The Challenges of Natural Wine
One of the criticisms regularly leveraged against the so-called Natural wine movement is its lack of definition. Critics of the phenomenon repeat the point as a central proof of the movement’s lack of legitimacy.
Some writers, however, have also asserted that lack of definition could be an advantage. Eric Asimov takes up the subject through an article in 2012 and describes the lack of definition as “one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans” as they “refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument.” Part of the advantage means they can pursue what techniques best suit their motivations within the reality of what’s available to them.
In her book, Naked Wine, Alice Feiring considers a key trouble with Natural wine lacking definition. There she says, “The danger lurks in the word’s being legislature resistant and therefore easily commandeered by commercial wineries looking to keep their market share” (2011 31). Such an event would work against the roots of the Natural wine movement, which places itself against such commercial wineries.
Definitive to the origins of the Natural wine movement rests a defense against pollutants associated with large scale farming, and additives used in the cellar.
While organic and less-interventionist wines have been made for centuries, Natural wine as a movement took form precisely at the point industrialized farming and winemaking began to dominate entire regions. As Feiring describes, chemical farming took hold in France from the 1960s, with serious changes seen in the health of the land by the 1970s (2011 38). By the end of the 1970s, winegrowers in France were beginning to assert a position in viticultural politics. By 1982, the political position had expanded from producers to sales with Natural wine bars appearing.
Natural wine as a project moves outside France as well. It takes similar form in Italy, for example, where, like France, Natural winemakers tend to also grow their own grapes.
In the New World, it becomes more difficult to carry forward a comparable model of Natural wine. In California, for example, of those that assert themselves as Natural wine producers, few also control their own farming, though there are exceptions. It is simply a different sort of grape market. In such cases, an implicit gap between cellar and vineyard changes the politics of the movement, but also the reality of what winemaking activities a producer controls. While winemakers that source fruit may retain control of their fermentation, élevage, and bottling, many enjoy limited input on viticultural choices that produce their fruit. When possible, they can of course choose to work with farmers they trust.
Motivations and needs differ between origins as well.
Influential in the difference is a contrast in regulatory board. In France, regional control groups demand particular farming practices, rather than just claims of origin, as in the United States. For producers in France, then, a Natural wine movement arises from very real need to protect against what proponents see as legally enforced ecological damage. There Natural wine proves an actual fight, with producers facing court battles, and substantial fines.
In the United States, ecological damage also stands as a real concern but without such direct legislative weight. That said, Natural wine doesn’t belong to a particular region. It’s a global phenomenon that happens to take strong form in some areas thanks to specific laws and regulations.
At the same time such politics take place, many other producers have continued to make wine through essentially organic and less interventionist means without claiming to be part of a movement. The range of wines that eschew industrialized technologies proves, then, to be broader than those claiming membership in a cause.
It appears, then, difficult to find a cohesive idea of what Natural wine is.
Still, Feiring finds the word useful for how it gives the public “a general word to indicate the kind of wine it is looking for” pointing out that while there may be issues with natural as a concept it “is good enough” (2011 13).
While many critics of Natural wine would target Feiring at exactly this point, seeing such hand waving as exactly where the illegitimacy they keep repeating shows up, her point here, I take it, is precisely made. Natural gives us a general word to get at an idea. For any of us discussing the issue, whether we’re for or against or agnostic for Natural wine, referencing Natural wine as an idea is good enough. We all basically know what we’re talking about, even if not precisely. When we want and actually need to be more careful, we can do that.
What Being More Careful Looks Like
In truth, any definition of Natural wine does have a certain vagueness to it. The point, however, is that such ambiguity is not inappropriate to the subject, nor a lack of legitimacy. Further, we can do more to resolve it.
Winegrowers farming organically and then using less interventionist cellar techniques; winemakers reducing cellar input but purchasing grapes; and producers refusing the subject while using methods appropriate to the title of Natural wine — they’re all relevant to the discussion.
