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David Schildknecht on Nossiter, Natural Wines

2011 December 13
by Mike

Based on the headline, you may be wondering if David Schildknecht is now splitting blogging duties here. After all, it’s the third time in recent weeks that I have handed over the microphone to David. But appearances to the contrary, he has not become a co-Wine Diarist; he has simply been kind enough to let me post some things he has written that I thought would be of interest to Wine Diarist readers.

David, as you probably know, writes for The Wine Advocate. In addition to being a wonderful critic, he is one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking journalists working the wine beat, and I always enjoy corresponding with him, even when we disagree. In this instance, however, we are in complete agreement: neither of us is a fan of Jonathan Nossiter or the natural wine movement. Nossiter is a filmmaker best known for Mondovino, a deeply misleading documentary about the globalization of wine. A few years ago, he wrote a book called Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, which was even more execrable, no small achievement. As for the natural wine fad, I share David’s view that it is long on dogma and rhetoric and woefully short on intellectual coherence. (However, we both admire many winemakers who are working in a self-proclaimed “natural” way.)

Last month, Nossiter spoke at a natural wine conference in Zurich. Not surprisingly, the subject of natural wines showed Nossiter at his most tendentious and smug, and nor is it surprising that when David read an attendee’s account of Nossiter’s talk on, he decided to post a rebuttal. With his and Jancis’s permission, I am re-posting his response here:

I cannot resist some comments pursuant to Jonathan Nossiter’s contribution, as described, to this colloquium.

Nobody is more interested than am I in proclaiming and explicating “the importance of independence in our homogenised world” assuming that Nossiter meant this title for his presentation to encompass the encouragement of wine growers to take chances and do their own thing methodologically and stylistically. But for an address to take place under that rubric and in this particular context immediately suggests that both a false dichotomy and a contradiction underlie that conjunction. In the Manichean world inhabited by many if not most self-proclaimed naturalists of my acquaintance (including many growers and commentators whose work I greatly admire) no allowance is made for the existence of distinctively delicious, site-specific, soulful, safe-to-drink wine grown with the assistance of Roundup for weed control; chemical systemics to combat oidium (thereby reducing reliance on copper sulfate); drip-irrigation; yeast cultures; sulfur above some unspecified maximum; or a great many other tools and techniques that these folks either cannot – or refuse to – specify with any pretensions to completeness but always seem to inherently accept or reject when you quiz them. I have tasted enough of the world’s both profoundly and simply delicious wines and know enough about how they are grown and vinified to call that out as false dichotomy. What’s more, if you consider the freedom of the grower paramount, then it’s a contradiction to deal in a list of moves you forbid him or her from making on grounds that it’s “unnatural.” Vineyard expression and self-expression are not only compatible, there are also many routes to either one.

And about the aforementioned lists, no self-described natural winemaker I know has been willing to rest content with Nossiter’s claim that “the regulations for … natural wines are actually [this] simple: no chemicals in the vineyard, no additives, no cultured yeast, and very little or no sulphur. That’s it.” Does Nossiter consider sugar an additive? What would be so bad or unnatural about adding water? Does he deem it ok to irrigate one’s vines? (Most self-proclaimed naturalists with whom I deal insist that’s not kosher.) Is it ok to add fining – which afterward drops out – for clarification, and if so which sorts? What about must concentration – that doesn’t involve adding anything to the wine, but self-described naturalists are far from the only ones who would make it a poster child for The Enemy? How about tractor compaction – no problem there? To plow or not to plow; compost or not to…? In short, it’s evident that Nossiter has not taken time – though lord knows, he’s had more than enough of it since becoming a wine celebrity – to think about the issues involved or to ponder hard cases; indeed, one presumes that like polemicists and politicians of most other stripes, he would not recognize a hard case if he bumped into it face-first, much less consider testing his principles against it. That being the case, it’s a shame we are asked again and again to consider what he has to say about these issues profound and important.

As for the alleged impossibility – and, more importantly, the alleged illegitimacy – of asking that “natural wine” be clearly defined, the analogy Nossiter offers is so weak as to be laughable. “It would” he alleges, “be like saying to the great directors of the time, like Fellini and Goddard, ‘now that you are making neo-realism let[‘]s set up rules to determine what neo-realistic cinema is.'” The question at issue with natural wine however is how can its adherents routinely reject wines because of one or another thing that was done to them, while refusing to draw the logical conclusion that some subset of practices serves as a litmus test of legitimacy? Now, it might be that Fellini and Goddard had their differences with film makers whom they considered non-neo-realists. But although I am not a student of film, I doubt very much that these famous directors were going around – let alone preoccupied with – pooh-poohing the films of anyone whom they deemed not to be a neo-realist. Granted, artists can certainly do this sort of thing, but not every artistic movement or style represents a reaction to some other one, much less does having a style or employing distinctive practices imply that any other style or alternative set of practices is unworthy, even bogus and must be inveighed-against. But I have met very few self-proclaimed natural wine growers – including the dozens among them whose wines I love and drink regularly – who did not adopt their stance and practices in reaction to certain alternatives and who did not consider it absolutely essential that those alternatives be condemned. And while I must defer to experts in the relevant field concerning whether Nossiter’s opinions about film – his acknowledged area of expertise – are more profound and nuanced than his views on wine, it’s clear from his references to films that “make you think” as contrasted with “the current Hollywood industry,” that spurious dichotomy is to him second nature.

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