Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Quit Crucifying Kramer

Matt Kramer (Alder Yarrow photo)
Bless him, Matt Kramer has the wine community buzzing about something other than the pairing of food and wine, the alcohol content of wines, or Robert M. Parker Jr.

In a speech at the New Zealand Pinot Noir 2013 conference, Kramer claimed that atheists can't make great pinot noir. First, let's get the semantics straight. Kramer was using "atheists" in a sense more rhetorical than literal. To Kramer, atheists are grape growers and winemakers who balk at believing in God, who look to science alone to put them on the path to righteous wine. You see, Matt Kramer believes that the soul of wine is best expressed as a sense of place. Origin is everything, and it's best when unimpeded, which is to say when tradition and instinct are given as much credence as scientific intervention. This has been his liturgy for decades, preached with a creativity and lyricism rarely heard from the pulpit.

At any rate, today's vineyard and cellar atheists are those farmers and winemakers reluctant to make a leap of faith from conventional science-based practices to rites that stem more from belief and hope. Science, Kramer says, can take them only so far and no farther; yes, 2 plus 2 equals 4, but why stop there when with confidence in divine ways of growing grapes and making wine you can get 2 plus 2 to equal 5, an extraordinay pinot noir. Start, Kramer urged his audience, by planting randomly 20 to 40 different strains of pinot noir in a single vineyard. Harvest them all at once, when the variety that ripens earliest is mature. The result in the bottle will be a pinot noir of more shadings and nuance than is customarily found in the varietal; it will be a 5 when all others are 4, at best.

Aside from that specific advice, Kramer urged his listeners to lighten their presence in vineyard and cellar. Retreat from control, he advocated. (Whether he pounded the pulpit when he said this, I don't have a clue. I'm relying on a straight-forward and presumably accurate transcript provided by conference attendee Alder Yarrow at his blog Vinography.)

Kramer's inspiration likely is twofold. For one, we live at a time when the admonition of the 1960s - "challenge authority" - is being adopted by a growing body of converts who in no way look, sound and behave like oldtime hippies. Whether it be politics, economics, agriculture, medicine, diet or some other discipline, the learned lessons are being questioned and often found wanting. New Age alternatives like Kramer's promiscuous planting of various clones of pinot noir - which actually is just a tweaked version of old-school field blending - may or may not work, but why not give it a shot, so goes his reasoning.

Secondly, Kramer bases his beliefs on Burgundian Bible studies. If New Zealand's farmers and vintners are to produce fine pinot noir, they first must make the obligatory pilgrimage to its distant cathedral, Burgundy. There, the flock learned long ago that for a wine to express the voice of God through the voice of the land it's best to concentrate on just one grape variety for red wine and one grape variety for white wine. Blending different varieties, while quite capable of yielding provocative wines, nonetheless muddles what God has to say of the place where the grapes are grown, Kramer suggested.

This brings up one of the shortcomings in Kramer's address. He credits especially Cistercian monks for concluding that a single black grape and a single green grape as the surest way to hear what the terroir, aka God, has to say. Trouble is, contrary to Kramer's suggestion, Cistercian monks don't always work with one black grape and one green grape. Just look to their Abbey of New Clairvaux in the far reaches of northern California. There, they are growing no fewer than eight varieties of grapes, with which they annually may make as many varietals or styles of wine. (None is pinot noir, by the way.) To be fair, Kramer acknowledges that the Cistercians in Europe settled on just one or two wines after several centuries of working soil and juice, while the Cistercian presence in California is relatively new, thus their stateside experience still is exploratory.

Kramer also falls into the trap of thinking of biodynamic farming as a virtually non-interventionist approach to growing grapes, though he stops short of fully embracing the philosophy. In reality, biodynamic farming, with its potions, sheep, buried steer horns and the like is an extremely manipulative means to work the land. Had any biodynamic wines lately? Did the voice of God come through loud and clear or was it a bit garbled?

For his talk, Kramer has been unfairly criticized as anti-science, an accusation that doesn't stand up against his long tenure as a wine writer who has expressed appreciation for what research has contributed to the culture, his digs at UC Davis notwithstanding. At least, that's how I'm remembering how he generally has looked upon science-based initiatives in vineyard and cellar. Coincidental with his speech, I just read an earlier Kramer essay in which he predicted that "genetic modification is surely the future - and not necessarily the scary 'Franken-future' that some would have us believe." That doesn't sound like something that would come from a non-believer in matters scientific.

I do hope he eventually elaborates on a couple of his comments in the New Zealand speech, possibly in his Wine Spectator column. I'd like to read how he defines "optimum ripeness" in grapes and why it so grates him. And I really want to know what he means when he says the finest pinot noirs made today are "all creatures of profound deference." And I especially want to know of specific examples of pinot noir that represent "profound deference." Yesterday, he did revisit his New Zealand speech in this posting, but his comments were more iteration than expansion. But, what he hell, the year still is young, and there's still plenty of time for Matt Kramer to pour into his chalice and share with the rest of the congregation those pinot noirs of "profound deference."

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