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Matt Kramer: Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir?

kramer.jpgAs some of you know, I'm down in Wellington, New Zealand, attending the New Zealand Pinot Noir 2013 conference. It was kicked off on Monday by two keynote addresses. The first, was by actor and winegrower Sam Neill, but the second was by wine writer Matt Kramer.

I immensely enjoy Matt's writing, and have for years. In some ways his columns in the Wine Spectator were an inspiration to me as I fumbled about trying to teach myself how to write about wine in ways that made sense to me. His keynote delivered just what many of us have come to expect of his writing.

I've done my usual attempt here at transcription, but as always it's important to note that this is, in fact, not an actual transcript of his remarks. In order to capture as much as I do, I resort at times to paraphrasing, and often miss small chunks and subtleties.

But the point is for you to get the gist, and I hope you enjoy the speech as much as I did.

* * *

Hello everybody. It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I received an e-mail a while back, saying that they needed a title for my presentation. If you don't give them a title you run a great risk.I believe the title for Sam Neil's presentation this morning was something like Why I Am a Pinotphile. In the US that could get you arrested.

So I gave it some thought. I came to a conclusion that the right title was "Can Atheists Create Great Pinot Noir?" what with NZ being such a religious country. But this is not about atheism.

When we speak about Pinot Noir it starts with the mother house. With Burgundy.

It's where we all start, or where we all end up. As tasters, critics, growers, producers, or just people enthralled with beauty of Pinot Noir. Many of you know how Burgundy began. They've been at it for more than a thousand years. When we look at Burgundy we're looking at an impulse that is the responsibility of Pinot Noir producers today to continue.

About 1000 years ago people were living in the feudal era. It's hard to truly capture what it was like. The key element of this time was the fact that these people were drenched in spirituality. This was the time of the druids. At that time everyone believed that there were spirits in everything in the world around us. It's hard for the modern mind to capture the degree of spiritual drenching that we're talking about, but this is why we have the expression knock on wood, as if knocking will dislodge the spirits hidden within.

We know that Burgundy, and many other areas of Western Europe, were cultivated by Benedictine and especially Cistercian monks. If you look at where these monks ended up: Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire, the Mosel, and more, you will discover that wherever they were it always came down over the centuries to a single grape for red wine, and a single grape for white.

Why was this? We all know from a practical point of view, you can make certainly a more reliable wine, and maybe a better wine by blending. But for the most part there was no blending for these monks. It usually winnowed down to a single grape of each color.

Given the practicalities of making a better wine by blending, why rely on just a single grape? It's a tremendous challenge.

I believe - I can't prove it, I've never read it, and it might be total nonsense - but knowing as we do the intensity of their spiritual impulse - and we're talking here about the the most intense group of believers, monks and nuns - I believe they confined themselves to a single grape because they wanted to hear the voice of god through the voice of the land. This desire is ultimately the source of what we know of today as terroir.

For these monks, terroir was not at first a matter of a specific climat, an individual, special vineyard site, rather they wanted to hear the voice of the land, which according to their beliefs, was itself the voice of god.

Why no blending? Because the hand of man would muddy the voice of the land, and so then the voice of god. What we have today, in the Mosel, the Cote d'Or, the Loire, and Champagne - we have this tremendous subdivision of the land. The impulse to divide and subdivide and subdivide again didn't come from commercial impulse. What are you going to do if you are intent on hearing the voice of god? You're going to pay attention. You're going to notice even the most minute differences. You're going to hear this voice, and see that it's different in one place, and different in another, and see in these differences proof of the existence of god.

A thousand years later, this sentiment has been codified in what we know as Burgundy today. The impulse to create is deep within us as human beings. The Cote d'Or is as much a monument as Stonehenge. We don't know why the people who created Stonehenge did it, but it was hardly the desire to see whether they could just balance some rocks.

This brings us to where we are now. Given what I just suggested, and back to my title, we live in a modern age. We live in a world of purported rationality. We believe in the scientific method, in cause and effect, in a world where we can test for this and look for that. I would suggest that this takes us only so far and no further.

It's not a coincidence that in Burgundy that you have the single largest cadre of people in Europe that believe in biodynamics. Ironically enough that's immaterial. These producers went to biodynamics trying to seek as little intervention as they believe is legitimate in the process of making wine. The challenge today is still the same challenge that the monks and nuns faced. The question of the here and now in the 21st century, is how do we arrive at the essential deference and humility that is required to create great Pinot Noir.

