A Brief Response To A Heinously Unprofessional Piece Of Wine Writing

 

Recently, the wine writer Stuart Pigott (his bio says “wine journalist,” but I see no evidence of such, in that a journalist provides actual balanced evidence from named sources to support a story) penned a series called “The Rise Of The Hipster Somm” (ugh, yes, I know—people do still use the word “hipster”) for Grape Collective, a blog about wine.

While I don’t wish to waste too much of my time on responding to Pigott, having just returned from a week of visiting natural winemakers in the Loire Valley, and given that I do have experience visiting conventional winemakers as well, I’d like to address some of the opinions he presents here.

I’m going to focus on the third installment of his series, in which Pigott shares a story he heard from a winemaker who wishes to remain anonymous, in which the winemaker “fools” a bunch of “hipster somms.” This happens first when the winemaker tells them he made a “wild ferment” wine and is amazed at how “their eyes lit up” because they naively see the wine as “wildly authentic” now. Later, this winemaker tells them that he added the hairs of Thomas Pastuszak, the wine director at The Nomad, into the fermented juice. (Also, Pigott calls Thomas a “hipster somm” on his personal blog . . . has he ever met Thomas? Possibly the least hipster-ish guy I can think of! When have I seen Thomas not clean-shaven, wearing an immaculate, dapper suit?) And supposedly the group believes him, and even “went ape shit.”

Let’s put aside the possibility that this winemaker must be an incredible asshole in person and is almost certainly bitter because none or very few of these young sommeliers want to carry his wines in their restaurants. The fact that the group appeared interested in his wild ferment wine indicates one very obvious thing to me, which is that his wines probably taste like industrial yeast more than they taste like actual grapes. So if people did get excited at the prospect of wild yeast, I imagine they were hoping in vain that they would get a glimpse of something resembling terroir, rather than whatever manipulated crap this guy is peddling.

Which brings me to another extremely fascinating point. Pigott, clearly, is not a believer in natural wines. He calls biodynamic farming close to “black magic,” which leads me to think that he has absolutely no understanding of the benefits of using local plants to treat vineyards; has he ever visited a biodynamic producer or an esteemed professor of biodynamics, of which there are many (yes, including in Riesling land, Stu!) and asked them questions about this? I assume not.

But more importantly, Pigott does not believe in terroir. He writes, skeptically, that hipster somms are duped by wines that supposedly “[have] ‘terroir’ character (a special taste supposedly derived from where it grew)”. I personally cannot imagine someone who calls himself a wine writer being quite so ignorant. Can Pigott really not taste the difference between a Chambolle-Musigny and a Vosne-Romanée? Has he ever tried different cuvees of the same grape, from distinct soils, made by the same winemaker, and observed the unique aspects of each wine? When Pigott was writing his book on Riesling, did he never, ever notice that German winemakers talk expertly about the different terroirs of the Mosel, Rheingau, and Rhinehessen? What, exactly, does he do with his time besides seethe in sulfur-filled wine cellars with curmudgeonly winemakers about “the youth” and their errant ways; does he ever do actual research?

For Pigott to imply that sommeliers are undertrained and lazy (which supposedly is why they like natural wines, since obviously there’s nothing to study or understand if a wine is made without manipulation) is one kind of assault. But to say that natural winemakers themselves are lazy is not only an attack on hardworking, serious farmers and artisans—it is also completely ignorant. Again, I wonder if Pigott has ever ventured into the cellar of a winemaker who doesn’t use chemicals and modern techniques (temperature control, multiple filtrations) in the vineyards or cellars. My recent experience in the Loire Valley helped me understand just how much time, studiousness, energy, and consideration goes into making the wine that we refer to as “natural wine”—at least, in the hands of experienced artisans. I cannot speak for everybody who purports to make natural wine, but people like Jean-Laurent Vacheron, Thierry Puzelat, Hervé Villemade, Noella Morantin, Joseph Mosse, Quentin Bourse, Vincent Caillé, Frederic Niger, and many others whom I visited could never, ever be accused of not taking great care and implementing thoughtful strategy toward their wines. Each vintage is treated uniquely, and decisions are made in order to let the grapes best express themselves. It is very difficult to farm organically in a cool, moist climate like the Loire. Some of the organic growers I saw had done 5 or 7 treatments (a concoction of herbs and plants like nettle and willow) to the vines to prevent mildew.

