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The Natural Wine Conundrum

By Charles Olken

I was sitting quietly in the back yard of a Napa Valley winery a week or so ago, resting my weary bones after tasting several dozen older wines. The task itself, was pleasant enough, but tasting wines spread over almost fifty years requires more than a little concentration and a fair bit of nostalgic recollection.

A series of friendly conversations with learned individuals ensued as we relaxed and got our bearings back, our palates refreshed and our minds cleared of the rigors of serious contemplation. “What do you think of natural wines”, asked a particularly thoughtful individual.

“Feet and feces”, I replied somewhat too glibly knowing that my colleague was an out-of-town visitor and was likely unaware of the seminal article published in the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago in which the author, winewriter Esther Mobley, recounted her visit to an emporium of natural wines, and concluded her comments by quoting her tasting partner describing a natural wine as “feet and feces”.

It was a bit of joke on my part, but it was unfair. Not all natural wine is the stuff of vinous disaster. And, more to the point, as I was quick to note, we here at Connoisseurs’ Guide are totally agnostic on the subject. Wine is not to be judged by process or by label information or tech sheet or price. Wine is to be judged by taste. It matters little to me how a wine has been made as long as it tastes good (forgive the simplification—this is not a tasting lesson) and does no harm to me or to the planet other than the usual concerns about excess and the environment.

If you are now wondering where this lengthy peroration is headed, let me explain.

I just read a brilliant piece of writing over on the Tim Atkin’s website. Tim is English, and I have long enjoyed the English sense of humor, and there I was reading this very funny commentary on natural wine—one which sort of concludes with the “feet and feces” analysis offered by Ms. Mobley—when I suddenly realized that the article was not the work of Mr. Atkins but was a guest appearance on that site by the inestimable Hosemaster of Wine.

It is not that the piece adds all that much to the natural wine conversation that it is mentioned here. Rather, it is the quality of the writing that interests me and encourages me to urge you to go read it.


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Judging Natural Wines
by Patrick
Posted on:5/11/2016 10:28:56 AM

Many so-called natural wines taste so different from their conventionally produced sibilings (made from similar grapes in similar zones) that I don't see how a taster can be "objective" in the face of such stylistic variation. Just because we are human, we are bound to prefer one style over the other, on the basis of sensory appeal alone. I don't see how that preference stays out of an allegedly objective review. Help!

Objective Reviews of Natural Wines
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/12/2016 12:51:54 AM

Patrick, I take your meaning and accept that some natural wines wander far afield naturally.

But the majority of natural wines that come in for heavy criticism are spoiled by the very attempt to make them natural.

Admittedly, any wine is more than grape juice and gains its personality from whatever treatment or lack of treatment is applied by the hand of the winemaker--both intentionally and inadvertantly. Otherwise, there would be no wine--only vinegar.

And it is, of course, true that the standards that any taster brings to the making of judgments about wine are learned from past experience and are relative rather than absolute.

Yet, here is where I diverge from that conservative orthodoxy. There are potentials for chemical and biological spoilage in wine that are inherent flaws. Vinegar/volatile acidity is one of those when present to the extent that it blocks out almost all else. Sulfides and brettanomyces are two others whose character can be so overwhelming that little else shows.

Spoiled milk is spoiled milk. 

And while there are variations on the theme and levels that are acceptable in some circumstance--high VA is less objectional in Sauternes than it is in unoaked Chardonnay, for example, a wine that induces a gag reflex in many people is likely to be problematic.

So, yes, we come back to relativity and one man's objectivity versus another's. The answer, insofar as there is one, is make the content of wine reviews about the character of the wine and not just about one person's likes or dislikes.

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