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R.I.P Alfred Merkelbach

Alfred died the morning of the 14th, in a hospital in Bernkastel. He’d seemed to have rallied for a while, even asking for a beer, but when he sank again it was fast. He would have turned ninety in a few weeks.

The “end of an era” cliché is overused - but not now.

Once he and his brother Rolf couldn’t do the work any more, they lost not only their occupation but also their purpose. While Rolf was ill, Alfred could care for him, and did. When Rolf died Alfred lost his reason for going on.

As most of you know, the Selbachs have been making the wines for the last several years. Johannes assures me that they will continue to make them “as the Merkelbachs did.” He is intensely conscious of the legacy he’s been entrusted to carry forward, both personal and stylistic - though that is too small a word for what Selbachs are doing. It is hardly a question of “style;” it is a question of type, of identity, of mentality - a vision of how wine should be, that must not be allowed to perish.

For me, today is nothing but poignant. I am grateful to have known the Merkelbachs, grateful I could bring them renown and material comfort, grateful for the purity of their wines, and sad to see them leave us. If you own a copy of my DVD, cue it up and watch the scene of the Merkelbach visit; it was the brothers at their best.

Tom Wark says the quiet part out loud


He recently put a post on his substack, asking whether there might be a correlation between declining wine consumption and the emphasis toward “natural wine” among younger wine drinkers. He made a gleefully wicked case, and while I was truly (if immaturely) delighted that he made it, I don’t know if it was a responsible argument.


It’s wearisome to trot out the same old qualifiers again, but of course there are many excellent wines in the “natural wine” community. I just took delivery of a half-case from La Garagista, which I think is one of the best wineries in America, and which fits squarely (if arguably atypically) in the “natural” matrix. I have had almost nothing from Deirdre Heekin that wasn’t actively beautiful, and mulling over the first thing I cracked from that case, I have a thought.


It was her apple cider. I’ve had a lot of ciders lately; my wife loves them and we have a neighbor who’s deep into that community. Garagista’s was far and away the best I’ve had, by several orders of magnitude. It’s easy to say why: It was the fruit. It offered a euphoric range of complex flavors that darted around like a wildly happy little puppy. When we reached the final inch or two in the bottle, we hit the sediment – she hadn’t filtered it – and the sediment was “pleasantly farmy” if you like that kind of thing, and “kind of funky” if you aren’t sure. The funky thing is common to most of the ciders I’d been exposed to, and it was why I was so cool toward them. I like a farmyard nuance in a fine old Calvados, but it was at odds with the delicacy of Heekin’s cider. It struck me that many naturalistas would like the cider because of that funk, and might shake the bottle about in order to disperse it. All that would do, in my view, was compromise the most beautiful thing about the beverage plus make it taste like all the others.


A preference for purity is certainly a virtue provided one doesn’t signal it obsessively. The problem – as is commonly known by now – is the lack of discrimination on the part of too much of that community, resulting in too many honestly shitty wines that are riddled with flaws. And no amount of Orwelian doublespeak will make virtues out of those flaws.  We arrive at an issue that is deeply confused. Are we supposed to like wines that stink like mice or band aids or fecal brett or kimchi-breath or sweaty bog shrimp? Come to the maggot party – all the coolest people will be there!


But to be fair, such wines are too easy a target. I have a different question to ask. It is this: Can anyone tell me which among the greatest wines in the world is in the family of “natural wines?”  It seems to me that every one – every  one – of the wines we acknowledge as supernal is made by methods some would pooh-pooh as “conventional.” Once I had this thought I set about challenging it. I couldn’t find a single example. I thought of the great wines from Nikolaihof, but those tend to be great because of the time they spend in cask. This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of “natural wines” that are delicious, even beautiful, but I can’t think of one that is great. If this hypothesis is plausible, it’s something worth thinking about. What elements conducive to greatness are somehow precluded in the “natural wine” mentality and the practices it entails? I know, I know – the logical consequence of that question is to insist there can be no great wines in that mileu. Can that be? I do not prefer to think so – but show me one.


And now there’s a new defector from the cult. Have a look here:


Not to pile on – well maybe a little – but indicators are starting to  abound. I’ve long understood that the natural wine community is indeed a community, and it can be lovely when like-minded people can join with one another. It is reassuring for them, and from the outside it appears entirely positive, as long as it avoids the common errors such movements are prone to.


Alas they are common. It begins with tendentiousness, proceeds to ideology, continues on to purity testing, and can curdle into  some of the distressing elements of cultishness. It’s when it reaches that point that we start to see defectors. Mr. Cappiello’s demurrals are especially apropos, as he formed his rebellious view empirically. But read it, you’ll see.


Meanwhile, my friend Joe Appel is making a fascinating pair of wines that might be said to slot neatly into the “n-w” community. These are sparkling wines made from wild Maine blueberries. I’m noting them below, but first I asked Joe why he wanted sparkling rather than still wines.




