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I weigh in on Jamie Goode’s post on “natural wine”

24 comments

 

As reluctant as I am to enter the minefield of any discussion about “natural wine,” I’m going to do so, because I have views on the topic, and because Jamie Goode just won a Wine Bloggers Award and if he can opine on the subject, so can I!

Jamie supported natural wine rather obliquely the other day on his blog. He didn’t quite come out and praise natural wine in multi-faceted specifics so much as give a face smack to another writer, Bruce Palling, who it seems had the temerity to criticize natural wine. Palling called the product of natural winemaking techniques “undrinkable rubbish,” a characterization Jamie took issue with, and he (Palling) also said wine writers have “a tendency…to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it [i.e., natural wine] they believe to be undrinkable…”.

Jamie shot that statement down, too, although it’s funny that in his article he manages to avoid any definition of “natural wine”; in fact at one point he writes, “Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’ because that’s a sideshow.” I don’t see how defining the term to which we’re referring is “a sideshow” because, after all, if we don’t know what we’re talking about, then we shouldn’t be talking about it, should we? But for Jamie, the importance of defining the term “natural wine” is insignificant, compared to the “truly great” nature of “some natural wines”; people who don’t “get” these wines don’t have “the energy or inclination” to try them because they’re “slightly smug,” which is what he accuses Palling of being.

Well, talk about “slightly smug”! I do agree with Palling on the “head down for a quiet life” thing: there are certain topics most wine writers approach with trepidation, because these topics are complicated, controversial and ill-defined; they thus are the source of major risks (to one’s reputation; to one’s mental state; who wants to be attacked on the twittersphere over such perilous issues?). “Natural wines” is such a topic; there are others for which the philosophy “Life’s too short” apply. What is natural wine? What is sustainably-made wine? What is biodynamic wine, organic wine, green wine? I now have some knowledge of what “sustainable” means due to my job, because Jackson Family Wines is committed to sustainability and so I have caused myself to study it more closely.

But “natural wine”? I have no more idea what it really is than does Jamie. I do admit to having a sense that the whole concept is slightly muddled; there can be a cultish aspect to it, as there can about anything arcane, in which a few people believe passionately and the rest of us worry that we may be missing out on something vital. But in this case I’m not really worried. My attitude toward natural wine is the same as my attitude toward religion: You’re free to believe anything you want, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it.

Besides, I part ways with Jamie when he implies that the only “vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting” these days is coming from the natural wine camp. That is just not true. It reminds me of the old saying “to go native,” which came from British colonial officials, living in conquered places like India, who under the influence of local conditions take on the sympathetic airs of natives, gradually losing their British ways. Or perhaps “Stockholm syndrome” is more apt: hang out long enough with radicals and you might eventually find yourself rather liking them, enough so that their beliefs start to make sense.

Anyhow, I don’t trust the claims of “minimal chemical and technological intervention” made on behalf of natural wine. No winemaker I’ve ever met claims to be in favor of “maximum” chemical and technological intervention. They all talk about hands-off approaches. It’s the first thing a winemaker says when you ask about their winemaking philosophy. But if natural wine consists of, in part, the following: no commercial yeast, no adjustment for acidity, no added sulfites, no fining or filtration (which can lead to instability), can it be any wonder that, every now and then, one runs across natural wines that taste (in Palling’s words) “like putrid apple cider, stale sherry or just as bad – characterless, bland and acidic.” We’ve all had “natural” wines out there that are that bad; one hesitates to mention names (another reason to keep one’s head down in such politically-charged waters is to avoid personal antagonisms), but I could name multiple critics and somms who agree with what I just wrote (and will name names off the record), even if they’re not ready to say so publicly.

So I’m not advocating making natural wines illegal or anything like that. I am saying that sometimes in this modern world, ideology can capture even the most well-meaning wine critic in its grip; and ideology is never a good thing, is it, because it insists that one way, and one way only, is the approved way, and everything else is false. As Palling writes, referring to the D-Day invasion of Europe that spelled the doom of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, “it personally pains me when anyone tries to force their opinions or taste onto me or anyone else. That, after all, is what thousands of people laid down their lives to prevent, on those beaches in Normandy, precisely 70 years ago.”

