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Natural Wines: The Problem Isn’t The Skeptics

2012 January 30
by Mike

Sorry for the light posting last week. I was in Florida attending the Naples Winter Wine Festival. It was a wonderful event, and I got to taste some great wines in the service of a great cause. I’ll tell you more about it shortly.

Eric Asimov, the wine writer for The New York Times, did a piece last week defending the natural wine movement against its critics, including yours truly. Eric is an excellent columnist, but he fired in the wrong direction in this instance. Eric mischaracterized the criticism that has been leveled against the natural movement and is far too accepting of the claims that it makes on its own behalf.

A constant refrain among natural advocates is that people who challenge the natural movement feel somehow threatened by it, and regrettably, Eric repeated that canard. Speaking for myself, I can say that I don’t feel at all threatened. And why would I? I am a wine hack, with no personal stake in this matter. I’m merely offering my observations, and one thing I’ve observed is that natural advocates do not like to have their ideas interrogated and habitually assert that anyone who takes issue with their pronouncements is doing so because they feel threatened. It is a very self-flattering claim, and it is also a way of ducking debate. I understood why they do it, but Eric surely knows that people like David Schildknecht, Terry Theise, and Andrew Jefford, three of the most intelligent commentators on the wine scene, are not acting out of fear when they question various aspects of the natural canon.

Eric wrote that “natural wines offer an ideal…far better to absorb and consider rather than stamp a foot in annoyance.” But thoughtful consideration is precisely what people like Schildknecht and Jefford have been giving to the natural ethos. Natural partisans make all sorts of claims, those claims have been scrutinized, and I think the scrutiny has demonstrated that the natural movement is long on stridency and dogma and woefully short on intellectual coherence. Eric stated that “natural-wine partisans refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument.” What exactly is lawyerly about asking them to define what that they mean by the term “natural”? If they are going to classify wines as “natural”, aren’t they obliged to explain what it takes to earn that distinction? Schildknecht put it perfectly in his recent broadside against Jonathan Nossiter: “The question at issue with natural wine…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?”

(Eric compared the natural wine movement to the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s a facile analogy that falls at the first hurdle: while OWS is a protest movement, the natural insurgency is an advocacy movement, and that imposes very different demands on its proponents.)

I’m increasingly of the view that Schildknecht, Jefford, and other skeptics have done the natural movement the grave disservice of actually taking it seriously. I’m no longer sure it deserves to be taken seriously; I believe that for a lot of these people, the term “natural” is just a slogan used to champion a particular set of wines that happen to please their palates and conform to their prejudices. A while back, I had an exchange with one prominent naturalista who told me that a certain California winery could never be considered “natural” even if it adhered to all of the core tenets of naturalism because it produced too much wine. I almost fell out of my chair laughing. It seems many natural advocates arrange the goalposts to suit their own tastes and biases. Just look at the contrasting attitude vis a vis chaptalization and acidification. The latter is deemed strictly verboten, but chaptalization is not a disqualifying intervention, and I think the reason for that is pretty obvious: adding sugar is acceptable because it has been a traditional practice in northern Europe, and that’s where the natural movement has its roots. I find that natural proponents are curiously selective about these and other matters.

One issue that Eric sidestepped entirely is the fact it is journalists, importers, and retailers who are making most of the noise about natural wines and turning into an ideological crusade. Forgive me for quoting myself here, but as I wrote in Slate, “Winemakers are the ultimate pragmatists and empiricists. Most who work in a ‘natural’ way are doing so not to be fashionable or politically correct, but because they think it produces better results. And as any competent vintner will tell you, winemaking can’t be reduced to a recipe, and process alone doesn’t account for quality. The fact that so much of the conversation about natural wines is being driven by nonpractitioners makes it hard to assign it much weight.” Aubert de Villaine and Paul Draper have worked in a “natural” way for decades, but they have never categorized their wines as “natural” or peddled the kind of dogmatism that is standard fare with the natural crowd, and that’s very telling.

As science and technology exert ever more influence in our vineyards and cellars, there’s an important discussion to be had about the winemaking process and how much intervention is too much. From what I’ve seen, however, many natural advocates just aren’t really interested in an exchange of ideas. They apparently want to be free to claim, as some do, that natural wines are healthier than conventionally produced ones—a completely unfounded assertion—and not have that statement or others like it challenged. I think that instead of criticizing the critics, Eric would have been better off casting a more skeptical eye at the natural movement itself.

