Help! I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up—The Natural Wine Edition

legeronIt’s nearly time again for what now appears to be an annual celebration of unsubstantiated and unsupported claims and assertions about wine. It’s time again to denigrate 99% of the world’s wine and winemakers.

Of course, I’m talking about the coming RAW WINE FAIR, a celebration of “natural” wine taking place in London on May 19 and 20. On the cusp of this important occasion, I think it appropriate to examine some of the claims that are being made about the wines being featured at RAW that have been made by the event’s founder, Isabelle Legeron, MW. Ms. Legeron was recently interviewed in the Londonist and she took that opportunity to make a variety of claims not just about “natural” wine, but also about all other wines not considered “natural”.

According to Ms. Legeron:
Once grapes are harvested and taken to the cellar, natural wine growers try to intervene as little as possible. They see their role more as guardians — guiding a process that occurs naturally — rather than as trying to force the grapes or juice into particular moulds responding to market demands or trends.”

I’m wondering, do only “natural” winemakers attempt as little intervention as possible? Or are there non “natural” winemakers that take this approach? Also, isn’t the process of “guiding” anything but “natural”? Isn’t it really a case of “manipulation”?

According to Ms. Legeron:
I like wine that is alive and unmanipulated, characteristics that are surprisingly hard to come by in modern winemaking. I don’t like wines that are worked: heavily extracted, oaky, manipulated, squeaky clean and boring.”

Just how hard to come by are wines that are “alive”? What does “alive” mean? Do only “natural” wines qualify as being “alive”? How many of the world’s wines, particularly those produced by the thousands of small artisan producers around the globe that do not claim their wines are “natural”, has Ms. Legeron tasted in order to declare how difficult it is to findi wines with “alive” and “unmanipulated” characteristics? Or is she really just making this up and offering an unsupported assertion?

According to Ms. Legeron:
“the vast majority of natural wine I come across is not only not faulty, but is deliciously complex and shows far more interesting taste profiles than conventional wine. To be frank, this isn’t really surprising either — if, as you would do in conventional winemaking, you kill off all your native bacteria and yeasts to then add lab-bred ones that have been developed to show specific aromas, you will necessarily have less complex aromatics than if nature — with its infinitesimal variations — is involved.

What is “conventional wine”? Is it just something you call everything other than which falls into the undefined “natural” category? Or does it have a very specific definition?  Also, what does “more interesting” mean? Is it true that “natural wines” are always more interesting than all other non-“natural” wines?  Have she used any scientific methods to conclusively determine that “natural” wines have more “complex aromas” than non-“natural” wines? And if not, is she then just making this unsubstantiated claim for the purpose of promoting “natural” wines by denigrating all other wines?

According to Ms. Legeron:
Our modern palates have also been formatted to appreciate certain styles so that we have come to expect wines to taste or look a certain way, and anything that takes us out of our comfort zone can be challenging. The thing to remember is that our formatted palates are simply the result of technical winemaking developments, which have not really been challenged yet. I hope what we are doing helps to change things.

How does a palate become “formatted”? Can I go to a palate-formatting company to have this procedure? And if we have all had our palates formatted to appreciate certain styles of wines, how is it that so many diverse styles of wines not only exist but sell quite well whether they are austere white wines, sweet wines, oaky wines, crisp and fruity wines, well aged wines or fat and flabby wines? Finally, I’m wondering if Ms. Legeron is aware of the reams and reams and reams of studies and papers and proposals and commentary that have been written over the past 20 years that have challenged established wine making styles or if she is aware that the low manipulation style of winemaking she attributes to “natural” winemakers only has actually been practiced for decades by small artisan winemakers that don’t call their products “natural”?

According to Ms. Legeron:
Yes they do. ["Natural wines result in fewer hangovers] This is only based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, but I certainly feel much worse if I drink conventional wine, especially pounding headaches. But again, this is hardly surprising as approximately 60 additives are allowed for use in winemaking by law, and none of them have to be included on the label.”

Is it really the case that “conventional wines” give more hangovers because their ingredients are not placed on the label? And regarding the “additives”, which of these in particular cause headaches? Have she personally done any studies on this question or knows any academic or researchers that have done studies on this questions? Finally, if her conclusion that “natural” wines cause fewer headaches is just anecdotal, then why be so sure that “conventional wines” (again, please define) cause more headaches?

According to Ms. Legeron:
RAW celebrates wine with emotion that has a sort of living presence — think farmhouse cheese versus pasteurised, reconstituted cheese-like products – and showcases growers whose fundamental farming and cellar philosophies make living wines possible”

Did she really just assign all non-“natural” wines into the category of “cheese-like” products? Also, is it possible to make a “living wine” by using winemaking techniques that she abhors or is the idea of a “living wine” just another thing she made up out of thin air like “natural wine”?

