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Monday Manifestos
The Unnatural Stink Over Natural Wines

By Stephen Eliot

I admit it. The more the deepening debate over natural wines goes on, the more confused I become.

As anyone who takes wine at all seriously is all too aware, there has been no shortage of fundamentalist zeal emanating from the crusaders for “natural” wines, and no clear definition as to just what the word really means. That observation, of course, is neither original nor in any way new. Maybe, it’s just me, but there has been a distinct taste of scholasticism to much of the conversation of late, and, as we have seen in the parallel and, I sometimes think, not-unrelated conflict over the “correct” levels of alcohol in wine, there has been a fair amount of derision hurled at those with opposing, or even less-than-enthusiastically supportive, views.

The battle lines are not at all clear, and, for the life of me, I do not know why there needs to be a battle, nor is it always clear just who is at the flag-waving vanguard of either side. I have wondered why is it not sufficient for a winemaker is simply say, “this is what I do and why I do it. I hope you like it”, and in so wondering I realized that I have yet to hear other than just that from winemakers themselves. I do not hear winemakers trashing one and other and citing a laundry list of their offending sins. Over the years, I have in fact found a remarkable sense of collegial respect and friendship among those in the winemaking community and little inclination to choosing up sides and the forming of cliques. No, the intractable “my way or the highway” stance that drips with oh-so-principled purity seems to be coming from somewhere else.

The rise in interest of “natural” wines has been termed a “movement,” and “movements”, it seems to me, have an abiding need for philosophical justification that separates them from the norm and imbues a certain superiority to their cause. This, I think, comes from writers, retailers, wholesalers, sommeliers and, yes, a host of bloggers, whose success is in no small part dependent on being different and “better” than others in their niche. And, you cannot have “better” without having “worse.” I sometime wonder if we look for and even invent conflicts and causes just so we can be right.

The thing about crusades and movements, however, is that they are subject to schisms, and the bigger the movement, the more likely the schism. There is after all, only so much “right” to go around. I remember a comment from Andrew Jeffords last fall when he opined in his column in Decanter magazine that “before too long, I would guess, there will be a scission in the natural wine world.” And, as reported this week in the same publication, that scission may have begun with two significant wine fairs devoted to natural wines scheduled for the same week-end in London this May. The announcement is what inspired this morning’s musings. The organizers of each claim no competition or conflict, but as sales of wines touted as being have been reported on the decline in London of late, the marketplace is first and foremost about competition.

Now, I would not for a minute argue that the debate over alcohol and what is or is not natural is pure invention, but it has gotten so out of control that I hear far less discussion about what the attributes of a given wine and more about it how adheres to one or another credo. For me, it is about what’s in the glass, about pleasure above and beyond all else. I, for one, would not refuse to drink a deep, delicious, involvingly complex wine because it was not made with indigenous yeast or was fermented in new barrels any more that I could find pleasure in a volatile, bacterially active bottle simply because it was made by a conscientious winemaker whose minimalist ethics were beyond reproach. I do not subscribe to “warts and all” school.

I still recall a fairly expensive wine that was highly recommended by a true-believing sommelier with the caveat that “if you do not know about wines, you might think it is funky.” Well, I do know about wine, and it was most assuredly funky, and its vivid memory unfortunately lingers on. Happily, I remember more clearly the remarkable 2002 Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon recently drunk with a perfectly prepared loin of lamb. I do not know how it scored on anyone’s “natural” scale, and I do not care.

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by Gerald Weisl
Posted on:3/2/2012 4:26:19 PM

Thanks for voicing this issue...

I've often wondered how some of these proponents of "all things natural" can appreciate bottles of what I view to be such strange and oten flawed wines. 

I applaud people for making a good bottle of wine and might applaud a little louder if it's made with the idea of being environmentally-friendly and such.  But there is often such thunderous applause for the undrinkable, that I wonder "What am I missing?"

I'd like to see some of the people who champion "natural" (above all else) sit down to a blind-tasting and have to state their preferences and critique without knowing if the wine was bottled by a wine "factory" (inherently bad, we're led to believe) or some "artisan" estate with biodynamic viticulture, indigenous yeasts, etc., etc. etc.

You know, not bathing for a week is "natural," but I would not consider it, thank-you-very-much.

Naturally Annoyed
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:3/2/2012 7:26:16 PM

I drink wine--natural, unnatural, supernatural, hypernatual, necronatural, and preternatural. I judge them all on the same basis. Do they taste good to me.