(In grape buying markets, there are also organic and/or biodynamic grape growers but the discussion of Natural wine seems defined by its product — wine. So, while these growers are crucial, they’re a different piece of the puzzle. Strictly speaking, I’m not excluding them. My point is only that organic grape growers not making wine are precisely that — growing grapes but not making wine. We need and want them. However, winemakers can purchase organically farmed grapes and then chapitalize or acidify, as examples, thus not making natural wines. When we discuss Natural wine, we’re discussing what’s in the bottle, even if also what got us there. So, I am not excluding the growers but in a grape sourcing market, the winemakers choose to use such grapes or not and they can clarify that for us in discussing their wines.)
Which of these you’re getting at, and how you’re considering their activities depends on what motivates your point to begin with. That is, what is your purpose or focus? The specifics, in other words, are provided by you.
Let me explain. There are various types of definitions. (For the sake of clarity, I do need to address what might seem like a purely lexical point, but I’ll be brief.)
For example, in discussing wine, located as I am in California, I often reference wines from this state. In doing so, it’s (basically) easy to understand what I mean as the boundaries of California itself provide my definition. I mean wines made from within the state of California, and let’s assume from grapes within the state as well.
In cases where an Arizona winery, for example, is making wine from California fruit trucked across state lines it doesn’t really make sense anymore to call such wine simply as “from Arizona”, nor only as “from California.” Boundaries have gotten mixed. The wine comes from California fruit made into wine by an Arizona winery. We have a specific idea when we say “from California.”
As an example of a different sort, I might refer to Napa Cabernet. In one sense, such an idea is rather straightforward as I could simply point to every example of a wine made by a California winery using and bottling Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Any one of them would count.
However, it is common these days for people in wine to refer to Napa Cabernet as a stylistic point referencing the riper, big boned, more extracted styles associated with the 1990s. Not all Cabernet made from Napa Valley during the 1990s fits this genre. However, whether we’re for or against this type of wine, we all basically know what we’re talking about when we refer to Napa Cabernet in this way, even if the edges of the category get a little smudgy.
In which of these two ways we intend to use the idea of Napa Cabernet usually gets cleared up by the context of our conversation. When it doesn’t, our point might get confused. That’s when it’s our job simply to clarify.
In the case of Natural wine, something else is happening. To sum up before I illustrate my point: we do generally know what we’re talking about when we talk about Natural wine; that is, there is a definition already. We just haven’t quite recognized it, partially because it’s just not the same sort as either of the previous examples.
In his 1953 book, Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein puts forth a now famous account of what he calls family resemblance. He’d actually begun developing the idea decades prior, but it is in Investigations that it becomes well-known. The basic idea is simple. One of the key implications of Wittgenstein’s ideas is relevant here. It is this.
Wittgenstein pointed out that sometimes we expect things of the same type or definition to be joined by one common feature, all from California, for example, or, all of the same style, for another.
However, in many instances, a group of things or an idea are instead defined by overlapping similarities without one single feature common to all. Even so, however, we do still recognize and understand these overlapping similarities as a connected group. In such cases, asserting the group has no definition is a misunderstanding, rather than a genuine assertion of illegitimacy.
Here’s how it works.
Game Playing with Wittgenstein and My Family
When Wittgenstein discussed his idea he would often refer to the notion of similarity in families.
For example, my parents, my sisters, and I are all of the same family. My sisters and I have in common that we are each a daughter of our two parents. But my parents don’t share that similarity. They have in common that they are both parents of their three girls. My sisters and my dad share the trait of being obstinate, while my mom and I have in common often being right. (Just kidding. I thought we could use a laugh at this point.) There is no one common element that all five of us have in common, yet it is quite clear we are all from the same group.
As another of Wittgenstein’s famous examples, he looked at the notion of games. His point here was similar. That is, different games have a lot in common, but there is not one feature shared by all games. Wittgenstein describes games as a type of family.
We can take Wittgenstein up on this idea (as the entirety of Western thought has since) and consider too types of games, or parts of a family as a notion of subgroups.
Certain types of games might share more in common than another type of game. Card games are played with cards, while board games require a playing surface, for example. Similarly, my sisters and I have in common being the children of the family, while my parents share their being the parents.
