Dirty, Grimy Wine Marketing

dirty“I think we’ve been living in ‘Parkerworld’ for the last few decades, and many consumers are fed up with homogenized supermarket wines, and now need a bit of singularity, uniqueness and authenticity, not to mention some real quality.” 

“So natural wines fill a need for authenticity, for a singular product that was made by a real person, and that tastes unique, and that expresses the terroir of where it came from.”
Fabio Bartolomei, winemaker, Vinos Ambiz on natural wines at Catavino.net

I can dish it out, so I should be willing to take it. And I am willing to take criticism for the stand I’ve taken against the way the so-called “Natural” Wine producers and champions use denigration of wines not invited to their party in order to market their wares.

Fabio is a fairly vocal champion and producer of so-called “Natural” Wine. And he’s a nice guy. But you have to either be so completely wrapped up in your own mission so as to ignore reality or completely ignorant of what has been happening in the world of wine over the past twenty years to be able to come out and say so-called “Natural” wine fills a need for authenticity, singular wine products, real people making wine, unique tastes in wine and wines that express terroir.

As though in the past few decades none of these things existed.

Looking at California alone, the vast majority—probably upwards of 90%—of the wines being produced are made by real, dedicated winemakers who strive and succeed in exposing their terroir and are making wines that are certainly authentic…not to mention, of real quality.

This attitude that everything every wine produced prior to the rise of the so-called “Natural” wine movement is rampant of the movement’s champions.  It’s a project built on the desire to denigrate. And that’s ugly.

The next time you hear a fan or champion of so-called “Natural” Wine imply or, like in this case, come right out and say that non “Natural” Wines are inauthentic, lacking in quality, or fail to express terroir, you ought to go take a shower. Because it’s a pretty dirty way to market and promote wine.


29 Responses

  1. Ron Marsilio - July 24, 2013

    As a fellow member of the Swill Producers Guild I say, “bring on the Mega Purple, the sulfur dioxide and anything else you can throw in there”. I think the Wine Wars are about to begin. The pendulum is always swinging. Whenever the practices of some groups goes too far, the response is always extreme. I would be happy if we all could just get along. Forget about defining “Natural”, maybe we can pool our outrage and get the TTB to at least get wineries to put Nutrition Labels on their wines. After all it is a consumable product and as such, we should know what goes into and what comes out of the bottle.

  2. Dwight Furrow - July 24, 2013

    You are certainly correct that some of the innovations “natural wine” proponents claim as their own have been going on for decades and that the wine world is much larger than “Parkerization”+ supermarket plonk. But it is an age-old marketing strategy (especially in politics) to argue that innovations in the past have been “weak tea”, “incremental half-measures doomed to fail”, “We’re doing change right–revolution not evolution”, etc.

    I’m not sure I see what is inherently wrong with making this claim if indeed the change on offer is more extreme than in the past–which is true of some (not all) of the proponents of natural wine, especially winemakers such as Frank Cornelissen. (I don’t know about Bartolomei.)

    Granted, the definition of “natural wine” is ambiguous and some fairly conventional winemakers are (undeservedly) jumping on the wagon. But why is it morally wrong to point out that one has an approach that offers greater change than past practices in those cases where the claim is true?

    You seem to be suggesting that “natural wines” are nothing but ordinary, terroir-driven, small-production wines parading as something else. I’m not sure that is true in all cases.

  3. Tom Wark - July 24, 2013

    Hi Dwight.

    What I’m claiming is merely that too may champions “Natural” Wine are making claims about these wines that can’t be sustained and in doing so, denigrating all other wines. Read this again: “So natural wines fill a need for authenticity, for a singular product that was made by a real person, and that tastes unique, and that expresses the terroir of where it came from.”

    Really…we wine lovers and the 1000s of artisan winemakers who toiled over the past two decades to suss out terroir are being saved by the “Natural” Winemakers who, finally, are bringing “authenticity” and “unique tastes” and “expression of terroir”. Really?

    But here’s the real irony, Dwight. How often have we heard “Natural” Wine’s Champions complain about others claiming that their wines are “dirty” or pools of biodiversity or un-travellable? They object to this characterization. Yet they have no problem characterizing all other wins a inauthentic, devoid of terroir’s signals and made by not-so-real people.

    It’s dirty, ugly, marketing.

