Art Vs. Artifice In The Search For Natural Wine

Vinted on August 22, 2011 binned in book reviews, wine books

“That’s just… man, that’s just… NOT right!”

The above quote is from a friend of mine, in reaction to learning that some of his favorite wines – and, in fact, probably most wines – are made with grapes purchased from growers. As in, grapes that did not come from a patch of land directly behind a winery building on a farm somewhere, tended with care by the winemaker’s own hands.

Imagine how he would have felt if he’d seen the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s list of “Materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice.”  While it’s not quite as bad as the list of additives that are used to “enhance” our processed foodstuffs, it certainly feels a lot more “McDonald’s” than “Old MacDonald.”

As consumers, lacking evidence to the alternative we have a tendency to assume (naively) that what we consume is fundamentally natural, or that a “natural” product is somehow a superior one.  This premise – that the natural is always the better – serves as a driving force behind award-winning wine journalist Alice Feiring’s new book, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally ($10 eBook, or about $15 in print – I received an advanced review copy).

Feiring is a self-proclaimed polarizing figure in the wine world, and if her intention with Naked Wine was to solidify her controversial status, she could hardly have chosen a better cement than the topic of “natural wine”…

Dividing lines seem to have been drawn when it comes to natural wine: on one side, the Michel Bettanes of the world, who (perhaps because they award higher ratings to wines that are not in the natural wine camp?) decry natural winemaking as a fool’s errand; on the other, the Alice Feirings, who while not exactly screaming “Fast Food Nation”-style foul play, are at least insinuating that wine that is not made “naturally” is at best deceitful in how it’s marketed to the wine world, and at worst isn’t worth drinking at all.

One of the primary issue with natural wine is that it lacks anything close to standard definition.  Within the wine geek community, it’s usually meant to describe wines that have had little, if any, additions to initiate fermentation or prevent spoilage – at a minimum, no yeast inoculation, and little or no sulfur.  In turn, this drastically increases the probability of errant behavior during fermentation, adds difficulty in keeping the wine fresh during transport, and likely invites the spoilage yeasts such as brettanomyces (something I would consider a serious flaw in moderate-to-large doses, though Feiring seems to be on the opposite end of that spectrum: in Naked Wine, she waxes poetic over a wine she partly describes as having aromas of horse sweat).

I am of the strong opinion that natural winemaking is viable. I have tasted wines made with minimal sulfer that were decades old, from producers like Cahor’s Clos Seguier (whose 2006 Malbec made my “Top 10 Most Interesting Wines of the Year” list for 2010), that were insanely fresh and vibrant, and free of distracting amounts of funkiness. I’ve had others that I would not use to wash my car after accidentally running over a skunk for fear that they would make it smell even worse – it doesn’t always work, and takes a deft hand to pull off correctly.

Much of Naked Wine is spent chronicling Feiring’s European journeys in which she seeks out the producers who may be doing it right, tryingto  uncover how the world of natural winemaking operates – and why and how it came about in the first place.  The jaunt is kicked off by Feiring’s bold move to try her own hand at natural winemaking, working under the guidance of Kevin Hamel at Pellegrini Family Vineyards, trying to see small batch of Sagrantino from grape to glass with as little intervention as possible in between.  The poor Sagrantino becomes a minor player in the whole affair, bookending the European travels – which I found disappointing, because Feiring’s prose is at its most stellar when she recounts the emotional ups and downs of her vintner’s experience.

Maybe too much of Naked Wine is spent chronicling that Conrad-ian journey into the heart of natural winemaking darkness, actually.  All of the natural wine rivers traversed by Feiring lead to Jacques Néauport, who had a prolific career as consultant and is widely credited with creating the natural winemaking movement.  When Feiring finally finds her way to Néauport’s dinner table for an interview in which she hopes to take a nibble from the forbidden fruit of natural wine’s genesis, the result is a bit anti-climactic, if charming in its Zen simplicity: “There is no answer,” he tells her.  Néauport, it turns out, simply wanted to make wine without sulfur in order to reduce the impact of the hangovers he felt after copiously drinking wines that did have sulfur added.

Naked Wine – and Feiring herself – ultimately remain controversial because they take on an attitude and air about the topic of natural wine that could justifiable be called dogmatic. In treating natural wines as a sort of pinnacle, the implication is that wines not made in the same way are inferior.  Which is a bit like saying that McDonald’s shouldn’t be in business at all precisely because it’s not Old MacDonald.

