Considering Natural Wines

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Picture by Caleb Schiff, @Pizzicletta

Recently the apparent question of “natural wine” has turned into a wide spread debate moving through the major newspapers and the blog-o-sphere. The discussion has hit the presses under Eric Asimov’s well-respected coinage in the NEW YORK TIMES, and been considered by a host of Masters’ of Wine, and wine bloggers alike via twitter, wordpress, and elsewhere.

The basic idea in question here is simply the notion of making wine with very low intervention–that is, natural wines are generally produced without the introduction of outside forces beyond those simply necessary for turning grape juice into an alcoholic loveliness. As such, many wine producers now call themselves biodynamic, focusing on a complete balance of the overall farming environment with not only the land itself but even the cycles of the moon and planets. Or, some are opting for the almost as strict (but without the overt moon-cycle obligations) organic designation.

Fulfillment of either category is most readily seen in Old World wineries, but in relation to these one of my favorite insightful comments has been: various long-standing European wineries are tending vineyards with organic processes, “which at the time was known simply as traditional (i.e. without herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, cultured yeasts, etc.).” The point being made by such a claim, of course, is that there is a big hubbub right now about natural wines when in reality many wine makers have been following such practices for centuries. That is, many family owned, low production wineries have maintained traditional methods for generations, even as others have been swayed by the introduction of chemicals and mechanical interventions. With that in mind, it isn’t always clear what the balleehoo is actually about.

It would seem that the question of natural wine making has come to a head recently at least partially because of the way it is marketed. We could certainly discuss the influence of various wine writers on the publics’ awareness of the matter. (Quick side note inserted primarily for my philosopher friends reading along: yes, I did use publics in the plural there purposefully.) Alice Feiring is an example of a wonderful wine writer that has lured people to the cause of low intervention, i.e., natural wines. But the concern about the matter has shown itself recently because of the way in which natural wines seem to be pitched against other apparently less natural wines.

One of the funniest, pointed responses to the apparent marketing tendencies of the natural wine movement has been the (almost but honestly pretty accurate) tongue in cheek blog post title “Drink Natural Wine–or Get a Bad Rash” appearing on FERMENTATION. There Tom Wark addresses the vitriol he sees sent from the position of natural wines against those that apparently don’t fit the demands of the category. His criticism is quite simply on that very point–that we’d be hard pressed to find any other niche in the wine world that overtly calls out every other aspect of the wine world as poison, a health and environmental hazard, or even perhaps a moral evil. His critique is even complete with an explicit picture of a bad rash all over some poor woman’s bum that looks an awful lot like a double-sided dose of the shingles I got while suffering my way through graduate school. Thank god shingles only ever appears on one side of the body, and not both. But, if natural wine really will turn our bums into an early sketch-study of a failed Seurat painting as the photo implies well, Lord, SAVE US ALL.

** (I could actually quite easily fall into an examination of what it would take for something like wine to honestly be a genuine evil–in fact it would simply reduce to two moves: (1) showing that it really is doing true biological and environmental harm, and (2) showing how that harm is extended in such a way as to limit our capacity for a sustainable life. Many of those in the natural wine movement actually have already claimed (though not necessarily proven) both (1) and (2)–and the truth is all of my previous training is pulling on me here to go ahead and launch into the philosophical argumentation either for OR against this set-up but oh… oh… god. I will refrain, and you will likely be grateful.) **

The Eric Asimov article mentioned above responds to Wark’s complaint with the plain statement that natural wine is well-worth the drinking, but not the vitriol in either direction. Thor Iverson even responds with the simple point that this is not really a new conversation, we just now find ourselves in a rather boring phase (my wording of his claim) of the dialectic. One of the lovelier responses, largely because of its simplicity, comes from natural wine lover herself, Alice Feiring. Her statement quite directly states it thus, “my advice, keep out of the sandbox.” As in, don’t like the game? Don’t play. The beauty, and where I think she really captures a genuine response to the issue of natural wine comes after. She follows her advice with an apology for being absent, telling us readers that she’s been “visiting the wonders of the world” and that “they need a savior to help Jose’ save them from abuse.” (Click on the link to her post there to catch a glimpse of a couple mind-boggling photos representing a couple of those wonders she mentions.)

This week I’m co-hosting a private wine tasting event where we happen to be tasting three wines arising directly out of the center of the natural wine movement. The funny thing is I didn’t select any of those three wines for that reason. Instead, I was pulled to try them for the passionate story of commitment and experimentation behind each. The very thing that pulls me to wine in general is precisely that–the story, the experience, the living of each bottle. Even the worst wine I’ve ever tasted sure as hell gave me that much.

I flew to Seattle from Alaska for a one-day trip to attend a friend’s wedding. At the reception I didn’t eat enough food, and then drank two glasses of Yellow Tail. TWO. The next day I woke up with the most excruciating head ache and hang over that when I called my sister to tell her about it she said I sounded much like a man in the desert that had just fallen on a cactus–dry mouthed and full of prickers in all the wrong spots. I left her a voice mail message before speaking with her directly. She replayed the message for me every few days for the next two years and every single time she’d laugh her ass off, even crying tears of joy over it. Perhaps you see my point–wine offers the fascination of a story, and its experience.

Having typed all this I guess I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve much contributed to the debate on natural wines. Truth is, I don’t care to say much more about it except this one more thing, and, admittedly, I’ll say it a touch too explicitly too. But, with accuracy for the feeling it presents: Considering the quality, challenge, and rarity of the wines we’re going to taste this week, I sure as fuck am excited about them.

I’m excited too to post articles on them over the next couple of weeks, and share my enthusiasm for them (be they awful or fantastic I’ll admit to both and the in-betweens between too) here as well.

Interested in reading more about wines to see which ones, “natural” or otherwise, get you excited? Check out this handful of fantastic wine writers, three blogs, and two wine shop blogs. And, if you enjoy, keep coming back to read here too.

Thanks for reading!

Wine Blogs

Alice Feiring

Wine Terroirs

Mad About Wine

Well Written Wine Shop Blogs

Crush Blog

Italian Wine Merchants Blog

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