The Naturals

September 2, 2011

If the summer of 2011 is not the Summer of Natural Wine, it is at least the Summer of Books About Natural Wine, just like the summer of 1998 was the summer of movies about disco. The two offerings to choose from are Alice Feiring’s Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally and Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking.

Feiring already wrote a tome on the subject three years ago, called The Battle for Wine and Love: Or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization. Of course she didn’t actually save the world from Robert Parker’s influence, but it was an endearing, page-turner of a story of how she came to save herself. While it initially seemed to style itself as a polemic, it was really more sentimental than argumentative, alternating between wine commentary and autobiographical reminiscences and unapologetically schmaltzy in both areas. One of the chapters chronicles Feiring’s quest to find the producer who made the 1968 Barolo that first opened her eyes to the wonder of wine. From there she managed to pick up occasional wine-writing gigs but couldn’t put her finger on why so many of the bottles she opened bored her to tears. The Eureka moment comes when she notices that many of the wines that satisfied her came from the same importer, and she calls Joe Dressner hoping to learn why (and to score some free samples). “The problem is bigger than oak,” Dressner tells her. “Yeasts. It’s the yeasts.” If The Battle for Wine and Love has a villain, it’s not really Parker, but commercial yeasts. The good guys leave their wine to ferment with the yeasts that (ideally) come in from the vineyard on the grapes. The bad guys sterilize the vat to kill those yeasts and add commercial yeasts designed to ensure smooth, efficient fermentations (and, in some cases, to impart specific flavors).

That book did not, however, say a whole lot about sulfur. It mentioned a few producers such as Dard & Ribo in the Rhône that had had some success making wines without adding sulfur. But Feiring called those producers “the ultranaturals of the naturals,” admitted that “[s]ome are more successful than others,” and specifically declined to disqualify sulfured wines from the natural-wine club, suggesting, “On a naturally made wine, the ingredient list would read simply: Grapes and minimal sulfur (100 parts per million or lower).”

You can read quite a lot more about sulfur in Naked Wine. With The Battle for Wine and Love having vanquished commercial yeast, the role of the antagonist (if not exactly the villain) of Naked Wine is played by sulfur. The definition of “natural wine” offered in Naked Wine, unfortunately repeated enough times that its earnestness begins to grate, is “nothing added, nothing taken away.” And sulfur is of course something added. Many of the producers Feiring talks to are still content to use sulfur because making wine without it is like tightrope-walking without a net, and with a fragile tightrope. But we are still left with the impression that it’s a deviation from the ideal. Perhaps fashion is to blame for this sudden fixation. Unsulfered wines are hip. There are Parisian shops and wine bars and festivals devoted to them and plenty of other places where inquiring whether a bottle is sans soufre is the shibboleth that can get you promoted from dumb tourist to winking co-conspirator. “[T]his whole natural movement is kind of a cult thing,” laments one of Feiring’s vintner friends. “You do your best; you make your wine with nothing, and you add sulfur, and you get booted out of the club. And that eats at me, because we’re totally natural except for sulfur. Yet sometimes I just want to be in the club!”

But this is not a “battle” story. Naked Wine, for the most part, does not pit the good guys against the bad guys. Instead, it’s a story about the tensions within the natural-wine movement itself. The story begins with Feiring being invited to put her ideas to the test and make her own batch of wine, and through a twist and turn of events it turns out to be a California sagrantino. It quickly becomes apparent that the grapes got too ripe on the vine and unless something is added or taken away, the wine will be frightfully alcoholic. She bites the bullet and acquiesces to adding water. Alice Feiring adding water to a wine! The reader is inclined to react like the guy who yelled “Judas!” at Bob Dylan when he went electric. But the episode is in keeping with the theme that non-interventionism may be the ideal but it isn’t religious dogma. The same theme recurs when hardcore natural winemaker Andrea Calek admits to using sulfur on occasion,”if a wine needs it.” “If I need it, I put in one gram. What I do know is that I won’t go to hell if I use it. Sulfur is to sleep well. If you need to sleep well, you use it.”