Words like "natural," "naked," and "authentic" when applied to wine depend upon the lack of knowledge on the part of the consumer to be taken seriously. It's like "sustainable"--an utterly meaningless word in marketing jargon, but tossed around as if it had some truth. There's an unhealthy air of smugness to the whole debate. It's fine to make "natural" wine. It's your label, do what you like. But are there a lot of consumers who actually care that their wines are "authentic?" I don't really think there are that many of them, nor are there that many who are capable of judging them in that light anyway.

It sure has sold a lot of books and below-average wine though. Someone is making money.  It also kills a lot of space in wine blogs, which is always something bloggers are grateful for.


Free the squirrels
by Alfonso C
Posted on:3/4/2012 4:53:08 PM

Naturally, I "guffawed" on that last sentence, Sir Hosie

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/4/2012 7:01:48 PM

Just remember, Alfonso, you heard it here first.

Natural Selection
by Alan Baker
Posted on:3/5/2012 10:33:17 AM

Cheers Charlie.

Once again you're providing a balanced look at a strangely controversial topic.

In a discussion at WOPN last weekend the topic came up and as we considered almost none of the grapes we grow for winemaking in CA are on their native rootstock... well the debate ended there.


Cartograph Wines

Good Topic
by Rudy
Posted on:3/5/2012 2:57:09 PM

I appreciate the post, and the subject manner.  I agree, sustainability is a vague term and it is overused.  However, it is not meaningless.  For most (as the conversation shows), the word sustainability in this context stands for a broad and loose approximation of organic, natural, or alternative methods and practices for producing wine.  So at minimum the word acclimates us to the platform of the conversation.  So big deal . . .right?  I agree mere context is not enough.  The market has also not accepted the ambiguity, and has responded with the proliferation of third party rating programs (a majority of which are voluntary) that evaluate the entire value chain of wine with specific criteria and quantifiable metrics. These programs are not perfect, and so they are continually evolving to meet market demands and expectations.  In the end, I don't think anyone would argue that product differentiation is bad, and if anything that's what sustainable wines provide.  The market is over-saturated and highly competitive and buyers will decide how they value each individual wine.  If anything the fact that a continual argument exists regarding the topic shows that sustainability and wine has a pulse and consumer demand, regardless of how it's implemented and/or the scale of the niche.

Thanks for the conversation.

naturally fuzzy logic
by Beau
Posted on:3/5/2012 2:59:36 PM

Every time I hear about a "natural" wine I always think back how many vineyards, all perfectly spaced and trellised, that exist in nature. If a vineyard, the soure of the grapes in a "natural" wine is inherently unnatural, how can the derivative of those grapes be natural? The phrases "minimally processed" or maybe "minimal intervention" make more sense but they won't sell as many books or fill as much blog space, and maybe that's where the problem lies.

Unnatural Superiority?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/5/2012 4:16:38 PM

I suspect that the "nose in the air" superiority that proponests of natural, organic and biodynamics wines attach to themselves and their products is at least part of what offends unaligned observers.

And, let's face it. Anything that is done to transform grapes into wine is interventionalist by its very nature--as are all actions to prevent wine from continuing on its merry path to vinegar.

Planting vitis vinifera on native rootstocks is not natural. The list goes on and on.

In Australia, Biodynamic rules are different from what they are in the U. S. because the Aussies face challenges that neither we nor Rudolf Steiner ever met.

On the whole, I agree with what Ron Washam said. "Does the wine taste good to me"?

"Natural" wines
by Rusty Gaffney MD
Posted on:3/5/2012 10:21:41 PM

I would highly recommend the book, "Authentic Wine," by Goode & Harrop as the definitive unbiased look at "natural" wines and the "natural" wine movement.  If you don't want to read the whole book, I urge you read pp 146-148 written by Ted Lemon of Littorai who summarizes beautifully the whole subject: "Natural wine and natural winemaking do not exist.  They are an endless path of discovery, the endless quest to minimize human intervention in the production of wine.  The decisions on this path are unique to a given vineyard, winery and moment in time in human cultural experience.  This is just as it should be."  Enough said!

No Subject
by Jeff
Posted on:3/6/2012 12:03:06 AM

Re: Austrailia.  I believe that they also have the most acreage under biodynamic agriculture in the world, primarily because they could turn fallow soil into productive land by using the preperations.

There are numerous biodynamic options for farmers, it is not a cookie cutter practice.  Now, if you wanted to create a 90 point wine, that practice is very specific, just bring your wine down to one of those "quality metrics for wineries" places, and voila!  A perfectly manufactured wine of "taste".

Of course, "taste" is very subjective and if you have the same "tastes" as you did 30 years ago, well then, the joke is on you.

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