The Controversy Over Natural Wines: Moral Purity or Moral Preening?

by Dwight Furrow

Natural wine squeezing grapesIf you are one of the billions of people on this planet who avoid the wine press you might never have heard of "natural wines". Yet, they are the source of great controversy in the wine world, dividing brother from brother and tearing at the delicate fabric of overwrought sensibilities. It's not quite civil war but it's serious enough to generate plenty of creative insults. To select one example, a Newsweek article was entitled "Why Natural Wine Tastes Worse than Putrid Cider" which, as you might imagine, caused natural wine proponents to launch diatribes against smug, snobbish, closed-minded apologists for "frankenwines". That's the tenor of the debate.

What is this debate about?

Natural wines are wines made without cultured yeast, minimal (or no) use of the preservative sulfur dioxide, no modern winemaking technology such as reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation, no additives such as mega purple, enzymes, or additional acid, no filtration, and using only grapes grown organically and/or sustainably. Natural wine producers often advertise an aspiration to make wine the way it was made 120 years ago.

So what is wrong with modern winemaking technology? Well, environmental issues such as soil depletion and potentially harmful chemicals to start with, but natural wine enthusiasts also claim modern industrial winemaking destroys flavor, creates generic wines that lack freshness and complexity, and that no longer reflect the unique characteristics of the grapes' origins.

These claims are controversial because modern winemaking technology is, in part, designed to eliminate flaws, bad bottles, and to preserve the wine for shipping and storage. Making (and purchasing) wine without that technology is inherently risky. Many a consumer has opened a bottle of natural wine only to be greeted by fizzy, funky juice that has begun to re-ferment in the bottle because modern filtration techniques were not employed.

It is, moreover, not quite true that natural winemakers eschew modern technology or that conventional winemakers embrace it unreservedly. The natural winemakers I know obsessively test their wines in the lab, use the latest in storage technology, and are scrupulous about cleanliness in the winery using the best equipment they can find to make sure their facilities, storage containers and equipment are free of bacteria. The idea that they are luddites is absurd. And of course they all use electricity and refrigeration so it's not quite 1880. Furthermore, many conventional producers follow sound sustainability practices in the vineyard and winery and try to minimize harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

So why the controversy? On one side, the lovers of conventional wines claim that natural wine enthusiasts are ignoring flavor in favor of a dogmatic ideology, deceived by the romantic lure of the idea of "authenticity" into making inferior wine. On the other side are the natural wine enthusiasts who claim that the wine revolution is upon us if only the close-minded and hidebound apologists for big business would get out of the way. But in the middle are the vast numbers of artisanal wine producers who use technology when necessary but only as a last resort, who believe vineyard expression is what matters most but also believe some technological intervention is sometimes necessary to produce the best wine they can. These winemakers in the middle try to keep their heads down but inevitably get caught in the crossfire.

Part of the controversy arises because the word "natural" is ill-defined and there are no standards for what counts as natural wine. If you want controversy, use the word "natural" in any context and someone will challenge your intent. Food and cosmetic companies have been using the word for decades to imply their competitors are "unnatural" without having to precisely define what they mean. The word has largely been evacuated of meaning—it's a source of empty slogans that allow users to help themselves to virtue without bearing any burdens. When proponents of minimally-processed wines chose "natural" to describe their winemaking practices they were walking into a hornet's nest. But the term "natural" does have the implication that conventional winemakers are making plastic, inauthentic, industrial wines. It is thus no surprise that winemakers, who otherwise are sympathetic to the view that the winemaker should minimize the use of chemical additives and winery tricks when possible, object to an ideological straitjacket when some intervention is necessary to avoid making inferior wine.

By contrast, defender-in-chief of natural wines Alice Feiring insists the word "natural" is squishy only if we allow backsliders and pretenders to get in on the fun:

The category of natural wine is a somewhat slippery slope except predicated by the tenets of nothing added nothing taken away, a touch of sulfur as needed if needed. Basic to the cause is no inoculations and please, no acidifications. There is a transparency in the wines that excite out of control affection for certain drinkers predisposed to the wine roller coaster.

I think Feiring is right that if you stick to the rigorous definition "nothing added, nothing taken away except for a bit of sulfur when necessary", there need be no confusion over the meaning of "natural". But it is precisely the rigor of this ideology that many object to. In some parts of the world and in some vintages technological intervention is the only thing staving off disaster. Yet winemakers who use it are implicitly (or explicitly) falsely accused of being "unnatural", serving up "frankenwines" to the unsuspecting masses with all the connotations of perversion and abnormality the word "unnatural" conveys.

Are natural wine proponents describing their wines accurately or is the word "natural" a sinister marketing device that unfairly mischaracterizes legions of honest winemakers? New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote regarding the word "natural" that "even defining the term incites the sort of Talmudic bickering usually reserved for philosophers and sports talk-radio hosts." I promise not to invoke the Talmud or sports talk radio, but sorting through conceptual distinctions is the job of philosophers so be forewarned—there is hair-splitting ahead.

The word "nature" typically refers to anything that is not supernatural or anything not made or influenced by human beings. But neither of these meanings is helpful: in the former sense everything is natural and in the latter sense nothing is natural (unless we bring other planets into the picture). I doubt there is anything on earth that has not been influenced by human beings—least of all wine grapes. Wine grapes are among the most cultivated of plants; the varieties we have available today are the result of centuries of quite conscious selective breeding in order to exhibit qualities desired by winemakers. There is nothing "untouched by human hands" about grapes or wine.