But the most important tension addressed in the book is this: the whole reason one aims to intervene as little as possible in the winemaking process is to create a wine that’s maximally expressive of the place it came from rather than the person who made it—and yet it can’t be denied that a significant number of these wines, whether they come from the Loire Valley or the Rhône or Basque country, taste more like each other than they taste like the typical wines from their respective regions. There is a particular flavor profile—something like fresh berry fruit with a tingle of juicy acid—that you could encounter in a blind tasting and instantly know you are drinking a member of the natural-wine set while having no clue at all what region it might come from. Even if they are more palatable than the spoofulated, international-style of wines consisting of heady fruit and toasted oak, there is a sense in which they are just as anonymous and predictable.

The reason for this, as Feiring elicits in a conversation with Eric Texier and the late Marcel Lapierre in chapter 5, is that vignerons from all over began practicing the carbonic maceration technique that Jules Chauvet popularized for making Beaujolais—to the point, Lapierre says, that “[p]eople believe that if you make a natural wine, it has to be made in the so-called méthode Chauvet.” But Chauvet believed the technique was uniquely suited for gamay grown in Beaujolais’s granitic soils and never advised exporting it anywhere else. When it’s used elsewhere, the result still tastes more or less like a carbonic Beaujolais, but in a generic fashion because it lacks the Beaujolais terroir. They’re vins de soif—thirst-quenchers. “The Chauvet method has become a recipe,” Feiring remarks. “Disciples have accepted the dogma, no? Semi-carbonic maceration, no matter what. No sulfur, no matter what. Chauvetists’ wine seems to belong, in taste and style, to a club. I prefer it more than other clubs, though.”

The penultimate chapter poses the question whether the proliferation of all of those carbonic vins de soif reflects the influence of Chauvet himself or his protégé Jacques Néauport, who consulted with a number of producers outside Chauvet’s turf and taught them the method. The question is left unanswered, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Néauport is surely closer than any man who’s still alive to being present at the creation of the natural-wine movement. One might expect him to have something profound to say about what they were hoping to accomplish. Instead, he says, it was all about the sulfur. They wanted to make sulfur-free wines because they drank a lot and thought eschewing sulfur would spare them from hangovers.

*     *     *     *     *

If Néauport leaves you craving a more philosophically rigorous defense of why we ought to care about natural winemaking, you can find it in the preface to Goode and Harrop’s Authentic Wine. “We believe that wine is special,” they begin, “and one of the things that make it special is that it is, in essence, a natural product. We argue that this naturalness is important for wine, and any attempt to make wine less natural by allowing winemakers greater freedom to make more additions could severely damage the image of wine and its continued specialness.” That formulation offers the best counterargument to the prevailing politically correct let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom mindset that sees something unseemly in any debate about what winemakers should or should not be doing. The reason it’s legitimate to care is because the proliferation of manipulative techniques makes the whole idea of wine less interesting—and when that happens, the people and cultures that have sustained themselves on wine won’t continue to prosper or to live as they have before.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of the debate over steroids in professional baseball. Most people tend to see the steroid users as cheaters. But there is an increasingly vocal group of people who defend steroid use on the ground that it leads to superior athletic performance—and superior athletic performance is the whole point of sports, is it not? For example, the baseball analyst Bill James broke his virtual silence on the subject in a 2009 essay called “Cooperstown and the ‘Roids” in which he argued that the stigma on steroid use was unsustainable because “we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants.” More explicitly, the baseball blogger David Pinto has argued, “[W]hy not use them? . . . [I]f fans don’t like it they can stay away from games and kill the sport.” And that’s exactly the point. Even if steroids make people better baseball players, they also make baseball boring. Nobody has any interest in watching athletes compete to see who has the best pharmacist. Of course the analogy to wine isn’t perfect because wine isn’t a competition, at least not in the same way. But both wine and baseball have a mystique to them which is a large part of why so many people find them to be worthy of devotion and study. Mess with that mystique at your peril.

