Natural wines: the mendacity and ego-mania

I have mentioned natural wines in passing on this site and I think those mentions have made it clear I have little time for the arseho… erm… ‘movement‘, but there have been a couple of spirited defences from respectable writers and I feel some direct comment is in order.

Natural wines, they just make one angry rather than happy

Eric Asimov of the New York Times and Keith Levenberg’s excellent Cellar Book blog have both recently published defences of the movement, or more specifically its definition and how that has been attacked, and I think they miss some important points about the emptiness of its message and mendacity of its followers.

My comments below are a greatly tarted up and considerably more opinionated version of a comment I left on Keith’s blog – you should visit if you like Elitistreview as he’s often right but, more importantly, a good read. No one is always right, not even your vastly brilliant reporter Davy ‘objective reality’ Strange, but there’s so much piss-poor toss on the internet it’s important to visit well-written sites like Keith’s (and mine!) to appreciate a bit of quality.

Both writers’ main thesis is that those who criticise the natural winemakers mainly do so because they dislike the nebulous definition of the ideology even when it is fairly clear what the followers support and that, if we actually try them, an awfully large amount of natural wines are properly good because the point of the movement is simply to try and make the best wines possible in the simplest possible manner.

Just to clear things up, I’ll give a definition of natural winemaking quoted by Keith from an ‘anti-natural’ piece by Mike Steinberger (you may also be interested in his follow up article here). It reads that 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. . . . 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.

I think that is what most winos would generally understand if someone said they were a natural winemaker; but it’s reasonably nebulous and allows a considerable degree of lassitude in interpretation. I have other problems with the whole idea.

It may sound simple and non-interventionist to grow your grapes in a method using as few chemicals as possible and have a light hand in the winery but on a purely semantic level there is nothing at all natural about wine making. With a stretch of imagination I could see a truly natural winemaker selling GPS co-ordinates to a wild-growing vine in some isolated spot that had dropped a couple of bunches of grapes onto the ground which, if you find and drink the putrefying juice over the next couple of days before it gets truly toxic, you could get a little alcoholic buzz from as the naturally present yeasts ferment the sugar in the rotting grapes and form some rancid approximation of wine. That’d be really natural wine and then there wouldn’t be a winemaker just a vine co-ordinate provider.

However, I recognise I’m taking the term literally and engaging in a bit of sophistry; heaven forbid we should use words in accordance with their definitions rather than how a self-selected group of opinion-formers decide we should use them!

Even so, it’s clear there is piss-all that is natural about selecting a bunch of specific varietal or clonal vines, planting them in an ordered manner in a novel location, controlling their growth with pruning, whatever compounds you permit yourself, harvesting those grapes at a specific point in their development before we even get to the whole convoluted winemaking process. Choosing the term ‘natural’ to describe winemaking, on a fundamental level, is simply mendacious because nothing about it is.

However, there are other reasons for disliking the term. Let’s look at the suggestion that natural winemakers are simply trying to make the best wines they can by not interfering in a process that can look after itself.

Sulfur is great!

This is purest bullshit. Wine, like a lot of foods, is what is termed a partially spoiled product. This means it is well on the way to becoming toxically putrescent but something has stopped and stabilised it at a point along this path that enables it to be kept be palatable. Wine needs considerable help in not turning to vinegar and sulphur, one of my favourite compounds, is a primary weapon in doing so. Along with certain other anti-oxidant compounds this is precisely the stuff that natural winemakers and their acolytes deplore. The fools. This explains why so many natural wines are prematurely oxidised, bacteriologically unstable or suffer from any number of wine making faults.

My experience of wines that positively identify themselves as natural is that a very high percentage have an extremely limited shelf- or cellar-life before falling apart, and a lot of them are already knackered when you buy them. The largest number of natural wines I tasted at a single event was a bunch of South African Chenin Blancs and I cannot remember a more floridly flawed collection of wines since I attended a huge tasting of English wines in the late 90s. They were all just badly made.

Some natural wines I’ve had haven’t been faulty and a few have actually been very good, but the majority I’d send back if I were served them in a restaurant.

