On Language and Dogma

February 5, 2012

Not long ago I was in a restaurant and wine bar deciding what to drink when the waiter came by and mentioned that if we were interested in natural wines, he had a number of exciting ones he could recommend. I didn’t have to ask him what he meant by “natural wines.” I understood, and he understood that I understood. Among the wines on offer were Champagnes from Anselme Selosse and Vouette & Sorbée, Rhônes from Thierry Allemand and Dard & Ribo, Loire Valley reds from Thierry Puzelat, Beaujolais from Marcel Lapierre and Yvon Métras, and Burgundies from Philippe Pacalet and the De Moors—exactly the names you would hope and expect to see on a list specializing in natural wines. So it is a little strange to read complaints by intelligent people like Mike Steinberger and David Schildknecht complaining that the term “natural wine”—even the idea of natural wine—is illegitimate because it lacks a clear definition. If the term is so poorly defined, how come there are so many people who understand exactly what it means?

Steinberger recently wrote a blog post following up on his 2010 Slate article, “Down with the Natural Wine Movement,” whose teaser was: “The word ‘natural’ is meaningless.” The occasion for the post was a recent Eric Asimov column defending the movement against its critics. While the thesis of Asimov’s column was that some such critics ought to try actually drinking some of the wines before decrying the genre, all three pieces have a lot more to say about the nomenclature than the wines themselves. Apparently the wines don’t need defending, but the name we have to call them by does.

As it happens, Steinberger, like others who have complained that the term “natural wine” is meaningless, has said enough to reveal that he’s fully aware of its meaning. Natural wines, he writes,

are described as those that have been made with minimal involvement by the vintner. As with organic and biodynamic wines, the grapes must come from vineyards that have not been treated with synthentic chemicals; what sets natural wines apart is that the same hands-off approach is supposed to be carried into the cellar. The winemaker performs only those tasks that require midwifery, such as crushing the fruit. Apart from that, the wines are left to birth themselves. . . . This means relying on ambient yeasts—those floating around the cellar and vineyard—rather than commercial ones, eschewing high-tech toys like spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines, and neither acidifying wines nor otherwise tinkering with their composition.

Steinberger now asks, “If they are going to classify wines as ‘natural,’ aren’t they obliged to explain what it takes to earn that distinction?” Why bother? He’s done such a good job explaining it himself! His definition seems accurate, and nearly comprehensive. Elsewhere he mentions other additions such as powdered tannins and oak chips, which are also verboten.

So what’s the problem that leads to the charge of meaninglessness? Well, you see, there are certain additions like sulfur dioxide or sugar for chaptalization that are not considered per se disqualifiers from natural-wine status. “Hardliners” and “strict constructionists” might eschew them, but other naturalistes don’t. For his part, Schildknecht proposes a few other alleged borderline cases, such as fining agents.

To hear these sorts of complaints, you would think that “natural wine” is the only phrase in the English language that has ever described a fuzzy set or a gray area. A few months back, Steinberger used the words “traditionalist” and “classic” to describe the Barolos of Mauro Mascarello. These were apt descriptions because, as Steinberger wrote then, “although they have made some concessions to modernity—stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation vats, for instance—you will not find roto-fermenters or French oak barrels in their cellar.” And yet nobody complained that the word “traditionalist” was meaningless, or that it was illegitimate to call anyone a traditionalist so long as someone among them was willing to make an allowance for modern temperature-controlled fermentation vats. Had anybody done so, it probably would have provoked little more than eye-rolling, because if you compare what Mascarello does to what an unabashed modernist does and deny that there are material differences between the two, it will be understood either that you are fantastically ignorant or that you are playing cheap rhetorical games.

The current critique of “natural wine” is one of those cheap rhetorical games.

Steinberger says that “the biggest problem” with the concept of natural wine is that it’s subjective, because “there is no official classification for natural wines, no sanctioning body that decrees whether or not a wine qualifies.” If that’s the biggest problem, one can only conclude that the concept is practically problem-free. How many words in the dictionary need an official sanctioning body to decree what comes within their definition? Is there an official sanctioning body in Piedmont declaring that Mauro Mascarello’s practices are “traditionalist”?

For Schildknecht, the problem is that proponents of natural wine “routinely reject wines because of one or another thing that was done to them, while refusing to draw the logical conclusion that some subset of practices serves as a litmus test of legitimacy.” I can resolve that problem for Schildknecht by stating that I personally am not at all uncomfortable with there being some litmus tests of legitimacy. If a wine has been in a reverse-osmosis machine, it’s not a natural wine. If it contains Mega-Purple or grape concentrate, it’s not a natural wine. I doubt that anyone who accepts the reality that there is indeed such a thing as natural wine would disagree with those judgments. Sure, eventually we will exhaust the easy litmus tests and face some debatable propositions as well as some questions that can go either way, depending on the totality of the circumstances. This has been true of every school of thought, philosophy, and movement in human history, none of which have ever been denied the right to call themselves by whatever name has stuck.

Like many schools of thought, the idea of natural wine is based on a collection of principles of varying levels of importance and relatedness to one another. Together, they sketch out an ideal, and the fact that some may hew closer to that ideal than others doesn’t make the definition meaningless, any more than the definition of the color blue is rendered meaningless by the fact that some shades of blue are more or less blue than others.

The realities are these. There exists a set of wines made according to a particular ideal. There are enough similarities between them, in execution and in result, that people who find themselves enjoying one of those wines will surely enjoy a good number of the others. In addition to being enjoyable, these wines are interesting, and some people who like to drink them also like to talk about them. To talk about them, they need a vocabulary for doing so, words for describing the set and the ideal. The word that has stuck is “natural.” If some people don’t like that word, it’s incumbent upon those people to propose another word to describe the concept, and get it to stick. But it has to stick among the people who are actually interested in talking about it, not among the people who only participate in the discussion to protest that the thing being discussed doesn’t exist and isn’t worth talking about.

*     *     *     *     *

At least part of this backlash against the people who like to drink and talk about natural wines is motivated by the belief that they are being self-righteous about it. Steinberger accuses “journalists, importers, and retailers” of turning natural wine into “an ideological crusade.” Apparently, they stand accused of the high crime of believing that some wines are better than others and that it is interesting to talk about why.

I believe that myself, wholeheartedly. But I’m not on any ideological crusade for natural wines, which probably represent a minority of the wines that I drink and cellar. They are a worthy genre of wines. There are other worthy genres, too. I could not pretend to know by tasting alone whether a wine was made with native yeasts or cultured yeasts, but I have had many profound wines that I know to have been made with the latter. Indeed, if there is any criticism to be made about the natural-wine movement, it’s that it seems to have been far more successful producing tasty wines than it has producing truly profound ones.

And yet many profound wines might fit within the definition of natural but don’t choose to associate themselves with the movement. Steinberger says pretty much the same thing, but pitches it as some kind of indictment of the naturalistes: “Aubert de Villaine and Paul Draper have worked in a ‘natural’ way for decades, but they have never categorized their wines as ‘natural’ or peddled the kind of dogmatism that is standard fare with the natural crowd.” Let’s unpack that sentence, because it presents two separate issues worth dealing with.

The first is the fact that two benchmark producers of what are indisputably the greatest wines of their respective appellations don’t choose to associate their wines with the natural-wine genre despite working more-or-less naturally. I don’t know their reasons. Both are clearly sympathetic to the ethos, even if they’re not interested in or not comfortable with the label. That’s their own decision, and it should not function as an indictment of anyone who makes a different decision and wants to make their allegiance to natural processes explicit. (As it happens, Henry-Frédéric Roch, the other gentleman whose signature appears on every bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti along with Aubert de Villaine’s, makes ultra-natural Burgundies at his personal estate Domaine Prieuré-Roch which are intensely sought after everywhere natural wines are drunk or sold; and Lalou Bize-Leroy, of course, has made every effort to define her domaine as biodynamic.)

Then there is the matter of dogmatism. I can’t think of any examples of the offense myself, and Steinberger doesn’t mention any, but I’m willing to stipulate that it’s out there somewhere—though hardly in a form any more strident than some of the dogmatism that has been deployed in defense of other winemaking philosophies, such as, for example, traditionalist Barolo. (Some quotations from traditionalist Barolo makers: “A modern winemaker is like Berlusconi. He is the model. He embodies this way of looking at the market, at the economy.” —Maria-Therese Mascarello. “The damn shame was that, instead of saving the tradition of this land, they followed the way of the modernist, in other words, the way of the market. . . . Any use of the barrique is crossing the tradition, because it is not part of our tradition.” —Giuseppe Rinaldi. “There is one and only one Barolo, defend it!” —Bartolo Mascarello.)

