Impressions of the Natural Wine Movement

teagueI just can’t help but wonder how typical of the average active wine drinker is Lettie Teague’s assessment off her exploration into the meaning and taste of “Natural” wine. Teague, a respected and award-winning wine writer for the influential and widely read Wall Street Journal, investigated this nebulous category of wine and concluded the following:

“My tasting didn’t lead me to any profound conclusions, although it did lead me to believe that some natural winemakers are more talented than others. What bothers me most about natural wine, beyond the off-putting categorization and the (unproven) specter of biogenic amines, is the ideology that its true believers espouse. I want a wine that simply tastes good; I don’t need to know What the Winemaker Believes Most. I wouldn’t buy a wine just because it’s purportedly natural any more than I would shun one because it’s not.”

Surely the response to Ms. Teague’s article by the champions of “Natural” wine will be:

“Some people want more than you do, Ms Teague. Some people want a wine that tastes good, tastes of its place in the world, isn’t grown and made in ways that harm the environment, doesn’t threaten the drinker with potential damage to their health, doesn’t encourage a monolithic sameness of character as so many wines do, avoids contact with technical production procedures and techniques with scary names, and doesn’t try to put wine on a materialist pedestal that crass collectors and possessors crave”

The champions of “Natural” wine have been demanding quite a bit of this category.

Moreover, these champions and their cohorts who actually make the wines ask for a different set of things from the wines they market as “natural.” That, of course is both problematic to the average wine drinker who likes to understand a thing at least half way and perfectly fine to those who are merely happy to see the powerful and expressive term “natural” do is work in the marketplace.

What’s really interesting about Teague’s Wall Street Journal exploration of “Natural” wine is that it gets stuck trying to understand and explain what must be done and not done to a wine in order for it to be deemed “natural”. Naturally, she is confronted with the primary conundrum of this manufactured marketing term: there is no agreed definition or certification of what a winemaker must or must not do in order to be rewarded with the right to appended the adjective “Natural” to their “wine”.

Some added sulfites are Ok. No, added sulfites disqualify you.

The grapes must be grown in a certified organic way. No, they must be grown biodynamically.

No barrel aging for natural wines. Some barrel aging is ok.

Lettie Teague is a thoughtful writer. Because of this I know that had her editors given her adequate space, she eventually would have gotten to the heart of the “Natural” wine matter: What is actually trying to be achieved by the champions of natural wines and those vintners who either self identify with the category or who have been herded into the category. What does “Natural” wine mean?

For the most powerful and profound and most entertaining discussion of this issue, one must turn to Clark Smith’s PMwinemakingrecently published book, “Postmodern Winemaking”, and particularly to its “Part Four: Philosophy”

Smith is well-known within the wine trade as a thoughtful, philosophical, excitable and iconoclastic winemaker and consultant. He owns WineSmith Cellars, a noted consultant and is an adjunct professor at Fresno State University. He was also the founder of the world’s largest wine technology provider, Vinovation, where he championed the judicious use of scary technological processes such as micro-oxygenation and Reverse Osmosis for the purpose of alcohol removal and the correction of volatile acidity in wine, two technologies that nearly all “Natural” wine champions view as heretical.

One of Smith greatest contributions to the debate over “Natural wine” centers around this observation:

“Why, after a decade of harangue, has the [“Natural” wine] movement failed to formalize standards? My belief is that it isn’t a movement at all. The Natural Wine “movement” is instead an uneasy coalition of strange bedfellows whose agendas can’t all be satisfied by a single set of winemaking rules.”

Clark-chalkIf you want to understand the 8 constituencies that Smith identifies as the bedfellows that fall into the “Natural” camp, you must go buy “Postmodern Winemaking” where he not only describes each, but very specifically pulls out and identifies each constituencies’ primary interests. It is a fascinating discussion that deserves careful attention paid by anyone interested in this topic or for that matter any number of the most controversial and animating debates in contemporary winemaking and wine appreciation.

What is not fully explored in either Teague’s Wall Street Journal article nor in Smith’s “Postmodern Winemaking” is what I believe is the profoundly important semantic character of the “Natural” wine movement. What Teague implicitly questions and what Smith understands fully is that the wines falling under this movement’s semantic banner are most certainly not “Natural” in any meaningful way. And yet, this word is fully embraced to describe a category of wines that as we’ve seen are indefinable in any meaningful way.