Which brings us to another piece of outlandish cheek from the movement: Point out their wines are rancid rubbish and you don’t get your money back or another bottle, you get lectured that you simply don’t understand the idiom and patronised with an explanation that your palate has been corrupted by modern industrial winemaking. This is what I got told when I commented out the Chenins were all faulty and – quite how I stopped the red mist from descending and there being much unpleasantness I don’t know. My beezer winemaking chum Jeremy, from Domaine Dujac in Morey-St-Denis, has been frequently told much the same when suggesting this in Parisian wine bars. Knowing his commitment to quality and hatred of sloppy thinking I’m impressed by his restraint in not only holding back from pulling rank but also not eviscerating the offenders; I’m perfectly willing to do so on your behalf if you forward addresses, Jeremy.

This is stunning arrogance on the part of the people peddling these goods. If your defence against customer criticism is that the customer is unworthy of your brilliance then you’ll only have the hard of thinking and easily led as customers. I recall thinking something similar when Jean-Michel Deiss told Pierre Rovani “You are simply incapable of understanding the greatness of my wines.” Sure, you can admire the ego-mania of those who say “You only say my faeces is crap because you are a turd, you are too inadequate to see the brilliance of my poo”, but you might not want to give them much of your money[ref]The joke going around at the moment that all those makers sitting on countless bottles of oxidised white Burgundy are going to call themselves ‘natural ‘ and set up a massive Parisian wine bar selling the stuff at outrageous prices. If anyone complains that the wine is shagged the snooty staff will simply explain that this is ‘true’ and ‘natural’ white Burgundy. If the customer is unhappy with this expression of greatness that is their failing, they should get with the times and think themselves damned lucky that they can taste such authentic wines for mere stacks of cash. That’s pretty much the attitude of some people in natural wine bars.[/ref].

Which brings us to more concrete reasons people might chose this moniker for their products. Calling something ‘natural’ is an obvious bit of spin designed to attract a certain segment of the market who buy products because the correct buzzwords are attached, who associate themselves with the agreed ‘right-thinking’ philosophies, not because the quality of the product.

Much the same goes for the loathsome word ‘sustainable’. There is a restaurant down the road that has an excellent menu that usually includes one or two oddities; namely, fish dishes that are termed ‘sustainable’ (complete with scare quotes) but no mention of the actual type of fish. They have other dishes that mention types of fish, but they are clearly targeted at people who want to eat a fish because they like the flavour of it rather than its perceived adherence to some unspecified moral values. I buy the named fish. I also buy good wine and the word ‘natural’ contains no information about quality at all.

There is a general point about sticking labels on one’s produce. It often strikes me that if something cannot be sold on its own merits it’ll claim as many popular associations as it can in order to gain a little more market leverage. When I speak to Lafon fans they rarely say, “Oh yes, I like him because he’s biodynamic”, indeed not many of my chums who drink his stuff have known this about him until I’ve blabbed. Mention Beaujolais to a certain type of wine fan and they’ll say “Oh yes, all those natural wines come from there.” My views of Beaujolais are perhaps uncharitable, but I think it would be fair to say they don’t attract very high prices for a long established, famous wine region. Indeed, they’ve not been shy of using Harrier Jump Jet-type marketing gimmicks in the past to try and help shift more bottles of the stuff.

I don’t think it is particularly surprising, or speaks positively of the movement, that most of its vocal followers come from regions where they need all the help they can get to sell wine. As I said, the biggest natural wine event I’ve been to was a South African Chenin tasting – that stuff doesn’t leap off the shelf. Beaujolais doesn’t either – perhaps Marcel Lapeirre does but he did before he learnt the word ‘natural’. The same goes for wines that loudly proclaim to be organic, biodynamic, free-range, macrobiotic, leftist-shite-flavour: the more help they need selling the more obvious their associations will be in order to get a bit of extra lustre for their products. Those of us who want to buy good wine don’t really care about the philosophical leanings of the vigneron and they’ve got no need to tell us, it’s enough that their product is high-quality. That’s what sells it.

