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Natural Roundup

2012 February 6
by Mike

So last week turned into War Over Natural Wine Week: in addition to the very spirited discussion that we had here about natural wines, some noteworthy stuff was published elsewhere. The site NonaBrooklyn had a sensational piece in which a handful of Brooklyn wine folk weighed in on the debate (hat tip: Jenny & Francois). Meanwhile, Benjamin Lewin posted an item on his blog looking at the natural fracas and explaining why one’s man “minimal intervention” might not be another’s (hat tip: Lee Newby). In my article last Monday, I was remiss in not including a link to Tom Wark’s piece looking at how denigration of other wines has become so central to the natural movement’s messaging, a point that was also made by Jeremy Parzen in a commentary on his site, Do Bianchi (although perhaps Jeremy shared a little too much information!).

Finally, Keith Levenberg has chimed in with a lengthy critique of the criticism leveled against the natural movement. He accuses me of playing “cheap rhetorical games” in expressing skepticism about the natural idea, which is an interesting indictment coming in an essay that displays an impressive amount of authorial gamesmanship itself. For instance, Levenberg notes that I’ve criticized natural advocates for refusing to define exactly what they mean by “natural wine”, but he then cites a passage in my Slate article about natural wines in which it appears that I provided a “nearly comprehensive” definition. However, I made clear in that passage that I was simply summarizing the general description offered by natural proponents themselves, and it is a little cheeky of Levenberg to try to pass it off as my “definition” (particularly as I went on, in the Slate piece, to point out all of the holes in the natural ethos and how conceptually muddled it is). His post is riddled with this sort of stuff; I think he was laboring mightily to score points and shift the terms of the debate. That said, Levenberg is an excellent writer and one of the keenest observers of the wine scene, and his broadside against yours truly is worth reading.

26 Responses leave one →
  1. April 26, 2013

    This post identifies as well as defines various headphone technologies and its differences.

  2. April 26, 2013

    And utilizing my s4i wireless earbuds and the image an individual headphones plus promedia 3.

  3. Bruce G. permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Mike:

    Sorry for the delayed response….. busy days here.

    Re: Ridge…. “inconsistencies”? I’m not sure what you mean by that. But it is surely inaccurate to say that others have condemned Ridge to the “less than natural” list because the winery is in California if that isn’t the case. And, from your accounting it does seem to be a bit of fiction.
    Not that the “they’re too big to be natural” is any less absurd.
    From my POV Ridge is not typically considered “natural” because it choses not be identified as such. If Draper (or de Villaine, for that matter) began discussing personal winemaking philosophies in that light, if Ridge began pouring its wine at natural wine fairs and urging its sales force to sell to those types of wine bars and retailers then I think we would see perceptions change in relatively short order.
    Of course, neither Ridge nor DRC is likely to do this any time soon. Both of these wineries are archtypes, and there is little to be gained in associating too closely with any subgroup or wine genre.

    Re: chaptalization v. acidification…. you’re asking the wrong person. By my personal definition both of these are manipulations, ameliorations designed to provide that which the vineyard could not. I can’t speak for the person(s) who accept the one and not the other. I WILL note that most of the “natural” producers I’ve talked with agonize over chaptalization, are loath to do it, approach the opening up of the sugar bags with something approaching a declaration of failure, and work like the devil to secure grapes that do not require additions of sugar.

    In the end, I agree that we’re pretty similar in our views.
    Thinking over this discussion during endless bouts of shoveling snow, I’ve come to believe that we’re both emphasizing ideas and statements about natural wine that we find promising, and downplaying the ones we find less satisfying.
    For your part, that equates to continually bringing up the nonsensical, the overly dogmatic, the hopelessly self-conflicted views expressed by some proponents. I, on the other hand, tend to dismiss those views as being half-baked, and focus instead on the more firmly grounded personal philosophies of the producers themselves.
    Neither approach is likely to give us a full understanding of the genre. But it does keep things interesting.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion….

  4. RobinC permalink
    February 10, 2012

    Regarding Keith Levenberg’s 2nd sentence, people can assume that they share a mutual definition about a term such as “natural wine” but a reality check will frequently expose some differences in perceptions and generate even more discussion.
    I particularly enjoyed Keith’s depiction of the “hired millionaire thugs”. Not a Giants fan I take it.

