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.