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  5. Yule Kim permalink
    February 7, 2012

    The term “natural” may be loaded, but everyone knows what people like Marcel Lapierre and Jules Chauvet generally advocated: organic or biodynamic viticulture; using minimal sulfur during vinification; the use of natural yeast rather than inoculated; and eschewing modern vinification techniques like rotofermentors, reverse osmosis, and Mega Purple.

    Of course, depending on the vintage, winemakers are going to have to be flexible about technique. Some years they might have to use more sulfur than others. If there is a stuck fermentation, they might have to inoculate, etc.. But, the principles that these winemakers live by are not rendered meaningless just because they don’t have a precise formula. Sure, the exact amount of sulfur used may vary year to year, but I am going to know that a natural winemaker, like Matthieu Lapierre, is going to use as little sulfur as he thinks is necessary to make a good wine, and that is valuable information to have when making a purchase.

    Granted, low sulfur vinification may be unnecessary or even deleterious for winemaking. But, let us have a fact-based argument about the merits of low sulfur vinification rather than dismiss it at the threshold just because no one has bothered to define precisely by the milligram how much sulfur is too much.

    And, I think there is plenty of disparagement and condescension on both sides, not just from people advocating “natural” winemaking. But, while the people like to quote Jonathan Nossiter and Alice Feiring (who don’t actually make wine), you never find a single word of disparagement uttered by actual producers like Matthieu Lapierre, Angelino Maule, Josko Gravner, or Didier Barrouillet. It doesn’t seem to me that denigration of other wines (particularly those pioneered by techniques pioneered at UC-Davis) is central to their messaging. Hell, these producers don’t even seem to be engaged in messaging. I guess they are too busy making wine to bother.

    So, please, don’t let the strident voices of a couple of a few shrill asshats define an entire winemaking philosophy and movement. Natural wine producers (not necessarily natural wine bloggers) deserve better than that.

  6. February 6, 2012

    Mike,
    At the risk of repeating myself and thus being boring, I have to say that you seem to be a bit off-track in your approach to natural in general. For example, in your reply to Adam Lee you say “…their refusal to be pinned down…”, and “refusal to define natural wine”. You (and others) don’t seem to understand that there’s no-one here in the natural wine movement (whatever that is) who has the power to define or to refuse to define anything! There are as yet no official bodies who can speak with any authority whatsoever.

    So, on the one hand, I urge you to do more research and seek out more representative or mainstream natural wine people with which to engage. Don’t keep focusing on the strident sound-bite-generating charismatic cheerleader types. We (the normal, hard-working majority) have lots of interesting real wine-related issues to talk about – I for one am absolutely fed up responding to posts about ‘the definition of the word natural’, ‘marketing ploys’ and other peripheral and irrelevant sound-bite issues, when we could be debating, for example, ‘terroir’, ’wine faults’, ‘levels of intervention’, ‘actual tasting notes’, etc. (See Yule Kim’s comment below for yet more interesting topics).

    And on the other hand, if you really, really need to have a definition of natural wine, again do some research and you’ll find that many natural wine people have in fact already published their own definition of what they consider to be natural wine. I don’t know if having many overlapping definitions is better or worse for you, but those definitions are there if you want them.

  7. February 4, 2012

    Adam Lee, I agree with you–the term “natural” is just such a huge part of the problem here, as is the refusal to define it. And my sense is that with some natural advocates, the refusal to be pinned down is because they know it will expose a fair amount of hypocrisy. Who in the natural movement, for instance, would dare suggest that DRC doesn’t make “natural” or “authentic” wines? Yet, DRC uses 100 percent new oak, which strikes me as something beyond “natural,” beyond “minimal intervention.” I hate to sound so cynical, but I think a lot this is about personal taste and sloganeering/marketing.

    Yule, you make some fair points. Chapoutier’s comment was asinine. However, no one I cited here–David Schildknecht, Andrew Jefford, Terry Theise–is disparaging the producers you named, nor am I. I have said before, and I will say it again: Lapierre’s Morgon is probably the wine I cherish most. It seems to me that most of the scorn is coming from the “natural” camp; Tom Wark, who has posted in this thread, had an item on his site recently in which he showed how disparagement of other wines has become such a big part of the natural movement’s messaging. I agree with you completely: if we can move past the term “natural”, there’s a fantastic discussion to be had. The term “natural” is just too loaded, too polarizing–it is a conversation-stopper rather than starter. But it’s not the skeptics who decided on the term “natural”; it is the proponents, and it’s up to them, ultimately, to put the term to rest.