  5. February 10, 2012

    Bruce, is there some inconsistency there? Draper may not use the term to describe his own wines, but he has always practiced exactly the kind of minimal intervention that natural proponents champion. Joe Dressner didn’t like the term “natural”–he used “real”–but that didn’t stop natural advocates from hailing his wines as “natural”.

    Re Draper: As I said in my post a week ago Monday, I was told by a well-known natural advocate that Ridge couldn’t be considered “natural”, even though it adheres to the core tenets, such as they are, of the natural movement, because it produces too much wine. This struck me as complete bullshit, forgive my language, and because it was coming from someone with no love for California, I had to conclude that the real reason for denying Ridge’s “naturalness” was because of where Ridge happens to be located. Note: I did not say that in my post. What you are responding to here is what I wrote in reply to Ryan. But that’s just a technicality: I absolutely believe that some natural advocates arrange the goalposts to reflect their own biases and that this particular natural advocate wouldn’t admit Ridge to the “natural” category because Ridge is based in California. I will not, however, share the name of the person with whom I had that discussion about Ridge; it was private conversation (that I even cited it was probably a mistake). Suffice it to say, it is a prominent figure in the natural movement.

    Let me ask you a question, Bruce. As you have noticed by now, I am completely puzzled by the contrasting attitude that natural advocates have regarding chaptalization and acidification. Perhaps I’m just too cynical, but I can’t help but think that the difference is rooted in the fact that the former is a traditional practice in northern Europe, while the latter is more commonly found in the New World. Am I wrong, and if so, what accounts for the difference in attitude vis a vis these practices?

    Lastly, you paid me a nice compliment in the longer natural thread, and I didn’t respond. Thank you; I appreciate the kind words, and am delighted that you are posting here. I always enjoyed your contributions on eBob when it was still an open forum, and though we obviously don’t see eye-to-eye on this issue, I know that we agree about a lot more than we disagree about.

  6. Bruce G. permalink
    February 10, 2012

    Mike:

    In the past few days here we’ve gone from Paul Draper refusing to categorize his own wines as “natural”, to Paul Draper being excluded from the category simply because some have a thing against California wines.

    Can you provide specific names of, and direct quotes from, natural wine proponents that support this contention?

    Thank you,

  7. David Schildknecht permalink
    February 10, 2012

    I readily defend self-proclaimed naturalists against those who are grossly unfair, superficial, or mean-spirited in criticism, all of which Chapoutier appears, sadly, to be.

    That’s why I addressed his recent outburst as soon as it was brought to my attention on eRobert Parker, writing:

    Chapoutier – whose Roussillon wines I taste in my professional capacity; adore; and drink at home – is always “good” for a provocative comment (or two, or twenty). Me thinks he isn’t doing himself much good by shooting from the lip and hip. The present case is a good example. Trying to get by with low or no sulfur can lead to distinctively delicious results … it can also lead to disasters. What’s interesting is to figure out the difference. Reliance on ambient yeasts, too, seems clearly capable of engendering interesting vinous complexities … but some of them can be distasteful, a risk that any grower who insists on ambient fermentation needs to acknowledge, and most of the hundreds with whom I associate do. Again, one has to recognize the trade-offs involved in a particular approach and then try to generate models to explain – or at least, some rough-and-ready rules for avoiding – what goes wrong. If one’s starting point and end both are simply to make outrageous-sounding claims about people or practices one makes no attempt to specify or define, nothing is thereby accomplished to enhance the totality of knowledge about or pleasure taken in wine.

    Granted, to go out after those who describe themselves as growers of “natural wine” – and I suppose one could in that way delimit Chapoutier’s target – leaves the critic with a very slipperty target indeed, since many of these growers and their public defenders insist on refusing to offer criteria for determining when a wine is or is not “natural.” But that intellectual stubbornness or laziness need not and should not deter us as wine lovers from taking a serious look at individual procedures and principles that these growers apply and the results they achieve, nor should it be taken as an excuse to display equal and opposite amounts of intellectual irresponsibility and sloth just to grab headlines in a wine magazine.