This means that this term is not used to describe these wines in the meaningful and specific way that the terms like “Sweet”, “Napa Valley”, “Low Alcohol”, “Red”, “White”, “Syrah”, “Vinifera”, “Botrytis”, “Organic”, “Biodynamic”, “Sparkling”, and other words of real meaning are used to communicate something specific and useful about a wine.

NaturalThis fact leaves the term “Natural” as nothing more than a meaningless marketing term. But there is something much more sinister than “Natural” being just an arbitrary marketing term. The word implies strongly (and sometimes explicitly) that wines not falling under the heading of “Natural” are “Unnatural”. The implication of being an “Unnatural” wine are simply not good…in any context. It implies they are plastic, constructed, inauthentic, unhealthy, industrial, “frankenwines”, all things that apply to very few wines.

The semantic implications of sticking to the use of the term “Natural” should be clear to anyone: it leads to a necessary denigration of wines that do not earn their way under the umbrella of “Natural”. And if you take a close look at the diverse literature of the champions of “Natural” wine you’ll see example after example of denigration heaped upon non-“Natural” wines in many quarters that is rarely disclaimed by the category’s champions when brought to their attention.

Finally, the adherents to and champions of this still meaningless category of wine understand the implications of the use of the term “Natural”. They understand that it describes nothing. And they understand that it naturally leads to denigration of most other wines. And yet, they continue to use the term because it is a word that has such positive associations for those that want something “Natural” because they believe it is something that must be better for their bodies and their world. In other words, many champions of “Natural” wine are willing to knowingly hoist up a false flag for the purpose of marketing their products and promote an agenda.

I’m no winemaker. Nor am I a grapegrower. However, I am a marketer and a writer. And I know a manipulative and arbitrary use of words when I see it.

Posted In: Natural Wine

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29 Responses

  1. Adam Lee - July 8, 2013

    Tom,

    I agree with many of your points and am no fan of terminology. The only thing I would take issue with, I think, is Clark Smith’s definition of a “movement.” An “uneasy coalition of strange bedfellows” is how I would, when studied closely, define most movements. From the Tea Party Movement to the Occupy Wall Street Movement….most are made up of such an uneasy coalition (hell, given the recent holiday, it is worth pointing out that even New York State abstained in voting for Independence during the Second Continental Congress).

    Do you think all members of a group have to be in complete agreement on all points for something to be a movement?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Tom - July 8, 2013

    I’d like to petition TTB for a formal definition of “natural” with regard to wine labeling. Pretty much all federal agencies have to accept citizen petitions for rulemaking. If it got to the preliminary rulemaking stage, there would be public comment. Interested parties could put themselves on the record as to their thoughts on an appropriate definition. Should a definition be created, wineries would have to abide by it in order to put the word on the label.

    It’s unlikely TTB would touch it, but that in and of itself would pretty much codify the lack of definition.

  3. Tim - July 8, 2013

    Tom, outside of certain sales and marketing circles, there’s almost no material out there about natural wine. 99.9% of consumers in Montreal, Omaha, Philadelphia and other non-wine producing areas have never heard of this controversy, yet you and other bloggers beat the living hell out of it–you are by far the greatest source for opinion on natural wine.

    Why? Other than fodder for the relentless mill that is a blog, and a desire to correct the wrongly-minded, what is it about natural wine that keeps inflating it in critics and observers minds? Just being wrong isn’t a sin (if they are–frankly I don’t care. I choose wine on a hedonic scale, not a philosophical one) and just being ignorant or fearful of science isn’t one either, so I’m very curious as to why y’all in the establishment care so deeply that you keep bringing it up over and over again.

  4. Carl Einfarht - July 8, 2013

    Ugh. Product terminology is so fraught to bull poop. Did you know Budweiser is considered a premium beer? Not by anyone I know there days. Natural has been twisted beyond belief by big foods that it’s almost meaningless. 8 of 10 people I’m in contact with looking for organic are thinking no sulfite. And when I show them an organically grown, low/no sulfite red from the Loire Valley their head explodes.

    Considering there is so little natural wine available, retailers/restaurants that know and care about these wines will get them to the right hands.

