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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