Although oenophilia is generally regarded as a bourgeois pursuit, it has a radical chic side, too. Among the wine-counterculture set, all the talk these days is about so-called "natural wines," which are said to be purer, earthier, and more eco-friendly than their conventionally conceived brethren. The natural wine concept took root in France in the 1970s and has lately given rise to a spirited international movement. Natural wine festivals are proliferating; ditto natural wine bars. Books are being written on the topic, bloggers are debating its finer points and the wider wine world is starting to take note —a worrying development in the eyes of some enthusiasts, who fear the idea will be co-opted and reduced to little more than a slogan and marketing ploy. But this presupposes that it isn't already those things. When it comes to food, the word "natural" is now essentially meaningless. Is it any more meaningful when applied to wine?
Among oenophiles of all persuasions—those who like fruit bombs, those who prefer less percussive wines—it is an article of faith that winemaking is best done with a light touch. We wine obsessives never tire of pointing out that fermented grape juice is, foremost, an agricultural product, and wine nomenclature, with its surfeit of pastoral imagery, underscores this essential fact. It is considered axiomatic that the best wines are those that bear the fewest fingerprints and that most clearly reflect the particular attributes of their vineyards—that offer the least adulterated expressions of sun, soil, and vine possible. In recent decades, however, science has given vintners a vast arsenal of tools that can be used to change the fundamental character of a wine, altering its color, structure, texture, and taste. Inferior land, bad weather, and shoddy farming are no longer necessarily impediments to producing appealing wines; using technology, winemakers can now override the will of nature and perform all kinds of nips and tucks on their cabernets and syrahs.
The natural wine movement originated as a backlash against this kind of manipulation. The idea was to defend authenticity and artisanship against industrial winemaking and the bland homogeneity that it invariably spawned. Although using the word "natural" in reference to food or drink is normally taken to be an implicit claim of wholesomeness, health concerns have never factored prominently in the natural wine canon, nor could they. That's because there is no evidence that "unnatural" practices—using additives like powdered tannins, for instance, or oak chips—are harmful to consumers. They won't rot your innards, cause your teeth to fall out, or reduce your sperm count. The argument against them is simply that they represent a form of cheating and yield bad, phony wines. The case for natural wines has always been philosophic and aesthetic.
But it is one thing to want wines to be made as naturally as possible; it is quite another to anoint certain wines as "natural," and this is where the movement runs into a wall of tannins. The biggest problem, the one from which all the others flow, is that "natural" is a completely subjective designation. In contrast, say, to biodynamic wines, for for which there are certification programs that require adherence to prescribed farming practices, there is no official classification for natural wines, no sanctioning body that decrees whether or not a wine qualifies.
One barrier to codification is that natural wine advocates can't even agree among themselves about what actually constitutes a natural wine: Everyone seems to have his or her own personal definition. In the broadest terms, "natural wines" are described as those that have been made with minimal involvement by the vintner. As with organic and biodynamic wines, the grapes must come from vineyards that have not been treated with synthentic chemicals; what sets natural wines apart is that the same hands-off approach is supposed to be carried into the cellar. The winemaker performs only those tasks that require midwifery, such as crushing the fruit. Apart from that, the wines are left to birth themselves—nothing added, nothing taken away, in the catchphrase of journalist Alice Feiring, a leading figure in the natural movement and author of a forthcoming book on the topic entitled Naked Wine. (Disclosure: Alice is a friend.) This means relying on ambient yeasts—those floating around the cellar and vineyard—rather than commercial ones, eschewing high-tech toys like spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines, and neither acidifying wines nor otherwise tinkering with their composition.
But with oenology, nothing is quite so simple, and when you move beyond these basic parameters, the natural wine idea devolves into a conceptual free-for-all. Take, for instance, the issue of sulfur dioxide, which acts as a preservative in wine. Some naturalistas insist that sulfur should never be added; others say it is permissible but only in small amounts (some cap it at 10 milligrams/ liter total SO2, others say up to 20, but most refuse to put a number on it). Then there is chaptalization, the process of adding sugar before or during fermentation in order to boost a wine's alcohol content. Hardliners consider it verboten, but others, no doubt mindful that there is a long tradition of chaptalization in natural-wine strongholds like France's Beaujolais region, are more flexible.
There even appears to be wiggle room on the all-important yeast question. Strict constructionists assert that manufactured yeasts aren't allowed under any circumstances; use them and you forfeit the right to call yours a natural wine. But other people say that they can be employed if it's the only way to finish fermenting a wine. Some natural wine evangelists contend that beyond certain inviolable principles—not using poisons in the vineyard, for instance—intent matters as much as actions; if a vintner is making a good-faith effort to be natural, that's good enough.
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.
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.