In other words, there can be subgroups that share a resemblance not shared by all of the larger group, yet the subgroups together are parts of the larger group. Card games and board games are still both games, just not the same type. The children, and the parents are both part of the same family.
We can apply this idea to Natural wines.
Types of Natural Wine
As already discussed, there are different types of Natural wines.
(1) There are Natural wines made by grape growers that practice organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices, that then go on to practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives.
(2) There are winemakers that practice less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but that purchase their grapes.
(2a) We might want to add that they purchase organically and/or biodynamically farmed grapes but of those producers that have been included in the Natural wine community so far this is not true in every case. There we’ve been willing to allow Natural winemakers less defined by viticulture. It might be this forms two subgroups.
(2b) Some will likely want to exclude any wine made without essentially organic and/or biodynamic grapes all together.
(3) Wine growers and/or makers that use organic and/or biodynamic viticultural practices and/or less interventionist cellar techniques with few additives but do not define themselves with the movement of Natural wine.
Natural wine as a category includes each of the three types of wine. There is no one element shared by every single instance of Natural wine. However, that does not mean there is no definition, nor does it mean we do not know what we are talking about when we refer to the concept. We do. When we need more clarity, we can simply be more specific.
“I would like a grower-Natural wine,” for example, that is, like a grower Champagne, one made by the person that grew the grapes. “Let’s make a list of California’s Natural winemakers,” as another, that is, a list of Natural winemakers (of whatever subgroup) that make their wine in and from California. “Who is making Natural wine but not touting it as such?” as a third. In each case, we’re using that general term Feiring explains that gives us an idea of what we’re looking for, while also being just a bit more specific because we have a more specific need or sense of what we want.
Within these types of Natural wine we can also get more rule driven, when desired or appropriate. For example, organic and biodynamic viticulture have specific guidelines that are generally followed on principle for those that believe in such views, and must be followed for certification. In the cellar, Natural wine using few additives generally means nothing added to the grapes but sulfur, and being less interventionist doesn’t mean doing nothing, but does often include approaches like no invasive filtering, as examples.
For some critics, here is precisely where more rules should be drawn. It is not clear, however, that Natural wine is a rule driven category in that sense. It is in rules, rather than just definitions that the lawyerly argument takes hold, to reference Asimov’s point. There are ways to defend a demand for rules, but those are more case by case than general so I’m not going to get into it here. Further, there are many categories in wine and elsewhere simply assumed as legitimate without being subject to precise rules. It’s not clear rules are strictly necessary, in other words. Instead, I’ll point out that there are already some implicit guidelines in place in Natural wine, and guidelines are likely good enough. We do know what we mean when we say something like no additives besides sulfur, for example.
As an example, Jenny & Francois offer a list of general guidelines on their website that they believe help steer Natural winemaking. They then offer the following point that seems relevant to the spirit of Natural wine, and so is relevant here in relation to the question of rules.
“For the pedants out there, it should be noted that all of these aspects are ideals. We accept that some may be on the path to these ideals and not quite there yet. We work with their wines because they share the spirit of these ideas and a desire to get as close to them as they possibly can. The road to healthy organic soils and wines is not a quick and easy path.”
The point is this. What we have, and in fact have already had for a long while, is a definition of Natural wine, even if the edges get a little smudgy. It is one that we can better recognize thanks to the idea of family resemblence we get from Wittgenstein. This definition of Natural wine is good enough, as Feiring says, and avoids the lawyerly argument that worries Asimov too. In this discussion, we’ve all been talking for a long time like there is only one way to arrive at definitions, and Natural wine doesn’t have it. For a long time, that simply hasn’t been true.
For critics of Natural wine, showing we already have a definition of the category doesn’t undo other problems. It does remove the commonly made claim that the category is illegitimate because it lacks a definition, but other issues still remain. Some of those are problems for proponents as well.
Many critics will still have issue with how Natural wine is marketed. In some cases, that depends on the marketers. In others, misunderstanding.
