Natural Wine Myth

got natural?
Tom Wark recently posted a criticism of the “natural wine movement” on his blog, titled “Authentic Wine and Mistaking the Tail For the Snout” where he says:

In many ways the “Natural Wine” and now “Authentic Wine” movement is well behind the curve. Winemakers the world over have long embraced the notion of exposing terroir and connecting a wine to the plot of land from which it derives. Sustainably farmed vineyards proliferate all over the globe. Minimalist cellar techniques are common place. Native Yeasts have long been favored by many winemakers without even knowing there was such a movement as “native wine”.

Those currently pushing the idea of “Natural Wine” think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.

I commented the following, and felt it sufficiently cogent to re-post here, with edits for clarity and some elaboration.

I don’t think the “natural” wine promoters are the tail wagging the dog, or that they are behind the curve. The natural “movement” is marketing, pure and simple, and marketing is myth-making – myth-making as in: “creating an appealing narrative from whole cloth.”

The basic truth is that there is nothing – nothing at all – new here. As Tom correctly points out, every practice espoused by the “natural movement” has genesis in and persistence throughout winemaking history, everywhere in the world and without interruption.

Industrial winemaking is new, as is industrial farming of all sorts, and it has the same aim: to make an inexpensive, reliable product of adequate quality continuously available to the broadest market. There is nothing wrong with that.

Industrial winemaking irrefutably is not driving out more traditional winemaking. If anything, more wines produced by traditional methods are being made, and are more widely available, than ever before.

The marketable myth is that “natural” is David to the industrial Goliath. The second part of the myth is an explicit logical fallacy, the marketer’s tried-and-true appeal to tradition: older ideas are better, simply because they are older. Both David vs. Goliath and appeal to tradition have strong track records of reliably gulling the susceptible consumer.

I also believe that some of the compulsion to “go natural” among my cohort is pushback against the so-called “international style” of winemaking. There is no question that a certain fraction of wine from nearly every winegrowing region is heavily manipulated in order to garner higher scores. I suggest that the objection is not to the manipulation itself, but to the high market appeal of the result. So the third part of the “natural” myth is directed at discounting the value associated with the “international” style of wine.

The final element to the “natural” myth is the redemption narrative. Everyone loves the story of the Damascene conversion: “I used to make industrial wine, then I made wine heavily manipulated to get high scores. One day the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the evil of my ways. Now I follow the dao of ‘natural’ and I have been redeemed. Love me; love my wines.” Ahem. I mean – amen.

Wine is the product of artifice. Therefore, at one level “natural wine” is an oxymoron. On another level, for those of us who “…quietly do [our] job, with great skill and a light hand, with no funny astrological stuff…” (quoting from another comment on Tom’s post) it is a tautology.

The Follow-Up

The interested reader can trace the evolution of my winemaking philosophy–which I call “pre-emptive minimalism”–through this blog. My friend Stéphane Vivier (winemaker at HdV and Vivier Wines) espouses a similar approach, which he calls “lazy” winemaking. Our common belief is that in our winegrowing we should seek to only simplify.

We seek to achieve more by doing less. We edit. I have a plan for every wine I make that I start to formulate months before harvest. Once I get the grapes in the barn, I ask myself at every step: “is this necessary?” “Do I need to do this now?” I’m always looking for something to not do. It takes discipline to actively do less. We refuse to follow an externally-imposed discipline, a voodoo prescription or a one-size-fits-all certification checklist. Our winegrowing is adaptive (a highly effective strategy in vintages like 2011 – to be explored in a future post).

This is the reality of “natural” winegrowing: exercising our hard-earned skills to figure out when and how to do less. It is not to blindly follow some prescriptive/proscriptive formula. To paraphrase Voltaire: ideology is the enemy of the practical.

Yes, in today’s crowded market many producers, retailers and consumers are looking for differentiation between industrial wines and those made on a more human scale. Labels help. So if my “natural” colleagues are selling more wine by convincing people they are part of some new, transformational “movement”–more power to them. There are plenty of non-winegrower industry types actively supporting and promoting that marketing myth. No doubt there is a segment of the consumer demographic that filters their wine experience through this myth.

