Demolishing Natural Wine

One of America’s most experienced, accomplished and insightful wine writers recently demolished both the idea of “natural” wine and the intellectual artifice of the “natural” wine movement. This is notable because outside of intellectually disciplined observers of the wine world and some hacks like myself, there hasn’t been all that much push back against the foundations of “Natural Wine”.

In the course of schooling the natural wine movement at Wine Review Online, Paul Lukacs made the following point that deserves highlighting:

“Equating high quality with only one form of production is a mistake.  Some wines made by large commercial corporations taste wonderful, while some made by small-scale, hands-off vintners are flawed.  The assumption that only artisanal producers are able to make appealing wines is nonsense.  It also is, as Bianca Bosker suggests, a kind of snobbery, one based on a falsely romanticized understanding of history.”

Yes. It is nonsense. Yes. It is snobbery. But it’s also marketing, pure and simple.

Has anyone noticed that advocates of the “natural” movement have no interest in and actively oppose any formal definition or regulation of the term “Natural Wine”?

Recently, Doug Wregg, a strong and vocal supporter of Natural Wine, made clear that he opposes any definition of the term when he said the following in an interview with Sprudge Wine:

“I also believe that if you legislate (in terms of definitions) then you inhibit the freedom of the vigneron and the vigneron is the human element in the “terroir” of the wine, the one who guides from grape to bottle.”

The only thing that would be inhibited if there were a legal definition for “natural wine” would be the use of the term. Vigneron would still be free do whatever they choose with their grapes and their fermentation vessels. Mr. Wregg, as well as every other opponent of legislating a definition of “Natural Wine”, understand that the key to the success of natural wines is not the wines themselves, not their support of the magical nonsense known as “biodynamic farming”, not the occasionally unflawed bottlings of “natural” wine, nor the frequently well design labels attached to natural wine. Rather, they understand that the success of this category of wine is built primarily on the rhetorical use of the term “Natural”. Without unfettered, unregulated access to that term and everything it implies about the wines they don’t believe should wear that label, their movement would be no movement at all.

In the course of removing the intellectual foundations of the idea of Natural Wine, Lukacs makes a very salient point about the movement:

“The objection [by natural wine advocates to mass-produced commercial products], however, is not to how these wines taste.  No, the problem is who makes them.  The natural wine movement is at heart anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and anti-globalist.  It also is anti-democratic, for it views the world of wine as inherently hierarchical, with artisanal producers who make only small amounts of hard to find wines occupying the ladder’s top rung.”

Again, Lukacs is exactly correct about the ideological origins of the natural wine movement. The thing is, there is nothing new about people directing their purchasing habits in the service of their politics. What would have been nice, however, is if this view of the world led to an embrace of the thousands of small, family owned, terroir-dedicated artisan winemakers who have been working for decades around the globe to produce wines of authenticity. But it didn’t.

Instead, the natural wine movement began a campaign of nonsensical rhetoric aimed at convincing naive wine drinkers that everything but “natural wine” is mass-produced, “anything that isn’t “natural” is potentially harmful, and any wine that doesn’t fit the fluid definitions of natural is unnatural.

As a marketer, I have to give the mug slinging Naturalistas credit. They have done a wonderful job of relying on pure rhetoric, flash, and misdirection to build a category and sell wine. That’s not an easy thing to do.

For those interested in a balanced, nuanced, researched, rational discussion of the natural wine movement would do well to read Paul Lukacs’ Wine Review Online article, “Natural Wine, Really?


20 Responses

  1. Tom Riley - July 26, 2017

    Thank you! I’ve been saying this to myself for ages. So much blather, so much hoo hah. Pin the term down properly or drop it. Happily, the production of fine wine at every level will continue long after this dust-up is forgotten.