Implicit to many discussions around Natural wine there will still likely be hard dichotomies placed, with Natural wines on the one hand, and Industrial wines on the other. Looking at fights like those occurring in portions of France, such a view begins to make sense. In other regions, more fine-tuned accounts are better suited.
The idea of Natural wine is still not legislated. In parts of Europe, that has proven a legal problem for wine shops that know we know what we’re talking about but whose relevant legal systems don’t think we know it well enough.
The lack of legislation around the concept could put more work on the side of the consumer, but it should put more work on the part of the retailer and restauranteur to know what they’re selling and serving. The consumer’s job is to recognize whose views they trust.
People that don’t like use of the word natural itself have likely already lost the battle. In relation to wine, the category seems to have already chosen its name.
Problematic uses of the word reach back at least to the early local food movements, and health crazes of the last century. None of the claims that the word is misleading have too much weight when the truth is we all have to chose words to make our point, and the point is really made in the rest of the conversation, not just one name.
To make that last point another way (and borrowing from the late Leslie Feinberg), we can care about what word is used, but we can treat the subject (and each other) with respect using the wrong word, and we can be disrespectful using the right one. What matters is if we’re trying to listen, and have a conversation.
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Wittgenstein & Feinberg in the same essay, all in the name of sorting out the epistemologies/ontologies of natural wines. Genius!
On my website, I claim that our wines are made “as naturally as possible”. I cannot claim to make “natural” wines, because I am not really sure of what that means. Where I fit into that process which changes grapes into wine is not always clear to me. But I also prefer it that way. The ambiguity promotes a sense of discovery. It’s the journey that counts. And, many roads can lead to the same place.
I can say that I belong to a loosely defined group who share an generally overlapping set of process ideals. I do not belong to a Group. I do not wish to. I enjoy my freedom to make wine however I see fit. Others should be able to enjoy that sense of freedom, too.
Attempting an exact description of “natural” wine, a “one-size-fits-all” approach, in the pursuit of some sort of certification process, would in my opinion kill the Art of it. It would then become a formulaic manufacturing process. How boring.
“When it comes to Natural wine we’ve all been talking for a long time like there is only one way to arrive at definitions, and Natural wine doesn’t have it. For a long time, that simply hasn’t been true.”
If it is true that we have a definition of “natural wine”, can we say then that it is true we have a definition of Un-Natural Wine? It would follow.
But a more important question, really, is what is this “commercial” wine thing that champions of “natural” wine so often compare their “natural” wines to? Can we name names? The only thing we know for sure about the “commercial” wines is that they are un-Natural.
Finally, if “We all basically know what we’re talking about, even if not precisely” may I legitimately use the term “natural wine” to refer simply to wine that has as its primary ingredient grapes that have been grown in the ground and benefited from photosynthesis….whether fined, sulphered, left in barrel or fermented with cultivated yeast? I do, in this case, know what I am talking about and I do know that the grapes were grown in a natural fashion. Will this criteria suffice to allow my wine into the Natural wine club? If not why?
When there is no real definition, you are left with marketing. And I suspect proponents of “natural” wine who don’t think a definition is needed understand this perfectly well.
Thanks for digging so deeply here. I’ve often considered the vague-ness of natural wine as being a strength, but I completely understand how it opens the door to criticisms. I have my own criticisms, too, largely based on the premise here:
“Definitive to the origins of the Natural wine movement rests a defense against pollutants associated with large scale farming…”
While I agree that the tendency of large farmers of many different crops is to spray with heaps of awful things, there are also plenty of small farmers that are doing the same, and large farmers that spray little or nothing that is harmful. Further, there lies a basic premise (or assumption) that large-scale operations are all applying un-natural methods in the vineyard and in the winery for whatever reason. There are many 5000+ case (and higher) wineries that are, as a result of their size, doing more for the land and our health, while making wines with little or no intervention, than many of the garargistes combined. I’d like to see more hand-holdng and camaraderie amongst the many and varied factions of producers, and less snubbing and harrumphing that seems to be fashionable. That seems the most natural.
NIcely written, erudite, logical and studied.
I read most of what your write on this blog and respect your thinking.
