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natural wineThe debate about natural wine just doesn’t seem to go away. Here’s a recent tête-à-tête between Jamie Goode and Christy Canterbury on the  pros and cons of this controversial movement.

If you haven’t heard about natural wine, it is essentially the practice of using as little intervention and manipulation as possible in the winery in order to achieve the purest expression of the grapes and vineyard site. I know that doesn’t sound like the end of civilization but critics of this approach to winemaking are outraged. Unfortunately, they seem to have honed their rhetorical skills in law school or in a bad philosophy class. Here is Ms. Canterbury:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines natural as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind”. So natural wine is impossible because humans must intervene for its production. ‘Natural’ wine does not actually exist.

Ugh.  I have yet to talk to a “natural” winemaker who claims she isn’t making the wine or that the wine makes itself. We know that wine is a human product; no one denies it. Words get their meaning from context and a history of use. In the context of natural winemaking, “natural” does not mean “not caused by humankind”. Dictionaries are handy devices for introducing us to word meanings; they don’t settle conceptual debates.

Ms. Canterbury further laments:

I have a quibble with natural wine because the term is defined by whoever uses it. It has no official meaning. Hence, I reject blanket statements about natural wine’s superiority.

Right. “Natural wine” has no official meaning. Neither does the word “pen” or the word “knowledge” but we can usually figure out what they refer to. Thankfully for our ability to communicate, language is flexible and words mean different things in different contexts. We don’t need “officials” to police discourse, aside from the gentle suggestions found in the dictionary which follow usage rather than dictate it. When someone claims to make natural wine we have a pretty good idea about what their intention is—minimal or no sulfur dioxide, minimal oak, no fancy micro-ox or additives, etc. Within that general desire to minimize manipulation there is a wide range of possible techniques and countless decisions that must be made—different winemakers have different ideas about what makes good wine.  The fact that people who use the term mean something slightly different by it is a feature not a bug. Why would we want to regiment a practice that is inherently experimental and in some cases wildly creative?

As to natural wines’ “inherent superiority”—who makes this claim? Some natural wines are good; some of them not so good. They are not inherently anything.

Ms. Canterbury also seems to have a low tolerance for risk:

Perhaps the most divisive point is sulfur dioxide use. A winemaking by-product, sulfur dioxide protects wine from spoilage. Natural wines may or may not have it, but not protecting wine with reasonable sulfur dioxide levels is like refusing a vaccine. The faults that can ensue – oxidation, acetic acid, Brettanomyces infection – are often the nemesis of pleasurable flavors. Why subject a year’s work to possible ruin?

All of these “nemeses” in the right amounts can be a source of interesting flavors as well. Yes, winemakers who use no sulfur dioxide take a risk; so do people who plant grapes in cool, rainy climates. Winemaking is risky and it’s an individual decision whether the risk is worth the reward. As a consumer if you are unwilling to risk purchasing a bad bottle, don’t. But don’t condemn others who are willing to take the risk.

No doubt, winemakers have been making “natural wines” for centuries, long before there was such a term. The contemporary natural wine movement has arisen because those traditions are eroding as  the wine business is trending towards industrial winemaking, and many people feel a need to resist that trend. Is there anything wrong with industrial made wines using advanced technology? No. Not necessarily, although they tend to be standardized in style and one-dimensional.

But it would be a shame if the industrial approach to winemaking were to colonize the wine business with no resistance from people convinced there is a better way.

It seems every week an independent winery is swallowed by the big guys.This past week saw the announcement that Talbott Vineyards, producers of some of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Santa Lucia Highlands, is being purchased by Gallo.

Thankfully, there are winemakers who want to go in a different direction. And we shouldn’t let this pedantic discussion about a word get in their way.