The trouble with such an approach is that it ignores the legitimacy of the vast majority of wines on the market today, many of which are arguably more manufactured than grown, but whose consumers don’t really care so long as they taste good, are reasonably priced and aren’t full of medically-unsafe amounts of additional ingredients – and for $7 / bottle, is the argument against them really worth making at all?

Fine wine, however, is a different story; while certainly there must be some expensive, high-scoring fine wines that undergo terroir-masking manipulations that consumers might find questionable (if not detestable), the odds are probably stacked against most fine wines being made that way.

Naked Wine might confuse transparency in fine winemaking techniques with outright deception, or lack of viability, and it may ring the dogma bell a bit to often – and too loudly – for some, but it will almost certainly make you think differently about how wine is made, and that alone makes it worth the price of admission.






  • Thomas Pellechia

    Fine review, Joe, except that your penchant for being even-handed sometimes weakens what it is that you are trying to tell us, if you are trying to tell us something.

    The most telling example of the divide that separates dogma from the world as it really operates is of course Néauport’s, "There is no answer."

    Only true intellectuals and thinkers can understand such a message, and dogmatic people are far short of having a lock on those traits, but they are supplied with an abundance of id-like baking material with super-ego for the icing.

    • 1WineDude

      Thomas – love that cake-baking comparison!

      Also, you're reviewing my review which I think puts us firmly into Postmodern meta-review territory here. Just sayin'. :)

      What I'm trying to do here is reach out to wine peeps who don't have any skin in the natural wine game, to see if they might get something out of Alic'es new book; and I think that they will: they will get some synapses firing over a topic they probably haven't thought a lot about, which is how their fave wines (fine, budget or in-between) are actually made…

      • Thomas Pellechia


        Glad you picked up on the irony of reviewing the reviewer…

        My overarching question is: how much good has come out of the information from Fast-food Nation or Michael Pollan books? I'm hoping a lot of good is the answer, but my gut (get the pun) tells me "not so much."

        Complacency has no boundaries, no matter how of a polemic kicks it in the ass.

        • Thomas Pellechia

          …no matter how much of a polemic…


        • 1WineDude

          Thomas – I guess it depends on how it is measured. I would say that if it gets us thinking then at least se good is being done.

  • italianwinegeek

    I can't wait to read this book. It takes brave people to write such "self-polarizing" tomes… and the point is that they make you think critically about important subjects. This kind of light needs to be shed on the wine making community, because the public consumers don't know a lot about the reality behind the products they consume. People need to know what kinds of question to ask about wines (above and beyond what WS score they received…) Even with all the crazy dogma I am expecting from this book, I know it will provide a valuable service to people (like me) interested in learning a little more about where their wines come from, and it's sure to be entertaining as well!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, IWG. I should note that Alice's book does not go into gory detail on the additives in wine or into the market behind it, etc. It's definitely NOT "Fast Wine Nation" :). But it is a great read & will get you thinking. Cheers!

  • Michael

    Apropos the conversations that have been going on on several boards about that 100 point scale and tasting notes, I have to say that using descriptors like "horse sweat" as an attribute is a total turn off for me. First, it does NOT sound like a good thing. Second, how many people actually know what horse sweat smells like? Using descriptors with which almost no one can identify is not, in my view, a good way to draw a reader in.

    • 1WineDude

      Michael – in this example, I agree with you! By the way, horse sweat smells like a combo of musk and a stable, and it's kind of disgusting I think.

      I tend to get flak sometimes for using terms like "red berry" or "dark fruit" or "dried herbs" because inevitably someone says to me "c'mon, man, get specific!" But I HATE overly-specific tasting notes, and this blog isn't a WSET exam, it's to help people and 'edu-tain' them when it comes to wine, & foster discussion, etc. So me saying a wine smells of andean blackberry doesn't do too many people much good. So I'm with you – start generic and drill-down if/when it's needed.


      • Michael

        I, for one, like your tasting notes. That's why I keep reading. :-)

        Thanks for the explanation of horse sweat. I know what a stable smells like (well, sort of), and musk is both common enough but specific enough to conger an image. So that works for me, without the suggestion that I (self consciously) read into horse sweat, that to truly appreciate wine one must be of the class that rides horses and eats fresh picked huckleberries.

