Blah Blah Blah, Natural Wine, Blah Blah Blah

Vinted on July 18, 2019 binned in commentary

I have taken to avoiding use of the term “natural wine.” This has nothing to do with wines largely considered to be natural wines, some of which have beguiled me (though most too often are a disappointing combination of everything I don’t want in a wine married with a distinct lack of what I do want in a wine), and everything to do with the fact that I have to type things like “largely considered to be natural wines” every time that I bring up the topic.

This is because, despite now having garnered more mainstream publicity and hipster cachet than at any previous point in recent memory, natural wine producers, purveyors, and proponents have yet to define what in the f*ck a “natural wine” actually is.

Somehow, despite having a marketing designation that implies tanker-loads of douchebaggy superiority, natural wine has managed to get a foothold into the door to a wider fine wine audience, but its serious lack of definition is feeling like the dog caught the car and now has no idea what to do with it….

This elephant-in-the- amphorae-fermentation-vessel issue of vagueness surrounding natural wine has grown so large that it is now well past the point of absurdity. To wit: as of the time of this writing, the world’s single most expensive wine – an indigenous variety, amphorae-vinified, limited edition from Liber Pater in Graves – could seriously be argued to be a natural wine… or maybe not.

At this point, you’re no doubt wondering “dude, when the f*ck are you going to define what natural wine is?!??” And mostly all that I can do is point you to its Wikipedia entry, which itself is an exercise in frustration for the detail-oriented. The term is basically the minimal-interventionists spiritual equivalent to “reserve” wine in the USA, which is similarly vague to the point of being meaningless for consumers. There is no formal definition of what constitutes a natural wine.

I know that the natural wine crowd has its collective pants down when I read things such as this (also from the Wikipedia entry):

The inherent ambiguity of the term has been defended by Bradford Taylor, owner of Ordinaire, a wine bar in Oakland, California that exclusively serves natural wine. According to Taylor, “there’s something productive about how nebulous the term ‘natural’ is, how it opens itself up to debate every time it comes up.

No offense to Ordinaire, Taylor, or Oakland, but there’s nothing quite like redefining failure as success, is there?

There absolutely is a place in the fine wine market for the natural wine movement; its best products are authentic and superb, and its message about wine lovers caring what additives they allow in their foods (and, ultimately, their bodies) justifiably resonates with informed vine geeks. But let’s be clear: when we allow this kind of ambiguity, we are only benefiting the people who use the term, while allowing consumers who could become lovers of the movement and its wines to confusingly scratch their heads.






  • Randy Caparoso

    Joe, my friend…

    Honestly, I don’t think anyone who is strongly supportive of wines meant to express as much of a place or grapes as possible has to use the term “natural” when describing them. Nonetheless, the term is very convenient when it comes time to distinguish these wines from the vast majority of other wines that are grown and made by more conventional means and aimed towards different results, such as a brand or varietal identity, or to kowtow to critical standards to achieve higher scores and the higher prices, prestige and demand that comes with higher scores.

    Hence, I see nothing inherently wrong with being associated with a “natural movement” or even utilizing that expression. There has to be some kind of differentiation when a wine is grown and produced to express a philosophically less adulterated or manipulated identity. Why not, if it deserves it?

    It might be true that there are no set parameters for “natural.” But why should there be? Fine, artisanal style wine, after all, is as they say an art and science, and matters of art and science are arrived from multiple means and through any number of interpretations of processes. Nonetheless we all know how more natural wines are usually rendered: less invasive viticulture, typically native yeast fermentation with zero enzymes or additives, avoidance of oak adjuncts or strong barrel influences in favor of more neutral aging vessels, and so forth.

    The distinguishing factor is generally a matter of intent, or human agenda. Are you trying to produce a product with specific sensory characteristics, or do you want the wine to end up with its own “natural” sensory qualities? You can substitute a different word for “natural” when describing this approach, but what would be the difference? In the end, “natural” is still the best word when describing this process differentiating the more usual, commercial approaches to wine production. But if it makes anyone uncomfortable, I would suggest that this feeling is better left unsaid, and reserved for vintners, elements if the trade and media, and consumers who do indeed find great value and use in this distinguishing terminology. Thanks!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Randy.

      While I appreciate what you are saying here – and I *do* support the movement in general, in so far as it is promoting wines with minimal adulteration, etc. – I obviously disagree with the usefulness of the term. Now, if maybe we all called it the “minimal interventionist movement” then we’d be on to something both generic enough to encompass the lack of specific parameters involved in it, as well has having something that might theoretically be understood by wine consumers (who wouldn’t even need to know about oak adjuncts, for example, to understand that “minimal intervention” is close to a “farm to table” concept). But that is not what we have, in my view, and the result is at best confusing.

  • Tom Wark

    I agree with Joe. Besides the fact that way too many thoroughly flaw wines resulting from careless winemaking have been passed off as perfectly “natural” and therefore good, the movement itself and the name appears to be just marketing. If it were anything else of a serious vein they would find a definition for these wines so that consumers could know what they are getting and what they are drinking. Until that happens, all we have here are counter culture marketers (who too often think denigrating non “natural” winemakers for being non-natural winemakers makes them out to be rebels of some sort)

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Tom – we **knew** that you were gonna agree with this one, brother. ;-)

      Personally, I think that there are some amazanig wines that are considered to be in the “natural” camp; but I agree that there’s too much opportunistic marketing of the phrase, to the detriment of consumer understanding.

  • Tom Natan

    The problem with not having a definition is that the producers/marketers tend to define themselves more by what they aren’t rather than what they are. At least with organic and biodynamic you can point to something, even if they’re just a starting point. (Not so much with sustainability, since that’s more about attempt than achievement.) A couple of years ago I spoke with the owner of a medium-sized brewery who said that he’d kill to have a product that was unique from batch to batch and had limited availability. But I haven’t seen “natural” wine marketers playing up that aspect, which seems to be more of a built-in feature than producers who are also focusing on year-to-year consistency.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Tom, great insight.

  • Paul in Saint Augustine

    Natural wine is like pornography. We don’t know what it is, but we will know it when we drink it.

    • 1WineDude

      Ha ha, that’s perfect!

  • Greg Harrington

    What I don’t understand about this movement is that is perfectly OK (in their minds) to spray a vineyard with sulfur multiple/a dozen times throughout the year, but don’t dare put it in the wine.

    • 1WineDude

      That’s the thing, some might be okay with both and still consider themselves natural winemakers; others might eschew one, the other, or both, and… consider themselves natural winemakers!

  • David Creighton

    So, some questions:
    Is pruning grapevines natural
    are jacketed stainless steel tanks and chilling must natural?
    is leaf removal natural?
    is grafting vines natural?
    what is the natural time to harvest grapes?

    most of the winemakers who make the wines I like best, say they are trying to keep the flavors of the wines as close as possible to the way the grapes come from the vineyard. the wine should be made in the vineyard. but accomplishing this is an art that requires the use of all the knowledge gained through the ages. truly natural would be to just let whatever happens, happen. yes, some winemakers manipulate wines to make a certain style that wine critics or their customers prefer. but there is a middle point between manipulating flavors and letting surrounding buggies do whatever they want.

    • 1WineDude

      Well said.

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