    (I’ve commented on other often-quoted criticisms of naturally wine in that web venue, too ; – )

    Apropos the admirable ideals and results of many self-styled naturalists, my upcoming column in The World of Fine Wine is precisely about these and is not devoted to critique. (I wrote a similarly positive column in Vinaria a couple of years ago.)

    Amid the (in both sense of this word) fulsome menu of unncessary and seemingly political “wine wars,” surely that surrounding bottle-closure is paradigmatic. I am vilified by advocates of screw-cap closures as a shill for the cork industry. Folks in the cork industry won’t talk to me because they claim that my experienced, albeit intuitive, assessments of TCA contamination are fabricated because demonstrably impossible. I hate to say this – not only because I decry things being this way; also because inevitably it makes me sound self-important – but if you find yourself vilified by both parties to such a “war,” I think you’re entitled to take that as at least prima facie evidence that you have staked-out a reasoned position.

  8. February 9, 2012

    David, thanks very much for your comment. I, of course, agree with you entirely. Your post is emblematic, I think, of what the “anti-natural” side has contributed to this debate–it is reasonable, respectful, and eminently rational. Obviously, there have been some intemperate comments aimed at the natural movement, most recently Michel Chapoutier’s absurd outburst. But certainly, what we’ve seen here, and in the comments section on Keith’s site, is a lot of thoughtful, well-intentioned skepticism being expressed about the “natural” concept. There’s has been a lot of thoughtful commentary on the other side, too, but there’s also been the usual claptrap about people feeling “threatened.” And now there’s a new meme among some natural proponents: the advent of the natural movement is like the birth of rock and roll, and natural skeptics are like all those square older folks in the 1950s and 60s who “just didn’t get it.” I actually think we ‘get it” just fine–too well, in fact, and that’s the real problem here.

  9. February 9, 2012

    Sherman, I obviously agree–the word is irredeemably problematic, and there is just no getting around that fact. And, yes, while “minimal intervention” is a better, more accurate description, it carries its own set of problems, as Benjamin Lewin noted in that blog item to which I linked. But there is clearly an important discussion to be had about intervention in the vineyard and the cellar.

    Ryan, I think you hit upon an important point. I don’t think that anyone is denying that some “natural” wines are really good, and some are better than good. But there is clearly a lot of selectivity among natural proponents, which is why people like me are so skeptical of the whole thing. If you want to insist that there is a category called “natural” wines, then state with some precision what is required of a wine to be categorized as such, and apply those standards consistently; don’t exclude Paul Draper simply because you have a thing against California wines. But that’s exactly what goes on with some of the natural folk.

    Lee, I think it was smart of Jamie and Sam to get away from “natural,” but I’m not sure “authentic” is an improvement; in fact, it could be even more problematic. Authenticity is a very loaded term, too.

    Jeremy, my pleasure, and I hope we can share a glass or three one of these days (and congratulations on the new arrival; she’s beautiful, and you must be over the moon. I remember that feeling!). You make an excellent point: this debate has really started to obscure the wines and the producers, which is unfortunate. I’ve obviously contributed to that, so I can’t plead innocent on that score. I will say, however, that I think the debate that has raged over the past two weeks has been unexpectedly clarifying in a couple of ways, and I may post something about that in the next few days.

  10. February 8, 2012

    Yule, sorry for the belated response. I disagree–not everyone knows what people mean by “natural”. As you may have seen over on Keith’s site, Jeremy Seysses has said that Philippe Pacalet, who was cited by Keith as a natural producer, doesn’t even use organic grapes. How can you be considered a “natural” producer if you don’t even use organic grapes? Yet, Pacalet is somehow considered a “natural” producer. This is illustrative of the problem here. The vitriol is silly, but I have to say that I think most of the vitriol is coming from the natural camp, and for exactly the reason I cited in my post last week–they don’t like having their proclamations challenged.

    George, well-put. That was truly a natural wine, but everything since then has been man-made, and the reality is that the vintner makes the difference. When the great Becky Wasserman says, “producer, producer, producer,” she is underscoring a fundamental truth: a first-rate vineyard is important, but it is not going to yield first-rate wines if it is in the hands of a second-rate winemaker.

    Good point, Blake. Once we’re done with natural wines, it should be time for another debate about Parker; it has been at least a month since the last one!

