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“Natural wine” — the latest trend

23 comments

What is “natural wine”?

Well, if you Google the term (with quote marks) you get 307,000 results, and I’m not about to go through them all the find out. Instead, I’ll quote from Wikipedia, which is the first result: “Natural wine is wine made with minimal chemical and technological intervention in growing grapes and making them into wine.”

That sounds pretty good. Who wants wine that’s been degraded by chemicals and technological interventions?

Like barrels. Like sulfur. Like fining agents. Like commercial yeast. Like acidity. If you’re in France, like sugar. Yes, sugar is a chemical, last time I checked. Here’s the formula for sucrose: C12H22O11

That’s a lot of yucky carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. I don’t want no feelthy atoms messing up my wine!

I started thinking along these lines when I read this article in our local free paper, the Bay Guardian, about “the high priestess of natural wines,” Alice Feiring. Now, I don’t know Alice and I haven’t read her new book (Naked Wine) and so this is not a commentary on her but rather just my (somewhat disorganized) thoughts on reading this particular article, and putting it together with other stuff I’ve been hearing and reading about concerning natural wine.

In the wine biz, if you stick around long enough you’ll come to recognize when a new trend pops out of nowhere. Natural wine is a new trend–or, let me rephrase that. Natural wine–the actual beverage–is not a new trend, but talking up natural wine is the new trend. Actually, that’s what makes a trend: suddenly people are talking about it. Organic was a trend a while back (“natural wine” has little to do with organic wine). Then came biodynamic. There are equivalents in food. Locovore is a big trend, and possibly an important one, but there also have been silly food trends, like “beds” of this or that, and foam, and elaborate constructions that look more like museum pieces than something you’re supposed to eat. Possibly, “meat” cocktails are a new trend. Hot young mixologists as our new rock stars may be a trend, although it’s not necessarily one I oppose. So you see that trends can span the gamut from the vital to the vacuous; the one thing they have going for them is buzz, which is why God invented publicists.

But I digress. The topic is natural wine. Let us gently dispose of the concept that no chemicals or technologies should ever be allowed to tarnish a wine. Under that definition, the only natural wines are those which are created when birds puncture grapeskins on the vine, and then the juice inside ferments with wild yeasts to produce wine that those same birds sometimes get drunk on. That’s natural wine. Any wine that comes in a bottle is not “natural” because a human made it and did what he or she had to to make it taste good. And you and I won’t necessarily know what that entailed, because the winemaker isn’t necessarily going to tell us. If the winemaker says the wine is “natural” you’re free to believe whatever you want. Sometimes what winemakers say is true. Sometimes it isn’t. It’s not that they’re liars. They just human beings, and occasionally a small sin of omission just can’t be resisted.

Besides, some wine that’s made “naturally” isn’t very good. There are a few so-called “natural” wineries listed in the article. I’ve reviewed some of them; they vary from undrinkable to pretty good. But here’s the context you need to understand about this natural wine trendy thing: the reason this article is in the Bay Guardian is because anything with the word “natural” stuck to it is going to be popular with the greenie Whole Foods crowd (just as anything with the word “chemicals” attached to it will arouse their ire). If there’s a trend happening anywhere on the political/environmental left, it’s going to find its way into the Bay Guardian, whose editors like such things, and are happy to pay reporters to write about glowingly.

  1. Jim Vandegriff says:

    I am personally trying to wrap my mind around the natural wine concept. Unfortunately for me I don’t really understand commercial winemaking all that well, so it is difficult to gauge what is natural and what isn’t (if there is an unnatural winemaking practice). I’ve heard that Jamie Goode has a book out that might be useful to help me understand the concept, and I think I’ll order it soon. I think you set up a straw dog to knock down though in this blog (“greenie Whole Foods crowd”). I appreciate people who are attempting to have a less intrusive impact on the planet.

