“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.