  5. Lee Newby - July 8, 2013

    I’m a fan of “Authentic Wine:…….” as Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop put forward in their book of the same name, I say leave “Natural” to those who want to spend more time explaining (rationalizing?) the name than drinking wine……….

  6. Richard - July 8, 2013

    Tom, Your comments, and Ms. Teague’s are interesting, but “natural” means nothing. One can have a jar of swill that is “a natural, barrel aged, aged vine, estate, utilizing 100% hands off wine methods.” What this means is… nothing at all… Of course, it would have to have been in a barrel of some sort for a few minutes, but other than that, the terms mean nothing – “old vine” and “estate grown” are a bit more specific. And your final sentence is absolutely perfect – this is sales and marketing…

    I make a small amount of wine and use “100% organic old vine grapes” – but my wine is not “organic” as it is simply too difficult (and I think, not worth it – thought the organic folks will certainly disagree) – the wine needs some manipulation – that is what “wine making” is all about. Still, if I wanted to, I could put on my label “Made from 100% organic old vine grapes to bring you all the goodness of a completely unfined, unfiltered, wine that is completely natural…” But this would set off my equine excrement meter…

  7. Tom Wark - July 8, 2013

    Adam:

    All points? No, they needn’t agree. But probably at least on some points. I think among natural wine producers that one point is that the wine at least be grown organically.

  8. Tom Wark - July 8, 2013

    Tim:

    I can only speak for myself. And I find the movement in and of itself pretty interesting on a number of levels. I think it is a reaction to many things. But I also think that the way it is promoted is profoundly unfair, manipulative and even defamatory in ways. This post was inspired by two things: The WSJ article and Clark Smith’s new outstanding book, “Postmodern Winemaking”.

  9. Ron Marsilio - July 8, 2013

    Tom,
    I think you are correct in saying that there is no real meaning to the term “natural” in regards to wine, however there is a “movement”, so to speak, afoot to create wines with no manipulation. If I am not mistaken, this movement, for lack of a better word, began in France, where the terminology has even less meaning, I have had the occasion to taste some of these wines from France and to say that it was an interesting experience would be a severe understatement. To subject oneself to the unpleasantries, if that is a word, contained in the glass of nature that was at hand is tantamount to wearing a hair shirt.

    Call it what you want, I call it swill.

  10. Tom Wark - July 8, 2013

    Ron:

    I’ve had some lovely “natural” wines. That I can say.

    However, I’m dying to know what a wine with no manipulation is.

    Tom….

    • Ron Marsilio - July 8, 2013

      Tom,
      Great blog, by the way, but no manipulation means, no filtering, no fining, no oak, no malolactic, no added sulfites,, no cold stabilization, in fact no stabilization whatsoever, no inoculated yeast. Just press the grapes, let the wine go and bottle it.

      I think that the wines that I had tried, just fell apart, which is a danger one has to face when a wine is made that is completely and utterly “natural”.

  11. Tom Wark - July 8, 2013

    Ron:

    Seems like an arbitrary list that can only be rightly called “low manipulation” or some similar phrase.

    Also, I wonder what the ultimate point is. I wonder if this kind of low manipulation is meant to produce the best wine. I also wonder if there are techniques that can be used beyond what is allowed under this list that would in fact deliver a truer characterization of the terroir in a wine.

  12. gabe - July 8, 2013

    I would be a lot more interested in these types of blog posts if the writers spoke with actual people who are making actual wine in a way they consider “natural”, instead of constantly painting the picture of natural winemakers as members of some sort of cult. Most people I know that follow a “natural winemaking” philosophy are more interested in creating a winery that is small and beautiful, where quality of life matters more than scores from the wine spectator. Most of them don’t have marketing departments, most of them don’t call their wines “natural wines” , and most of them don’t read blogs, which is why a lot of these myths persist.

  13. Tim - July 8, 2013

    Tom, you say, ‘ I also think that the way it is promoted is profoundly unfair, manipulative and even defamatory in ways’.

