Pollution, Pornography and “Natural Wine”

pollutionAs everyone knows, “natural wine” is the same as pornography. You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it. But if you are searching to find the smallest difference between pornography and natural wine, it’s this: Where movies are concerned, no pornography can be a truly great film. However, only “natural” wine can be truly great wine.

This according Isabelle Legeron, a leader of the “Natural Wine” movement and author of the coming book, “Natural Wine”, as reported at Wine Searcher. WineSearcher.com reports that in Ms. Legeron’s new book, she proclaims that only “Natural” wine can be truly great. The irony, as you’ve already guessed, is that we have no definition of “natural wine”.

You see the conundrum, I’m sure.

“Natural wine” is an idea, not a thing. Misunderstanding this fundamental distinction is the first mistake that Ms. Legeron and other proponents of “natural wine” make. “Natural wine” is an idea that has possessed artisan winemakers for decades, if not centuries: that wine can be special and even indicative of a unique time and place when a winemaker makes a conscientious effort to farm grapes and craft a wine into a lens.

It is as a result of missing this important distinction between idea and thing that leads Ms. Legeron to the absurd claim that only “natural wine” could be truly great.

Ms. Legeron second big mistake is that she appears to believe that only in the past few years has this idea of wine as a lens ever been pursued; that for the past 30 or so years, wine has been nothing more than a chemical soup and not reflective of the soils and place where the grapes were cultivated. She is making the amateur and youthful mistake of believing she and her cohorts have stumbled upon something new, something to which her elders were oblivious. As it always has, youth breeds hubris and Ms. Legeron’s inexperience allows her to miss entirely the hundreds of winemakers across the globe who observe her claims that the pursuit of terroir-driven wine is the holy grail and reply, “happy you could join the party, young lady.”

The third big mistake that Ms. Legeron and other champions of “Natural Wine” make is not demonstrating their most important claim: Only “natural wines” can be reflective of terroir, let alone “truly great”. But we can forgive them for making this mistake since, again, we have no definition of “natural wine”.

The ongoing promotion of the claim, piled upon claim, piled upon more claims for this idea called “natural wine” has become truly pornographic and a source of pollution within the wine world because it causes even more confusion and misinformation among consumers and the trade. If Ms. Legeron and her fellow travelers truly want to do the wine world and wine consumers a favor then the chimera that is this thing called “natural wine” needs to be expunged from the wine lexicon.

“Artisan Wine”, “Vins Minimals”, “Wines of Terroir”…These and any number of other phrases would more aptly describe the decades-old terroir bandwagon upon which Ms. Legeron and others have hopped and tried to rename using a deceptive marketing term.

Until then, the only thing that the champions of “natural wine” are qualified to dub “truly great” is the deception they are attempting to carry out.

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15 Responses

  1. David Vergari - June 2, 2014

    A triple-Bronx Cheer to you Ms. Legeron!!! You really crack me up.

  2. Steve Hendricks - June 2, 2014

    Tom: well, looks like the research is starting to support at least one aspect of “natural winemaking”, ie using indigenous yeast. If I remember correctly, you dismissed the idea as not caring about the “microbial soup”.

    Wine terroir goes under the microscope at UC Davis
    By Becky Grunewald
    Special to The Bee
    Published: Sunday, Jun. 1, 2014 – 12:00 am

    UC Davis professor of viticulture and enology David Mills knew that he was firing a shot across the bow when he recently presented a scientific paper addressing one of wine-making’s most beloved mysteries.

    That mystery is the somewhat ineffable concept known as “terroir” – a French word with no English corollary – defined as a wine’s unique growing environment that contributes to its distinct aroma and flavor. For many wine experts, terroir is the elusive force that gives a wine its personality. It’s why a cabernet sauvignon from Bordeaux tastes different from one produced in the foothills.

    “Questioning this subject has sommeliers questioning their expertise,” Mills said. “In a sense, you are getting at the heart of their job.”

    Traditionally, the explanation of terroir’s influence primarily has focused on weather patterns, geography and cultivation techniques, and soil composition. For example, attributes such as “chalkiness” or “minerality” in wine are often attributed to soil, despite a lack of scientific evidence.

    Mills, however, reported that unique colonies of yeast, fungus and bacteria on the surface of wine grapes also could be significant in determining a wine’s regional quality.