 

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    “As Palling writes, referring to the D-Day invasion of Europe that spelled the doom of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, ‘it personally pains me when anyone tries to force their opinions or taste onto me or anyone else. That, after all, is what thousands of people laid down their lives to prevent, on those beaches in Normandy, precisely 70 years ago.'”

    While I don’t agree with everything falling under the rubric of “natural wine,” I do think that it has, overall, been a positive development and force for making better wine. Every positive movement will have its outliers who go to far, but that doesn’t negate the core arguements of the overall movement. All it does is provide convenient straw men for those terrified of maturing tastes and changing markets.

    As for the quote above, what I find highly ironic is that the greatest howls of forced opinion and histrionic claims that the other side making unpalatable wine and is ripping off the consumers is coming not from the natural wine side but from those producers terrified of a world where their Michel Rolland cookbook and bag of Tartaric Acid are no longer a path to success along, of course, with Fat Bastard as he watches his relevance and influence slip through his pudgy, gout-knotted fingers with each passing day.

  2. Bill Haydon, you set up a bit of a straw man in contending that “natural wines” are the only alternative to the “Michel Rolland cookbook.” While the “cookbook” does exist, it’s only fair to point out that there are many wines, of high quality, that are neither “natural” nor “cookbooked.”

  3. Here’s my problem with Natural Wine: I haven’t had one yet that I thought was more than just OK. And most of them I really disliked. I know, I know… people are probably saying “well you’ve tried the wrong ones”. But these are always wines picked by a Natural Wine lover trying to show me how great the wines can be. And even if you still try to claim that’s not a big enough or representative sample, I’ll offer up this: since the proponents of Natural Wine claim it’s the way to make great wine, shouldn’t I have come across at least one great one by now? ;)

  4. Making wine without the ability to adjust acid, without SO2, without fining when needed, and without cultured yeast is like racing a motorcycle on the side of a cliff with bald tires a cracked gooseneck, no helmet, and no brakes. It’s definitely going to be exciting but the outcome is rarely what you want and bloody crashes are entertaining only to the casual observer.

    Nature prefers mediocre wine. When fifty random variables converge on perfection to make a good natural wine, its a rare and delicate event. Meanwhile if one makes one bad wine and it gets in the wrong writer’s hand you’ll never sell wine again.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Mark, I don’t believe that the natural wine movement is calling for absolutely no SO2, just a restrained and judicious use of it.

    As for acid, I don’t agree with no acid adjustments, but I think the acidification of wines has gotten ridiculous, and it’s hand-in-hand with the quest for extreme ripeness. To me that clunky, disjointed acid that emerges in hedonistic fruitbombs after a couple of years in bottle (do a 10 year perspective of RMP 97-100 Napa Cabs some time) is a far worse thing than the high natural acidity one finds in a glass of well made Muscadet or Beaujolais.

    As for natural yeast, wines that wouldn’t be declared as “Natural” use natural yeast all over the world without any stability problems. Even many Napa fruitbomb producers such as Kongsgaard tout their use of natural yeasts.

    What I think the core “good ideas” of the natural wine movement are would boil down to less acidification in warm climates, increasing use of natural yeast and no use of flavor enzymes, megapurple and other manipulations without which wine somehow was made for 7,000 years just fine.

    A very simple solution to this whole argument would be ingredient labeling and let the consumer decide for themselves. Let the C4H6O6 crystals fall where they may.

  6. Mr. Haydon–I am amused, and bewildered, by your ability to construct straw men. Steve rightfully called you on our ridiculous “Rolland” comment, and yet you have done it again with you rant against additives and then allow yourself to accept some additives.

    The ONLY way to measure of a wine’s quality is what is in the glass–although I too will draw the limit somewhere. I am not in favor of additives that are harmful to people or the planet.

