On the last weekend in April, wine lovers in New York have the opportunity to attend the wine tasting event of the year–really, it’s just too good to pass up. Unfortunately, I myself cannot attend, so please can you go and I’ll live vicariously through you? We’re talking about Wines on Wheels, an annual event where some of New York City’s most knowledgeable sommeliers (Morgan Harris, Dana Gaiser, Josh Nadel, Katia Scharnagl, Dustin Wilson–the list goes on!), retailers (Jean-Luc Le Dû), and regional winemakers (the wonderful Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate) are offering highly informative seminars and blind tasting classes, and pouring some of the best wines and most unique, formidable vintages–and it’s all for charity. 100 percent of proceeds benefit Wheeling Forward, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live life to the fullest. This event is the brainchild of Yannick Benjamin, an acclaimed sommelier who has never let the fact that he’s in a wheelchair deter him from doing the job he loves most, and Alex Elegudin, a disability advocate and mentor.
Also, don’t miss Victoria James’ talk on rosé--she has a fantastic new book out on drinking pink, with illustrations from Lyle Railsback of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant! Bianca Bosker will also be there, signing copies of her book Cork Dork, which has been sparking controversies (insert awkward smiley face emoji here) left and right–so now you can ask Bianca about all these issues in person! She will no doubt be game.
It’s an all-star cast, with some killer wines. For a good cause. Skip brunch that day, and go. Saturday, April 29th. At City Winery, 155 Varick Street. Let me know what amazing wines I missed out on! (Whatever, I’m not that jealous, because I’ll be in Oregon hiking with friends and drinking Gamay. Insert big smiley emoji here.)
Most of the time, writing on this blog is like dancing alone in my living room; nobody sees me except, perhaps, a few dozen onlookers clustered in the apartment across the way, who casually glance over as I flail around clumsily, to some tune they can’t hear, or the proverbial beat of my own drum.
In other words, I write here for the small group of readers (for whom I’m extremely grateful) that are interested in my voice, my writing. I am not, by any means, the most authoritative perspective on wine and food in the world; my writing here is often diluted, or hastily composed due to the fact that I am far overworked, and it’s also probably a bit snarky from time to time, which might be derived from my overall neurotic composure thanks to almost nine years of living in New York City. This blog was never really meant to be a blog; I always saw myself as a journalist, and used this site as a portfolio for prospective editors. When an audience came, I was glad, but it wasn’t something I’d fished for, and I also wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
Which is all to say: it’s very startling to, suddenly, have large numbers of people watching me dance. All my awkward moves are revealed, my lack of formal training and my imperfect sense of rhythm. An artist would have to navigate such an impromptu performance with only the highest level of confidence, or she would fail immediately; weakness would take over, she would be booed offstage.
When I wrote a response to Bianca Bosker’s piece last week, I was very emotionally moved, as if her article had somehow been affront to me personally. That said, my response wasn’t entirely impulsive; first, I let a few days go by after her article came out, and I read what other people had written and asked myself if I really wanted to chime in, as people were already posting rebuttals. But then what I wrote came out so quickly, and it just felt right. It was like those moments on the dance floor when you’re just in the flow and your body knows what direction to move in, you don’t need to guide it.
It may have been impassioned in a good way, and people do seem to have appreciated my take on the Times article (and I do stand by what I said–I really, really do love natural wine and it’s important to me that people are at least aware of its presence, if they are in the slightest bit interested in such things) but I don’t feel like I gave the most elegant performance. I feel there could have been a slightly more . . . rehearsed way of doing it, perhaps?
Sweeping aside the dance analogy for now (although I’m having fun with it), I want to reflect on the role of criticism within wine and food writing. Typically, the idea is that we, the writers, are all out here critiquing the producers and the makers, the winemakers and the chefs, the restaurants, and so on. Criticism, in this vein, is sort of the highest form of service journalism; we’re directing people who already have some level of good taste (because they are reading food or wine writing in the first place) to the experiences and things they will probably appreciate. The same goes for art, music, film criticism.
But what about criticism amongst us writers? How best can we approach this?
Tonight, triggered unsuspectingly by a photo (above) that I took in a shop in Austin, Texas, where I was visiting for an assignment last week, I went rummaging through my old college and grad school books. God, it’s been a long time since I read some of this stuff. After poring through a few sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Baudrillard’s America, I found my dog-eared copy of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a canonical study of Marxby the late Marshall Berman, who taught at CUNY. As if by magic, I opened to a page where I had underlined this quote:
“Criticism, as [Marx] understood it, was part of an ongoing dialectical process. It was meant to be dynamic, to drive and inspire the person criticized to overcome both his critics and himself, to propel both parties toward a new synthesis. Thus, to unmask phony claims of transcendence is to demand and fight for real transcendence.”
I read this, and it sank in: my response to Bianca felt wrong because I hadn’t proposed any kind of synthesis. Instead, I’d been defensive and polarizing.
When Bianca’s article came out, a lot of people brought it into the current political context by calling out, “fake news!” And then the other day, someone commented on a blog post about my writing (ugh, yes, we’re all blogging about each other’s blog posts now), again: “fake news”–!! We’re pointing fingers at each other, rather than looking for transcendence. We’re of the misguided belief that to critique means to be “against” someone; and that the only other choice is to “like” someone (literally, to give them likes on Instagram, etc, to be a follower/supporter). In other words, we think we either have to be nice, on someone’s “team,” or we are against. I don’t want that, and I don’t think it’s productive if we as a group of writers, focused on food and wine, or any group of writers, are to achieve anything with our efforts. I’m not really happy with the way it came out that you had, on one side, the “natural wine defenders,” and on the other side, supposedly, Bianca and all the supposed “natural wine haters.” This doesn’t seem like the right configuration, and it makes the phrase “natural wine” (which I use all the goddamn time, lacking a better signifier for the genre of wines I enjoy and want others to know about) seem even hollower than it already is. (Thank you, Blake, for pointing out this pointless dichotomy.)