I also have a bit of a problem that in loudly identifying themselves as THE natural winemakers, no matter how that is defined, these people are stealing and tarnishing the good names of a lot of skilled, pragmatic winemakers from the last few decades. Organic and biodynamic winemakers have a more strongly codified set of rules they must follow, indeed they must be certified to call themselves so, and my general experience is that people who follow these rules do make good wine. I don’t think these people are any more or less natural, it is just that they follow agreed-upon rules that are designed to look after the health of their wines and vineyards, rather than just adopting a moniker and then doing whatever fast and loose things they like with their wines. I know at Dujac they follow very strict rules in the vineyards and are extremely minimal-interventionist in the cellar, yet Dujac don’t claim any particular allegiances for the wines, beyond saying they try to make the best wine they can[ref]If I may spill the beans on this one: I am aware that Dujac have been farming organically since 2001 and yet only decided to pursue certification in 2009. As such, their first certified organic harvest will be in 2012 and I bet none of their regular customers will give a tinker’s cuss or think anything important has changed if the word ‘organic’ does suddenly appear on the label.[/ref]. Consequently, El Presidente Jeremy gets the door slammed in his face by a lot of dogma-obsessed buyers and pundits who just want to hear the right catch-phrases and not bother seeing if the wines are brilliant or fault-ridden.

I think this last point may be less known to those of us in the English speaking part of the wine world. I’m told by many French friends, and a couple of Germans too, that the wine-buying milieu for fashionable restaurants, wine bars and shops is extremely snobbish and opinionated about natural wines to the point that they are rude about quality wines simply because they don’t cow tow to these ideas. Many great wines are snubbed because they don’t have the right words attached to them and great winemakers patronised and condemned for similarly small-minded reasons. Such snobbish, self-righteous, ego-mania is right out of order; wine is a beverage that we enjoy for its pleasurable characteristics not for its adherence to modish philosophy. You don’t have to vote for it to run the country according to sufficiently right-thinking principles, you just have to drink and enjoy the good ones. Doing otherwise really is missing the point of the stuff.

That’s what it all comes down to: nice things are nicer than nasty things. As I said above, the term ‘natural’ contains no information about quality, so if you say you like natural wines you are admitting you’re more interested dogma rather than something being actually good. The fact that most natural wines require a lecture suggesting you’re inadequate rather than them being faulty shows the followers are more interested in smug self-promotion and desperately pushing sales rather satisfying a wine drinker’s desire for a good experience. I’ll always buy those good ones and I’d wager they’ll always have fewest trendy words stuck on them.


On a totally unrelated note, I feel I should say that sleep is a marvellous thing and not just for the weak. However, if insomnia is going to seize you it’s great to have something to do and I find a 2400 word rant on a current oenological topic a great way of filling the early hours of the morning. I’d prefer to have slept, though – I hope those who’ve battled through this piece do not also wish I had. I’ll have a little lie down now.


  • My dear David – I am surprised that you have not already attracted a huge volume of responses. Firstly because the topic is incendiary, and secondly because you’ve taken the less fervently-supported line. I like to think that the more implausible the proposition, the more passionate the belief. When people say the believe something passionately or deeply, it is almost always followed by something ideological, religious, superstitous or otherwise unfalsifiable or resistant to rational scrutiny.

    Natural wine enthusiasts occasionally fall into this category, allowing their ideological fervour to trump the surely more basic requirement for wines to be pleasurable.

    It appears to elude these zealots that the terminology they have chosen is wilfully duplicitous but also perfidious three times over – the word “natural” is not only (1) fallacious, on account of wine’s intrinsic artificiality, but also (2) conveys far-fetched sylvan fantasies of terrestrial harmony, and (3) is weighty with insinuations of ideological correctness and aesthetic desirability, thus suggesting that if you drink anything else, you are somehow a supporter of the contrived, a hater of the harmonious and a philistine to boot.

    The plain fact of the matter is that all wines are the product of human ingenuity, and therefore cannot arise our of the ground without human intervention. Therefore the expression “natural wines” is a quivering oxymoron.

