What I mean is: I wish I could write anything but journalism about wine: a poem, a novel, might better convey the aspects of wine that I really want to talk about.
It’s extremely difficult, in today’s media climate, to do justice to truly great wine, as a writer. I get a lot of offers from well-funded wineries to travel to their properties, and I typically turn these down—yes, I reject free trips to Tuscany—because I know I won’t like the wine, and I’ll have marketing literally shoved down my throat. Meanwhile, many of the profoundly interesting and moving experiences I’ve had while visiting producers are rejected by editors as “too niche.” Often, it seems that the best approach to writing about the small producers I love actually might be to take really great photos of their bottles with me wearing some hot tiny outfit, saying funny shit, but, well, ha, that job is already taken (and done quite well).
Considering that wine is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively unimportant—the stakes are much lower when it comes to, say, discussing the merits of organic wine, versus reporting on cancer research or the war in Sudan or fill-in-the-blank with thousands of subjects—wine writers deal with disproportionate levels of criticism and pressure. We are, privately or publicly, slammed by strangers and people we know, when we write something people disagree with or if we’ve made a mistake in our description of a wine. (As well, I think wine writers in the natural wine scene are viewed with skepticism because we’re highlighting very small producers whose juice is quite limited.) It’s completely impossible to please everybody, and it’s also really hard, unless you’ve made wine before or you’re a goddamn whiz of a researcher, to get every detail right—especially considering that just about none of the wine publications out there employ fact-checkers (if they do, sometimes they know nothing about wine; these are typically college interns). Of course, I am not exempt from lashing out against other wine writers who pen stuff that I find offensive. And I am deeply respectful of people—like Alice Feiring and Peter Liem—who have figured out business models that work for them in order to write independently, and I’m trying to figure this out for myself.
The long-standing cliché that wine is “bottled poetry” bears some relevance here. It’s really hard to translate a vintner’s relationship with land, and thousands of years of history—or a few hundred years or decades, as in most New World scenarios—into something communicable to a general audience. (It is literally “lost in translation.”) I’m thinking now about a wine I tasted at Benoît Lahaye’s estate in Champagne, when I visited this past February. I adore the dry-as-a-bone, electric Champagnes of Lahaye, who farms just under 5 hectares in Bouzy with biodynamics (certified by Biodyvin).
“Violaine” is a vintage wine, consisting of 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that Lahaye makes since 2008 completely without sulfites (sans soufre); it also receives no dosage. It is named for the village his grandfather and his wife’s grandfather came from; Lahaye’s grandfather, if I understood correctly (this was all discussed in French) was orphaned at a young age, and Benoît’s wife’s family actually took him in—so in other words, this couple’s grandparents were once living under the same roof. As I write this, I’m a bit worried that I’m not getting all the details right, but the point is: inextricable family histories, intangible connections, all these deeply personal things are put into a bottle and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never quite be able to replicate their essence in words. Nor do my tasting notes: “intense, pure chalkiness, rich texture, throughline of minerality but also a satisfying roundness” actually really convey the experience of tasting this wine, especially once Lahaye had explained the story behind its name.
But the fact that I’m not 100 percent sure of the details of the story is an excellent demonstration of how difficult it is to write about wine: to confirm, I would need to return to Lahaye’s home and re-interview him to make sure I understand every part of it correctly—which, obviously, would delight me—but to do all that I would need money and time, both of which are rare currency for wine writers. (This, of course, is related to my earlier point, that wine is not as vital as medicine or as impactful as politics.)
But this specific wine and this specific story are only one of many that make wine—true wine; “natural” wine; meaning wine that reflects small, specific places and does not attempt to mask the whims of climate—so incredibly difficult to explain and capture. There’s an element of mysticism. I’ve heard great winemakers stumble in trying to express it; I’ll never forget my first wine trip to France—I really lucked out and got to tag along for a few days with the Becky Wasserman crew in Burgundy, and they brought me to Frederic Mugnier’s cellar. I think I asked him some kind of prompt about the meaning of the word “terroir,” and he thought very carefully before responding: “We try, and we look at the soil, but we don’t really know exactly what it is.” That moment has come back to me many times in my wine research. I don’t think he meant, of course, that soil type doesn’t matter. But there are these oddities of life—an ancestor who shared a home with your spouse’s ancestor; a difficult vintage that turns out masterfully; a grape nearly lost to humanity that, somehow, persists in growing—which give wine its true magic. And, as much as I would like to try to communicate these things, I am often at a complete loss.
Fortunately for every one of us, the simplest way to experience wine is without any mediation at all, by simply drinking it. Maybe the stories I want to tell about wine are best relegated to some kind of Proustian novel about all the incredible personalities I’ve encountered or befriended as I spend more time studying the culture of natural wine. Often, when I taste a really striking wine, or I meet a bold, renegade winemaker, I ask myself: how can I, as a writer, be more like this winemaker, or produce something as incredible as this wine? And I’m at a loss for an answer, most of the time. But I guess the reason I keep writing is that I hope, one day, that I will find the answer, and that I’ll deliver some work of writing that even comes close to the elegance I’ve found in so many bottles. And that I’ll be as strong-willed, proud of my labors, and, well, “unfiltered,” let’s say, as the winemakers I admire.