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.


  1. Pingback: A natural wine - Elitistreview 15 March 2012