I don’t see anything wrong with a little dogmatism when it comes to wine.

Tonight, tens of millions of Americans will be overcome with passionate intensity over a football game, and they’ll scream and howl at their friends and their spouses and their television sets over which group of hired millionaire thugs will carry a ball over more yardage than the other one. The outcome of this game will have no wider significance to anything else in our culture, but still people will yell and brawl and probably get stabbed in the head over their differing viewpoints on which team ought to win. Any dogmatism over how wine is made is completely insignificant in comparison. And yet the question of how wine is made carries a lot of cultural significance, because it is a microcosm of our larger cultural dilemma over whether we still value genuine articles over their synthetic imitations, and how far along the spectrum between the two we are willing to travel before we lose the ability to draw any distinctions between them.

Let’s get back to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Bill Nanson of Burgundy-Report has a new book out on the region that seems to aim for a more democratic outlook than the typical Burgundy tomes, which have mostly run out of novel ways to express their rapture over the most elite of the grand crus. He makes an interesting observation about DRC that I’ve never previously seen crystallized quite so well, which is that even though prices have made the domaine’s wines inaccessible to a majority of the people who might appreciate them, DRC is more relevant to Burgundy drinkers than ever due to the “trickle-down” effect of its practices’ serving as an inspiration for others to reach for the same heights. I think the natural-wine movement is starting to have a trickle-up effect in a similar fashion. Producers in historic regions have taken note of what the best producers of natural wine have managed to achieve in humbler zip codes such as the Touraine and Beaujolais, and this gives them confirmation that there are ways of making their product relevant other than hiring fancy consultants to ratchet up their Parker points. It doesn’t make a difference whether they choose to call their wines natural or something else. What matters is that natural wines represent something important and worth talking about, and that conversation can’t happen if we don’t even have any words to describe them.

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83 Responses to “On Language and Dogma”

  1. Matt Latuchie said

    Great article Keith! One can hope that the practices of the natural winemakers of the Loire and elsewhere begin to “trickle up” as you say across the wine world.

  2. Hank said

    Thanks for bringing a touch of sanity and reason into the discussion!

  3. billnanson said

    Many thanks for a few kind words Keith.
    Returning to NW’s, in-part maybe you’re part of the backlash – or at least your ‘orange wine’ which I took in jest and enjoyed.

    I don’t for a second dispute the ‘ernestness’ of some of the NW proponents, but particularly in wine-writing it is a comfortable niche is it not(?) Make bold statements and just sit back, watching the ensuing conflagration whilst gathering your Twitter-followers along the way.

    I tend to agree that scrutinising to the nth degree what exactly constitutes an NW is a pastime for those with too much time. In the context of time/generations of producers there is probably less intervention in the wine-making process today than for a very long time – though filtration is making a (some will say a much needed) return as gentler methods have become available.

    I’ve always looked on the front-runners of NW production as delivering a product not unlike organic vegetables – they are tasty but you know the shelf-life is limited before they are dead – but clearly (to me) this cannot be sustainable if the wine-type in-theory should be aged. For this reason I am circumspect about the wines of Pacalet but relatively sanguine when it comes to Ponsot – assuming I know the supply chain. Laurent Ponsot will accept no ‘labels’ himself, but is about as NW as it comes if you forgive his clear abberation in destemming ;-)

    Keep-up the great writing
    Bill

  4. Lyle Fass said

    It would be weird if trickle up took place and like Screaming Eagle, Sandrone and Perrot-Minot were the darlings of the natural wine scene. Mice piece, Keith

  5. [...] Cellar Book: Keith Levenberg jumps into the debate over language and natural wine, with a valuable, well-reasoned argument. (Well, O.K., he and I more or less agree.) Seriously, though, well worth reading. — Eric Asimov [...]

  6. jamiegoode said

    great article. No need to define natural wine.

  7. Tom Wark said

    Of course what’s really interesting about “Natural Wines” is that they are nothing near “natural”. The vines, the land they grow on and what happens to the grapes is decided un-natural in nearly every way imaginable.

    But what’s more interesting is that those who choose to call what they do “natural” winemaking choose a term that is inaccurate, particularly when they know more precise and meaningful terms exist for what these winemakers are trying to do.

    Those promoting these wines with the use of the term “Natural” are engaging in a rhetorical game with themselves and the marketplace. It’s undeniable that the application of the term “natural” to a wine implies that other wines are “un-natural”. And the promoters of “natural” wines know this.

    It’s no coincidence that when you read the defenders of these wines from the producers to the importers to the advocates you inevitably come across the terms “Industrial” wine or “commercial” wine. And these terms are always used to imply a derogatory meaning, particularly when placed up against the term “natural wine”. Yet what is striking is that these “industrial” wines are never identified. If they were to identify them it would mean dismissing the intended notion that all but “natural” wines are “industrial”.

    It is not uncommon to hear advocates of “natural” wines to make denigrating claims about all but “natural wines”. And while some, when pushed, will say that such claims should not be made, it is rare to hear the “natural” wine advocates voluntarily come out and condemn the “denigration marketing” that is part and parcel of the “natural” wine movement.”

    I can not think of another category of wines in the past 20 years that has so commonly used Denigration Marketing to define it’s own category. I cannot think of another category of wines that has so commonly denigrated other categories of wines in order to sell their own. I think it’s telling that this kind of marketing is most often observed in the world of politics.

    If “natural” wine producers tire of hearing criticism of the movement, they will likely be tired for as long as they continue to use the very term “natural” to describe what they are trying to do rather than use the many more appropriate terms and obvious and accurate terms that apply to their efforts.

    And, the claim that critics of the semantics of the “natural” wine movement are actually critics of the wines themselves will get nowhere with this lament. It simply isn’t true. Many of us who take exception to the way “natural” wines are marketed and the unethical way in which “natural” advocates promote these wines also find the wines very interesting and often tasty.

    It’s not the wine that is the problem. It’s the lack of ethics that accompany the promotion of the category and the apologists for that unethical approach to their marketing and promotion.

    • Hank said

      Tom, just come out and say it : “get off my lawn, you damn kids!”

      • Lyle said

        It seems like such a generational thing. natural wines are like TV in the 50′s, social media now, change is something people cannot deal with.

      • Tom Wark said

        If I had a lawn, I might say such a thing. But, if we consider Marketing and PR to be MY lawn, then I guess what I’m saying is stop digging up my lawn so yours will look better by comparison.

    • Hank said

      Tom, if I say “my wine is good”, does it mean I am also saying all other wine is bad? Hardly. It’s just my opinion. And what does good mean anyway? If someone was to say “my wine is natural” that would be an opinion too, in light of the lack of a clear definition of “natural”. It certainly does not insinuate that other wines are not “natural”.
      This is my question: why are so many getting so bent out of shape over a word that has, as you say, no real meaning?

      You can say it doesn’t mean anything tangible, but to jump from there to “denigration”? What other, hidden issues are at play here?

      • Tom Wark said

        Hank, do a search on the articles written by natural wine proponents. In some cases they insinuate that non-natural wines are better because they are more natural. In other case they come right out and say non-natural wines are bad for you. In other cases they describe all non-natural wines as “industrial”.

        The fact of the matter is, these “natural” wines are no where near a “Natural” thing. What’s worse is that those promoting “natural” wines KNOW they aren’t “natural” objects.

    • You write, “It’s undeniable that the application of the term ‘natural’ to a wine implies that other wines are ‘un-natural.’”

      Undeniable? I deny it. In fact, in several years of following Internet arguments about the natural-wine movement, I never even saw this argument until recently, and I thought it so self-evidently silly that it still surprises me every time I see it recycled as if it actually made any sense.

      Let’s try applying your logic to some other terms in the popular lexicon. . . . “Sport-utility vehicle”: unacceptable because it implies that other vehicles have no utility for sporting. “Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich”: unacceptable because it implies that other sandwiches aren’t spicy, and may not even be made with chicken. “Fun for the whole family!”: unacceptable because it implies that other board games are not fun, or are fun for only part of the family.