        (One of the things that I like about Gary V's reviews is his descriptors. Is saying something smells like gym socks declasse? Probably. But do most people have an idea what that smells like. I'm guessing yes.)

        • 1WineDude

          Michael – thanks for that! :)

          I understand totally what you mean about Gary V., and I don't find it de classe at all (but then, well… a lot of people will likely tell you that I am also de classe! :-). Cheers!

  • Olivier

    Another great post Joe,
    A great subject to stimulate your brain cells. Even though I like the idea of true natural wine, I also like technology and science for what it brings to the table (cleaner wine with less defaults, preservation extended, etc). I'm actually big in wine associated with terroir, wines that tell the story of their past, which have a cultural dimension. So if technology and science can help emphasize/enhance the reliability of the wine and its terroir/culture, I'm all for it. For my part, I start to shy away from wines that are manufactured to simply please the palate, even though a lot of consumers are fine with it. In the end, as long as they are healthy for everyone, I'd tend to say that "It's a matter of taste" and "point of view". I respect everyone's opinion on what they like best or not because there are no right and wrong answers; it's purely a personal choice and personal preference. Looking forward to reading your next piece Joe. Have a great week. Olivier

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Olivier. I am with you – science is our friend provided we do not take it too far. Cheers!

      • Olivier

        Love your recap. Agreed 100% with your simple and straightforward sentence. Sounds almost like an article's title to me ;-)

        • 1WineDude


  • @DirtyandRowdy

    "Fine wine, however, is a different story; while certainly there must be some expensive, high-scoring fine wines that undergo terroir-masking manipulations that consumers might find questionable (if not detestable), the odds are probably stacked against most fine wines being made that way. "

    The exact opposite is usually true.

    • 1WineDude

      @DirtyandRowdy – Usually? I really do not buy that, not without some evidence. I am not saying that many are not manipulated in some way, but I cannot believe most are without someone presenting a body of evidence in support of that. Of course, a lot of that depends on what you consider manipulation, and what you consider terroir!

      • @DirtyandRowdy

        watering back and acidulation are about as common as new barrels…

        • 1WineDude

          For sure watering and acidulation are common. But is that manipulation that is somehow wrong? And if not, what levels are ok? I am pretty sure there is no straightforward answer.

          • @DirtyandRowdy

            Tell most consumers that there someone dumped tartaric or citric acid into their wine or that someone added water to their wine, and they won't be happy

            • 1WineDude

              Dirty – tell people that wine is made from purchased grapes and some of them will not be happy, either.

              • @DirtyandRowdy

                For sure. Though I wonder what they think of when they see 7 different winemakers all using the same vineyard (like Hirsch)?

                I think most people are way more happy with purchased fruit from a great site than a wine that has an artificial structure and flavor.

              • 1WineDude

                On the whole, I think we do want foods and wines that are natural and wholesome and free from unecessary manipulation. Especially when that stuff sells for $80 a pop. But if there is a market for the spoofilated wines – and there is, clearly – does that make it wrong for producers to pursue it? I think the answer is No. But i also think that many of those producers are probably not transparent about it, either.

              • @DirtyandRowdy

                I'm fine with anyone doing anything (even putting pop rocks in that shizz)- But just being open about what was done to the wine (then the consumer can decide if that fits what they want to consume)-

                But is the market for spoof there because people don't know it is spoof? Or because people don't care it is spoof? I would think not knowing is more common than not caring. but what do I know? We need a gallop poll!

              • 1WineDude

                Great points about the transparency – my guess is that you would see A LOT of natural wine converts if wineries were more open about what they add or do not add to the juice; which is precisely why we are not likely to see that transparency until someone takes the ball that Alice is throwing and runs with it 40 more yards to paydirt, and writes the Fast Wine Nation…

  • Tom

    I agree that the key is labeling and transparency. Even though as an importer ingredient labeling would be a huge project (as will nutrition labeling if it's required), I like the idea of giving consumers a choice. Not everyone will care, especially for a $7 bottle, but it would make some people think about the trade-off between price and manipulation. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening soon — we can't even get labeling for GMOs in the U.S.

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Tom – great to see you here, I was literally within the last hour reading your tete-a-tete post on the natural cork / plastic stuff!