  8. February 2, 2012

    “Is it just about championing some plucky producers in places like the Loire?” Mmmm… You may be on to something there, Mike! ;-)

  9. February 2, 2012

    Beau, thanks for stopping by, and sorry for the delayed reply. I obviously love CSW; it’s a wonderful store. But I don’t find David and Jamie to be nearly as doctrinaire as other natural partisans. They like what they like, and some of what they like and carry includes wines that deviate from the natural canon. I am not denying that that there are some great wines that are considered “natural”; I’ve said before that the wine that I probably cherish most is the Lapierre Morgon. The Louis/Dressner portfolio blows me away, and I think Jenny & Francois carry some fantastic wines. Again, the two big problems for me are the use of the term “natural” and the refusal to define it, and the stridency that I hear from a lot of natural proponents.

    Amy, I agree; I think the natural debate is a very spirited one and, on balance, a good one. People are questioning and thinking, and that’s as important in wine as it is in pretty much every other realm of human activity.

    Jeff, thanks for the kind words; much appreciated. The book metaphor is a great one, and an apt description for what the best wines deliver.

    Pineau D’Argent, I think most of us are in favor of minimal intervention; no one is denying that it’s a worthy objective. We all want wines that express to the fullest extent possible a sense of place. But there are different means to that end, and to create a category called “natural” wines and to deride other wines as somehow inauthentic doesn’t strike me as particularly helpful. This is the crux of the problem with the natural movement, or at least some of its more vocal advocates. Where I part company with you is on the issue of output; I don’t know what “industrial scale” means, and I don’t understand why a winery’s output should have anything to do with whether it can be considered a “natural” producer or not. And to be frank, it is assertions like these that have led me to question whether the natural movement deserves to be taken seriously. Is this really about winemaking, or is it just about championing some plucky producers in places like the Loire? I don’t mean to be confrontational, but I just do not understand what size has to do with naturalness.

  10. February 2, 2012

    As someone who works for an importer of natural wines, I feel compelled to chime in here. To me, natural wines have a certain taste. It’s a taste that I fell in love with the first time I tried Marcel Lapierre’s wine and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve dedicated my professional life since then to exposing others to these wines, because there are so many people out there that haven’t been given the chance to taste one yet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve poured these wines for someone, be it a customer or a professional, and seen their eyes light up with excitement, knowing they’ve tasted something unlike anything they’ve tasted before.

    What we try to do is select the best examples of what we think that natural taste is. It’s part examination of the wineries practices, and a big part how it tastes. Reading that sentence back again it seems so obvious that is basically unnecessary. Isn’t that what every importer does? Go visit wineries, see how they work, taste what they have, talk to the guy that makes it, bring back what you like, rinse glasess, repeat?

    The discussion of dogma makes my ears hurt. The fact is, the wines we really love are made differently from the way many other wines are made, and they taste different because of it. We have to explain to people why that is. I suppose to be really accurate we should sit each person down and go through a 2 hour class about the fine points of yeast microbiology and the effects of sulfur on grape must, but people’s eyes generally start to glaze over after about 20 seconds, so we try to keep it short and simple.

    The suggestion that I select wines based purely on dogma and not on flavor offends my self-esteem as a wine professional. I suppose there are some natural importers that work that way, but there are probably also a lot of humongous importing companies that do the same thing by picking up certified organic wines just to be able to attack that market, without regard for the taste or quality.

    As far as I’m concerned, the flaw is in the eye of the beholder. There are some wines that I hate (some of them aren’t even natural and some are even really expensive and respected) and some of my customers hate some wines I love. I find it’s completely a personal thing, and especially more so with natural wines. One person tastes a horribly flawed mistake and another tastes the same wine as a brilliant reflection of soil and climate. It’s all good. You really can’t categorize that in a box or with points and that’s one of things I love about it.

  11. Begriff permalink
    February 2, 2012

    Big ups to Yule Kim’s post below. This just seems like a non-debate about a label.

    More generally, I would gently suggest that the portion of writing on this blog about intra-wine world drama is starting to loom disturbingly close to the amount that actually deals with wine and its appreciation.

    Which is disappointing, since that wasn’t true of Mike’s Slate pieces; great balance of content there.

