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.

28 April 2011


“Why don’t you,” suggested an email, “offer your own definition of ‘natural wine,’ if you’re so sure everyone else has it wrong?” It’s possible that slightly different and marginally more aggressive words were used, and thus I’m paraphrasing for the sake of clarity, but this is a family blog I’ll stop at nothing in pursuit of a joke the paraphrase will have to do for now.

In any case, I pretty much already have. But OK: here’s a short* version. Laminate it if you wish. (Biodegradable laminate, please.)

*Why are people laughing?

Natural wine is the result of a winemaker given a chance to intervene and always choosing otherwise, except as necessary* to achieve a drinkable product recognizable as wine.

*And sometimes, not even then**.

**On the other hand, bad wine is bad wine, and incompetence is incompetence, and neither really invalidates the definitional divisions between natural and other types of wine. After all, a freely-intervening hand does not preclude biological instability, though it’s certainly true that that hand’s absence can make instability more probable.

What I like about this definition is that it doesn’t attempt to swim upstream against the currents of example vs. counter-example. While it’s true that I can’t think of a natural winemaker who adds cultivated yeast, the standard claim about few or no sulfur additions is rather fiercely challenged by one natural winemaker, who submits bottle after bottle of self-described naturalia to a test that finds most to have surprisingly high levels of sulfur. Thus, I can’t even adjudicate the truth or falsehood of one of natural wine’s core tenets. And pretty much all the rest is debate, argument, philosophy, and/or religion.

This definition also doesn’t require tiered value judgments. One needn’t weigh one intervention against another, trying to discern which is more deformative and which is less…an argument presented time and time again by the contrary and the disbelieving…because the point isn’t some inherently obvious anti-natural value to a given intervention, it’s the motivation behind and purpose of intervention itself.

That last bit is why I prefer a less-prescriptive definition of “natural wine.” It’s not a papal bull. It’s not even a recipe. There really isn’t a perimetered group of wines within and external to the category. There’s just a continuum between wines made with more or less intervention, and a vague and highly malleable circle drawn around the lower-intervention end of that scale encompassing what would be called “natural” by everyone, by most, and by some. There is not, it should also be reiterated, a wine at the endpoint of that continuum; insisting that there must be one is a straw man argument by the pro-intervention crowd, not something that any actual natural winemaker believes.

When debates get heated, I often think that I would prefer to talk about categories of “more” and “less natural,” rather than just natural as if it had a set meaning. On the other hand the word does mean something. To deny this is to attempt to win by semantic pedantry what one cannot demonstrate in reality. There are natural wines that are different in identifiable ways from other wines, and there are enough common denominators within that category that generalizations can be made.

And yet, the “definition” is nebulous. It pretty much has to be. Now, if someone wants to launch a Natural Wine™ certification program, they’re free to set rigid guidelines and commence purging the heretics and apostates. Until that grim day, we’re just going to choose to live with, and even embrace, ambiguity.

In other words, choose to not choose. Just like natural winemakers.

27 April 2011

Nurture, not nature

I don’t care about natural wine.

So why do I write about it so much? Good question. Masochism? Or maybe, since by blogging I’m encouraging people read those words, it’s sadism?

Many people begin and end their wine experience with taste, and while that’s important, it’s not quite enough for me. I’m interested in all manner of auxiliary matters, including what happens to cause that taste. And while it makes little sense to the taste-centrics, I do appreciate certain wines more (or less) based on what they are, what they represent, and how they’re made.

I suppose what I’m really after, in this non-organoleptic realm, is authenticity. That is: wines that speak authentically of their place, of their raw materials, and of their category. To the extent that natural wine means anything to me, it’s in its alleged potential for this sort of transparency.

Of course, some natural winemaking is anything but transparent. Some of it is patently obscurative. Certain grapes and sites seem to emerge tasting recognizably akin to those made via more interventionist methods. Others are profoundly transformed, at the extreme tasting much more of each other than of their peer groups despite wildly differing raw materials and grape sources. The set of flaws that can all too easily afflict natural wines are a contributor, but even in the absence of flaws there is, at times, a sort of asymptotic “natural” aromatic and textural profile. Anyone who drinks a lot of natural wine knows what I’m talking about.

Ennui sets in when theoretically different grapes and sites end up tasting like minor variations on a single theme. Soon, that ennui is replaced by boredom. Eventually, I find myself wanting to drink something else. Something that tastes like something else. Of what it is or where it’s from more than how it’s made. That is, after all, the exact objection I have to industrial winemaking practice. Why should I laud a product just because it’s in philosophical objection to same?

It is here that I often find myself parting ways with the most dedicated natural wine fans. It’s not just about preferring different organoleptic profiles – that’s inherent between any two wine drinkers – but that natural wine soon ceases to appeal to me, except as a gustatory curiosity, when it obscures rather than reveals. In other words, I don’t enjoy natural wine because it is natural. I sometimes enjoy it because of how it makes wine tastes (and sometimes not). But the vast majority of my enjoyment comes it when it serves the greater aim of authenticity.

So why should I care about natural wine, as a category, at all? Because it’s my experience that I tend to prefer wines made with less intervention to those made with more. Exceptions abound, but it’s a useful generalization. It’s even more accurate not as a wine moves from interventionist to natural, but as it transitions from highly-interventionist to minimally-interventionist. The very existence of natural wine as a growing and much-discussed category exerts pressure against the urge to intervene. That is, for both my palate and my preferences, a good thing.

As for my apparently persistent desire to put hands on keyboard, there’s even more to it than the exertion of palate-pleasing pressure. About natural wine is written and spoken a rather incredible amount of bullshit, both pro- and con-. I’ve probably contributed my share of both, over the years. What strikes me about a lot of it is that it appears to coalesce around positions of wild-eyed extremism about which everybody argues and finger-points, but which positions vanishingly few people actually hold.

The thing is, among the cohort of people who drink and enjoy any subset of natural wines, one finds a lot less polemical rigidity. And those are just the vocal ones; the silent are likely even less doctrinaire. But while those who enjoy a good supply of both natural and interventionist wines far outnumber the zealots, their megaphones and klaxons are set at lower volumes. What cannot be overcome in decibels must thus be compensated by numbers. And maybe the chorus can, eventually, drown out the most narcissistic soloists.

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.