    I’ll give you that. And how is that different from the way wine is marketed by every other player in the industry? Clark Smith’s customers don’t advertise de-alcoholisation processing , even though it’s integral to their long-hang strategy. Incredibly famous and successful wineries advertise their ‘dry’ Chardonnay that has 20 grams per litre of residual sugar, a major and cheeky player packages non-AVA wines in their AVA-located winery, incredibly lousy wines are treated to the flavour chemist’s box of tricks . . . and you’re picking on these poor, brain-damaged naturalists?

    Again, why? Nobody but you, me and the other attention-surfeit commenters and bloggers care. Certainly they’re not taking sales away from the big guys on any level.

  14. Tom Wark - July 8, 2013

    Tim:

    I’ve always written for the trade, and not really for consumers…So, the fact that it’s only people like you and me and others members of the trade and geeks who might read Fermentation makes sense.

    For many of the “Natural” wine champions it’s not a matter of leaving something out in terms of how they talk about these wines, such as what you are referring to when you note de-alc or that the wine isn’t perfectly dry.

    Rather, the natural wine champions have on a number of occasions denigrated other non-natural wines by suggesting and sometimes coming right out and saying that non-natural wines aren’t true to their terroir or could actually be bad for you. Say what you will about those that remove alcohol, they aren’t denigrating other wines or categories of other wines. Look around and take note of how often the “natural” wine champions categorize the wine words as “natural” wines and “industrial” wines.

    Furthermore, the use of the term “natural” is downright fraudulent in a way that not mentioning there are 2 grams of sugar or that the wine has been de-alc’ed could ever be. First the wine is not “natural” in any respect. Furthermore, the word “natural” has such emotional, hugely positive implications. Yet these wines are not “natural”.

    So here’s the thing: It’s not outside the realm of possibility that unthinking writers and media start talking about these wines in articles or television programming the same way that these natural wine champions are talking about them, actually passing on the fraudulent claims. Memes can travel fast. That’s the danger….when a very careful, conscientious, artisan producer who is constantly seeking to produce a terroir driven wine that doesn’t use wild yeast is lumped in with “industrial” producers and condemned for not being natural. And as an aside, what’s terrible about this to-boot is that there is every indication that an inocculated wine is probably MORE likely to create a wine that better expresses terroir than a wild yeast wine.

    Tom..

    • Kiley - July 10, 2013

      Tom,

      Thanks again for another thought-provoking read. So many people miss the point of this discussion, but you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head. Speaking as a professional, credentialed winemaker the issue isn’t what people want to call their wines. Natural, Non-interventionist, Unmanipulated, Voodoo, Magic…whatever. It’s not what the terms imply about the users and their wines, but rather what the terms imply about non-users.

      When the rubber meets the road sales are what puts liquids in the sprayers, grapes in the press, and tires on the delivery truck.

  15. Thomas Pellechia - July 9, 2013

    Tom:

    “So here’s the thing: It’s not outside the realm of possibility that unthinking writers and media start talking about these wines in articles or television programming the same way that these natural wine champions are talking about them, actually passing on the fraudulent claims. Memes can travel fast.”

    I agree. Maybe you should be on a crusade to find better wine writers.

  16. Mark - July 9, 2013

    Nicolas Joly’s manifesto is wine must be true before it can be good or something like that.
    Tom W. , Have you seen what Viinatur is doing in Europe. Great video via a link of Angiolino Maule from La Biancara in Gambellara on what their organization is doing. http://vimeo.com/68475452

  17. Hank - July 9, 2013

    Tom,

    You sure do write a lot about this subject, and yet you claim it is a “meaningless category”.

    If it is “meaningless”, why do you bother?

  18. Tom Wark - July 9, 2013

    Hank,

    While the term “natural” may be meaningless, the implications for consumers, the trade and the media of the use of the term is not.

    • Hank - July 9, 2013

      Tom, so if I understand correctly, it’s just the word “natural” (itself or at least in this context) that is meaningless, not the concepts behind the use of that word? And that employing another word, perhaps more suitable to your taste, would render the whole worthy of discussion?

      Then isn’t it rather silly to dismiss the whole concept based on a (probably) poor choice of word (or more correctly, a poor choice of translated word)? Surely the idea behind less manipulation in winemaking is a valid discussion to have, as is the acceptance that, for whatever reason a person chooses, he or she enjoys these “lower-manipulation” wines more? And it’s also ok if you don’t?

