Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Natural Wine is a Gimmick

Yet another conversation from twitter that proves to be good fodder for a blog post. I’m going to start out with the caveat that YES, there are boatloads of unethical or borderline unethical marketers out there who are greenwashing in every sector. Wine is certainly not excluded. The example I’ve seen in wine that totally takes the cake is an extra paper hangtag on the neck of the bottle explaining how “green” the winery is. Really? LOVE the extra packaging and ink. (shakes head, rolls eyes.) Nobody likes a fake, much less a “natural” fake---the worst kind of hypocrisy in my book. Jumping on the “green” bandwagon in an attempt to capture some market share… shame on you!

That being said, I have to throw in my 2 cents (maybe more) on the subject of natural wine. Is there a bona fide definition that has been laid down by any governing agency? Not that I’ve been able to find. If you know of one, please post it here. I posted a link to this yesterday and I’ll repost the full text here from Williams Corner Wine’s website because I like their definition:

Natural Wine
Although no specific definition exists for a natural wine, it is commonly understood that a natural wine is produced with the minimum amount of intervention and manipulation possible. A natural wine producer seeks to produce the perfect vehicle to transmit the terroir of a place to you, the consumer. As such, a natural wine tends to be one that is produced from high quality, hand harvested grapes grown in low-yielding vineyards, typically organically or biodynamically farmed. Fermentation begins naturally, using yeasts present in the vineyard and the cellar, and the unfermented grape must is not sulfured. The winery producing the wine must aim to produce a transparent wine that respects its terroir; manipulating the wine through the addition of tannins, sugar, acid, oak chips, prominent new oak aging or through use of any number of other additives could dull or completely erase the wine's terroir. The wine is bottled with no added sulfur if possible, and if not, only as much as is absolutely necessary.

And also the following criteria:

Use Natural Yeasts to Initiate Fermentation
Curtail Yields
Hand Harvest
Recognize That Living Soil and a Biodiverse Ecosystem Benefit the Vine
Realize Only High Quality Grapes can make High Quality Wine
Use Sulfur Appropriately and Only When Necessary
Do Not Filter or Limit Filtering
Respect Their Terroir, but Aren't Afraid to Experiment
Produce Dynamic, Drinkable, and Food-Friendly Wines

Obviously this would be open to wide interpretation of meaning and some attorney somewhere would have a complete field day with it… but that isn’t the point of this post.

The point I hope to make is that there are MANY exceptionally hardworking, ethical winemakers out there whose only aim is to bring to life a wine of “place” that speaks to its region, its grape variety, the weather that year, and ultimately to the person blessed to have to privilege to drink it. I truly hate to see people furrowing their brows when they hear the words “natural wine” and skeptically thinking to themselves, “bullshit.” The winemakers who DO work very hard to create these natural wines, REALLY natural wines deserve credit for what they are doing. Organic and biodynamic farming aren’t easy. Then, to bottle something that doesn’t require a chemistry set or “chipping program” (yes, a winemaker once used that term on me!) to “fix” it and have it turn out mind-alteringly delicious is even more of an accomplishment in my book and certainly not a gimmick. In fact the winemakers who DO farm and vinify this way normally don’t even talk about it too much unless you ask them. It’s about the wine, not so much the process itself. It’s why many never bother to get certified. They just ARE organic and BioD and they don’t care if they are certified. It’s beside the point for them, the point being the wine and not the “natural” bandwagon.

I really would love to hear your comments about the subject. So please share your thoughts.

There are too many winemakers, wine bars, importers, distributors, shops, etc. to give a comprehensive list, but here is a handful of people who I know “GET IT.”

Share the unspoofulated goodness:

Louis/Dressner Selections NO spoof all day long
Williams Corner Wine Natural Wine Specialists
Monika Caha Selections - Austria
The Ten Bells Natural Wine Bar NYC
Forlorn Hope Wine - Rare Creatures from an awesome guy
Coturri Winery - Long family tradition of natural wine
Thierry Puzelat's wine gives me the shivers it’s so freaking good
Arianna Occhipinti Sicily baby. OH YEAH.
Saignée I LOVE Cory!
Alice Feiring needs no introduction
Amy Atwood totally gets it.

Links and blogroll coming soon…


  1. Interesting read. I like your last few paragraphs especially because they point to a larger issue. The farmers/winemakers doing the best job along these lines don't need a label. So, why are we calling such wines 'natural wines' at all? I don't think that's a good description since it has major philosophical problems that lead most people to say "bullshit". I.e. is 'natural' opposed to 'human made' - if so, then how can wine be 'natural' at all since humans make it. Does 'natural' mean minimal 'human' interference? If so, how do you define minimal, and why would using wild yeast rather than commercial yeast be minimal - can you assign values to particular additives and say they are more or less 'natural'. This becomes tricky and not all that helpful.

