Is the "natural wine" movement anything more than a marketing ploy?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Sept. 24 2010 1:14 PM

Down With the Natural Wine Movement

The word "natural" is meaningless.

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And who are the people engaged in all this "Talmudic bickering," as New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov aptly characterized it? That's another problem: Here in the United States, at least, it seems to be journalists and bloggers who are making most of the noise about natural wines and seeking to lay down rules and litmus tests. A Bay Area blogger named Cory Cartwright recently hosted a feature on his site called 32 Days of Natural Wine, in which various contributors weighed in on all matters natural. While some of the essays were quite good, only two were written by a vintner, a telling imbalance. 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.

I'd be more inclined to take this movement seriously if the wines themselves were unequivocally superior—but that's not the case. Some of them are great. Marcel Lapierre's Morgon, a cru Beaujolais that is widely regarded as a beacon of naturalness, is consistently ethereal—in fact, I can't think of a wine that makes me happier. The wines imported by New York-based Louis/Dressner are likewise considered paragons of minimalism and are unfailingly delicious. However, there are also plenty of ordinary wines parading under the natural banner and some hideously bad ones, too—oxidized, microbial messes that only a vintner's mother, or an ideologue who values means over ends, could possibly love.

I say all this as someone who shares the same general outlook as natural wine proponents. For me, it's not enough for a wine simply to taste good; authenticity matters, too. I like wines that exude a strong sense of place—goût de terroir, as the French so felicitously put it—and that are true to the conditions under which the grapes were cultivated. I don't want them doctored up by machines and chemical additives in order to invest them with qualities they would otherwise lack, even if those artificial influences aren't necessarily obvious to my palate. If you are just looking for a flavorful glass of merlot to go with your pork chops and don't particularly care where the wine came from or how those flavors got there—and there's nothing wrong with that attitude— then there is no need to concern yourself with winemaking methods. But for the same reason that I prefer clean sports stars to those who are bulked up on steroids, I want wines that come by their attributes as naturally as possible. I'll take Hank Aaron wines over Barry Bonds wines any day.

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Yet when you strip away all the rhetoric and dogma about "natural wines," what you are left with is essentially just a slogan, used by a group of people to champion some wines that happen to please their taste buds and/or sensibilities. It is a highly charged phrase, as numerous chat-room brawls have demonstrated, because it clearly implies that other wines are somehow "unnatural" and therefore inferior. More importantly, it is surely only adding to the confusion that consumers already feel (the wine business is not exactly short on categories and classifications). And the confusion is only going to get worse: As San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné points out, it is inevitably just a matter of time before industrial producers start describing their own wines as "natural." There is nothing to prevent them from doing that, and the word is far too seductive and marketable to be ceded to a bunch of wine hipsters.

For all of these reasons, I think "natural" advocates ought to ditch the "natural" label, which is hopelessly tendentious and polarizing, and should instead put the focus where it really belongs, on individual wines and winemakers. Interestingly, Cory Cartwright, fresh off his 32 Days of Natural Wine, agrees; he now says he's done with the term "natural," is tired of all the doctrinal disputes it engenders, and just wants to talk about specific wines and the people behind them. And isn't that what the natural wine movement is supposed to be about, anyway—standing up for individuality in a world full of cookie-cutter chardonnays? Call them good wines, call them distinctive, soulful, or funky wines—just don't call them natural wines.

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