Arkadia – sparkling wine from Maine wild blueberries


My friend Joe Appel has a company called RAS Wines, in Portland, ME, and he’s certified organic (by MOFGA), and for a few years now he’s been making bubbly from wild blueberries. I’m interested because I’m interested in Joe, and because a zillion years ago I had a few bottles of a Maine blueberry wine, dry and aged in oak, with which I blew a slew of minds, and bamboozzled my friends who thought they could identify anything by blind tasting. The winery’s not around any more, alas.


Here the alc is just 8% and the wine was a wild-ferment. Not knowing better, I poured it into two flutes, but the wine is too dark to see a mousse. (Seeing a moose is, of course, a feature of Maine life…) On the other hand, it smells wonderful. It smells wonderful and it plays a wicked trick on you. The wine smells so sweetly of blueberry that the bone-dry palate is quite a sideways lurch. But when you recover the shards of your shattered aplomb, you start to notice that the wine is pretty damn good, and more curiouser, that it has vinosity, it isn’t some novel concoction of blueberry, but instead it’s an actual wine.


Judged as wine qua wine, I admire its purity, lightness and faithfulness to the essence of the fruit. I’m less pleased with a phenolic scrape on the finish, but I poured it fridge-cold (so around 40º) and it might be gentler if it isn’t quite so chilled. This I shall try.


The next question is how do you use it? My first instinct is you use it as you would an old-school Dolcetto that you’d serve cold (but not ice cold). It could be compared to Lambrusco, obliquely, but its fruit is, of course, incomparable. Looking strictly at the wine’s utility may be a fool’s errand, because the more I taste it the less relevant I find the mousse to be. I could almost envision it as a wine you’d serve like a white wine, and which had more than a little spritz but wasn’t really “sparkling wine.”


I’m being over analytical because I never tasted anything like this before. The gestalt is that of a lovely, original wine, and I would – and will – drink it for pleasure. If you think “Sparkling wild blueberry wine” and think it’d be kid-stuff….no effing way. This is serious grown-up wine.


I asked Joe why he thought to make it fizzy. He replied: “The basic answer is that the ripest possible wild blueberries are harvested at around 13 Brix, so 6% or so alcohol after a full primary fermentation. That is low enough that the body, the physical impression in the mouth, falls a bit short. A dry, still wine from this fruit comes through too thin, too acerbic and angular, two-dimensional even, and so we make it sparkling to round things out texturally -- to provide a fuller, better rounded drinking experience. We add just enough sugar to our liqueur de tirage to produce some bubbles but not have to disgorge. So it's pet-natty even though technically it's not a Pet-Nat or Ancestrale because we don't interrupt primary fermentation.”



Source De Cay


The “better” of the two is raised from a single barren, by the Beal family, fifth generation growers at Moon Hill Farm. This I copied from the back label. Aged in neutral oak, made by the “traditional method” and disgorged by hand, it is both paler in color saturation and wilder in fragrance. The wine has attitude. It isn’t bone dry, and palates more fastidious than mine will register a slight V.A. but which doesn’t fret me. A repeat of the phenolic roughness of the first wine is more dubious, yet seen as a whole, this is not only lovely; it is exciting.


More scope, more horizon, more sky, this behaves essentially like a red wine, and in some ways like a Jura red wine – only better (than any I’ve ever had). It pertains to aspects of the tomato, specifically the leaf, and the way your fingertips smell after you’ve picked a lot of cherry tomatoes. There’s also a complex mid palate that leads into an umami-rich finish. It’s less a portrait-of-blueberry and more a highly particular but not outlandish wine that happens to have been made from blueberries. Simply put, it’s more savory. It’s best if you finish the bottle when you open it, as the V.A. grows more prominent over time. Joe points out that this is a bug and not a feature. “For Source Decay the liqueur is at a more traditional level of sugar, and after ~8 months sur lie we disgorge it by hand. The other differences with that wine are that the Beals, whom you so kindly mention, just happen to bring us much more pristine and lovely fruit -- by which I mostly mean that more of the leaves and stems have been field-winnowed off the fruit, so I sometimes jokingly refer to this as our destemmed wine where Arkadia is whole-cluster -- and so that wine presents a more decidedly fruit-y profile where Arkadia is more woods-y. Also, about 40% of that wine ages in used barrels rather than 100% stainless-steel for Arkadia. All this results, to my palate, in a somewhat softer, plusher wine, and as you so accurately put it, more sky/horizon, (way) more umami, more plunging savoriness.”


He continues, “But most of me just wants to see what happens when we apply a mostly Europhilic, terroir-expressive attitude to a fruit that has grown here and only here, on its own, undergirded by a 1000s-miles-long-rhizome underground, for around 11,000 years.”


I’d prefer a smoother finish on both wines, but this is just a little cavil of mine. These are works of no small passion, and the results are delightful. They are also reassuring, to me, because these wines feel like the intellectually responsible antidote to (too) much of the fuzzy thinking and virtue signaling we see elsewhere amongst the uber-trendy.


One feckless Boomer, over and out.

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