One of the great advantages of painting your own personal portrait of hell is that you get to decide who goes there and how they end up. Dante Alighieri did it with his Inferno; Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm (a.k.a. Al Dente Allegory) has done it with his Vinferno, a tribute/parody/reimagining of the great poet's masterwork played out over several winery newsletters. "Things like flanged bottle tops and cigar-band neck labels just bug me," grants Grahm. And so, perpetrators of those offenses against Grahm's sensibility get lumped in with the wine marketers -- the people charged with turning wine into a saleable product -- and are consigned to the netherworld's eighth ring, just above the treacherous. They are ranked even lower than overpricers (who are vine-olent against the grape) and the inventors of "Green Hungarian, Blue Nun, and 'White' Zinfandel" (who are vine-olent against Bacchus). Such zinners get to look down on the flange-floggers from the relative comfort of wine hell's seventh ring.
Dr. Jean Antoine Chaptal, however, gets to hang out with the immortals in Limbo, denied heaven only because he is one of those "Masters who came B.S. (Before Spectation)." Dr. Chaptal, who brought the world chaptalization -- the addition of sugar to juice from underripe grapes so that the fermenting yeasts will have something to eat. The practice isn't even legal in California, but Grahm puts him right in there with Jacques Perrin and Andre Tchelistcheff. About this, he is thoughtful but unrepentant. "Maybe I should have made him Louis Pasteur. But I don't have any real quarrel with Chaptal. I think he did a lot to improve the quality of French wines. He did make Burgundy possible." And if anything is deserving of da-vine mercy...
Clark Smith is not so lucky. "Clark Smith is a good friend of mine, whom I adore," says Grahm. "But I am sending him straight to hell. He's a wine technologist." Smith is the founder of Vinovation, a wine-research operation that came to fame on the strength of reverse osmosis, a superfine filtration operation. Reverse osmosis allows for the separation of water, alcohol, and acid from a wine. If your wine has volatile acidity problems, or if you have too much alcohol because you hung on for physiological ripeness in your grapes and had to let sugar levels skyrocket, then you can simply remove the excesses and recombine. And if your flavor concentration was a little lower than optimal, you can always hold back a little liquid from the recombination.
Clark Smith thinks technological advances such as reverse osmosis and microbullage (the streaming of tiny oxygen bubbles into wine to aid in the formation of structure and flavor) are no more outlandish than the double boiler and the convection oven in cooking. If you're interested in a delicious end product, you use the tools that can help you get there. What's more, such tools can actually eliminate the need for harsher procedures, such as racking a wine to expose it to oxygen during elevage.
There, at least, Grahm is with him. "Microbullage is high-tech, but what's very, very cool about it is its utter lightness of touch -- if it's practiced properly. It allows you to preserve as much of the intrinsic character of the wine as you possibly can by not moving it, not having to rack the wine. It's just a much gentler way of treating the wine. It's like arthroscopic surgery; it's an invasive technique, but it's a very gentle touch." But Grahm the winemaker is not entirely identical to Grahm the poet. Patrick Ducournau, another friend and the inventor of microbullage, shares Smith's vinfernal fate.
M. André Noblet plays Virgil to Grahm's Dante, and in the seventh De Canto, Noblet takes his charge to a hilltop horror show, a gallery of the technologists' tools:
"These are the impedimenta of the 'International Style,'"
Said Noblet, "and while they are still as shiny as can be,
Note how they languish and sit unceremoniously idle.
They were the tools designed to set winemakers free
From the vagaries of vintage (Great Bacchus forefend!),
Available to any 'winery of substance' for a non-trivial fee.
Thus, one might a wine's 'deficits' amend,
Rendering it standard, clean and vacuously perky,
Soulless, soil-less, precipitating Great Terroir's end."
When Grahm meets Ducournau, he is trapped in a giant bubble, "turning end over end, bouncing freely, hither and yon." And Smith, says Noblet, "suffers a perpetual, insatiable thirst, as a result of his earthly interest in unnatural concentration."
I beheld Clark silently grimace as he cursed
Whilst with the palm of his hand thumping without stop
The bottom of an inverted bottle of Château d'Osmose Inverse...
The wine, of course, is too concentrated to flow out of the bottle. The sight of his two comrades rattles Grahm -- he admits to having employed Smith's services and regards Ducournau as a real friend of wine. And he confesses to his own little trick of artificially freezing grapes to produce a faux ice wine. The poem is as much confession as critique. It began, after all, with Grahm's having "put a great dream aside." It began with his abandonment of terroir, and it is violence against terroir -- against the things that make a particular wine particular -- that sends his friend Clark Smith to hell.
"I think reverse osmosis tries to change the character of a wine -- certainly, the character of a vintage. I think it deforms the wine in a significant way. The question is, what do you want your wines to be? If you believe in terroir, if you believe in appellation, if you believe in vintage, you want to produce wines that are true to those things. If those things are not important to you, then why not do reverse osmosis? But then, you're not really producing an artisanal wine anymore; you're producing more of an industrial product."
Of course, industrial doesn't always mean bad; in some cases, it can mean delicious. "Maybe you can sell your industrial product for $70 a bottle as they do at Leoville Las Cases. I don't know if I have the palate to say, 'This wine should be this way, but it's been made to be this other way by reverse osmosis.'" But even if Grahm can't tell, he knows it is not the way he will find salvation.
What is the way? "I'm looking for something very different. The things that inspire me? There are some truly crazy, crazy people out there. You've got Jasko Gravner in Friuli making strange, strange wines. You've got a guy in the Loire named Claude Courtois who is producing very strange, weird wines without SO2" -- a standard-use preservative. "Some of them are fantastic, and they're from obscure grape varieties. You've got my friend Phillippe Viret in Cote du Rhone who is practicing something called cosmoculture, using stone beacons in his vineyard to redirect the various cosmic forces that flow through it. And he's using virtually no SO2 and producing extraordinary wines."
We have returned, it seems, to Grahm's concern at the poem's beginning -- with what he will leave behind. Only now, it has been coupled with the dream of terroir, with the dream of vinous greatness untainted by commercial concerns. "I think great wines inspire people in a profound way -- at least, they inspire me in a profound way. If I could do something that is truly unusual and extraordinary and unprecedented that could possibly lead other people to think along the same lines..." Why, that would be Paradiso.