Wine and the Myth of Natural

Is “natural wine” better for you? Is “natural wine” tastier? Is “natural wine” really just an expression of a nostalgic ideology but possessing no particular benefits over conventionally made wine?

Areo Magazine, one of the most insightful online publications currently available and resembling Quillette, another searching publication, offers up a fascinating essay that is entirely relevant to the “natural wine” movement in our industry.

“The Myth of Natural”, written by Elizabeth Dangerfield, reminds us of an important truth:

“If you want people to buy your product just label it natural. If you want to disapprove of something just label it unnatural. Yet, to embrace the idea that everything natural is good and wholesome and everything artificial is false and dangerous, is to live in a fool’s paradise.”

For years now I’ve reminded my readers that the “natural wine” moniker is much more a marketing move than it is anything else. The foundation of the marketing behind “natural wine” is the recognition among producers that consumers possess a cynical attitude toward modernity and the technoculture we live in. “Natural” is a slogan that makes us feel better about what we consume and how we live. This is an important explanation for why so many producers of “natural” wine have no interest at all in giving regulatory definition to the term. To do so would render the marketing value diminished.

Dangerfield explains better than I do:

“The words organic and natural are a mantra to help ward off the stressful realities of modern life. Maybe they represent nostalgia for an imagined time when we were more in tune with our environment and lived a less superficial life…

“I belong to an organic growers’ society because I think that an organic approach to growing food makes people stop and think about what they are doing to the soil. But I know that there is no observable difference in taste between organic and non-organic food, despite our wishful thinking. I know that the active chemical in the pesticide pyrethrum is the same whether it comes from an organic or non-organic source…

“People in the past had no choice but to go natural. As a result, many of them did not survive childhood. Around one quarter of all children did not live past their first year; roughly half died before puberty. As an infant, in the early 1950s, I contracted scarlet fever and was given a new wonder drug: penicillin. This unnatural intervention saved my life…

“The problems start when an idyllic image of nature is held up as a reason to prevent people from making choices based on factual information and their own requirements. In some cases, the natural is best attitude can lead to the rejection of critical thinking, evidence-based decision making and science. The anti-vaccination and anti-family planning campaigns are examples of this…

“In our modern society, we are fortunate to be able to choose the unnatural path. To live well into our eighties, to not die of heart attacks or strokes at a young age, to beat cancer, to be able to choose how many children to have, and if we can’t have any by natural means to use IVF. Women no longer die in huge numbers in childbirth; we can control our own fertility; our careers and options are unlimited by old-fashioned concepts of what it means to be a woman. We can choose what is best for our bodies and our lives. In many ways, natural is not best.”

Dangerfield provides us with thoughtful reasons to question the claims and motivations of those championing “natural wine”. But the reasons have been there for years. In my case, I became immediately skeptical of the “natural wine” movement when I noticed its champions bashing and making spurious claims concerning “conventional” or undefined “industrial” wines. I retain my skepticism.

Posted In: Natural Wine

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14 Responses

  1. Bruce susel - August 12, 2019

    Hello Tom I hope all is well.

    I mainly agree with the article. I also believe that many people don’t know that organic wine can be loaded with added sulfites, and that organic simply means no adulteration in the vineyard.

  2. Gareth Monello - August 13, 2019

    Making it too complicated. “Natural,” primarily, is non-GMO. “Organic” must not be GMO as defined by the USDA, the FDA and the Cartagena Protocol. Natural must not have added chemicals for flavors including new oak barrels as most of the added chemicals are toxic and in combination, carcinogenic. Natural grapes making natural wine was the way wine was made for centuries. GMO wine is recent and has no flavors just like most GMO anything.

  3. Bruce susel - August 13, 2019

    Thanks for the great explanation

  4. Tom Wark - August 13, 2019

    Gareth,

    You wrote:

    “GMO wine is recent and has no flavors just like most GMO anything.”

    This is a completely unsupportable claim and a really odd one at that, too.

  5. Gareth Monello - August 13, 2019

    Have you ever drunk a wine made from GMO grapes without any added chemical flavors? I have. Dull and flat. Also, almost all GMO grapes are very young (and die early) like in Napa. That is also a problem for authentic flavors. The roots do not reach deep into the ground where most of the mineral rich soils exist which provide the natural flavors.

  6. Nathan - August 13, 2019

    I think you’re right that it is a marketing term, for sure. But, I don’t think we should see that as a damning aspect. Marketing terms, when successful, help place products into the right markets. I’ve found that I’m more likely to enjoy wines that are typically described as “natural wine” than those that aren’t, so without more information, I’ll lean in that direction when buying.

    The merits of any given wine are and should certainly be measured individually (i.e. not all natural wine is good, nor will I necessarily dislike anything not described as such), but so long as paying attention to the “marketing term” often leads me to wines I enjoy, I’ll be thankful for the term.

    Thanks for the post, though! I enjoyed it.

  7. Gareth Monello - August 13, 2019

    You’re missing the point. A “natural” wine or “organic” wine cannot be genetically modified. And the vast majority of wines are GMO with hundreds of toxic chemical added for fake flavors. You cannot find a “natural” wine in the marketplace! If you can – let us know, please.

  8. Tom Wark - August 13, 2019

    Gareth:

    You wrote:

    “Also, almost all GMO grapes are very young (and die early) like in Napa. That is also a problem for authentic flavors. The roots do not reach deep into the ground where most of the mineral rich soils exist which provide the natural flavors.”

