29 April 2011

The utility of "natural"

In the comments to the previous post, Thomas Pellechia makes the following assertion:
The word "natural" is the problem. "Natural" to apply to a movement or to a way of production was likely selected (by whomever, I don't know) for its connotation and not for its accuracy. Maybe good marketing, but certainly useless information.
It's not useless information. It means something. As much as "pinot noir" or "Chambolle-Musigny" mean something. None of the three terms tells you exactly what has been done and what you are going to get; far from it. But they're useful, and helpful, and descriptive to the extent of their ability to be any of those three things. And they are all also, in their own way, "marketing." We deal with this sort of definitional and intentional ambiguity all the time in wine, as I believe I just wrote a few weeks ago, and there's no good reason other than sheer obstinacy that "natural" should be required to submit to unprecedented scrutiny in this regard.

When a winemaker utters the (in)famous "my wine is made in the vineyard" cliché, and putting aside the cases in which that phrase is used either cynically or with premeditated deception, what's the most sensible reaction to an honest use of that phrase?

1) Start objecting that wine can't actually be made in the vineyard, that there's no fermentation vessel, that there are no bottle trees in the vineyard to catch the miraculously-fermenting grapes, and so forth.

2) Understand the conversation for which the phrase is long-standing shorthand: that the qualitative influences on the wine in question are preferentially agricultural.

I submit that the non-Asperger's answer is #2. Anyone using the phrase honestly already agrees that, yes, they have to actually get the grapes into the winery and do stuff to them, or there's no wine being made in or out of a vineyard. There's no need to revisit the entire history and science of wine every time someone is trying to signal their intent with a helpful shorthand phrase, examining each assumption to make sure it doesn't indicate wobbly doctrine. They know what they mean by the phrase, I know what they mean by the phrase, and I cannot conceive that any knowledgeable observer doesn't know what they mean by the phrase.

The same is true for "natural." I think, with the body of work and theory that exists, it's three sensorially-deprived monkeys on a t-shirt to keep insisting that people who make and drink the stuff don't know what's being signaled and shorthanded.

Would I prefer to go back in time and Napoleonically order them to use "anti-interventionist" or some other similarly-questionable phrase? Probably, though I don't think it would have saved much grief in the ensuing arguments, a rather large number of which are disingenuously presented by those whose economic interests are highly interventionist. There are some other terms I'd like to get rid of while I'm busy being the Emperor of Wine Terminology.

But that unbagged cat is already riding the barn-fleeing horse into the sunset. It's the term we've got. And if you show me a Riffault Sancerre and a Bourgeois Sancerre and tell me that the former is a natural wine and the latter is not, what I expect based on those descriptions very much matches up with what I will actually get. The same is true for many such contrasting pairs, and I would love to hear from anyone familiar with both wines that thinks they do not have similarly differentiated expectations, because I suspect such a person doesn't exist. That's a demonstration of utility right there, and thus the term is not useless information. Insisting otherwise is baseless.


Thomas said...

"...I think, with the body of work and theory that exists, it's three sensorially-deprived monkeys on a t-shirt to keep insisting that people who make and drink the stuff don't know what's being signaled and shorthanded."

Well, I suppose that I've been told off.

May I remind you of an admission that you made a month or so back: you really must learn more about the wine consuming world.

I admit that with regard to the minuscule few consumers who are interested in debating this kind of thing, you are probably correct: most know what "natural" is intended to imply. But as a one-time wine retailer, I've had conversations about such matters with general consumers (not geeks) and the misinformation that they hold onto is astounding. So much for shorthand...

David B said...

If the mission is to clarify things for the general consumer then we've got a lot more important things to work on than wine.

But it's not a bad place to start.

thor iverson said...

Thomas, you haven't been told off so much as told that I think you're being somewhat ridiculous in order to make a different point than I'm addressing. You want, I think, to get back to your usual complaint that there are a (very) few natural wine advocates who say ridiculous things to an occasionally credulous public. That's true, and I agree with it.

