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Natural Wine: Really?
By Paul Lukacs
Jul 18, 2017
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There has been a lot of talk lately about “natural wine.”  What does that term mean?  There’s no official definition, but the following statement on the wine list at Dame, a restaurant in Portland, Oregon that features only natural wines, is as good a description as any I’ve seen.  “Every wine on this list,” it says, “is grown organically or biodynamically, free of any chemicals in the vineyard . . . [it] is made without any additives except sulfur, which is naturally occurring in grapes . . . [it] is fermented with its own living, wild yeast . . . [and it] is made in small, or very small, amounts.  It’s difficult to find fault with any of that.”

Well, actually it’s not difficult at all.  Where to begin?  Grapes do not have their own yeasts; locales do, but those locales may well include multiple vineyards with multiple owners.  The fact that sulfur occurs naturally in grapes has nothing to do with its use as an additive; if it did, there would be no need to add more.  Organic and biodynamic farming certainly often produce excellent wines.  But not always, especially in regions where climatic conditions make viticulture difficult.  And perhaps most important of all, why is small production inherently better than large-scale production? 

“Artificial” is the opposite of “natural.”  No matter what anyone adds in the vineyard or the winery, all wine is at heart fermented grape juice, and fermentation is a wholly natural bio-chemical process -- meaning that it will occur on its own, without any human intervention.  Thus there can be no such thing as artificial wine.  What there can be, however, is processed or manipulated wine, and manipulation is what the advocates of natural wine rail against.

The railing can get quite nasty.  Witness for example the response to Bianca Bosker’s March 17th New York Times opinion piece, titled “Ignore the Snobs.”  In it, she claimed that a “technological revolution has democratized decent wine,” and argued that “the gap between fine wine and commercial wine is shrinking as producers use chemical shortcuts not only to avoid blatant flaws, but also to mimic high-end bottles.”  While this reasoning hardly seems controversial, Bosker soon found herself the victim of sometimes-savage attack.

“Wines of pleasure are not concocted grape beverages from ground that I wouldn’t want to walk on let alone eat from,” said the New York writer, Alice Feiring.  The blogger Rachel Signer was even more indignant, calling Bosker’s essay “goddamn insulting,” and blatantly politicizing the issue by declaring: “If people want to drink that shit, fine.  I can’t stop anybody from eating disgusting chicken nuggets, or from buying factory-made clothes from China, either.”  But the most prominent person to take offense was the Times own wine writer, Eric Asimov.  “Not buying the premise or the conclusion,” he wrote.  “People who say they care about wine should be able to distinguish between processed and relatively unprocessed wines.”

But how?  There is no evidence that manipulation -- for example, using reverse osmosis to control alcohol levels, or additives like “mega purple” to adjust color –- makes wine taste a certain way.  In fact, as Asimov surely knows (note his use of the qualifier, “relatively”) all wines are manipulated to some degree.  Pruning a grape vine is a kind of manipulation, just as controlling the temperature of the grape must during fermentation is a form of processing.  The introduction of various tools and techniques for manipulation has indeed constituted a technological revolution, one that is now nearly a century old.  Like all revolutions, it may sometimes go too far, but there can be little doubt that it has improved wine quality the world over.

Equating high quality with only one form of production is a mistake.  Some wines made by large commercial corporations taste wonderful, while some made by small scale, hands-off vintners are flawed.  The assumption that only artisanal producers are able to make appealing wines is nonsense.  It also is, as Bianca Bosker suggests, a kind of snobbery, one based on a false because falsely romanticized understanding of history.

It may be nice to imagine a reverent vintner centuries ago caring for his vines as if they were his children, and then letting his wine essentially make itself, but it also is completely inaccurate.  For most of wine’s roughly 8,000 year history, virtually all wine tasted downright bad.  Unless consumed right after fermentation, it invariably spoiled, storage methods being crude, winemaking practices haphazard, and cellars unhygienic.  That’s why so much wine was adulterated with often nasty-sounding additives--resin, incense and seawater in ancient Greece and Rome, all sorts of herbs and spices during the Middle Ages, fruit, honey and some sort of spirit (to make punch) in the modern age.

Things only began to change, and at first only for rare, expensive wines, in the eighteenth century, with the introduction of sturdy glass bottles and secure cork stoppers.  Then in the nineteenth, researchers came to understand the basics of oenology or wine science.  Led by Louis Pasteur, they first identified how fermentation works (through the interaction of living yeasts and grape sugar), and then how wines spoil (through oxidation, as bacteria naturally present in grapes convert alcohol into acetic acid or vinegar when exposed to air).  It’s hardly surprising that these discoveries were followed by twentieth and twenty-first century technological applications, including canopy management and trellising in the vineyard and refrigeration in the winery. 

Many of today’s wines are mass-produced commercial products.  They often taste boring and predictable, but at least they are not chemically flawed as so much wine was in the past.  Still, they are precisely what the advocates of natural wines object to so vehemently.  The objection, however, is not to how these wines taste.  No, the problem is who makes them.  The natural wine movement is at heart anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and anti-globalist.  It also is anti-democratic, for it views the world of wine as inherently hierarchical, with artisanal producers who make only small amounts of hard to find wines occupying the ladder’s top rung.

As the word’s root suggests, an artisan makes something that can be considered art.  And that’s exactly what high quality wine is -- a natural product that has been controlled and, yes, manipulated by human beings to a desired effect.  The natural wine movement wants things both ways.  On the one hand, its advocates belittle the very idea of human intervention and control.  On the other, they want to celebrate wine as a source of intellectual and emotional sustenance even more than physical pleasure.  They contend that wine has, or can have, aesthetic value, while at the same time wanting to remove human agency from its story.  But any aesthetic involves artifice, not nature.  A landscape or a bird’s song—no matter how beautiful, are not aesthetic phenomena—while a painting of a landscape or a musical composition that echoes the bird’s song are.  That’s because human involvement is a necessary component of anything artisanal or artistic, including wine.

The natural wine movement is a reaction against the homogeneity that characterizes a good deal of wine today.  That’s all to the good.  Far too many contemporary wines taste alike, as if they were being made to a formula or, as sometimes occurs, to the likes and dislikes of a focus group.  But those wines are made by large and small producers alike, sometimes with minimal manipulation and at other times with recipes that call for all sorts of interventions.  Disappointing wine, just like good wine, is not produced by just one method.

What gets lost in all the talk about natural wine is any discussion of what separates the good from the disappointing, and then the truly great from the good.  That’s a subject for another time, but we don’t really need restaurant lists filled with only natural wines.  What we need instead are lists, and retailers’ store shelves, that overflow with truly good, meaning at least in part distinctive-tasting, wines.