The Threat and Shame of Natural Wine
On the eve of two simultaneously scheduled wine fairs dedicated to the proposition that everything old is new again, it’s hard not to admire the enthusiasm of those taken by “natural” wine. It’s hard not to notice the excitement its admirers exhibit. It’s hard not to notice that many of the proponents and champions of these wines revel in the idea that they are part of a revolution that defies a stale status quo.
The kind of excitement that is now found across the global wine industry for “natural” wines is exceedingly rare. One is, if a devotee of wine, forced to take note of this movement and the devotion, curiosity, and dedication of its fans. I am.
And yet, what I know is that this “natural wine movement”, for all its exciting elements, is marred by fraud, deception and misunderstanding. All this concerns me because there is a real threat that the deceptions will be taken as truth and the excitement taken as proof of their truth, particularly among those who don’t know any better. The impact of this is the potential scarring of the truly authentic wines and winemakers across the globe that don’t adopt the sketchy moniker of “natural” or its unsubstantiated claims.
At its heart, the “natural” wine movement is dedicated to celebrating minimal additions and minimal interventions, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. The idea motivating of this celebration is that authenticity in wine is important and achieved when as little as possible stands between what grows in the vineyard and what lands in the bottle.
WHAT’S OLD IS NOT NEW AGAIN
This idea is not unique, revolutionary, nor new. It is in fact the substance of what has motivated the artisan edge of winemaking across the globe for decades. This idea has been the substance of the motivation among those winemakers that have changed the global wine industry, inspired many a wine lover to continue to seek out something new rather than something that merely lubricates the palate, and inspired new paradigms and standards adopted by winemakers across the world, including those winemaker exhibiting at “The Real Wine Fair” and “The Raw Wine Fair”, both happening in London beginning Monday.
What is really interesting to note is that none of the artisan pioneers that are now emulated by those at the these two fairs ever thought to call their wine “natural”. And none of the various organizers of tastings and events that highlighted and showcased the terroir-driven winemakers over the past 30 years ever thought to call their events the source of “real” wine.
Instead, these original seekers and showcasers of authenticity and terroir merely called their product “wine” and their events “wine tastings”. As far as I can tell, it never occurred to these folks to label thier wines “Natural” or “Real” or “The Greatest” or “Better than all others” or “Perfect”. Or maybe it did occur to them, but the idea of that kind of presumption felt a little dirty. Or maybe it occurred to them that labeling their wines “natural” would be a fraud, given that no self-respecting winemaking, wine lover, or marketer believes that the processed and manufactured product called wine is anything close to “natural”.
Believing that what they are doing and championing is somehow new or revolutionary or unique, and communicating this message far and wide, is only one problem with the “natural” wine movement and those that favor it. This is a problem of hubris and shortsightedness and it it can be forgiven as this problem overtakes us all at some point. What can’t be forgiven is the movement’s insistent that the use of the term “natural” is benign.
EXPLOITING DECEPTION AND FRAUD
Because none of those making or marketing or enjoying these wines would even think of suggesting that the products are truly “natural”, there must be something else at play. Honey is natural in its raw form. Milk from a cow is natural in its raw form. Apples are natural in their raw form. Grapes are natural in their raw form. However, when honey, milk, apples and grapes are manipulated, fermented, processed and changed into something else, like wine, they are not close to being natural. And yet, we have “natural” wine.
Douglas Wregg, the producer of “The Real Wine Fair”, is a foremost champion of the wine genre. He has written extensively about his passion. Yet despite is regular protestations that “natural” wine is not in fact “natural” by anything resembling the meaning of the world, he remains devoted to the term in all its deceptive glory:
“One would have thought that wine would be natural by definition, however, there’s many a slip (or intervention) between grape and bottle, many choices that can be made, and additions and manipulations that push the final wine further from its origins. But the word natural does not mean “produced by nature without human assistance”, it is the very nature (sic) of assistance, the degree of human interference that distinguishes a natural wine from a conventional one.”
Here we have a redefinition of the word “natural” meant to suit the wines and winemakers he prefers. Wregg is apparently unaware that the average person on the street, with an average intelligence and who might want to indulge in something that is truly natural might take the term “natural” as it’s meant to be used and has been used for centuries. They would be deceived by Wregg and many others in the movement who apply the word “natural” in its deceptive form noted above.
Isabelle Legeron, the promoter of “The Raw Wine Fair” and another prominent champion of “natural” wine doesn’t seem to get around on her website promoting the Fair to address the issue of the term “natural” as Wregg does. Instead, we are offered a “charter of quality” that defines the wines that may be showcased there. When you read through the charter you see that the wines she admits to the fair are all able to be manipulated, processed and derived. Yet, she too uses the term “natural”, knowing full well that the term can’t come close to describing what’s in the bottles at the fair.
The point, of course, is that insisting on calling these wines “natural” is a perfect fraud that can’t be justified with romantic tales of getting back to nature and combating the evils of “spoofalated” wines. Add to this the fact that there are innumerable other, yet far more accurate, terms that could be used to describe the lovely wines at these fairs. Yet the terms won’t be employed.
