Wine Diarist

Natural Wines: The Problem Isn’t The Skeptics

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.