I challenge you to throw all of this away though.
You are addressing this from some sort of top down sociological point of view.
It is not.
It is a bottoms up, consumer driven cross over category from what has transformed the food and beverage world.
It is as someone said–about the Ethos of Taste.
People think and shop in categories and approaches, not by definitions or even certs.
The wine world is a nightmare. There has been unto now, nothing for the enthusiast consumer to latch onto. No ‘in’ from their belief system, no corrolary to how we buy food, clothes, even stocks for that matter.
Natural Wine does that. That is its power.
It’s a consumer tag to discovery.
Making it more. Analyzing it from the top down rather than from consumer belief up, mitigates its importance and misses its true value.
This is not about Wittgenstein or legislation, it is about consumer needs and beliefs.
Not dissimilar to the $2T Wellness category with zero definition that has changed retail and the buying directions of a generation.
I thank you and nudge you to think not as an expert wine writer but as a consumer.
That is what I’m an expert in and that is where I believe the truth of this really lies.
Mr. Waldstein – Thank you for your comments. You have nailed it! I’m often screaming at my wine industry brethren to educate the consumer, that is where change will occur. That is who really moves the needle. If wine writers continue to participate in an industry only circle jerk, no change will ever occur. Your examples of the wellness category are apt, but the wine world would be best served by taking cues from the craft beer world. Now, that is a group that build their industry on the argument of “taste”.
I need to look more at the craft beer world for certain.
Any links are most appreciated–super interested in this, especially seeing who is blogging there
You might like some of my posts–www.arnoldwaldstein.com
Interesting points here. I admit to being a little confused about your contrast of top down to bottom up? Is a description of what constitutes a definition through the usage of the word by people in the world top down or merely descriptive of a phenomenon? Or are you suggesting that the usage explored in the article is restricted to only a select group of language users and does not include consumers? If the latter, I am very curious what your experience has been on how consumers use “natural wine”. Are a lot of consumers using this term? What type of consumers? Do you think consumers are driving the term’s use more than industry? If so, why? It does seem to potentially be an important dimension to this debate.
Wines are not made “naturally”. Crosses, hybrids, pruning techniques, harvesting, grafting, fining, filtration…and myriads of other practices completely defy the ridiculous hyper-organic fad notions fixated on malleable terms like “natural” which, lest’s be honest, are predominantly in existence mostly because the marketers and business-folk of wine understand it’s chic right now, and will drive sales. Are there arguments to be made that encouraging predatory insects rather than chemical spraying might be better? Sure. And then there are waves of people who also piggyback into thinking biodynamic winemaking is somehow the next level of holier-than-thou winemaking when it’s, essentially, vineyard voodoo; you understand the horoscopes in your local paper are inherently rubbish but the entrails of a bovine buried in earth mixed with nonsensical lunar cycle-attentiveness is somehow the causalistic reason for better wines? The reason why “natural” wines have any traction at all is because honest old-world winemakers have been making wine this way (without the bandwagon banner waving about) for centuries and we all like the old-skool flavor mixed amongst our wines. That, however, is a far cry from the ridiculous “natural” goals that new waves of fadsters illogically tie into sustainability issues (which is also a decent topic to consider, but wholly distinct from this new-age wine-spirituality).
Only you could write this piece. Thank you. It’s wonderfully done.
So, my takeaway is that according to Wittgenstein, Natural Wine bears a resemblance to wine. OK, I’m on board.
Bravo, Elaine, for pointing out all those positives that apologists for commercial wine production can’t seem to wrap their brains or arms around.
[…] more compelling to me than others. This was driven home for me, again, when recently Elaine Brown posted the latest in a long line of apologia for “natural” wines. Elaine’s well-crafted post did what I think may be the best job I have seen in defining the […]
Thank you for your article.
A few observations you cite a number of sources but skipped over many of the important works in the early days of Natural wine including Patrick Matthew’s work The Wild Bunch: Great Wines from Small Producers and Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking. And of course the writings of Jules Chauvet which I know are hard to find in English (https://www.chambersstwines.com/Articles/ReadArticle/1304).
