Will Natural Wine Embrace Their Radicalism?

fist in the airIn VinePair, Jamie Goode makes a compelling case for the claim that natural winemaking has had such an influence on conventional winemaking that it no longer represents a distinct category.

Many conventional winemakers now use fewer herbicides in the vineyard and less SO2 in the winery. Native yeast fermentation, unconventional aging vessels such as concrete eggs, interest in skin-contact white wines, and lighter, lower-alcohol styles are becoming more common among mainstream producers. All of these trends originated with the natural wine movement. Jamie concludes:

The result of all these changes is the blurring of lines between authentic, terroir-driven wine-growing and “natural” winemaking. And if the natural wine movement’s true purpose was to make the industry reconsider its position on issues ranging from farming to the need for additions and interventions in the winery, then its job is done.

Jamie is surely right about the salutary influence of natural wine on conventional winemaking. But I don’t think his view quite captures the ethos of natural winemaking.

In Beauty and the Yeast, I argued that the difference between natural wine and conventional wine is less the tools they use (or don’t use) in order to make wine. Rather, natural winemakers are more willing to accept risk. They have a taste for what is wild, disorderly, and resistant to human intentions. The fact that wine cannot be controlled and has a “mind” of its own is intriguing for most people in the “terroir-driven” wine community. But for natural winemakers and their patrons unpredictability is more than intriguing; it is their article of faith.

So the issue really comes down to the use of SO2. Even modest amounts protect a wine from bacteriological activity that otherwise might send it beyond the range of acceptable “funk.” Operating without SO2 is risky business and it won’t always work out. Thus, many natural winemakers add a bit just to be on the safe side. But that wanting to “be on the safe side” is precisely what distinguishes conventional winemakers from less risk averse natural winemakers.

If the line between conventional and natural winemaking is blurred, I suspect some people in the natural wine community will become very vocal in asserting that the only true natural wines are made with no added sulfur. And they will be right to do so; a willingness to accept risk is what defines them. This is what radical movements do when their ideas go mainstream.  Winemaker Dennis Lapuyade has already launched the battle cry.

The question will then be whether this can survive as a business model. Are there enough customers willing to ride the maelstrom?

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