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.