Even the powerful wine critic, ROBERT M. PARKER JR called it “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers.”
Arianna Occhipinti in her vineyard cellar in Sicily.
Other wine writers have joined in, though perhaps with less vitriol. Mike Steinberger, in Slate.com, referred to wine’s “radical chic side,” and bemoaned the sloganeering. Tom Wark, a wine marketer and blogger, assailed it for denigrating competitors in order to define itself. People I know in the wine business, including a few good friends, find the whole thing obnoxious.
Their target? Natural wines and their partisans, sometimes referred to grandiosely as the “natural wine movement,” implying leaders, orthodoxy and an agenda — set forth, no doubt, in triplicate.
What is this movement? No more than a tiny collection of winemakers who, along with a motley crew of restaurants, wine bars, consumers and writers, prefer wines that are made with an absolute minimum of manipulation: grapes grown organically or in rough approximation, then simply set forth along an unforced path of fermentation into wine, with nothing added and nothing taken away.
Nothing ought to be wrong with that. Yet the notion of such advocacy lights a short fuse that explodes into hissy fits. In fact, as is so often the case with annoyances, the reaction brings the irritant far more attention than it might have earned otherwise.
Almost two years ago, I likened the natural-wine discussion to a hornet’s nest, which had set off disagreements all over the world of wine. If anything, the fracas has worsened, except that now the loudest voices are those of condemnation. The criticism raises the question of what, exactly, people find so threatening about natural wines and the people who enjoy them.
Clearly, critics perceive the natural-wine partisans as self-righteous, scolding and sanctimonious fundamentalists, even if the evidence is supplied only by implication. That is, if you call your wine natural, what does that make mine? Unnatural? Manipulated?
As many critics have pointed out, the word natural is nebulous and ill defined. Nobody knows exactly what it means, least of all its partisans, who seem to have little interest in specifics and codification.
For some on the extreme end, it may mean using no sulfur dioxide whatsoever, a risky maneuver as this chemical has been used since antiquity as a wine stabilizer. Without it, wine must be made with painstaking hygiene, and shipped and handled carefully, or it may spoil.
Others will accept the use of sulfur, but insist on fermenting the wine only with ambient yeasts, rather than trying to guide fermentation by selecting particular strains of yeast and adding them to the juice.
This lack of definition, repeated in many other ways, seems to profoundly disturb the critics, yet perhaps it is one of the greatest strengths of the natural partisans. In the same way that the Occupy Wall Street insurgency resists enumerating goals or anointing official representatives, natural-wine partisans refuse to be pinned down in a manner that subjects them to lawyerly argument. That frustrates those who fear they will become targets if they do not subscribe to what they see as natural-wine dogma; hence the shrillness of their criticism.
To me, this fear seems terribly misplaced. Unlike the 99 percent in the Occupy analogy, the natural-wine partisans represent far less than 1 percent in terms of wine sales.
And as far as dogma goes, the only thing many natural-wine partisans agree on is that they abhor industrial practices in agriculture and the technological and chemical manipulations of wine. Guess what? So do many critics of natural wines.
That leaves us with the wines themselves, which come in all shades and styles, offering a diverse spectrum from beauty to, yes, hideousness.
Bad ones? Naturally. Any genre of wine, regardless of how it is defined, will include those that are poorly made. I’ve had so-called natural wines that tasted like microbiological swamps. I’ve also had some that simply didn’t appeal to my taste.
Frankly, I don’t know, and don’t much care, whether many of the wines that I love to drink qualify as “natural” or not. I do know that the vast majority of them are made as carefully as possible by farmers who practice classic forms of viticulture and winemakers who may try to guide the path of production but don’t seek to control it.
The fact that we are so much more conscious now about viticultural and cellar practices is because of an older generation of producers, writers, importers and others in the trade who inspired the genre of natural wines, like the French scientist Jules Chauvet, who conducted early experiments with sulfur dioxide and even Mr. Parker himself, who has spent years criticizing many of the worst practices of mass-produced wine.
Those practices, of course, still go on. The commodity wines that make up the bulk of production are results of industrial farming and winemaking. In truth, so are many of the wines considered to be fine, though not all by a long shot.
Natural wines offer an ideal — many ideals — that have influenced the world of wine, no matter how much they irritate. Far better to absorb and consider rather than stamp a foot in annoyance.
By Eric Asimov of the NYT