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The Intoxicating War Between Science and Tradition

The Intoxicating War Between Science and Tradition

What makes a good winemaker? Is it a viticulturist’s arsenal of facts and scientific techniques combined with access to the best fruit? Or is it the villager’s traditional knowledge of picking, pressing, fermenting, and bottling his grapes?

It is this concern, which strikingly mirrors a conflict in politics, that divides the wine world. Two new books capture the fractured condition of 21st century winemaking: speaking for the scientific or Enlightenment left is Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing by viticulturist Mark A. Matthews; speaking for the romantic, traditionalist right, there is For the Love of Wine by writer Alice Feiring [read also here: Book Review: “For the Love of Wine” by Alice Feiring].

On the other end of the spectrum lie natural wine advocates like Alice Feiring—a self-described “old leftie,” though at times an overzealous activist and at other times saccharine and poetic in an annoying way, the reasons she loves natural wine are actually representative of a kind of conservatism.

Georgia (the country, not the American state) has 525 indigenous grape varieties and a winemaking culture that is thousands of years old.

Invaders from the Ottomans to the Soviets have attempted to destroy this culture, but the local wisdom of winemaking has survived, passed on through generations. Feiring, terrified of wine globalization and wine technology, documents her travels across the former Soviet country to illuminate the importance of wine to Georgian identity. For her, terror is the opposite of a marketing ploy. Rather, it is a belief that must be preserved against such profit-driven temptations as bringing grapes from Italy or France to Georgia.

She tells of the age old tradition of fermenting wine in qvevri, giant vats made from the earth and sunk into the ground, calling it the most profound expression of terroir: “a wine from slate made in slate.”

Despite persisting for hundreds of years, however, Feiring writes that even qvevri are vulnerable to extinction. Far from being the sort of thing that one could read about in a “how-to” book, these vats can exist only as long as there are elders with localized, practical knowledge and apprentices to receive that knowledge.

“Our family has been making qvevri for three hundred years,” one winemaker told Feiring. “All the masters are dead. I’m the last one.”

Georgians have also maintained the tradition of skin contact wine, in which grapes are kept in their skin longer than usual, giving the wine an orange color. They grow their grapes without preservatives or additives, stomp them with their feet, transfer the juice from a log into a qvevri, and ferment it naturally, with all sorts of yeasts.

The process is, for many Georgians, a sacred one. One oenologist at a Georgian monastery told Feiring that he embraced all yeasts that may come, seeing them as gifts from God, rather than attempting to control them as modern winemakers do.

“Are you saying that God did not provide the grape with everything it needed to make wine? There are no bad yeasts.” Feiring also documents a Georgian church that dually serves as a school for traditional winemaking. “If not the church, who will represent the past?” one bishop there asked her.

Today’s Georgian winemaking culture is a far cry from the dark days of the Soviets, who, according to Feiring, “were famous for raping the earth” and “brought chemicals to the farmers to pump up production.”

Under the scientific imperatives of Soviet rule, Georgian vineyards were nationalized and only grapes that were easiest to grow were allowed: 10 varieties out of 525. Talk about universalizing taste.

Factories were forced to mass-produce wine with only output in mind, and so the idea of using qvevri was laughable. So-called Georgian wine became “absolutely poisonous,” and at one point even contained acetone.

Still, Georgians remained defiant and started their own black market for homemade wine. “We won’t drink it,” one Georgian man said. “But maybe some of those vodka drinkers up north won’t be able to tell the difference.

Feiring has a serious blindspot, in that she does not address the potential place for innovation or reform within tradition, a point that Matthews does touch on, writing that “with thought and reflection … traditional explanations might be affirmed, or a path might be opened for migration toward something better.” While admitting that some change must come, Feiring does not describe what good change would consist in. Instead, she believes almost blindly in the unexamined truth and good of tradition.

Despite her flaws, Feiring captures something about the influence of winemaking on a people—and of people and a place upon winemaking—that Matthews, because of his scientific motives, does not and could not.

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” Thomas Jefferson, a wine lover himself, wrote in a letter to John Jay in 1785. “They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”

The Georgian people are at their core “cultivators of the earth,” wine lovers and wine makers. Their liberty has been threatened numerous times, as have their winemaking traditions, but they have, for the most part, preserved these traditions and pressed on.

Feiring allows her reader a glimpse into the soul of the Georgian citizen, with its characteristic resilience, warmth, and stubbornness, all of which are reflected in the wine there. Matthews, meanwhile, examines the anatomy of a wine drinker and sees pleasure receptors firing—but nothing more.

Source: Hvino News