“What’s the point of experimenting? We know how to make really good wine. Why do we want to throw away the formula and do something different?”
Hugh Johnson, interviewed in the Washington Post, October 2016.
Recently I’ve been wondering whether the whole arena of natural wines was becoming so mainstream, tolerated and understood that maybe there was no more need for advocacy, extolling of virtues or defending of corners.
We are after all living in an age where “natural wine” gets written about in Vogue magazine, and orange wines are downed enthusiastically with nary a second’s thought, from London to New York and all points inbetween.
Not so fast. Just when you thought the last narrow minded, reactionary wine hack had hung up their chintzy tastevin for good, along comes the next candidate. I had a taste of vintage vitriol back in August, with some extraordinary comments from semi-retired supermarket wine supremo Malcolm Gluck. Anyone who grew up in eighties Britain will recall that Gluck does not hold back when he has an opinion. Or rather, he does not hold back.
At one of the many “Judgement of Paris” themed events of 2016, Gluck found a flight of two orange wines not to his taste (no, they weren’t in the 1976 edition). Engaging the patron (an atypically nonplussed Michael Sager), he ventured “I wouldn’t serve these wines to someone I didn’t like at a funeral”. Then, to reinforce the point: “I bet you couldn’t find me one person here (gestures towards packed house of hipster wine geeks) who really likes drinking this stuff”. Sager didn’t have to reply, two of the sommeliers around the table eagerly brought him into the 21st century, with my support.
This kind of trolling is standard for Gluck, but I didn’t expect such ill informed comments from Hugh Johnson. Interviewed in the Washington Post last week, Johnson offered “Orange wines are a sideshow and a waste of time. What’s the point of experimenting? We know how to make really good wine. Why do we want to throw away the formula and do something different?”
Critics are entitled to their opinions – none more so than A-listers such as Johnson. But these comments, assuming they were accurately quoted, display a worrying lack not only of winemaking history, but also of what drives the wine industry in the 21st century.
Extended skin maceration for white wines (AKA Orange wines) is one of the oldest documented and most venerable techniques in a winemaker’s arsenal, not as Johnson implies, a “fad” or an experiment. It seems strange that a self-confessed “traditionalist” would deny such a traditional method.
“What’s the point of experimenting?” is yet more troubling. How, one wonders, would producers have discovered and refined techniques such as the traditional (Champagne) method, green harvesting or oak maturation if not for experimentation. It is as if Johnson wishes the science and art of winemaking to conventiently cease all further development, circa 2005.
Orange wine may be a niche, but to call Georgia’s 8,000 year old tradition a sideshow, to marginalise Friuli Collio or Slovenian Brda’s centuries old method for making stable white wines is gravely misguided. Never mind that some of our age’s true grand masters fashion their magnum opuses in this style.
Does Johnson really want all wine to be made to the same modern formula, with no room for the quirky, the individual or the iconoclastic? One wonders where he stands on Chateau Musar or Vin Jaune. Does he feel there is no place for Palo Cortado? Should ultra-traditional oxidative white Rioja such as Viña Tondonia be similarly expunged from history?
Why does this matter? Because wine in the 21st century has a young, enthusiastic audience, as never before – and one thankfully not burdened down by the preconceptions or baggage of the previous generation. It would be a great shame if the eager adventurers of our age had their spirit of discovery blunted by such poorly conceived bluster.
Postscript (20 Nov 2016): Not surprisingly, there was plenty of negative feedback to this article. One well-known wine writer in particular accused me of being unfair (“journalists have a responsibility to be fair, and this wasn’t”) and said that Hugh’s comments were quoted out of context. I reject this wholeheartedly. I believe I’ve included enough of Hugh’s words in the article, plus a direct link to the original interview. Furthermore, the context, as clearly stated in the original interview was this:
“Johnson expressed disdain for modern wine fads such as “natural” or “orange” wines and the idea that age-old winemaking techniques are superior to modern methods.”
I also provided Mr. Johnson with a get-out clause. I recognise in the article above that he may have been misquoted by the journalist who wrote the original piece. Further, I encouraged Mr. Johnson to respond and mentioned that I would welcome a two-way dialogue. So far, he has not taken this opportunity.
Fairness, in my view, is not necessarily about always being demur and polite. Senior figures in one’s industry are not automatically above criticism. It is also about recognising when opinions are patently outdated, ridiculous or lazy – and calling them out as such.
Post-postscript Jan 2017: This story had a happy ending. Hugh and I met up and tasted some orange wines together. It was fun. I learned a lot.
Nicely put. I have encountered highly educated wine professionals who don’t seem to know (or want to know) the difference between ‘bio-dynamic wines’, ’orange wines’ and so called ‘natural wines’. I found that in many occasions though, their deprivation of information was mostly caused by irritation. What irritates, like Dutch Master of Wine Frank Smulders wrote two years ago, is the way the conversation about the quality of wines is now often ‘high jacked’ by back-to-nature-beliebers – geeks who praise everything without additives or intervention, regardless the taste. (You’ve heard it before.) What irritates most however, is the incrowd we-know-better-than-you attitude (and indeed you can imagine a tattooed beard say ‘Not for me thanks, but feel free to drink that poison if you must’). This strongly reminds me of what right-wing people find so infuriating about left-wing people: their blatant smugness about being a better person. Smulders mocks ‘People who… Read more »
All good points @esmeelangereis:disqus – and Smulder’s point about supposed authenticity is an important one.
