beef, and when Slow Foodies battle a variety of chemical additives to food, they seem to be arguing for the transformative stance of "authentic" food in general. I've admittedly enjoy the fruits of these "authentic" food movements--especially in Italy. Mega agro-businesses, and wanna-be mega wine producers, have the capacity to produce/manuafacture food and wine that the masses will buy. I share the hope of other respondents that "authenticity" will drive the next twenty-fifty years.
Fred Swan
California —  October 21, 2010 9:37pm ET
Thank you for the excellent series of articles and responses. I am convinced by much of what you say. However, while I can agree that authenticity has been "a" (major) transformative force, especially recently, I can't agree that it is "the" primary force. This is especially true if one goes back as far as the 1970's.

My view is that the pursuit of authenticity is, or at least started as, a response to a much larger issue. I hold the same opinion with regard to the 100-point system. To me, the genesis of all the change, including the drive at some wineries for authenticity, is the evolution of the wine business from a multiplicity of closed regional markets to one global market. I expand on that thought here: http://bit.ly/cZVpPI

Thanks again,
Fred
Kevin Harvey
Santa Cruz, CA, USA —  October 22, 2010 8:56am ET
Adam,
The ambiguity of the term "authentic" does not mean that it is not useful. We do not have a rulebook for exactly what makes something "artificial", yet you have probably tasted a wine that you thought was overly spoofilated, contrived or manufactured.

It seems that what really bothers you in Matt's concept of authenticity centers around what techniques are allowed. Relaxing that constraint (ie forgetting technique), have you ever tasted a wine that you felt was quintessentially Pisoni, meaning it was Pisoni in every way and couldn't be made anywhere else? If so, that wine is "authentic."

Similarly, we might agree that some industrial box wine that is just reconstituted mega-purple is artificial (and unauthentic).

It's fine to debate the techniques etc, but even though ambiguous, the word authentic clearly has great meaning when it comes to wine.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 22, 2010 10:52am ET
Kevin,

Perhaps that's the difference between being a pundit (or a candidate) and an actual law maker. Or the owner of a winery or a wine columnist, and an actual winemaker. Choosing not to integrate actual techniques or real life situations into philosophy and "deeper thought" is fine for those living in ivory towers but carries little weight in the world that most people live in. --

As far as my objection being based on techniques - I'd like to point out that Matt was the one who brought specific techniques into the article - using the word "furitive" with regard to some of those techniques, while choosing to ignore other widely practiced techniques (that he likes) entirely. So I'd say what really bothers me is what I perceive to be the double standarad.

Answering your question, Kevin, have I ever tasted a wine that I felt was quintessentially Pisoni? Definitely - a few of them. Was water added to that wine? I believe so - though it might have been spun -or both. Was acid added to it -- I believe so. Was it filtered, I think so. Was it velcorined --- I believe it was as well. --- But it still tasted authentically Pisoni like to me. What does that prove?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Joseph Trdinich
Mars, PA —  October 22, 2010 11:12am ET
Adam, I know this isn't the forum to request this but you obviously are engaged here. We are coming to visit Siduri on November 11 and I was wondering if you would be there. Would love to meet you during the visit. Prior visits have found you in NYC of for the Wine Experience. Thanks.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  October 22, 2010 11:40am ET
Adam,

Your latest response is both curious and puzzling. Answering Kevin's question RE if you ever tasted a wine you felt was quintessentially Pisoni? You said: "Definitely - a few of them. Was water added to that wine? I believe so - though it might have been spun -or both. Was acid added to it -- I believe so. Was it filtered, I think so. Was it velcorined --- I believe it was as well. --- But it still tasted authentically Pisoni like to me. What does that prove?"

I'm not "the owner of a winery or a wine columnist, and an actual winemaker," but as a semi-literate reader, it seems to me that there are two possible answers to your question "What does that prove?" First, the immediate implication is that the possible "techniques" you mentioned are integral parts of your definition of "quintessential;" if that's the case, then, second, there is no such thing as "authentic" or "quintessential" as we laymen would define them. I heard a Slow-Foodie chef describe the food in Piemonte, Italia as: "when you see it, you know what it is. When you taste it, you know what you're tasting." That would be my definition of authentic and quintessential: "when you taste it, you know what you're tasting."
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 22, 2010 12:07pm ET
James,

Let me see if I can clarify. I taste wines from many different Pisoni Vineyard offerings quite frequently - because we make a Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir as well. I try to do a blind tasting of them a couple of times a year but drink different Pisoni's. To Kevin's point, I think that many of them taste to me like Pisoni - and some of them are truly outstanding wines that leave me saying, "that's what a Pisoni should taste like!" --- Kevin's point, and one that holds some weight for him, is that is authenticity. -- Great, that is established.