Criticism, more so now than ever, should serve to make us better at what we do. It’s not about pinpointing “fake news” and scapegoating the author of such prose. Antonio Gramsci famously spoke of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” How can we better apply an effectively critical mindset when regarding other writers’ work?
I don’t know, quite yet. But I’m thinking about it. What I do know is, if my super left-wing grad school professor–who wore all black and knew Das Kapital the way some Master Somms know their vintage charts–knew that I was using Marx and Gramsci in this context, he would probably try to revoke my M.A. in anthropology. As long as I get my money back, I would be totally OK with that. Then again, I do still appreciate these books.
Recently, an article came out in the New York Times that really upset me; in fact it upset just about everyone I know and respect in the wine world. It was an opinion piece by a writer I know, someone I’m friendly with. My first reaction upon reading it was to feel betrayed. This is someone I’ve had a glass or two of wine with, and who I know attended RAW Wine Fair last fall in Brooklyn–which is partly why I reacted with confusion, rather than vitriol, at first. I wondered: did her agent persuade her to write this piece in order to get attention? (If so, congrats: it’s working, although I’m not sure it’s the kind of attention you want.) Also, do the author’s editors at the Times think they are being cute or smart, because natural wine is a so-called “trend” and it’s so adorable to be contrarian?
I think probably both of the above are true, and they are really disheartening to me. The desperation to sell a book should never lead to this kind of terrible, misguided journalism. And I know that a lot of editors and wine publicists like to call natural wine a “trend”; and flag it as some elitist circle of hipsters, and I have really had it with this attitude. Natural wine is a movement of people who believe in expressing what the earth says through grapes. True, sometimes they have a bit of a hipster swagger. And, yes, there are natural wines out there with tons of volatile acidity and perhaps they could have benefited from just a touch of sulfites. But you know what? Natural wine might be one of the last true hold-outs of free-thinking, libertarian, even slightly anarchistic political culture in the world, and for that it is beautiful. Nobody needs to ask permission to make natural wine the way they want to make it, and nobody is dying for you to like it.
At the same time, the movement does deserve recognition, and it is a good thing that it’s growing and spreading. Because for every single hectare that’s farmed without dangerous herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, the soil is healthier, and the ecosystem is better able to thrive and to resist climate change–and the people who live and work around that vineyard are grateful. I know people like to point out copper’s harmfulness, and I also know that organic is not everything–with or without certification. Some winemakers I respect very much are not 100 percent organically farmed–but it’s not something they celebrate, as if they are proud to use chemicals. It’s the reality of the challenges of farming in certain climates. But I’ve stood in organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, and it’s quite obvious that life is thriving within them: cover crops, butterflies, birds, rich and healthy soils are present, whereas I’ve also stood in a massive plantation of conventionally farmed Chardonnay in Sicily, at an unnamed winery’s estate, and gazed in horror at the cracked, dry, ugly ground. The difference is really just so obvious to see, and you can’t ignore it if you care about nature or the planet. Meanwhile, it’s also important to mention that “organic” or even “biodynamic” doesn’t mean a wine is made naturally; it’s still possible for additives to come into the picture. It also doesn’t mean that a wine is necessarily good.
People who work in mainstream wine PR, or older wine writers who seem befuddled by the natural wine movement, often ask me: “but how do you know it’s natural and that the winemaker isn’t lying to you? Aren’t people so easily fooled by marketing?” Here’s the thing: The natural wine movement is not about audits, or strict rules that determine whether you can be “inside” the club; it’s not even about cute labels only, although it does seem to excel in label design. The world if natural wine is, effectively, governed by relationships. Most naturally-working winemakers are part of a lineage–they worked for other producers who are in this movement. Their importers are constantly visiting them and providing insights from these visits (and I do these visits, too, whenever possible). The winemakers visit New York on a regular basis, to pour their wines and talk about what they do. There is no thick black curtain–meanwhile, corporate wineries do have such a thing, which is probably why they thought they were so clever, allowing Bianca Bosker the wine journalist to take a peek and report back to the public. Well, it’s not cute. It’s goddamn insulting. If people want to drink that shit, fine. I can’t stop anybody from eating disgusting chicken nuggets, or from buying factory-made clothes from China, either. But maybe what I can do is carve out a better space for wine writing that capitalizes on the incredible momentum that the natural wine movement has built. It’s not a trend; it’s hardly even niche any more–look at how many natural wine restaurants we’ve seen pop up around the U.S. in recent years! And they are continuing to open their doors, to much success.
One writer and natural wine importer has penned a great response to the Times opinion piece, which I really encourage you to read if you’re craving a view other than my own; he has written in an extremely approachable and sound way, and I’m grateful for it–check out Marko Kovac’s piece here.
And as some of you may know, I’m working on launching an independent print magazine this year–which will aim to produce really great, detailed, literary journalism about natural wines and terroir-driven foods. Stay tuned for details, and follow us on Instagram here.
Keep calm, carry on drinking great wine made by honest growers, join the ACLU, fuck Trump, and have a great weekend.