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Fungus Without the “Fun”

The movie’s been made over and over: It’s the future, and humanity has achieved perfection in some form or another … only for the ideal to unravel in a string of unintended or unanticipated consequences of having strived for flawlessness. Gattaca and Minority Report come to mind, as do the books of Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island. The lesson is the same in all these works: Beauty lies as much in imperfection as in the joy and excitement – and possible utter disappointment – of discovery.

These works came to mind when I read, a few weeks ago, that Australian researchers had cracked the genetic code for the yeast strain Brettanomyces. Sounds geeky, yes, but you know this is a big deal if you’ve ever opened a bottle of wine that smelled like a barnyard. A wet barnyard, actually. With muddy pigs rolling around in it. Maybe right next door to a landfill.

Brettanomyces is responsible for that smell. As many people love it as loathe it. New World winemakers, in particular, are in the latter camp, and do pretty much anything in their power to make sure that not a single cell of Brett comes near their wine. This new breakthrough ensures – in theory, anyway – that never again will a winemaker produce a wine that smells like it came from Bayonne, New Jersey.

Oddly, some people love Brettanomyces and, wrongly, associate its characteristics with terroir. It annoys me to no end when wine experts, in particular, associate flaws in wines with terroir. That’s like saying that a spontaneously combusting 1970s Ford Pinto is just showing its unique, charming character.

Yet while the achievement of the Australian researchers isn’t to be overlooked or derided (it’s impressive, to say the least), I have a hard time hailing it as good for the wine world. In fact, I know of a few Australian winemakers who go to great lengths to ensure that their wines have added flaws: just a tiny bit of volatile acidity; just a tiny bit of barely detectable Brettanomyces. So their argument goes, it’s without these things that their wines actually become uninteresting.

I’m not sure that I agree entirely, but what I do enjoy and treasure about the wine business is that people like this exist. They’re constantly exploring for the right balance of power and elegance, grandiosity and nuance, to make something that’s unlike every other wine on the shelf.

And ask a group of Burgundy wine lovers if there’s joy in never knowing when they open that bottle if it’ll smell like a rose garden or a motel room near the Lincoln Tunnel with hourly rates, and they’ll unanimously say “yes.” That’s why they always keep coming back for more Burgundy.

Or think if every movie or book you read has the perfect beginning, middle and end. Or if every restaurant you go to is flawless. Or if every art museum only features Velasquez, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Borrrrrrrrrrr-ring. You’d stop reading, going to the theater, eating out or doing anything cultural.

What’s the thing I remember most about the last – and only time in recent memory – that I went to the ballet? That one dancer tripped and fell, just for a moment. If the entire performance was perfect, I doubt I’d remember having attended at all.

Let me be clear: I don’t like or appreciate Brettanomyces in wine. But I do appreciate and admire the fact that it does exist, and that some people like it. When I first read of the Australian researchers’ success, the first thing that popped into my mind was the intro of my friend Lawrence Osborne’s book, The Accidental Connoisseur, in which he tastes Château Beaucastel for the first time:

Taste it?” he said. “A bit poppy, eh?”

 “Well,” I said, “maybe I can taste chicken coops.”

I couldn’t taste anything of the sort. But we swirled and sipped and agreed that the chicken-coop element gave the wine its complexity. 

At this moment, the man next to us suddenly came to life, sat up erect, and said, “Brettanomyces!” He drawled this extraordinary word, suspending his fork in midair and sending us a wan smile.

“Excuse me?”

“Brettanomyces.” I saw that his nose was quite red and that he was possibly even drunker than I. “Brett,” he went on. “It’s a yeast. That chicken-coop taste comes from a yeast called brett. Brett is everywhere in Rhône wines. Especially Beaucastel.”

“It’s very good,” I said stupidly.

He and the waiter laughed.

“I can see, monsieur,” the tipsy professor said, “that you are a man of taste. Men of taste, monsieur, are few and far between.” The irony seeped delicately through his sentences and he wiped his mustache with a napkin as I poured him a glass as well. 

“Well,” he said, “here’s to chicken coops!”

Indeed, here’s to the poop.