But guess what? Those very few matter far less than the vast number of traditional wine commentators who say utterly ridiculous things. You don't even have to take my word for it, by the way, because it follows from your (entirely correct) assertion that natural wine and the understanding thereof is a niche. About which, incidentally, I don't think you can score counterpoints against me, since I've claimed it over and over and over again on this blog.

Regarding whether or not I have to learn about wine consumers, I don't think your paraphrase is quite what I said. I noted that I didn't know these confused proto-zealots, who didn't exist in my several (and blessedly truncated) stints exchanging wine for cash (though "natural wine" and its promoters most certainly did exist then). You claimed that these misguided souls exist in sufficient population to be worth noting, and I have no cause to doubt you.

Interestingly, I had a very congenial conversation with the other person who suggested worry in this area and along these lines -- a certain importer of the German, the Austrian, and the bubbly -- which discussion's major points I have agreed to reproduce here when I've wrestled the transcript into a useful narrative. However, my response to you would be as it was to him: if natural wine and its adherents are a niche (the phrase I've used is micro-niche), the people who are in search of it but woefully misled by its Barnums are a nano-niche. About which I just really can't be overly worried, until I'm reliably informed of exponential growth. Constellation Brands is a much, much more consequential danger. So, for that matter, is...I dunno, pick your target. James Suckling, fr'ex.

Also, I don't think I've given the impression that I'm writing to the newbies on this subject. If I have: I'm not. People who don't know why someone might choose to add yeast or not, and why, and why someone who would prefer one path might need to choose another in a given season, aren't going to understand any of this debate without a primer. And I haven't written one (on this blog, though I have elsewhere). I've taken it for granted that someone opining on natural wine and being sufficiently motivated to comment here has tasted extensively from the category and has a basic understanding of what it's intended to convey. The interesting discussion, to me, is not what natural wine purports to be, but to what extent, and why, it is or isn't that which is purported. Which is, admittedly, why I'm irritated at having to quibble about basic questions from which most have moved on. Especially since I think you already know the answers to the concerns you raise, as you suggest in your final paragraph.

Or, as it was once put on a wine forum a zillion internet years ago, "won't someone think of the newbies?" is an argument with limited potential.

David, the "general consumer" has access to no or almost no natural wines, and thus is vastly more in danger of misinformation coming from the anti-natural, interventionist, or industrial side, so again I have a hard time understanding the unnatural tilt in the debate towards a fear for their mental well-being when confronted by their first Lapierre. Those with sufficient access to the wines have access to the best pro- and con- arguments for the category (the wines themselves), and also access to knowledgeable merchants who can explain and demonstrate what the concept does and doesn't mean. Like, say, Thomas...one hopes.

David B said...

I don't fear for the well being of the general consumer in regards to wine. In fact the general consumer would probably find most (all?) education in this area to be so elitist that it would be shunned on sight.

There nothing wrong with some gentle encouragement if the opportunity arises though. Here, try this Lapierre. It's change worth believing in.

Thomas said...

"Constellation Brands is a much, much more consequential danger. So, for that matter, is...I dunno, pick your target. James Suckling, fr'ex."

On that we are simpatico!

I know my tendency to go overboard on a few subjects, this being one of them. My only defense is that I've spent most of my writing career trying to inform--all consumers--with likely limited, if any, success.

I promise never to bring up my ax to grind again ;)

Thomas said...

...or in English, never again to bring up my ax to grind.

jamais encore, jamais encore,

mai ancora, mai ancora...realmente.

thor iverson said...

The syntactical position of your ax is inconsequential in these here comments, Thomas. ;-)

David B said...

Ok. This whole thing would have made more sense if I had realized it was a follow up from a prior blog post. Clearly I am devoting too much time to work.

Thomas said...


That's almost as dangerous as drinking water.

thor iverson said...

There are bigger dangers than work.

Thomas said...

Oh my...and I though the end the world was linked to fluoride.

Do Bianchi said...

Sheer obstinancy... I could think of another word... but that works!

thor iverson said...

I'm enkindening and gentling in my decline. ;-)

Aglianico said...

I hate this "natural" madness.