      I still don’t get what all the fuss is about over one word.

  19. joe - July 9, 2013

    There are a lot of “natural” things that can kill you….Why not educate people on wines that taste great, and will last some time in storage?

  20. Tom Wark - July 9, 2013

    Hank,
    The issue of low or less manipulation, the pursuit of terroir, techniques that impact terroir, the environmental impact of various winemaking and winegrowing techniques, etc, etc, etc have been going on for decades.

    Just here in the U.S. hundreds if not thousands of winemakers have long pursued a low manipulation, terroir-driven approach to winemaking. You wouldn’t know this if you listen to the champions of “natural” wine. They think they have started something new when in fact they stand on the shoulders of giants and call those shoulder newly plowed ground.

    The use of the word “Natural” to describe the wines that are coming out of this movement is straight up cynical, manipulative and fraudulent. Worse than that, the champions of this movement know this, yet still used the term.

    I have no issue with the wines that are said to fall under this heading. I’ve had a number that I like very much. That’s not the issue.

    The issue is the continued marketing of the wines in a cynical, fraudulent way that purposefully denigrates all those winemakers that don’t adopt the “natural” banner.

  21. Bruce G - July 9, 2013

    Another sloppy, ill-considered diatribe.
    You claim to be a marketer and a writer. It would be wonderful if you could more convincingly show your prowess in the latter field by contructing a tight argument that doesn’t rely on supposition, intuiting others’ motives, and continually referencing vague groups and entities with a seemingly ever-shifting roster of members.

    It would further help if you didn’t throw out nonsensical, unsupported follow-up statements that are antithetical to your original argument.

  22. mark bunter - July 16, 2013

    Tom
    Why not let the wines speak for themselves? It might be useful to do as the WSJ did, and actually review some of them. Send me a shipping address and I’ll send you a couple bottles of mine. I don’t make all my wines that way, just the ones that work. There is NO excuse for bad wine. For what it’s worth, my personal opinion is only one yardstick makes sense- no ingredients other than grapes. That would pretty much stop the whole catfight in its tracks. Virtually no one would do it. And there’d be nothing to argue about, except who’s lying. If it’s made with organic grapes, biodynamic grapes, or holy virgin ancient vine subterranean homesick blues grapes, fine, label it that way. Barrels or not, big deal. Many wines would taste pretty boring without using barrels, even if they are neutral barrels. And barrels are more natural than plastic or stainless steel or concrete eggs, eh? I agree that my customers are initially interested in tasting the wine because it has no added sulfites. But they buy it because it tastes good to them. Mark

  23. Tom Wark - July 16, 2013

    Mark,

    Thanks for he offer. I’ve tasted a number of “natural” wines. Many are very nice little wines.

    If you think my criticism of these wines is how they taste, you’ve misunderstood my criticism.

    • mark bunter - July 16, 2013

      Tom
      I got interested in additive free winemaking because I’d like to make the best wine possible from my vineyard, because it is so demanding of the raw material and winemaker’s attention, and because is the best way to assess “terroir”, that is to say the inherent qualities and nature of a particular vineyard. It’s not about marketing, for me. I’m not sure I can say my “natural” wine is better than my conventionally produced wine but it is different, interesting, and good. Voluntary ingredient labeling by those producing these wines would save a lot of arguing. I list my ingredients and processes on the labels of all my wines. My customers can then decide if the wine is “natural” enough or not. I thank Randall Grahm for leading the way and giving me the guts to do that. Thanks to you for posting this blog, and for not taking me up on my offer of a free bottle of a nice little wine. I don’t know what got into me. Sincerely, Mark

  24. Kat - July 17, 2013

    So what would you call a wine that was made with grapes from a vineyard that does not use pesticides, harmful herbicides, does not add sulfites, uses wild yeast, oak barrels, and minimal intervention techniques? And, the wine is not “certified” organic.
    What would you call a wine that was made with grapes from a vineyard that uses pesticides, herbicides, adds a lot of sulfites, uses innoculated yeast, uses gum during cold stablizations, uses velcorin for clarification and other chemicals to either enhance the wine or shorten the processing? Why arent those producers required to devulge that info?

  25. The Controversy Over “Natural Wine” | Edible Arts - September 17, 2013

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