Kristopher Tillery

Proprietor, Noble Hill wine estate
Managing member, Invoer

Writing

Wines au naturel

Over the past two years I have witnessed an increasing demand for natural wines from among our customers, sometimes to the exclusion of some of the wines I make. Certainly describing a wine as “natural” has broad, visceral appeal: natural objects are untainted by human vice and exist in a state apart from ourselves. When the architecture of civilization seems to buckle underneath the weight of the humanity it supports, a return to nature is a tempting siren.

I wish to query more specifically what constitutes a natural wine, and how wine would exist in a state of nature. Ultimately, I conclude that natural, as an adjective, is a poor descriptor for any wine: romantic at best, dangerous at worst, and ultimately unhelpful in ensuring the sustainable satisfactory enjoyment of wine as a beverage.

For the most part, wholesale buyers and the class of professionals that separate producers and consumers seem to agree only that natural wines are made without laboratory-selected yeasts. Wine professionals also speak broadly about natural wines as those that additionally have some combination of traits, the number and importance of which vary from person to person: whether the wine is grown sustainably or organically, whether the grower respects the environment, whether the winemaker practices minimal intervention in the cellar, whether the winery uses filtration or not. The criteria appear to reflect a view of what wine would be in the absence of a globalized, industrialized economic order.

The first problem I encounter in trying to understand natural wines is what they actually represent as a group. That natural wine encompasses so many concepts is problematic. There is no inherent, unbreakable link between environmental sustainability and minimal intervention in the cellar, nor is there a link between conducting fermentation with ambient yeast populations and the state of the vineyard from which the wine is made.

The focus on yeast selection, nearing on obsession among some buyers, is particularly baffling to me. Certainly, I understand and agree with the principles of minimal intervention. I make no argument here for over-worked, commercially-calibrated wines. Most wine is enjoyable, and great wine is impressive, precisely because it encapsulates the work of nature in its astounding complexity with very little work on the part of the creator.

The missing link in the concern over yeast selection or lack thereof is, in my opinion, the nature of wine itself as a product of man and a product inexorably linked to the spread of agriculture. There are no Cabernet Sauvignon (a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc) vines growing in nature. The grape variety is a selection through breeding, conducted by man, in order to produce tasteful grapes for the production of wine. Everything about wine agriculture: the selection of rootstocks, the method of soil preparation, the varieties of grape planted, the management of vineyard canopies, the choice of harvest date, and a thousand other decisions made during the course of a typical harvest reflect the hand of man in the making of wine. Wine simply does not exist in a natural state in any recognizable form.

To focus on yeast selection at the expense of these myriad of other important decisions is to place artificial emphasis on one particular aspect of winemaking. I admit to the allure of natural yeast as a “magic” moment in a fermentation, where something happens seemingly spontaneously. There is nothing wrong with ambient yeast fermentation, and some great wines are made this way. I cannot give anything other than unqualified endorsement for its careful and considered use. However, I refuse to accept that it deserves special status in delineating a class of wine that deserves attention above any other.

I challenge buyers to embrace complexity in the selection of authentic, tasteful, terroir-specific, and special wines without relying on the crutch of the natural adjective. The word connotes little except to a few who have imbued it with a false distinction among different wines. The informed consumer should take stock of whether a label applied to a wine correlates to a factually verifiable difference between a hypothetical panel of items, or whether the label imbues romanticized ideas about a wine’s character that are not specifically grounded in the mode of production of the wine itself.

December 20, 2016

The death of blends. Long live blends!

Recently I have engaged in a project to bring into existence a white wine made from several varieties, known as a “white blend.” Blended wines strike fear into the hearts of many, and evoke deep passion from others. To me, these wines are often mis-understood and I wish to express my opinion that blended wines should be considered more readily by commercial buyers and the general public.

The existence of “varietal” wines is itself a fairly recent (“new world”) phenomenon, as the “old world” has preferred for many centuries to market and label its wines by origin as opposed to by grape. Unfortunately, the simple pleasure and idea of marketing a wine by its origin seems to have been largely lost as wine buyers have focused on varieties as a means to categorize their selections and simplify the buying process. In so doing, wine buyers have trained a generation of wine drinkers to seek out “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Riesling” to the exclusion of wines that cannot carry these labels, even if they contain a large percentage of the same grapes in their blends.

Oddly, this focus on grapes has been directed almost exclusively at “new world” wines, leaving parallel systems of origin and grape competing for attention on some wine lists and serving to obfuscate the fundamental similarities between, for example, Chablis and a Chardonnay.