By the second page of the book, Goode and Harrop have already destroyed another tired chestnut that keeps resurfacing in debates over the merits of natural winemaking—the notion that there is no such thing as a natural wine because grapes won’t turn into wine without someone to pick them and prevent the juice from turning to vinegar. The argument that all wines are equally unnatural is a favorite talking point among producers who are especially promiscuous with their interventions; if you’re willing to intervene to pick grapes, the logic goes, than how in the world can you object on a principled basis to running wine through a reverse-osmosis machine and adding chemicals, oak chips, and Mega-Purple? Goode and Harrop ask us to consider an analogy to a garden. “The term garden implies some sort of human intervention,” they write, but it is still possible to “raise questions about degrees of naturalness, as you can with wine. Does a garden gnome, or a water feature, or a bench make the garden unnatural? There are all sorts of gardens, from formal Regency-style English gardens to botanic gardens and more functional vegetable gardens. In a way all of these are natural, but some are more natural than others.”

They proceed to propose six elements of what they call an “authentic wine”: natural winemaking, sustainable viticulture, a sense of place, appropriate ripeness, freedom from chemical faults, and sensitivity to the environment, which they define specifically as “[m]inimizing the carbon footprint of the wine through all stages from grape to shelf.” I am afraid, however, that I am going to have to call B.S. on that last criterion. Even if one stipulates that environmentalism is a value of critical importance, it doesn’t belong here, any more than a requirement that winemakers not commit robberies and murders would belong here. If the only way to bottle a Chambertin was with a machine that operated on whale oil and necessitated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the resulting wine would not be any less authentic an expression of Chambertin, no matter what other objections one might have to it. More fundamentally, absent a comparison of the carbon emissions produced by winemaking with the carbon emissions produced by other activities (such as, for example, the private-jet flights of anti–global warming activists), we are not given any basis for believing that wine production represents a contribution to greenhouse gases material enough for anyone to fret about it. Readers are therefore advised to skip chapter 12, “The Carbon Footprint of Wine.” Those who prefer self-flagellation can begin reducing their carbon footprint right now by shutting off their computers.

The science in the rest of the book is more pertinent even where it becomes too technical for laymen to follow. Goode previously authored The Science of Wine, and it seems that much of that information makes its way here. A good chunk of Authentic Wine is devoted to detailed explanations of what, exactly, is happening on a chemical or molecular level during vegetation, ripening, fermentation, and élevage. And this is an underappreciated aspect of natural winemaking because it is often presumed to be the domain of hippies and Luddites, when in fact getting it right requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of chemistry. In order to get away with doing nothing, you have to know quite a lot.

*     *     *     *     *

The difference in tone between Naked Wine and Authentic Wine could not be more dramatic. The latter is written with the formality of a textbook, organized with the structured logic of a flowchart and brimming with information. Discourses on science are interspersed with sidebars profiling particular producers. It’s mostly written in an objective voice, laying out the implications of particular winemaking decisions but seldom taking a firm stand on where to draw the line. Like any textbook, you can hop around to the parts that interest you and feel free to skip pages.

Naked Wine, by contrast, is as much a book about Alice Feiring as it is about natural wine. There is a lot of information here, too, but it is conveyed by means of Feiring’s narrative, written in her characteristic voice and organized in no particular way other than the order in which things happened to her or the ideas struck her. She will set the scene with a lot of details you don’t care about, like when she found a scorpion in the room she was staying in France. Perhaps her schtick is not for everyone. But, like her previous book, it makes for an engrossing page-turner from beginning to end.

*     *     *     *     *

I think the book the world needs about natural or authentic winemaking still remains to be written, although many books over the years have touched, each in their own way, on one or another aspect of what’s at stake. The book I would like to see would be titled something along the lines of Why Wine Matters. Goode and Harrop gesture at one of the answers when they write in their conclusion, “People have a hunger for the authentic.” Alice Feiring touches on it, too, when she quotes the great Barolo grower Teobaldo Cappellano as saying, “The more there’s fake, the more there’s need for real.” Most of us in the modern world can spend a typical day without coming into contact with anything handmade or anything that exists in the same form in which it existed a hundred years ago. When we sit down to dinner and open a bottle of wine we have the opportunity to experience a compelling exception to that.