  11. David Schildknecht permalink
    February 8, 2012

    After Mike brought my attention to these recent “eruptions” over natural wine, I noticed over at Keith’s site (to which Mike also drew my attention, but it will become clear why I post here) that Jeremy Seysses had there contributed one of his usual insightful, witty, and scrupulous postings in which he mentioned Philippe Pacalet. This in turn got me thinking about the foundational reasons for my skepticism about a partisan natural wine movement and struck me as another cautionary example of what happens when you want to puff-out your chest and pin to it a particular label, yet carefully guard against stipulating conditions for the use of that label.

    Pacalet is a font of history and creative anachronism; full of insights into yeasts and fermentation gleaned in part from his mentor, Chauvet; and a convincing proponent of inter alia modest finished alcohol levels and minimum sulfuring. But it seems that for most self-styled naturalists he would not even make it past the front gate because of the non-organic mote that taints some his fruit. Given his theories and his approach, Pacalet is naturally concerned to purchase grapes not only from old pinot fin selections in especially fortuitous sites but also from vineyards he has reason to believe will have a healthy and diverse ambient yeast population. I have myself discussed all of these matters with him on several occasions. No doubt many; perhaps most; but evidently – assuming Jeremy is to be believed – not all of these sources are organic. I don’t recall ever having asked Pacalet whether all of his sources are certifiable – much less certified – as this is for me not in itself a hugely important question.

    This guy Pacalet is a font of insights and creativity and renders not just profoundly and distinctively but revelatorily delicious wines. That’s not enough? It’s also necessary to be sure that 100% of the fruit he takes on contract meets a particular definition of “organic” otherwise the wines might – contrary to what our olfactors and palates seemed to tell us – be abhorrently ” u n natural”?! Anyone whose thinking leads them in that direction has my pity but not my sympathy.

    The fact is, Pacalet’s open-mindedness and rejection of doctrinaire thinking would be anathema to most self-styled naturalists for another reason as well: he is willing to consider at least in principle the notion that appropriate genetic modification could prove in future to be a legitimate tool in restoring to vines a resistance to disease that has been vegetatively bred out of them over centuries. (My personal inclination is to resolutely treat this as Pandora’s Box, but I’m open to challenge.) Arguably – and Pacalet is hardly the only Burgundian to assert this – painstaking improvement of Pinot at the ground level ended with the Cistercians. And serious vine selection ceased at many properties for most of the 20th century. Perhaps radical measures need to be considered to address centuries of neglect.

    I’m sure that I’m not wrongly attributing Pacalet’s willingness to at least consider GM because I see where Jamie Goode claims to have heard him express the same view.* And then I noted where Tyler Colman reports having overheard this same or an essentially identical conversation between Jamie and Philippe,** eliciting from Tyler the comment: “Pretty provocative for a natural winemaker.” Indeed. But what’s wrong with promoting thinking about hard cases and testing one’s principles? That isn’t just the scientific spirit; it’s the open-minded spirit on which depends flourishing in any field – even when “progress” takes the form of returning to old ways (as happens often in matters vinous). The doctrinal purity camp always ends up losing out and loosing credibility. (Look what happened to the Roman Catholic Church even with the inquisition to enforce its prejudices and prohibitions).

    * http://www.wineanorak.com/burgundy/philippe_pacalet.htm
    ** http://www.drvino.com/2008/08/24/philippe-pacalet-a-rule-breaker-making-natural-burgundy/

    + + +

    Keith,

    I would just ask you to re-read something you wrote above and consider how it appears to me:

    “It’s my belief that the reason [certain people] so strenuously oppose the term “natural wine” is that they are trying, in Orwellian fashion, to deprive people of the ability to draw any distinctions between traditionally made wine and blatantly spoofulated wine by depriving us of the vocabulary that expresses those differences.”

    It might be that s o m e people react badly to the term “natural wine” because they don’t think it’s a good idea for people to be at all concerned about the methods by which wine is grown and made. However, by your charged word choices – typical also for many wine ideologists who thrive on spurious dichotomies – you strike me as defeating your own intentions. If there is such a thing as “blatantly spoofulated wine” why would anybody presume that people of normal mental or tasting ability cannot tell the difference between it and a wine that is “traditionally made”? Surely we can all recognize extreme instances of unpalatable wines that resulted from massive amounts of treatments and additives on the one hand and spoilage due to neglect on the other. (And as Jeremy and countless others have pointed out, many self-proclaimed natural wines – though, to be sure, not the sort that we in the U.S. enjoy thanks to the likes of Louis, Dressner, McKenna and a few other scrupulous specialist importers – are, based on unimpeachable sensory evidence, abandoned children.)