Burgundy has something that no other region has yet achieved. This achievement simply put, is that in Burgundy two plus two equals five. How did they get that other one? How did they find it, how did they achieve it?

In all my travels - I can say I've been to every major Pinot venue in the world - At best, two and two equals four. It's now the one, that everyone, and most certainly New Zealand, has to look for.

Modern science has taken all the wine regions of the world forward (including Burgundy) at an accelerated velocity. But only to the point that two and two is four. In the early days 2 and 2 ended up being three. To get to four is certainly no small achievement.

It's amazing what's happened here, in Oregon, and in California. I've been writing now for 36 years. I remember a time when people were telling me that there was no way that California could make great Pinot Noir. They were totally wrong, and mostly thanks to the folks at the august U.C. Davis. In their sagacious wisdom the professors there had created a map of all the potential wine growing regions in the state, carefully mapped to temperatures and climate that divide the world into numbered regions based on the concept of growing degree days.

When you look at this business of degree days, and especially with the coolest Region 1, their work proceeded with a premise that doesn't apply to Pinot Noir. Region 1 was premised on the idea that whatever was planted there had to achieve ripeness regularly, every year without fail. In one fell swoop they eliminated all the places in California today that are ideal for Pinot Noir.

Because the premise was incorrect. It was a commercial premise, based on the notion that if you're going to be in the business of selling and making wine you must get to full ripeness regularly, predictably, infallibly. I hardly need to tell the growers here that with Pinot Noir, you have to be out there on the edge. You have to be way out there. Where sometimes, in fact, you cannot fully ripen your fruit.

We come back to this question of how we now achieve the proper deference. I will say quite directly, most of the new Pinot Noir plantings are probably too varying degrees, wrongheaded. This all began, as all things do here, with Burgundy.

Burgundy had, for lack of better words, a crisis of faith starting in the 1960s and coming to fruition in the 1970s and 1980s. After World War II, times were hard, and the vineyards were in bad shape. A variety of people from the industry, fertilizer people, herbicide people, fungicide people, working often hand in glove with many university professors came to the vignerons of Burgundy. "We can make your life easier," they said to the Burgundians, and they said they could make the vineyards work better with this fungicide, this fertilizer.

Why not, thought many? After all it was sanctified by professors. Science proved their point. It made life easier. What's not to like? There was also a feeling they were involved with progress, and so they went on.

We all know what happened. They virtually destroyed their vineyards - all but completely sterilized their soil. They gave up their birthright. Burgundies in the Seventies were marginal. Yields were high, the character missing, and terroir was a distant voice if it was there at all. If the goal of terroir is to amplify the voice of the land without distortion, they heard but a distant whisper of the land. The soil scientist Claude Bourguignon famously said that the soils of Burgundy were more microbially sterile than the Sahara desert.

So Burgundy turned their back on progress, and returned to older, more rigorous ways.

At the same time, you are no doubt aware that there was a clonal selection program going on at the university in Dijon. On the face of it, it wasn't a bad idea. Surely there were better clones and worse clones. With great scientific rigor they began to delineate the various clones of Pinot Noir from one another based on different criteria: disease resistance, color, flavors. They came up with all the clones that you plant today. You know, the ones with the romantic names like 115 ,114, 667, 7777. As if the whole program were subsidized by Boeing. I remember when these clones came on the market. People said hallelujah. It was truly a come-to-Jesus moment. We thought this, finally, would make it easier to create great Pinot Noir.

These are good clones, of course. They are powerful, with good flavors and deep color. Most of us can distinguish these clones by tasting them. They are narrow band flavors of great potency.

And so things went. These clones were commercialized and all the new vineyards were planted with Dijon clones. That was step number one. And then, because we are rational beings, because we want control, because we believe in science, these clones were planted in blocks, separately. And then that done, it came to pass at harvest time we harvested these blocks separately. And of of course we would decide to pick each of these blocks at "optimum ripeness."

This is truly one of the world's most terrifying phrases. Particularly in the United States. We gave you the Whopper for heaven's sake. We believe nothing can't be improved by having it super sized. Optimum ripeness became a practice. And keep in mind, a month before we have arrived at "optimum ripeness" we of course engage in the green harvest. We eliminate those clusters that wouldn't get to optimum ripeness.

What results from all this is a stunning uniformity and homogeneity in vineyards wherever these plantings are created. What results are wines that lack nuance, wines that lack shading. They are not overripe, they are uniformly ripe, which may be even worse. These wines do not have enough voices, they do not have not enough clones. It's like an orchestra comprised entirely of cellos. There are no piccolos, no violins, no bass - never mind brass or woodwinds. This is a structural wall that keeps us from getting to five.