  2. Mike Dunne - July 26, 2017

    Good history and a fair and smart perspective in “Natural Wine: Really?” by Paul Lukacs, but the wine trade long has been “inherently hierarchical,” and attempts by natural winemakers to take advantage of that heritage doesn’t make them “anti-democratic,” let alone “anti-capitalist.” They’re just trying to take advantage of the system and offer something that by their view is different and better, however ambiguously defined it may be.

  3. Rich Reader - July 26, 2017

    I run into a lot of off-sale settings where terms like minimal, non-additive, non-pesticide, and sustainable are claimed by the owner. When shown that wines which they are selling use pesticides, they tend to let it slide and continue to sell that which they claim not to be selling. Yet they steer away from using the word “natural”.

    Misleading marketing language is too often falsely using these additional labels in their claim-frameworks. It should be illuminated as the horse hockey that it is.

  4. Richard - July 26, 2017

    You mean to tell me that if I put DoDo poop in a Unicorn horn, bury it, and then walk in three circles counter clockwise, during a waxing full moon, at exactly midnight just prior/after the beginning of the Spring Equinox, while I’m chanting inLatin (backwards), that it’s not going to be beneficial to my grapes? or the wine they produce? Hey! sounds like someone’s been trying to pull the wool over my eyes? I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you!! Those tricky marketing geniuses – what will they think of next?

  5. Drew DiMatteo - July 26, 2017

    When I read “occasionally unflawed bottlings of “natural” wine“ I realized the writer has little experience with drinking minimal intervention wine and this article is worthless. I suggest the writer visit Rouge Tomate before Pascaline Lepeltier is finished there. She will give him many more than “occasional” examples of unflawed minimal intervention wine. Or I suggest a visit to Day Wines in Oregon. There you will find some of the cleanest wines you ever tasted and yes, they are minimal intervention too.

  6. Tom Wark - July 26, 2017

    Drew,

    I’ve been drinking primarily minimal intervention wines for 30 years. I’ve known and been friends with minimal intervention winemakers for 30 years. I’ve walked through minimal intervention vineyards for 30 years. I’ve judged minimal intervention wines for 20 years.

    So, there’s that.

    Tom…

  7. Dennis Lapuyade - July 27, 2017

    My Take:

    1) “This is notable because outside of intellectually disciplined observers of the wine world and some hacks like myself, there hasn’t been all that much push back against the foundations of “Natural Wine”.

    Bullshit. Read your comment section and the comment sections surrounding any discussion of this issue and the peripheral issue of biodynamics. Some of these commentators are industry professionals, small winemakers, interested amateurs and, yes, kooks. The point is, there is, and always has been, serious blowback from all quarters. Unjustified and ill-informed blowback with arguments that approach the absurd (biodynamics is akin to quackery; no one here is qualified to make that argument). Even given all that, the most serious issue going forward is the co-opting of the term “natural” which is the first step to writing the rules as laid out by the Southern/Glazers of the world.

    2) “The assumption that only artisanal producers are able to make appealing wines is nonsense”.

    Who makes that assumption? Many of the most iconic wines in the world (Chave, Ridge, Chapoutier and hundreds of small producers worldwide) respect the precepts of natural winemaking without proclaiming themselves to be natural. Are we only looking for appealing wine or should we want more. Should we care where it comes from and how it is made? Should we care about transparency? Should a consumer ever cede their power to be informed? To be informed is to make things appealing. At least to me.
    I heartily endorse the natural wine movement for what it offers: transparency. I also enjoy many other wines not of the natural camp as long as I know the integrity of the producer.

    3)  “The only thing that would be inhibited if there were a legal definition for “natural wine” would be the use of the term”.

    Huh? There is a definition for natural wine.