But please, in the name of intellectual honesty, once and for all let’s recognize that “natural” is nothing more than a construct, an artificial narrative, a myth that is used to sell wine. It is not a mantle of righteousness.

13 thoughts on “Natural Wine Myth

  1. Tyler Thomas

    John –

    Well stated as usual! I appreciate your mentioning of Stephane’s lazy winemaking or – as you put it – pre-emptive minimalism. I may have to use that one myself! You remind me of an opinion I wrote back in Oct where I said “While I’ve heard one producer suggest that his approach is one of “non-action,” even this does not frame the concept well enough for my taste. Why can’t we embrace the idea that we intervene in the process? Let’s get over it, the fact is that we intervene!…I think we need to be asking ourselves, “why did I have to perform this action and can I change something upstream to prevent it in the future?” Perhaps we can suggest that those decisions that have the least impact on changing the nature of a wine’s taste are the least intervening. Good luck summarizing what those are into a neatly defined and marketable phrase! Long live intelligent intervention!”: http://bit.ly/p2GyJ7 Pre-emptive minimalism might be the right phrase! Be well and Happy Holidays!

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Tyler – I remember reading your piece but harvest madness was upon me back in mid-October. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention – it definitely adds to the discussion. Plus it doesn’t hurt that you and I are in substantial–make that close–agreement. 😀

      You make a key point regarding “intelligent” intervention. I’m not going to drop names, but the most minimalist winemakers I know are also the most thoughtful, and careful. And every one of them has availed themselves of every tool necessary (including <gasp> SO2 and cultured yeast) to make the best of one wine or another.

      Reply
  2. SUAMW

    I’ve tried to give “natural” winemaking using “native” yeasts some thought. Certainly, the goal of making clean, complex and enjoyable is a no-brainer. Non-interventionist winemaking has appeal to me for all the reasons you outlined.
    But…..
    What I struggle with is how one is be sure that their wine (7 gallons or 7,000 gallons) will come out complex AND clean. I recently was introduced to some research from NZ that identified S cerevisiae in vineyard soils. Presumably, these come in on the fruit and run the ferment. Somehow, Dekkera, Kloeckera, etc do not leave a significant footprint on the wine. But HOW?
    And how do I run natural ferments in my 12’X8′ California basement with access to the crawl space (and the outdoors)? I’ve been fermenting things there for a few years and sterilize like crazy but I’m sure there are some spots that act as reservoirs of …… what?

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Arthur – Given the choice between clean but perhaps simple versus complex but definitely flawed, I would always opt for the former. Where you go for sterilizing like crazy experience tells me that short of building and treating your workspace like an operating theater or a chip-fab, there is no way to completely sanitize the winery environment. I use no sanitizers other than ozone (sometimes a touch of proxycarb) and elbow grease. My hypothesis is that I am building up a population of wine-friendly microbes in the winery. Seems to work.

      Reply
  3. SUAMW

    My fermenting area is a 97-year old poured concrete surface and plywood sheets to level the area. When I say I sanitize like crazy I mean that I make up a batch of sanitizing solution (bisulfide and acid) and after cleaning the area with a shop vac, I spray (spray bottle, not hose) it down with the solution. I clean up spatter and spills as I go along and use the sanitizing solution to kill off anything that could set up shop there and when everything is in carboy for the long haul or in bottle, I clean and spray the area down.
    This is hardly surgical sterile technique but I’ve seen all kinds of bugs come through the cellar and I don’t know for what species they could be vectors.

    On a somewhat tangential topic: how likely is it that I would have any desirable fermentative species coming in on fruit from a dry to arid Climate IV site on a slope with southern exposure?

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      How clean is the shop vac and where does the exhaust go? I have done air sampling and culture in the winery environment and found up to 104/cm3 mixed yeast.

      What acid are you using? If it is citric I recommend not. Everything, including non-wine and wine-unfriendly organisms, can use citric as a carbon source—and that is what’s left after the bisulfite is oxidized away.

      I would not worry much about insects as vectors, other than fruit flies. Most insect gut flora and mouthpart contamination can’t survive juice pH and wine alcohol.