According to Ms. Legeron:
“I guarantee once you start drinking natural, you really won’t want to go back.”

How and why can she guarantee I won’t drink anything other than “natural” wine once I “start drinking natural”? What does it mean that many thousands if not hundreds of thousands of wine lovers have in fact drunk so-called “natural” wine yet continue to drink this thing she calls “conventional” wine?

According to Ms. Legeron:
“They have a vibrancy and deliciousness that you simply can’t replicate in more mass-market wines. I also love the texture of natural wines. Most have not been fined or filtered, so nothing has been taken away. They are more whole and complete, and you can definitely feel that added dimension in the wine. It is more sensual, perhaps creamier in mouthfeel, more rounded. It is a bit tricky to explain in words! Best to come taste for yourself.

Can she define “mass-market wine” or is it more like pornography: You know it when you see it? Finally, what does “whole and vibrant” mean? This is important because she is claiming that “natural” wines are more “whole and vibrant” than all the other non-“natural” wines in the world. Or is she just saying this based on her extremely limited experience with the wines of the world?

According to Ms. Legeron:
169 of the world’s best wine producers will be at RAW to meet and taste with — that certainly has to be the main highlight”

How many of the world’s wine producers fall into the category of “the best”? Can she define what makes a producer among “the best”? Does a wine producer have to call their wines “natural” in order to be qualified to fall into the category of “the best”?

There are a lot of questions surrounding this thing called “natural” wine. I suspect that most of these questions don’t have good answers. I suspect that the reason they don’t have good answers is because the champions of “natural” wine, like Ms. Legeron, simply have no support and no substantiation for many of the straight-up, crazy claims they are making about this category of wine they want so desperately to sell. But what is worse is that Ms. Legeron and many other champions of natural wine seem quite content to openly denigrate and criticize all other wines outside the realm of “natural”…whatever that means.

 

 

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24 Responses

  1. Don Clemens - May 15, 2013

    Great post! I’ve tasted quite a few “natural wines”, and if they are representative models, please allow me to gracefully bow out. There are too many wonderful examples of (apparently, by Ms. Legeron’s definition) “un-natural” wines that I would much rather drink.

  2. Kurt Burris - May 15, 2013

    Tom I completely agree. The hangover comment is especially ridiculous. We have the metabolic pathways to detoxify ethanol in place. (Using the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase) It is true that if you overload your system with acetaldehyde you won’t feel very good, but you feel a whole lot better than if you dose your system with other alcohol metabolic byproducts such as formaldehyde (the result if you have any methyl alcohol present). I’ll take my chances with a clean, sterile fermentation thank you.

  3. Tom Wark - May 15, 2013

    Don,

    I have no problems personally with the “natural wines” i’ve had. They’ve been tasty. Taste and quality isn’t the issue with these wines. The problem is with the complete irrationality that infects those that promote them.

    • anna - May 17, 2013

      Excellently put, Tom. There is a need for increased transparency in the wine industry about what goes into our wine, but the market and consumers deserve eligible representatives and clear information. Ms Legeron treats anyone out of her ‘natural’ wine circle as criminals, pointing fingers and generally moralising all over the shop. Enough is enough.

  4. Tracy Cervellone CWE - May 15, 2013

    Great post about an increasingly contentious subject. Hard to sit on the fence much longer.

  5. Tim - May 15, 2013

    Easy for me to sit on the fence. I am just clever enough to recognise marketing bullshit when I see it, whether it’s from ‘natural’ promoters, brain-damaged ‘bio-dynamic’ types, or industrial megawineries that play fast and loose with the chemistry set/real alcohol content/actual residual sugar, etc. While this kind of nonsense my get up the nose of critics and bloggers and wienie sommeliers, only an irrelevant fraction of consumers actually knows about it, much less cares.

  6. Anders Öhman - May 15, 2013

    Great post.
    It’s so sad that a MW has become the Deepak Chopra of wine.

  7. Help! I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up—The Natural Wine Edition (by Tom Wark) | SMART about wine - May 16, 2013

    [...] Read on … [...]

  8. raley roger - May 16, 2013

    Thank you for the logical and well-written post.

  9. Tim...also - May 16, 2013

    Great Post. This is a group-think conference akin to the “there, but for the Grace of God, go I” Society. (to steal an Aaron Sorkin line.)

    While I agree with the principals of Raw Wine, Green Farming, Organics, etc. and believe their hearts are in the right place, I by no means find it an absolute way in which to make wine. The definitions of what constitutes “manipulation” are entirely arbitrary and, if their argument is taken to its logical conclusion, even the planting of specific clones to succeed in specific terroir is, in itself, manipulation.

    I have had many Raw wines and found some pleasurable and some abhorrent.