    Why don’t they just call them “rustic wines” and be done with it?

    The zealotry behind this “movement” is quite clearly intolerable and must be countered with a similarly outspoken call for quality. Quality in the bottle, and integrity in the winemaking process is all you need. The former is a question of judgement (in my view, educated judgement – but that’s another debate), and the latter a set of processes open to scrutinty and always susceptible to improvement.

    Only the other day I went to a place in London which prides itself on its “natural” wine list, and I cannot begin to tell you, without gagging at the memory of it, how repugnant the South African Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay blend I was offered was. I am still astonished that such a wine was deemed suitable for human consumption at an establishment with purportedly high standards. It was rancid and violently oxydised and seared the tongue like something you’d use to unblock a sewer. The second wine we had was a Chilean Carignan so unspeakably vile I refuse to waste any further adjectives on it. Admittedly I’ve had sensational wines that *happened* to be organic, or *happened* to be biodynamic (many of the Burgundies I have in my cellar are one or the other or both), but rarely are they trumpeted as characteristics of the wine which should somehow have any bearing on its quality in terms of its role as a pleasure-giving elixir.

    Pleasure is what should be sought in a wine, and its pleasure-giving properties should be shared and discussed and pursued vigorously.

  • Ed Tully

    I am sorry to say I have never had a “natural wine” that could be described as anything more positive than interesting, and not interesting in a good way. More interesting in a “isn’t it amazing Joseph Stalin managed to kill quite so many people. Now I am not suggesting natural wine maniacs will wipe out as many as uncle jo with their idiot philosophies, although a Darwinian reduction in the breeding stock might have some merit.

    What most irritates me is the quite remarkably huge sums of folding the natural buffoons charge for not making their wines properly. Astonishing! the only upside is that the gullible will be punished.

    Short of adding something actually poisonous I frankly could not give a hoot what wine makers do in order to make nice things (and this might even include the apocryphal additative Randl Graham is supposed to have used to fine). The bottom line is whether it is good. A Luddite approach to anything is to pursue a deliberately ignorant and pessimistic path.

  • Hi David,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I think I’ve now firmly changed my mind about so called natural wines, indeed, they’re a million miles away from being natural as you so brilliantly put. I don’t mind if they’re well made, exciting and interesting as a result of minimalist winemaking but with controlled and correct technique etc/ Being made according to their own desire and sold on the basis they’re natural and/or being completley funky and all over the place, well it’s just not on. What’s the point if you’ve gone so far as to get the right grapes grown, picked at a certain time, fermented and then bottled? There’s nothing natural about it! Might as well go the whole hog and do it properly and add some SO2, that’s what it’s there for!!!

    All the best,

    Joe

  • Tom Blach

    A most diverting article, David. In general, whether one is buying a cheese or a work of art, one should be very suspicious of labels, applied, as you say, strictly to things which have nothing else to offer but their sobriquet. A sure way to find a really terrible cheese, for example, is to find one described on it packaging as ‘organic’ ; the best examples certainly do not come from industrial facilities but do not need to trumpet this fact. A work of art that can offer nothing without detailed verbal instruction is usually similarly suspect.
    The ‘natural’ wine movement, at least in its British manifestation, is nothing more or less than a modern marketing ploy, enabled by all the new media by which the young generation stay up to date. The wines I like are quite as natural as they should be without feeling the need to say so; there is a very, very cynical company which supplies restaurants and now has three of its own who have taken up the natural thing with a vengeance, its mission being to sell very mediocre wines at very high prices which they achieve because people feel foolish challenging the ‘natural’ label. They apply the same principle to their nice and sensationally marked-up simple food, relying on the depth of the lack of knowledge of their aspirational customer base. So a scam, on the whole. The French manifestation is somewhat different, the wilful perversion of brown wines being a symptom of their rarefied humour and self-lampooning stylishness. There is nothing really wrong with such wines but one could make them at home at a fraction of the cost with left-over parsnips and brussels sprouts.