      There is no a priori reason that you will not get desirable fermentative species coming in with your fruit, but in my experience the primary inoculum for native ferments comes from the winery equipment.

      Reply
  4. Denis Tsiorbas

    John, I know I don’t belong here commenting, but as a Newbie wine taster maybe I have some anecdotal place: I plunged into wine tasting “head first” as it were, almost never trying the same wine twice, because I wanted to try as many as I could and I preferred to “bed” that wine for two or three days to get a sense of how it changed once opened; what I inadvertently discovered is wines sold under the vaunted mantle of the “bio-dynamic” label were wines that, for the most part, would have caused me to NOT drink wines at all. There is, I believe a threshold for us, for those just experimenting with wine, testing wine’s personal appeal, and though some wines produced and advertised as sustainably farmed are of great quality, in my experience, they are the exception rather than the rule, and if I’m deciding to buy one bottle of wine, and my choice is between a vaunted “organic” wine or just plain wine, I’ll take just plain Jane every time.

    Reply
    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Dennis – all comments that aren’t abusive are welcome. We are of the same mind regarding much of what is sold as “organic” and “biodynamic” wine.

      Reply
  5. Rob JM

    Nice Blog!
    Over here in Aus we have quite a few premium producers going biodynamic in the vineyard and seeing benefits (generally lower alcohol for the same flavour development). Of course viticulture has always been about intervening to obtain balance, where as winemaking is increasingly going towards minimal intervention where possible.
    Minimal intervention can still mean a lot of processing mind you. For instance at the winery where I worked last vintage they product a fantastic single vineyard shiraz ($55/bottle). Interesting thing was that the vineyard contained endemic brett! Minimal intervention in this case included adding yeast, maintaining 60ppm sulfur and sterile filtration!
    Cheers

    Reply
  6. Pingback: When it comes to wine, why do we think less is more? | STEVE HEIMOFF| WINE BLOG

  7. Bob Henry

    Correcting for some post-midnight sleep deprived typos . . .

    John,

    A contemporary (August 13, 2015) blog piece by Steve Heimoff [http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2015/08/13/when-it-comes-to-wine-why-do-we-think-less-is-more/] brought me to your 2011 “got natural?” post.

    Regarding your assertion . . .

    “marketing is myth-making – myth-making as in: ‘creating an appealing narrative from whole cloth.'”

    . . . your broad brush stroke paints all marketing as a complete fabrication; a lie with no basis in the truth.

    (That is the etymology of the idiom “out of whole cloth.”)

    I demur.

    The general public holds in high esteem Consumer Reports.

    When they tout themselves through their subscription drive direct mail marketing campaigns, are they being myth-makers? Fabricators? Liars?

    Or do you believe there is an earnest effort to convey the facts (as best they know them), in a pursuit of the truth?

    Legendary ad agency guru David Ogilvy stated:

    “Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”

    — and —

    “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”

    — and —

    “Can advertising foist an inferior product on the consumer? Bitter experience has taught me that it cannot. On those rare occasions when I have advertised products which consumer tests have found inferior to other products in the same field, the results have been disastrous.”

    Source: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/david_ogilvy.html

    ~~ Bob

    Reply
    1. John Kelly

      “Or do you believe there is an earnest effort to convey the facts (as best they know them), in a pursuit of the truth?” Really, regarding marketing? I nearly spit out my coffee when I read this.

      Consumer Reports doesn’t engage in marketing. They are doing product review.

      You apparently believe that “fabrication” is the same as “lie.” That’s an awfully black-and-white mis-apprehension of a word that literally means “something constructed or made.”

      When trying to sell a product it’s a given that one can’t “lie” about it — that’s fraud. But yes I believe that marketing as it is pursued these days is largely done by fabricating a narrative designed to appeal to emotion (rather than any “search for truth” – did you really say that?) — especially when it comes to luxury goods. Spin, omission, tale-telling — all these things are part of marketing, and don’t constitute lying.

      My take is obviously more cynical than yours. Ogilvy’s been dead for a while, and irrelevant for longer. To quote another dead guy who was more correct about the general consumer than Olgivy ever was: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And that’s why the “natural” narrative drives sales.

      Reply

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