    The Theme of this article is most important to those of us on the trade. This Raw movement is largely utilized by a class of buyer who has never stepped foot on a vineyard to reinforce their unwarranted beliefs that Greener=Better. Again, I have no objections to the philosophy per se, but it seems to be ultimately used to demonize other artisan producers and categorize truly sustainable farmers into a category with the larger Agro-Business of the world.

    The underlying motivation for this is explained by my namesake above: marketing. Its as if a few select importers have this newly found monopoly on wisdom while Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal only work with growers who are in League with Monsanto? Hardly. These are importers who carry great wines, wines of character and substance, without having to champion their attributes by desparaging others.

    There are thousands of great vignerons in this world who de facto operate by the Raw paradigm or at least come very close to it. They just feel as though they will let the quality of the wine do the talking for them and stop using their cellar techniques as a bully pulpit to be critical of others.

  10. Donn Rutkoff - May 16, 2013

    Small sample sizes too. And she twice says ” . . .wines I have come across.” Is she making a wide search and sample? 12,000 chateaux in Bordeaux, non?

    I wonder in a blind tasting, can I differ a bunch of $10 USA grocery shelf wines made to high anti-septic standards, from a bunch of 7 euro French, Italian, or Spanish country. Not selected from the ones imported here, but on a trip thru Euro-land. And what if we mix a bunch 7 euro with some 50 and 200 euro wines. And also test out the brett infected.

    I AM IMPORTANT. I AM. I AM. I will keep on saying it too til you believe me.

  11. Randy Caparoso - May 16, 2013

    Yes, it’s that time of year again, Tom, when you go on your “anti-natural” rant. Sorry, but to me it’s your perspective that’s twisted. What in the world is “wrong” about groups of people wanting to have more conversation about “natural” wine? Are you trying to say that you prefer the opposite? Well, then, you can have it. There are, in fact, a lot of people — myself included — who appreciate this kind of movement simply because of the fact that we do have a problem with most wines in the world, and that problem is boring sameness, distinct lack of place, soulessness, industrialized homogeny, mania to make “scores” or to fit into preconceived standards through all kinds of brutal artifice, et al.

    Far as I’m concerned, we need groups like this to push the industry along. No, they’re not going to change 99% of the industry. They know that, you know that — so where’s the beef? The idea is simply to keep the idea of minimalist intervention wine — no matter how loosely defined the concept — alive and well so that people like me, with a taste for them, can continue to have access to them, and maybe have more choices.

    If you don’t like the concept, then fine: I think you should just smile, let them have their day, maybe even cheer them along. But in your criticism of their perceived negativity about “conventional” wines, it is you who ends up sounding like a nabob of negativity…

  12. Tom Wark - May 16, 2013

    Randy,

    I have no problem with these wines. Have liked many. I have no problem with pursuing and promoting a low intervention form of winemaking. I’ve promoted such winemakers for many years. But let’s face it, many in this group, Ms. Legeron among them, are straight up denigrating all but natural wines. And it’s a pretty nasty form of denigration too. Also importantly, many of their great claims about natural wines are backed up by nothing but a desire to pull down others in order to pick themselves up.

    I’ve been in the wine business a few years….Probably more than you. The champions of the natural wine movement like Ms. Legeron are the first group of promoters I’ve ever come across that deliberately disparage and denigrate other wines to promote their own.

    That’s the big problem. The second big problem is that they are also willing to lie to promote these wines.

    I don’t think I’m being cagy or vague in “what I’m trying to say”.

  13. Randy Caparoso - May 16, 2013

    Tom, my point is simple: when you advocate for something, invariably you end up making comparisons. That’s just the way the world works, and it’s no cause for alarm. The so-called conventional farmer looks over the fence at the certified organic or BD vineyard next door, shakes his head and says “what a bunch of crazies.” The organic or BD farmer looks at the conventional farmer’s vineyard and says the same thing.

    And yes, if you have been working full-time with wine since before 1978, then you’re more “experienced” than lil’ ol’ me. But after 35 years in the business of buying, selling and writing about wine, I still fail to see the reason why serious wine drinkers should celebrate brutally manipulated wines — and I’m far from alone in that sentiment. We need to fear runaway industrialization in many aspects of our lives — especially in wines from vineyards we hold dearest. That’s why we need to let these RAW advocates have their say: I see nothing but positive in it.

  14. Tom Wark - May 16, 2013

    Randy:

    These aren’t simply “comparisons” a la, “Natural winemakers tend to use less sulfer”. The kinds of comparisons being offered up by Ms. Legeron and others actually denigrates other wines not natural. There is a difference.

    What you don’t see much is the conventional winemakers publishing words that say natural wines are dreck or unhealthy. You don’t see organic producers saying that all other wines are dreck or unhealthy. There is a difference.