    But, that said, natural wines, authentic wines, biodaynamic wines, low alcohol wines and any other category, substrata, defining factor pre facto are all useless as predictors of an individual wine. And so is your continued broad brush treatment of all CA wines as if they were made by one individual in one style.

    Time for you to start treating wines as individual bottles. Chances are you have never tasted Brian Loring’s wines because they are a priori too ripe, and that means that you are missing wines that have enunciated varietal character, have enunciated senses of place and are more than adequately in balance. It is of no mind, then, that they may or may not be acidulated, more or may not be over 14% in alcohol, may or may not use indigenous yeasts. It is no mind because they taste good. When you come back down to that level of analysis, you will no longer need to construct straw men.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    Again, Charlie have Mr. Loring and everyone else legally state their ingredients on the label. Let the consumer discern the difference between a little bit of SO2 or Tartaric Acid as opposed to flavor enzymes and megapurple.

    As for the natural expression of high alcohol/low TA/high Ph wines. I agree with you that is a natural expression for much of California’s–and Napa’s in particular–terroirs. I–and an increasing number of American wine drinkers every day–just happen to believe that it makes unbalanced, un-food friendly, mediocre wines regardless of it being an authentic expression of terroir or not.

    And anyone who believes that the Michel Rolland cookbook is some illusory straw man bearing no real life relationship to the dominant leitmotif of Napa Valley winemaking over the last two decades is either kidding themselves or just spinning b.s. in defense of their beloved Lords and Ladies of Napashire. You people are very good at shouting down the naysayers; whether its Jon Bonne or Eric Asimov or the mysterious “gatekeepers or even my insignificant little comment section nome de plume. I see a California wine industry headed for the ash heap of history that’s so self-involved that they actually attack those within their industry attempting to shake them out of their complacency. You fiddle while your precious little Rome is burning, for while we were having our little pissing match, another wine bar opened up in Brooklyn with ZERO California wines on the list.

  8. More red herrings.

    Ingredient labeling is perfectly OK with me. That it does not exist is meaningless as a way to judge any wine. You have essentially said that the absence of such labeling means that most well-regarded wines must be considered possibly guilty of using whatever it is that bugs you.

    There is no proof that the volume of CA wine sales has been the least bit reduced. “A” wine bar in Brooklyn? There are restaurants everywhere, including CA, that do not have CA wines on their lists. Mr. Bonne just wrote a blog entry suggesting that those places are out of touch. I disagree with that. I have no problem going to Acquerello and drinking Italian wines. Why should parochialism be practiced here just because it is elsewhere?

    Oh, and your gratuitous attacks on Mr. Parker smack of some weird kind of fear of differing opinions.

  9. Bill Haydon says:

    Yes, there are Italian restaurants and French Bistros with all Italian and all French lists. That’s a misdirection. What’s happened over the last few years is that restaurants and wine bars with international wine lists have either highly marginalized California sections or none at all. That is something fundamentally different from seeing an all-Italian list at Babbo. Last Winter, I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines. The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern). That is marginalization, and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.

    I will add that there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars. Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley. Not every revolution is without innocent victims. That, however, doesn’t mean that the revolution is either unjustified nor unnecessary.

  10. Patrick says:

    Speaking as a consumer, I think the posts here are pretty good evidence that wine writers should maybe continue to “keep their heads down” and avoid the whole subject of nat. wines. At least until it gets some kind of binding definition.

  11. SO2
    Every commercial winemaker uses SO2 judiciously, adding only what is required to offer microbial protection, which is largely a function of pH. Adding more degrades quality. Everyone I talk to seems to believe that natural wines have no SO2 added (even though it is already a natural ingredient in the grapes).

    Wild Yeasts
    As for indigenous natural yeast (field yeast) most wild yeast strains die off somewhere between 8 and 11 percent alcohol. Much is made about how a wine is made with wild yeast but if it has more than 12% alcohol it was finished on a cultured yeast. That seems to be omitted from their conversation. Another complication is that cultured yeasts might have been used for years by the winery and after pressing they spread the leftover skins or pomace back on the vineyard for fertilizer. The following years their field yeasts or “natural yeast” is actually the cultured yeast that was spread into the soil with last year’s pomace.

