Authenticity in Wine, An Opinion
Posted by JT Robertson on
Look, I don’t care what you like to drink but I care a great deal about what you end up drinking. Let me explain.
We spend a lot of time here at Le Du’s thinking about why we put what we put on our shelves. Every bottle has been considered, parsed, and unpacked before we decide to present it to the public. It’s become a cliché to call what we do curation but that’s more or less correct. When you walk in or call or e-mail or visit our website, the bottle or bottles you end up with are the result of a fairly in-depth process of selection with a high degree of knowledge and specific opinions backing it all up.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “curation” as, “the selection and care of objects to form part of a collection.” But what defines “curation”? For me, it has to do with authenticity.
“The quality of being real or true.”
Another way to put it is “sincere”.
“Proceeding from genuine feelings.”
But let me back up a minute and relay an anecdote which displays my thinking. I was at an event recently where a winemaker who values lower alcohol in his Zinfandel was throwing a bit of shade at another producer who makes higher alcohol wines. However, in the course of exploring the minutiae of his process, it came out that if this winemaker bottled his Zin on its own at the ideal level of ripeness then it would be around 15.5% ABV, right about the alcohol level of the winemaker whose was being criticized for being “gasoline”. Turns out, the winemaker in question chooses to add lower alcohol varietals to his Zin to bring down the overall ABV.
Now, that’s a bit of wine geekery but it’s germane to my point. There is a way of looking at things which would say that the Zin producer who is making high alcohol “gasoline” is being more authentic than the other. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard some variation of the phrase, “We just want to respect the terroir”, but if your terroir makes big, rich wine then isn’t that a more deeply sincere expression than adding lower alcohol grapes specifically intended to change the finished wine?
One of the things I always say when people ask about our philosophy is, “We’re a small business that sells other small businesses”. And that’s entirely true. I love the idea that the bottles you take home were made by mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, but the next level which goes into our curation is explicitly about this question of sincerity and authenticity. Or, on the converse, is there ANY cynicism involved in the production of their wine?
In my example above, I would argue there is no cynicism from either direction. The winemaker who prefers lower alcohol Zinfandel is simply trying to make the best wine he can from HIS perspective and the winemaker making the high-octane Zin is making an authentic representation of his terroir.
“The quality of being real or true.”
So, here’s what I’ve come to in 15 years of doing this job. I care about sincerity. I don’t care about style. I can and do always appreciate authenticity, no matter its form. What it tastes like is a matter of preference or mood. Personally, I don’t see the point in delicate Zinfandel. If I’m drinking Zin, I want it to be hardcore. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a lighter style and it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean I’m not going to carry it. Because my job is not to tell you what you should drink, it’s to find out what you like to drink and make sure what you’re drinking is sincere.
Now, there’s an argument to be made here which leads us down a rabbit hole of relativism where you could say something along the lines of, “A highly manipulated wine is sincere because the people meant to make it that way”. And this is true. There are many brands which we won’t carry which are absolutely sincere in their cynicism. You could even say they are authentically cynical. So, perhaps it would help if I defined my terms, aka the questions which go through my head before I even get into the sensory experience:
Is this wine authentic, or, put more plainly, is this wine a genuine expression of the place and time in which it was made?
Is this wine sincere, or, did the person or people who made this wine intend to make it this way?
Is this wine free from cynicism, or, has this wine been made with only concern for its authenticity and sincerity and NOT specifically for and by commercial manipulation?
If the answer to all three questions are “Yes”, then I am willing to put it on my shelf. After that, it’s all just a matter of taste.