    Suppose you had written instead: “The reason why certain people react so badly to the term “natural food” is that they are trying to deprive people of the ability to draw any distinctions between a meal home-cooked from scratch and a MacDonald’s “happy meal” by depriving us of the vocabulary that expresses those differences.” Would you really expect us to take this seriously? Surely you, just like me, can think of literally limitless vocabulary and criteria by which to express the differences between these two meals.

    Without question, there is much to be said for raising consciousness about the aesthetic, ethical, or healthful advantages or disadvantages one perceives as accruing to certain sources, sorts, or treatments of comestibles. And, now and then, a slogan can prove useful shorthand for complicated intertwining of principles. (I, for instance, not only have no objection to Michael Pollen’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” I’ve followed it most of my life. For an example of a vintner’s slogan I admire, see below.) But slogans can all too easily become a substitute for hard thinking. And my own objections to many of those who proclaim themselves defenders of “natural wine” (yes, I’m repeating, both from above and from past appearances of mine on this board) is precisely that they discourage consideration of hard cases concerning what ought or ought not to be sanctioned in the game with nature that is wine, as a corollary of which they refuse to be pinned down to specific conditions and principles while decrying with relish growers whose work they insist is insufficiently natural. I call this a bit of bad faith.

    Here are the problems I see with your suggestion that

    “… the concept of natural helps us make sense of a spectrum that includes minimal interventions on one side and promiscuous interventions on the other and all sorts of other approaches in between.”

    In practice (by which I mean in the rhetoric and pronouncements of numerous self-proclaimed naturalists whose opinions and persons I in many respects hugely value) this notion of a continuum based solely on the tenuous poles of “intervention – non-intervention” offers no guidance with regard to the “all sorts of approaches” that one can take in the vineyard and the cellar.

    In the vineyard, it’s arguably those growers who most repeatedly and meticulously intervene in tiny ways who grow the most distinctively delicious wines. (Near-legendary German cellarmaster Hans-Günter Schwarz used to proclaim “Activism in the vines – Minimalism in the cellar!”) If the use of some systemic against peronospora can cut down not just the total amount of copper sulfate you put on your vines (and thus ultimately of toxic copper you put in the soil) but the total number of treatments against peronospora of any sort that you apply, what considerations argue for or against the use of that systemic treatment? If use of Roundup is an alternative to extensive visits to your vines with potentially soil-compacting and indubitably pollutant-belching machinery, what are the considerations for or against its use? The polarity to which you point is of no help in answering such questions. Indeed, even the hugely fundamental question “Should I plow my soil?” is not adequately addressed along this continuum. Most self-styled natural wine growers are p r o p o n e n t s of plowing – surely a major intervention if such exists. On the other hand, if you are farming the schistic, arid soils of, say Faugères or Calce in Roussillon (just to pick two examples with justly-celebrated, ultra soil- and sustainability-conscious growers who happily argue this case) then plowing might be a mistake in the search for wines that will be distinctively delicious and reflective of place.

    I’ll only barely waltz through the cellar, where I see the polarity/spectrum in question as of no use in addressing issues such as chaptalization (if acceptable, then to what degree; toward what end; and with how many additions?); yeasting (surely nobody can sensibly claim that non-ambient yeasts are “unnatural,” but what of culturing yeasts from one’s own cellar or using a pied de cuve?); fermentation (is it “natural” if the outside temperature drops so low that my fermentation is slowed but “intervention” if I throw open the cellar doors in an attempt to guarantee the same effect?); racking (the wine has to separating from its “mother” at some point, so the questions are about when and how) &c. Even if we turned the clock back to ancient times – which surely you’ll agree puts us safely within the realm of “tradition” – wine additives were not even treated as an issue, they were so often routine, whether of water, resin, honey, boiled wine concentrate, or other substances. And almost since the invention of distilled spirit, we have had categories of wine in which fermentation is arrested by its addition. That’s a pretty strong intervention, but if you are rendering Port, Madeira, Muscat Rivesaltes or Maury this is simply how it’s done. Does that mean such wines can never be (or are inherently less) “natural”? And if it did mean this why should I as a wine lover care? The French actually refer to the entire class of such wines as “vins doux naturels” and if one considers the state of the must pre-fortification, then arguable some of these wines come as close as is possible to capturing the pure essence of a ripe grape’s flavor (though in doing so, I perceive them as inevitably sacrificing complexity).