    Labeling Ingredients
    Listing ingredients on the label would create more confusion and misunderstanding that anything else, especially when the exact quantities are not known. Most of the time added ingredients are already in the wine naturally, the quantities are simply adjusted. The average consumer may buy a wine based upon the label but really wants to judge the wine on its organoleptic qualities.

    Dangerous Additives
    The TTB regulates all substances that can be legally added to wine and defines the maximum allowed amounts. That is for the protection of the health and safety of the consumer. The remainder of the list allows for a great deal of latitude in winemaking techniques.

    Acid Adjustments
    Outside Napa, most wines in California are actually de-acidified, that is that the TA is brought down, not increased. The past few years, especially 2009-2011 have had colder and shorter growing seasons which has resulted in higher acid wines. Perhaps in the premium market these vintages haven’t yet entered the discussion.

  12. Steve,
    I think you approach this minefield very reasonably. My experience is very much like Brian Loring’s comment. As a winemaker who experimented with Zero intervention winemaking, I can offer the following:
    1) Wine is not Natural, Vinegar IS. As commercial winemakers, our job is to stop the natural process of must to vinegar at the right point.
    2) It is possible to have a wine that tastes phenomenal without adding a thing. You better have a bunch of friends that will come to your party and drink it fast out of the barrel. It is nearly impossible to have that wine bottled and shipped any real distance and not have it suffer serious deterioration. We used to call this “Garage Wine”. If you have any understanding of natural processes you can’t expect to leave substrates for yeast and bacteria and think they will not consume them.

    There is a place for wine made with no intervention, I think a concept similar to the release of Beaujolais Nouveau in not a bad idea, but it better be drunk fast.

    Just saying…. (and yes, I will continue experimenting)

  13. Randy Caparoso says:

    Yeah, you are really stepping into it, Steve. I think that if everyone actually read the Palling piece that Mr. Goode comments on, they’ll see that Goode’s statement about Palling being “slightly smug” was actually an understatement.

    In fact, Palling’s piece is underscored by a pervasive, grotesque conceit: among which, the assumption that wine lovers who gravitate towards so-called “natural” or “raw” wines are somewhat less intelligent, less sensible, perhaps even delusional.

    When you go out on the limb like that you put yourself in a position that Goode simply points out about Palling: a position assuming that your perspective on wine, or sense of what defines quality, is the only perspective or sense that counts.

    It is not possible for wine lovers to have the same perspective. Wine is like anything that is a matter of taste. As Andre Simon said long ago, we can all have good taste but not the same taste.

    It’s clear enough that people who gravitate towards naturalistic or minimalist wine (defining this is besides the point) have a different tastes. They might not be looking for varietal definition, intensity, body, or even clarity or cleanliness in their wine. They’re looking for an experience that is more meaningful to them. It could be terroir or vineyard expression. It could be unadorned taste of grapes. It could very well be the things that many other wine lovers would consider flaws.

    That might not make sense, unless you’re tasting out their shoes: the very things that most conventional wine lovers laud — such as deep color, full body, intense expression of fruit, or the lavish qualities of expensive oak — are what many minimalists consider to be grotesque flaws.

    It’s as simple as that: different strokes for different folks. I agree with Charlie O;ken’s comment that it should always come down to what’s in a bottle. The only snag is that there really are a lot of separate camps when it comes to defining quality or meaningfulness. What I consider great coming out of a bottle, Mr. Olken might consider mediocre; or vice-versa. Nothing wrong with that — it’s just the way it is.

    The argument, whatever it is — I think, something about “natural” vs. “conventional” — is neither here nor there. So why are we even arguing?

  14. Larry Brooks says:

    And like religion, natural wine has not basis in facts. It may make the practitioners feel better once they’ve drunk the koolaid, but I don’t think it does the wine quality any favors in general.