      Gosh, we don’t even have to be cute. Consider the specific example discussed in my piece, traditional and modern Barolo. Are you against a producer calling his wines traditional because it implies that other producers are disrespectful of tradition? Are you against a producer calling his wines modern because it implies that other wines are old-fashioned and out-of-step with the times? The simple fact is that it’s a common practice to give something a name based on the virtues it aspires to, and this has never—not in any other context that I am aware of—been construed by anyone as a “denigration” of other products that may or may not aspire to the same virtues. Why are natural winemakers being held to a standard that has never been applied to any other school of winemaking, or to any other human being for that matter?

      • Keith, you’re not choosing the correct terms. You’re using words that aren’t by definition categorical AND positive or negative in connotation. Try “non-racist” or “child-safe.”

        The word natural isn’t denigrating. It’s statements from pro-natural camp folks like “sure, go ahead and poison yourself by drinking that industrial stuff filled with additives and loaded with sulfur and heavy metals” that are denigrating.

      • Tom Wark said

        Keith:

        One of the reasons these winemakers are being held to a standard you may not like is because they’ve chosen a word to describe their wines that is completely without merit and has no relationship to what they are producing. Their is nothing natural about putting a vine in the ground where it wasn’t before. Nothing natural about plowing the ground around it. Nothing natural about training he vine. Nothing natural about pruning the vine. Nothing natural about pulling the fruit off the vine. Nothing natural about transporting the fruit to a processing facility. Nothing natural about determining the fermentation time. Nothing natural about putting the wine in a bottle. Nothing natural about stopping the wine with bark.

        You can’t aspire to make something that is natural. Think about it.

        If these wines are “natural”, so is every other wine from Gallo Hearty Burgundy to Screaming Eagle to Grange to Santa Margharita Pinot Grigio.

        If you don’t think the term Natural is meant to define these wines against all others, then just read how advocates of these wines speak about their peers. I can point you to advocates of “natural” wines that claim “they won’t make you sick like others. Some claim that there are natural wines and industrial wines and that’s all. Others claim that natural winemakers are the real artisans and stop at that. Others claim all but natural wines are inauthentic. Others claim all but natural wines are compromised by the “bottom line”.

        So, Keith, just why exactly are wines that are made with minimal intervention called “Natural”? No one in their right mind could possibly claim that any wine produced by man could be “natural”. That’s crazy talk…UNLESS you want to make up a new meaning for the word “natural”…..Which is exaclty what’s happening here.

        I have to say it again, unless “natural” winemakers can learn to market their wines the way everyone else in the industry does…by referring to the characteristics, taste and benefits or production methods of the products…rather than implying that all but theirs are somehow unauthentic, then the natural wine movement will continue to have to answer for their unethical acceptance of this kind of denigration marketing.

      • Alder—if you’re acknowledging that the term itself isn’t denigrating, then I don’t think there is any disagreement whatsoever between us.

        I wouldn’t defend statements like the one you quoted (which, to be sure, is not something I’ve actually heard anyone express—I’m assuming it’s not actually a quote from anyone). But I don’t think it’s fair to indict an entire school of thought on the basis of a handful of jerks who make intemperate remarks. It is like taking pictures of a few signs at a 10,000 person rally and using it to tar everyone there. Wouldn’t it be more productive to engage the most reasoned positions on each side rather than searching for the most outrageous to knock out an easy target?

    • paddymc1 said

      I think that those calling their wines ‘natural’ should be forbidden to use grafted vines. grafting is one of the most unnatural aspects of modern winemaking.at least some SO2 occurs naturally.

  8. Excellent post. I cant for the life of me understand why writers like Steinberger and Wark etc keep focusing on side issues like the definition of the word ‘natural’, and the ‘strident’ marketing tactics of a few charismatic personalities, while ignoring the interesting and positive aspects of natural wine, for example the concept of terroir, appropriate levels of interventions, abuse of chemicals, etc, etc. I think debate on these topics would be interesting and beneficial to the entire wine world, including consumers, producers, writers. I wish they’d just get over it and move on. When a critical mass of people start using a word with a new or different nuance, there’s not really much anyone can do about it. And I don’t see any plausable alternatives to ‘natural’ out there!

    • Tom Wark said

      Fabio,

      I like “Minimalist Wine”. It’s more accurate and it doesn’t have the implications of “natural”, which of course these wines we are talking about are far from.

      That said, the issue of “terroir”, intervention chemicals, etc., etc. have been discussed for many, many years and in a variety of venues.

      I understand why proponents and producers of “natural” wine would like to see the criticism of the word and the marketing tactics go away. It’s not pretty.

      Tom…

      • Tom,
        But it’s pointless exercise! I in fact agree with some of the things you say!, eg the fact that ‘natural’ implies that other wines are somehow ‘un-natural’; I think anyone who understands English can see the connotations there. I also agree that planting vines in rows, pruning them, etc is not natural. But so what, if we’re both right? And so what if ‘minimalist’ is more accurate and free of implications? The indisputable fact of the matter is that a critical mass of people are using the word ‘natural’, with a new nuance or meaning (which is as yet not precisely defined). Is attempting to stop the word ‘natural’ being adopted and used, not a bit like King Canute trying to stop the tide coming in? I think the mechanism(s) by which words are adopted and their meanings modified in English is beyond the control of any one individual – no matter how right he or she may be.

        I don’t believe that there’s a Great Divide between natural wines and industrial wines. I think it’s much more useful and realistic just to eliminate the industrial wines from the discussion entirely, and consider only ‘fine wines’ or ‘quality wines’, and there we can see a scale or range or ‘naturalness’, with natural taliban purists at one extreme and high-interventionist chemical and gadget users at the other.

        Fabio

      • Alfonso said

        Tom -

        No doubt there would be some folks on the planet who would deem the term “minimalist” to be denigrating?

        Bucky Fuller – I once stood before him when he uttered these words to me, “Anything that Nature lets you do is natural.” At the time I thought it was a brilliant statement. I still do.

  9. Hey, I just got a bottle of minimalist wine. Guess what are on the ingredients? org grapes, nat yeast, (?) nutrients, ml bacteria, tannins, fining agents: bentonite, tannins, oak, CaCO3, SO2,under 100 ppm.

    Tom, that is not minimal intervention. The fact is we all know what it means at this point. Get over the name. Anything will be corruptible. So if something isn’t a minimal interventionist wine it’s a maximum intervention wine? That would be the next fight. The world has become so polarized. Resist! There is a whole spectrum between left and right.

  10. Tom Wark said

    Alice, whether a bottle is made in the Minimalist style is neither here nor there, just as whether a wine is made in the “natural” style is neither here nor there. There is no set idea of what these things might be. However, there is no question that “minimalist” is a far more accurate description of what the “natural” wine movement wants to promote and pursue. Yet as we know, this much more accurate description of what they are pursuing won’t be used because it won’t bring the same semantic benefits as “natural” brings, despite the fact that “natural” in no way describes what the movement is pursuing.

    And yes, anything is corruptible, but it is particularly so when there is no definition of what is being described. Consider the notion of “old vine”. I’ve seen wines that are made from vines that are 25 years old called “old vine”.

    The point is that calling the wines from the winemakers “Natural” is corrupting from the get go. When you add to this the fact that so many proponents are happy to add to the corruption by making nebulous but unethical claims about non-”natural” wines that are not called out by others in the movement and you have a real problem.

    • Nick said

      I think minimalist wine is a terrible term for the wines I love. Natural wines to me are exuberant, alive, exciting, and mysterious. None of those words are evoked by the word minimalist.

      I don’t really understand, from a PR perspective, what you are advocating. When you think of the term natural in a branding sense, it’s taken 30 years for it to get as far as it did. There a few lone winemakers working super-artisanally for a long time, the movement has spread and grown slowly, and now that it’s finally beginning to catch on and get some mainstream media attention, you want us to change the term? This is farcical.

      The word describes the way the wines taste, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s even spreading into other languages now with vinos naturales in Spain and Vinnatur in Italy. How would you even orchestrate all these disparate organizations changing their names at the same time?

      Yeah the term is vague, and almost every time I say it to someone who’s never had to hear it, I have to explain what it means. But wow, there we are having a conversation about how wine is made and what makes it taste the way it does. That’s a good thing! This term wasn’t cooked up in a marketing lab, tested with focus groups for maximum mass-appeal. And neither are the wines.

