Pirate Wines Are Better Than Natural Wines

a tongue-in-cheek, slightly sexist artistic rendering of the pirate life

I’ve always liked pirates.

Not the plundering, raping, murdering barbarity of pirates. Not the horrible death in battle on the high seas or the ignominious death hanging at the end of a rope in port if captured.

No, what I’ve always liked about pirates is the idea of living outside the system, ignoring the rules, not caring or having to care what others think, being master of one’s fate — however dire and brief that fate may be — and embracing whatever comes.

I like wines that have engaging stories.

There is a lot of wine out there. Every drop of it has a story behind it — some of those stories are more engaging, more compelling to me than others. This was driven home for me, again, when recently Elaine Brown posted the latest in a long line of apologia for “natural” wines. Elaine’s well-crafted post did what I think may be the best job I have seen in defining the boundary conditions within which “natural” wines exist. It also reminded me that my indifference to some wines is largely due to their boring stories.

I’m bored with “natural” wine.

Elaine points out in her piece that the natural wine movement centers in Europe. Some growers there engage in jihad (a legitimate struggle for a principle or belief) against regulatory bureaucracies forcing them to commit what they consider to be environmental damage by requiring all growers to spray certain pesticides on their vineyards. That was, and is, interesting to me. It stopped being interesting when this jihadi movement spawned a mindset that confuses doing less in the cellar with environmental justice, particularly outside of Europe where there are no bureaucracies to struggle against.

To me, the choice of how much or how little to do with the grapes and wine in production is only interesting to the degree that those choices make demonstrably more satisfying wines. Refusing to use SO2 or other additives does not necessarily lead to a better product, therefore eschewing those practices — either out of ideological devotion to a flawed conception of environmental justice, or in a cynical play to sell more wine — is done in the name of crafting a particular narrative. That narrative, that story, obviously resonates with some consumers, critics, and media. But I don’t find it at all compelling.

It bothers me not at all that “natural” lacks a concrete, statutory definition when it comes to wine and other foods. I have no problem with the Potter Stewart-like approach to defining “natural” as “I know it when I see it.” What I do have a problem with is what I perceive as a smug arrogance in the presumption that “natural” practice — in the sense of avoiding additives for the sake of avoiding additives — in production yields wine that is dogmatically “better” than wine made with more thought and devotion to hedonic reward. I recognize that this is a personal failing, but I’m bored with that presumption of superiority, and I’m bored with the sameness of the stories it spawns.

All my friends are pirates.

Every winemaker I know and like has the soul of a pirate. So do I. We chart our own courses, mostly independent of trends or fashion. Not one of us describes ourselves as a maker of “natural” wines, though some or all of what we do might fit within the boundaries Elaine articulated so well in her post. We grow or buy grapes that are farmed sustainably, organically, biodynamically – the best damn grapes we can find and afford. When it comes to cellar practice we understand and respect tradition, but we thumb our noses at convention for its own sake. We take risks, try new things. We make wines we want to drink.

Like all pirates, we appear devil-may-care but actually practice a rigorous discipline because it’s necessary to stay alive. Every one of us is a commercial winemaker, because we have to be to stay in business (dilettantes can’t be pirates).

We all have some swash to our buckle, and we wink while we raise a middle finger to dogma and authority. We work really hard, and we play just as hard. We take no prisoners, and if we use some cultured yeast on one lot, some SO2 on another, a bit of new oak here, or a touch of Mega Purple there we don’t judge each other over it and we sure as hell don’t give a crap what the consumer or critic thinks about it. All we care about is if we are proud of the outcome and can find some buyers who like it as much as we do. And we tell way better and more diverse stories — stories of adventure, passion, and personality.

Pirate wines are the best wines.

I’m not the guy who wants to harsh anybody’s buzz. If you like box wines or what the “natural” devotees disparagingly call “industrial” wines, have at it. If you like your wines big-butted, flabby, over-ripe, over-extracted, over-sweet, over-oaked, and over-priced — it’s your money (and your hangover) and you’re entitled to enjoy it. If you like “natural” wines because you like how they taste, more power to you.

If you like your “natural” wines because you don’t really care how they taste so long as they meet some standard of ideological purity, self-righteousness, and simplicity — awesome, but kindly zip it when it comes to wines that don’t meet those standards (though by all means feel free to discuss and disparage other wines among like-minded cognoscenti, but thanks, no, I don’t want the secret password to get into your clubhouse).

