Jon Bonné set off quite a stir the other day with his San Francisco Chronicle column on “natural wine.” I even had people Facebooking me to ask what I thought about it.
He treated the issue in a very fair-minded, repertorial way, dealing straight down the middle. Jon granted that we all want “a wine that’s honestly made, compelling and — crucially — delicious.” But he also warned that the whole “natural wine” movement can “tip into greenwashing.”
I couldn’t agree more. As the daily recipient of pitches, press kits and propaganda from wineries that want to get a little love from me, I’ve developed something of a thick skin when it comes to claims. “Greenwashing” is the perfect way to describe a large part of the whole natural, green, sustainable, organic, biodynamic thing. Everybody wants to portray his practices as purer than the other guy’s practices. It’s a holier-than-thou world out there, and IMHO that goes for the whole greenie-natural crowd.
I obviously have no problem with people doing whatever they want to when it comes to growing grapes and making wine. In principle, I’m in favor of the cleanest, least polluting, most sustainable practices. I’m glad when a grower gets his vineyard certified organic, if that’s what he wants. I just don’t want to get drubbed over the head by constantly being told about it.
Besides, what does “natural” mean, when you break it down? Basically, nothing, as far as I can tell. I was talking to a winemaker the other day who was telling me about a machine that can take the sugar out of grape juice. That would result, in theory, in drier, and possibly more balanced, wines. When I observed that that intervention didn’t sound very “natural” — in fact, there’s something Franken-wine about it — he countered that, since the technology wasn’t being applied to the fermented wine, but only to the grape juice, the wine itself could be considered entirely natural!
I didn’t think so, and I made an analogy, inappropriate to reproduce here, that demolished his notion. But then I added that, personally, I don’t really care what winemakers do behind the scenes with their juice or wine. Why should I? Like Jon Bonné said, all I want is a compelling and delicious wine.
I try to put myself into the mindset of a vintner who decides to go the natural route, whole hog. I guess that means using indigenous yeasts, the kind that are flying around everywhere. That’s a philosophical decision, but I bet you that winemaker has some “spare” bags of commercial yeast on the shelf, “just in case.” These sorts of winemakers are elevated to mythic status by a select group of wine writers for whom they’re darlings. Wine writers love to discover such garagistes who are the outlaws of the wine world. They strike the pose of rebels against the academy, purists disgusted with the pandering of the status quo, and wine writers (some of them) are intellectually attracted to them. It’s good for a wine writer’s career to discover and promote a darling, and if that darling is on the side of goodness and purity and “naturalism,” some of that stardust spills onto the wine writer, who then basks in the reflected glory. What, you don’t think that kind of thing happens all the time? Trust me, it does.
I wiki’ed “natural wine. Here’s how they define it: “Natural wine is wine made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, either in the way the grapes are grown or the way they are made into wine.” Do you see anything in there that guarantees quality? Does “as little…intervention as possible” mean that the wine will brim with terroir? Is there a direct relationship between degrees of intervention and scores? The answers, respectively, are no, no and no.
Author’s note: This is a natural column. The words were produced entirely out of the writer’s head, without the use of a dictionary, Thesaurus, or other intervention.
On the road again
I leave today for Santa Barbara for the rest of the week. Will try to blog from the road.