      • Tom Wark said

        Nick,
        These wines taste no more “natural” than many 1000s of other wines that are being made now, but are not trying to grant themselves more than they are by using the term “natural”

        This idea that “natural” winemakers somehow discovered terroir, or minimalism or less intervention is ludicrous. Winemakers across the globe have been talking about and doing this for decades.

        “Natural” is the wrong word to describe the wines for a whole host of reasons:

        1. These wines and no wines are close to being anything like “natural”

        2. The word is used not to describe what is being made and drunk but to describe what they hope they are not.

        3. The way the words is being used clearly suggests that those outside the “Movement” are making unNatural wines.

        Now, keep in mind no one is trying to take away your enjoyment of these wines. Nor am I saying they are not enjoyable. They are. But the term naturally leads those who use it to describe these wines to denigrate all other wines.

        Have you noticed how so many lovers of natural wines compare them to “industrial” wines? Yet have you noticed that the term “industrial” is never defined? There’s a reason for that.

        When advocates of these wines and the producers begin to admonish those in their ranks that play the denigration marketing game rather than leave it unnoticed or act as apologists for this kind of unethical practice, I’ll take notice. But until they do, everyone is tainted by those who are using semantics toward fraudulent purposes.

      • Nick said

        Tom, you have repeated this arguments many times on many different threads. And you didn’t respond to anything I said about PR strategy.

        I also dispute the notion that others don’t denigrate natural wines. Time and time again we here that natural wines are unstable, fault-filled, and disgusting. They often lump all natural wines together in one big category when they do it. How is this any different than trashing an industrial wine?

        I can tell you exactly what an industrial wine is. It’s a wine made with a certain amount technology. Just like natural it is a continuum. On the extreme side you have massive operations like Yellowtail, involving machines, additives, and anything else modern they can find to improve the product. Then on the other you have a winery that might even be small, but sterile filters, adds commercial yeast, and sends their wine off to a spinning cone to take out some alcohol. I myself probably wouldn’t refer to the second one as industrial, but there are industrial aspects to the way they make their wine. I would probably go with the term conventional instead.

        I don’t think there are many in the wine world that are upset if you call yellowtail industrial. That’s exactly what its is, a product of industry. And there’s nothing wrong with drinking that stuff. But when a wine is marketed as high-end, something made by a family, and a “natural” product, when their practices aren’t all that different from yellowtail, I don’t think that’s fair. They should have to disclose how their product is made.

        Natural does not mean terroir or earth. Sometimes natural wines don’t even show that much terroir, sometimes it’s a simple carbonically macerated vin de soif. Natural to me is a very certain taste, and when I taste it I know it. It’s usually lighter than other wines in its category. There’s a certain roughness there, the wine isn’t perfect, it has quirky edges on its sides that distinguish it in subtle ways. There’s also a purity to the fruit quality that reminds me of a freshly picked amazing piece of fruit. And there’s no taste of oak in there! That’s how I define natural wines, it took me a paragraph to do it, and it’s still super tenuous and vague. Just the way I like it.

      • Tom Wark said

        Nick, from a PR perspective, I haven’t been asking anyone to do much of anything. But now that you ask…

        The honest winemakers and advocates of these wines ought to have the cajones to admit that by calling their wines “Natural” they are committing a fraud upon the buying public.

        Second, one would hope that these producers and advocates can see the irony in co-opting a term that in no way describes what hey are doing or making, then admitting their concern that other “industrial” wineries will co-op the very same phrase for wines not made in a way the original co-opters make their wines.

        One day, a smart, savvy, honest winemaker who produces wine in the minimalist, anti-intervention style will announce that he or she will not call his wines “Natural” because it is deceptive, because it perpetuates a fraud upon the buying public and because no wine is natural. He’ll draw attention to his wines and his work and his honesty. Given my own limited, but well exercised PR skills I could probably gain this brave person a great deal of attention.

        There is a reluctance in the “Natural Wine ” community to push for a definition or codification of what they are doing. I understand that. It allows them to benefit from the positive connotations of the phrase without having to live up to any standards and still gain the benefit of suggesting their wines are better, healthier and “more natural”.

        However, the trend across the product marketing world is to finally reign in those who use the term “Natural” on their products in the indiscriminate fashion that many, including winemakers, have done. It’s usually agreed that in order to call something “Natural”, the product must use no synthetic ingredients, whether the product is a consumable or a cleaning product.

        This too would probably not sit well with the Natural Wine Movement as it would demonstrate that those who are regularly denigrated for using the very undefined “industrial” techniques are in fact only using natural, non-synthetic products in their wine, thereby removing from those who have originally co-opted the “natural” phrase the primary benefit they gain from unjustifiably calling their wines something they are not.

        Finally, Nick. If you like I can point you to a number of these winemakers and their advocates that admit that the risk in using some of the minimalist techniques of “natural” winemaking can in fact lead to wines that are “unstable, fault-filled, and disgusting”. This doesn’t make all these wines unstable, fault-filled and disgusting. But it doesn’t make them natural, either.

        The problem, of course, in the end, is that there is no way to call one category of wines “Natural” without implying that all those outside the category are not.

        Think of it this way. If I hold a bottle of wine in my hand and declare, “This is a ‘natural wine’” and hold another bottle of wine in my other hand that does not conform to the requirements that led the other wine to be called “natural”, what is the implication? If you don’t admit that common sense and the rules of English demand we call it “unnatural” then you simply aren’t being honest.

        Then the question becomes, are you comfortable calling all but a tiny percentage of winemakers “unnatural”?

  11. Nicely done.

    I’ve stopped responding to the industry insiders and stopped participating in the debates.

    The tipping point has already been reached. Look at the Rougetomatenyc wine menu. Shop at Chambers Street Wines. Sip by the glass at Anfora or 10 Bells or Terroir.

    Or any of thousands of restaurants or bars in the most urban of places, NYC. Gee even the Odeon has some great natural Trousseau from the Jura.

    Point…sorry…I spend my time talking to the mass market and getting them to understand that this is a filter for a new approach and often with great results to wondrous wines.

    thanks

  12. Jesse said

    “If the term is so poorly defined, how come there are so many people who understand exactly what it means?” I loved this. It’s precisely how I feel: Natural Wine is simply the name it wound up with. Sure perhaps using “natural” is a blanket, and often vague, definition but in essence it’s a style of wine its proponents identify by producer and by character––not by genre. Call it what you want, it’s still going to be sought for the producers we currently call natural, not the term itself. Those producers have identified themselves as natural not by marketing, but rather by the qualities within the product itself. I discovered them in the glass, not the magazine ads.

  13. Keith,

    Nice piece. Two things to add. First, that many of us bristle when confronted by people (winemakers, retailers, advocates) of certain wines who are so categorical in their dismissal, and as Tom has noted above, sometimes denigration of a whole swath (i.e. the majority) of wines, while at the same time not being able to say in the same absolute terms what condemns all these other wines to their fate as “industrial poison.”

    The other thing, of course is the word natural, which by its selection presumes that anything which doesn’t fall into that category (by whomever’s judgment) is un-natural. While I adore many natural wines, you can count me among the folks that think its a seriously problematic term to describe what winemakers are trying to do.

    This whole discussion has built to a fever pitch, and both sides need to live and let live, but also realize that suggesting that your neighbors produce sewage that is harmful to people’s health is NOT good for anyone in the industry.

  14. Andrew Hall said

    I do find it disingenuous how the proponents of the term ‘natural wine’ act as if it is not semiotic trickery and using the classic trope of implying unsavory qualities to other products. To do so completely ignores the long, long tradition of using terms like ‘natural’ in marketing for exactly that purpose. And the term is rapidly becoming what is known as a ‘dog whistle’ which is beautifully illustrated by the opening anecdote.

    • “Dog whistle” isn’t the right term here, as that connotes some kind of code word understandable to one faction but not another. But as the comments show, the meaning of this particular term is understood by all parties to the debate, whether they approve of it or not.

  15. Bruce G. said

    Keith:

    Beautifully presented.
    I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that some find the term “natural wine” to be simultaneously undefined AND exclusionary.

    The more I see of the rhetoric thrown about in this argument the more I come to believe that Kiedis (and before him Armstrong) got it right: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know….”

