Will the Natural Wine Movement Listen to an Authentic Authority?

pay-attentionIf anyone within the wine writing establishment has concentrated more on the issue of authenticity in wine, the virtues of terroir, and the benefits of naturalness in wine than the Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer, then I don’t know who it is. Back in 1992, reading Kramer’s “Making Sense of California Wine”, I first encountered his earnest search for real naturalness in wine when, writing in the preface he declared:

“For the first time, it is possible, however tentatively, to start to chart ‘somewhere-ness’ in California wine—a familiar similarity derived from place….This book is an attempt to find somewhere-ness of California wine.”

Kramer would go on to note that this revelation of a “somewhere-ness” emerging in the California wine industry was a result of a “new primitivism” that had been forced on Californians by economic and cultural circumstances. It was early evidence that Kramer was on a quest to find and champion authenticity in wine. He hasn’t stopped.

So, I was eager to read his most recent column in The Wine Spectator in which he addresses “Natural Wine”, an extension of, but not the same thing as, his own search for authenticity. Let me get to the money quotes:

“I share a distaste with those who bristle at the self-glorifying ‘natural’ designation. The sanctimony of the natural wine movement’s most ardent supporters suffocates their cause…The very word ‘natural’ has become a flashpoint. Many winemakers who would otherwise be sympathetic chafe at being held—at a kind of intellectual gunpoint—to rigidly prescribed practices…Words matter. And ‘natural’ is not the word you should seek. It’s become a polemic, even a straitjacket. Rather, what you want is a philosophy or a belief that’s rigorous but reasonable.”

“Rigorous, but reasonable.” That’s always been my experience with Matt Kramer and his opinions. And I can’t help but align myself with his thoughts on “natural wine” in this column. The product of this movement, celebrated by some and dismissed by others, really doesn’t offend or excite me more than other wines of a genre. I’ve had good and bad “natural wines” just has I’ve had very good and very bad wines made in industrial facilities. Rather, I’m offended by the intellectual and practical consequences of laying a misappropriated and cynical vocabulary on top of a simple philosophy that otherwise would seem commendable to me. It’s all quite childish.

What’s interesting is that when you hear the ardent champions of today’s “natural” wine movement speak of those who inspired them or seemingly started a movement, few single out Matt Kramer. But they should. That they don’t hold Kramer in high regard as an inspiration for authenticity suggests these naturalists are equally uninformed about the early champions of “natural” wine as they seem to be about the numerous and early authenticity-minded winemakers whom they never mention and probably don’t know.

There is a good argument to be made that wines of real meaning, the kinds of wines that are reflections of something substantial, are those wines that portray the place, the culture and, to use Kramer’s term, the “somewhere-ness” of their origin. Matt Kramer has made this case for many years. One would think that the champions of “natural” wine would eagerly embrace his thoughts on “natural” wine, if only for proper and authentic guidance on how to pursue wines of meaning. If they don’t, it’s quite possible they will lose their way entirely and become a self-glorifying asterisk in the history of the pursuit to find and produce and celebrate real and authentic wine.


Posted In: Natural Wine


13 Responses

  1. jb - September 12, 2013

    “become a self-glorifying asterisk in the history of the pursue to find and produce and celebrate real and authentic wine.”

    Awkward grammatical error aside, Tom, this sounds like a pretty good description of you.

  2. Tom Wark - September 12, 2013

    You flatter me, JB. Thanks for the grammar tip.

  3. Dusty - September 13, 2013

    I can get behind you and Kramer for this particular article, but in following Matt’s posts on WS, I find him to be very inauthentic in his pursuit of shock value.

  4. Linkin’ logs: 9-13-13 | Decant This! … the wine blog of Bill Ward - September 13, 2013

    […] • The ever-wise Tom Wark shares some interesting thoughts on “natural” wines. […]

  5. Dave Brookes - September 13, 2013

    $#%@ authenticity….does the wine taste good?….. drink it…..shouldn’t deliciousness be the over-riding attribute that should be championed in any wine, whether natural, conventional or industrial? This self-absorbed, navel-gazing and “natural” wine bashing is beyond tedious…. what percentage of wine buyers give a hoot about terroir or authenticity?