  2. Jim Vandegriff says:

    Nick Peay has an interesting article on natural wine from the winemaker’s perspective here: http://www.peayvineyards.com/vineyard_article_Naturel.shtml

  3. A few weeks ago, I posted on WBG’s blog that I believe it is not dialectically viable – partly due to the apparent effectiveness of the aforementioned, ludicrous, reductio ad absurdum argument – to come up with a complete and consistent definition of what a “natural wine” is. And that it would be much easier to establish a threshold for what constitutes a “non-natural wine”.
    IMHO, a “non-natural wine” is the product of grapes (and/or grape must) that have been treated with methods involving “non-normal temperatures and pressures”. By “non-normal”, I mean temperatures and pressures that do not naturally occur on the surface of the earth (e.g., reverse osmosis, thermo-vinification/pasteurization; spinning cones; roto-fermentation; cross-flow filtration, etc.): plus, the unknown effects that these methods might have on the physical and chemical properties of the wine and, consequently, the unpredictable long term impact on consumers’ health.

  4. Determining what is Natural, i.e. how God intended it, is the job of religion. When it comes to winegrowing, God has been quite clear. For example, He has been clear that in the vineyard it is Natural to use poop, but unnatural to screw around with a chemistry set. Fortunately for us, He brings us prophets and visionaries to show us His way and give us the straight Poop.

  5. The straight Poop, from God to Morton via the prophets and visionaries! You can’t say you don’t get what you pay for on steveheimoff.com.

  6. Jim,
    JamieGoode’s book “AuthenticWine” is a fantastic read. I did a BR of it on WCWN:
    http://www.westcoastwine.net/ubbthreads/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showthreaded&Number=370301#Post370301

    Even if you’re staying out of the “natural” wine kerfluffle, the book is a must read.

    Tom

  7. PatrickComiskey has some excellent comments on a tasting w/ Alice on Zester:
    http://zesterdaily.com/drinking/1049-spotlight-on-natural-wine

    He does a great job on pointing out some of the contradictions in Alice’s
    polemics towards the end of the article.
    Tom

  8. M-A-R-K-E-T-I-N-G that is all :P Thanks goodness for consumers we say…Bring on the new trend : )

  9. Steve, great post on the semantic, dictionary definition of the word ‘natural’ as applied to wine!!! I think that everybody already knows that ANY wine out there is not ‘natural’ in that sense, ie it’s not natural to plant vines in rows, to prune them so they give a lot fruit and less foliage, to squeeze grapes using machines, etc, etc. As yet though, there is no legal or authoritative definition of what a natural wine is, so until that time comes we’ll just have to rely on common sense. There are a lot of definitions available, some sensible and useful, others rather more ‘fundamentalist’ shall we say. I think the term ‘natural’ is a bit unfortunate because the implication is that all other wines are somehow “un-natural”. Same with ‘authentic’ or ‘real’. But I guess that we’re going to have to live with it.

    You’re right when you say that the “talking up” of natural wine is the new trend, because natural wine itself has been around for about 6,000 years, while industrial-chemical wine only a few hundred at the most. But I think that the latest ‘natural’ debate is closely related to the previous ‘organic’ and ‘biodynamic’ ones, because they are all part of the same much wider phenomenon, ie the ever so slowly growing public awareness of environmental and health issues that affect us all (pollution, chemical runoffs from agricultural land, dodgy additives in food, etc), which has been ongoing constantly since the 60’s or 70’s. It’s not a passing fad!

    Yes, some natural wines are not very good. And? Some Burgandies are not very good! Some Chardonnays are not very good! Some Sherries are not very good! If someone were to tell me that all X type of wines are good, I would have serious doubts about their knowledge/criteria/sanity!

  10. Beware of Oxygen Di-Hydride! It’s a *chemical* that can KILL!

  11. Another great article Mr. Steve!

    The comments here are well taken but of course the final word over the merits of natural wine is not going to be made by people who know the difference between wines made with or without fining agents. Its going to be made by the general public that is still very confused and easily swayed about wine.

    Pick up any publication that is not explicitly wine focused and read their take on wines and you’ll see that most of their articles are still about “demystifying” the world of wine. The rest of the world doesn’t know what to expect when they open a bottle of “natural” wine let alone anything else, and I’m afraid that this new trend will cotton on to the point where the green crowd starts to think of natural wines as the bees knees and the rest of the “chemically altered” stuff as plonk.

