Category Archives: Wine business

Champion of Purity

Isabelle Legeron: Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally

Cico Books 2014, hb, 224pp, £16.99

Book review

Cover Natural_wine

There is a Jewish concept we learn from the Torah, called shmita. The commandment of shmita (the sabbatical year) instructs you to stop working the land every seven years; let it lie fallow, let nature take over and do its work without you trying to be in control. Don’t plant, don’t cultivate, don’t harvest. Re-wild. Step back, let it rest – and share. Take down the fences and let everyone, animals and humans, come and partake of whatever grows in your field.

Reading Isabelle Legeron’s recently published, beautifully produced book, I realized that she and fellow members of the natural wine faith advocate a very similar idea to that found in the Bible. They claim Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. Instead of interfering with her work, we should allow her savage ways to rule our land, and leave her room to produce whatever wine she fancies producing.

The first observation Legeron makes is, while it’s the ‘in’ thing to be a foodie and care so much about where and how our ingredients were sourced, how come we don’t care a bit about how our wine was made? It is true; what she terms the ‘agro-chic’ trend indeed seems to be much more interested in all food products but wine. Why indeed?

I have an explanation, based on my own kitchen-related activities. I buy organic veg whenever I can. I also want to make sure my eggs come from happy chicken. Do I buy organic wine? No. Why? Because with wine my considerations lie elsewhere. Wine is a work of art. Unlike an egg or an onion, it is complex, individual. How its components are produced is secondary from my consumer perspective to how it tastes – at least that was my attitude before reading Legeron. Furthermore, any supermarket will sell happy eggs and organic leek, but only the odd specialist wine shop will have a selection of organic or natural wine of decent quality. To go to a wine shop is a shlep as it is. To go to one that sells ‘happy’ wine is just too much of an effort. So a lot of it is a matter of convenience, I’d think. But also, I have found in my personal comings and goings that a lot of smaller winemakers, even if they’re not certified organic or natural, care an awful lot about how they make their wine and what they put into it, starting with the quality of the grapes. And up until now that’s been good enough for me.

Legeron states that her book is a tribute to those winemakers who ‘remain natural against all odds’, defying modern winemaking practices. The question immediately arises: what is wrong with modern winemaking practices? And this is wherein I feel the weakness of this otherwise attractive and carefully edited book lies. We fail to get a convincing argument as to why natural, traditional, and old-school are better than contemporary, high-tech, progressive. Sure, I agree that just as you should discourage your friends from eating junk food, you should talk them out of drinking mass-produced, industrial junk wine. But staying away from junk doesn’t mean I have to go natural and SO2 free. Who said that winemaking techniques of the past produced better wine than those of today? I would have argued to the contrary. Historians I’ve read seem to agree that most wine produced in the past was probably foul, for a number of reasons; whereas today, unless you’re really unlucky, you’ll find that even the cheapest glug will be clean, wine-like (as opposed to vinegar-like) and inoffensive, though admittedly soulless.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: do I want my wine to be ‘healthy’ or do I want it to taste like I expect it to taste? This is where the interesting twist comes in: Legeron claims that we are too accustomed to our expectations. She doesn’t for a minute try to argue that natural wine is just like ordinary wine. It looks, smells and tastes different. (I felt she could have dedicated a lot more space to this point, actually; to explain to us novices in much greater detail how natural wine should be appreciated.) But she states that this difference is good, even if it’s unusual, even if we are first surprised or even shocked by it. To me this seems to be the crux of the whole natural wine debate: are you prepared to call something good that doesn’t live up to conventional expectations? Something completely outside the box? I don’t know if I am, but the book has certainly made me think.

Legeron with wine glassLegeron is of course right about many things, and I wholeheartedly agree that exploitation of the land, overuse of chemicals, or stripping the wine of its natural substances by filtration or other intervention are all bad things, not to mention outright adulteration. Of course diversity, naturalness are great and to be cherished. And yes, perhaps we are too set in our taste ways when it comes to wine, and aren’t prepared to open our horizons to new flavour or texture experiences. This may well be, but the fact remains that I have tasted very few strictly natural wines – ‘strictly’ meaning without any added SO2 – that I enjoyed. Most were smelly, unpleasant, hazy liquids tasting of rotten fruit or solvent or other undesirable things. I know that smelly cheese also takes a while to get used to. But smelly cheeses have a tradition of their own. Smelly wines, with the odd exception, do not, as far as I know.

‘Wine started life everywhere as a simple drink’

Certainly. And the same applies to many human achievements. Music also started as a simple thing, and so did architecture. But these things developed into an art form and their finest examples soon became elements of what we consider high culture. Not all wine and not all buildings have to be sophisticated or ‘manufactured’, for sure. Whether you ride a buggy or an Aston Martin convertible is your choice, and either may suit you at different times. But it doesn’t mean we should go back to using buggies only, does it? I know, it would be much better for the environment, but it would be kind of naïve to imagine this could realistically happen. So, as much as I enjoyed and even admired Natural Wine, I’m still not convinced why going back to the old ways would be desirable.