      As someone who has worked in the food industry, I can attest personally to everything you've stated in your comment. At low prices I'm willing to bet that most consumers wouldn't care, especially if the manipulations are not unhealthy. People accept *unhealthy* ingredients in food all the time – according to many sources, there are no really "safe" levels of hydrogenated oils, for example (… ) but they are in a lot of packaged foods. The point I guess is that there seem to be low enough price points at which people will put up with it.

      • Tom

        Thanks, Joe — unfortunately we all have to be experts these days even if there's information on the label for food or wine. Allowing a product to be called fat-free if it's less than 0.5 g per serving, for example, even though fat is buried in the list of ingredients. One thing labeling would definitely do, though, is make people think twice about giving inexpensive "manufactured" wine as a gift if the recipients could see what was in it :) Seriously, though, I'm not sure that TTB would stop a producer from describing how a wine was made on a label as long as they made no health claims and didn't list anything illegal. Right now, alcoholic beverages can't list a bunch of things on the labels so we might not get the full ingredients for manufactured wines unless the rules were changed.

  • Thomas Pellechia

    Along with the points system, "natural" wine is an evergreen subject for some people. Unfortunately, we wax endlessly over words that have no clear definition, and that reduces the conversation to mere opinion. The issue then is to separate the facts from the emotions, and one major fact is that viticulture and winemaking are not natural processes to begin with–so what is everyone trying to protect?

    Having said that, I prefer unadulterated food and drink, which is why I grow my own produce and used to make my own wine–long story. What bugs me is that most people, especially those who pass judgment from the comfort of their air-conditioned offices, have lost touch with nature long before they started to drink wine.

    • 1WineDude

      Thomas – case in point: last night we cooked dinner using primarily ingredients from our garden. To me, it was the best Swiss chard I had ever tasted. Totally unprocessed. But then, I am quite sure the setting had something to do with it as well! But to your point, few examples in the consumer market are that clear-cut. Natural, at the end of the day, is a terrible term and weighted heavily with so much emotional language baggage that it is just about meaningless in that context.

  • [email protected]

    Natural wine…organic wine…green wine there's no clear definition and often one bad method/ingredient is replaced with another equally damaging one. Sustainable wine farming seems more important these days..
    we've got to protect our heritage..our land :-)

    Sustainable Wine South Africa (SWSA) defines sustainable development as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.”

    I can safely say I rarely buy South African wine that does not feature the sustainable seal on the bottle.


    • 1WineDude

      Jen – a little bit SPAMmy of you, but will let that slide because I find the sustainable topic interesting and it's at least tangentially related to the topic being discussed here.

      I'm curious… does sustainable farming mean much if the grapes and juice are then manipulated significantly once they're in the winery…?

      • Thomas Pellechia

        I'll go 100% for "sustainable" farming when the farmers go 100% and give up tractors and get back to the real creation of horse sweat, or when bioD concoctions are 100% mixed by the use of muscle power rather than machine power. Sustainable farming does extend into the atmosphere–no?

        My point, Jen, is your point: "…often one bad method/ingredient is replaced with another equally damaging one."

        Black or white, black or white–no one wants to admit that gray also exists in their belief system.

      • Lindsay

        I don't know from Jen's slight spammy-ness, but I think it matters how you're going to define "sustainable." Does sustainable mean that the grapes are grown with a minimum of irrigation (better anyway), lack of pesticides and chemical additives, that the land is treated with respect, and the workers well-paid (and legal)? Or all of the above?

        Personally, I see sustainability as being much larger than just an "organic" outcome. Truly sustainable agriculture (wine or otherwise) should sustain the land and the farmer for continual production over a long period. One of the things I love about vineyards is that they do just that—how many other fields improve over time?

        As for the use of power equipment (hi Thomas below me!), I think it's unrealistic to expect that winemakers and growers not utilize modern technology to the benefit of themselves and the consumer. However, picking and sorting by hand are still the way to go, and a lot of family-owned wineries still do it that way.

        Last thing! (Sorry for the crazy-long comment, apparently I have a lot to say today…) I believe for most consumers the "natural" wine movement is mis-interpreted. They don't have a basic understanding of the winemaking process, and "natural" and "sustainable" claims have been abused in marketing enough that the trigger response for many is to assume that natural is, well, naturally better—without defining what natural means first.

        • 1WineDude

          NO worries, Lindsay – there are no length restrictions on comments here :). You touch on a (possibly THE) main sticking point in natural and sustainable, which is that there are no standard accepted definitions for those terms, which means that just about everyone is allowed to misinterpret them. Cheers!

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