I know that varying techniques, from discussions with winemakers afterwards and from my own experience, have been employed on these wines that have caught my attention. These techniques include watering back, adding acid, filtering, late picking, velcorin, etc. Some of the wines have been made using one of these techniques, some using several, some using none, and some undoubtedly using techniques I haven't mentioned and am not aware of. And yet the wines still have, by Kevin's definition, an authentic Pisoni character to me. --- So my conclusion is that there is no correlation between the technique and the authenticity of the wine at this site.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 22, 2010 12:29pm ET
Joseph,

Thanks for asking and for planning the visit. It does look like I will be around so I look forward to seeing you here!

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Ann Suchta
Wimington, Delaware —  October 22, 2010 1:51pm ET
I agree with Adam in that it seems there is a double standard if chapitalization is not considered a manipulative and possibly non-authentic technique in wine making. It seems based on Mr. Kramers argument that chapitalization would not be authentic.

Mr. Kramer's states "But what's the intent? Every detective looks at motive. So, too, should wine lovers."

The motives seem pretty obvious to me. In both cooler and warmer regions, winemakers need to apply available techniques to make the best wines they can considering what the terroir (including climate) permits.

I would be ok with Mr. Kramers previous suggestions of listing on the labels what techniques the wine makers have employed. Just as long as wine makers (including Burgundian) included "Sugar added" where it applied. Somehow I don't see that happening.
Brady Daniels
London —  October 22, 2010 1:56pm ET
Come on Adam, what point are you trying to prove? You say you aren't against authenticity, but you seem to fight the idea. In your last comment you went further and claimed to find no correlation between technique and authenticity.

I find that comment stunning. Surely some techniques could taint the finished product. How about the addition of 15% syrah? Or a good dose of Russian River fruit (that's legal up to some percentage, right)?

Let's modify Kevin's question. Excluding vintages in which nature wiped out vineyard characteristics (too wet, too hot, whatever), have you ever had a Pisoni that didn't taste like a Pisoni? Why do YOU think the wine didn't taste of place? Is there any chance it was the slightly excessive hand of a well meaning wine-maker?

I've tasted your wines with you and was impressed by the different expression from each tank. I guess that is why I am hoping you will say that you truly appreciate the concept of authenticity, rather than focusing on a single aspect of Matt Kramer's beliefs.
Reggie Mcconnell
Indiana —  October 22, 2010 2:04pm ET
Dear Mr. Lee:

My question is simple and a bit off topic, but I’ll ask it anyway inasmuch as I'm experiencing some difficulty arriving at what I consider to be a plausible explanation. (Since you are a winemaker perhaps you can be of service.) Question: Why are today’s wines much higher in alcohol than those made 25-35 years ago? There was a time when I could spend an evening enjoying a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon without becoming tipsy. That is no longer the case. The Cabs I enjoyed during the 1970s and early ‘80s were typically 12-12.5%. But a great many of today’s Cabs. tip the scales at 14.3-15%. Moreover, most, if not all varietals, appear to be trending in that direction.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 22, 2010 3:02pm ET
Brady,

You seem to ignore the fact that I said "at this site." Is every site the same - certainly not. And is every technique the same - certainly not. Your examples of adding 15% Syrah or RRV fruit are examples which would, I imagine, make Pisoni taste less like Pisoni (they would be illegal as well). Neither are, however, winemaking techniques used on Pisoni fruit but the addition of something other than Pisoni to Pisoni.

My comments and observations may or may not argue against authenticity (I might say that they argue in favor of Pisoni have such a strong sense of place that it overcomes the techniques used)-- but I can't say something that I haven't found to be true.

Have I ever had a Pisoni that doesn't taste like Pisoni? Yes....I can think of a couple of examples where brett was an issue and it obscured the sense of place. I can think of others that tasted like Pisoni to me but that I found the alcohol too obvious (that, unfortunately, includes at least one of ours). So I would identify winery cleanliness and picking decisions (or perhaps a decision to do too little rather than too much) as the larger issues that I have had

Brady, I am not opposed to the concept of authenticity. But I think that saying that wrapping certain winemaking techniques into the concept of authenticity is a much more complicated proposition and one that doesn't always stand up to scrutiny and my experience.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Andrew Alley
Burlington, NC —  October 22, 2010 9:40pm ET
I agree with Adam, Matt is tying "His Idea" of what "correct" wine is to the term authentic. There are a few producers who solely let the vintage and site dictate the qality and style of wine you get. In a tough year, there wines may taste "authentic" but can be terribly flawed. Authentic does not exclusibely mean "good" although it should be something that is wisely considered.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 22, 2010 9:47pm ET
Reggie,

There are, IMHO, a few different reasons for the increase in alcohol levels. I know that a number of the Wine Spectator editors have addressed this very topic -- and not sure this is the proper forum. If you want, please drop me an email at adam@siduri.com and I will be happy to share my opinions on the matter with you.