But, as Legeron states, the purpose of her book is to start a conversation, and this she undoubtedly achieves with her respectable, edifying, engaging and positive content. I even like the fact that she is such an unashamed idealist. People who feel strongly about something are so much more convincing than the wishy-washy middle-of-the-roaders. Even if you don’t agree with them.

 

The Loneliness of the Winemaker – Interview with Eli Ben-Zaken

My journey into wine started with a sip. I was at a tasting of kosher wines in London, in February 2011. I had heard a lot about the Israeli winery called Castel so I paid a visit to their stand and, first things first, tasted their Chardonnay from 2009. It was like being struck by lightning. Love at first sight. A moment of awakening. I suddenly understood what good wine was all about. And I felt I had to meet the man who had created that wine.

That was my first encounter with Eli Ben-Zaken, with whom I made an interview back then for Jewish Renaissance magazine (you can read it by clicking here), and who was such an inspiration that I decided to take up wine studies and train to become a wine writer.

Two and a half years later, and having visited Castel a number of times, I meet Eli again, in a busy Jerusalem restaurant. Always the gentleman, he is understated, quiet and has a measured opinion about everything I ask him.

Eli, I saw you last night at the Jerusalem Wine Festival. What did you think of the event and why doesn’t Castel represent itself there?

It’s a very nice event. A nice crowd – I mean the public who attend. Many visitors to Jerusalem are foreigners, ex-pats; Americans, French and Italians. I don’t think any other city in Israel would have that kind of crowd coming. Their cultural level – but maybe it’s just because I like Jerusalem. And why isn’t Castel there? There are several reasons. There were times when we would have been there. It’s a stage in the development of a business. At one point we were going everywhere, wanting to make ourselves known, including abroad (Vinexpo, Vinitaly, London Wine Fair), at the large wine shows. But the impact is never immediate. Also, the wine shows are not a real reflection of what people do – wineries are not showing their best products; but Castel hasn’t got an entry-level wine, so wine shows are not the place for us to be.

Would you consider producing an entry-level wine?

Even if we decide to produce something cheaper, it will still be an expensive wine, relatively speaking. But it’s not really about the price. If I wanted to make a more modestly priced wine, it would be a different kind of product. A different winemaking technique. It’s more a winemaker’s experiment in applying new methods. For example, last night at the festival we tasted a young Cabernet, from 2012, and you said it was beautiful for such a young wine. I think I can make a better wine of that sort.

Eli with a colleague, Agur's Shuki Yashuv.

Eli with a colleague, Agur’s Shuki Yashuv.

How would you evaluate the current state of the wine industry in Israel? What are buyers looking for and what are sellers typically offering?

We have no statistics for wine being consumed per capita in Israel, so it’s impossible to know whether wine consumption is on the increase. Israel used to have 4.5 litres per capita consumption per year. We don’t know if the market is growing, but we do know that people are paying more on average. And since we don’t know the size of the market, but more money is being spent, it’s very likely that somebody is not selling.

The wine revolution in Israel has come to a dangerous crossroads – dangerous for the producers, especially the small wineries. Most small winemakers are not very talented and their wines are not really interesting or well made. They charge high prices because they think that as a boutique winery they can afford to do so. And then they have difficulty selling their product. On the other hand, the larger wineries have understood what’s happening: that there is an increasingly knowledgeable public who can’t be ‘fooled’ any more. They know the difference between a good wine and a bad wine. So if they want to stay in the race they have to improve their winemaking. Large wineries have improved their quality dramatically. They have created a boutique strand within their wineries. For example, limited edition, single vineyard wines – because they have realized that there is a public who is prepared to pay the price and they’re putting the small wineries out of business. I’m not talking about Castel, but the 300-odd wineries that presently exist in Israel. So in the end these wineries will be closing down because most of them are, as we say here, hafifniks – lightweights. They are not serious about what they’re doing. The owners of most small wineries are not full-time into this, wine is not their main source of income. And they think it’s easy: you just have to work a little during harvest-time, crush and ferment, put in barrels and then come back for the ready wine. During the year they don’t do much but they think it will give them prestige and that it’s an easy way to make money. But they won’t be around for long.

For the time being, Castel has nothing to worry about. We are selling, even with all the competition. Our main market is Israel but in general the kosher market internationally is crucial for us. We need the reputation, and we mustn’t put all our eggs in the same basket.

Castel's wines

Castel’s wines

What role do you think journalism plays in the wine trade?