    Maybe post-industrial is a better term then? or Lo-Fi (low $#%@ing intervention)….I don’t know what he answer is?…..maybe just drink the stuff if it tastes good and ditch the negativity.

  6. Michael - September 15, 2013

    Which wines are you talking about when you say, “numerous and early authenticity-minded winemakers whom they never mention and probably don’t know.” I feel like some solid reference points would be useful here.

    And “deliciousness” is an important factor, but not more than authenticity. Just another one. When I sell wine (distributor) I just let the customer taste, let the taste impression be the first thing, and then try to fill in with the story (authentic or not). The arguement thst deliciousness shiuld be the over-riding attribute is like someone arguing to buy American versus not: cotton is cotton, right? Who cares? I think consumers should. Why not use your dollars to speak your values. There are so many options, one can opt to not buy “inauthentic” (manipulated) considering all the options we now have.


  7. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) - September 15, 2013

    I see you are still in denial with regard to how the English language works! One of the many features of English that has contributed to it becoming one of the most expressive and widely used languages on Earth, is that its adjectives can have more than one meaning. This can be easily verified by simply opening a dictionary and looking up ANY adjective. The vast majority will have more than one meaning. As for ‘natural’ both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Websters each provide over ten different meanings. The OED’s meaning 7a (1991 edition) for ‘natural’ is “manufactured using only simple or minimal processes;”. This is generally the case with all natural languages of the world, not just English. Only in constructed languages like Newspeak (in George Orwell’s ‘1984’) was an attempt made to limit each adjective to only one meaning.

    The Encyclopedia Brittanica (1911 edition, that’s nineteen-eleven, ie 102 years ago) mentions “natural wine” in its entry on Wine, with the same meaning as is used today. Here: http://www.studylight.org/enc/bri/view.cgi?n=35196&search=span

    Another thing that struck me about this post is the logic of your argument: you say that few people involved with natural wine have ever mentioned Matt Kramer, and therefore this means that … whatever. But how can the lack of evidence be used to prove anything? Is this not an example of the logical fallacy called the Appeal to Ignorance? ie using the lack of evidence to prove something.

    Another logical fallacy that you use when you post about natural wine is the the “Straw Man” fallacy, ie setting up a fictitious “natural wine movement” with its “champions” and “naturalista” foot-soldiers, and it’s equally fictitious agenda of beliefs and marketing ploys, which you then proceed to knock down.

    “…laying a misappropriated and cynical vocabulary on top of …” Really? Do you really think there’s an evil conspiracy out there? A secret cabal of natual wine marketers who deliberately chose the word ‘natural’ to hoodwink the unsuspecting public and make wine trade people angry? ha ha! Interesting and amusing, but unfortunately no basis in reality.


  8. Tom Wark - September 15, 2013


    I always enjoy hearing from you and hashing this out with you.

    On the language thing, I think it is important the a word’s meaning be placed in context. Here the context is a consumable and the marketplace. Today, the word “natural”, applied to something one purchases to ingest is first and foremost a marketing term. There is no way around this conclusion, particularly when we are talking about a product like wine that is processed. Furthermore, the very fact that the term “natural wine” has no definition assures us that it is a marketing term, and not a description.

    Also, regarding the lack of reference to Matt Kramer by the champions of the Natural Wine movement, this was not a case of me engaging in argumentum ad ignorantiam. That is a very specific form of argumentation. What I was doing is making an observation about the NW movement. I was not using any particular form of logic.

    As for the “natural wine movement”, of course there is group of folks who are leading the charge to promote natural wine and of course there is a small coterie of followers. If you don’t like the word movement, I’m sorry. But it is a world perfectly suited to describe this philosophical approach to winemaking and its practical application. And my use of the term is in no way logical fallacy.

    As for ““…laying a misappropriated and cynical vocabulary on top of …”, you ask “Really?”. Yes, really. I never suggested, however there was a conspiracy to misappropriate anything. I do think there is a willingness to do so however by virtue of the fact that “Natural wine” is a perfect marketing word and continually used despite the fact that there are far more accurate words and phrases to use to describe what this movement is all about.

