Natural Wine: The Ugly Underbelly
I can’t recall an example within the wine industry where one product category was largely defined by its proponents’ denigration of competing products. Marketing-by-denigration isn’t actually common in any product category with the prominent exception of politics where candidates for office routinely denigrate their opposition in order to prop up themselves and their own candidacy.
Proponents of the Natural Wine movement, however, seem to be the anomaly in the wine business: in order to gain attention for the wines, gain legitimacy for the wines and in order to define the wines, proponents of Natural Wine have taken to denigrating wines and winemakers that, in their view, fall too far outside the “Natural Wine orbit.
This marketing strategy concerns me. Consider:
“I think that these are two very different worlds or markets out there (ie, the ‘natural/organic/ecological/biodynamic/macrobiotic/whatever’ wine market as opposed to ‘conventional/industrial/chemical/mass-produced/supermarket wine market), and there will always be room for both. I think it’s like for any other product: ie utility cars / sports cars, or any everyday bog-standard product / quality special product.
“Natural winemaking will always produce a better, more individual wine than conventional methods used on the same site…..A natural winemaker is a genuine artisan. Natural winemaking requires skill, patience, nerve, and hard physical labour. In most cases it brings small financial rewards. There is more money, less risk, and far less work in making wine conventionally.”
More Than Organic
“If you are intervening too much you’re not an authentic, but a commercial product….Today the lowest common denominator of wine is higher but it is still incredibly mediocre.”
“Natural wines have purer flavours, more personality and are easier to digest. They are also better for you….The heavy-handed use of synthetic fertilizers, weed-killers, fungicides, pesticides and inappropriately applied heavy metals like copper have destroyed soil life in most vineyards….Wine today is far removed from its original definition of fermented grape juice. It is the by-product of chemically induced and tightly controlled fermentation through the aid of additives and structure altering equipment. Why? Because the vast majority of wine has become about the bottom line. I tis about producing more and more for less and less cash. It’s about producing it as quickly as possible then flogging a brand—an illusion of people at one with the earth, translating a grape and a piece of earth into a bottle.”
No matter what you call minimal intervention wines, it’s all about returning to a more sensible time in wine making when an ego stayed out of the winemaking and stayed in the farming and what was in the glass dazzled….More wine makers who are happy with small scale production will see if they make the wine they actually want to drink, there are customers waiting to drink with them. And happily, more and more farmers will be going organic, biodynamic and the real love of farming will come back to the vigneron.”
“The Natural Wine Movement doe not expect the Wine Industrial Complex to be won over to natural fermentation, low sulphur and what-have-you. Even if it were, it would still be making unfathomable, undrinkable stuff.”
Joe Dressner (deceased)
IT CAN BE NO OTHER WAY
This is merely the very tippy top of a very deep and wide collection of disdain that proponents of the natural wine movement regularly heap upon wines and winemakers they deem not sufficiently dedicated to making real wine.
And yet it can be no other way for the simple reason that the Natural wine movement is based upon the notion that only extreme non-intervention in the vineyard and cellar can result in authentic wine or wine that accurately depicts a terroir. This idea of course has no merit. However, that aside, note that in order for those promoting the virtues of Natural Wine to make their case, they must make the concurrent case against “commercial” or “industrial” wines. The case for Natural Wine cannot be made without making a case against non-Natural wine.
I’m again trying to recall a marketing effort in the wine industry by any association or group or collection of producers or promoters that demands denigration of other products in order to succeed. I can’t come up with an example.
This alone should go a long way toward explaining why so very much of late has been written about the Natural wine movement, against the natural wine movement and in defense of the natural wine movement. The simple fact is that natural wine promoters have not mustered the the necessary creativity to find a way to explain their wines and their philosophy without also denigrating their peers. It’s a little ugly to these eyes…and I’m a publicist for heaven’s sake.
THE MEANING OF THE MOVEMENT
This is not to accuse the natural wine movement of insincerity. There is no question of the passion that drives many in the movement. Nor can it be said that the wines coming out of this movement are not interesting, inspiring, or delicious.The fact that some “natural” wine is criticized as flawed is an observation about some bottles, not a condemnation of the category.
What’s most important to understand about the natural wine movement is its meaning. I see it not as much a response to perceived homogenization of wine styles or “Parkerized” wines or industrial wines. No. This natural wine movement is much more. It exists as part of a response to a much smaller world where regionalism has been replaced by globalism. It is the slow food movement, the anti-globalization movement, the embrace of Rachel Carson, the culture’s retreat from ordered sectarianism into a more disorderly paganism. And in many cases it is a desire by some to find meaning for their lives in a world that too often can sweep them up into digital collectivism that threatens to strip the individual of their individuality.
The response is often to strike out against the machine. But in the world of wine, the precieved machine is in decay and has been in decay for quite some time. The diversity within the world of wine has never been as great as it is now, and whether the “Naturalists” appreciate this or not, it is a fact that more artisan winemakers toil today than ever before, producing wines of great individuality in a world where the depiction of terroir is the be all end all, both in marketing and in reality. The Naturalists are in fact not leading a charge away from industrial or commercial wines. That charge began long ago and it was begun by a generation of winemakers that took to crafting artisan wines that depict a piece of dirt and doing so without denigrating anyone else.
WATCHING FOR SOMETHING BETTER
I will be keenly watching to see whether the current proponents of Natural Wine are capable of presenting their wines without the aid of a bludgeon and without the need to denigrate those that look different than they do. As long as the terms “natural” or “authentic” are attached to their movement, I fear they will be bound to an adversarial relationship with most of the rest of the wine industry. Personally, I like the term “Minimalist” to describe the wines and philosophy that these passionate folks represent.
Until, however, they are able to rid themselves of their false veneer of superiority and until they can find a way to discuss their ambitions without looking down their crooked noses at the rest of the wine world, they will find themselves constantly on the defensive and looking quite ugly as they defend the rickety perch they are attempting to build.
UPDATE: Here is one more example of the denigration in which it is claimed non-Natural wines will give you a rash if you drink them after sampling a Natural Wine