  16. How many times are we all going to say the same things, recount the same arguments before throwing up? It doesn’t make a difference what you call it. Stop thinking marketing. It’s in the taste, and the philosophy and frankly, I really don’t care if any one else drinks this stuff or what the hell they call it. But this is the most inane argument in my decades on the planet. This is only an issue now because THESE wines are popular. As long as they were in some geek closet, no one would care. This is hitting the nerve and would someone please address the sensitivity instead of the reaction?

    • Bruce G. said

      Alice:

      Is addressing the sensitivity to the term and the trend any less a waste of time?

      Some people seem hell-bent on complaining about the matter.
      Tant pis.
      Life will go on, and these kinds of wines will be available regardless.

    • Alice,

      While I appreciate and respect your passionate interest in these wines, I believe your suggestion that this discussion arises from some “sensitivity” in the industry, or some hidden nerve. What you seem to be saying is that people feel threatened by natural wines. I can’t speak for winemakers, since I’m not one, but I am certainly not “sensitive” about these wines. I and most of the other industry observers/writers/commentators/spectators/muckrakers are interested in this for the same reason we’re interested in things like the cork vs. screwcap debate.

  17. Wes Barton said

    Again, most of the voices questioning what the natural wine movement is about in those contentious discussion threads were people who were attracted to the topic because those are the types of wine they like. The problem was a few of the loudest proponents of the movement were obnoxiously dogmatic, speaking in hyperbole, drawing strict and arbitrary blank-and-white definitions, including their personal preferences in their definition, etc. When someone’s definition clearly discludes Paul Draper, when someone says California can’t produce natural wine, when someone else implies no natural wines are currently being made (or ever were) in California, why shouldn’t the questions come?

    Well, the questions did come. Over time the extremist/absolutist voices moderated because, well, maybe they realized how untenable their positions were, and the majority of s with questions have been placated. The producers themselves were never the problem to begin with.

  18. Adam Lee/Siduri & Novy Wines said

    While I think many people are able to clearly recognize certain wines as being natural…other wines are not so clearly identified. In that way, it seems to me to be analagous to fish. I tell my children to identify fish in a picture and they will point at all sorts of fishes….and they will also point to dolphins and whales. Why? Because they resemble fish. And iff you wanted catch dolphins and whales (albeit illegally) you would go “fishing for them.” And yet they are mammals, not fish. And so I have to explain to my kids how mammals are defined and how fish are defined and even though dolphins and whales appear to be fish in many ways, they are not.

    The bigger question, and one Alice raises, is whether or not it makes any difference at all if you can define the difference between those wines that are considered “natural” and those that are not. And I think it does….and she shows us why it does. When folks failed to define “minimalist wine” it gave people the freedom to add, “org grapes, nat yeast, (?) nutrients, ml bacteria, tannins, fining agents: bentonite, tannins, oak, CaCO3, SO2,under 100 ppm” to a wine and still call it minimalist. Without definition some people will market whatever they can under a category (assuming that category is popular) simply to make $$. Without definition, the same thing will, I am afraid, happen to “natural wines.”

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines (some of which may be “natural”)

    • Tom Wark said

      Adam,

      A definition would be a good start, but it doesn’t solve any of the myriad problems with this issue.

      A key problem is that there is nothing about winemaking in the “Natural” method that is anywhere near being natural. In fact, all winemaking is unnatural…in every way.

      This fact can lead to only once conclusion. Using the term “Natural” to describe any form of winemaking is pure marketing and PR. Nothing more.

      An honest approach would lead to its producers and proponents to insist their philosophy and efforts be called “Minimalist” or “Low Intervention”.

      • Adam Lee/Siduri & Novy Wines said

        Tom,

        I, too, am not a fan of the term “natural wines.” However, I don’t find it being often used by producers themselves, but, rather, quite often being used by writers and salespeople. In fact, I am pretty sure I’ve said something about our own wines along the lines of, “we make the wines as possible” — a throwaway line in a PR piece that I now have to be careful about using. And I think that some people have attempted to come up with other names (give Alice her due, she entitled an entire book, “Naked Wines”). Lastly, I’d point out that this certainly isn’t the only poorly named wine term (“method ancienne” comes to mind).

        I still think the greatest problem will ultimately be in the lack of definition of the term. Witness Jeremy’s comments below, where he talks about the potential disconnect between farming and the term. Or look at what has happened with other undefined wine terms (such as “Old Vines” in California). Marketers take it over and it becomes meaningless.

        Adam Lee
        Siduri Wines

  19. “…how come there are so many people who know exactly what it means?” Perhaps it is because all those people are equally delusional and gullible. Y’all have “just these” producers in your little natural club. By all means, let’s not define it, so long as we all understand who belongs and who doesn’t. Someday you kids are going to have to graduate from high school.

  20. Leif Sundstrom said

    *Sigh*

  21. Jeremy Seysses said

    Keith,
    A nice, level headed presentation, far from strident. I must admit that my interest in the semantics is most definitely limited as I, like you, feel I understand what is meant by the term. Now for a while, I assumed, like Mike Steinberger in his pieced together definition, like Eric Asimov in his article, and like any number of people that:
    “As with organic and biodynamic wines, the grapes must come from vineyards that have not been treated with synthentic chemicals”.
    That is, as it happens, total BULLSHIT (and not biodynamic BS, either). Go to any natural wine bar in Paris and ask them which of their producers are organic and which are not and you will see what you get. To take just a few names from your list, Pacalet is most definitely not organic (assuming we are talking Philippe Pacalet) and Thierry Allemand only abandoned herbicides in his Chaillot a few years ago, many years after he promoted a “sans soufre” cuvée that I imagined, like many others, was organic.
    It seems that many people assume that bushy hair and/or bushy beard means organic/biodynamic.

    As someone who has been practicing organic and biodynamic farming for 10+ years, as a trial initially, and finally converting the entire domaine, I do find the confusion mildly irritating.

    It is all the more irritating when you go to a natural wine bar in Paris, ask if a particular natural wine is also farmed organically and the bar owner tells you that (paraphrasing) “it is a clever person who can tell the difference between an organic grape and a non organic one; it is what happens in the winery that counts”. Granted, the wine in question was so oxidized and riddled with Brett that he made a convincing case and every “movement” has its assholes.

    This brings me to my second point. I quite understand the violent divide that Barolo saw between traditionalists and modernists and agree with your comparison. However, in my limited experience, I did not see a host of bars open (in Paris at the very least) serving one side or the other and effectively preaching. How much the producers are at fault with this is arguable and variable, but I know enough of my colleagues who are aggressively dismissive of their colleagues work or winemaking choices that I know that they share some of the blame.

    My problem with these bars is that I have, on a number of occasions, been served ghastly, horrible, flawed wines. Wine, in my narrow minded view, should taste like Wine, not like Lambic or Gueuze or Cider, and Macon should not taste like Vin Jaune. When I have gently disagreed with the value of such wines in terms of terroir reflection, I was told that my taste had been distorted by modernism and that I did not understand “true” wine. Now perhaps I should have introduced myself as a winemaker and would have gotten a less dismissive response.

    But this brings me to my main objection: in any other context, if you are served a fundamentally flawed wine in a restaurant, you can send it back. In a Natural Wine Bar, someone will, at best, attempt to “explain” it to you. That is what Alice kindly offered to do about a wine I had found flawed and mentioned on Twitter. I may have an overly high opinion of myself, but I don’t think I need anyone to explain an oxidized Macon or Puligny to me.

    I do think it could make for an interesting outlet to the massive amounts of oxidized white Burgundy of the past decade and a half. Serve them in natural wine bars and “explain” them to customers or yell at them, fulfilling another terrific parisian restaurant service stereotype.

    There are plenty of natural wine producers I do admire and drink regularly. It pains me on their behalf how much faulty wine gets associated with what could otherwise be a terrific movement. I also think that organic certification should be a pre-requisite. What message are you sending if you condone the use of herbicides but condemn the use of SO2? Seems very cynical.

    • Perhaps those rude and imperious Parisian waiters are just reflecting the local terroir ;)

      It’s possible that we might benefit over here from the selection process of importers like Louis/Dressner and Jenny & Francois. I can’t say the number of oxidized, refermented, or otherwise chemically faulty natural wines I’ve had over here has been any more excessive than, say, the incidence of corked bottles. But it is infuriating for sure when an obviously flawed bottle is not recognized as such and excuses are made for it. I think most retailers here would take the bottle back without making excuses.