  • @Ricard, David,

    Perhaps David hasn’t attracted a huge volume of responses because of the language he uses. I’m sure a lot of people found it offensive, inflammatory and provocative. Compare the number of responses on Levenberg’s or Steinberger’s recent posts (both 50 and counting last time I looked). On those blogs, the debate is being conducted in a civilized and respectful manner, and the two opposing camps can actually engage each other. Another reason might be due to the content itself, which was basically just a re-hashing of the same old issues, with no original input to the debate. (On the other hand, I have to say that I found some bits of both your pieces quite funny too).

    Anyway, I would like to urge both of you to do some proper research and due diligence before you write another post on ‘natural’ wine. Try to look beyond the most visible, loudest, strident, outrageous personalities, who are so easy to find and lash out against, but who in no way represent the majority of normal, hardworking, quiet natural wine people (who abhor what these individuals and saying as much as you do).

    Secondly, please be aware that there is no “natural wine movement” with leaders, agendas, policies, rules, etc. Nobody deliberately “chose” to use the word ‘natural’. For better or for worse it’s here to stay.

  • Ed Tully

    Do you know I thought the whole point of a blog was to be provocative (school boy Latin: pro – for, vocative – speech)?

    Perhaps Fabio could correct the material inaccuracies in Dr Strange’s article. I am afraid it is beyond me. I am only a humble arts graduate, wheras David is an environmental biologist, virologist and a former welcome prize fellow.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth I have never had a self-proclaimed natural wine that was anything other than a hugely costly mistake. The only upside of it for me is that it allows for a neatly Darwinian justice. The fools are parted with their money, the wise enjoy finer things.

  • Afternoon all,

    Sorry for the delay in replying, I have new anti-insomnia medication and, strangely, I’ve been asleep rather a lot. I consider this a result.

    Ricard,
    I quite agree. Quality is what it is all about; we like nice things. As we have recently discussed, once people start choosing things for reasons other than how nice they are they are probably too simple to mock.
    On a different note, you’ve been very generous with your kind comments on my drivel here and on Twitter, would you fancy meeting for a little drinkie one time I’m in London? It’d be a pleasure to make your acquaintance!

    Edward,
    I haven’t had that many frighteningly pricy ones, I shall have to look out for them, try a few then most likely generally avoid them. As with our discussion on horrible gin, I have few enough fun tokens to buy good stuff without throwing them away on things I’ll hate. I do get irked when I get charged piles of dosh for crap.

    Joe, pleased I amused you! Sulphur is great stuff, I assure you:)

    Tom, once again we seem in complete agreement. It is always lovely when you leave a note here.

    Fabio,
    You are right, I tend to things in a forthright manner because I see no need to sugar-coat the truth to spare the feelings of the hard of thinking. I know that puts a lot of people off commenting. You may also have problems with my post because you think it simply re-hashes other arguments, so I imagine that is why you don’t feel the need to counter any of them. Personally, I think you dislike my piece because you describe yourself on your blog as a producer of ‘natural, organic, healthful, sustainable wine’ and everyone else who’s commented here would agree with me that two of those words are meaningless marketing spin designed to appeal to those who don’t care if they buy things that are actually good. I’m pleased you use ‘healthful’ though, because wine is. I take it you put that on your labels, rather than hide it away on an obscure blog, and screw any regulations that say you cannot claim wine is good for one.
    Oh yes, based on your 8th Feb blog piece I’d suggest laying off the attempts at humour and sticking to whatever else you might be good at.

    I’m going to have a lovely afternoon kip now, I’m rather pleased about that!

  • Tom Blach

    I’m not terribly up on the detail but aren’t wines from people like Leflaive, Dujac, Fourrier, Gouges and Clavelier natural too? they seem jolly nice to me and don’t go bad when treated with a modicum of care, though of course one needs to know when(or most importantly when not) to drink them. I think Prieure-Roch are even more natural. Their wines are fabulous when they don’t go bad but that seems rather infrequent in my limited experience.

  • Congratulations Tom! Your comment brings the number of comments equal to the number of posts for the first time on this spume of drivel! Not such a big moment, you may think, but it pleases me. Hence, you win a small prize for your wonderful support of Elitistreview; hooray! If you email me your address I’ll send you a little gift to mark this small milestone in ER’s history.