  4. Dwight Furrow - July 24, 2013

    Agreed they should dispense with the “real person” nonsense, and the concept of “authenticity” is as abused as the word “natural”. But some of these wines do taste differently, although most don’t appeal to me. And if someone thinks the expression of terroir really requires minimal (or no) use of sulfur dioxide that strikes me as an arguable point about which winemakers will legitimately disagree. So I think there is some reason to draw a contrast with conventional wine making in their marketing.

    Maybe they should promote their wines as “pools of biodiversity”–isn’t biodiversity a good thing?

  5. Bill Haydon - July 24, 2013

    That the backlash against Parkerworld is here and very, very real is only denied by those last few dead-enders waiting patiently for their Parker scores to start bringing in the orders from China. This, however, has very little to do with the natural wine movement (whatever that might be today) and much more to do with simple palate fatigue from overblown wine combined with an increasing education of and access to previously hard to find good value wine regions in Europe.

    Authenticity has much more to do with an expression of place (which California is quite frankly still horrible at) and honest pricing (i.e. the antithesis of which would be a recent “cult winemaker” who has never produced Albarino in his life, yet releases his first effort at $50/bottle or twice as much as the best old vine Albarino coming out of Rias Baixas) than the ever shifting ground of what constitutes “natural wine.” Terroir driven wines, expressing both a sense of place and value are not dependent upon “natural” production methods, though the two are not mutually exclusive either.

    There is a saying that is making the rounds of the wine world I work in: “Having a wine list full of Napa Valley Cult wines is like having a closet full of leisure suits.” It’s becoming clear that the Napa Valley heyday of approximately 1994-2008 was not a solid trend with any real foundation or roots but rather a passing fancy and fad driven by too much money, too little sophistication, some glossy coffee table magazines and a fat lawyer in Baltimore…….an era of bad taste that American wine consumers will increasingly look back on with a mix of amusement and embarrassment….like fondue, pet rocks and leisure suits.

  6. Bosis - July 24, 2013

    Isn’t all marketing dirty and grimy?

    Bosis

  7. Tom Wark - July 24, 2013

    Bosis,

    I don’t think all marketing is dirty and grimy, Bosis. For example, many wineries will invite customers to their winery for a lunch, where they taste back vintages, dine and hear discussions of the wines they are consuming. Sounds pretty clean to me. Now, if at this meal, they went about saying all other wines are inauthentic and not made by real people, that would be dirty and grimy.

    • Bosis - July 24, 2013

      Hi Tom,

      Why do you think that wineries invite their customers for lunches, library tastings, and discussions? They do so with one objective in mind, and that is to sell wine, and to ultimately up-sell more wine. They sure aren’t spending precious dollars on doing so too be nice and cuddly with their customers. All marketing efforts regardless of the enterprise derives from greed, and let’s not forget that greed is the inventor of injustice,as well as the current enforcer. It’s a dirty grimy world, and unfortunately an even dirtier grimier site-driven wine world.

      Bosis

      • Tom Wark - July 24, 2013

        Bosis:

        If we are going to label all forms of work and commerce (all of which are pursued for the sake of making a living, ie: money) “dirty and grimy”, can’t we at least agree that some forms of work and commerce are more despicable than others. For example, two wines on a table for buyers to try. Each has the owner standing behind them. Wine Owner #1 says nothing. He just smiles and lets potential customers taste. Wine Owner #2 lies through his teeth about his wine, spreading blatant falsehoods to the customer in front of him. Is there no difference?

  8. Stephen Hendricks - July 24, 2013

    Tom: as a communication expert you should know that Fabio’s statement that natural wines fill “a” need . . . does not mean that other winemakers did not fill a similar need. Fabio does not state, or even imply, that the “only” way to fill the need for non-parkerized wines is “natural wines”; which is the import of today’s blog.

    Do you disagree that for the last couple of decades there were many, many wineries chasing parker scores, and in the process manipulating the wines to fit a unidimensional palate? Do you disagree that there is a consumer backlash (or maybe evolution of the consumer palate) that is now moving strongly away from that style of winemaking? Do you disagree that natural winemaking does create a wine that reflects the terroir of the vineyard?

    Your blog is called “fermentation”. How true to the place, how unique, is the wine that is made using yeast from somewhere else? Sure, an innoculated wine can be good, it can be damn good. But is it truly authentic? Does it truly express terroir? I think Fabio can fairly conclude that most naturally made wines (if that means indigenous yeast, no additions, minimal sulphur) are authentic and truer expressions of terroir.

