Before you hear my rant about the mis-understandings of the idea of typicality, do take a moment to romp through the new Darting releases!
Typicity is a useful, if slippery concept, which can be misapplied in practice, with the unfortunate effect of strait-jacketing wine growers and stifling innovation.
However, we can succumb to a romantic spell where “innovation” is concerned, with the equally unfortunate effect of failing to discern when innovations are stupid, useless, or incoherent.
Typicity is helpful when it codifies best practices and creates responsible paradigms. Innovation is helpful when it actually makes things better. Neither effect is inevitable, but there’s more wind beneath the wings of “innovation,” whereas typicity can be seen as a fusty old concept in which boomers find our ways around the wine world. I’m well aware of the damage done when typicity is advanced as dogma. Are you, in turn, well aware of the idiocies committed under the seductive guise of innovation?
The newest salvo seems to be a Vicki Denig piece, to which Alder Yarrow posted a link, and which I have not read. Denig’s a good thinker and a highly competent writer. She knows how to craft an argument. But I don’t want to “respond” to her because I prefer to consider my own thoughts in isolation, tabula rasa, and see whether they contribute to a dialogue.
First “typicity” is a false notion. Normatively, it doesn’t actually exist. What we call typicity is a temporary consensus based on ever-shifting empirical data, or in other words, what we consider “typical” is based on our observation of what only seems to be immutable. We create inferences based on observing finite slices of time, entailing whatever practices prevailed during those times.
For example, what’s “typical” in Germany? From the late 1940s through the late 1970s one would have said light wines, mostly sweet, but would anyone say that now? Until the late 1980s Austrian wines were “typically” unidentified vinous objects, which with very few exceptions had no identity at all. Alsace wines in the post-war years were lean, sinewy and dry. What are they now?
Myriad examples can be found. I rather think that when we talk about “typicity” we’re actually talking about a set of practices (and the flavors resulting from them) that happen to have prevailed during the time period we viewed. In many cases innovation happens whether we desire it or not.
And no one wants to suffocate innovation! Or? I do not ask rhetorically. Is innovation an absolute value? Or do we need to consider what it consists of, and whether it truly makes things better?
One could argue that excessive innovation for its own sake actually damages the coherence of the wine world. And the hell with “one could:” I argue precisely that. I don’t insist that “coherence” is an absolute value that must be protected at all costs, but I do think we should be careful not to rush to embrace every crackpot “innovation” that fixes things that weren’t broken and that justifies incompetence and conceptual chaos with specious arguments for “fresh thinking.” We must examine innovations one by one and consider whether they make things better or instead, whether they indulge the immature egos of callow vintners who suppose their every stray idea was dictated to them directly from the lips of the gods.
One can consider any given wine culture and ask “Can this be made better?” Often the answer is yes, it can, but even that will usually entail tinkering around the edges rather than wholesale slaughter of the prevailing concept. Here’s a hypothetical example.
Say that a general notion arose to the effect that Volnay was inherently (or “typically”) an austere wine – perhaps because of its relative altitude or because it so happened that most of its growers were uninspired. Observers could thus infer that Volnay was “intended” to be lean and tight, and that this was typical for Volnay, which would in effect become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet insisting it constituted a normative argument for typicity would simply be lazy. Inevitably some grower would come along and make ripe sensual Volnays and eventually other growers would have to follow suit in order to compete, and thirty years from now the standard text on Volnay could call it a suave sensual wine. Fair enough.
But suppose a grower surveyed the landscape and decided that the problem with Volnay was that the wrong grapes were planted there. “I know how to fix Volnay,” he would cry, before planting Tempranillo or Merlot or St Laurent or Grenache, and he’d be hailed as an “innovator” struggling against the stricture of typicity. I quake to think of the fatuous commentators who’d heap praise upon this pitiable guy.
Just look around the wine world. For decades we all assumed Italian whites were bland, dilute and dull, whereas all that was needed was to treat them with respect. What, I might ask, is white Rioja? Is it the stainless steel cold fermented creature that could hail from any-old-where, or is the oxidized, tertiary (and I’d argue, soulful) wines of the traditionalists? What is typical?? Is it that which prevails – or happens to prevail – or is it the empirical evidence that there is actually a best way for a type of wine to be?
One can become enslaved by typicity, which can be used as an argument for perpetuating mediocrity. And one can be enslaved by the idea that change for its own sake is a positive value. The word “typical” merely describes the prevalent thinking, which is sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect. What’s worrisome is the idea that typicity is invariably a cudgel used to stifle the sacred (and often incoherent) principle of innovation, whereas what it actually offers is a guidepost by which we map the world of wine.
I get it; things gotta change. And one of those things is the assumption that things always have to change. Some things do, other things don’t. What needs to take place, always, are any available improvements, but innovation for its own sake carries some pretty atrocious risks. The “natural” wines being made by certain young vintners along the Mosel are not innovations – they are simply ludicrous and egregious. A respect for typicity would have served those growers well. I’ll lob one final subversion at you, just in case you’re still willing to concede that I may have a point. If you told me it was a good thing that a few young growers were “reinventing” Mosel wine, or that the greater evil would be to have somehow precluded their creativity, I’d tell you that if you felt that way after tasting those wines, you’d have a screw loose.
An argument against typicity is itself typical of a mindset that assumes that all changes are good changes. Be careful to avoid that trap, and try to discern with open eyes.