Thank you,

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Brady Daniels
London —  October 23, 2010 6:59am ET
Adam,

Fair enough. I understand where you are coming from. Thank you for your thoughts on this. I look forward to seeing you next time I'm in Santa Rosa.

"Authenticity is like pornography, you know it when you see it." Or maybe not.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 23, 2010 10:23pm ET
Sorry to be a bit pedantic... but here are a few dictionary sub-defintions of Authentic:

1) worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact

2) conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features

3) made or done the same way as an original

4) not false or imitation : real, actual

5) true to one's own personality, spirit, or character

It seems to me that Matt is arguing from the perspective of 1-3. And that Adam is arguing from the perspective of 4-5.

Where I think Matt's point falls short is that once something new has been established via defintions 4 & 5, it can then also fall within definitions 1-3. Hence, if picking riper in CA and adding some water is a style that people stay true to, and don't proport to be something else, then that style is authentic by all definitions.

I think all of us in CA that make the riper style wines are all about authenticity. We're searching for the best representation of the individual terroirs we work with. We're not trying to be something else, such as trying to reproduce Burgundy in CA, which would be (IMHO) unauthentic... or at least somewhat hollow in that all you did was make an authentic reproduction.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  October 24, 2010 1:32am ET
Brian,

Sorry, but here's "pedantic" back at you--your logic seems flawed. You say: "Hence, if picking riper in CA and adding some water is a style that people stay true to, and don't proport to be something else, then that style is authentic by all definitions."

The essence of definitions 2 & 3 has something to do with "orginal." Unless you're claiming that CA is the original original in all thing vino, your conclusion doesn't follow. If you and Adam claim that if CA wine is being true to itself, that is "authentic," fine by definitions 4 & 5; but logic would only grant that you are producing "authentic" CA wine. That still begs the question of "original."
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  October 24, 2010 12:00pm ET
James - but once you create something that is unique unto itself, i.e. creating CA wine, or more specifically CA Pinot (or Adam's Pisoni), it does become an "original". It's not authentic Burgundy, but it is authentic CA Pinot.

No less so than a work of art created by Picasso. As long as Picasso created it, it is authentic, despite the fact that it was not the "original original" when it came to painting or sculpture.

New "lines" of authenticity occur all the time. If not, then even Burgundy couldn't claim to be authentic since they use techniques that weren't used when the first wine was created (e.g. using small oak barrels).
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  October 26, 2010 8:44am ET
Matt,

Interesting set of responses--pretty well reflects and confirms your article. Now that the new issue of WS is out, the connections between your print article and this one are clear
Ricardo A Maduro
Panama, Panama —  October 28, 2010 11:50am ET
Is a Cartier watch authentic?
A Rolex?
How about a Patek-Philippe?
By your terms only God is.
Authenticity is defined by man and if in California an AVA (man made) dictates an 85-15%, so be it but be strict about it.
Don't get me wrong, I agree with you but the problem lies in deviating from the rules (man made) not from the "ideal" rules you wish existed.
Again, man made...
Brennan Anderson
Napa, CA —  October 29, 2010 3:43pm ET
Something that I think is at the heart of this debate is that traditionally, it took great terroir to make great wine. With modern technology, great wine can be made from merely good terroir. Those that own (or admire) great terroir, want to protect it from everyone else. Those that have merely good terroir, don't want to feel inferior (less authentic) for using non-traditional techniques (whatever those may be) to achieve greatness.

Somewhere in here is a parallel between nobility and peasantry...those of noble birth wish to protect their birthright...those that were peasants seek opportunity.

Back to wine, I'd suggest that the new world has nowhere near the experience to know what is an authentic expression of our terroir and the techniques that should be used to achieve it. What we have is an abundance of sunshine to ripen the fruit, a wide range of modern winemaking tools at our disposal, but not enough history and experience to know how to use those tools to collectively put forth authentic representatives of our terroir.

Of course not every winery has authentically reflecting terroir as their primary mission which is the rub...some have the crazy notion that they just want to make a wine that tastes good. A purist will argue that the consumer then has no idea what the wine will or should taste like based on how it is labeled because they are not respecting the varietal or place and want to hang a scarlet letter of warning on these wineries to disclose their "inauthentic" transgressions.

This strikes me as desperation of the wine nobility...but perhaps instead of labeling someone else, they should think of a way to label themselves as "authentic" whatever that means to them...a Slow Food movement of wine or something similar. Bottom line is that as long as wine is being sold commercially, the market is going to determine what is important and if the consumer respects their symbol of authenticity they will reward them accordingly.

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