If this is how your vineyards are planted and how you're making your wine, you will never reach five. Ironically enough, this is the great challenge of our time. Its not about how to make two and two equal four. You've achieved that. Twenty years ago most would not have thought it possible, but you've done it. Well done!

But now where do we go? I believe that just as Burgundians have learned, most of the advances of our time have been followed by retreats.

We need to retreat from the dijon clones. We need to retreat from farming separate minute blocks. We need to retreat - and this is terrifying part - from control. We have to find our way to, for lack of a better phrase, for a 21st Century deference.

It was easy for the monks to be deferential. You accepted your reduced role in the universe in comparison to the voice of god. We can't do that now. We need to find another way to deference.

In the years to come, as you purchase new vineyards, and plant them again, view them as a field of wildflowers. When you buy a field mix of wildflowers it contains maybe 100 different varieties of seed. You don't often even know what you've got. They're all mixed in, you just sow them and off you go. I'm not saying we have to go that far with Pinot, but I am saying that if your vineyard doesn't contain twenty to forty different varieties of Pinot you won't achieve the shadings necessary.

If those different plants are not intermixed and intertwined you will not achieve the shadings and nuances required to create great Pinot Noir. This is leap of faith, a loss of control. Forget rootstocks, and other variables for a moment. This is just about known that that when the time comes to pick you can't choose the day to pick when everything is perfect. You make multiple passes through vineyard, deciding when the largest aggregate is ripe, and you pick it all.

Your orchestra will have piccolo -grapes that are underripe. You will have tubas, basses, and more that will be overripe. But the majority of the orchestra will fall into the range of perfectly ripe. All this requires is deference, a willingness to accept that you cannot control for greatness. You have to just let that happen. Greatness is found in niches, shadows, nooks and crannies.

None of us likes to give up control. This is going to be hard.

Deference is not easy (especially for Americans), but when I look at the finest Pinot Noirs being made today, they are all creatures of profound deference.

This is the message. There are inevitably other factors involved. I know that this is a simplification,. That is why some people have taken the route of biodynamics. Do I believe in it? Not really. Am I opposed to it? Not at all. It is a liturgy.

When you stand back at the end of the day and contemplate what you aren't going to do, you need some sort of succor. You need a few hymns and probably a stiff drink every night. You're looking for a path. Some have chosen biodynamics. It puts words to their actions, and shows them the way. It also allows them to have a congregation.

I remember that I was once talking with a producer in southern Oregon who had decided to become biodynamic. I asked him if he believed in it.

He shrugged, and said, "It seemed about right to us."

I said "That's it? You just spent 500 million dollars and you just think it 'seems about right?!'"

But he went on to explain that by becoming biodynamic he became a member of a group that he could call on for advice, for counsel. He had a congregation.

You cannot be out there on the edge trying to make two plus two equal 5 by yourself. This is why many producers make their wines the same way. We need people of like mind, people we can rely on to help us when things are difficult.

I believe that in this group especially, this is really what needs to be done next. How you do it, and how far you can take it is really entirely up to you. For what it's worth, and for my 36 years of being devoted to Pinot Noir, having the privilege of visiting many of the great vineyards of the world, and having as my teachers some of the world's greatest winegrowers, we have no choice but to let go, and find our way to a 21st Century deference.

So, to my question. Can atheists create great Pinot Noir? The answer is no.

If you insist upon science and rationality as the only guide marks, you will never go past four. Without a leap of faith, you will never get past four. Choose your liturgy, but you need to make that leap.

Thank you.

Comments (37)

David Rapoport wrote:
01.30.13 at 9:06 AM

"So, to my question. Can atheists create great Pinot Noir? The answer is no"
Abject stupidity. The idea that there is an arbitrary limit to the boundaries of what scientific method can contribute - based on the idea that there are *current* limits at any given time in history, is patently stupid, and quite frankly endemic of so much anti-scientific rhetoric.
Were people to actually adopt this defeatist attitude, countless things (human flight, computers etc, etc) would never have come to fruition.
Mr Kramer should go hang with the flat earthers and the Todd Aikins of the world

Alder wrote:
01.30.13 at 10:35 AM


While I agree with what you say, I think that looking at Kramer's narrative more as a metaphor than a specific argument against the scientific method yields food for thought. I wonder if you are reacting against the (deliberately) provocative title of the speech rather than what I see as its suggestion.