  15. Steve,

    It’s funny, I followed the link to his article to read up on it before I read your post. Then I posted a comment about being really confused because I didn’t know what kind of wine he was talking about.

    The no sulfites, never a pinch of acid, never a pinch of starter yeast, never, never, never is the extremist side of natural wines in my opinion. I agree, there are a lot of minimalist wines out there that aren’t claiming anything, but when you visit and talk with the winemaker you realize the wine is pretty damn natural. Those are the wines I stick up for because the taste is great and there aren’t the crazy additives that make me uncomfortable.

    It is those same farmers that are wonderfully minimal that have the hardest job. It is hard to compete with the marketing efforts of the wine conglomerates that are putting trendy labels on bad wine with lots of additives.

    The public needs to know that with some effort, there is a whole world of minimalist, delicious high quality wines out there that do not have the sticker prices that come with fancy marketing.

    Perhaps you’ll enjoy my simple post on Natural Farming in the Wine World on my blog.

    http://www.blisswineimports.com/blog/what-is-natural-farming-in-the-wine-world/

    Best,
    alleah

  16. So Mark, where do you get your information on wild yeast?

  17. Bob Henry says:

    The esteemed Joe Heitz fully came down on the side of winemaker intervention. (See his interview with Bob Benson in the seminal book titled “Great Winemakers of California” circa 1977.)

    Let me paraphrase his sentiment (I’m still looking for an authoritative source for the full quote):

    “Mother Nature is a mean old bitch who, if she had her way, would turn wine into vinegar.”

    And yet he alongside André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard (a fellow interventionist who was Heitz’s mentor) turned out the best wines of their generation.

    The “take-away”: less emphasis on dogma . . . more emphasis on the actually hedonic drinking experience in the glass.

  18. A little late to the party here, but had a busy weekend event of barrel tasting our 2013 Anderson Valley Charles vineyard Pinot Noirs to some press and public. Natural wine does not have any definition which makes it hard to define wine that fit in the category.
    The term we have decided to use most is honest wines. For us that means labeling ingredients, which for our wines is either grapes and sulfur, or grapes, tartaric acid, and sulfur. As well as having “suitable for vegetarians and vegans” on our back label. Both are things that took years to get thru TTB as we wanted to volunteer the information. These type of disclosures are required for all other packaged food and drink products. Our first wine labeled as such was a 2010 vintage with this info and as of 2012 every wine we make is finally approved for both statements. I would love to see the industry be more transparent or give full disclosure so that the consumer can make the decision and vote with their dollars. The catalogs of winery ingredients make consumers gasp as to the quantity of additives and processing aids legal to use in wine/beer/spirits with no disclosures other than sulfur.
    As to wild yeast ferments, we built a brand new winery in Boonville and have never had inoculated yeast or ml on site. Every ferment has completed without issues. Picking with potential alcohol near or below 14% leaves enough nitrogen in the must to complete the ferment. In some vintages some lots may need some acid as to avoid higher sulfur additions by lowering PH. We do not fine or filter our SaviB(as of ’12), Semilion, or Pinot Noirs. We use no temperature control on our 1 ton Pinot ferments and use some whole clusters and a wooden slatted basket press.
    Great wine can easily be made in a more hands off, traditional, historical, minimalist, etc. way. It can also be screwed up if you don’t know what to do. First and foremost, a great vineyard is needed, and second it needs to be picked on time.
    We have been lucky enough to garner many accolades from many wine journalists, including Steve H., who has rated our wines well over the years that he was with the Enthusiast.

  19. Joe,

    I never get the “tartaric acid” ingredient listing. As you know, tartaric acid is an ingredient in every wine. The wines where it is listed are wines where it is added….which generally means that they are the lowest in natural tartaric acid. So those that are lowest have it listed, but those highest don’t?