  12. Dan McCallum permalink
    February 2, 2012

    As the debate grinds along, the question becomes ultimately “is man natural?”. And if he is, than can some of his works be not natural? If he is not, than are any of his works natural? Or, are some of us natural and some not? OK- what have we got when a natural and a not produce hybrid off-spring?
    This entire controversy has been going on for thousands of years. It is the “Garden of Eden” argument; it is the “Noble Savage” argument; “Original Sin” etc and so on. We are having it today in the wine world because the word ‘natural’ is emotive and thus useful commercially. Is that natural?
    Natural is not the appropriate word. As applicable to wine, the best discourse that I have read on the topic was by Paul Draper; wherein he cast aside “natural” and framed the divide as industrial vs post-industrial. A well grounded man- we need a couple billion more like that.

  13. RobinC permalink
    February 2, 2012

    I think that some winemakers do feel threated by the natural, biodynamic, organic, sustainable winemaking claims. Winemakers also hate the term Reserve Wines, a meaningless lable yet one that implies superior wines. (unless they’re using it). There’s a lot of hype in the wine world, and the only way to fight hype is with hype. What about “carefully crafted”, or even better “meticulously crafted”? Makes natural winemaking sound careless and unprofessional.

  14. February 1, 2012

    Bruce:

    There has not been a definition of the term “Natural” where wine is concerned, until lately. The reason there as been until lately no takers for the term “natural” is because nearly all understood that affixing the term to winemaking is absurd on its face.

    The moment a vine is planted in a place it wasn’t before, an unnatural act has occurred. The moment grapes are taken from the vine, something unnatural has occurred. Once grapes are fermented by hand, something unnatural has occurred. The obviousness of this leads me to believe that the use of the term by winemakers must be political and ideological if only because it makes no sense to believe those who use the term can be universally unschooled and dense.

    That said, I think those who now call themselves “Natural” winemakers but are more accurately and honestly described as “Minimalists”, use the former term not so much to describe their efforts, but to try to apply a definition to what all others besides them are and have been doing with the grapes they convert to wine. Surely there are various reasons why the Minimalists have come adopt the same form of passive-aggressiveness. But the fact is, they have come to the same bump in the road.

    Disassociating the winemakers from the proponents of the Minimalist approach to winemaking is as logical as disassociating FoxNews from the Republican party or trying to disassociate MSNBC from the Democratic party. Put another way, arguing that the winemakers are separate from the promoters is akin to suggesting that the SuperPacs associated with presidential candidates are separate from the Candidates. It’s no wonder the presidential candidates have not called their SuperPacs on the carpet for their various sins in the same way it is no wonder that the winemakers have not called the promoters on the carpet for their sins. We all understand they desire the benefit of their associates actions and the cost of this association is holding one’s tongue.

    As for the folks who say denigrating things about the wines that come out the Minimalist movement simply because they don’t like the wines, I think we all can agree they are wrong in doing so and ought step back and remember the most basic rule of wine appreciation: The best wine is the Wine I like best and no one can deny that truth. M. Chapoutier, for example, would do well to reacquaint himself with this basic truth. There are so many fine and fun wines in the marketplace today, including many of those from the Minimalists. Upon reading M. Chapoutiers inelegant tirade, I can safely say he’ll not get another penny out of my treasure. I just hope that there will be enough Minimalist winemakers left for me to spend a penny or two on when they get done defining what they think they are.

  15. Bruce G. permalink
    February 1, 2012

    Tom:

    On this: “The use of the term “Natural” does more than suggest a philosophical direction. It suggests that all but those carrying the moniker are somewhat less natural and, worse, not as good because they are not natural…worse still, if a wine is not natural, is it unnatural? Most folks understand this is the implication of the term.”

    There is no universal definition for the term “natural” in wine, nor is there any controlling authority governing its use in describing a wine.
    At heart, there is no real sense of exclusion (and precious little inclusion) in using the term. Two wines can be made in very different ways and still both can be referred to as “natural”. Conferring the “natural” tag on either of these wines says nothing at all about a third wine that is not referred to in the same manner.
    Anyone can call their wines “natural”. Whether such a reference stands up to scrutiny depends upon a whole raft of factors.

    I believe I undertsand your larger point.
    There are obviously a number of folks who engage in histrionics about the subject. Often these folks cast aspersions on others, both supporters and producers of wines that they dislike. I agree that we’d be better off without them.
    But I think it unfair to employ guilt-by-association for producers who have some relationship, however tenuous, with these folks. Sure, silence may mean that the producer endorses such outlandish ideas. It could also mean, though, that the producer is simply unaware of the rhetoric. Too, perhaps its a case of a producer who doesn’t agree but firmly believes in the marketplace of ideas.
    Who knows? Far better to ask the producer to clarify, I’d think, than to assume something.