    Fundamentally – as I suggested above – we’re wrestling with issues aesthetic, ethical, and (assuming we accord healthfulness – whether personal or that of the planet – a separate status) prudential. It ought to go without saying that no single sort of spectrum or polar orientation will be able to clarify these intertwined issues. And not only have the vociferous natural wine advocates whom I observe understandably failed in that regard, I don’t even see any indication that they have come to terms with the significance of such disparate principles as impinge on our judgments about wine.

    Suppose I tend to prefer wines that result from relatively conventional doses of sulfur. To urge on me that this is dangerously unhealthful is to engage in completely different argumentation than would be appropriate if you want to convince me that with the right training I’ll come to think that low- or no-sulfur wines taste better. Papering over these huge differences with the word “natural” doesn’t do the arguments or either party to such arguments justice. Many of the best wines no doubt come from vines that are organically farmed. But suppose I perceive a conflict between making the best-tasting wine and rejecting a contributory lot because I learn that it wasn’t organically-farmed? Suppose, in other words, that an ethical and an aesthetic principle conflict? I don’t see that the cheerleaders for natural wine even recognize or address the possibility of such a conflict. Relying on spontaneous fermentation may well often result in tastily complex results, but suppose I decided that for my styles, vines, and soils, a certain culture – whether commercial or from my own cellar – results in better tasting wines. Should I nevertheless rely on ambient yeasts even if I believe that the results will sometimes taste less-good than they might have, and if so, on what sort of principle am I acting? It doesn’t seem a matter of ethics or prudence now but of sheer ungrounded dogma. Or perhaps (and I have elaborated on this analogy at length before so won’t now) it’s solely a matter of establishing certain rules in the game with nature, even if some of these are not aesthetically, ethically, or prudentially grounded. Fine, but I can’t play your game if you don’t tell me what are those rules.

    Finally, even if the polarity in question were more useful in practice, polarity by its nature breeds polarization and spurious dichotomy such as we have had far too much already in discourse on wine.

    There are countless words and expressions in using which people not only manage to understand one another – or at least, to convince themselves that they have succeeded – but also passionately profess their allegiance to or abhorrence of certain ideals. The realm of politics offers us flagrant examples. But when it comes to which specific practices, people, principles, or complicated combination of these one defends or rejects, those politically-charged expressions seldom offer much illumination. And such, I submit is the case with “natural wine.”

  12. February 8, 2012

    Mike, thanks for the shout out.

    One of the things that has fascinated me about the Natural wine dialectic in our country and in our language is its semantic implications… they seem too often to eclipse the wines and the people who make them… Hope to get to taste with you one of these days! thanks again… j

  13. Lee Newby permalink
    February 8, 2012

    I like Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop MW use of Authentic Wine in their book of the same name. Their argument sidesteps the word “Natural” on purpose. They put forth a very wine and science related examination of this topic.

    http://www.wineanorak.com/authenticwine/reviews.htm

  14. Ryan permalink
    February 8, 2012

    I think the debate is as meaningful as it is ever likely to be. Changing the terms, or defining them more precisely, is just window dressing. We’re really arguing about what is good (or cool, or whatever). We’re making value judgments. If Paul Draper doesn’t make the all-natural cut, it’s probably because he makes wine in unfashionable California. Is that fair? Or intellectually satisfying? Probably not, but value judgments usually aren’t.

  15. Sherman permalink
    February 8, 2012

    As you’ve stated, language matters and my issue with the entire discussion stems from the premise that wine can be “natural.” Defined as “Existing in or caused by nature, not made or caused by mankind,” I think we can agree that wine is a construct of man. The natural progression of grapes being spontaneously fermented by native yeast on the ground yields something that we wouldn’t want to drink with a special dinner. It’s *only* through the intervention of man that we have anything remotely drinkable as that thing we call “wine.”

