The Give and Take of the Natural Wine Debate
I am always excited when I see an article or blog post on-line that was written in response to something on this blog. At the very least it means someone is reading me. Even better, it could mean that what I've written inspires someone. More Better: It could mean they took my thoughts seriously.
So, I was pleased to see that Janice Cable over at "Inside IWM" (IWM = Italian Wine Merchant—a GREAT wine merchant) had a long and thoughtful response to my various thoughts on "natural" wine. And her thoughts in turn inspire me to respond here with comments and clarification.
After acknowledging some of the definitional problems with the term "Natural" and appreciating the way the term can be abused by marketers, Ms Cable writes: "In short, it’s hard to define “natural.” And perhaps it’s this very slipperiness as applied to natural wine that Tom Wark of the Fermentation blog has taken to task so repeatedly and so vehemently." In the end, she isn't in agreement with me that the "natural wine movement" is a gimmick."
Actually I'm not concerned with the difficulty of defining the term "natural". Rather, I'm concerned that the use of the term "natural wine" is unjustified, that many of its champions are willing to denigrate what they would consider "non-natural" wines for the sake of promoting their own wines and that champions of "natural wine" are unwilling to use far more accurate words, terms and phrasing to describe what they are doing in order to take advantage of the positive connotations of the term "Natural" despite the unjustified use of the term in the first place.
As for the wines that fall under this unjustified heading, I think they are just great. I think it's wonder that more and more winemakers are determined to use more non-interventionist techniques that have been incorporated into winemaking by artisan winemakers now for years. I think many of these wines are tasty as all get out.
In defense of the "Natural" wine movement Ms. Cable goes on to say:
"I…dislike the 'purple' taste that often accompanies seriously manipulated wine. It’s a thing, and maybe it’s pretentious, but all things being equal, I like a wine that’s made with minimal crap added to it."
I don't know what "purple" tastes like, but that may be a deficiency in my own palate/vocabulary skills. But I do know that wines that are not marketed as "natural" or organic or biodynamic do not necessarily have "crap" added to them. Unfortunately, the impression that many champions of "natural" wine are keen to see left with the wine trade and wine consumers is that if it's not "Natural" it has "crap" in it and may even be dangerous for your health. I have previously offered up a number of such comments and can point folks to these and others that indicate what I'm talking about.
Ms. Cable ends with this:
"For all of these reasons—personal, professional, and ethical—I don’t see natural wines as a marketing gimmick. Sure, it can happen. But mostly it’s about an informed choice about what we put in our bodies, whom we want to support with our money, and what happens on the earth around us. I know how I make my choices, and when I can, I opt for wine made by people who understand the fragile beauty of nature and who honor it."
I think she's written an excellent essay here and I recommend it. But I would be remiss in not pointing out that even this moderate and personal expression of her preference and appreciation for "natural" wines implies that if it's not natural, it's not unlikely to be of dubious content.
Finally, there is an aspect to the way the champions of "natural" wine talk about their object of affection that presumes to suggest that only these "pure" and "raw" wines can play the role that fine wine is supposed to play: to tell the story of the terroir in which the wine's grapes were grown. Consider this nugget:
"Natural wines are as diverse as the places they are made. Natural wine lovers are people who celebrate this diversity. Conventional wines have little or no sense of terroir, because it is all but destroyed by conventional winemaking practices."
What is "conventional" winemaking? Is it the same as "industrial" winemaking? It is entirely different than "natural" winemaking or only a little different? If commercial yeasts are used year in and year out on a specific single vineyard wine and if that wine displays similar characteristics year in and year out, must that characteristic be a result of the commercial yeast used to ferment the wine? If a bit of RoundUp is used on weeds, will this obliterate any terroir that might be displayed in the wine? If the wine is fined with some natural element, will this obliterate any display of terroir in the wine? We rarely if ever get specifics when claims like the one above are made. We don't have wines being named.
To argue that you must indulge in "natural" wines in order to taste terroir is every bit as silly and denigrating to winemakers around the world as is suggesting that what "natural" winemakers are producing is natural at all.
Another example of a "Natural Wine" champion that does more than imply that anything but "natural" wine is artificial. This time it's accusing any wine not made with natural yeast to smell artificial and like shower gel. I wonder if this producer can guarantee that none of the yeasts floating around his vineyard and winery are manufactured? More marketing of one's own wine by denigrating others. What's worse, the claims are unsupportable. #nastyhabit