    • Jose Luiz said

      Great and definitive piece, J. Seysses.

  22. [...] Levenberg writes a lengthy critique of Mike Steinberger’s recent criticism of the natural wine movement. And [...]

  23. Adam Lee/Siduri & Novy Wines said

    I also would like to make an offer for all….

    I’ve made 4 different wines from the Sierra Mar Vineyard (all farmed SIP Certified). All of them have had SO2 added.

    One of them had watered added (and was bled back accordingly) and also had tartaric acid added as juice. Fermentation was uninnoculated.

    One of them had a small tartaric acid addition as juice but no water, fermentation was uninnoculated.

    One of them has a small tartaric acid addition and had an addition of RB2 yeast.

    One of them had no additions whatsoever.

    I invite you all to come over and taste them all blind, put them in some order on the “continuum of naturalness” (a term borrowed from Jamie Goode) and identify the one that had no additions whatsoever. Perhaps that will help to see if the difference is truly in the taste of the wine (as mentioned by a few folks above).

    Drop me an email at adam@siduri.com and we can arrange a time!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  24. Tobias Øno said

    A really good post.

    I can’t help for wishing that the reasonable objectors could find some peace by just invisibly inserting the understood “[more] natural wines”.

  25. Gary Ong said

    Keith – really enjoyed your article and like many others I feel you have nailed the key point: that many of us have a reasonably good understanding of the term “natural” and who the key proponents of the movement represent (as opposed to the random strawmen “denigrators” thrown up to discredit the entire idea).

    Tom – I apologize if this is blunt but your multiple comments appear to merely recycle tired semantics that we have all heard too many times. There is an unbelievable amount of tedious intellectual masturbation going on with this subject which bores most people (wine lovers included) to tears. The term is out there, whether we all like it or not – let’s get on with it.

  26. Keith,
    Thanks for this great post. You have really laid out well the dynamics of the natural wine movement as well as the problematic philosophies of those that find fault with natural wines, or the definitiions of such…I especially like this:

    “For Schildknecht, the problem is that proponents of natural wine “routinely reject wines because of one or another thing that was done to them, while refusing to draw the logical conclusion that some subset of practices serves as a litmus test of legitimacy.” I can resolve that problem for Schildknecht by stating that I personally am not at all uncomfortable with there being some litmus tests of legitimacy. If a wine has been in a reverse-osmosis machine, it’s not a natural wine. If it contains Mega-Purple or grape concentrate, it’s not a natural wine. I doubt that anyone who accepts the reality that there is indeed such a thing as natural wine would disagree with those judgments. Sure, eventually we will exhaust the easy litmus tests and face some debatable propositions as well as some questions that can go either way, depending on the totality of the circumstances. This has been true of every school of thought, philosophy, and movement in human history, none of which have ever been denied the right to call themselves by whatever name has stuck.

    Like many schools of thought, the idea of natural wine is based on a collection of principles of varying levels of importance and relatedness to one another. Together, they sketch out an ideal…”

    Nothing added, nothing taken away…that is my ideal.

    Anna Marie dos Remedios
    Idle Hour Winery (wines all produced “natural”, “minimalist” or whatever you want to call it)

  27. Interesting article, Keith, but alas I don’t really agree.

    The use of the term ‘natural’ is clearly a bit of spin to appeal to a certain market who buy products because the correct buzzwords are attached not because the quality of the product. Much the same goes for the loathsome word ‘sustainable’. I want to buy good wine and the word ‘natural’ contains no information about quality at all.

    Indeed, I’m in total agreement with Jeremy ‘I tell it like it is’ Seysses here in that the vast majority of wines I’ve had that positively identify themselves as being natural have not been good. The largest batch of natural wines I tried in one tasting was at a South African Chenin Blanc event. The array of flaws and faults they showed was quite scandalous – it could have been an English wine tasting. When I raised this point with the organiser the supercilious git tried to explain how I didn’t understand the wines and my palate was not aligned with natural wines. The red mist almost descended, I can tell you, but I limited myself to saying my palate was aligned with quality wines and none of those he presented showed any of that. As such, I think the oft-repeated phrase that natural winemakers are merely trying to make the best quality wine they can is simply not true.

    I also have a bit of a problem that in loudly identifying themselves as THE natural winemakers, no matter how that is defined, these people are stealing and tarnishing the good names of a lot of skilled, pragmatic winemakers from the last few decades. Organic and biodynamic winemakers have a more strongly codified set of rules they must follow, indeed they must be certified to call themselves so, and my general experience is that people who follow these rules do make good wine. I don’t think these people are any more or less natural, it is just that they follow agreed-upon rules that are designed to look after the health of their wines and vineyards, rather than just adopting a moniker and then doing whatever fast and loose things they like with their wines. I know Jeremy follows very strict rules in his vineyards and is an extremely minimal-interventionist winemaker yet he doesn’t claim any particular allegiances for his wines, beyond saying he is trying to make the best wine he can. Consequently, he gets the door slammed in his face by a lot of dogma-obsessed buyers and pundits who just want to hear the right catch-phrases and not bother seeing if the wines are brilliant or fault-ridden.

    Finally there is a general point about sticking labels on one’s produce. It often strikes me that if something cannot be sold on it’s own merits it’ll claim as many popular associations as it can in order to gain a little more market leverage. When I speak to Lafon fans they rarely say, “Oh yes, I like him because he’s biodynamic”, indeed not many of my chums who drink his stuff have known this about him until I’ve blabbed. Mention Beaujolais to a certain type of wine fan and they’ll say “Oh yes, all those natural wines come from there.” My views of Beaujolais are perhaps uncharitable, but I think it would be fair to say they don’t attract very high prices for a long established, famous wine region. Indeed, they’ve not been shy of using Harrier Jump Jet-type marketing gimmicks in the past to try and help shift more bottles of the stuff. I don’t think it is particularly surprising, or speaks positively of the movement, that most of its vocal followers come from regions where they need all the help they can get to sell wine. As I said, the biggest natural wine event I’ve been to was a South African Chenin tasting – that stuff doesn’t leap off the shelf. Beaujolais doesn’t either – perhaps Lapeirre does but he did before he learnt the word ‘natural’. The same goes for wines that loudly proclaim to be organic, biodynamic, free-range macrobiotic, leftist-shite-flavour: the more help they need selling the more obvious their associations will be in order to get a bit of extra lustre for their products. Those of us who want to buy good wine don’t really care about the philosophical leanings of the vigneron and they’ve got no need to tell us, it’s enough that their product is high-quality. That’s what sells it.

    Hmmm… I may put more bodily function jokes in this comment and use it for a blog post – I have things to say about natural wine and I may as well say some of them on my personal spume of drivel. I’ll link back to your article, Keith, natch! People can read both sides as they should be able to.

  28. Great piece, Keith, you really nailed it.

  29. Vanyali said

    Hi Keith! Good blog you have here.

    Sounds like this debate about “natural” wines irritates people in about the same way as listening to someone brag about their Prius — it’s not the car that’s the problem, it’s the cloud of “smug” that surrounds it (thank you, South Park). Doesn’t make the car a bad car, or natural wine any less tasty. But the feeling surrounding the product can easily overshadow the merits of the product itself to dominate one’s experience of it, for good or bad. Sound about right?

    I hope to get back to the states to say hi to everyone sometime this year. Maybe I can persuade you to give me a mini crash-course on Wines According to Keith?

  30. Wes Barton said

    “Nothing added, nothing taken away” is either oxymoronic or a cop out for bad or indifferent winemaking. If you don’t act to protect a wine, you risk flaws that take away from it. How can overwhelming brett or VA be more acceptable than a too-much-new-oak flaw? That’s just silly.

    And even talking about mega-purple in this discussion is silly. Is there a well-regarded wine of any style containing mega-purple? I doubt it. That’s a straw man. It is outright claiming that non-”natural” wines are largely industrial wines. Nobody here is claiming industrial wines are quality wines. At best they’re gimmicky and superficial.

    To me, focusing on being “natural” or “organic” or whatever is missing the point. If you’re focusing on truly making the best wine possible, you just will be as organic and natural as possible. That just happens to be how the best wines are made. But, there’s a degree of give and take. Using a minimal necessary application of a low impact non-organic spray as a last resort preventative measure about once a decade isn’t going to do significant harm – it can rescue a vintage and prevent a long-term problem. It might void/prevent organic certification, but it’s the best practice. Mindless routine dousing of a vineyard with copper sulphate does cause harm and will negatively affect wine quality (yet many “natural” wine producers do this).

