grape stompingHow natural is natural wine?

Environmental writer and policy expert Ted Nordhaus published a well-informed and informative article on natural wines in the current issue of his Breakthrough Institute’s journal. Entitled “On the Nature of Wine and the Cultural Contradictions of Artisanal Capitalism” he gets a lot right in this article but I think doesn’t quite get what is appealing about natural wine.

Writing about Paolo Bea, one of the founders of Italy’s natural wine movement, Nordhaus writes:

But a primitive operation Paolo Bea is not. Bea’s son Giampiero, an architect by training, designed the state-of-the-art winemaking facility. Clad in handsome white stone, the building could easily be mistaken for a modern art museum. Passively heated and cooled, the facility houses four stories, with two floors bunkered into the clay soils to keep the wines cool. Gravity moves the wine from the warm upper floors, where the grapes are crushed and the fermentation is started, through a series of troughs, pipes, and tanks to the lower floors, where the sediments are allowed to settle and the wines finish their fermentation and are aged in oak barrels for up to four years.

Natural winemakers use only native yeast in their fermentation and use only minimal if any sulfur dioxide, which conventional winemaking uses as a preservative to protect wine from oxygen and various bacteria that like to flourish in wine. Without sulfur dioxide and commercial yeast your margin for error is reduced. You have to really get everything else right.

Thus, Nordhaus’s first main point is that natural wine requires lots of very modern technology:

If anything, making natural wines that are consistently palatable requires greater precision and control than conventional winemaking. Mistakes in the vinification of natural wines are not easily corrected, and much more can go wrong, as rogue bacteria, temperature fluctuations, and a raft of further variables can quickly turn wine into vinegar, or something equally unpleasant.

Fermentation vessels that allow the precise control of temperature, extensive laboratory facilities that enable constant testing, and modern transportation technologies that allow the wines to get to market quickly while being held at a safe temperature are crucial to natural winemakers.

it would be a mistake to conclude that natural wines are any less a product of modern science, technological innovation, and global commerce than are conventional wines.

It’s a far cry from horse drawn plows and vertical basket presses. But the key point is that, in the absence of preservatives, natural wines taste different from conventional wines.

The lack of preservative results in wines that are less typical and less predictable. A syrah or chardonnay bottled without sulfur dioxide often doesn’t taste the way one expects a syrah or chardonnay to taste.

Which is why you won’t find much natural wine being made in the storied wine regions of France such as Burgundy or Bordeaux. The appellation system and the wine criticism that has grown up around that system enforce standards about what their wines should taste like. Because natural wines don’t conform to that standard, regions with a reputation (and high prices) to protect will not allow these wines to be sold under their banner. It’s in the lesser known regions where winemakers are experimenting. Yet among some lovers of conventional wine, natural wines are treated like bastard step children.

But many people are willing to look beyond those conventional standards:

Once you’ve decided, for instance, that a bit of lactobacillus developed during fermentation (a bacteria that conventional winemakers generally eliminate through sulfuring their wines) tastes pleasantly of yeast and freshly baked bread rather than disturbingly like mouse urine, why add sulfur during fermentation or bottling to get rid of it?

Hmm. Mouse urine. I’m not sure I know what that tastes like; I’m not so curious as to investigate.

What all of this adds up to, he claims, is a search for authenticity. “The flaws are the cost, so to speak, of producing wines that are authentic.” And part of the appeal is an image of “occupy-style radicalism” in opposition to big agriculture and the global wine trade.

Which leads him finally to his main point about the “cultural contradictions of artisanal capitalism”. Just as a corporate behemoth such as Whole Foods was able to embrace organic foods:

Natural wine today faces similar contradictions. Because natural winemaking requires a level of precision and control that is well suited to technological intervention, there is no particular conflict between scientific winemaking and natural winemaking nor any reason that larger producers might not be able to adhere to the rules, such as they are, of natural winemaking.

And so he thinks natural wines and the values they express will be absorbed into the mainstream, to be co-opted by large companies and transformed into just another commodity to be marketed alongside Barefoot and Screaming Eagle.

Here I think he misses the point about natural wines.

As he notes earlier in the essay, it’s not really about technology. The “nature” in natural wines doesn’t refer to wines made without technology or without science. The key factor in natural wines is that they are not homogeneous. Wines from the same producer and same vineyard will not taste the same from year to year. And the flavor profile of a natural wine is not wholly within the control of the winemaker. It’s the “wild” , unpredictable nature of natural wines, their lack of repetition and their resistance to human intention that makes them attractive. That is what “authenticity” means in this context. (See my Three Quarks column for more on this point.) By contrast, mass global markets demand standardization and cannot function efficiently without it.

No doubt, natural wines exist as “a froth of alternative values and production possibilities that can only exist atop the sea of standardized, mechanized, and industrialized materiality that is the predicate for modern life.” They are a reaction to the universalist pretensions of modernity.

But they will not become standardized and still remain “natural”. The flaws are not the cost of natural winemaking; they are the point of it.  The cultural logic of modern capitalism remains best expressed by the computer algorithm endlessly repeating the same drivel, not the wine that surprises both winemaker and drinker with the pungent aroma of mouse urine.