    Terroir gets top billing when it comes to French wine, whether it’s a bottle from the regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne. In the United States, wines are marketed by specific grapes. Most people don’t say at a wine bar, “I’d like a Sierra foothills red and a Russian River white.” They ask for a zinfandel and chardonnay. Nevertheless, a wine’s designation (e.g., Napa) matters a great deal.

    When it comes to terroir, microbes haven’t always been part of the conversation. However, the field of microbial research has been exploding, thanks to scientific advances, and microbes are being newly credited for everything from influencing human metabolism to the quality of wine.

    Mills’ study used a technique that allows for the massive amplification of short sequences of DNA, which enabled him to conduct sensitive statistical analysis on grape surfaces.

    He and Nicholas Bokulich, a UCD graduate student, analyzed 273 samples of zinfandel, cabernet and chardonnay musts (the skins, seeds and stems from mashed grapes) from Napa, the Central Coast and Sonoma. The results presented evidence that there were non-random patterns to the composition of yeast and bacteria on the surface of the grapes, depending on where they were grown.

    For instance, grapes grown in Sonoma had a similar “microbiome” as other grapes grown in Sonoma, and grapes grown in that area in 2010 were similar to those grown in 2012. That connection between specific regions and consistent patterns provides “compelling support for the role of grape-surface microbial communities in regional wine characteristics,” the report stated.

    Released in November, Mills’ and Bokulich’s research made international headlines with coverage from outlets such as the BBC and The New York Times. Mills was quoted in T he Times article as saying: “There are high-end courses on terroir, which I think are bunk. … I make fun of terroir all the time.”

    The coverage created something of a stir within segments of the wine-making community, which can be protective of the tradition of terroir. Some in scientific circles also took issue, arguing that mainstream outlets oversimplified the study and overstated the connection between microbes and their potential affect on wine’s sensory properties.

    Reached by phone in Taipei, Taiwan, where he had been invited to give a talk on his research, Mills said the “make fun” remark was taken out of context.

    “It’s not that I don’t believe in terroir,” he said. “It’s that you have to measure it. … Winemakers speak of it as a given, but it doesn’t have a scientific basis and we need to do a better job to prove it.”

    Joe Vaccaro, chief operating officer and wine director for the Selland Restaurant Group, said he has no qualms about scientific research into terroir, which “encompasses so much. Soil, climate drainage, sun, and even … native yeasts and bugs and things that fly around and land on the grape skins. I don’t see how those could be removed from the terroir equation.”

    Dana Stemmler, an associate winemaker at Clarksburg’s Bogle Vineyards who heard Mills speak on the topic at an industry event last year, also said she’s interested in knowing more about the microbes.

    “I think potentially if they could map out very specific compounds these microbes are producing, and whether they have a positive or negative effect on the wine, we could use it to survey the growers we have contracts with and find the more favorable fruit to purchase,” said Stemmler, whose employer also owns estate vineyards.

    Mills is working to correlate the microorganisms in the wine must with the wine’s chemical composition. After that, he will move on to testing how microbes influence the flavor profile of the wine.

    The lack of the latter was a frequent criticism of the study, but Mills said that each component must be investigated one careful step at a time. What’s clear is that many await his findings.

    “At this point, asking me whether I believe in terroir is like asking me if I believe in God – it’s very difficult to prove or disprove,” he said. “But people believe in it fervently.”

    • Read more articles by Becky Grunewald

    Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/06/01/6442769/wine-terroir-goes-under-the-microscope.html#storylink=cpy

  3. Tim - June 2, 2014

    Tom,

    I’m quite intrigued by your strong feelings on natural wine.

    What were the last three natural wines you tasted?

    Tim

  4. Randy Caparoso - June 2, 2014

    Tom, the claim that only “natural wine” can be “great” is, of course, plainly ignorant. I shake my head at these kinds of stupidities, too. At the same time, there is a lot to be said for the movement towards naturalness, however ill defined the concept may be. There’s nothing new about the idea, and minimalist approaches does indeed make some of the most interesting — and yes, terroir driven — wines in the world. There’s just no down side. Every type of winegrowing, or winemaking, has its place. Why don’t we leave it at that?