Just as we can't program a computer to create a new Picasso quality painting or a symphony as good as Beethoven could, we can't use the tools of chemistry to reproduce DRC. Science doesn't yet have all the answers, and in the absence of those answers, what are people to do? We do have people who, by following their instincts, rather than the codified processes of science, seem to achieve results that strictly scientific approaches cannot duplicate. I see Kramer suggesting that we pay more attention to this, and explore it, rather than simply suggesting that the answer is "better winemaking through chemistry."


David Rapoport wrote:
01.30.13 at 11:07 AM

A bit of both. The content and stupid and borderline offensive title.
You'll surely concede that chemistry is not the only science involved in wine. Additionally, the fact that science currently struggles to explain all of the complexity of the drink and it's associated processed, does not REMOTELY mean that it never will.
Moreover, the propagation of the myth that uncovering what is really going on in a natural phenomenon somehow detracts from or kill its beauty, adds ZERO value to ANY discussion.
It is the exact attitude that Dawkins, rightly, rails against in "Unweaving The Rainbow"

syrahfan wrote:
01.30.13 at 8:14 PM

My, where to begin.

I'm no mystic - I have a graduate degree in a technical field in which I toil. I think biodynamics is largely junk that happens to occasionally be right like the proverbial stopped clock. I agree that science can, in principle, figure out anything as long as you make the leap of faith that there are no non-scientific facts about the world (there! ok sorry, I guess that was trolling....) I would agree that in principle science and technology can produce a Star Trek Replicator-type device that can analyze any given wine at whatever level of aging you like, and then reproduce it precisely at will. I will go even farther and agree that science could in principle lead to a technology that will analyze a given person and produce the ultimate wine for them in their current mood and state of mind, even if that particular combination of chemicals and microstructures has never existed before in any wine. A sort of Orgasmatron that produces wine.


To focus on that eventuality is, I think, missing Matt Kramer's point. If Alder's notes are correct, he used the word "never", perhaps carelessly. But it does apply within the lifetime of all of the people in that room. The Wine Orgasmatron does not exist yet as a winemaker's tool. It won't exist for a very long time. What does exist is a limited set of scientific data relating, in an approximate statistical way, the immensely complicated inputs (soil, weather, vine biology, biology of a multitude of species that run the spectrum from parasite to symbiote with the vine) to an immensely complicated set of outputs (the grape structure and chemistry - and that's assuming only grapes get into the fermentation vat, which is incorrect!). Then there is some more, but again limited, scientific data relating the inputs to outputs in another complex biological processing step, with an immense variety of factors (storage vessels, temperatures, pressures, all of which vary over time) which turns the grape into wine.

Maybe Matt Kramer's point of view is too mystical for some. But I believe his point is simply that there is much we don't know, and that for the time being winegrowers and winemakers should expand their artist's palette outward a bit. Humans are great at being creative and thinking outside the box in the absence of explicit scientific rules to guide them. This is simply reality, and is what artists tap into. There is still much art to winemaking and winegrowing.

Notice Mr. Kramer employs the scientific method to arrive at his conclusion: he states that according to his observations, the experiment of using the palette of the current scientific conclusions (shoot for X point of ripeness in climate Y on soils Z, and use clones A-E in some combination, etc., etc.) has produced reliably good wines but has tended not to create truly great wines. Therefore his hypothesis is that if winegrowers and winemakers modify their approach a bit beyond today's typical envelope then they may create some garbage, but they may also create the greatest wines. And he encourages them to run that experiment.

So I don't think he is that mystical after all.

David Rapoport wrote:
01.30.13 at 8:28 PM

Sorry, not buying your straw man.
The world of wine is full of so much "conventional wisdom" presented as fact (see, the french obsession with limestone; claims about soil mineral content producing "minerality" in wine; the need to irrigate erasing any possibility of "terroir" and on and on). There seems to be a cultural priority to reject the usefulness of science beyond a certain arbitrary point.
Mr Kramer, as is typical for him, falls intoxicated into the blind cult of burgundy, full of it's false humility. Putting a lovely poetic frame around your preferences and desires, does very little to illuminate the reality.
Mr Kramer, does not use scientific method by any reasonable stretch. He attempts to employ some semblance of standard reasoning when it suits him, abandoning it, likewise, when it suits. him