But you should take it to heart when I say, trust me — the best wines with the most interesting stories are out there, and they are pirate wines, made by people with pirate souls. And they are more natural than wines that call themselves “natural”.

15 thoughts on “Pirate Wines Are Better Than Natural Wines

  1. Michelle

    Keep us posted on the pirate wine. We got acquainted with your wines when visiting your tasting room last August 2014. Loved every single one of them. How often can one say that? We are keeping our Westwood membership just to see how it goes. But figure we better follow the winemaker too. Keep us on your list!

    Reply
  2. Kevin

    I am not usually a fan of bloggers but your article caught my eye and I enjoyed reading it. After spending about 8yrs in the wine industry I know that people can be divided or even religious about how wine is “properly,” made and it makes me want to hit my head against the wall.
    I have just started a wine project (see website) and was wondering if you had time to sit down and tell me what has worked for you in the past- pro/cons etc?
    Thanks for your time,
    Kevin

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      Hi Kevin – sure I’d be happy to sit and chat. I’ll contact you directly via email and set something up.

      And I just noticed that it’s been a year to the day since I’ve posted anything here – crikey!

      (BTW – if anyone’s still paying attention to this space, Kevin & Matt’s project is here: http://debramichaelswinery.com/)

      Reply
  3. Larry Schaffer

    John,

    Nicely written piece indeed – and I too am not a fan of dogmatic talk in the wine industry. We are faced with it each and every day – and one is led to believe that “X” wines are superior because they are made in an “X” style.

    As an owner/winemaker, I am driven to make the best wines possible – through my own filters. I do not claim that they are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others, and I try my best to be pragmatic, not dogmatic, in how I go about doing what I do. And this becomes a moving target as I am faced with factors that are not static – mother nature, production facilities with varying employees/temperatures, my own knowledge base the longer I make wines.

    I have had fantastic wines categorized as ‘natural’ and I have had horrible ones; I have seen winemakers describe their wines as ‘organic’ when I know that the vineyards that they purchase from are NOT organic. I have seen winemakers describe themselves as ‘minimal interventionists’ but then have seen them velcorin their wines so as to not have to filter them.

    We face many challenges as an industry, and one of them certainly is ‘truth in messaging’ from the producer side. I guess ‘dogma’ may sell, but at the end of the day, to me, it’s probably ‘better’ to be more transparent and own up to what you do.

    Cheers

    Reply
    1. John Kelly Post author

      Hey Larry –

      I think you and I both know where the “dogmatic” side of this industry is: certain marketers, managers/owners, and media. This is a tough business to differentiate a brand in, and no question there is a consumer demographic that is motivated to open their wallets by the “natural, organic, biodynamic” narrative. I’ve been doing this long enough that I get it, but I’ve never liked it. At it’s heart, it is an inauthentic narrative. The “our wines are better because we have owls in the vineyard, sprinkle pixie dust on our leaves, and sacrifice cellar rats to Baal by the light of the solstice moon” is just bad fiction.

      In my experience, every real winemaker I’ve known, regardless of the nature of the story they tell, is at heart a pragmatist — an idealist rather than an ideologue. Each of us is just trying to make the best wine we can given the grapes available, the budget, the equipment we have, our own skillset, and — more than anything else — the individual circumstances we face each day with each barrel or tank. I got a chuckle at your recounting of the minimal interventionist who uses Velcorin. Of course they do. Put ten “minimal input” winemakers in a room and ask which is less interventionist: sterile filtration, or Velcorin? You know you’re going to get a pretty even split, and at least ten different caveats. But faced with a flagship lot showing an active Brett infection, every one of them is going to do something. I posed this question to Marcel Lapierre years ago, and he said that even he would use “a little” SO2 if the wine demanded it. I’d be very surprised to find Matthieu thinks any differently.

      Hands-on small producers like you and I connect with our customers through the stories we tell, the relationship we invite them to over our wines, not because of what the wines objectively are.

      Reply
  4. Carl Helrich

    John,

    Awesome post. You’ve succinctly put into words my thoughts about winemaking without my even knowing what they were exactly. This should be disseminated far and wide.

    Cheers,

    Carl

    Reply
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  6. Rick "peg-leg" Mafit

    Argh! Ahoy Mate! I knew that there was a reason that I liked you John….kindred spirits. Thanks for stating it so well……I run into this hogwash everyday mostly (but not always) from youngsters pandering to their inner circle Somms like they invented “The Truth”.
    Make wine. Drink it. Share it with friends and family. Repeat for many years. Don’t make excuses……
    Cheers, Rick

    Reply

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