    Re microbial research: Yeah, that’s cool, seeing what was once an a priori assumption more thoroughly studied and discussed. So-called terroirists have always considered existing yeast populations in vineyard sites very much a part of terroir, contributing as much to resulting wines as soil, topography, vintage conditions, etc. These “naturalists” are on to something, even if not earth shatteringly new.

    Point being, it’s never just one thing or another when it comes to wine quality. Many ways to skin a cat, and many ways to appreciate it. If someone writing a book has the temerity to base conclusions on an absurdity or two, let ‘em hang by their own petard . But there’s no sin, or fraud, in earnestness. This is wine, after all — one of the most mythologized things in the world. Also one in distinct danger of being over-industrialized

    That is to say, there’s never enough artisanal, terroir driven wine in this world. Consumers are swamped enough with cooked-up wines (maybe worse, industrialized wines masked as artisanal). We need more “real,” not less of it. If you let these naturalists be, Mr. Wark, I promise that they will naturally morph into something a little more palatable all by themselves when, as you alluded, they finally grow up.

  5. Tom WARK - June 2, 2014

    Randy, your comments are always among the best here. Thank you.

    I’m only disagreeing with you on one point today. I think there is zero chance of wine being over industrialized. The overwhelming majority of wines made today and of the wineries in existence are small to tiny and headed up by artisan and craft minded winemakers. If consumers want such wines they can easily find them. The Naturalists regularly offer the impression that everything is industrial or commercial grade save the one-tenth of one-tenth of one percent of wines they deem “Natural” under their non existent definition. It’s slanderous and it’s the kind of attitude that would lead one to the conclusion that only a “natural” wine could be “truly great”.

  6. Randy Caparoso - June 2, 2014

    Thanks, Tom, but as you may know, I live among many friends and colleagues in Lodi, which is kind of a microcosm of the industry. Sure we have artisanal winemaking here, but over 98% of what is produced is the direct opposite of what anyone would define as artisanal (big wineries, as it were, think of their work as being artisanal, too — just on a larger, more industrialized scale).

    Most people buy their wines in supermarkets, discount stores, corner liquor shops, etc. Hard to find truly artisanal, terroir focused products there, too.

    Hey, as you know, I write enthusiastically about big production wines, too. A well made, delicious wine is a well made, delicious wine. But it is only because of these movements, such as the push for more “natural” wines, that there’s even 2% of these kinds of wines around for consumers to choose from. Otherwise, the percentage would be closer to .009%.

    Point is, we need these natural proponents, just like we needed people like Kermit Lynch, or wineries like Ridge Vineyards, to draw lines in the sand, to keep the big production wineries from totally dominating our markets. Who cares if what they insinuate is “slanderous?” What they insinuate is also very important to the natural order of things.

    As a longtime restaurant wine professional, and now as a journalist, I’ve always been acutely aware that if you don’t want the wine world taken over by “brand identity” or “varietal definition,” then you have the push the envelope in the opposite direction. If you want the tiny, naturalistic, terroir focused producers of the wine world to continue to survive and enjoy the same benefits of profitability as the big guys who have a helluva lot more advantages, then you gotta support the small guy. This also means encouraging, not discouraging, the people who chatter on about the small guys — the Legerons, the Feirings, and now the Hawk Wakawakas of the world.

    Cut them some slack, Tom. We both love the big guys, but we want to make sure that the small guys can continue to make an impact, too.

  7. Tom Wark - June 2, 2014

    “Point is, we need these natural proponents, just like we needed people like Kermit Lynch, or wineries like Ridge Vineyards, to draw lines in the sand, to keep the big production wineries from totally dominating our markets”

    Randy, I think we zero need for slanderers. I think we have zero need for those that confuse the marketplace by insinuating and implying that all but “natural” wines are industrial.

    Artisan winemakers are alive and well all over the country. The fact that large brands domiinate 4 of the five shelves in the U.S. is only a reflection of the fact that the 90% of wine sold is to people who can get it on the shelf for around $7.00 a bottle. Those wine lovers who are willing to pay the premium for small production wines will have no problem finding it.