Also another interesting point is that there are many wines that would qualify as Natural that are not part of the Natural camp – take Saxum for example, I do not think they use any chemicals or treatments in the vineyard, for some wines they use cement for fermentation and only use a very small amount of SO2 (certainly as low as many winemakers who are benchmarks of Natural wine) yet because they are higher in alcohol and Parker favorites they would never be considered Natural wines.
Also you say few of the Natural producers in California control their own farming. Given their are so few Natural producers I would take exception to few – you point out Ambyth but there are also many others that control some or all of their vineyards including Clos Saron, Coturri, Martin and Vespa. Any many more that could be considered Natural by their practices. And this leads to my final point.
If a wine is made from 100% organic/biodynamics grapes and has zero manipulation in the winery and is fermented in neutral vessels is it a natural wine? But wait what if that wine costs $350, scores a 100 points and is a Paso Syrah or a Napa Cab?
Enjoyed the article and have re-read it a few times.
This is an excellent, thought provoking piece that has clearly touched a nerve given the diversity of comments so far. Your approach has made me reflect on two main points:
1. If “natural wine” is more a relational definition than an essentialist one, then perhaps this is a reflection of the philosophical motives and importance of the ‘movement’ itself. The language used to describe it reflects the challenge it makes to typical thinking about wine and the natural environment. I will elaborate on this below.
2. Is it quite right to see “natural wine” as operating against an ideal? Is it really an exercise in agreeing to an ideal set of relations and then attempting to meet them? Or, is “natural wine” actually describing a process of unveiling relations that had not before been seen, using those discoveries to redefine the parameters of what successful or good wine is, and then, again, challenging these discoveries as more new relations are discovered or created?
So let me elaborate on what led me to these questions.
It seems to me that, though starting as a reactionary movement, natural wine should not be viewed as an idealization or return to some myth of natural perfection. That does not seem inherent in the definition. I think any winemaker with the pretense of finding this ideal form of nature through a bottle of wine is not a good representation of what makes the natural wine movement interesting. It also is the kind of approach that leads easily to dogma.
So, then, how do we broach the subject of natural wine? One early distinction that you have picked up on in your post was that natural wine makers attempted to add nothing to a wine once it entered the cellar (a logical counterpart to movements like organic and biodynamic wine growing – what you see as another sub-category relevant to the definition of natural wine). No enzymes, no sulphur, no commercial yeasts, etc. etc.
But to me this prompts a very big question: what is the underlying rationale that draws the line between humans and nature in such an idiosyncratic way? This is the critique that is perhaps most frequently levelled at natural wine. It is obvious that the very process of planting, picking and fermenting grapes is a human process, both conceived of in the human brain and meant to serve human needs and desires. We shape our environment when we plant and grow vines and make wine from their fruits.
This process is a vast continuum with what some might call “industrial” wine makers using this raw material as a mere base to make a heavily adulterated product that offers consistency at very high volumes. This is usually the boogie man, if not straw man, of many natural wine proponents. So, perhaps naturalists are those who, at first, eschew this sort of high volume wine making. It seems to me that natural wines would not be possible at extremely high yields and on vast tracks of land with mammoth fermentation tanks. It is also questionable at what level a human can agriculturally understand a complex diverse natural environment over huge swathes of land – monoculture and a controlled environment become the necessary norms after a certain size.
Thus I think we can add to the definition that a natural wine requires a smaller more understandable environment, which is in itself a good example of the fact that the best and most emblematic natural wine makers are those who are humble in the face of the land that they work. So, for me, first off natural wines are small scale wines that take the time to understand and respect every detail of what is going on both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
But that, surely, is not enough to explain what is going on with natural wine. Another common dimension to the natural wine definition is the fairly technical approach to understanding why natural wines are different – the litany of chemical processes that compensate or enhance wine should not be part of a natural wine. You describe this in your definition (no or low So2 , no commerical yeasts, no acidification, etc.) But is this entirely true?
