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‘Naked’ Winemakers Battle Lab Wizards for Future of Wine: Books

The cover jacket of
The cover jacket of "Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally" by Alice Feiring. Source: DaCapo Press via Bloomberg

Aug. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Three decades after America’s big-time embrace of the grape in the 1970s, it’s time to ponder what wine means at the philosophical bottom of the glass. A trio of new books sees winemaking at a crossroads.

Let’s start with David Darlington’s “An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection -- and Profit -- in California” (HarperCollins, 352 pages, $25.99). This is the best and most entertaining of several summer tomes charting today’s obsession with defining the -- get used to this word -- “ideal” wine.

Darlington explores the polarities of what winemakers are trying to achieve through the vision of two protagonists. One is the high-tech laboratory wizard Leo McCloskey, chief executive officer of Sonoma-based Enologix Inc.

For $20,000 a year, he helps winemakers “drain-down sweet” and get their wines stylistically “in the right ballpark,” which translates as getting their bottles into the 90+ ratings for Robert Parker and Wine Spectator scores, a leg up in this competitive market.

The other is Randall Grahm, charismatic owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard. He jettisoned his big brands and now touts the idea of terroir and the uber-organic methods of biodynamics, surrounding his latest wines with a soul-enhancing mystique. For him, the ideal wine must have a sense of place and “life force.”

Darlington casts McCloskey as the wine world’s Mephistopheles and Grahm as a modern Faust, consumed by a desire for cosmic insight (the Goethe reference is his, not mine). The fast-talking McCloskey, with his Platonic ideal of wine as a sweet, luscious, polished, suave “cosmic comfort beverage,” is not as much fun to read about as Grahm, who understands that nothing else you can put in your mouth will ignite as much comment, philosophizing, soul-searching and debate as wine.

Cork Corpse

Grahm’s greatest publicity success may have been his “Death of the Cork” dinner in 2002 at Grand Central Terminal’s Campbell Apartment, to announce that he was trading corks for screwcaps. An open coffin with a cork-built corpse sat in front of the grand fireplace as we ate black food inspired by J. K. Huysmann’s 1884 novel “A Rebours” and drank 33 Bonny Doon wines.

I’ve relished the literary parodies in his newsletter so much that I’m disappointed his wines have rarely reached the level of his prose. Grahm and McCloskey’s paths as protagonists in the changing California wine scene, Darlington ambitiously hopes, will illustrate “something about the modern soul.”

Well, he doesn’t achieve that, nor does he deliver on the huge subject promised in his subtitle, and there may be too much technical detail for all but the geeks. But in following the stories of these warring wine world views, Darlington deftly layers in juicy portraits of a dozen other baby-boomer winemakers who looked for truth, goodness, and meaning in wine and found the sobering realities of the business.

‘Naked Wine’

The latest wine ideal is “natural wine,” which has come to the fore in the past few years. So far, the best guide to the movement is “Naked Wine” by Alice Feiring (DaCapo Press, 240 pages, $24), which she defines as wine to which “nothing has been added and nothing taken away.”

That, it turns out, is not as easy as it sounds. As she travels from New York to Europe to California, Feiring tries her hand at making wine according to her principles, unravels the origins and no-sulfur goals of the natural wine movement, and visits its “saints” in cold, damp cellars.

The narrative has a stitched-together feeling of posts from her blog, but is enlivened by the tractor beam of her insider’s narrative: herself. She’s the main character and whether her quirky, slightly self-important persona appeals or not will determine how entertained you are. Feiring is funny, feisty, self-absorbed and a passionate advocate.

Sharp Elbow

And she throws a sharp elbow. She perfectly nails self-appointed international spokesman for biodynamics, Loire valley winemaker Nicolas Joly -- who can talk as long and eloquently about mystical subjects as Grahm but without the angst and humor -- as “the Deepak Chopra of wine biodynamics.”

Like me, you may not be sure exactly where you draw the line on the terroir and authenticity versus technologically manipulated “industrial” wine spectrum. A look at the scientific take on biodynamics and terroir in “Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking” by Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop (University of California Press, 240 pages, $29.95) may help you decide.

Warning: Don’t pick this up thinking it’s a wine beach read. Naturalness and authenticity may be today’s buzz words, but most wines are taste-engineered in dozens of ways. Wineries routinely use commercial fermentation yeasts designed to produce particular flavors and aromas, add Constellation Brands Inc.’s Mega Purple (a natural reduced extract of grape skins) to deepen color, and adjust acidity if a wine lacks it.

The U.S. government permits 200 additives in wine!

French barrel company Seguin Moreau just launched its Icone barrel, which guarantees specific aroma and flavor profiles for red wines.

As a winemaker once told me, the critics talk natural wines, but the wines that have been tampered with are the ones that score 95 in tasting tests. Sigh.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of the story: Elin McCoy at elinmccoy@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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