    So let’s take the word out of the discussion, as we’ve seen that it’s loaded with many conceptions and misapprehensions. “Minimal intervention” invites a categorization of levels of intervention — and who’s going to do the evaluation and ranking of levels of intervention? Are there any competent wine folks *without* a stake in the argument?

    If we can agree to the terms to be used, we can then get past some of the threshhold questions that can frame the debate in more meaningful terms.

  16. February 7, 2012

    Nice change of pace for folks from rants about the 100-point scale.

  17. George Vierra permalink
    February 7, 2012

    There are many writing about “natural wine”. It is almost certain that 1 to 1.5 million years ago Homo erectus collected and ate the wild grapes in the South Caucasus of present day Georgia. They must have had methods to collect and carry the grapes. Did they collect the grapes and share them with others? It must have occurred on occasion that a good amount of the red Vitis vinifera were left behind and later revisited. The Homo erectus upon return probably found the grapes a bit “tingly” on the tongue. They also found the pool of juice collecting below the grapes was quite nice to drink. After eating the grapes and drinking the juice they got a bit cheery. Soon, drowsiness set in and naps were had.

    This is probably the definition of the first natural wine. All else is tinkered wine.

    George Vierra
    12 May 2010

  18. February 7, 2012

    Fabio, thanks for the comment. As I said in my response to Keith, I think the use of the word “natural” is very clearly an impediment to the debate you want to see. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree about how best to resolve that problem. If you haven’t seen it already, you should check out Jeremy Seysses’s comment on Keith’s board, which speaks to exactly the issues you wish to see addressed.

    JT, thanks for the kind words regarding the writing; as I said, Keith is a superb writer and one of the smartest observers of the wine scene. Yes, “riddled” was caustic, but this is a spirited discussion! Let me give you another example of what I mean. In his blog post, Keith cited my use of the terms “traditional” and “classic” in a piece that I recently did about Giuseppe Mascarello, and said that those terms are just as fuzzy as “natural wine.” That just ain’t so: in the context of the Piemonte, “traditional” and “classic” have very clear meanings. Everyone knows what practices qualify you as “traditional” or “modern,” and everyone knows which producers fall into which categories and which ones straddle the two. Those terms are not at all fuzzy when applied to the Langhe, and it was misleading of Keith to suggest that they are.

    You mentioned Keith’s opening paragraph, and I think he took liberties there, too. He conflates two very different issues: the fact that lots of people know the names of wines that are paraded under the “natural” banner does not mean that the term has been defined in some meaningful way. It means that a group of journalists and promoters have done a very good job of creating a category called “natural wines” and calling attention to the producers who they feel deserve to be included in that category. I can name a number of producers who work in a minimally invasive way, yet their wines have not been granted admission to this category, which brings us back to the issue of definitions. Why is Olivier Cousin considered part of the natural movement, but not Paul Draper? Why did names like Dard & Ribo and Allemand spring to mind for Keith when he was sitting in that restaurant, but not Ridge or Rhys? This is the part that baffles me and other people, and it is why we keep pressing for a concrete definition of the term “natural.”

  19. February 7, 2012

    Keith, thanks for stopping by, and for those comments and clarifications.

    There are certainly voices on the “anti” natural wine side who have not made terribly constructive contributions to this debate. Michel Chapoutier obviously leaps to mind, as does Robert Parker. I think your point about trying to deprive people of the ability to draw distinctions between minimal intervention and highly manipulated wines, and trying to deprive them of the vocabulary to express those distinctions, is a stretch. From what I can tell, those making an issue of the term “natural wine” are generally favorably disposed to many of the wines paraded under the “natural” banner and are all in favor of having a spirited debate about means and ends.

    But does that debate now require the use of the word “natural”? Your comment certainly suggests that it does. I understand that “natural” has become convenient shorthand for wines that are made with minimal intervention. But surely, you must recognize at this point that the word “natural” is a uniquely loaded and problematic term in the context of wine. It seems that Alice and Jamie have both recognized that, which is why she uses the phrase “naked wine” and Jamie goes with “authentic wine.” (I think “authentic” is also a problematic term, but let’s put that aside for now.) Language matters, and so much of the problem here is the use of the word “natural.” I think the word “natural” is an impediment to the discussion that you want to have; it is certainly not necessary in order to have that conversation. I think we have all the vocabulary we need to conduct that debate without creating a category called “natural wines.”