    The few “natural” wines I’ve tasted did not taste good. At all. I don’t want to find more and more wines that taste like that entering the market, but as we’ve already seen with this industry, it doesn’t take much to sway the popular consensus of what is “popular”. We’ve already seen one wine reviewer change the way an entire valley makes wine; what will the “natural” wine crowd do for the public consensus on what is good wine? I hope this trend goes away soon as people taste these types of wines and follow their noses back to the good ol’ chemical stuff.

  12. Steve,
    I think the replies say it all as far as folk in the business are concerned. Morton, Wineguysradio, Fabio, and, of course, Lewis P -all nail it. Still, we should not ignore the trend because it does show us something about what the consumer wants and needs. I do believe that you actually point out in the right direction, which is the Locovore trend in food. I’ve been on that bandwagon for a while because I believe that by making a wine that is not ‘industrial’ small wineries can survive in a (wine)world dominated by corporations.

    You can go to Homedepot and buy a perfectly good stainless sink for about $99.98 but if you want to feel good when you are in the kitchen, you are more apt to look for a local company that casts beatiful concrete sinks that have individual character. Same goes with Pinot Noir or Syrah….

    I once mentioned to you that I believe the future of wine in CA will be in regional blends; I think this ‘natural’ hype is just a step in that direction.

    And since Morton brought God into this… does it follow that Humans are unnatural too (since God made us AND sulfur dioxide in 7 days)?

  13. As much as I’d like to I cannot take any credit on clarifying this issue of what is natural or unnatural. Fortunately, the Church was clear on this early on. Take for instance sexuality. We learned what practices were natural and those that were not, enabling us to determine who to burn at the stake. Unfortunately, such straight forward tactics caused the practitioners of unnatural sex to go underground and pretend they were otherwise inclined.

    While we can celebrate St. Alice and others to whom God has revealed natural winemaking practices versus unnatural, it also seems to have caused winemakers to either hide their unnatural leanings or downright lie about them. But should a winemaker be forced to deny their inclinations or lie about them? I say no. What we need is for wine writers, bloggers, and others who would otherwise reveal these things to take a pass. What we need is a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

  14. Steve, thanks for another stimulating conversation, but “A Walk In The Clouds” or pie in the sky, all the “natural” wines I’ve tasted, except maybe Bonterra (good earth) wines, have been nearly undrinkable, and at that pace, I’d give-up wine altogether.
    Sincerely,
    Dennis

  15. An interesting perspective for sure. Many of these wines can be bad… and a few good. It certainly becomes the duty of the “wine writer” to actually (AND BLINDLY) review these wines and publish his/her results. I would encourage you, Mr Steve, to continue to evaluate these wines if you feel that this type of wine is responding to some niche consumer demand. I would also encourage you, Mr Steve, to lift the debate above snide political comments that weaken a well-written essay.

  16. Also one should point out that the Natural wine movement is really only becoming a growing movement here in the new world. Mainly because great wines have been made naturally in europe for a long long time, and the old world makes wines more interesting and in a lot of cases much better wine than the super obvious fruit bombs from CA

  17. The real difference between “treated as less as possible” wine and “use what ever you need to make it” wine is that if you get used to the first one you can hardly drink the second one any longer. It begins to taste like a medicine. That must mean something. Discussing continuosly on the meaning of the word “natural” is a waist of time and doesn’t get to the real point which, in my opinion, is: why are our palates nowdays so deformed that we accept as normal all that stuff in our food and drinks? Having said that I agree that there are some badly done “natural” wines and some well done “conventional” wines, but that’s another story…

  18. Earth to Eric – Those unnatural winemaking practices that you dislke… like pure yeast cultures, micro oxygenation, filtration, reverse osmosis, centrifugation…you name it; they were developed in Europe and are in more widespread use there than anywhere in the world. Who brought filtration, centrifugation, MOX, RO, late harvesting of grapes with “breaking back” to the New World? European winemakers and consultants. Ask yourself why the makers of filters, centrifuges, MOX equipment, RO equipmnet, anything to manipulate the composition of wine are French, German or Italian. Given this information, where do you think winemakers fib more about their winemaking practices?