    I’m going to guess that you won’t agree with me here. That I can live with. Furthermore, there are a number of things that I can be accused of. Being pedantic is one of them. For example, I’m going to insist that where the issue of natural wine is concerned, I cannot be rightly accused of committing a logical fallacy nor an “appeal to ignorance.”

  9. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) - September 18, 2013

    Thanks for your very interesting reply.

    The language thing: There’s no doubt in my mind either that the word ‘natural’ is being used as a marketing term. By certain people. I’m sure you know better than I how sophisticated and manipulative marketers can be. They use images, videos, music, and of course words to make us buy products. So the abuse of the word ‘natural’ is no different from any other abuse (or over-use, or re-use, or whatever it’s called) of any other word, piece of music or whatever material. Marketers are marketers and they do as they do. But there are not many marketers out there as a percentage of the population of people who use the phrase ‘natural wine’. I’d say that 99% of said population are not marketers, but either people who consume, enjoy and talk about wine, or people involved in the wine trade. And they understand perfectly well what ‘natural’ means in that context. ie, meaning 7a of the OED “manufactured using only simple or minimum processing”, and NOT the main primary common meaning of ‘natural’ (ie “occuring naturally, like an ocean or a mountain). That is why I believe that your objection to the use of ‘natural’ has no basis in the reality of how the English language works. You would need to confront the major marketing companies of the world and get them to stop manipulating us all via their (ab)use of words, music, images, video, etc!!! Such is the life, death and tranformations of words! The same happened to the word ‘organic’ back in the 70’s. It’s primary meaning was, and still is, “composed of carbon atoms” but the meaning that everyone understands now, in the context of vegetables, fruit, food and wine is different (ie, grown without the use of certain chemicals). I believe the same has happened with the word ‘natural’.

    Natural wine movement. Yes, there obviously exists a movement in the vague philosphical abstract sense, like the ‘Peace Movement’ or the ‘Environmental Movement’ or whatever. But the natural wine movement in reality comprises thousands of individuals who do not necessarily agree on anything except a few basics. In all your posts, however, you give the impression that there is a real, physical ‘movement’ or association out there with an address, a president, ‘champions’, an agenda, and above all a team of evil marketers who are out to hoodwink the poor unsuspecting innocent public. In you 20+ posts on natural wine, only once have you actually quoted and referenced real people. All the other times it’s “The natural wine movement believes….” “The champions of the natural wine movements say …” I suppose it sounds a whole lot more dramatic if a whole great Movement believes or says something, than if it’s just Mr or Ms So-and-so who believes or says it!!!

    By creating this fictitious movement with it’s supposed agenda, you necessarily fall into the Straw Man Fallacy by knocking down all the supposed statements and beliefs of the so-called movement that you yourself set up. To be rigorously correct, you should name and quote the person who said the thing you object to, and not attribute it to a ‘champion’ or a ‘movement’.

    The ‘appeal to ignorance’ thing. I’m not an expert in Logic, but it just seemed strange to me that you used the lack of evidence of something to go ahead and prove something else. Is it not a bit like someone saying to you “Tom Wark has hardly ever mentioned Louis Pasteur in his posts. Therefore he he believes that fermentation is unimportant in the winemaking process”? !!!

    I believe I’m also starting to enjoy hashing this stuff out with you!

  10. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz) - September 18, 2013

    PS, For some wonderful examples of the marketing abuse of the word ‘natural’ see the links in my post here: http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com.es/2013/02/fraud-and-lies-continue-in-anti-natural.html (Natural cheese puff producers, Natural marshmallow producers, Natural jelly bean producers, and many more similar, including the apparently legitimate Natural Gas Producers, even though the production of such gas is tremendously hi-tech and complicated and anything but natural!!!)

  11. Tom Wark - September 18, 2013


    You wrote:

    “And they understand perfectly well what ‘natural’ means in that context. ie, meaning 7a of the OED “manufactured using only simple or minimum processing””

    What does “simple” mean? And how doe we define “minimum”?

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