Photo: Joe Roberts
I have taken to avoiding use of the term “natural wine.” This has nothing to do with wines largely considered to be natural wines, some of which have beguiled me (though most too often are a disappointing combination of everything I don’t want in a wine married with a distinct lack of what I do want in a wine), and everything to do with the fact that I have to type things like “largely considered to be natural wines” every time that I bring up the topic.
This is because, despite now having garnered more mainstream publicity and hipster cachet than at any previous point in recent memory, natural wine producers, purveyors, and proponents have yet to define what in the heck a “natural wine” actually is.
Somehow, despite having a marketing designation that implies tanker-loads of superiority, natural wine has managed to get a foothold into the door to a wider fine wine audience, but its serious lack of definition is feeling like the dog caught the car and now has no idea what to do with it.
This elephant-in-the- amphorae-fermentation-vessel issue of vagueness surrounding natural wine has grown so large that it is now well past the point of absurdity. To wit: as of the time of this writing, the world’s single most expensive wine – an indigenous variety, amphorae-vinified, limited edition from Liber Pater in Graves – could seriously be argued to be a natural wine… or maybe not.
At this point, you’re no doubt wondering “dude, when are you going to define what natural wine is?!??” And mostly all that I can do is point you to its Wikipedia entry, which itself is an exercise in frustration for the detail-oriented. The term is basically the minimal-interventionists spiritual equivalent to “reserve” wine in the USA, which is similarly vague to the point of being meaningless for consumers. There is no formal definition of what constitutes a natural wine.
Here are the highlights from said Wikipedia entry (emphasis is mine):
“Natural wine refers to a generalized movement among winemakers for production of "natural" wine without pesticides, chemicals and other additives. Historically, it has been connected to the German Lebensreform movement, where it gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sources claim that it started with winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France in the 1960s. These winemakers, namely Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Charly Thevenet and Guy Breton, sought a return to the way their grandparents made wine, before the incursion of pesticides and chemicals that had become so prevalent in agriculture after the end of World War II. They became affectionately known as The Gang of Four. They were heavily influenced by the teachings and thoughts of Jules Chauvet and Jacques Neauport, two oenologists who studied ways to make wines with fewer additives. For quite some time the town of Villié-Morgon became a place for like minded winemakers to congregate and become influenced by the Gang of Four.
Gradually this movement spread to other regions of France, and since has spread across the world, gradually gaining in popularity and attracting newer younger winemakers in more and more regions of the world. At the present time there exists no official or legal definition of natural wine; neither has any legislation been passed to date by any regional, national or supranational authority, and there are no organizations that can certify that a wine is natural.”
I know that the natural wine crowd has its collective pants down when I read things such as this (also from the Wikipedia entry):
“The inherent ambiguity of the term has been defended by Bradford Taylor, owner of Ordinaire, a wine bar in Oakland, California that exclusively serves natural wine. According to Taylor, ‘there’s something productive about how nebulous the term ‘natural’ is, how it opens itself up to debate every time it comes up.’”
No offense to Ordinaire, Taylor, or Oakland, but there’s nothing quite like redefining failure as success, is there?
There absolutely is a place in the fine wine market for the natural wine movement; its best products are authentic and superb, and its message about wine lovers caring what additives they allow in their foods (and, ultimately, their bodies) justifiably resonates with informed vine geeks. But let’s be clear: when we allow this kind of ambiguity, we are only benefiting the people who use the term, while allowing consumers who could become lovers of the movement and its wines to confusingly scratch their heads.
I’ve been well challenged on this viewpoint. Quite a few have pinged me out of concern that I’d finally succumbed to my consternation and became an old stogie (nope – I think that ship has sailed, maybe with the exception of the “old” part); or offering long, thoughtful treatises on why I was wrong in my conclusion that the term “natural wine” is all but meaningless and therefore more of a bane of confusion for consumers than a helpful tag upon which they could hang their hat in terms of better understanding wine in general. Still others worried that I was doing nothing more than complaining about terminology (guilty!); and then there was the hate mail… because apparently if I have a beef with the term “natural wine,” it means that I hate all things having to do with the movement (uhm… just… NO).
Allow me to offer a more cogent explanation on my position:
I don't hate natural wines!
I have had many wines that may or may not fit into the Natural Wine camp that I have dearly loved, and many that I thought smelled and/or tasted like rancid donkey sweat. I have nothing against making wines in a minimally interventionist style.
The problem is that there is no one who can tell you, me, or anyone else whether or not a wine is “natural.” The term is simply too vague, and it’s passed time for us in the wine biz to try to rectify that, for the sake of curious consumers everywhere.
Let’s look at the situation another way:
You don’t have a movement when you cannot define the movement.
Without at least a semblance of an agreed definition/aim/goal, you don’t really have a movement at all; you have vague shared hopes. I’m NOT saying that those hopes don’t have merit (they do), or that they are wrong (they’re probably not). But I am saying that we can’t have our wine cake and eat it, too. “Natural Wine” needs a new moniker, clearer leadership, and better guidelines if we want it to better resonate with wine lovers worldwide.