And in the cellars, where all fermentations happen without the addition of yeasts and generally without any sulfur at all, each of these winemaker takes an extremely precise approach to élevage and assemblage. Thierry Puzelat, for example, has a wine called P’tit Blanc, which is made from his organically farmed, estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc. He ferments in in tank, then filters using naturally occurring diatomaceous earth, and then adds a tiny bit of sulfur before bottling. Puzelat stressed to me that he believe it is necessary to add some sulfites when you filter, because the wine has been disturbed. His goal is to have a wine that is “clean aromatically,” not reduced. It took him 15 years to learn the technique of racking, he explained to me—meaning, to understand intuitively how moving wine around affects it, and how he can help protect the wine without being too interventionist. “In fact,” he said, “in the glass you shouldn’t feel that it’s work. If you feel that, it’s intervention.”

On his personal blog, Pigott writes in defense of his “hipster somm” series, “Ever since I was in my late teens I was convinced that the best story is a true story, and that it’s the people who make a story compelling.” Honestly, I don’t think even my high school English teacher would have let me get away with that sort of crap. The kind of writing Pigott has shared on Grape Collective belongs in his personal diary, where he keeps all his mean thoughts about people he doesn’t like or who don’t want to be his friend, and I question the motivation of any site that would publish it.

Pigott also writes, in his defense: “However, what I am proposing is that more somms be more humble and empathize more with the customers they serve.” Well, what I’m proposing is that wine writers, rather than rant about something they don’t fully understand—remember, critics hated impressionism and cubism, too, when they first emerged—and instead try assuming an attitude of sincere curiosity. Hipsters are often accused of lacking sincerity, and I think it’s actually Pigott who is guilty of this. If you sincerely want to know about something, you’ll study it carefully rather than lashing out at it with a set of uninformed anecdotes.

 

 

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22 thoughts on “A Brief Response To A Heinously Unprofessional Piece Of Wine Writing

    • How can you call yourself a journalist, if you spend so much time writing this nonsense article but zero time actually researching who Stuart Pigott actually is and what he’s done so farin his life, written about etc etc.. You’re making a complete fool out of yourself here. It’s almost like you said that Robert Parker is a stupid ignorant wannabe wine critic who has no relevance in the wine world whatsoever. Stuart Pigott is probably the most knowledgable person when it comes to Riesling wines. He has studied viticulture/enology in Geisenheim and even made his own wine (yes that includes also doing the work in the vineyard! He’s been writing about wine for over 30 years and is by far one of the most entertaining but also knowledgeable wine journalists on the planet.
      You just sound like an offended little kid who got bullied by some bigger kid in kindergarten.
      You better grow up, learn your trade and start accepting that there’s people out there with different opinions than you which doesn’t make them idiots automatically.

  • I have been a winemaker for 40 years. That doesn’t qualify me as a wine connoisseur or “sommelier”. I’ve tasted a lot of wines with a lot of wine writers/critics over the years and we do our best to fulfill their intellectual curiosity about winemaking, however, In tastings, you should never discuss any aspects of grape growing or winemaking practices until after the wine has been tasted and evaluated. The reason we taste blind is so we are not prejudiced for or against the wine for whatever reason. I think Pigott makes a valid assertion, that many of the new generation of sommeliers have replaced the rigors of understanding what great wine is, by determination through buzz words like Bio-dynamic, unfiltered, wild yeast, and “natural” irregardless of flavor. I would have thought the milennials were a little more savvy regarding the marketing department. As for the natural winemaker you use as an example who ferments in a tank,( I assume he adds yeast), adds sulfur dioxide, racks off the lees and filters with what’s basically the same as a swimming pool filter. I would actually call this pretty much standard winemaking practices globally. I don’t know why he would be the example for natural winemaking. Interestingly enough, you talk about his winemaking/ grapegrowing, but no comment whatsoever regarding the quality of the wine, which is in line with
    Pigott’s assertion that obsession with buzz words and misunderstood winemaking practices, is taking center stage, and in my opinion making terroir and wine quality secondary. As for a winemaker wishing to remain anonymous, that’s to be understood as some of these folks will be making wine buying decisions in the future.

    • Hi Dan! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. The winemaker I wrote about, Thierry Puzelat, never uses artificial yeasts. He also usually adds no sulfur at all. The wine in question is very aromatic, floral and full-bodied, with refreshing acidity. I did not attest to the quality of his wines because within the community of wine industry professionals I know (or “hipster somms,” if you will), his wines are well-liked and considered benchmark natural wines. He is very influential in the natural wine world in France, as well. The reason I used him as an example here, and that wine in particular, was to illustrate that he is NOT just blindly making no-sulfur wine that requires little work or thought. On the contrary, many decisions go into his winemaking, but his goal is to intervene as little as possible. Does that make sense?

      • I will stay out of the fray on this, but let me point out that there is no such thing as artificial yeast. All yeast is natural.