    And if I may turn around the point about good faith/bad faith–I know that you are using the word “natural” in good faith, but I think it is pretty obvious that it is being used by many people as a marketing tool. The word “natural” has considerable cachet, and it is a way of distinguishing one’s wares in a crowded marketplace. But here is why it was a really bad idea to inject the word “natural” into the discussion of wine: now that “natural” has become such a buzzword in wine circles, it is surely just a matter of time before industrial producers appropriate the term and start describing their own wines as “natural.” There is nothing to stop them from doing that, and once they do, it will truly render the word “natural” meaningless. For all these reasons, I think “natural” proponents would be wise to look for some other word or phrase to describe the wines they champion.

  20. Yule Kim permalink
    February 7, 2012

    I pretty much agree with most of what Keith has said.

    Sure, “natural” is a fuzzy descriptor, but so are words like “bald,” “fast,” “tall,” and “skinny.” Just because I can’t define the precise number of hairs it takes to be considered “bald,” or I can’t quantify the precise weight it takes to be considered “skinny,” doesn’t necessrily mean bald people or skinny people don’t exist.

    And, as noted, fixating on the definition of natural is a silly rhetorical issue. Everyone knows what people mean by natural. Should a less polarizing term than “natural” been used to describe what the Chauvets, Lapierres, and Gravners were trying to do. Sure. But, semantics shouldn’t detract from the substance of what these winemakers stand for: namely low sulfur, ambient yeast vinification from grapes grown from organic or biodynamic vineyards.

    I think we all agree: the vitriol is silly. So, let us all drop it and discuss, on their actual merits, whether Chauvet’s winemaking techniques (see, I am trying not to use the word natural) are worthwhile or not.

  21. February 7, 2012

    Mike I think ‘riddled with this sort of stuff’ was perhaps a tad unfair! (‘Riddled’, ‘this sort’, ‘stuff’ – that’s bullets in our world).

    Looking at Keith’s article, he has taken a fairly sharp scalpel to the debate. (It was all over in the second sentence – nice architecture Keith). I think he has made a very fair case for saying that the ambiguities around the definition of natural wine are not and never will be a “gotcha!” point. Hopefully, that means the debate can also move on.

    I am enjoying the spectacle of the two of you battling it out though with the references to each other as ‘Levenberg’ and ‘Steinberger’.

    Some very fine wine writing.

  22. February 7, 2012

    I totally back up Keith’s comment above, and would add the following: while the interest that you and other mainstream wine writers is a positive and potentially interesting and useful development, I believe that your focusing on side-issues like the definition of the word ‘natural’ or the questionable ‘strident’ marketing tactics of certain individuals, is misplaced. While these semantic and ethical marketing questions are interesting enough in their own right, I think that there are much more pressing, interesting and important issues to be debated re natural wine, for example, the expression of terroir, appropriate levels of interventions in the vineyard and in the winery, the use/abuse of chemicals and substances, wine faults, and more.

  23. February 7, 2012

    Thanks for the kind words, Mike. I would protest that I was not accusing you of playing cheap rhetorical games, but rather expressing my continued befuddlement over how you’ve managed to let yourself get on board with others’ cheap rhetorical games! You are arguing in good faith, but I’m not convinced the same is true of others who have made these arguments. It’s my belief that the reason they so strenuously oppose the term “natural wine” is that they are trying, in Orwellian fashion, to deprive people of the ability to draw any distinctions between traditionally made wine and blatantly spoofulated wine by depriving us of the vocabulary that expresses those differences. Note that this does NOT mean that the only alternative to “natural” is spoof or “industrialized”; all it means is that the concept of natural helps us make sense of a spectrum that includes minimal interventions on one side and promiscuous interventions on the other, and all sorts of other approaches in between.

    As for the definition, or rather the summary of others’ general descriptions (isn’t that what we call a “definition”?), of natural wine in your Slate piece, it doesn’t strike me as all that significant whether it’s your definition or theirs; the point is that you’ve provided a very good synopsis of the meaning of the term you insist is meaningless.

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