    Hand-harvested biodynamic or organic grapes
    Zero pesticides, herbicides or fungicides in the vineyards
    Zero sulphur before bottling
    Native yeast fermentation
    Zero additions, zero subtractions to the must and or wine
    Zero to less than 40 ppm added sulphur at bottling
    Transparency in labeling

    Is it a legal definition? No. Is it a working definition? Yes. Is it a generally accepted definition? Yes. Taking away the term natural is not the answer. Transparency is. The list of words above printed on a label, or within a QR code or on a website is enough to inform the consumer as to what they are buying. In such a case let the term natural die. But the Industry is against labeling and transparency just as they are against the term natural. Let them write the rules, of course, and then everyone will be happy. Not! Obfuscation is in the best interests of those who fear knowledge. Get rid of the term natural and replace it with the words above. Fine with me.

    4) “The objection [by natural wine advocates to mass-produced commercial products], however, is not to how these wines taste.  No, the problem is who makes them.  The natural wine movement is at heart anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and anti-globalist.  It also is anti-democratic, for it views the world of wine as inherently hierarchical, with artisanal producers who make only small amounts of hard to find wines occupying the ladder’s top rung.”

    What? The author is really throwing terms around here. This is well reasoned? So organic farmers, vegan restaurants, climate change believers, fossil fuel opponents, and on and on, are anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and anti-globalist? That charge sounds positively Trumpian. Yes, these choices are political and informed and a response to the laissez-faire tendencies of unfettered capitalism; and they are hierarchical, just as the choice between climate change and no climate change is hierarchical, etc. Choosing between two things armed with information is not the same as accepting that which you are required to blindly buy. Articulating the reasons for your choice is to guarantee more of what you want.

    5) “What would have been nice, however, is if this view of the world led to an embrace of the thousands of small, family owned, terroir-dedicated artisan winemakers who have been working for decades around the globe to produce wines of authenticity. But it didn’t.”

    What? Sounds like you are describing a natural winemaker. (I’m assuming of course, that by a “dedication to terroir” you mean, at the least, to support the abundance of a soil’s microbial life, and that demands the prerequisite of organic farming.)

    In the end, however, I don’t believe it’s a question of keeping producers out of the movement than it is of producers opting out for themselves. For whatever reason, they choose not to identify with the movement, which is fine, but they still can (and are smart to) promote the nature of their farming and the purity of their wine because they can, AND it’s good business.

    6) “Instead, the natural wine movement began a campaign of nonsensical rhetoric aimed at convincing naive wine drinkers that everything but “natural wine” is mass-produced, “anything that isn’t “natural” is potentially harmful, and any wine that doesn’t fit the fluid definitions of natural is unnatural”.

    Here is expressed the most ill-informed, prejudicial and ultimately telling assertion of this “well reasoned” piece: That natural wine consumers are naive. Fact is, they are among the most well informed consumers in the world (not necessarily in terms of technical winemaking) but in demanding accountability and coming armed with a wealth of ancillary knowledge gleaned from the political consumer battles of the past. (It took years for consumers to understand the fact that worms occasionally show up in an organic salad but that didn’t stop the movement.)

    The claims of natural winemakers that their product is healthier are assertions of belief and many of the beliefs are fact-based. Natural wines are lower in alcohol. That in itself is healthier than one unnecessarily high in alcohol. Natural wines are free of synthetic chemicals which is very different from the average supermarket wine which, according to tests, are largely contaminated by synthetics. (We all aware of the tests that demonstrate this fact.)

    In my opinion, to continually attack natural wine and its adherents is to be on the losing side of history. There is no doubt that the consumers of today, and more importantly tomorrow, are demanding healthy and authentic alternatives to the mass-produced. To think otherwise is to be guided by the rear-view mirror. The irony is that natural wine producers are looking back to move forward.

    Disclosure: I am not in the wine trade but I write a blog about Swiss wine while living in Switzerland. I advocate among all the producers I meet to be transparent and as natural as possible. I take objection to the sort of anti-natural rhetoric on display here because I believe it is out of date and out of touch with the direction of the modern consumer. Just my take.

  8. Tom Wark - July 27, 2017

    Dennis:

    “Unjustified and ill-informed blowback with arguments that approach the absurd (biodynamics is akin to quackery; no one here is qualified to make that argument). Even given all that, the most serious issue going forward is the co-opting of the term “natural” which is the first step to writing the rules as laid out by the Southern/Glazers of the world.”