    • Bill Haydon - July 24, 2013

      Interesting point regarding natural yeast, yet as with much else, that is not an easy answer as to what’s natural/authentic and what is not. For an example, look at John Kongsgaard’s wines. He uses natural yeast fermentation, yet his wines are the very antithesis of exhibiting any kind of authenticity or terroir whatsoever (despite his constant, shrill cry of “burgundian! burgundian! burgundian!). They are grotesque Frankenwines straight out of the Michelle Rolland cookbook from which he eagerly learned directly at the feet of the master while at Newton. They are the epitome of Napa Valley excess and hubris and Parkerworld, and the use of natural yeast does not make them one bit less so.

  9. Tom Wark - July 24, 2013

    Regarding wine inoculated with commercial yeast and those that undergo what some call “Wild” or “Feral” fermentation, I don’t think you can say which process leads to a wine that is more or less authentic. It really depends on what your understanding of terroir is.

    The fact is, there are various types of commercial yeast that when properly matched to varietal and terroir can work to clear a path for and enhance the characteristics in a wine that are a result of the terroir in which the grapes were grown. There is no question about this. On the other hand, when you allow a wine to undergo a wild yeast fermentation you are saying that the local microbiology in a vineyard is the primary component of the terroir. Most experienced winemakers will tell you that uninoculated wines are far more prone to microbial flavor intrusions that can dominate the wine, rather than the flavors and aromas that result from the vines exposure to specific soil and climatic conditions. That’s fine if you believe that flavors and aromas in wine are more authentic if they are dominated by things like Candida, Brettanomyces, Metchnikovia, Pichia, Kloeckera, Acetobater, Pediocuccus, and Lactobacillus—all of which leave leave lasting microbial flavors that can and often do mask the expression of the grape.

    By contrast, whatever flavor or aroma profiles are claimed for commercial yeasts, in the most cases those blow off well before the wine is sent to market and don’t dominate the natural flavors that result from the grape and the terroir.

    So to be clear, since I understand the terroir of a region or vineyard to primarily be the influence of the climate and soil imposed upon the grapes, I’m not at all convinced that wines made via wild yeast fermentations are either more “authentic” or more indicative of the terroir. But that’s just me. I’m interested in taste a wine that reflects the soil and climate its grapes were grown in, not the microbial soup that attacks the wine during fermentation.

    Finally, I think you severely underplay what Fabio means when he says “So natural wines fill a need for authenticity, for a singular product that was made by a real person, and that tastes unique, and that expresses the terroir of where it came from.” He gives no indication that anything other than “Natural” wine can fill these needs. More importantly, he implies rather forcefully that it is “Natural Wines” that provide authenticity while others don’t.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - July 24, 2013

    Indigenous yeast–inoculated wine; own-rooted vines–hybrid grafts, on and on and on.

    The discussion so often proves the point that wine marketing preys on the woeful lack in understanding of both consumers and those who fancy themselves wine writers. If you repeat something long enough, it takes on the cloak of truth, no matter how vacuous or unsubstantiated the “information.”

  11. Bruce G - July 24, 2013

    >>”But you have to either be so completely wrapped up in your own mission so as to ignore reality or completely ignorant of what has been happening in the world of wine over the past twenty years to be able to come out and say so-called “Natural” wine fills a need for authenticity, singular wine products, real people making wine, unique tastes in wine and wines that express terroir.

    As though in the past few decades none of these things existed.”

    Or, you have to have a definition of terms like “authenic” and “terroir” that differs from those apparently used by Tom Wark.
    If, for instance, your definition of the term “authentic wine” centered around a notion similar to “nothing added except a minimal dose of SO2 added at the bottle-blend stage”, then that vast majority (probably upwards of 90%) of authentic wine referenced basically dries up, turning into “virtually none at all”.

  12. Tom Wark - July 25, 2013

    “Or, you have to have a definition of terms like “authenic” and “terroir” that differs from those apparently used by Tom Wark.
    If, for instance, your definition of the term “authentic wine” centered around a notion similar to “nothing added except a minimal dose of SO2 added at the bottle-blend stage”, then that vast majority (probably upwards of 90%) of authentic wine referenced basically dries up, turning into “virtually none at all”.”

    Bruce,
    You have a point. But of course that definition of “Authentic Wine” would include no wine at all.

    • Bruce G - July 25, 2013

      >>”You have a point. But of course that definition of “Authentic Wine” would include no wine at all.”