Let me make a suggestion as to why this is the case: The fraudulent term is more profitable.
We live in a time when more and more people are keen to examine what they put in their body. People are keen to support people that take pity on the earth by not adulterating it and ruining it. In this environment the label “natural” has become quite powerful, both as an idea and a marketing term. I suspect the movement’s leaders understand that. They must. Yet when confronted with the simple fact that “natural” is a term that can’t in anyway be applied to wine, they still use the powerful label.
This puts the responsible, fair minded, and honest artisan winemakers who won’t adopt the term at a real disadvantage in they eyes of the consumer that believes in the potent meaning of the term “natural” and who assume that those behind the movement that truly do have the best intentions at heart would bastardize the term for profit. The use of the term “natural” is irresponsible, unfair and dishonest. That’s a problem. But the real problem is that the folks that employ this term know it is being used irresponsibly, unfairly and dishonestly yet they continue to imply it. Shame on them.
DEFINING NATURAL WNE THROUGH DENIGRATION
The Natural Wine Company is a retail outfit owned by Michael Andrews, Ross Bingham and Rebecca Pridmore. It is a modest retailer that seeks merely to introduce wine drinkers to terroir-driven wines that emphasize organic, biodynamic and wines made with grapes farmed sustainably. It is a marvelous excuse for a wine store. On their website, after explaining their motivations and experiences, they write this:
“During this same time, we fell in love with wine, and soon discovered that most wine sold in the United States contain “color enhancers,” preservatives, chemical stabilizers, Mega Purple™, “oak essence,” sugar, acid and the like. In fact, there are over 200 products listed by the FDA that are permitted to be used in wine besides grapes.”
It’s unclear whether what is meant by this statement is that most WINE or most WINES contain the implied atrocities they describe here. But if this statement is put in line with so many other implications provided by champions of “natural” wine, then what is meant is that most WINES are to be tarred and feathered with the notion that all but “natural” wine is UN-natural. This of course isn’t true.
No one disputes that many wines are highly manipulated with all sort of things and can be best described as beverages. Yet there are now thousands upon thousands of wines that don’t meet this definition at all, but rather are careful efforts resulting from low intervention and a careful eye toward explaining terroir through wine. But this fact is not included in any of the implications that come out of the minds of “natural” wine’s champions.
• Ms. Legeron does it this way:
“Most wines, including some Bordeaux crus classés, Champagne Grande Marques and household brands are nowadays no longer made exclusively from grapes. They are products of the agrochemical food industry. The concept of wine’s ‘poetry’, its artistry or romantism, or indeed its exceptionality as a product with a sense of place is becoming rarer.”
•Wregg leaves the impression that all but “natural wines” are lesser entities in this way:
“Real wines taste of themselves and where they come from; they are not manipulated with chemicals and other winemaker’s tricks and tropes. They are more natural, more tasty (dare we say) and in the age of conformity and mediocrity they are probably “unreal”.
Fabio Bartelomei, a winemaker in the “natural” wine school and frequent contributor to discussions of the movement does it this way:
“I think that these are two very different worlds or markets out there (ie, the ‘natural/organic/ecological/biodynamic/macrobiotic/whatever’ wine market as opposed to ‘conventional/industrial/chemical/mass-produced/supermarket wine market), and there will always be room for both. I think it’s like for any other product: ie utility cars / sports cars, or any everyday bog-standard product / quality special product.”
At MoreThanOrganic, a website promoting French “natural” wine created by Pierre Jancou, the implication that all but “natural” wine is problematic is done this way:
“Natural winemaking will always produce a better, more individual wine than conventional methods used on the same site…..A natural winemaker is a genuine artisan. Natural winemaking requires skill, patience, nerve, and hard physical labour. In most cases it brings small financial rewards. There is more money, less risk, and far less work in making wine conventionally.”
Guillaume Aubert, champion of “natural” wine and part owner of the “natural” wine importer Aubert & Mascoli denigrated all other wines this way:
“The more [natural wine] you drink, the less you can drink other wines. You start reacting badly to them, coming out in rashes and swelling up from all the sulphites.”
Hardy Wallace, an American winemaker, blogger, marketer and someone I admire, disparaged non-natural wines this way:
“Fortunately for the non “natural” camp, the majority of consumers buying wine today don’t know about (and might not care) about the winemaking process.”
At the website promoting the film, “Wine From Here,” about the “natural” winemaking movement in California, the makers describe in extraordinarily naive terms what their film is about by posturing “natural” wine as something entirely new that didn’t exist before and that hasn’t been available to wine lover prior to the advent of “natural wine”:
“Ultimately, “Wine From Here” captures the values of a new generation of wine drinkers who care about authenticity and the environment.”
Ceri Smith, owner of Biondivino Wine Boutique in San Francisco and proponent of “natural” wine, implies here that the “natural” wine movement will save us all from all the other wines in the world that are spoofalated:
“when, nowadays, around the world, there is the clutter of wine built up upon the marketing gurus and trendy expensive “label” wines – these winemakers are showing the world the beauty and elegance of “un-spoofalated” winemaking – sans the marketing masters and bulk consistancy, these are the gems in the raw. in a way, they are the progressive future by returning back to the past.”