Lindsay Huntsman wrote:
01.30.13 at 8:54 PM

Lack of faith in God (or any god) does not presuppose an ability to believe the unimaginable cannot exist. Nor does it mean that someone cannot create something beautiful. So Picasso wasn't an astheist, but Frida Kahlo was...and John Lennon, Zora Neal Hurston, Simone de Beauvoir, Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, etc, etc. Perhaps before start debating the merits of "rationality" you should pick up a book on logic and the rules of argument.

st george wrote:
01.31.13 at 1:49 AM

As the monks believed, the point of true viticulture is to express the voice of god.(whatever that means, possibly misinterpreted by renaissance painters as the bearded fellow with a big finger)....
Basically its the source, the land that we exist upon. To act as midwives for the fruit as it grows and guide it from the land to the ferment, where again the vigneron can only guide it to the bottle.
As science is finding out the amount of factors that exist within the process(from the fields to the bottle) are indeed countless. For example aromatic pre-cursers that exist in parts per million, occur in the latter stages of ripening and are undetectable to human taste and only released as a reaction during fermentation. The variables are endless and the balance is acute. That is why faith and instinct like the speech states are important. This intuition is a form of inspiration. Its all about shepherding various aspects of nature through an ancient process. These guys are the Jedi of winemakers. Nitrosis fertiliser scientific sith lords need to back off

John wrote:
01.31.13 at 7:13 AM

"I believe - I can't prove it, I've never read it, and it might be total nonsense" It's an interesting way of looking at it for sure. I often enjoy Matt Kramer's writing but would have to say its total nonsense.

What the monks were actually doing was conducting a grand scientific experiment. One that concluded over hundreds of years that those grapes made the best wine in that particular place. One big massive trial and error experiment. Not to mention it was Philip the Bold who made it law that only Pinot Noir was to be planted and not others namely Gamay. So it wasn't their faith in God but rather it was the law.

Being religious doesn't mean you own faith. Scientists have faith in their work without which we wouldn't have cures for anything.

Farming is science but you must also have faith. That doesn't mean religious faith. Faith in your abilities and mother nature. Aetheists can and do have that faith.

As for biodynamics I believe that the monks and the church would be the first to condem it as cosmic and mystic. Put another way they are Non Believers, lacking the proper faith.

Matt to answer your question YES atheists can make great Pinot Noir. And 2 + 2 will always be four.

01.31.13 at 10:02 AM

Whenever someone is being asked to sacrifice commercial concerns for the sake of beauty, there needs to be a powerful reason why. Let's make no mistake -- Yellow Tail Pinot Noir with always be more profitable than Grand Cru Burgundy. Something is needed to make you sacrifice your self interest for the sake of beauty and transcendence. "Kramer's 2+2= 5 thing."

For the monks of Burgundy, it was their Christian Faith. For others, it is their belief in Biodynamics or their irrational love of their family land. But whatever it is, there must be something driving them.

Remember, that to be an honest Atheist, one must reject all supernatural or transcendence. They lack the counterbalance of life to fight against the forces of economic pressures and snake-oil salesmen who promise "better winemaking through chemistry."

David Rapoport wrote:
01.31.13 at 10:55 AM

"They lack the counterbalance of life to fight against the forces of economic pressures and snake-oil salesmen who promise "better winemaking through chemistry.""
This is utter nonsense.
What people seem to be missing is, approaching wine with scientific rigor means to attempt to find the truth for why things are they way they are, vs the blanket, unsubstantiated claims around "terroir" and "minerality" etc.
It does NOT, by any stretch, mean always making wine by the numbers, with every possible tool available; though it certainly doesn't negate that possibility.
Its the difference between looking for the truth, and proceeding based on what you *want* to believe

Jerry Murray wrote:
01.31.13 at 11:22 AM

“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”
? Albert Einstein

David Rapoport wrote:
01.31.13 at 11:26 AM

I disagree with Einstein
The reality of nature is always more fascinating and awe inspiring than someone's poetic interpretation of it

Michael Donohue wrote:
01.31.13 at 11:32 AM

I am mildly surprised that Pope Matthew didn't issue a bull on the question of stems - as that would be one of the few variables (assuming a selection massale, adequate ripeness, native yeast and decent barrels) that the unfettered faithful have to play with.

Le Vin Perdu wrote:
02.01.13 at 3:23 AM

Thanks for the transcript! I think David makes a very interesting point about 'wanting' to believe something instead of using useful science to underpin it. Exactly how does 'rejecting all supernatural or transcendence' mean one can't be passionate or driven about something? I mean, if winemaking can't be improved by science (and I don't necessarily mean chemistry) because a select few somehow pull it using only some esoteric wisdom inspiration or gutt feeling ... exactly who are the snake-oil salesmen here?

