Natural Wine Gets Busted

“Few people believe that the Bulzonis were acting with intent to defraud. Rather, they were searching for an appealing way to describe wines that were not precisely organic.”

Well, how about calling it “Wine”?

Not since Jeremy Parzen at the Do Bianchi blog broke the story in July has there been any reporting in the English language media about the Italian government’s crackdown this summer on a Italian wine store that advertised selling “natural wine”. Now Wine Searcher has published a story on the Italian government’s visit to the Enoteca Bulzoni wine store in Rome and its subsequent warning that the store could be fined for promoting its sale of “Natural Wine”.

In addition to publishing claims that the store was set up by “someone annoyed by the phenomenon of natural wine” or by some “big producer”, there are some other very interesting conjectures about the incident and thoughts on the so-called “natural wine” movement.

Wine Searcher quotes an Agricultural Ministry official who explained the visit to the story this way: “the phrase ‘natural wine’ does not exist and, therefore, does not correspond with the accepted appellations, and, for this reason, it is not verifiable.” He continued: “No similar appellation exists in the regulations that govern the commercialization of wine in Italy or in the European Union.”

Wine Searcher goes on to note that the ministry official explained, “the label ‘natural wine’ was misleading to the public and damaging to the Italian wine industry.”

Of course it is. That’s why the term is used in the first place.

While the Italian Ministry of Agriculture clearly has too much time on its hands, it does also have a point. There is no definition for “natural wine”,  it is a term of art, a marketing phrase that profits off the positive association consumers place on the term “natural” despite the wines being no closer to being “natural” than processed apple juice. Show me a grape vine that prunes itself, picks itself, plows its own field and puts itself in a bottle and I’ll show you a “winemaker”, not a vine.

The Italian natural wine organization VinNatur sees it differently: “The term ‘natural wine’ means no chemical treatments in the vineyard or in the cellar, to respect – as much as possible – the characteristics of the territory, and of the variety, while protecting the environment and the consumer.”

By this definition, “natural wine” is being produced in huge volumes all over the world and the movement is nothing new. What’s new is the deceptive use, as the Italian Agricultural Ministry points outs, of the term “Natural Wine”.

But here’s the real kicker in the Wine Searcher story. The owner of the busted enoteca in Italy says this:

” For years we have been aware that certain types of products do not really offer the intrinsic quality that they would have one believe. We therefore found another type of product with nutritional value: that’s why we defined it as ‘natural.”

What intrinsic quality? Which products have been deceiving consumers? And what “nutritional value” do “natural wines” have that that others don’t? You see, here’s the problem. Not only do you have a new category of wine that purely for marketing purposes claims to be something it is not, but so many of the champions of these wines are selling the idea that all other wines are without nutritional value…or put another way, unhealthy. Yet, we never, ever see the natural wine proponents identify which other wines are “unhealthy”? The implication is all of them.

Good for the Italian Ministry of Agriculture!! Fraud is fraud.


6 Responses

  1. JohnLopresti - October 6, 2012

    It seems to be true from the few bits of European wine regulations I reviewed, that the word natural is carefully parsed when used and asiduously avoided where it would be controversial.

    As you likely know, in cold countries in Europe, sugaring must is permitted in some years, or as a matter of winemaking style. In the US the addition of sugar is in the form of a grape sugar derivative, not the same as the sort of sugar European enologists may use.

    The ag sector in the winegrowing countries in Europe is quite robust, and governments there respect that substantial influence.

    For example, in England, the European Community wine regs refer to nature, natural grape processes. And in France, the OIV regs refer to human and natural processes in discussing terroir-related designations.

    Quite revealing, because of the multiple forgivenesses which the regs permit, are the OIV’s rules for label declaration of additives.

    This may sound a little legal, but here is the most relevant excerpt:

    “2.3. Information on additives

    “This indication only takes into account additives that are not present in wine in its natural state in significant amounts.

    “It concerns:
    “- sulphur dioxide when this additive exceeds 10 mg/l expressed in total SO2,
    “- sorbic acid.

    “However the States can dispense with this indication when the national legislation does not require the complete declaration of the ingredients in foodstuffs, subject to the fact that exemptions were granted because (i) the foodstuff has a well-known composition, (ii) the absence from the list of
    ingredients is not detrimental to the consumer and (iii) the information provided on the label informs the consumer about the nature of the foodstuff.”

    http://news.reseau-concept.net/images/oiv_uk/Client/OIV_Wine_Labelling_Standard_EN_2006.pdf

    see also, http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/euwineregs.pdf

    It looks the government regulator in Italy was working within the OIV rules and the EC rules, and honoring long traditions in that country, as well.

    Yet, also occurring in Italy is an effort to develop and expand the meaning of a different term, sustainable. I imagine the ‘natural’ term-of-advertising-art sort of got to the marketplace too soon, and the innate secrecy of the industry will be better protected with a new advertising campaign based on sustainable practices in field and winery, without divulging too much about chemical residues on or in fruit, or processing chemicals added to improve style of vinification.

    And, in the latter regard, much US winemaking similarly favors the latter approach to new ways to market wine while avoiding “contents” labels.

  2. Jeff Jones - October 7, 2012

    Thanks for your blog. I enjoy reading your commentary.

  3. Felix Northwood - October 7, 2012

    So if I described a wine as “pleasant” , “fruity” or “sublime” , by your standards I should be off to jail because there is no legal definition of these terms either. Consumers have an interest in food products made with minimum synthetic input. If the law does not provide a suitable description for such products, the fault is with the law makers not the producers.

  4. Johan Mouraux - October 8, 2012

    There is absolutely no marketing strategy behing “natural winemakers” (although it is indeed an unfortunate label, which would be unnecessary if all wines where made in this ancestral and healthy manner) who represent less than half-a-procent of the production in Europe and even less elsewhere. The BIG question is why “conventional” winemakers and industries (the 99.99% other) are so disturbed and actively lobbying against this purely peripheric phenomenon of people preferring wines made without adding or retrieving chemical or other synthetic products…?

  5. Tom Wark - October 8, 2012

    John:

    Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s appreciated.

    First, anytime you apply an undefined moniker or label to a product or service (such as “natural” wine) you are in the business of marketing for the simple reason that a choice if available as to how to refer to the product or service.

    Second, you and I both know that there is very little indication that “big” or “conventional” (not sure what this means other than “those that do not call themselves ‘natural”) wineries are disturbed or actively lobbying against “natural wine”. But, since you brought it up, which wineries are you referring to?
    Finally, it’s a little disingenuous to ask what problems some folks have with the use of the marketing term “Natural wine”. After all, you just, apparently, read this post.

  6. Tom Wark - October 8, 2012

    Felix:

    Governments have no responsibility to create new regulated names or appellations. It’s the job of petitioners to ask the government to regulate a term. As far as I can see, there has been no move to create a regulated definition for “natural” wine by its champions.

    That said, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to describe this set of wines my a more accurate term, rather than the highly nebulous but marketing friendly “Natural”? For example: MinSim (minimally synthetic) or “Low Manipulation”.


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