04 April 2011

Dispatches from Naturalia

A few weeks ago, an offhand dismissal of natural wine on Twitter (imagine that!) caught my eye. Paraphrasing, the tweeter mused: “still trying to decide if it’s all just marketing.”

I can answer that, actually. Yes, it is indeed marketing. So is “Gevrey-Chambertin.” So is “pinot noir.” And for the exact same reasons.

Inspired by the above, I admit continued bewilderment at a refusal to engage with ambiguity when it comes to the word “natural.” I’m glad that people have, from time to time, offered definitions, because it gives us something to argue about. But those are their definitions, not the definition. It’s quite clear that among both self-identified and externally-identified producers of natural wine, there’s little to no agreement on precise, regulatory-style meaning. And while a few ideologues are more than willing to fight about it, most are quite happy with the lack of rigidity. Alas that detractors (and advocates) can’t adopt the same attitude.

But aren’t “Gevrey-Chambertin” and “natural” different? Doesn’t the former have a specific definition? Yes it does, but it’s mostly about geography and content, a little about practice, and not at all about what the wine is actually like. “Pinot noir” is a specific grape, yes, but both a transparent blanc de noirs Champagne and an opaque hot-climate bruiser are pinot noir. The name is a datum, not a characterization.

“Natural” has no force of legal code behind it, but amongst its Gaussian distribution of producers that there’s a core set of practices that any hypothetical code would include (and practices it would exclude). And yet, this still tells us nothing about what the wines are like. A pretty little gamay for immediate slurping? A stately riesling made for (given sufficiently careful cellaring) long aging? Both exist.

In other words, there’s as much simultaneous meaning and ambiguity to the word “natural” as in many other wine terms. We embrace uncertainty elsewhere, using words that are not simultaneously prescriptive and descriptive. Why is it so hard with the word “natural?”

Perhaps it’s because the word – like so many others – gets entangled with value judgments. In this, “natural” takes up the burden that “terroir” used to carry. Some of the most passionate defenders of the concept can be regularly seen to have – maybe subconsciously, maybe not – entirely conflated the term with “wines they like.” When a wine comes along made exactly as they’d prefer, but far outside their stylistic preferences, they start protesting that it can’t be natural and looking for redefinitions that will exclude it. This is ludicrous. “Natural” is prescriptive, it has some limited ability to be descriptive, but it is not and cannot be qualitative. That’s not to say that one can’t prefer natural wines for reasons aside from the organoleptic. But “natural” is not a synonym for “good,” and it was never intended to be.

On a personal level, one of the biggest reasons I appreciate the growing presence of natural wine is the pressure it exerts on winemakers who’ve never met an intervention they don’t like. I don’t expect many of them to change, and certainly control-oriented industrialists never will. But others will. More might reconsider what they do, maybe making a little tweak here or there, perhaps experimenting outside the borders of “what they’ve always done” to see if quality can be achieved in a different way. The more important outcome, to me, is that producers are under increasing pressure to be more transparent about what they do. What did they add? What did they adjust? And why?

These very questions are themselves too often taken as value judgments. This, too, is ludicrous. I am in no way dismissive of the impulse and the frequent need to intervene, sometimes aggressively, to shepherd a wine from grape to saleable bottle. And some of my favorite wines are the result of intense intervention. But centuries of furtive meddling have served no one except the true industrialists, whose practices are thus fully legitimized. And the secrecy not only fails to increase knowledge, but leads to confusion and premature didacticism on the part of insufficiently educated wine folk…consumers, yes, but even sometimes those in the biz. If the obsessive focus on practice brought by natural wines serves to turn up the intensity of revelatory light, there’s not a single bad thing to be said about that.

Last year I penned an essay on the qualities and difficulties of the natural wine scene in Paris. I’m in the midst of another extended stay in that glorious city, and have as a matter of choice been rather immersed in the stuff. And so it’s been interesting to reexamine my former conclusions.

Has anything changed? Yes and no. There are even more natural wine bars and restaurants than before, which is a testament to their success (some of the old stalwarts have even expanded). That’s the first “yes.”