Lapierre and Overnoy, two ‘natural wine’ producers in Beaujolais and the Jura respectively, have admitted to chaptilizing their wines on occasion. I’m not sure that vaults them out of the natural wine category. Clearly ‘natural’ is something more than merely technical. So clearly the technical aspects are, as you suggest, descriptive of some but not all “natural wines”.
This leads me to a dimension of the definition that you did not address. It is a common refrain amongst naturalists that one should do nothing to the grapes that they cannot do themselves. Do not compensate for bad vintages, for incomplete fermentations, for acid imbalance. Let the wines be what they are when they are. But why do nothing, or at least as little as possible? The underlying philosophy it seems to me is that doing nothing is (1) more respectful to the environment in which the grapes grow, (2) is a more authentic or complete expression of something that is the product of the earth rather than of human design, and (3) raises the ‘natural’ origins of the product above the hubris of the human ego. This underlying philosophy is a significant reason why natural wines have become more than simply a way of making wine taste good; rather, for many natural wines have become a rallying point to infuse wine drinking with at least a semblance of ethics – measuring the product against some standard of right and wrong relationships to our environment.
To drink natural wine is, to many believers, to drink something that is more morally pure than the majority of ‘adulterated’ wines on the market. This has been, understandably and I think evidenced in most responses to these sorts of posts, a turn off for many who simply either do not want to think of the moral dimensions of what they are drinking or do not think of these dimensions on such stark terms.
However, I think the moral dimensions of the definition have recently become a little more sophisticated. I think it has become more recognized that it is somewhat farcical to uncritically elevate a reverence for nature over human production. As the environmental movement that began in the 1960’s has shown us, such view points are not only a form of substituting an idealized environment for an overblown and self-righteous ego but are also entirely ineffective at resolving actual issues.
I think it has become increasingly recognized by natural wine proponants that the question of our relationship to the environments in which we live (which include social and political as well as natural environments as any good evolutionary theorist would admit) is not a question of ‘letting nature speak for itself’. Rather, if we really want to question how we relate to our environments, and if we want to bring ethical questions into this questioning, we have to understand the human-environment equation as inextricable even while the elements remain distinct. In my opinion this is what the most exciting proponents of natural wine are finally figuring out.
There are good natural wines and bad natural wines. You can assess these wines analytically and personally just like any other. The best naturalists don’t just want to make ethical wines, they also want to make good wines. For the best naturalists, making a good wine also means making wine that distinctly expresses aspects of both the grapes and their environment that we otherwise cannot experience. Hence enters the idea of symbiosis – naturalists are trying to create a symbiotic relationship between themselves and the environment in which their grapes are grown and then fermented into wine. It is not a question of dominance – either of man over nature or of nature over man. Rather, it is a question of learning from that which elides our desires to categorize and to essentialize.
To me, the best natural wines capture the elusive mystery of the natural world in a way that other wines don’t. They do this by dialing back all of the modern wine making techniques that have proliferated across the world and come to dominate agriculture and wine making and by, in a sense, starting from scratch. But that doesn’t mean the wine-making techniques that we have learned and that remain essential are irrelevant. It just means that there is no harm, and perhaps some need, to question their use and purpose. The best natural wines are born from a highly empirical process that is very nuanced and focused on detail. Anyone who has met someone like Ales Kristancic
from Movia can attest that the best natural wine makers tend to be obsessive with the details of the farming and wine making.
Because of this openness and experimental attitude I wonder if the real definition of natural wine, from the relational perspective you espouse, should also include a move away from an essentialist definition of nature, instead substituting this for a relational definition of nature. There is arguably far more attention placed on the precise nature of the relationship between the human influence and the natural influence in natural wine than there is in wines not understood as natural. And because of this, there is greater attention to the extreme complexity of that relationship and openmindedness to the possibility that there is a lot more to discover about this relationship than we have so far.
Natural Wine does not have a competing ideal to commercial wines or more traditional wine making. Rather, it has jettisoned the need to pre-define an ideal form of relationship between humans and nature. If this is true, then it might explain why the best definition of natural wine must be the relational or family resemblance type definition you describe because anything else would be far too restrictive.
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