The Natural Wine movement is dividing brother from brother, citizen from citizen, rending friendships, tearing the land in two…Well it’s not quite the Civil War. But it is causing lots of heated controversy. My post on Tuesday described the source of the controversy—when advocates of low intervention wines call their wine “natural” it implies that competitor wines are “unnatural” with all the connotations of perversion and abnormality that entails. And when proponents pile on by suggesting making and drinking natural wines is a morally superior activity, well, you can understand why conventional winemakers and their advocates get pissed off. See my earlier post if you want the blow-by-blow.
Are natural wine proponents describing their wines accurately or is the word “natural” a sinister marketing device that unfairly mischaracterizes legions of honest winemakers? New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote regarding the word “natural” that “even defining the term incites the sort of Talmudic bickering usually reserved for philosophers and sports talk-radio hosts.” I promise not to invoke the Talmud, but sorting through conceptual distinctions is the job of philosophers so be forewarned—there is hair-splitting ahead.
“Natural wine” refers to wines made from organically grown grapes that are allowed to ferment with very little intervention from the winemaker. “Nothing added, nothing taken away” is the mantra. Most makers of natural wines add some sulfur to prevent oxidation and minimize bacteria growth, and most control fermentation temperatures, but even these minimal interventions are controversial in some quarters. Some of these wines are quite good and interesting, some not so much. The issue really isn’t flavor but instead the appropriateness of a name. Are these properly called “natural wines” and are their proponents entitled to treat “unnatural” wines with disdain?
The word “nature” typically refers to anything that is not supernatural or anything not made or influenced by human beings. But neither of these meanings are helpful: in the former sense everything is natural and in the latter sense nothing is natural (unless we bring other planets into the picture). I doubt there is anything on earth that has not been influenced by human beings—least of all wine grapes. Wine grapes are among the most cultivated of plants; the varieties we have available today are the result of centuries of quite conscious selective breeding in order to exhibit qualities desired by winemakers. There is nothing “untouched by human hands” about grapes or wine.
But there is a third sense of “nature” that I think is more helpful. “Nature” refers to the inherited make up of something—what makes a thing be the sort of thing it is, its’ essential characteristics. For example, “human nature” refers to characteristics that distinguish human beings from animals (at least most of us.)
For some beings, their natures are given, inherited, not a product of human invention (even though we influence their development). Although the nature of wine grapes is in part determined by human beings, there are constraints and limits to our ability to control the nature of grapes—despite selective breeding their genetic and molecular structure remains that of grapes and not something else. Furthermore, the changes that we make through grafting, cloning, crossing, etc. are themselves natural in that they are an expression of the possibilities inherent in grapes. In other words, despite human cultivation, there is still something “given” about grapes, a potential that is not the product of human intervention, a constitution upon which the cultivation depends.
For some people, this givenness, this inherited constitution, is intrinsically valuable. For folks so inclined, it is important that there be something beyond the human tendency to manipulate and control—a gift or bestowal if you will from which they draw a sense of awe or wonder. Human beings tend to value what is rare and vulnerable. In this tamed and colonized world where humanity’s footprint is everywhere, even a partially non-human “given” is rare and vulnerable, and so the natural wine movement locates intrinsic value in this “given”. They value the gift that weather, soil, and the inherited constitution of grapes bestow on the winemaker who must respect this “given” by keeping interventions to a minimum.
It doesn’t matter that the grapes are cultivated; what matters is that a sense of the “given” is preserved.
Is the word “natural” being misused here? No. This use of the word “natural” to mean “essential, inherited characteristics” is a standard usage. But this use does not contrast with perverted or abnormal. The appropriate contrast would be the “accidental” (in philosophical parlance), something added on but not necessary, human artifice, a nature more fully shaped by humans, as conventionally-made wines would be.
Does a reverence for nature entail disdain for artifacts and human contrivances? Must there be an implicit negative judgment regarding standard winemaking if one loves natural wines? It is hard to see what would justify such an attitude, other than mere personal preference.
There is nothing wrong with having reverence for an increasingly rare natural world. Whether wine grapes are the place to look for that is another question. They are not for me but your mileage may vary. But it is hard to credit a general disapproval toward human intervention as such since much of the world would then be a source of disapproval. This is at best an eccentric viewpoint and at worst utterly misanthropic. We can praise the gift of nature and honor human achievement without invidious comparisons. We can enjoy natural wines and enjoy conventional winemaking without making moral judgments.
To the degree proponents of natural wine help themselves to dollops of moral virtue, rather than simply good taste, they stray into this territory of eccentricity and their critics are right to take exception.
The moral of the story is there is no moral story here—just drink.