The “no” is that at such establishments, vinous apartheid more or less continues to reign. That’s a loaded term, so let me clarify that I mean it in a value-neutral sense. Natural wine lists mostly remain natural wine lists, full stop. If there’s a wine bar or restaurant that fully embraces naturalia yet allows their stock to be dominated by qualitative rather than definitional concerns, I haven’t seen it (which is not to say that it doesn’t exist; one can’t go everywhere, or at least my liver certainly can’t). And that, of course, is fine; I would no more criticize a restaurant for being exclusively “natural” than I would for specializing in crêpes. I still think an opportunity is being missed to broaden the concept, but I’m not a business owner.

It’s probably true that there’s more bad natural wine than there used to be. No surprise there. I don’t mean that the wines have gotten worse, I mean that there’s some trend jumping, and a quantity of product that appears to be more the result of fermented ideology than fermented grapes. It’s certainly true that there’s more similar-tasting natural wine than before, due to the leavening effects of semi-carbonic maceration and other asymptotic techniques. I like these cute, fresh little vins de soif, as they’re often called, but a steady diet of them across appellations and grapes gets repetitive and frustrating; I don’t want every grape, from every appellation, to taste like either gamay or pétillant orange wine.

There’s a second “yes,” however, and it’s a welcome development. It’s been a bit of a joke amongst wine geeks, over the years, that Lapierre has somehow found itself the sole representative of natural wine on hundreds of wine lists and store shelves ‘round the world. Good for Lapierre, and good for people who know and love the wines, but that’s no longer quite true. Major retailers here are now more or less compelled to feature natural wines somewhere in their square footage meterage. Good restaurants have more and more options from the natural side of things, and they tend to be the better examples of same. That’s the merging of preferences that I’d hoped for; that “natural” not be an exclusive end in itself, but just another choice among a diversity thereof. Because only then can it directly influence the conversation outside a small circle of oenophilic obsessives.

And yet, despite all the above, it remains true that natural wine is a niche. A micro-niche. Given that its practices are highly unlikely to be scalable to the mass market, that’s all it will ever be. There is so much written, pro and con, about natural wine that it would be easy for a causal observer to conclude that the market was awash in the stuff. It isn’t, and in places that aren’t Paris (or, I’m told, Japan), finding more than a token bottle is like seeking an unsulfured needle in a volatile haystack.

So to our introductory Twitter skeptic, wondering if it might all be just about marketing, it might as well be if the argument in their favor is not in rich physical supply. The wines can be hard to find, harder to transport, and even when present are often unwilling to be the lap cats of the vinous world, curling up for a few hours of familiar and unconscious comfort. They are difficult wines for (judging by some of their fans, including myself) difficult people. Their very difference can be both flaw and virtue.

Market that.


Keith Levenberg said...

Great post. My own theory why the term "natural" is so rankling to the crowd who have never met an intervention they don't like is that they're trying, in Orwellian fashion, to shut down debate on the merits of what they're doing. (Witness the fact that they're similarly rankled by the term "intervention," even as they unapologetically defend it.) As the inventors of Newspeak recognized, once we eliminate words, we eliminate our ability to discuss or even think about the concepts those words represent. It's sort of the same idea as the "No Labels" movement.

thor iverson said...

It's true that I've "won" arguments by incessant quibbling about the terminology. It's not admirable, but it can be effective. Without joining a psychic reading on motivations, I definitely agree that what you describe is how it looks to an observer.

What's especially frustrating, to me, is the process by which inquiring about intervention is to be labeled anti-every-intervention-ever. To talk about "natural" is to be against anything other than naturally-occurring wine. And so forth. Again, we just can't handle nuance and ambiguity. I'm not against intervention; far from it. I drink much more non-natural wine than natural wine. But if I laud either non-intervention or "natural," I'm suddenly responsible for the entirety of stupid commentary made by anyone on either subject, especially if it's extreme and reactionary?

No thanks.

Mark Lipton said...

Are you certain that natural wines obey a Gaussian distribution? Could it not be a Poisson or Lorentzian? Just curious...

thor iverson said...

I could show you the study that proves my contention as to the shape of the distribution, but it was unsulfured and refermented in the data.