    Stop with the claim that blowback is unjustified and ill informed. Some of the best minds in wine have criticized the natural wine movement. It’s not that they are ill informed, it’s that you don’t like their positions. And it’s easy to criticize biodynamics. It’s based on magic. And if you don’t want your marketing term (natural wine) co-opted, then codifiy it.

    “Is it a legal definition? No. Is it a working definition? Yes. Is it a generally accepted definition? Yes. Taking away the term natural is not the answer.”

    The term “natural” is about as misleading a marketing term I’ve ever seen used in the wine industry for the simple reason that what both Gallo does and what “natural” producers do is very far from natural. But it sure sounds good. It also implies that if it’s not “natural” it’s “unnatural”. And that right there is the most important marketing pitch “natural” producers have: That everything else is dangerous, unnatural and inauthentic.

    “In the end, however, I don’t believe it’s a question of keeping producers out of the movement than it is of producers opting out for themselves. For whatever reason, they choose not to identify with the movement, which is fine, but they still can (and are smart to) promote the nature of their farming and the purity of their wine because they can, AND it’s good business.”

    Producers who currently choose not to use the term “natural” to describe their wines do so because they understand the basic fraud the term represents. Never before has a category of wine been adopted and pushed that has as its foundation the degradation of other wines. That’s what the “natural” wine marketing movement is.

    “Here is expressed the most ill-informed, prejudicial and ultimately telling assertion of this “well reasoned” piece: That natural wine consumers are naive. Fact is, they are among the most well informed consumers in the world (not necessarily in terms of technical winemaking)”

    No they aren’t. They aren’t even close. We know this because they largely accept the hyperbolic and rhetorical claims of the movement.

    “The claims of natural winemakers that their product is healthier are assertions of belief and many of the beliefs are fact-based. Natural wines are lower in alcohol. That in itself is healthier than one unnecessarily high in alcohol. Natural wines are free of synthetic chemicals which is very different from the average supermarket wine which, according to tests, are largely contaminated by synthetics. (We all aware of the tests that demonstrate this fact.)”

    Have you ever noticed that you and other natural wine champions always want to compare natural wines to “supermarket” wine or “industrial” wine or “commercial” wine? Have you ever noticed that natural wine champions make the point that “most of the wine in the world” is mass produced? Why don’t you folk ever acknowledge that the vast majority of wines and wineries in the world are small, family owned artisan producers? The reason natural wine champions never do this is it would ruin their marketing narrative that the natural wine producers are somehow taking on the corporate wine world. Well, the natural wine producers are bringing up the end in that regard. They are the last people to the table. They are copy cats. Small, artisan, independent producers who carefully cultivate the land and use minimalist intervention in the vineyard and the cellar have been at this for decades before the term “natural” came along and its promoters sought to make the claim that only they are pushing back against the monolithic world of wine.

    • Dennis Lapuyade - July 27, 2017

      Bottom line–there is rhetoric and hyperbole on both sides. You place me in a camp without knowing what I do. That’s your business. Natural wine producers are winning the marketing war with water pistols and pitchforks. That’s what the other side can’t stand. Hyperbole starts with you and the arguments those with your opinion put forth. It is your only defense.

      We shall see where history takes us as I believe truth and integrity will win out. We’ll see. Until then we are all blowing smoke.

      • Tom Wark - July 27, 2017

        Dennis, I place you in a camp based on what you wrote in your comments.

        As for “the war”….it’s being fought by one side. Those producers who don’t call themselves “natural” (99.9% of producers) haven’t lifted a finger against the movement. So, let’s not cling to a martyr complex.

        Finally, I’d urge you to investigate the difference between rhetoric and dialectic.