      Not so.
      A number of folks make wine with nothing but added SO2.
      Unless, of course, you’re considering things like the oxygen incorporated at racking as additions.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - July 25, 2013

    So what are you saying Bruce? The process doesn’t matter as much as how someone chooses to define it?

    The word “authentic” comes with a few definitions: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact; conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features; made or done the same way as an original.

    Seems to me that before calling something like winemaking “authentic” you would have to know exactly how it was produced in the beginning AND you would have to find out what the result of that product was like. Then, you would have to discount the centuries spent by other cultures that tried to improve on that beginning so that you can stop at some point and decide where to consider the process to have become authentic.

    Finally, you would have to get others to concur and then you would have to codify to set a standard.

    I doubt just making up what you think constitutes authenticity is enough to make anything authentic.

  14. Jake - July 25, 2013

    Yeah….. Some one has finally said something about the “natural ” movement. I’m on your side, I say we all just make the best we can. I think Mr. or Ms. “Natural” will wake up one harvest when lactobacillus is running rampit in their tanks, and get real, real quick. Finally, tasting is believing.

    “World Domination by Fermintation”

    And I quote !

  15. Stephen Hendricks - July 25, 2013

    Tom: seems to me that the microbial soup is as much a part of the terroir as the soil and climate, as are the wasps that inject the grapes with saccharomyces. Certainly if terroir is about the place the grapes come from, then the native yeast is part of the place.

    All of the “microbial flavor intrusions” you list can happen in inoculated wines as well as native fermentations.

    It seems clear that you have a bug up your bung about “natural wine”; that’s fine, but at least have a principled basis for the positions you take.

  16. Bruce G - July 25, 2013

    >>”So what are you saying Bruce? The process doesn’t matter as much as how someone chooses to define it?”<<

    Thomas:

    No, I'm saying that, given the lack of consensus surrounding the term (or even a reasonable understanding of how others use it), Tom's assertion that we've long been dealing with an abundance of 'authentic' wine is no more legitimate that Fabio's statement to the contrary.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - July 25, 2013

    Bruce,

    Thanks for the clarification. I misunderstood you, which isn’t difficult to do with a subject that has no defined standards from which we can draw information.

    With the ancientness of wine production and the centuries of tweaking that have gone by, it is near ludicrous to define authenticity–and I find it particularly strange that minimal SO2 would be part of authenticity, since wine production was already thousands of years old when SO2 was introduced into the process–and to the other extreme, to discount SO2 use completely as inauthentic would discount a number of centuries because, as I understand the history, its application dates to the second century, and without any standards, why couldn’t I consider that a starting point for authenticity?

    I also find it difficult to understand why some would only refer to winemaking practices as authentic, exclusive of vineyard practices that precede the production of wine. Having said that, if someone could truly define authentic vineyard practices, I would be quite impressed.

  18. Thomas Pellechia - July 25, 2013

    I hit the send too soon.

    To finish my diatribe: as far as I see matters, without agreement over standards, excepting the science behind it, all grape growing and winemaking is the expression of a belief system.

  19. Dwight Furrow - July 25, 2013

    “Authentic” is like “natural”. They are both words that people use to draw contrasts but have no precise meaning, and Thomas Pellachia gets the absurdity of a search for origins just right. I think the most useful way to use “authentic” is a contrast to “corporate” or “industrial” suggesting hands-on, terroir-driven winemaking. If we use the term that way then Tom Wark is right; it’s nothing new. The proponents of “natural wine” have no claim on its proper use.

  20. Bruce G - July 25, 2013

    Thomas:

    Re: belief systems… I wouldn’t even exclude science, as I see reliance on scientifically derived methods to grow grapes and make wine as being in itself manifestation of a certain philosophy.

    As to your comments about the validity of the term ‘authentic’…. you make some interesting points. I typically refrain from labeling someone’s choice of terminology as ‘ludicrous’ or ‘strange’. My desire is to try and understand the philosophies that people hold re: winegrowing, and to understand how that informs the process.
    An idiosyncratic use of the term “authentic” doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

  21. Thomas Pellechia - July 25, 2013

    Bruce,

    To be fair to both of us: I said “near ludicrous to define authenticity” not ludicrous to use the word; and I said that “I find it strange that minimal SO2 would be part of authenticity,” which would be labeling me, if I were labeling anyone, which I wasn’t.

