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THURSDAY THORNS
01/05/2012
Thursday Thorns
A Brief Polemic About Natural Wine
                                                                                

By Charles Olken

There is a lot to be said about “natural wine”. Some of it makes sense, and some of it is nothing more than biased rhetoric. The latter is the work of folks who tred a different path wanting to make us think that they are the keepers of truth, justice and the American way.

In the last couple of days, two of the more thoughtful voices in the wine blogosphere, Tom Wark over on his blog, FERMENTATION, http://fermentation.typepad.com/fermentation/2012/01/natural-wine-ugly-underbelly.html, and Hardy Wallace on his entitled DIRTY SOUTH WINE, http://www.dirtysouthwine.com/my_weblog/2012/01/naturalwinepurrty.html, have discussed the rising phenomenon of “my way is better than your way” rhetoric that has become so very common in wine discussions.

Mr. Wark decries the phenomenon. Mr. Wallace, whose column is derivative of the Wark comments, sides with the naturalists.

The Wallace rationale that he does not drink fruit juice made from concentrate so why drink wine that has been made with more than minimal intervention from man is pretty solid—but only for Mr. Wallace and for those who prefer process to taste in choosing their wines.

It is hard for me, as a person who has been tasting wine professionally for three decades plus, to accept that process is the message. Process is process. As long as process does no harm to me, to consumers, to the environment, then it is acceptable. All wine is “made”. We have a name for those who control the process. It is “winemaker”. And, while some winemakers are less interventionalist than others, they all intervene. Otherwise, all grapes would be raisins and all wine would be vinegar.

So, when I hear the sloganeers for biodynamic or organic or sustainably grown wines denigrating those who do not subscribe to their specific subsets of process, I simply roll my eyes in wonderment and ask them if their wines taste better or not.

Of course, I have an answer for them after all these years—some do and some do not, but there is no body of proof that the processes of minimalism produce superior wines to those that are made from the same grapes with more but careful and thoughtful intervention.


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Comments

No Subject
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:1/5/2012 10:55:00 AM

I have to agree with Charlie here because he touches on an argument I have been making for years: the preference of process over taste by some people in the business. I have always been a hedonist. Wine gives us pleasure appealing to both the sensual and intellectual aspects of our beings. It is most important to me that a wine smell and taste pleasant, that it "turns me on." A wine that fails in that regard is simply not good. To me.

Where process becomes important is that is provides a way for me to figure out why a particular wine is good so that I can use that information to be a smarter buyer or, if you are in the trade, to provide information that will help the consumer to be a better buyer. Whether it is climate, soil, use of oak or natural yeasts, all of these bits of information about the process will help to tell someone why they liked or did not like a wine. The process is not good in and of itself, it is a window to understand why a wine is the way it is. If one thinks a process is good or bad, the end result, the flavor of the wine and whether it provides pleasure, becomes irrelevant because we are not tasting a wine but drinking an idea.

Process vs. flavor
by Blake Gray
Posted on:1/5/2012 12:13:35 PM

Charlie: It's a very good point. Nice breakdown. I've done a lot of eating or abstaining from various items for political reasons in my life (overfishing, cattle coops, etc.) and will continue to do so. But while, unlike the pure hedonist consumers, I will give natural winemakers an edge for their process, I will not dock conventional winemakers for theirs.

Coverup
by Gareth Carmody
Posted on:1/5/2012 11:26:22 PM

Natural wine means almost nothing... it is the natural grape vine that is missing.  That is the great coverup.

The vineyard
by Paul
Posted on:1/6/2012 9:40:58 AM

I think Gareth is on to something.

Much of the discussion has been about the influence of winemaking practices.

I would tend to think the question maybe - Do the grapegrowing practices have an effect on the nature and quality of the grape and ultimately the wine.

Does the use of petrochemicals for fertilizers , pesticides and herbicides have an impact on the nature of the fruit vs using natural methods of cover crops, compost and animal grazing?

The vineyard cont'd
by Cooper
Posted on:1/6/2012 10:09:15 AM

I can't disagree with the thoughts on taste, 'is it better'. But everyone wants to know the story of the grape AND the process. Full disclosure, I am an organic winegrape grower(yes certified). One thing I know is, compared to my neighbor chemical farmers, my grapes truly show what my site is and does. This is not my bias, this is from winemakers(plural) who buy my grapes and others. I wouldn't farm any other way and I very much enjoy that wines from my site show that they are from my site. Of course I do things but the philosophy is to work with the system, not fight it. Luckily I have been involved in the winemaking 'process' for the last two years doing a custom crush. This year at a biodynamic winery. The process is very different if done right. Again working with the system, not fighting it. OK I'll stop...fire away

What's in it
by Patrick
Posted on:1/6/2012 11:15:38 AM

Like Charlie, I first want my wine to taste good. That's No. 1. But I also want to know how it was made, and lots of winemakers don't want to tell us that. Was it fined? Filtered? De-alcholized? Micro-oxygenated? I would like to have more information, and Natural winemakers, despite their apparent binges of self-righteousness, are taking us in that direction.