  16. Bruce G. permalink
    February 1, 2012

    Mike:

    We seem to be mutually mystifying.
    My take, in short form:
    -The natural wine “movement” obviously must include the producers themselves. Without them, there would be no movement. They are essentially the foundation upon which the movement has developed.
    -The movement has developed to include a wide range of personalities, from quiet enthusiasts to loud, bombastic, high profile supporters.
    -You’ve apparently keyed in on the latter group and come to the conclusion that “the natural movement is long on stridency and dogma and woefully short on intellectual coherence”. So much so that you are now “no longer sure it [the movement] deserves to be taken seriously”.

    In these statements your condemnation is not of a subset of the movement, but of the movement in its entirety. Whether you intended to or not, from my perspective you are saying that the producers themselves are also lacking in intellectual coherence and don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
    Perhaps these key phrases were just poorly worded. You seem to recognize that there are different sub-groupings within the “movement”.
    None of this, though, explains why you blithely accept the notion that the most strident and dogmatic of the bunch need to be considered the standard bearers for the whole trend. Why?… because they’re the ones who generate the most noise on an english-language based internet?
    I would have thought that intellectual curiosity and journalistic due diligence would cause you to filter out those voices, pack your bags, and go visit the producers themselves.
    If the current “public face” of the natural movement is a distorted, dis-honest one maybe you can help get the proper one, sans maquillage, the exposure it deserves.

    PS: I realize that it probably doesn’t come through here, but I’m a fan of your work. I just happen to think (perhaps like Asimov?) that your focus is slightly off here.

  17. Yule Kim permalink
    February 1, 2012

    Isn’t the whole “natural” debate a tempest in a teapot at this point? With the exception of a few shrill boosters (i.e., Nossiter), most of the proponents for natural wines have moved on from trying to define what “natural” means (and by that, I mean given up the debate and conceded that “natural” doesn’t mean that much) and want to discuss more tangible issues, such as:

    1) The use of ambient yeast for fermentation and eschewing inoculation (i.e., the rise of “sponti” fermentation in the Mosel)

    2) Using little to no sulfur during vinification and the effects high sulfur vinification has on fermentation (especially the way in which it affects certain yeasts during vinification)

    3) The use of carbonic maceration for varieties other than gamay (i.e., Syrah in the Rhone and Cab Franc in the Loire) and whether it is “spoof”

    4) Whether more modern processes such as reverse osmosis, rotofermentors, the use of Mega Purple, cold soaks, etc.. should replace more traditional processes (i.e., the modernist/traditionalist fissure in the Piedmont)

    5) The effects of global warming on certain terroirs and what winemakers must do in response

    And many, many more.

    Honestly, the whole debate over the definition of “natural” is so tired and circular at this point (from both sides of the argument), it prevents people from spending time on the really interesting issues. And, the argument over the definition of natural has become a straw man used to bash earnest producers who just want to make interesting wines (see Chapoutier and his recent screed for an example).

    To be honest, this whole attempt to define “natural,” at times, seems more like a means to ridicule great producers like Thierry Puzelat, Arianna Occhipinti, Didier Barrouillet, and the late, great Marcel Lapierre, dismissing them as vapid hippies rather than serious minded winemakers and maligning their winemaking practices as vacuous voodoo rather than an earnest attempt to make the best expressions of their terroirs that they can make. The comments Chapoutier made (and, to be frank, several comments made in this thread) only reinforces this suspicion among the proponents of “natural” wine, which only fuels the vitriolic responses from the “natural” camp.

    How about this: we all stop talking about the term and definition “natural,” stop characterizing these wines as “vinegar,” stop trashing these practices as “voodoo” and “bullshit,” and evaluate the winemaking techniques that people like Puzelat, Lapierre, and Jules Chauvet advocate on their actual merits.

    If people like Nossiter want to be blowhards about “natural wine,” let them. They are a shrill minority, and if people stop talking about “natural,” the term will one day be dropped.

  18. February 1, 2012

    In natural wine-producing countries in Europe, and reading the manifestoes of natural wine associations, one finds one element of definition that’s pretty precise right now: a natural wine contains no added sulfur dioxide, SO2, at all. There may be some in it as a natural by-product of fermentation, but anything above 20 mg/l will be looked upon as suspicious. However, the Spanish association, which at first specifically included that 20 mg/l limit in its rules, has now dropped it, making things hazier again.

    Seeing some Spanish producers who add (small) amounts of SO2 to their wines participate in a big French natural wine shindig last weekend leads me to suspect that this is veering toward a more subjective category of wines, grouped basically for stylistic reasons and because they are made by small growers.

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