  9. Richard - July 27, 2017

    Bravo Tom. I wrote the tongue in cheek comments above re: Unicorn horns etc. But you are spot on – I’m a painfully small producer and my wines are “natural.” But? I don’t put that on the label because it’s meaningless – most of my grapes are 100% organic, there’s no fining or filtering, and there is little else. The wine has “natural” yeast and new oak… so what is not natural about that? Yet you’ll never see it on my label. Now, if you’ll pardon me, this kook is going to keep looking for that unicorn…

  10. Scott Rich - July 27, 2017

    Regarding Dennis Lapuyade’s comments, the idea of “naturalistas” on one side and everyone else on the other is ludicrous. Like religion and politics, this discussion is driven by extremists on both sides – “natural” wines versus supermarket wines. The reality is that a vast continuum representing the majority of winemaking philosophies and practices exists between these two extremes and most of the wine in the world represents something in between, including my own. While several of the vineyards I source from are organic and our winemaking practices use mostly minimal intervention, we don’t choose to use these facts for marketing. I’m also not willing to pour bad wine down the drain because a philosophy prevents me from making rational decisions. That is the antitheses of sustainability. The point is to simply to make good wine.

    Mr. Lapuyade’s definition of natural wines falls flat with the first line: “Hand-harvested biodynamic or organic grapes”, followed by “Zero pesticides, herbicides or fungicides in the vineyards”. One of the most common misconceptions I hear from consumers related to organic grape growing is the belief that organic farming does not utilize pesticides, which is simply untrue. Organic farming utilizes numerous pesticides that are simply different than those used in conventional or sustainable farming. For example, sulfur is commonly used in the vineyard for both organic and sustainable farming, but the sulfur used for organics must be mined, while sulfur used for sustainable farming is often sourced as a by-product of refining oil. I suspect that Mr. Lapuyade drives a car or consumes products that utilize plastic, so he uses oil. In this case, it comes down to which is worse for Mother Earth – tearing holes into her skin to extract a single product or using by-products from a different (while I acknowledge that oil extraction is a nasty business) process that we already inevitably (at least for now) utilize. Organic pesticides aren’t necessarily harmless – the plant family Nicotiana is the source of organic nicatinoid pesticides, but these pesticides have been implicated in a number of environmental problems. Organic farming also usually requires more passes through a vineyard than sustainable farming, so unless you are using farm animals in the vineyard, organic farming’s carbon footprint is sometimes larger than that of sustainable farming. Furthermore, organic or biodynamic farming doesn’t work everywhere. For example, when a well-known Napa winery expanded it’s operations to west Sonoma county, they embraced the idea of farming biodynamically and lost their first few crops to disease because biodynamic techniques were not a good fit for that climate. When it comes to biodynamics, it requires the farmer to pay a great deal of attention to the vineyard and this is a good thing. That doesn’t mean that all of the arcane practices are valid. I’ll buy into it when someone can demonstrate it’s efficacy using the scientific method and obtain reproducible, documentable, fact-based evidence of it’s utility.

    Tom, you noted that the blowback against “natural” wines has been muted and there’s a rational reason for that. Most of us don’t care enough to respond and because the enthusiasm for “natural” wines is primarily based on belief, rather than science, convincing believers that their beliefs are not well-founded is a useless exercise. As usual, people want simple answers for a complicated world, but that approach doesn’t provide answers that are correct.

  11. Bob Rossi - July 28, 2017

    “The only thing that would be inhibited if there were a legal definition for “natural wine” would be the use of the term. Vigneron would still be free do whatever they choose with their grapes and their fermentation vessels.”
    Precisely. I’ve been visiting French vineyards for about 30 years, usually small, family run wineries. In the last few years, when I started to become more aware of the use of the term “natural,” I started to pay attention to whether wineries used that term, or a French equivalent.” I believe there may have been 1. Many of them may have been making wine that would qualify as “natural” under most definitions, but I never asked. But pretty much all of them were small producers making excellent wines.