Love The Land
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/6/2012 11:18:13 AM

I am a big fan of anyone who protects the land from which we get grapes. Some manmade chemicals are beneficial to that process--as others are also to mankind. Ultimately, the bottom line is the impacts on the fruit, on the land both long and short-term and on the wine. The process is a means to an end. It is not the end in and of itself.

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:1/6/2012 2:16:07 PM

Ditto, re "Love the Land," Charlie.  Kudos have to be given to those in the recent past who have been leaders towards sustainable, organic and even (if that's your persuasion) Biodynamic grapegrowing, and more "natural" and/or minimalist (granted, very loose terms) methodologies in the winery.  What's not to like?

But I will say this:  like you, Charlie, I've been interacting closely with vintners from here to Hungary for over 30 years, and very rarely do I see or hear any of them dissing each other, even those falling in the extreme "conventional" or BD sides of arguments.  It's writers and media who apply holier-than-thou rhetoric because, I suppose, writers and media are like the consumers themselves:  they make their choices, and they like to crow about it.

The clashes, as many in these online forums have been saying, are unseemly; but in the end, you have to say that it's all part of the process of dialogue and, hopefully, progress.  Without extremely vocal proponents among media and consumers who are doing the buying, we wouldn't have progress. 

For years, using just one example, people like Kermit Lynch were among the distinct minority arguing for minimalist winegrowing and winemaking.  Not all of Lynch's selections have been things of beauty, but consumers voted with their wallets and media eventually came around to it, and today wines associated with Lynch and other like minded importers and vintners have become a major part of the market:  I would say, a very good, healthy progression.

So to those who grouse about the "attitude" of natural/minimalist proponents:  get over it.  We need their noise.  Otherwise, would you prefer an opposite progression -- a market dominated by more industrialized wines with little or no soul, individuality, sense of place, good ol' fashioned artistry or craftsmanship?  Of course not!

The Ends Don't Justify the Meas
by Richard J. Mauro, Jr.
Posted on:1/7/2012 9:13:50 PM

I agree with Randy. Of course, nobody wants to drink wine or buy anything that doesn't taste good. But I will give preference to any quality product produced with "natural" methods (processes that reduce impacts on the environment and the potential for components in the finished product that could have adverse health affects) over a comparable product that isn't.

Randy's Dead On...
by TomHill
Posted on:1/9/2012 2:02:01 PM

I think Randy is dead-on on this subject. I know biodynamic/organic/conventional growers. I know "natural" and less-than-"natuural" winemakers. It is almost never them dissing the other camp. They explain how they do it and acknowledge others have their own way of doing it and respect them for what they do.

It's exactly as Randy states:

It's writers and media who apply holier-than-thou rhetoric because, I suppose, writers and media are like the consumers themselves:  they make their choices, and they like to crow about it.

The sturm & drang comes mostly from the writers/bloggers and hardly ever from the growers/winemakers.

Tom

 

natch'l wine
by bunt markewr
Posted on:1/13/2012 12:33:32 AM

Charlie

   The  question you pose is the question I constantly ask myself- it's the only question that matters.  Does it taste better?  I think, yes, sometimes, for some wines, from some (I would propose very special) vineyards, it does.  I hope I have one of those.  But it will take years to know.  In one sense I respect your circumspect approach to this seemingly contentious (I don't know why it is so) issue, in another I think you should state your posirion, or at least give some opinion, based on the "natural" wines you have tasted.  Obviously, you want to drink at this bar without wading into the barfight. Me too.  Mark

The Natural
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/13/2012 1:00:36 AM
The Natural
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:1/13/2012 1:27:25 AM

Hi Mark--

Sorry for the oops above, but thanks for your comments.

I don't have any real conclusions about which form of natural wines is superior to any other.

I do think that thoughtful viticulture, careful winemaking and providential vineyard choice are all likely to be the trump cards in our business. I have a strong preference for actions that do no harm to the planet and the pople who inhabit it, but that is where I draw the line. Ultimately, it is character, not process, that determines how much I like a wine.

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