    So, in the end it seems to me that 'natural' wine is about process more than anything. It is a particular definition or understanding of process. It is not, and should not be, a moralizing and incoherent claim that some wines are 'natural' and have little human interference while others are 'human made' and 'artificially produced'. No, the focus should be on how wines are made and the ingredients used to make them, not about the natural unnatural debate. As Sean Thackrey says well, it is both naive and ludicrous to ignore the hand of the wine-maker/farmer/human in the process of making wine. It is fundamental. The real question is how to understand the role of that individual(s) in the process.


  2. Thanks Shea... I appreciate your input. Good points.

  3. Shea, you put it better than I could have. I do have a visceral reaction to the "moralizing and incoherent claim" you refer to. "Bullshit!" would be it.

    You frame the debate correctly, I think. But passions and the need to burnish one's sanctimony run high; I don't expect much nuanced discussion of the issue.

  4. Well then bloggers should take up the torch and start and continue the debate on the proper footing!

  5. Today there is a small group of consumers who make this a priority in choosing wines. Suspect this might increase with time and will also create more marketing fakes too.

    Circles back to consumers making the effort to know the true source and story behind wines. Also new opportunity for trusted authorities to evolve and guide consumers through buying decisions.

    New flow of information today makes the old wild west days more alive than ever.

    Keep your drum going!

  6. Thanks for commenting Ron. I agree completely. Consumers will have to do their homework!

  7. I am in agreement with much of what Shea wrote. I'm all for the concepts of "natural" winemaking- much of the time they produce superior wines and the farming practices are best for the environment. What I don't like is the dogmatic rhetoric surrounding the issue. It's not always a black/white issue.

    If a winemaker farms biodynamically, organically, or at least sustainably- but uses innoculated yeast, or some new oak, or filters the wines etc- is this reason to pre-judge the wines? I think the dogma surrounding the issue among certain writers is what causes others to call BS.

    The same question applies to high alcohol wines- at times a high alcohol wine might be a better wine. The high alcohol issue is always lumped in with natural wine... what about a natural producer who produces a high abv wine- does this pass the litmus test? There are plenty of gray areas, and natural wines can be advocated for without alienating others...

  8. Matt,
    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I think everyone should be allowed their own preferences and opinions, of course; but I agree with you that some of the elitism, snobbery and alienation that goes on is not the best way to get a point across.

  9. Hi Raelinn -

    I share your experiences with genuine natural wine makers - I am certain they would be bewildered at the time spent on definitional debate for a life & farming style that they view as (dare I say it?) natural.

    We work with the same definition of natural wine that you've provided - accepting the potential flaws and footnotes that go with it in favour of a label that in the least case denotes intent. The wines I list at artisan & vine are the ones that shout (or sometimes ooze or occasionally sweetly whisper) their heritage from the glass: they are the embodiment of the terroir, fruit & passion from which they are made.

    I struggle to think of many categories of anything where the borderline between raising awareness and selling a story is not endemic. As a consumer, I want to have the choice of whether I drink a wine made from what is inherent to a piece of land vs a wine 'enriched' with flavour additives or modifiers. To that end, I am delighted with any wine list or sommelier who can describe the origins and ingredients of a wine I might order. Misleading advertising that construes peripheral environmental programmes (meritable as they may be) as an indicator of a 'natural' wine is an unhappy, though not entirely unexpected, side effect of the increasing awareness of natural wine.

    On the upside: had you not seen the overly packaged 'green' wine, your inner evangelist may not have felt as compelled to write an excellent blog post that has served to increase transparency on wine making techniques and ethics just that little more.

  10. Great post and comments. I agree with much that has been said in both.

    I think that the key is transparency. I really like the approach that Joel Salatin (not a winemaker, but has some similar challenges) uses on his farm. Producers who do a good job of educating consumers on what they are doing, and why, will be successful. Most people are getting to the point where their bullshit-o-meter starts going off when they hear buzzwords like "natural" and "organic", but if you explain or show them what they are doing, people really want what is being offered by these producers. Ultimately though, some people care and some don't. There is a market for both. Some people just want to pick up the bottle of Yellowtail at the grocery store, while others want to spend their wine dollars on wines that have been more thoughtfully produced.

    Thanks a lot for the great post, and for the list of people who "get it". I will definitely be checking them out.

  11. Great post Ophelia.
    I would love to exchange with you sometimes.
    Jean-Marc Espinasse
    Domaine Rouge-Bleu
    Twitter : rougebleuwines