    Does the Devil of wine reside in Europe or the New World? A clue to that is a lot of European wines are devilishly good.

  19. Yes Steve, some wines made naturally are not very good….and some wines made with all kinds of manipulations are not very good either. Bad wines exist in this world unfortunately.
    Please don’t continue to knock those of us, natural winemakers, who simply believe that it is worth TRYING to make wines with as little manipulations as possible. As possible, that means we do our best to leave nature to work it’s magic. Do I want to make the most balanced wine I can? Of course. Does it mean that sometimes I have to manipulate even when I hope not to? Of course.
    Look at the roster of wineries included in the new documentary on CA natural wine, Wine From Here.
    Ridge, Calera, A Donkey and Goat, Coturri…these are award winning wineries that consistently make high scoring wines. Afterall when wines are blind tasted and reviewed in contests or for 100 pt scores in Wine Enthusiast or Wine Spectator, the judges don’t know how manipulated the wines are. You judge a wine, just as I do, for it’s aromatics, flavors, balance, and whether it has any faults that should have or could have been corrected.
    Natural wines and winemaking may be a trend now, but it certainly is not new and it won’t go away.
    I believe it’s simply the best way to make wines that speak of the place and characteristics inherent to the variety.

    Anna Marie
    Winemaker, Idle Hour Winery

  20. Let’s just stipulate that “natural” wine, as created, traded and consumed by humans involves more than grapes on a vine, fermenting in their broken skins. The term is easy to attack and disparage if one is so inclined. Essentially all that requires is an unwillingness to intuit what is plainly meant by those that use the term due to lack of of a term sufficiently strictly specific.

    If you don’t want to “get it”, the discussion is over. Most people deeply involved aren’t particularly happy with the term and wish something better existed but due to numerous variables and vagaries it doesn’t seem to be possible. That shouldn’t mean that what they are passionately advocating is a fraud or imaginary. It only means popular and mass media can’t easily reduce it for soundbite purposes. Thank god for that.

    The wines (and the people that inspired the term) are never going to be large scale, wide distribution products. No corporate ownership or branding, no full page ads in glossly wine magazines, no designer tasting rooms or destination resorts. I doubt any producers can really exceed production of 10k cases at the most. In our modern and diverse world, the “natural” wine movement is mainly about getting back to grape farming and wine making that eschews modern chemicals and manipulative techniques intended to shape the result with dubious motives. This isn’t that difficult to understand, but it does ruffle feathers of those that rely on such things to make wine on a larger scale.

  21. Although it seems many of the wineries that produce wine naturally may be small producers, under the 10K size as Ned predicts, it is also true of larger producers such as Ridge, Tablas Creek etc.
    I enjoyed a private tour at Guigal in Ampuis, France in the Cote Rotie this April. They produce 6,000,000 bottles a year with native yeast with only 12 employees, (six of which were winemakers). It was the most technologically advanced winery I had ever seen, with robots moving pallets of case goods on and off the bottling line. I had not realized that natural winemaking would be possible for such a large operation with so few employees. Yet the winemakers assured me that in their 16th century cellars, they had no need for cultured yeasts.

  22. Steve, I think you’ve missed one of the major premises of the U.S. ‘natural’ movement/marketing campaign. It’s not the major manipulation or chemical additives (any wine worth drinking minimizes these to the utmost possible.) As Anne Marie points out, it’s the yeast. This is really the underpinning of the term ‘natural’ as in that “natural yeast” found on the berry. This is where the natural movement points to Europe. One irony of the movement is that most winemakers in the U.S. are using European grape, but it is considered unnatural to use commercially produced European yeast strains. The other is that if your upwind neighbor is using commercially cultured yeast, you are too.

  23. Morton. im well aware of where all these things came from so I don’t need the lecture. What im pointing out is that there are more natural producers in europe than we have here and have been making wines naturally for a very long time. And many of the old world natural producers are now finding a market being easier to exploit in the U.S with the new natural wine movement. I fully stand up for natural wines because if nothing else they are interesting and aren’t the obvious fruit bombs i taste over and over and over again from Napa.

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