Anonymous said...

p.s. Interesting article, too. I was just out in Sonoma talking to the folks at Wind Gap and Arnot-Roberts and ogling the concrete eggs they ferment their wines in. Natural they are, but they also make tasty wine.

thor iverson said...

I've only ever tasted Wind Gap's "orange" pinot gris. Gotta change that.

The Wine Mule said...

Great essay. I like to think of "natural" as a statement of intent rather than as an inventory of specific practices. As far as the separation of "natural" from "conventional" (for lack of a better word) on wine lists, I think this is a temporary condition having to do with the establishment of the category.

thor iverson said...

I completely agree, re: "natural." It's choosing to not act as often as possible, while still achieving the end result of wine (though sometimes, not even that ;-) ).

As for the categorization, you could be right. At least, I hope you are. In practice, it doesn't seem to be working out that way. And maybe it never will, because the gap between, say, a Bourgeois Sancerre and a Riffault Sancerre that might be right next to each other on an integrated list is an awfully large chasm for the unprepared to leap.

Thomas said...

Can't find anything with which to disagree, either with the original post or the comments that follow. That is a natural disaster!

The way I view grape growing: labels like natural, conventional, interventionist, organic, biodynamic, or any other, if applied rigidly or exclusively show their true worth--not much.

It also bothers me when people use such labels to make proclamations over matters that they have neither inclination nor desire to study beyond the confines of their couch or their mini insurgencies into vineyards as tourists or reporters gobbling up what they are told by the--shutter--marketing of labels.

Thomas said...

That would be shudder...

thor iverson said...

Would you like a new utensil to sharpen on that grindstone, Thomas? ;-)

I would be fine with biodynamic and organic having rigid definitions, actually. Real definitions, rather than something like the watered-down industrial-agriculture U.S. version of the latter.

Thomas said...


If you have a utensil that will do better for this grindstone, prey tell, please. The perpetual motion is getting a bit dull ;)

The trouble with rigid definitions in the vineyard is that they invariably are confronted with two powerful forces: nature and the market. Don't ask me which is more powerful, 'cause I don't know.

This subject certainly provides endless fodder for writers or for anyone with an ax(e) to grind--with or without your new utensil.

David B said...

How dare you try to bring sanity to what is a perfectly good partisan, mud-slinging debate. There must be definitions beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is not flax seed oil and arthritis balm. Interventions are the steroids of wine, and must be purged from the system.

Seriously though. Nicely done, but I think you might be stepping in front of a very large rock that is rolling down a steep hill.

Do Bianchi said...

ultimately, as I've seesawed from, to, and between blind believer, to conscientious objector (and I'm somewhere in between again), I'll take a cue from one of Natural wine's greatest and most ardent supporters and promoters, who recently wrote me that "Natural wine is intention." As in Barthes' "writing degree zero," I do not believe there are absolutes here (and this is the greatest problem for the general public). But the bottom line is that I and we and she like the best the wines that [in]tend toward the Natural wine false absolute. Great post, Thor. As always. Your devoted fan, J

thor iverson said...

@DB: I'm happy to be doctrinaire when it suits me, and criticize it when it doesn't. ;-)

@The other DB: see above response.

But seriously, I've long concluded that I really just like some wines and dislike others. Learning as much as possible about practice helped me develop a set of predictors of personal likability, and many of those are less-interventionist. The exceptions are numerous, of course, and that's why I can't be Alice. I think, for example, Boxler makes great wine, and while I can't criticize anyone for thinking otherwise, I can if they arbitrarily dismiss the house for procedural rather than organoleptic reasons.

On continua, I've long argued that position regarding naturalia, and am in fact amidst a blog post saying exactly that. Though I've written it before, I'm pretty sure.

All that said, I can argue the pro-natural side with vehemence because, like Keith, I think a lot of the arguments about it are disingenuous. Others are just knowledge-free (like the quote that let the piece). The former needs to be fought, but the latter needs to be more gently corrected than is typical from the hyper-doctrinairiat (there, I invented a word) that often dominate the conversation.

We need a third-party candidate. Or a silent majority of moderation. Maybe a Unitarian Eucharist. One of those. ;-)

David B said...

We need a third-party candidate. Or a silent majority of moderation.


thor iverson said...

That's not "silent."

David B said...

Just don't read out loud.