    I don’t think anyone is going to credibly argue that Napa Valley grapes have no authentic flavors. Also, as you know, that vast majority of a wine’s flavor profile is derived from the variety being bottled, not the “mineral rich soils”.

  9. Paul Vandenberg - August 13, 2019

    Natural wine

    Some thoughts while pruning after the annual reports.
    Natural wine. It has no generally agreed upon definition, it does have a legal one in the USA. It means no alcohol has been added, legally, the vast majority of wine in the 7-14% alcohol range is Natural Wine. The French government is working on a legal definition. I find it a meaningless phrase.
    Wine is not natural. It is an artifact of human activity. It exists in the natural world as a few fleeting molecules before turning into vinegar and other substances.
    It’s not natural.
    Wine requires a vessel and a human. Then some processes to get fruiting bodies into the vessel and manage the results.
    I prefer to keep it fairly simple. I introduce selected yeasts and bacteria to supplement those coming with the grapes, picking process, and winery process. I mostly put juices and wines into barrels to manage the environ and results.
    It’s not natural.
    I focus most of my efforts into growing as perfect a grape as I know how. We are in our sixth year of being a Zero Pesticide Vineyard. No insecticides, herbicides, fungicides( sulfur IS a pesticide). We planted non-indigenous species. We trellis, irrigate, shoot thin, leaf pluck, … it’s possibly insane human intervention. I’m a servant to my vineyard.
    It’s not natural.
    Natural. A word loved by folks making granola with multiple sweeteners, also loved by folks trying to make a living by creating verbiage while writing about wine, especially “Pet-Nat” bottlings. Loved by people using additives produced in a chemical factory in New Jersey.

    We ingredient label, I’ve not seen that on a bottle of “natural wine”, our list is very short. Grapes, yeast, potassium metabisulfite, malolactic bacteria would be a typical red wine.

    The grapes grown with zero pesticides, exceeding Organic standards and not meeting Biodynamic because we have sprayed them with nothing, no magic potions.
    It’s still not natural, except when communicating with the TTB.

    I prefer my food to be pure and simple and wholesome, I’ve been a gardener/ cook for 55 years. I’m not obsessed, at this time of year I buy supermarket produce. It’s not organic in our little town and I won’t burn fossil fuel to drive to the next town for organic salad greens. I try and put the carbon footprint first.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol
    Winegrower of ingredient labeled wines from a Zero Pesticide Vineyard, certified Organic by WSDA

  10. Helene - August 14, 2019

    Interesting and valid summary, Tom. Thank you.

    Unfortunately far too many natural wines marketed as such in Europe are so ‘natural’ as to be ‘unnatural’, that is undrinkable. I won’t name names, but when I judge organic wines for various groups, I tend to judge them as any other wines. When they are good, they are good; when they are poor, they are horrid. Ah, and at least in the EU, the wines are not ‘organic wines’, they are ‘wines from organically grown grapes.’ (Thank you, Brussels…)

  11. Paul franson - August 15, 2019

    I think one of the biggest claims is “natural” yeast, but study after study shows that most wines are primarily fermented by “feral” Cultured yeast that’s taken up residence in wineries and vineyards. As for the avoidance of sterilizing sulfur dioxide, maybe we should start selling refrigerated wine like milk 🙂

  12. Gareth Monello - August 15, 2019

    Again, and concentrate — “Organic” cannot be made from GMO grapes as defined by the USDA, the FDA and the Cartagena Protocol. Most all wineries who say they are organic are fake. I can tell from a mile away if any grapevine is a genetically modified mutant and inevitably produces mainly tasteless wine.

  13. Jim Lapsley - August 19, 2019

    Mr. Monello: I know of no GMO wine grapes grown in California. Can you name one variety that is GMO? The winegrape varieties grown in California are the same varieties grown in Europe and are propagated from cuttings. With regard to “Organic”, that is a legal term in the U.S. defined by the USDA. “Organic Wines” cannot have any added sulfites. “Wine made from organic grapes” can have added sulfites.

  14. Gareth Monello - August 19, 2019

    Not sure whether you are purposely ignorant or just refuse to know. Most of the wine industry remains ignorant on this subject as you exemplify.

    The term GMO, the technical legal term, ‘living modified organism’ is defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates international trade in living GMOs (specifically, “any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology”).

    FDA and Regulation of GMOs. Genetically engineered or genetically modified organisms (“GMO”s, or “GM foods”) are defined as those in which “the genetic material (“DNA”) has been altered in such a way that does not occur naturally.”

    A Hybrid Plant and a Graft Hybrid are the cross breeding and genetic modification of two plant species – Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Labrusca produced through human manipulation, allowing genetic reorganization that gives rise to changing characteristics. The graft hybrid – most all the grapes grown in California and Europe — is a GMO — or genetically modified organism. It combines two different plant species producing a third modified plant which behaves differently than either parent, especially the Vitis Vinifera scion. The negative effect was thoroughly researched in the rootstock comparison trials undertaken by the Roseworthy Grape and Wine Research in the 1990’s.

    A GMO anything cannot be grown from a seed or cutting which was always the natural way to plant and replant. Vitis Vinifera which has been grown for centuries is propagated from a seed or cutting. Cannot be with a GMO plant..


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