Evan Dawson wrote:
02.01.13 at 6:37 AM

Kramer undermines his very good point about clones and when to pick by trying too hard with metaphors and titles. And let's be clear, his entire premise is a sham; he ascribes grandiose religious motivations to the first planters of pinot when it was almost certainly done for other reasons. His construct is just, well, silly.

Now, as to clone planting, it's a fair point. We're addicted to certainty and consistency. We should be open-minded to a little turbulence and rough edges that give us character.

But he's lost too much of his audience by straining in his metaphors and essentially fictionalizing the first winemakers. Too bad. Matt is a great writer, and I think his main arguments here are spot on.

One other point: We've heard writers bashing California Pinot for years now for the same reasons Matt lays out. But no one ever names names; I wonder what we're afraid of.

Jeff K. wrote:
02.01.13 at 9:13 AM

Lovely, lovely writing. And I think that asking "What good can I glean from this?" is a better question than "Is Matt Kramer right or wrong?".

In the end, he seems to be saying that variation, character, and shooting-for-the-moon is more interesting (to him) than consistency, even if it's a pleasant consistency. He's arguing the wine-equivalent of "It's better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved."

02.02.13 at 2:30 PM

As an atheist and a quality pinot noir producer (WS called my atheist-managed vineyards one the 20 best in California), I publically challenge Matt Kramer to a web debate, his choice of moderator.

I think he's skipping around an important subject, but really missed the mark equating spirituality with the ability to understand complexity.

Please forward this challenge to Matt and let him know I'm ready whenever and wherever to show him where his logical fallacies got him confused.

Full disclosure: Matt Kramer is a hero of mine, and I would never make this a shouting match--I just want to debate!

Make some noise. Who wants to see this happen?

Alder wrote:
02.03.13 at 1:18 AM

Good luck Wes.

For what it's worth, I believe Kramer didn't equate spirituality with understanding complexity. Quite the opposite in fact. He's suggesting that spirituality provided a vehicle for dealing with complexity that the monks didn't, and that we don't fully understand. He's not advocating for spirituality or against atheism. He's advocating for deference and humility as an avenue to producing better results working with a complex set of systems that science has not yet completely unlocked for us to the point that we can generate the results we want using its tools alone. He's suggesting that anecdotally he sees better results in wine from such approaches (as embodied by people practicing biodynamics or lute raisonnee, etc.) than from those who employ the current U.C. Davis recommendations to the letter.


Adam Lee wrote:
02.03.13 at 5:23 AM

I had lunch in Portland with Matt some years ago and asked him if he had ever considered growing grapes or making wine. His paraphrased answer was "No, because doing that would give me too much knowledge and make me feel too sympathetic for grape growers and winemakers."

That answer has stuck with me....but has never satisfied me, especially from someone that I have admired. I think the idea of pursuing experience and pursuing knowledge is not a bad thing. Rather the challenge in balancing out all that you know and have experienced and weighing them properly. I think that Matt's unwillingness to do this (his own unwillingness to "give up control") in now becoming evident in his wine writing as his points are, IMO, lacking in resonance with complex experiences truly occuring in the vineyards and wineries. Unfortunately, this is leading him to become just one of the voices that attempts to gain attention by shouting louder and with more controversial words and poorly constructed analogies.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Jerry Marshall wrote:
02.04.13 at 8:21 AM

I am a Christian (and a big fan of Pinot Noir). That said, I am amused by how outraged some of you are by Mr Kramer's audacity in using a metaphor that offends your beliefs. If I took umbrage sufficient to make me respond every time someone disparaged my faith, I wouldn't have time to enjoy my wine!

Humility -- acknowledging our inability as humans to understand the world around us in all its marvelous complexity -- is in short supply these days. I don't think Mr Kramer is saying not to try to gain understanding. He's saying that the application of current scientific understanding is unlikely to end with a great, unique wine, because that method excludes so many of the unknowns. You will succeed in making a good, albeit orthodox, wine. Greatness will escape you. In other words, if you dare to fail, you may achieve greatness unattainable by the strict application of science.

Chill out, people. He's making a speech to entertain an audience, for goodness sakes, not delivering a manifesto on the universe!

02.04.13 at 11:25 AM

Ironically, Matt's rhetoric unwinds his argument easier than I ever could. The bluster he uses in making such a bold, ridiculous statement (more Bedlamite than erudite) is a linguistic version of an overoaked chardonnay or a ultra-ripe, single clone pinot noir.