    To answer your question, I think if you told Jeremy Seysses he was a natural winemaker he’d be extremely put out, and the same goes for the others you list. They may be minimal interventionist winemakers, but that is different to ‘natural’. As Dani has suggested (and I prevented him from commenting because of the proximity to the event above), once a wine become good it stops being natural (because it no longer needs to claim such a drivelly association in order to sell). Jeremy’s comment about natural winemaking on Keith Levenberg’s blog post shows he is not a fan of the movement, if you have the energy to go and read that.

    Anyway, send me your address and I’ll send you a little gift. It is only something small, but I rather like it. Obviously, with this comment I’ve taken the comment count above the post count, but I will not give myself a gift when I next add a post.

    Many thanks to everyone who has commented on Elitistreview! Every single one of you have improved the site no end thanks to your contributions, I wish I could give you all a little gift:)

  • Tom Blach

    How very exciting! I shall send you my address forthwith. Jeremy seems to agree with me, though-his wines are natural, in so far as an agricultural product can be, not ‘natural’, which does appear to be a gimmick for selling wines which would otherwise be pretty hard to shift. Nothing wrong with that if the wines are good, of course.

  • David,

    In response to your response:

    I have absolutely nothing against saying things in a forthright manner; in fact I applaude it. But that’s different from being insulting, provocative and inflammatory, and the two things are not mutually exclusive. However, if you choose to put a lot of people off from commenting, that’s your affair entirely.

    I didn’t realize that you were in possession of the truth, so of course there’s no need to sugar-coat it. The truth should always be revealed in its pure naked majesty. Similarly there’s no need to sugar-coat your ‘opinion’ or whatever you ‘believe’ to be the truth, though no doubt they’re so close to the actual truth as makes no practical difference.

    Whatever made you think I disliked your piece? The language and the humour were excellent. I really liked the “quivering oxymoron” from Ricard and your own “rancid rubbish” and “toxically putrescent” were not bad either. The two words which, to you and your commentors are meaningless marketing spin, happen to have a meaningful meaning to the readers of my obscure blog. No, I don’t put ‘healthful’ on my labels, because I’m scared of getting caught and fined! And I think I’ll give it while longer with the humour thing and see how it goes!

    Well, that covers everything except for countering the arguments in your post. If you insist, I can do that in a separatre comment, as it would be a bit too lengthy to do here. And it would push your response rate up to a record high, what? 🙂

    • Hello Fabio,

      Lovely of you to return and comment again. I really welcome every comment on my little site and all add colour and flavour here. I have to say I was hoping it’d be you making comment number 1223 but I suppose with my limited income I should be glad I’m not sending a box to Spain.

      Here’s a plan: do you have a UK agent? If you do you do I could score a bottle of your wine and review it to see how it aligns with my view of natural wines. I think you can be assured of my open-mindedness as I’ve just started liking Gran Reserva Rioja Rosé, something I never thought I’d manage to enjoy. My last bottle was cracking! Let me know what you think.

      Thank you for your comments about my writing. I trained as a really hard-core scientist so it’s distinctly lovely if someone says I can manage approaches at humour or literary merit when I’m blasting out text.

  • Ed Tully

    Well said, Fabio.

    A very admirable response.

    Ed

  • @Ed Tully, Thanks! glad you liked it!

    @David, No, I don’t have a UK agent (yet!). I’m going to the RAW fair in London in May, in the hope of finding one! What we can do is this: I’ll send you a bottle through the post and you can taste it and review it, as you suggest above. The only condition is that I expect total brutal honesty – whether you like the wine or not. Deal?

  • @Ed Tully, Thanks, glad you liked it!

    @David, No I don’t have a UK agent (yet). I’ll be going to the RAW Fair in London in May, where I hoe to meet one! What we can do is this: I’ll send you a bottle through the post, and you can taste it and review it, as you suggest above. The only condition is this: I expect total brutal honesty – whether you like the wine or not! Deal?

  • Deal! Email will be flying to you in moments.

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