  • Hi Rachel. Thanks for the response. It’s important to note that there is no such thing as artificial yeast, nor is there genetically altered or modified yeast being used in the wine industry. The yeast we can purchase are isolates from around the word. Montrachet, Barolo, Assmanhausen, William Selyem, etc. Virtually every time we’ve analyzed yeast from so-called wild fermentations, we find that the strain is available commercially. The question may not be about yeast strain but rather about inoculum size. Also … many decisions go into all types of winemaking. Pigott’s disdain for the hip sommelier is somewhat mirrored by their open disdain for the winemakers producing the bulk of the great wines in the world today. Best Regards.

  • Thanks for this. But some winemakers DO allow their juice to ferment completely naturally, without even pied de cuve–without any additives, at all. That cannot be disputed. I’m curious, which winemakers producing the “great wines in the world today” are using added yeasts, in your opinion? If you’d like to reach out to me privately, I’m really interested to know. rachelsigner@gmail.com. Thank you for the conversation, I really appreciate.

  • ‘A journalist provides acutal balanced evidence from named sources to support a story’ – where have you found those people?! Maybe you should check the definition of a journalist for starters! And maybe you should keep your ‘mean thoughts’ to yourself if you are asking others to do the same! Have a great day!

  • It’s not wise to throw stones in a glass house. For someone who is demanding more research and professionalism on Pigott’s end, you should could use some research and self-reflection on what constitutes journalism as well. Being provocative for the sake of being provocative, is exactly the issue plaguing the wine community with the rise of ‘the hipster somm’.
    Additionally, there is no such thing as an artificial yeast, all yeasts are natural – even those cultivated for commercial purposes aka a commercial yeast. The question of whether or not there are any truly indigenous saccharomyces cerevisiae remains unanswered – even if the yeast hasn’t been inoculated (Coming into the winery off a tractor; or is residually present in a tank/barrel/carboy/macro-bin. All ambient/indigenous/native yeast strains that will complete a microbial-stable & dry fermentation are more than likely a commercial saccharomyces cerevisiae strain.

  • I read SP’s three installments and I thought they were a great piece of sarcastic criticism. I was laughing all through the three installments!
    I think people are taking it too seriously and being overly dramatic about this whole thing.

  • “remember, critics hated impressionism and cubism, too, when they first emerged” Ahem…So now a dude who makes wine without sulfur is Picasso?
    I’m not saying you’re wrong here, Rachel. Yes, Mr. Pigott is a knucklehead. But we all need to take a big deep breath.
    By now, I hope we’ve moved beyond the idea that “natural” = “hipster” (which is a meaningless term as the original hipsters creep toward middle age). However, I believe the new wave of wine people (somms, writers, “educators,” et al.) is in denial about The New International Style which has rapidly developed and taken hold. I’ve attended recent tastings of New Australian wines, New Austrian wines, New South American wines, New Portuguese wines, and New California wines and an incredible sameness of styles has emerged — influenced by Loire, Etna, etc. All the things that people are excited can be found in this New International Style. I will try to sum it up in one long imperfect word: naturalwildyeastamphoraorangebiodynamicunfilteredpetnat
    Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. And for me, this New International Style happens to fits with what I enjoy drinking — and probably you, too, from what I gather here. Since we like these current worldwide trends, I think I we’re less likely to call them out as “globalism” or “homogeneity” or other pejoratives…but they most surely are.
    I fall somewhere in age between you and Mr. Pigott. What began as an reaction by younger people to the perceived International Style of the 1990s and 2000s has now grown into its own New International Style that replaces the old on the wine lists that matter. When my 11 year old son starts getting into wine, he’s likely going to hate the wines you love. Hopefully, he won’t become a somm or a critic (please dear god) but if he does, he’s going to champion wines that you won’t like or understand when you’re Mr. Pigott’s age. And maybe in your 50s you’ll be moved to write a piece deploring the wines his generation has fallen in love with (“whatever happened to my beloved amphora wines!!??”) This is just the way of the world.
    Deep breaths…deep breaths.

  • It is utterly fascinating to me how the term – natural wine – can create such rancor and also such passion. Maybe the simple fact that wines are made with incredible amounts of intervention and additives should be introduced to the general public – most of whom think that wine is simply grapes, yeast and maybe some oak
    and speaking of yeast – it is entirely true that there is no such thing as artificial yeast and technically true that all yeast is natural. The BIG DIFFERENCE and I mean BIG DIFFERENCE is that lab-created yeast is literally that – created! Yes, it was once natural but than it was manipulated in a lab for specific reasons or circumstances – to create or live in high alcohol, to add specific fruit characteristics, to give a certain mouthfeel, to live in harmony with other additives present in modern wine and etc. etc. etc. Vastly different than the yeast that settles in a particular place – even if that “wild” yeast came in on a tractor or someone’s boot or could be traced back to some specific genus.
    Thus native or wild yeast is VERY DIFFERENT than the lab-created yeast used by the majority of winemakers out there. And that doesn’t even touch on the chemicals used in the vineyard by some growers or used by some winemakers……
    Perhaps if we all were a little more informed about what goes into modern wine these days….but I dream!