    I agree that scientific application can be (is) a manifestation of a philosophy, but at the very least the science can be proven through replication–a belief system relies on faith.

    • Bruce G - July 28, 2013

      >>I agree that scientific application can be (is) a manifestation of a philosophy, but at the very least the science can be proven through replication–a belief system relies on faith.<<

      Thomas:

      I think that they way in which science interacts with winemaking (and with many other aspects of our lives) is in large part faith-based.
      Our understanding of what happens in vineyards and in the winery is still rather incomplete, yet many of us act as if we understand it all. This is not really Science's fault, as it is a function of the human condition.
      No denying, though, that from a historical perspective our use of science in agriculture has led us down some very wrong roads.

  22. D - July 27, 2013

    “Looking at California alone, the vast majority—probably upwards of 90%—of the wines being produced are made by real, dedicated winemakers who strive and succeed in exposing their terroir and are making wines that are certainly authentic…not to mention, of real quality.”

    Quite literally, 90% of California wine is made by E&J Gallo, Bronco, Constellation and the Wine Group and they are NOT made by winemakers trying to expose terroir. They are made by companies (family owned, sure) who are concerned about the bottom line. This is why they sell famously for 2.89 a bottle. Facts.

  23. Tom Wark - July 28, 2013

    D,
    It’s not a question of “Wine Made”, but rather “Wines Made”. The number of WINES made by Gallo, Bronco, Constellation and the Wine Group are miniscule compared to the total number of wines made in California. More wines are made within a 1 mile radius of my home than all of these groups have ever made—combined.

    The so-called Natural Wine producers and champions can’t possible base their philosophy ad approach on the very few, high production wines that show up in the supermarkets.

    In other words, note the “S” I attached to the word “wine” and the plural-ness it creates.

    Facts!

  24. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) - July 29, 2013

    Tom,
    I have to say that I really don’t understand how you can jump to the conclusions you jump to in your post! I’ve re-read the original post in Catavino several times and I just dont see the connection between what I said there, and what you’ve said here.

    First, and what annoys me the most, I don’t denigrate any wines or winemakers. I merely talk about, promote, and market natural wines, because that’s the type of wines I make! Just because I talk about natural wines doesn’t automatically mean that I denigrate all the other wines “not invited to the party”; that’s just your own imagination, or your own particular personal logic that has no basis in reality.

    Secondly, I’m neither wrapped up in my own mission nor completely ignorant; neither am I an expert, but I can see what’s going on around me! For example, I said that “many” consumers are fed up with homogenized, supermarket wines, …. not “all” nor even the “majority” of consumers. Its an undisputable fact that demand exceeds supply of natural wines at the present time. I know this from my own experience and from other natural winemakers that I’ve spoken with. (Even so, natural wines still only represent less than 0.1% of world wine sales, last I heard!) So it seems perfectly reasonable to say that natural wines cover these consumers’ needs (for authenticity, typicity, unique expression of terroir, etc)

    Thirdly, thanks for calling me a nice guy, but I’m also a direct, no-nonsense kind of guy who likes to say it and write it like it is. I don’t have time or patience for beating about the bush or trying to be subtle. If I thought that all wines and winemakers other than those classified as ‘natural’ were worthy of denigration, then believe me I would say so! But it’s not the case. Just read what I write.

    Of course authenticity, terroir, etc existed before the ‘natural’ tag became mainstream – did I say/write otherwise?

    Perhaps I ought to make clear that I believe that there is a place for all types of wines in this world, including industrial table-wines. And I often drink them when the occasion demands. And I should also make clear that I (and all other sensible winemakers that I know) know that the wine world is not simply divided into two camps (natural and non-natural) as you seem to think that we believe; instead it’s tremendously complex and atomized, and obviously includes winemakers along a whole range or scale of ‘naturalness’ many of whom don’t even consider themselves to be ‘natural’ winemakers even though they probably are!

    I also have to say that I resent being accused of marketing my wines in a “dirty way”. Like I said above, I extol the virtues and advantages of natural wines, in a perfectly legitimate manner. It’s you who leaps to unfounded conclusions and it’s you who chooses to see accusations and denigrations where none exist.

    Anyway, talk about splinters in your brother’s eye when you have a beam in your own! (Not you personally Tom, but wine marketers in general). If I, or anyone else, were to leap to the same sort of absurd conclusions that you leap to, think of the field day we could have with ‘conventional’ wine marketing in the world today!!!!


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