The Controversy Over “Natural Wine”

natural-wines_2 If you want controversy, use the word “natural” in any context and someone will challenge your intent. Food and cosmetic companies have been using the word for decades to imply their competitors are “unnatural” without having to precisely define what they mean. The word has largely been evacuated of meaning—it’s the source of empty slogans that allow users to help themselves to virtue without bearing any burdens.

So when proponents of minimally-processed wines chose “natural” to describe their winemaking practices they were walking into a hornet’s nest. We wine writers, of course, love controversy—without it there would be nothing to write about. So despite the fact that the debate barely registers among the wine-drinking public, it rages in the blogosphere. Tom Wark, communications consultant for the wine industry and top-notch blogger, has been on the warpath, accusing proponents of natural wines of mean-spirited, holier-than-thou hypocrisy:

 But there is something much more sinister than “Natural” being just an arbitrary marketing term. The word implies strongly (and sometimes explicitly) that wines not falling under the heading of “Natural” are “Unnatural”. The implication of being an “Unnatural” wine are simply not good…in any context. It implies they are plastic, constructed, inauthentic, unhealthy, industrial, “frankenwines”, all things that apply to very few wines.

The Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer, long an advocate of “authentic” wines that exhibit a sense of place, agrees. The article is behind a paywall but Tom Wark cites the relevant passage:

The very word ‘natural’ has become a flashpoint. Many winemakers who would otherwise be sympathetic chafe at being held—at a kind of intellectual gunpoint—to rigidly prescribed practices…Words matter. And ‘natural’ is not the word you should seek.

By contrast, defender-in-chief of natural wines Alice Feiring insists the word “natural” is squishy only if we allow backsliders and pretenders to get in on the fun:

The category of natural wine is a somewhat slippery slope except predicated by the tenets of nothing added nothing taken away, a touch of sulfur as needed if needed. Basic to the cause is no inoculations and please, no acidifications. There is a transparency in the wines that excite out of control affection for certain drinkers predisposed to the wine roller coaster.

If you stick to the rigorous definition “nothing added, nothing taken away” except for a bit of sulfur when necessary, there need be no confusion over the meaning of “natural”. But it is precisely the rigor of this “ideological straightjacket” that many object to. Winemakers who judge that, in order to make their very best wine, some addition or subtraction in the winery is necessary are implicitly (or explicitly)  falsely accused of being “unnatural”, serving up manipulated, industrial-grade “frankenwines” to the unsuspecting masses.

So does the word “natural” inevitably invite a hopeless morass of contentious ideological contrasts or is their a legitimate use of the word that can be salvaged from the vitriol of claim and counter-claim?

What say you hive-mind?

I’m still thinking through what I want to say about this. But one oft-mentioned response won’t do. Every comment thread on this topic includes one post with a plea to just drink the wine and forget about the philosophy—deliciousness should be the main consideration. But this won’t do because most wine lovers want a little meaning with their wine. It’s not just a beverage that tastes good but an experience of transcendent value that stimulates the imagination and links human communities with the earth and cycles of cultivation.  The origin of a wine, its context, where it was made and how, matters as much as the flavor. When we dismiss those meanings and treat wine as a mere beverage, its distinctive value is sacrificed.

So the philosophy will not go away. We will have to think (and drink) our way out of this controversy.

More later on the troublesome word “natural”.

4 comments

  1. I’m a bit more on the side of ‘frankenwines,’ not just because I wanted to use that very cleverly-created word, but, also because wine, like art, is man-made. When one takes away the ‘manipulation’ one takes away the art to some extent. On the other hand, the purpose of art is to express the truth of nature. It is an interesting controversy to mull over. Thank you for this beautifully crafted piece and the thoughtful questions it raises.

    1. Thanks Foxress. You raise an interesting issue that I’ve struggled with a bit. Clearly, art is an artifact, something that humans make. A purely natural product with no human intervention–a sunset for instance–is not a work of art. Wines are cultivated and are a human invention but can a wine that is made with minimal intervention be a work of art? Isn’t it more the product of natural processes than human intention? I guess I think that if the decision to not intervene in the process of fermentation is the product of an artistic vision–a conception on the winemaker’s part of how this particular wine should taste–then perhaps it qualifies. But if she is just following an ideology without making an aesthetic judgment about this particular cuvee, she is not making art. Anyway–good point.

  2. Normally I do not learn article on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to
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