  12. Bart Johnson - July 28, 2017

    “You cannot go against nature
    Because when you do
    Go against nature
    It’s part of nature too”
    Love & Rockets

  13. Jim Macias - July 28, 2017

    As a wine consumer and amateur wine enthusiast I follow two simple principles:

    1) Apriori, I hold no biases against how wine is made or where it comes from. Indeed, I try to experience wines of different styles and
    from different corners of the world, limited only by access and affordability.

    2) Irrespective of where the wines from and the end-to-end processes by which they are produced, I must ENJOY THE WINE!

    My first experience with “natural wine” was not a pleasant one. Four of us had dinner at a small, independently owned
    kitchen in Shanghai recently. We drank a very nice Nero d’Avola with the starters and then decided to get one more bottle for the mains.
    Should have simply doubled down on the Sicilian red, but I wanted to try something else. The waiter enthusiastically recommended
    a red wine from Languedoc, saying everyone is raving about it and the chef loves it as well. Well, it was bizzare stuff from the nose (wet dog) to
    the finish. The taste was off-putting and there was no balance or structure to it. I rarely send wine back especially at a small establishment
    because they have bills to pay. Wine has to be corked, heavily oxidized, or have gone off in some obvious manner before I would refuse it. But it seems this wine was
    made this way intentionally so we stayed with it. No one liked it much, even though my friends tried to offer some faint praise for it mostly
    I think so I didn’t feel bad for having selected it.

    I did not know beforehand that this was a natural wine, and I wasn’t all that familiar with the term/style in any case. I damn sure did some follow-up reading (online and otherwise) to get a handle on
    reading of available literature (online and otherwise) to get a better handle on what had happened that night.

    Back to principle 1), perhaps what I experienced is not indicative of natural wines overall, so I won’t paint them all with one color. That said, I have only so much
    only so much time and resources available to pursue this hobby, and thus it might take some convicing for me to knowingly select a wine
    described and natural in future.

    • Bob - July 29, 2017

      Jim, I had a similar experience with a “natural” wine at a restaurant in Ottawa last year, although I had plenty of prior experiences with “natural” wines, some of them good. In any event, it was a large family gathering following the death of a dear family member. Someone had researched restaurants, and came up with this one (which turned out to be pretty good). Although I didn’t know it beforehand (but did as soon as I looked at the wine list), the list was heavy, but not exclusively, “natural” wines. I was doing the wine ordering, and we had some very good whites and sparkling wines to start. Then it came time to order some reds. They were out of my first choice, so I ordered a Loire red (a Gamay) from a producer who I knew was considered a pioneer in “natural” wines in the Loire but whose wines I hadn’t tried. Well, the wine was incredibly disappointing. It sounds like yours was much worse, since this wine wasn’t obviously flawed. But it did not taste anything like any Gamay I’ve ever had. In fact, it could have been almost any grape from anywhere. I think the predominant flavor was Brett. No one hated the wine, but no one liked it.

      • Jim Macias - July 29, 2017

        Bob, many thanks for your comments. As mentioned, I am not fundamentally against any style of wine production, but I did have a quite difficult first experience with this one. Assume there are some “natural” wines out there worth trying?

  14. Jeff V - July 29, 2017

    It continues to amaze me that a wine category that comprises about 0.01% of all wine sales in the USA gets this much attention.

    I’ve been in the wine business for 15 years, and I have never heard of the “Wine Review Online”……after visiting the site, I can see why.

    Can someone point me in the direction of where I might find the official definition of “commercial wine” or “industrial wine”?

  15. Rae Ilama - November 14, 2017

    Having stumbled upon this site while exploring wine blogs- natural and otherwise, I find it interesting that the totality or the majority of comments are from middle aged men who exhaust themselves by quarreling over semantics.

  16. Tom Wark - November 15, 2017

    Rae,
    Having just stumbled across your comment here on my blog, I find it interesting that the totality of your comment is without merit. But feel free to clarify.


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