But on the subject of facts: Yes, facts are all well and good. And I wish Mr. Johnson had considered a few more of them before he made his comments about orange/natural etc. But the greater part of wine appreciation is of course subjective, and nothing is ever going to change that.
You know, I think, that I’m not part of the religious sect of natural wines. I’m happy to drink something made with added SO2 – even a slick of new oak, if it works. But above all else, I’m guided by my palate. If it tastes good, it is good in my book.
Simon, One of the great things I like about wine is the diversity of styles and opinions around it. There really is something for everyone (alright most people) and surely the notion that a wine’s “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” rings true on both sides of the fence. The established critics, writers or industry folk who look down (and hurl insults) on skin contact, bio or natural wines need to get a grip and either skill up to understand it so they can appraise it, or, just avoid it with the notion that they aren’t capable of enjoying or appraising it. Equally some segments of “natural wine community” also need to chill out and realise that their favourite wines are not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea either. Let’s face if it was, they probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much because this segment will yearn for something different… Read more »
Couldn’t agree more @disqus_ADSbztG56n:disqus – although I suspect to some degree these problems are purely internal to the wine trade/wine professionals.
If you look at most of your customers, do any of them give a rats arse a) what Hugh Johnson or anyone else thinks or b) do they even realise they’re drinking something divisive and “difficult” when you hand them a “natural wine” ?
I’ll bet they don’t.
That is one catchy disqus username you have there Greg…
Good morning. While i could honestly give a shit about people still mouthing such idiocies, there is a larger issue here that matters. Natural as an approach, as a category that meets where producer innovation touches customer interest is a reality. It is also–in my opinion-a self policing world where quality and authenticity are guaranteed to the market through the chain of information from producer through importers to retailer. At least here in NE. What is interesting is that Natural is about to get challenged by a very new, very young generation of back to the farm wine makers using grapes, honey, ciders as the fermentation base and a wild canvas of botanicals and herbs. And interesting enough as I get to know this community, they look to the movement (not a trend in my mind) towards skin contact (none of them use the term Orange btw) approaches as closest… Read more »
Skin contact cider! That sounds fun… although I guess the more traditional style of cloudy cider that is coming back into fashion probably always had some skin contact anyway?
Yup I guess.
What blew me away is that I was old school to them. Natural is not a term they care about. They see even a world where local is a religion of sorts and sustainability as critical as organic.
Gonna try and get my head around this.
Watch out! They are going to start making wine with grapes with herbs and botanicals.
And must admit as a beekeeper what 30 years ago, sitting and talking about getting their yeasts from pollen, about branding their mead crops by the flowers in bloom during that micro harvest got to me.
I was afraid to open this article because I thought you’d given up! Some great points here. I think it just comes down to some people having their palates calibrated to certain tastes and they are threatened by how popular these wines are becoming. Georgia has been able to market itself based on this style and it has been huge for them. Rome has had about 6 natural wine fairs this year. People aren’t just going because it is a curiosity, All the “young” people are enjoying these wines because it falls in line with their eating habits. Just as food in Italy is in line with the Slow Food movement, wine is moving in that direction as well. We want to drink wines that are made well, that are healthy and that are made in a sustainable way. That is why people are using the techniques of their grandfathers,… Read more »
No chance Sarah-May! (of me giving up). I’m like a dog with a bone… There is another point that’s being missed here. Contrary to Hugh’s pronouncements, winemakers are not just reverting to the methods of their grandfathers. They’re taking inspiration from those old methods, preserving the integrity of the idea but refining it with the benefit of 20th and 21st centurary science – and hygiene. That latter point is an important factor, on this I would side with Hugh. Take any of the great “Orange wine” producers in the Collio (probably its the same in Georgia?). They have very precise knowledge and experience of how to prevent volatile acidity, of how to harvest the fruit at the right time, or how to avoid rotten or damaged fruit that could spoil the ferment. This attention to detail and continued desire to improve is what sets modern-day winemakers apart from their ancestors.… Read more »
Hugh Johnson has undoubtedly done a lot for the wine world but ever since I started reading his stuff I have always taken his opinions with quite a bit of salt. Orange wines have always been around, I have loved them for years and years and then some more because of their great structure, taste and unmatched food friendliness. To me anyone proclaiming they are a fad hasn’t grasped the proper history and richness of wine and is suspect of being an enemy of taste, variety, beauty and quality. The more I taste and make wine the less I care about wine writers opinions they are often worse than art critics. Saluti!
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You have a picture on here where its says ‘people not enjoying… “etc. The guy on the left is a natural winemaker who you can meet at nearly any natural winefair in Northern Italy (I happen to come there quite often as well). He’s from the Veneto, Gigi Miracol, also notorious for his theatrical performances and poems in Venetian dialect. He used to present wines in old fashioned ‘pram'(?). And tell people not to be so serious about wine:)
Yes I’ve seen him around a bit too!