    Also,I’ve read a large number of historical winemaking books. “Hands off” and “minimalist” rarely seem to go along with “traditional” and “historical” — at least from my readings (see Coan wine, etc).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  20. The TTB was following the lead from the FDA’s new requirements in regards to the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002. When we were going back and forth with them they requested to see our winemaking records specifically pertaining to anything added from the moment the winery received “grapes” to the moment it was sealed (corked). Anything added to the wine requires a lengthy list of details that need to be tracked including lot number. The idea being that if there was a contaminated lot of tartaric or sulfur that producers would be able to turn over their records with in 24 hours so that the affected products cold be recalled. There is a lot of president for ingredient labeling from the FDA for all other packaged food products. Any item added to “grapes” must be listed as an ingredient, be it water, tartaric, yeast, DAP, isinglass, etc. At least thats how they described it to me.
    The rules are ever changing and I have no control over that. I followed what they outlined and explained to us as there requirements to put such statements on a label.
    In regards to the suitable for vegetarians and vegans statement we had to petition the rules and regulations department to make that acceptable language for any wine, beer, or spirits label. They set up the rule by going thru the list of legal ingredients and created a separate list of those that contain animal products. They explained to me that if any of those products were listed on your winemaking records along with the corresponding lot numbers that you would not be able to use the statement on the label.
    I believe their next move to be towards allergen warnings. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 listed 8 foods and food groups that may soon be required to list on a label of any wine, beer, or spirits that were processed using anything in the group.

  21. Bill Haydon says:

    Adam Lee,

    It’s real simple. You know this as well as I do. Tartaric acid is one of the two dominant acids found naturally in wine grapes. The longer one chooses to ripen wine grapes, however, the more sugar goes up and TA goes down. Thus, if one wants Parkerific, hedonistic, fruitbomb flavors, there’s not much TA left in the grapes by the time they make it to the tank, hence the need to break out the bag of TA crystals for a’cidifyin, the pickle barrel for a’mixin, the water for a’dilutin and the drill for a’stirrin……not to mention the cellar rat for a’luggin the medicine to the top of the tank for a’dumpin.

    Showing how much TA was artificially added to the wine after it came in from the vineyard thus goes a long ways to a’showin how ridiculously overripe the grapes were allowed to be a’growin before the migrant laborers were sent into the vineyards to be a’pickin.

  22. On sulfur dioxide and winemaking …

    From The American Association for the Advancement of Science
    Science Now Website (September 2, 2014):

    “A Link Between Mad Cow [Disease] and Winemaking?”

    http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/09/link-between-mad-cow-and-winemaking

  23. Bob Henry says:

    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section
    (August 22, 2008, Page F1ff):

    “Reconsidering Sulfites;
    Progressive vintners weigh the pros and cons of the controversial winemaking tool”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Reconsidering-sulfites-3272258.php

    By Wolfgang W. Weber
    Special to The Chronicle

    — and —

    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section
    (August 22, 2008, Page F4):

    “Sulfites, Sulfides and Sulfur: What’s in a Name?”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Reconsidering-sulfites-3272258.php#photo-2421780

    By Wolfgang W. Weber
    Special to The Chronicle

    — and —

    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section
    (August 22, 2008, Page F4):

    “Debunking Myths”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Reconsidering-sulfites-3272258.php#photo-2421780

    By Wolfgang W. Weber
    Special to The Chronicle

    — and —

    From the San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” Section
    (August 22, 2008, Page F5):

    “How Does Sulfur Dioxide Work?”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Reconsidering-sulfites-3272258.php#photo-2421780

    By Wolfgang W. Weber
    Special to The Chronicle

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  1. Wednesday’s Meritage – Wine Quiz Answer, WTSO Marathon, Dangers of Twits, Natural Wines Commotion | Talk-A-Vino - […] on Bruce Palling’s anti-natural wine article“. Then Steve Heimoff jumped in with “I weigh in on Jamie Goode’s post …
  2. A Natural Debate over Natural Wines | Edible Arts - […] I guess it must be that time of the year again. Every six months or so, it seems, the …

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