There are many people who claim to believe, when it comes to wine, that “it’s what’s in the glass that counts.” They say they don’t care how it was made as long as it tastes good. And yet, in discussing what it is about wine that makes some of us so passionate about it, I have never—not once—heard anyone give as their reason, “I like the way it tastes.” There are a lot of things that taste good. Few of them inspire the devotion that wine does, and it’s not because of how it tastes, but because of what it is. We are uncomfortable with interventions in the winemaking process not because they violate some arbitrary rules about what is “natural,” but because we understand that to change the way wine is made is to change what wine is.

For further reading (and listening):

6 Responses to “The Naturals”

  1. Fine review, Keith–very fine.

    Observation 1: carbonic maceration = carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide displaces oxygen=less or no need for SO2.

    Observation2: “…but some are more natural than others.” Gibberish.

    Is someone at 2 months more pregnant than someone at 6 months, or is she just further along in the process that began the same way and is known as being pregnant?

    I admire Jamie’s work–always–but if some gardens are more “natural” than others then I propose that he and his co-writer have not defined what it means to be “natural.” Instead, they are rationalizing.

    Pint of reference: I believe that there are natural phenomenon, but after all my years spent in the wine business, I do not believe that there is a such a definitive practice as “natural winemaking.” In this case, as in most complicated matters, the answer is not and cannot be black or white and that’s because nature has a way of interrupting, screwing over, or detouring our course–that’s 100% natural.

    • But that’s exactly their point—that naturalness isn’t black or white in the sense that someone is either pregnant or she’s not. Instead, it’s more like being the color blue, where you might sometimes be able to say definitively that something is or isn’t blue but there are still some colors that are more blue than others.

  2. As much as a pint might be in order, considering the subject matter, I meant Point of reference.

    Oh, and I agree completely: the book has yet been written on this subject, although I doubt that wine of 100 years ago was produced the way it is produced today–naturally or otherwise. Coca-Cola, maybe, but not wine. we just know more today than they did then.

  3. Keith,

    Let’s start by realizing that grapevines predate us.

    In the wild, only anomalous vines were self-pollinating, which meant that grape vines were not consistent fruit producers. If left to their own devices, grapevines likely would produce more wood for personal survival and only just enough fruit for procreational survival–that fruit would be less focused on its pulp and juice, which when full-blown would kick off fermentation more easily. The vine would likely focus on producing healthy seeds.

    Further, I doubt that wild vines would ever prune themselves to a numerical formula for optimum fruit production–and instead of standing erect along trellises for optimum sun exposure, to produce those plump grapes, they would either lie low and spread or they would climb among sheltering trees and bushes: in other words, fruit production would not likely be their primary preoccupation.

    I could be wrong concerning the above but there’s ample evidence that to get grapevines to produce fruit consistently and to put that fruit to use required first understanding either how to circumvent or to “improve” on the natural course, which is at the root of the word “cultivate.”

    One of the closest to wild grapevines that we have today is piccolit; its inconsistency as a fruit producer keeps the variety relatively obscure. I suspect that a Piccolit wine that is produced as an orange version would be even closer to what once was “natural” winemaking, but while that wine might be closest to the natural state, my question would be: on which side of the line between interesting and aesthetically pleasing would it fall?

    The way I see it, the concept of “natural” to describe modern winemaking is a human construct that plays to our individual desire to confirm our aesthetic sensibility as the zenith of all aesthetic sensibilities–to me, that’s purism built on sand rather than on loam.

  4. (Sidepoint) “Nobody has any interest in watching athletes compete to see who has the best pharmacist.” – Methinks the Tour de France proves you wrong here.

  5. jamiegoode said

    Keith, thanks for your review. It’s well written, insightful and provocative. I really appreciate that you have read the book. It’s a step some reviewers consider optional.

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