Opinion: Words Have Meaning (Especially Hugh Johnson’s)

A quote from a recently published interview in the Washington Post (Some Wine Writers Benefit From Aging, Too—October 22, 2016) struck a distressed chord with me but seems to have been accepted as incontrovertible elsewhere because of who said it.

“Orange wines are a sideshow and a waste of time. What’s the point of experimenting? We know how to make really good wine. Why do we want to throw away the formula and do something different? Making good wine is hardly modern technology, it’s just experience and common sense. And hygiene!”

To some in the wine world “them’s fighting words” and, worse, a wholesale capitulation to the status quo. The opinion is not just a slap at orange wine but a poke at natural wine and its adherents. Some will be discouraged by the pronouncement while others, already entrenched, will claim victory.

As an interested observer, my problem is that the sentiments are so categorical and ungenerous. If it wasn’t for the status of the speaker and my respect for his work I would be beating the drum as loudly as I could. Yes, Hugh Johnson, dean of wine criticism, deserves respect but his words have impact and will be seized upon by those who are benefited. In this case, Corporate and Multinational Wine Interests (CMWI).

What on earth is wrong with experimentation? Are we fully arrived? Are we not here because of experimentation? What are the formulas he speaks of and aren’t most formulas the very reason we have too much chardonnay and cabernet instead of a million other varieties that encourage “experimentation” within our own taste parameters?

Hygiene for some means vast quantities of sulfur, sterile filtration or even pasteurization. In the vineyards it may mean synthetic products for control of weeds, insects and fungus. Lots of CMWI experimentation there.

If I am mistaken and he is talking about the hygiene required to produce a natural wine—healthy organic or bio-dynamically grown grapes, processed in a cuverie populated with native flora, with no other additions—then I apologize. I’ll take my fizzy gamay and leave. But his slam of the unconventional leads me to believe I am not mistaken. It is a bit reminiscent of the 60’s when “hippie” collectives and farms dedicated to organic agriculture were met with criticism from all directions. We know where that went.

It’s my contention that the wine industry is on notice: the status quo of chemically grown and processed wine must change. The people who drink it, comment upon it, and to a growing degree make it, are demanding the change. Let us, as reviewers, comment upon the wines that are produced—let the bad ones wither and the good ones flourish. That’s our job. When we direct, and suggest, and micro-manage we can lead a whole industry down the wrong path (ex. Parker vis à vis Bordeaux).

The point is words have meaning and when they come from a legend in the business they have charged meaning. It’s important for our leaders to recognize that a new generation is assuming the mantle of wine expertise and for them a new set of issues will guide the discussion. Fortunately there are those who make wine who have never wavered from the righteous path of healthful, tasty and minimally processed wine. I hope that’s who Hugh Johnson referenced as the status quo.


2 thoughts on “Opinion: Words Have Meaning (Especially Hugh Johnson’s)

    1. Thanks Simon.
      I’m glad someone feels the same way. I didn’t want to come off as disrespectful but I was stunned by the statements and had to say something. Like you, I know what I like, but I am always open to expanding my taste. No boundaries as long as good taste and common sense prevail. I want my products to be sustainably farmed and made naturally. Other than that anything goes and I will judge the pleasure it gives with generosity and an open mind.


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