Simple, boring, inflammatory.

His argument has no gestalt (2+2=5) and his insistence that winemakers must have a liturgy confounds me like a brett infection confounds a GC Chambertin.

But where he really misses the mark is the belief that theists or liturgical humans have a monopoly on wonder, restraint, complexity and vision in winemaking.

And of course the atheism/agnostic rate in Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone is significantly higher than anywhere in the US. Whoops! (33% atheism rate in France vs. 9% in the US). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism

So now the real question Matt should posit: how can so many French atheists make good wine?

Also someone with faith believes in what James Gordon Frazer describes in 'The Golden Bough' as the most infantile of human religious responses: sympathetic magic; that by praying, meditating, etc., we can enlist a sympathetic universe to act outside our own physical actions. God does not stop Brett infections, or TCA in a cork. Science does. There CAN be a poetic (NOT spiritual) atheist that makes much better wine than a Catholic who prays every day that the season be fruitful and the wine stays clean.

I'm not as pissed as I was yesterday, and I do believe a conversation would lead Matt and I to the same understanding, which he seems to circle like a falcon with a bad wing: 'Clonal selection insists that American wine use a French or Italian accent to legitimize itself, and elevated ripeness retards somewhereness.' He was moving toward a truth--but I think that his faith somehow hijacked it.

"Faith is the least exclusive club in the world," says Robert Frobisher, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. And Kramer's proclamation (even couched and made mild by some points I do agree with) was a populist, inflated statement meaning to impress more with bluster than substance. Like Rombauer. /zing His statement has the linguistic tenor of overoaked cougar juice.

Perhaps we can do a blind tasting of pinot noirs from the same vineyard made by a deist, a theist, an agnostic and an atheist and see if Mr. Kramer can pick out which is which?

Wes Hagen, Vineyard Manager/Winemaker

David Rapoport wrote:
02.04.13 at 11:32 AM

Indeed, Wes. It is a variation on the old chestnut: the notion that the religious among us have the de facto upper hand on issues of morality. A notion that is, of course, utter nonsense.
Moreover, this notion of just giving up in the face of complexity and wonder, is lazy and insulting to the human spirit of inquiry, exploration and discovery.
Surrendering blindly to wonder and awe should, in no way, be lauded and positioned as the more noble stance. Ever

Bruce Gutlove wrote:
02.05.13 at 4:13 PM


Re: your comment.... "I don't think Mr Kramer is saying not to try to gain understanding. He's saying that the application of current scientific understanding is unlikely to end with a great, unique wine, because that method excludes so many of the unknowns. You will succeed in making a good, albeit orthodox, wine. Greatness will escape you. In other words, if you dare to fail, you may achieve greatness unattainable by the strict application of science."

Very, very well said.
This, I feel, is the central point of Kramer's speech.
And I believe that this is a critical issue for us in the New World. One that we ignore to our own detriment.

Alder wrote:
02.05.13 at 4:20 PM

Matt has referenced and expanded on his speech in his column this week: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/47981

I'm curious, Wes and David, whether his further thoughts continue to suffer from the logical deficiencies you find in my pseudo-transcript above?

David Rapoport wrote:
02.06.13 at 5:47 AM

Alder thanks for the link to Kramer's WS post.
To my mind, it's still a load of nonsense.
1) the idea that those who adamantly disagree with him are "threatened" is utter crap. As far as I can tell, Kramer has never penned an observation so revolutionary such to cause any "threat" to anyone's worldview
2) He makes the fallacious assumption: that something that can't currently be measured is hopelessly beyond measurement full stop. A stupid attitude. Were that defeatist attitude to be the norm, I would not be typing this on a computer. Viruses would not be known to cause disease. It's the ridiculous attitude that there is humility and nobility in succumbing to the unknown and reveling in stupefied awe by the fact that we don't understand. I have not time for this attitude. It's lazy and useless. It is analogous to the ethical laziness that people show by ending their ethical and moral debates and struggles with what they read in the bible
3) More of a nitpick. His constant use of "2+2=5" rather than the colloquialism "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" appears to convey a tone of certitude in his statements which are not warranted (I'm willing to concede that I may be reading into it too much on this point; still, it's annoying)

I suppose I would object to Kramers words *a bit* less if it weren't for the fact that virtually everything I read by Kramer is the OpEd version of "the emperors new cloths": he often writes down these ideas presented in grand term; worded as if he were presenting something profound. When In reality, there's frequently "nothing there, there"

Jim Swayze wrote:
02.06.13 at 6:40 AM

Thought provoking speech by Matt. And some interesting comments follow. Wasn't shocked at all to see my buddy Adam Lee join the conversation. My single biggest problem is with the transcription itself. Not capitalizing God's name is not only extremely irreverent, but grammatically incorrect. Whether you believe in a single creator, it's clear that Matt -- and the monks -- are referring to a single creator. But thanks for posting this. Good stuff.