    Some producers, such as Paul Draper, believe that simply killing off “spoilage” organisms in the must diminishes quality and complexity. By extensive trials, determined by taste, Paul and his team determined the best practice for managing the must is to keep the sulphite level relatively low, but constant. The “bad” bugs then contribute to the wine without ever getting out of control. Is that practice “natural”? Does it matter? It appears to be the best way to allow the ambient yeasts to contribute to the wine.

    Making the best wine you can is very mindful. It’s about discovery, adaptation. It is not paint-by-numbers. It has nothing to do with absolutism.

    Reward and respect winemakers who are open books about their practices. They are the ones who strive, continue to learn, adapt and improve. People such as Paul Draper, Eric Texier and Adam Lee.

  31. Jim Rollston said

    Hey Jeremy,

    You are correct, Thierry Allemand used to use herbicide on the parcels that went into his “Chaillot” and “Reynard” bottlings, however the separate parcels used for the “Sans Souffre” bottling were weeded by hand with a pioche. I never heard him make any claims about his wines being organic, he told me he would never pursue certification because producers could be organic in the vineyard yet what was done in the winery was generally not restricted.

  32. Andrew Mulligan said

    I think this is a healthy debate and that both sides make some good points. However, no one has raised what I believe to be the major problem with the false dichotomy that the term “natural wine” can potentially create.

    On this thread, there are winemakers, wine merchants, wine journalists – people that spend an inordinate amount of their time thinking about and drinking wine. To appropriate the terminology of Occupy Wall Street, when it comes to our understanding of the intricacies of a debate like this, we are the 1% . More accurately, we are the 0.01%. The problem does not lie with us. We all “know” what the term “natural wine” means – and what it doesn’t.

    The real problem lies with the average consumer. “Natural” is a buzzword that, along with “local”, is having its moment in the sun. I think the surging popularity of these concepts is a tremendous boon for everyone who gives a lick of damn about the provenance of what they eat and drink. But once the marketers catch on, there is the potential for descent into absurdity. When was the last time anyone heard of a restaurant opening in New York that didn’t trumpet its “farm-to-table” credentials?

    So the average consumer hears about “natural wine”, perhaps by skimming Mr. Asimov’s article, and thinks, “I shop at Whole Foods. I participate in a CSA. I practice Bikram yoga. I should drink natural wine.” He or she then goes to their local merchant and says, “Point me in the direction of your natural wines – you know, the ones without any of the additives or chemicals.” Hopefully, this person’s local merchant is a place like Chambers Street Wines, where there is a great selection of such wines and a very knowledgable staff to assist the person in their purchase.

    But what if it’s not? Will there be someone there who can explain to them that sulfite-free wine doesn’t actually exist? Or that wines with no added sulfur will possibly not taste very good after the journey across the ocean? Or that sometimes a small farmer will be COMPELLED to spray to avoid a vintage and perhaps livelihood-destroying fungal attack? And that the farmer’s decision to spray doesn’t necessarily make the avoidance of that particular wine an ethical imperative?

    I cherish the Gamays of Lapierre and the Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners of Nikolaihof because they are delicious, soulful wines that stand at the apex of quality in their respective genres. But I also adore Sherry, which is possibly the most “un-natural” wine on offer. The point is that the way that the wines are made is, for me, secondary to their flavor and their evocation of a specific place in the world.

    I applaud Adam Lee for proposing what will certainly be a fascinating experiment. I personally can only identify a natural wine in a blind tasting if it is what Eric Asimov once described as a “microbiological disaster”. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes Adam up on his challenge. I would certainly like to see some of natural wine’s most vocal proponents put their palates where their mouths are, so to speak.

    • Tom Wark said

      Andrew,

      To your point, there is the unfortunate risk also that the average consumer might easily assume that if there are things called “natural” wines, then everything else must be “unnatural”.

      This unfair, but completely logical, assumption then taints remarkable wines and winemakers who though they use sulfur and filter and who create wines that are spectacular vehicles for exhibiting terroir and that are unique and individual expressions.

      This of course is one of the problems with 1) calling something “natural” but insisting there be no definition and 2) using a term to describe a wine that is so far from being accurate.

  33. Kevin Pike said

    Thank you to Andrew for pointing out some other very important points. And thanks for Tom’s comments as well, who has been consistent in his logic.

    Though many of the other commentors find the semantic issues raised here to be a side argument, the title of this post was “On Language and Dogma,” and so it’s very much the issue, as the author intended.

    Levenberg wrote: “… you would think that ‘natural wine’ is the only phrase in the English language that has ever described a fuzzy set or a gray area …”

    There’s a difference between a robust classification that admits of borderline instances and a “classification” whose instances are just as likely to present qualities characteristic of that class as they are to present qualities characteristic of an altogether different class. The latter is no classification at all.

    We’re first told by Levenberg that we needn’t know exactly what the phrase means (as if this were a matter of semantic discovery) because we can get on just fine without precise definitions. But later we’re told that, in fact, precision is available — albeit as given by what Levenberg “personally” is comfortable with.

    That makes absolutely no sense.

  34. I’m one of the commentors who thinks that the semantics of the word ‘natural’ is a side issue, as far as the whole wide natural wine thing is concerned, even though it’s interesting in its own right.

    I’d just like to say that I actually agree with those who object to the use of the word ‘natural’ becasue of the implications that other wines are somehow un-natural. I think that’s self-evident. But what can anyone do about it? When words get adopted and regularly used by a critical mass of people, then that’s it. What’s the point of complaining and coming out with umpteen different valid reasons showing that you’re right? It doesn’t matter if you’re right. The word is being used, end of story.

    Another thing that bugs me is that the writers who object to the use of the word ‘natural’ seem to think that someone’s done it on purpose! That scheming lying marketers have plottted to hoodwink the public! Surely they realize that this is not the case? The word was obviously adopted spontaneously and without malice afore-thought. I suspect that it was copied from the French ‘naturel’ seeing as they’ve been at for decades longer than anyone else, and maybe ‘natural’ is not an exact translation of ‘naturel’. (Just a theory – I haven’t actually looked into this).

    Lastly, I suppose this is also obvious, but I’d like to point out that there are no leaders (secret or otherwise) of the “Natural Wine Movement” whatever that is, if it exists! In fact, I just wrote a post about that on my own blog, which was an attempt at humour, not an angry rant!

    • Tom Wark said

      Fabio,

      You are under no obligation to use the word “natural”, and yet you do, despite the fact that you know it implies all other wines are un-natural and that it is an inaccurate description of the wines.

      There is no requirement that you adopt the use of an inaccurate word that implies something you don’t believe. it would be easy enough for you not to use the word. That’s how things change.

      • Bruce G. said

        “despite the fact that you know it implies all other wines are un-natural”

        Simply invoking the term “natural wine” does nothing of the sort, Tom.
        It implies that there are less natural ways of making wine, but is silent about what those ways may be and what wines may qualify.

        If you sat down with Fabio and talked with him at length you could suss out those practices that he believes nudge wines back and forth along the More Natural-Less Natural spectrum.
        If you presented him with a wine, described in detail how it was produced and let him taste it he could no doubt give you his thoughts about quality and naturalness as pertains to that wine.

        But simply acknowledging that the term exists and is useful to some is in no way a condemnation of wines that are not associated with the term.

      • Tom Wark said

        Bruce:

        If Wine A is dubbed “Natural” and Wine B is Dubbed “Not Natural” then we can say categorically that Wine A is natural and Wine Be is unNatural. There is no way getting around this either grammatically or logically. Add to this that in today’s culture this conclusion will be drawn quickly, especially by those who are not conversant in the ways of wine.

        But there is also something you are not taking into account. These wines are not “natural” in the sense that the word has always been used. The only way the word “Natural” can properly and honestly be applied to winemaking is by saying, “This wine uses natural ingredients.”

        But this usage will never be adopted for word because MegaPurple is a 100% natural product.

        Proponents and producers of “natural” wines refuse to be accurate and honest in describing what they are doing. It would be far more accurate, useful, descriptive and honest to call these “Minimalist” wines and to call the winemaking “non” or “anti-interventionist”. But instead, a fraudulent use of the term “natural” is used to describe both the wines and the winemaking.