The categorization of “new world” wines by variety has served a useful role in helping wine drinkers seek out wines with organoleptic characters they find appealing. A wine drinker who enjoys light, crisp white wine may be well-served to associate their taste with Sauvignon Blanc lest they try and are disappointed by a traditional, wooded Chardonnay. This simplistic categorization, however, is reaching the limit of its usefulness in helping wine drinkers discover new tastes and should be superceded by novel and thought-provoking categorizations that assist wine drinkers to explore refreshing, exciting wines, including those made from a variety of different grapes and from a variety of different regions. I challenge wine buyers, sommeliers, and restauranteurs to avoid the well-traveled path of organizing the “new world” wines on their respective lists by grape and embrace novel categories that assist wine drinkers in finding wines that will suit their palates. Maybe it is hoping for too much, but I would also challenge these wine professionals to embrace complexity and ambiguity in their treatment of the artificial “old world” “new world” distinction, although that is itself a topic warranting its own separate discussion.

Sometimes one comes across an overzealous shop owner who has taken this challenge head-on and with perhaps too much emphasis on the novelty of such organization as opposed to its usefulness. We have all been inside the shop with bright, cheerful signs organizing shelves by “fruity!” “crisp” “tasty” etc. This misses the point. Instead, some of the most exciting wine lists I have encountered have been organized, for example, from lightest to heaviest, or by clear concept within regional categories. The criterion for the successful categorization of a wine is the usefulness of the category in helping a wine drinker navigate the wine list or shop shelf. Over-general categories are totalistic, while separating wines by too fine a grain eliminates the possibility of serendipitous and unexpected selections. Every wine professional has a responsibility to make wine an enjoyable beverage that surprises and delights. I believe that thoughtful re-examination of established traditions will reveal the potential for the organization of wine lists and shop shelves to better serve this goal.

April 23, 2016

Defending the obsolesce of the winemaker

At the helm of a hospitality business, I strive to engage as best I can with the interests and curiosities of my customers. This is driven by basic commercial reasoning as well as an underlying desire to be a fundamentally polite person. In the course of engaging with Noble Hill’s varied and geographically dispersed customers I find that one question regularly dominates the conversation: that of who is the winemaker at Noble Hill, whether I am said winemaker, and what qualifies me to take this title.

I have to say that I am very uneasy with this question and the required response. I wish to argue for wines to be enjoyed, viewed, and judged independently from the personalities involved in their production. I wish to argue for an end to ego in winemaking.

Perhaps the personalities involved in growth and production of a wine leave an indelible imprint on the respective character of the resulting product. This would seem to fall within the broad purview of terroir. While one could argue that this is reason enough to accept the winemaker as the central figure within the narrative of a wine, I assert that the number of individuals involved in the success of a modern winery, even at the smallest scale, requires the intense cooperation and contribution of a host of people who cannot be accurately identified as a winemaker.

Every time I respond to a customer’s question whether I am the winemaker for Noble Hill in the affirmative I am met with two distinct responses: firstly from the customer, a marked increase in deference, respect, and appreciation for the wines; and secondly, within myself, self-consciousness for taking credit for something which is fundamentally a team effort and which could not have been achieved without the hard work and dedication of my colleagues and subordinates. Each vineyard worker who carefully plucked a leaf from the canopy of our Merlot vineyard to slightly increase sun exposure on the bunches surely has as much of a role in the finished product as I or anyone else who took responsibility for it during its multi-year lifetime.

One of my company’s founding principles is humility. Even I cannot take credit for the distillation of this particular value into an immutable precept for my business; I lifted this particular company value directly from my previous employer Katzenbach Partners LLC. Jon Katzenbach, founder of the eponymous firm, argued forcefully and convincingly that pride matters more than money as a motivator, and that pride in the workplace and the job done requires concomitant humility in one’s own contribution. I have embraced this logic throughly in my career, and I require humility from my staff at every level. Humility means accepting that we need help from one another, admitting to mistakes, agreeing that we have room to learn, and seeing oneself as part of a larger whole.

Humility, then, precludes the winemaker him or herself from being identified as the core character of a fine wine, and if you accept that humility is a laudable trait and value to have, why does the market continue to demand celebrity winemakers, outsized personalities, and a relentless focus on “who makes the wine”? Certainly celebrity is alluring, entertaining, and commercially successful. People identify with big and outgoing personalities more easily than with abstract concepts like humility or terroir, and of course it is necessary to point to someone when asked “who is in charge” at any winery that wishes to avoid total chaos.

Fundamentally, though, through writing this brief note, I realize that I am arguing for nothing more simple and nothing more revolutionary than the same thing fought for by many already and one of the maxims that all winemakers worth their salt will agree to without a moment’s hesitation: respect your terroir. As winemakers, it is our job to understand, respect, and artfully reflect our terroir in the wines we make. The only shocking thing about this conclusion is how often it is ignored or seconded to the commercial aims of a brand or company.

I argue that by approaching wines by asking “how does this wine reflect its terroir?” before “who is its winemaker?” we will gain more in terms of knowledge and pleasure.

January 2, 2015