I guess it must be that time of the year again. Every six months or so, it seems, the wine blogosphere erupts in a cascade of screed, accusation, and innuendo about so called “natural wines”. This latest go-round was initiated by an intemperate article in Newsweek entitled “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider”. As you might imagine, that provoked some wine writers to come to the defense of natural wines and others to offer somewhat more restrained denounciations.
If you are one of the billions of people on this planet who avoid the wine press and wine blogs you might never have heard of “natural wines”. Essentially these are wines made without cultured yeast, mininimal (or no) use of the preservative sulfur dioxide, no modern winemaking technology such as reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation, no additives such as mega purple or additional acid, no filtration, and using only grapes grown organically and/or sustainably–the way wine was made 100 years ago.
So what is wrong with modern winemaking technology? Well, environmental issues such as soil depletion and potentially harmful chemicals to start with, but natural wine enthusiasts also claim modern industrial winemaking destroys flavor, creating generic wines that lack freshness, complexity, and that no longer reflect the unique characteristics of the grapes’ origins.
This is controversial because modern winemaking technology is, in part, designed to eliminate flaws, bad bottles, and to preserve the wine for shipping and storage. So making (and purchasing) wine without that technology is inherently risky. It is, however, not quite true that natural winemakers eschew modern technology. The natural winemakers I know obsessively test their wines in the lab, use the latest in storage technology, and are scrupulous about cleanliness in the winery using the best equipment they can find to make sure their facilities, storage containers and equipment are free of bacteria. The idea that they are luddites is absurd.
So what does this controversy come down to? On one side, the traditionalists claim that natural wine enthusiasts are ignoring flavor in favor of a dogmatic ideology, deceived by the romantic lure of the idea of “authenticity” into making inferior wine. On the other side are the enthusiasts who claim that the wine revolution is upon us if only the close-minded and hidebound apologists for big business would get out of the way.
In the middle are the vast number of artisanal wine producers who use technology when necessary but only as a last resort, who believe vineyard expression is what matters most but that some intervention sometimes is necessary to produce the best wine they can.
Part of the controversy arises because the word “natural” is ill-defined and there are no standards for what counts as natural wine and often no way of knowing whether a wine is natural or not. There is a simple solution to this–require ingredients to be listed on the bottle so consumers can make their own decisions about what they prefer and are less dependent on the marketing of the word “natural”.
But another main source of confusion is the idea that we can somehow distinguish flavor from the idea of what we’re drinking. Flavor is an idea influenced by our past, our environment, and most importantly our thoughts about what we’re tasting. Natural wine enthusiasts are not ignoring flavor in favor of dogma. They define flavor differently because they have a different idea of what flavor should be. The traditionalist notion that great wine must be made from very ripe grapes, filtered, and heavily oaked is itself a kind of dogma. There is no neutral ground called “flavor” that defines what flavor is and our various ideologies inevitably influence our judgments.
The attitude I find most disturbing is one expressed by Matt Kramer whose writing I usually admire. He writes
For those of us on the sidelines, watching the crusaders on both sides saddle up for yet another joust leaves a bad aftertaste. And that is surely not what fine wine is supposed to be about.
The idea that we shouldn’t disagree about these things takes wine out of the realm of the aesthetic. As Kant insisted, the idea of beauty (as opposed to mere subjective preference) produces judgements that aspire to be universal. The fact that the taste of wine matters enough to argue about and take sides with the aim of convincing others means that wine is not just a preference but an attempt to experience something of genuine value and import. If it were like a preference for Orange Maid or Sunkist then arguments would appear to be beside the point. Everyone in the wine world should welcome this controversy because it is a sign that wine is not merely a commodity like orange juice but a work of art worthy of our commitment.
In closing let me weigh in on the controversy. Some natural wines are better than others. Some are flawed or just ordinary. But I’ve had natural wines that are extraordinary. Someone who claims that they all taste like “putrid cider” is just ignorant. The trick is to know the producer so you can return a bad bottle, buy local, and drink young to avoid the need to store them.