Matt Kramer: Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir?

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.

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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.