  • Again, we have a debate about winemaking and still journalists (blogger) are claiming facts neither understands. You have more credibility critiquing the grammar of piggots argument than knowing how wine is actually made in reality, not in theory. DE filtration is a terrible filtration media, FYI. Having read your piece I was interested, so thank you. But quit hating on each other k?
    Rory

  • Commercial yeast is propagated in a factory, yes, but not ‘created’ there.
    In my experience as a professional winemaker for 20 years I have paid close attention to the issue of ‘native’ fermentations and the research that has investigated it. I have never seen any evidence, either in peer reviewed research or from my own experience which includes many trials and comparisons across many varietals and winemaking styles, to support the assertion that ‘wild’ yeast of the same genetic material is different from cultured strains of the same genetic material. They are grown and propagated to have the best chance of surviving and dominating a fermentation so that the winemaker gets what is paid for, but they are not different strains.
    An uninoculated fermentation may have more species diversity at the beginning, but in the end a dominant saccharomyces cerevisiae strain or two will finish it and those have mostly been discovered and cultured for commercial use at this point.
    For early-to-bottle whites an uninoculated ferment can add some complexity because the fermentation esters from the various species of yeast are still present, but at the other extreme a two-year aged red will not show any real impact of fermentation yeast beyond differences in physical dynamics (temperature, rate) and whether it was a complete fermentation or not.

    For all you buzzword-happy folk out there who think that winemaking needs to follow some sort of morality that, as far as I can tell, is almost impossible to define and is never applied to any other beverage, let me enlighten you:
    Winemaking IS intervention.
    We are not harvesting wild grapes that we find growing on remote mountainsides here. The very act of viticulture is quite arguably the most intensively ‘interventionist’ form of agriculture there is, short of hydroponics. I’m not even talking about the chemicals used here. Just the physical management of the vines.
    Then you get to the winery. How is adding sulfur more ‘interventionist’ than NOT adding it? Try it for yourself and see which has a more dramatic impact on the final product.
    Then there are thousands more decisions to be made, to do or not to do, that will shape a typical red wine’s life through bottling. Either doing something or not doing it can have equally impactful consequences on the final wine, so how to define what is ‘intervention’? It seems that many people have defined it based on a wholesale (and in my opinion rather gullible) buy-in to the marketing strategies of the wine industry over the last generation that looked to sell wine by espousing how ‘un’-X it was, whether that was filtration, fining, etc. As more wineries sought to distinguish themselves, more things got added to the ‘bad’ list, so many in fact that many completely opposite techniques are equally demonized by various camps, e.g. the use of oak vs. steel vs. concrete.

    The reality is that just like the production of any food or beverage, there are many tools to use in winemaking. They are not good or evil, just tools. They can be used skillfully or unskillfully by gifted or artless craftspeople.

    My observation is that dogmatic winemaking of any sort is just as limited in it’s quality potential as overzealously defensive/manipulative winemaking. Neither compete with the gifted winemaker who masters the tools and knows how to incorporate them without prejudice into the winemaking process to solve the myriad problems that every vintage throws at us while still achieving the quality and style objectives of the winery.
    Mostly this comes down to not just ‘solving’ a problem with a narrow focus but being open minded enough to evaluate what impact an action will have on the overall quality of the wine; sometimes the wine is best if you leave the flaw there or don’t fix a problem, sometimes not.

  • I’ve tasted with both Stuart Pigott and Thomas Pastuszak. Stuart was insightful and had, in my opinion, a very strong, experienced and objective palate. Thomas can taste, no doubt, and as you say, he was dressed immaculately, however his bias or lack of objectivity was clearly evident (bretty, older Loire Cab Franc, tastes like… Brett)… and for further evidence of this one need look no further than some of the wines of the Finger Lakes that he champions (sorry Mr. Bell). I used to make wine there, and many good wines do come from the region but hardly at the rate or quantity that one might guess if one were to believe Mr. Pastuszak. If I had to ask either Stuart or Thomas to provide a bottle to be tasted blind and stake any sort of pride on it I would, without hesitation, ask Stuart. I believe what he means by “hipster somm” is one that follows the trends of the day or acts as a regional cheerleader and I believe that assessment of many young somms is accurate.

  • Wow, what a fascinating dialogue! Rachel, I got your back. Let’s all remember that 30 years ago Robert Parker was derided as some sort of jackass by the wine community because he cared about different things and had a different palate. I raise a glass to the hipster somms and the natural wine movement. If you like, check out my Napa Valley wine blog: http://www.topochinesvino.com.

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