02.06.13 at 7:22 AM

Glad to see he dropped the atheism trope.

It did nothing but obscure a few good points he was making.

02.06.13 at 7:30 AM

After exchanging emails with Matt, here's what i think happened.

On a plane in the 8996'th hour over the Pacific, pen poised, he has a moment of revelation.

He writes: Can Atheists make Great Pinot Noir? as a title to his keynote.

Without taking much time to consider the title, he writes an article about complexity, clones and ripeness--the old boring standards, and putting down the Robert frobisher section of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (about musicality of everything around us), he adds some shit about a tuba and a piccolo.

He gets to the end and thinks, "Shit, this has nothing to do with atheism. So he puts in a few references to monks, pretends he answered the question and inserts an emphatic 'No' at the end to a question hardly considered.

This makes perfect sense if you look at the revision that has been stripped of any reference to atheism.

I've written airplane poems and short stories that were obviously more influenced by my right hemisphere, whiskey and sleep drugs on a plane, and they match the tone and coherence of Matt's original post.

Milton Zmijewski wrote:
02.06.13 at 10:33 AM

He forgot to mention the usefulness of astrology, numerology and prayer. Lots and lots of BS.

02.06.13 at 10:48 AM

It's so cool to see atheists going from fuel for a fire (but a few hundred years ago we were burned for our beliefs), to rushing to one another's defense.

There's no doubt about it, the Internet is owned by the godless!

Bruce Gutlove wrote:
02.06.13 at 5:44 PM


I don't think the title was inappropriate.
I think Kramer inartfully made the segue from a past wine-related example of faith (the monastic orders of Europe) to the one he ended up espousing as a way forward today (the non-science-based "deference" of which he spoke repeatedly). And, in doing so he muddied the waters.

The speech could have been tighter. Maybe it was on paper, and his presentation was a bit muddled.
Even so, still a rather impressive piece of work.

Ruth Worley wrote:
02.21.13 at 10:47 AM

Without love, the "truth" can be a little cold and unsatisfying. We are humans, not computers,and taking ourselves too seriously is a good way to be unhappy.

02.21.13 at 11:13 AM

Ruth, I couldn't agree more. Wine is liquid humanism, and it should bring us together, not separate us.

Jim Swayze wrote:
02.21.13 at 11:58 AM

I so hesitate to write anything further as I do like to a degree Ruth's call not to take ourselves too seriously. But it's Wes' invocation of humanism that I must respond to as I believe it goes to the very heart of the point Kramer is trying to make. Humanism is of course a philosophy that has at its core faith in human reason, over and against inspiration and intuition. Too much faith in human reason -- and, yes, it's faith -- leads to the hubris I believe Matt is trying to warn us about. I thought the title of the talk was just about right to shock us out of this idea that winemakers are ideally much more than midwives. Of course you don't impose such a standard by force or ridicule -- everyone's free to do what they want. But it seems to me a fantastic ideal.

Having said all that, the major animator of much of the discussion here is the raging, polarizing debate going on right now about whether God exists and, if so, what that belief entails. I do believe in God, and I believe I have some very strong reasons to do so. And as a believer, I cannot help but think of the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 3:19: "For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, 'He catches the wise in their craftiness....'” I think it's directly applicable to this conversation. We can be too crafty, too ready to act to correct perceived deficiencies, too ready to act to "correct" the material nature gives us. The monks of course believed it was their job to hear God's messages and not to do anything to get in the way of their communication. It's this idea that animates my personal interest in wine, what most excites me about opening a bottle from a specific time and place.

02.21.13 at 12:19 PM

It's a beautiful country that we can agree to disagree on topics of god, Gods and the universe, and still have a great bottle of wine and remain civil and engaged.

Proof positive that whether God exists or not, great wine and friends will continue to be made.

Jim Swayze wrote:
02.21.13 at 1:07 PM

Indeed, sir. Cheers.

11.17.14 at 12:29 PM

You actually make it seem so easy with your
presentation but I find this matter to be really
something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me.
I am looking forward for your next post, I'll try to get the hang of it!

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