These are the tip of the iceberg. The proliferation of stated and implied criticisms of the rest of the wine world are so commonplace among “natural” wine champions that this form of denigration marketing is now an inherent part of the natural wine movement. But the thing is this: given the path that the “natural” wine movement has taken, the only model to separate out these wines in the marketplace is by denigrating other wines. These champions must attack in order to self define.
The only other example of this kind of Denigration Marketing I’ve ever seen in the wine industry is the now very rare example of Francophiles disparaging American or new world wines. This used to be much more commonplace than it is now. You see this kind of denigration marketing in politics regularly. But you haven’t really seen it deployed in the wine world with any regularity, until now.
Part of this kind of negative marketing effort is driven by the very name of the movement. If their wines are “natural”, what are those that are not in their club? Kinda Natural? Almost Natural? UnNatural? Whatever they are, they aren’t “natural”. This obvious implication of the term “Natural Wine” is often dismissed by the champions of the genre. But it can’t reasonably be dismissed if you possess any fidelity to language and the meaning of words. The fact is this: By using the term “natural” you must find some way to justify its use beyond relying on the actual definition of the word, which does not apply to these wines or any wines. The only way left to create a justification for the use of the term is to define what those outside the classification are, what they are not and what they represent. In this case, what they represent isn’t good. They are at least the source of rashes.
But there is more too the denigration marketing tactics of the “natural” wine champions than simply justifying their semantics. A thread moves through the “natural” wine movement that is constant: Natural winemaking is the path to authenticity; it is the formula for making wine what it really should be—the expression of a place. But if this is the case, what are we to make of the expressions provided by “non natural wines”? If they aren’t natural, can they too be authentic expressions of place? Of course not. That would de-legitimize the claims of the “natural” wine champions.
Yet we know without question that wines that are filtered, that are fined, that employ cultivated yeasts, that utilize sulfur, that are not made with grapes or processes certified as organic or biodynamic do indeed possess authentic expressions of place. The examples are too numerous to name.
But you rarely see champions of “natural” wines admit this. Rather, they imply and often outright say that these wines are “Manipulated” or “commercial” or “industrial” and can’t, with the same authenticity express place or terroir. They are wrong. But if they admit it, their argument for the uniqueness and blessedness of “natural” wines is largely removed. What of the movement and its claims then?
Again, the only real choice the marketers of “natural” wine have is to define their wines against all others. Marketers are in the business of propping up their products. If you are going to prop yours up by defining them against others, then the others must be lesser objects. Hence, the kind of Denigration Marketing that is too often employed by champions of “natural” wine. It is an inherently deceptive and fraudulent way of selling wine. Shame on them.
THE THREAT OF NATURAL WINE
I am want to reiterate the danger of the natural wine movement, its disregard of convention, its fraudulent descriptions of what it is, and its unsavory marketing methods. We live in a world confronted by a great deal of “new”. This “new” is so often regarded as shiny and insightful and profound. It is often, with the help of media that does not fully understand the implications of that upon which they report, understood as being better.
The viral nature of news too is important to understand here. New ideas fly across geography and cultures in an instant. Communities of believers are created in days and short weeks and are supported by tools of communications that too often and too easily spread fraudulent notions.
The idea that “natural” wine is the savior of a wine industry stuffed predominately with unauthentic, unnatural, unhealthy, and industrial wines is a few prominent articles and broadcasts away from being believed. A blog at the Huffington Post is followed by a sympathetic article by a prominent wine expert, who is then featured along with a champion of “natural” wine on a network news program, that is then reported on by the morning new shows with ideas that spread across the Twittersphere and Facebookorama in an instant. All of a sudden artisan winemakers who have been seeking and making terroir driven wines for years and who use low intervention techniques in the vineyard and cellar, but are not calling themselves “natural wineamakers,” are tarred with the idea that their products are making us all sick.
This is the danger and threat of the current state of the “natural wine movement”.
GETTING THE NATURAL WINE HOUSE IN ORDER
Arguing that the term “natural” is now ubiquitous is not a reason for continuing to use the fraudulent term to describe these wines. It’s lazy. Continuing to denigrate other “non natural” wines because you can’t imagine the impact of admitting that yours is not so different than other wines is a gross excuse for marketing. And failing to appreciate the 1000s of winemakers that laid the groundwork for your own work and who had no need or thought of calling themselves and their wines “natural” is the kind of dismissive arrogance that good people don’t engage in.
The proponents of and makers of what is being called “natural” wine ought to be extraordinarily proud of the wines they love and make. Many are extraordinary and they add fuel to the long and ongoing movement to create unique, artisan wines that has been a large part of the global wine industry for decades. If they can cause excitement (and they do) among winemakers, they ought to be lauded for that…and I do laud them for that.
But if these folks don’t get their house in order, they will continue to face the kind of criticism and disparagement that they read in this post and from others.