But there is a third sense of "nature" that I think is more helpful. "Nature" refers to the inherited make up of something—what makes a thing be the sort of thing it is. For example, "human nature" refers to characteristics that distinguish human beings from animals (at least most of us.) For some beings, their natures are given, inherited, not a product of human invention (even though we influence their development). Although the nature of wine grapes is in part determined by human beings, there are constraints and limits to our ability to control the nature of grapes—despite selective breeding their genetic and molecular structure remains that of grapes and not something else. Furthermore, the changes that we make through grafting, cloning, crossing, etc. are themselves natural in that they are an expression of the possibilities inherent in grapes. In other words, despite human cultivation, there is still something "given" about grapes, a potential that is not the product of human intervention, a constitution upon which the cultivation depends.

For some people, this givenness, this inherited constitution, is intrinsically valuable. For folks so inclined, it is important that there be something beyond the human tendency to manipulate and control—a gift or bestowal if you will from which they draw a sense of awe or wonder. Human beings tend to value what is rare and vulnerable. In this tamed and colonized world where humanity's footprint is everywhere, even a partially non-human "given" is rare and vulnerable, and so the natural wine movement locates intrinsic value in this "given". They value the gift that weather, soil, and the inherited constitution of grapes bestow on the winemaker who must respect this "given" by keeping interventions to a minimum. It doesn't matter that the grapes are cultivated; what matters is that a sense of the "given" is preserved.

Is the word "natural" being misused here? No. This use of the word "natural" to mean "essential, inherited characteristics" is a standard usage. But notice that this use does not contrast with perverted or abnormal. The appropriate contrast would be the "accidental" (in philosophical parlance), something added on but not necessary, human artifice, a nature more fully shaped by humans, as conventionally-made wines would be.

Does a reverence for nature as an inheritance entail disdain for artifacts and human contrivances? Must there be an implicit negative judgment regarding standard winemaking if one loves natural wines? It is hard to see what would justify such an attitude, other than mere personal preference. There is nothing wrong with having reverence for an increasingly rare natural world. But it is hard to credit a general disapproval toward human intervention as such since much of the modern world would then be a source of disapproval. This is at best an eccentric viewpoint and at worst utterly misanthropic. We can praise the gift of nature and honor human achievement without invidious comparisons. We can enjoy both natural wines and enjoy conventional winemaking without making moral judgments. To the degree proponents of natural wine help themselves to dollops of moral virtue, rather than simply good taste, they stray into this territory of eccentricity and their critics are right to take exception. If you like natural wines that's fine but the moral high horse is unbecoming.

However, there is another side to this debate that I do find disturbing, and that is a general dismissive attitude toward debate. The attitude I find most disturbing is one expressed by Matt Kramer whose writing I usually admire. He writes

For those of us on the sidelines, watching the crusaders on both sides saddle up for yet another joust leaves a bad aftertaste. And that is surely not what fine wine is supposed to be about.

The idea that we shouldn't disagree about these things takes wine out of the realm of the aesthetic. As philosopher Immanuel Kant insisted, the idea of beauty (as opposed to mere subjective preference) produces judgments that aspire to be universal. The fact that the taste of wine matters enough to argue about and take sides with the aim of convincing others means that wine is not just a preference but an attempt to experience something of genuine value and import. If it were like a preference for Orange Maid or Sunkist then arguments would be beside the point. Everyone in the wine world should welcome this controversy because it is a sign that wine is not merely a commodity like orange juice but a work of art worthy of our commitment.

In the end, we cannot distinguish flavor from the idea of what we're drinking. Flavor is an idea influenced by our past, our environment, and most importantly our thoughts about what we're tasting. Natural wine enthusiasts are not ignoring flavor in favor of dogma. They define flavor differently because they have a different idea of what flavor should be. The current conventional notion that great wine must be made from very ripe grapes, filtered and refined to remove any rough edges, and heavily oaked to add complexity is itself a kind of dogma. There is no neutral ground called "flavor" that defines what flavor is and our various ideologies inevitably influence our judgments about taste.

In closing, let me weigh in on the controversy about taste. Some natural wines are better than others. Some are flawed, some are just ordinary. But some are extraordinary. Someone who claims that they all taste like "putrid cider" is just ignorant. The trick is to know the producer so you can return a bad bottle, buy local if possible, and drink young if you're worried about storage problems.

If you're curious about natural wines, you won't find them in the supermarket or big box stores. Even smaller shops that specialize in fine wine will not necessarily carry them although their market penetration is increasing. Some wine shops like Vino Carta in San Diego with an online purchase option feature them. But the best source is to go directly to the winery's website. Berkeley's Donkey and Goat (see my review here) and Cruze Wine Co. in Petaluma are notable California natural wine producers. Sicily's Mt. Etna boasts two natural winemakers of note, Frank Cornelissen and Massimiliano Calabretta. (See my review of Calabretta's Vino Rosso here.) They are easy to find with a bit of searching.

These wines are intriguing and distinctive and like all wine types, run the gamut from swill to swell. You can't judge them unless you try them.

For more on the aesthetics of wine and food visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.