    And which wines are “brutally manipulated”? Can we name names. I think we should and I think the “natural” wine champions should too because they very often imply that all but their wines are “brutallyl manipulated”. But they never name names. You know why? They have no idea what they are talking about and because by implying that only their wines are pure and “natural”—whatever that means—they benefit.

    I don’t mind them having their say. But when they start to denigrate all other wines, they cross the line, they deserve to be called out and they deserve to be ridiculed for the frauds they turn themselves into.

    • anna - May 17, 2013

      I agree. It is one thing to go forth and promote a concept, an idea or a movement. It is quite another to directly state that all those not in are wrong. Sound familiar? Revolutions and wars have been waged exactly this way. These is a place for all of us here in the wine market, why can’t we all just get along? Leaders of movements who have a massive chip on their shoulders are a cause for worry.

  15. Randy Caparoso - May 16, 2013

    Tom, do I have to draw a picture? Of course, commercial wines are routinely and brutally manipulated in ways six and one half dozen of the other. No one has to name names. That’s how big production wines are made — when you buy and crush gazillion tons at a time, manipulation is the name of the game just to keep it manageable.

    But connoisseurs of wine don’t have to like that; and if they want to raise a stink in hopes of making a small dent in the market, we should let them, no matter how quixotic. If anything, it’s certainly not “fraudulent” to state simple facts about the way most wines are made. Possibilities for change come about only when you you point things out, pleasant or unpleasant. If some good can come out of it, who wins? Selfishly speaking, I do — plus probably lots of other people who dig the same sort of wines.

  16. Lee Newby AISW - May 16, 2013

    The “natural” process issue always get my goat, from what is always said, “it is natural for large quantities of variety selected grapes to naturally appear in a large vessel at a specific time” I WANT ONE OF THOSE WINERIES. End of rant………………….

  17. Tom Wark - May 16, 2013

    Randy,

    It is fraudulent to suggest that most wines are highly manipulated. Furthermore, it’s quite fraudulent to suggest natural winemakers are approaching wine making in any sort of new way that artisan producers around the world have been for decades. It’s further fraudulent to suggest that your wines are “natural” in any way whatsoever.

    Take this statement for example:

    ““I like wine that is alive and unmanipulated, characteristics that are surprisingly hard to come by in modern winemaking.”

    The absurdity and self-serving quality of this statement is really quite hard to measure it is so outside the bounds of reason. And Ms. Legeron is an MW, so she knows this statement is false. Yet she still makes it. There is a word for doing that sort of thing.
    And what about this:

    “if, as you would do in conventional winemaking, you kill off all your native bacteria and yeasts to then add lab-bred ones that have been developed to show specific aromas, you will necessarily have less complex aromatics than if nature — with its infinitesimal variations — is involved.“

    She should know she can’t possibly state this with any desire to produce a truth claim. And if she does not know this then she has more problems than simply and knowingly foisting fraud on the wine buyer.

    It’s all about as disrespectful and dismissive of the consumer and the wine industry as you can get and she doesn’t get a pass.

  18. Lee Newby AISW - May 16, 2013

    She is a MW, but this statement is very odd, as you pointed out.

    kill off all your native bacteria and yeasts to then add lab-bred ones that have been developed to show specific aromas, you will necessarily have less complex aromatics than if nature — with its infinitesimal variations — is involved.“

    infinitesimal means; infinitely small, did she really say that??????

    Not that I at to be the grammar police, but it does raise questions for me, what is she really saying. Plus on a separate topic I wish she would update the website she paid someone big buck to develop.

  19. Stephen Hendricks - May 16, 2013

    Here’s an article where winemakers made wines with both native yeast, and then inoculated. The tasters noticed differences in wines made from the exact same grapes fermented differently. So while the “natural wine” comments might be over the top, there are differences that can be tasted.
    http://www.oregonlive.com/mix/index.ssf/wine/wine_tasting_oregon_winemakers_experiment_with_nat.html

    • Lee Newby AISW - May 16, 2013

      If I used the same yeast and cooled one fermentation to slow it down they will taste different, so what????

  20. Mickey Knox - May 20, 2013

    Tom:

    Its official…. you are now a complete and utter bore when it comes to the subject of “natural wine”.

    Keep up the good work!

  21. Monello - May 23, 2013

    You all make so much of this. It’s absurd. Natural wine is what my Sicilian grandfather made and all his grandfathers before him. I would have never occurred to him to add chemicals to his wine, never. The chemicals added to wine today are outrageous and scary for our health. That is a fact. In both Decanter and Mother Jones it was reported that 9 out of 10 French wines had dangerous amounts of pesticides (fungicides). And that doesn’t get into the chemical soup during the winemaking process. At least the French are honest… yes, it is even worse in the U.S. We are brainwashed into thinking chemicals, including the chemicals in new oak, somehow make for a drinkable wine.


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