It depends on who the wine writer is. If it’s Parker, definitely, he has a huge role. Then there was Daniel Rogov, who did a huge service for Israeli wine on the international scene. As far as the present points system is concerned, I’m against that. I only look at points when a wine review is too long. What is, after all, in your points? How can you say this wine is 92 points and that one is 93? It’s completely subjective. Such small difference seems like nothing, but still, it’s the wine with 93 points that comes out as the winner. The points are made for simple-minded people. They see the points and make decisions based on them. But really people interested in wine should have a wine critic whose taste they share. Then it’s not about the points any more. The critic should write about wines he or she has enjoyed. Their role is to enlighten people, to provide some guidance as to what is worth buying. The description of a wine should be short and accurate: talking about specific fruit flavours or cigar boxes is irrelevant because these are aspects that change all the time. A writer should not write about pineapples but rather the level of acidity, body, balance, and alcohol – things that won’t change. For example, there’s a book about the wines of Romanee Conti. It features maybe five wine writers, who go through hundreds of bottles and then give very short, terse descriptions of the wines they taste. The reader can decide to either compare the notes of several critics on the same wine, or choose one of the critics and see how his or her opinions vary about the different wines, paying attention to the nuances in wording.

So, at the end of the day, what is the role of wine writers?

Look, even when some influential wine writers gave us bad points, we sold everything. So really our sales are not affected. And wine writers, in my view, have misunderstood their role. Someone once wrote about our 2009 Chardonnay, which was very much reduced [and which I fell in love with so madly – AE], that people should return the bottles they bought to the shop and get a refund. But a wine critic is not a consumer advisor. It’s not his job to say something like this, especially when the wine has no irreversible faults such as brett or oxidation. Wine writers sometimes misjudge their position; their real job is to inspire people to drink, to educate them about how to taste and what to buy. They put us in a situation where we are competing in a game. But winemaking is not a sport and winemakers are not competitors.

How about your fellow winemakers? What is your rapport like?

Being a winemaker is a lonely path. It’s like being a commander in the army. You get all the information and you get all the advice from people around you, but in the end it’s you who has to make the decision and you’ll have no one else to blame. You cannot go back. Co-operation between winemakers is of course very important but only in marketing their products and the region. At one point, Carmel’s CEO created a club called Handcrafted Wines. It included twelve wineries, not all of them kosher. We went to wine fairs together and we helped each other – although some helped more than others. I believed that it was important for Castel to promote Israel as a whole – to show that something was happening here. But then the CEO resigned and that was the end of Handcrafted Wines. Anyway, at that point Castel didn’t need it any more.

And with Ze'ev Dunie of Seahorse Winery

And with Ze’ev Dunie of Seahorse Winery

Can you really say ‘you don’t need it’?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t promote your wine, but the question is how you spend your money. I think that promoting Israel and its wines is not my job, but that of the government, or of the industry at large. Why should I take the burden upon myself? For years I went to shows and felt very proud when people were surprised at the high quality of wine that can be produced in Israel. I felt I was an ambassador – but it should not have been my job to do all that.

How do you see the future of Castel? Are you seeking out new directions?

I think the strength of Castel has been the consistency of good vintages. We’ve managed to produce consistently good wines. This is what we must keep on doing. We mustn’t disappoint the public. And winemaking is such an adventure – you have never produced your best wine; there is always the possibility of making something better. You can’t be a hafifnik. You don’t stop striving. And we’d also like to grow. My sons certainly want to – we haven’t quite reached the most of our potential. We are relatively small and we don’t want our existence to be precarious, but at the same time we want to avoid becoming an industry. But all the grand crus of Bordeaux produce between 200-300 thousand bottles annually, without jeopardizing quality. This is a size that you can still take care of easily, while ensuring high quality of winemaking. Four families are living off Castel, so it is in our interest to become as large as seems feasible.

Have you thought about succession?

Of course. All my children are involved in the business. But the next generation will make their own wines, which might be different. But there is an agreement among us as far as the basic ethos is concerned: Castel stands for quality and we cannot become complacent about our wines. There is no such thing as ‘we know how to make good wine and we’ll keep on making it’. There are always fresh challenges and lots of doubts. You have to live with the doubts until the wine is bottled.

How do you see the place of Israel on the international wine market?

Israel is very small. Our overall vineyard area is smaller than the appellation of Saint Emillion. We’ll never make an impact on the world market; we’ll always be a niche. What kind of niche it will be . . . I think it will be more of the same: the Jews will keep on buying the kosher wines and Israel will make better and better wines. There will be a fringe of connoisseurs who will know and buy, but the majority will still be Jewish. In the end you have to convince consumers that you are giving them good value for money. And it is good value. To get a great wine for 60-70 euros is a bargain, not at all expensive. But we have to make people realize that we have great wines to offer.

Brunello, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco – what makes these wines so successful?

Voila – another essay I recently wrote for WSET. The subject this time: the commercial success of Italian wine, with special focus on the three wines mentioned in the title. I analyse the reasons behind the popularity of this trio, and also make predictions for the future.

Accounting for the Success of Pinot Grigio

En primeur in Bordeaux – time for a change?

I wrote this essay for my WSET diploma course. In it I look at the advantages and disadvantages of the en primeur system. Having explored the arguments, I am inclined to go with those who’d rather see the whole thing disappear.

En Primeur in Bordeaux – Time for a Change?