Bottled Virtuosity, Tasting Good

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Winemaking methods that once seemed suspect now look like authenticity. Illustration by Greg Clarke

What does good taste like? Perhaps goodness is the better word to use in that question, because the question is not about what good taste is, as in how we determine when something is tasteful. This article, using wine as a prop, offers a way to think about goodness, in the virtue sense, and what it might taste like, without simply rehashing the tiresome complaints about virtue signaling. The author had me at the title, because it touches on themes we have been thinking about lately; then the mention of working of Mendoza, where I worked in 2007, ensured I would read on. In the second paragraph seeing Itata, a region that was part of my workplace 2008-2010, I was triply hooked:

How Natural Wine Became a Symbol of Virtuous Consumption

The mainstreaming of natural wines has brought niche winemakers capital and celebrity, as well as questions about their personalities and politics.

In 2010, Dani Rozman had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. He was so deliberate and thoughtful that his friends claimed it was inevitable that he’d end up a history professor with a closet full of cardigans. But Rozman went to Argentina instead, and wound up in Mendoza, the hub of the country’s wine scene, working at a startup that helped wealthy people realize their wine dreams—you could buy a vineyard from afar, have someone else farm it, design the labels, and receive cases of “your” wine to show off at dinner parties.

One summer, Rozman went to Itata, at the southern tip of Chile’s wine-producing region, to work the grape harvest at a local winery. He had the impression that winemakers were like the clean-cut guys in Napa with family money and fleece vests. Itata was different. The winery was just a shipping container and a mesh tent, and the work was non-stop. Rozman had grown up in a health-conscious family that nonetheless “had to be reminded that food was farmed,” he said; being in daily contact with plants felt revelatory. Some of the vines had been planted centuries earlier, by conquistadores and missionaries. The grapes were País, a varietal that had fallen out of favor as winemakers turned to popular ones like Cabernet Sauvignon. The methods were traditional, too—the fruit was picked by hand, destemmed with a bamboo implement called a zaranda, then fermented in clay pots. The finished product was startling, in a good way. “At that time in Argentina, Malbec was king,” Rozman told me. The country made lots of homogeneous, high-alcohol wines aged in oak barrels, catering to international appetites—“the French-consultant thing,” as Rozman put it. To him, they tasted heavy and expressionless, while the Itata wines were stripped down and elemental. “It was like night and day,” he said.

Artisanal wines had already found a following in European and Japanese cities, and were beginning to win converts in the United States, too. Their novelty lay precisely in the makers’ veneration of tradition, their rejection of the high-tech methods that many conventional vintners relied on. The wines were typically made with organic grapes, using no added yeast, no filtration, no chemical additives, no new oak barrels, no mechanical manipulations. The wines were variously described as low-intervention, naked, or raw; the term that eventually stuck was “natural.”

In the past few years, natural wines have acquired a hipster cachet, with natural-wine bars popping up in cities from Seattle to Kansas City and Helena, Montana. Kasimir Bujak, a buyer for the Wine Source, a store in Baltimore, told me, “It’s a trickle-down effect from Brooklyn—and that means people in Columbus are going to be drinking it next.”

Rozman said, “Ten years ago, people in their twenties weren’t hanging out at wine bars. Now they’re packed.” In the Napa boom of the nineteen-nineties, consumers prized wines that were rich and flawless. Now they’re seeking out wines that are more expressive than correct; wines that are earthy, with visible sediment; wines that taste alive.

Rozman arranged to apprentice with one of the early natural-wine-makers in the U.S., a wiry, philosophical sixty-four-year-old French-Israeli man named Gideon Beinstock. Beinstock and his wife, Saron Rice, farmed eight acres of grapes in the western foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada. Clos Saron, their two-person operation, had proved that natural wines could please élite palates; at one point, Beinstock told me, their bottles were on the wine lists of a quarter of the San Francisco Chronicle’s top hundred restaurants.

Beinstock had studied to be a painter, but when, in his twenties, his paintings started to sell, he hated how even that small amount of success activated his ego. He had a seeker’s temperament and an appetite for discipline. Like many New Age dabblers in the nineteen-seventies, he was drawn to the Fourth Way—a brand of mysticism established by George Gurdjieff in the early twentieth century. The Fourth Way drew from, among other things, Zen Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and the occult; followers strove for unceasing self-awareness and self-mastery. In 1978, Beinstock came across a bookmark advertising a Fourth Way study group called the Fellowship of Friends, founded in the Bay Area a few years earlier. (The Fellowship recruited by strategically placing bookmarks in New Age texts in bookstores.) Beinstock attended a meeting and joined the group later that year. “The Fellowship was bursting with poets, writers, artists, musicians, actors—it was vibrating with an amazing energy,” he told me. The group’s founder, Robert Earl Burton, claimed to be in communication with forty-four angelic beings, including figures such as Plato, Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln. The Fellowship believed that humans spend their lives as if hypnotized, lulled into a trance by mental, physical, and emotional habits; in contrast, members of the Fellowship sought at all moments to awaken…

Read the whole story here.

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