What Does It Mean to Make Wine Right Now?

Miguel de Leon introduces a new series exploring how and where humanity intersects with the story of modern wine.

We’re at a crossroads with wine.

During this global pause, Puglian winemaker and natural wine star Valentina Passalacqua has come under fire in connection to her father’s alleged abusive labor practices, popular punk Loire Valley winemaker Brendan Tracey was dropped by his importer due to sexual harassment allegations, and Alex Pomerantz’s Subject to Change Wines lost distribution in New York after allegedly firing a Black trans non-binary person without cause. These transgressions are not new and seem to come in waves. Around 2013, Fulvio Bressan and his eponymous wines lost U.S. distribution because of his racist remarks about a Black female Italian cabinet minister, calling her and her dining companions “gorillas and monkeys.” A year after that, Martino Manetti of Montevertine was accused of racist remarks about the same woman.

The single thread that runs through each is the overhanging shadow of “natural wine,” a category so loosely defined that it usually gets glossed over in traditional wine education, and so clearly misunderstood that even folks who deal in its daily trade aren’t able to agree solidly about its particulars. In its place is a romanticized veneer, an idyll of winemakers pruning their vines, their dirty hands inspecting the fruit as a pick crew looks on. The fruit’s transformation to wine is obsessed over as a nod to transparency. But the same care is not applied to the humans whose hands grace those grapes; there is neither transparency nor obsession about their pay, their working conditions or their dignity.

Historically, it has not been the industry’s default position to speak about political things. It prioritizes the marketability of a particular winemaker’s point-of-view, or the low-key-but-significant endorsement from a media personality. It prizes provocative, eye-catching labels and bottle rarity. However, what we’re seeing now and can’t ignore is the industry’s complicity as it continues to suppress othered voices, distance marginalized populations and shame victims and survivors of abuse. In complicity, no one has been asking about the human costs associated with wine, whether through labor practice or the moral principles of its makers or the ethics of its vendors.

As sommeliers, we love making connections with guests about the virtues of a faraway place many of us have never been, the ideals of a vintner many of us will never meet and the beauty of an art we commodify daily. It’s these human stories my colleagues and I cherish most, but too often we get tangled in the details, tripping over technical data and terroir specifics. We speak about the elegance and power of wine to our guests, inform our employees of the differences in elevation and pH of the soils and talk amongst ourselves about vintage variation and how climate change might transform typicity. But too often we skim over the people involved in informing the wine most. We forget about their intent. We are so concerned with nuances of vitis vinifera in our bottles that we forget the nuances of homo sapiens—of our intimate, visceral, human response to each other’s existence.

Wine is a uniquely human celebration of a uniquely human product. The effort it takes to produce it involves countless careful human interventions, from selecting rootstock to harvesting the fruit, fermenting the juice and choosing aging vessels, from designing art for labels to creating ceremony when we’re at restaurants and bars as we select a bottle to drink. (Baudelaire’s L’Âme du vin comes to mind.) But we tend to forget the other part of that: Who gets to celebrate, and what are we celebrating?

I am hopeful that the joy we seek in wine can be elucidated by the very differences and difficulties we face. Where is great wine being made by great people? How do these challenges inform these wines? What does it mean to make wine right now? Who do we toast to? And how does wine, with all its twists and curves, continue to make us smile? Honoring this joy—through this pain caused by ancient transgressions and modern reckonings—can help us in our search for meaning as people. So let’s grab the wine key, uncork those bottles and share in these stories.

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Miguel de Leon is a wine professional of color in New York City, currently the wine director of Pinch Chinese in Manhattan. He's worked in some tough dining rooms, like Casa Mono, Momofuku, and Per Se in New York City, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. He would like to remind you that MSG won't kill you. Black Lives Matter.