  8. Randy Caparoso - June 2, 2014

    Hey, big wineries may not like being described as “industrial.” But the fact is, what they do *is* industrial. This is not slander, it’s simple observation. Big guys don’t have time to do small batch winemaking — it’s just not efficient. They *have* to be industrial; but if the truth of the word hurts, well, sorry for the ouwee. Although I hardly think the big production wineries need a knight in shining armor to defend them. They’re too busy, laughing all the way to the bank.

    I suppose by entitling your blog “Pollution, Pornography, and Natural Wine” you are trying to push back: tell the world that those nasty, truth twisting, potty mouthed natural wine proponents need be associated with such p-words. Tom, exactly what is your point, of sinking to this level? Why not just say, “I disagree” (which we both do, remember), and be done with it?

  9. Tom Wark - June 2, 2014

    Randy,

    If the Naturalistas were very specific about pointing fingers at large, industrial wineries when they claim that all wine but “natural” is industrial, I’d have not problem. But they don’t. They point the finger at ALL wineries as “industrial” if they aren’t considered “natural”.

    As for the blog title, it is explained pretty well in the copy: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it (Natural Wine and Pornography). Meanwhile, the confusion that is created by their slanders and by suggesting that their terroir driven ideology is something new and innovative completely pollutes the world of wine education.

    Bottom line: This kind of fraudulent marketing deserves push back.

  10. Wine Roland - June 2, 2014

    I think that extremism is a very bad thing, both for Industrial Wine Party and for Natural Wine Party. I like natural wine, I mean wines without chemical adding in the cellar to adjuste flavor or taste, and no, or minimal, in vineyard (my definition, no worldwide acknowledge). But to say that only ‘one’ type of wine is a ‘good’ wine it’s no right for thousands and thousands winegrower that make little money with their job. I agree with Mme Legeron point of view, I think that a natural wine keep time better than an industrial one. But not all natural wines are so, and not all industrial wines, too. But for business scope it’ isn’t convenient that an industrial wine, made with aid of permit chemicals adds, keep along the time.

  11. TocaiGuy - June 3, 2014

    I agree with almost everything you say, however I don’t see anything bad about the term “Artisan Wines”. Can you deny that the production methods of a 5,000 case winery is different from a 50,000 case winery? Is it wrong to say that a 5,000 case winery is “artisan” and from a 50,000 case winery isn’t? Perhaps the problem is cultural. I’m both Italian and American (but not Italian-American) and understand both mentalities. No offense to my American friends, but for various cultural, historical and economic reasons I think that the American translation of “Artisan” is different from what we in the Old World translate as “Artisan”. Here in Italy “artisan” is very much connected with a traditional way of doing things, with generational knowledge and with an emphasis on manual labor.

    However, I think we both agree that there is no legal term to “artisan wine” and so anyone can use it to “trick” the consumer.

    “Natural wine” is destined to die because it means nothing. Good wine is destined to succeed- whether it be “natural” or not. However, I think serious wine professionals should stop using this term “natural” in any context- pro or con- and go on with the business of selling their wines for what makes it unique (price point, varietal, traditions, taste profiles etc.)

  12. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) - June 4, 2014

    Thank you Mr Wark, on behalf of the Natural Wine Movement, for the great publicity you bring to us on you blog. With your large readership and interesting comments, you do a much better job then we could do ourselves. Cheers, keep up the good work :)

  13. Tom Wark - June 4, 2014

    Fabio,

    You know I do what I can!

    Cheers,
    Tom…..

  14. Miki Finnin - June 6, 2014

    Tom, And what, foretell, is the definition of “TRUELY GREAT”? Ah ha! Another very subjective definition, for sure. Miki

  15. M - June 14, 2014

    I think they need to do comparative gas chromatography tests done on separate areas of terroir to see what landscape produces the most aroma compounds. Repeat the test for several years to isolate out variations in seasonal change (and the likely changes in microbial effect that come with it).

    I do believe Terroir “Exists” and has a significant effect on wine. I also believe microbial “regions” exist in which specific yeasts and bacteria thrive; whether that’s due to a local bug population on a year to year basis, the practices of a large group of winemakers close together, etc.,

    The vast majority of wine being produced in the “New world” now is sulfited and innoculated with “Domesticated” yeast from labs with little regard for any of these specific factors.

    So I don’t believe in using the term “natural wine” but I think the definition speaks for the process and versa.


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