        So you have to ask, what benefits are derived from invoking a fraudulent use of the term “Natural”?

        The first is convenience, because the word, despite its inaccuracy, has caught on. But his amounts to mere intellectual laziness.

        The Second is the unearned benefit derived from the positive connotation that the word “natural” has today.

      • Tom—You must have made this claim at least a dozen times now, and yet you haven’t yet responded to any of the people who have pointed out that the English language just doesn’t work the way you seem to think it does.

        I made use of Heinz “Tomato Ketchup” the other day, and not once did it occur to me to think that Heinz was making the claim that other ketchups don’t use tomatoes.

      • Tom Wark said

        Keith:

        With respect, I’ve addressed it on a number of occasions here in a variety of posts. The logic is correct. Your comparison with Ketchup would work, if “Natural” had a specific definition the way “Tomato” has a specific definition. Without a specific definition all you have is a qualitative statement about the wines. In other words, “Tomato Ketchup” is a truth statement. “Natural Wine” is not, but rather a qualitative statement.

        That said, if calling a wine “natural” does not mean that wines not falling into this category are not natural, then you render all your meaning out of the word since all wines could then claim to be natural, no matter how they are made. And as we know, natural wine producers and advocates certainly do not believe this is true.

        And Keith, don’t think for a moment that I and others commenting here on your blog are unappreciative of using this venue for such a discussion. It is very much appreciated.

      • @Tom,

        You’re right in that I’m under no obligation to use the word ‘natural’, especially as intellectually I agree with all the arguments that you and others have listed with regards to the conotations and implications. But human beings (including myself)are not driven by logic and rationality, as can be seen by their adoption of the word ‘natural’ with its illogical contradictory meaning(s). And I’m sure, if I had the time, that I could draw up a long list of other words in English that don’t mean what they ‘should’ mean, or have secondary and tertiary meanings at the same time depending on the context. The English language is a beast beyond our control! And speakers’ use of the English language is also beyond anyone’s control!

        There are a few reasons why I’m happy using the term ‘natural wine’. Firstly, everbody else is using it! Secondly, lack of inclination to tilt at windmills and attempt to get thousands of poeple to change over to a different word (Very few people read me anyway, so I doubt if my efforts would have any effect were I to make them). Thirdly, self-serving interest! I mostly do mere “wines from organic grapes” but I also do a few ‘sans soufre’ that fall into the ‘natural’ category, so I’m benefiting from the free lunch being provided by the universe (ie, fortuitous adoption of the word ‘natural’ with all the positive conotations it has with the public).

  35. Hank said

    Maybe we could take a cue from physics and agree that all wine is natural and unnatural at the same time, and it is the drinker (observer) who determines its relative position.

    • Bruce G. said

      That actually works!

    • Love it! You mean that only when the winemaker actually releases the information will the wine come into existence along its naturalness dimension?

    • This is actually the way most of us who make wine look at the problem. And as in the quantum world, the minute you nail down one property of a wine you exclude all other possibilities. That’s why once you describe a wine as natural, that is what it becomes – regardless of where it falls on the potential continuum.

      Fabio – I’m not buying your argument that it’s OK and inevitable that the word be used and continue to mean what the current set of proponents think it means – just because “everyone else is using it.” 1) There are many descriptive terms in English that are not OK to use, even though everyone used them at one time – many were racial epithets. I am affronted by the word as much as people are affronted by racial epithets, so I’m going to push back against its use. 2) Whether you like it or not, marketers for mass-produced products are already distorting the use of the word. I banned the word “artisan” from our marketing the minute Taco Bell started talking about its “artisanal” flatbread. “Natural” is in the midst of a similar shark-jump.

      I predict that in a year or so, anyone still calling their wine “natural” will be perceived in the market as a fraud.

      • John, you may well be right. There’s no way to tell which way things will go language-wise. I’m sure marketeers and other will co-opt the word and it will become degraded by abuse, just like any other catchy word (like artisan, hand-crafted, sustainable, etc). I think you exegerate a bit with the racial epithet comparison, though. It’s not in the same league. I don’t see many people being affronted to the same degree by the word ‘natural’, which may be heading down the same road as ‘artisan’ etc, as by full-fledged racial epiphets. Only time will tell, I suppose.

  36. Reblogged this on Simple Palates, Seriously and commented:
    This is a very nice piece touching on a similar subject to what I posted last night regarding the catogarisation of wines.

    • Sorry, I thought I was posting to my blog when I typed the above.

      Keith, this is a really nice piece of writing that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think the arguement put forth that to call a wine ‘natural’ suffers from ill-definition is moot. As you pointed out, the concepts to ‘natural’ winemaking can be listed to some degree of similarity by different individuals. So the basic level of understanding to this approach exists.

      Perhaps, this debate garners more attention than it truely deserves because of the term ‘natural’. When used in this context, it creates the perception in the consumer that any other wine is false, artificial and inferior. I believe that this is being exploited by the marketers of natural wines in the sales and advertising of their product. It might not be obvious, but that is the core of their sales pitch which taps into the psyche of the buying public. Is this wrong? Absolutely not. In fact, the current debate does nothing but benefit natural wine producers because buyers otherwise unaware of natural wines will be curious enough to go into the wine store and seek these out.

      When I think about this topic of debate, somehow I veer towards addressing it as a business issue because natural or not, as long as the wine is good, I’m drinking it! But as is the case with so many other business related debates, I don’t see a ‘wrong’ or a ‘right’ resolution to this matter. Are better wines created? Perhaps. I’m not absolutely convinced. Will they cellar better? Perhaps. I haven’t kept enough to answer this with a degree of certainty. Is this the future of wine production? Again, perhaps. I guess the answer lies with the consumers.

  37. Wes Barton said

    The word catsup comes from a Chinese word for sauce, which was introduced to English via mid-19th century immigrants. Back when Heinz created their Tomato Ketchup (trade marked spelling) in the late 19th century many other types of catsup were common. You can still find non-tomato catsups if you keep your eyes open and look in the right places.

    As far as the idea that the term “natural wine” has achieved critical mass, I think that is demonstrably false. It’s hit a brick wall. There’s a need for a better term, but it needs to be something people will take up or this issue will continue to be stalled.

    It seems clear that some in the natural wine movement are dogmatic and do object to terms such as “minimal intervention” because their imaginary category is better than the necessary minimal compromises their favorite winemakers employ. They want their little fantasy land to be exclusive. A larger group, who have a realistic conceptualization. An even larger group is on the outside scratching their heads. Why cater to the snobby fuddy duddies? They are a distraction to the pursuit of excellence and an obfuscation in the pursuit of honesty.

  38. [...] post over at Cellar-Book on the natural wine [...]

  39. This is a worthy topic for sure, but I’m afraid (at least for those seeking some kind of verbiage defining “natural” for wine consumers) it’s an exercise in futility. As the former owner of a certified organic vineyard & winery, it was a constant annoyance for me to hear fellow (non-certified) vintners proclaiming to their customers how organically they farmed and processed in the winery – without being able to prove it on their label. Then they discovered that there were fewer consequences (in proving their status) when they just used the word “natural” instead. As difficult as it was/is to obtain a consensus on criteria for organic viticulture and grape processing e.g. in the NOP program, I can’t imagine the task of getting agreement from producers as to what constitutes “natural”. For the record, whenever I use that term in describing wines to consumers, I try to explain my own personal criteria for the definition – using the same criteria in questioning the practices of producers whose wines I buy.

    I personally give equal weight to a wine’s “natural character” as to its ability to deliver pleasure, because I tend to be fanatical about authenticity/typicality (for the genre) in wine. Alas there’s no shortage of wines on the market that achieve neither of these qualities, while claiming to be “natural”.

  40. [...] latest post is entitled “On Language and Dogma” in which he responds to a variety of criticisms and observations of the natural wine movement. [...]

  41. The bobdotbob said

    The many vineyards of oregon that adhere to the “Deep Roots Coalition” prescriptions are some of thebest wines in Oregon, especially the Pinot Noirs and Chardonays. It’s the mechanism that delivers terroir. You can taste the difference.

  42. [...] thought this was obvious and didn’t bother writing anything about it. That is until I read “On Language and Dogma” by Keith Levenberg. I thought no one had defended the relevance of the term “natural wine” with so much [...]

  43. [...] some further reading on the discussion click here (read the comments for a glimpse at the [...]

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