The Imaginary Battle of The Natural Wine Movement

Posted on Jan 19, 2015

VinesFall2The Natural Wine Movement is a loosely, informally connected group of like-minded ideologues who believe that winemaking from the bottom up must be as natural as possible. There is no precise definition of what a natural wine is or is not, but if you read enough books and articles on the subject you will get the gist of it. The definition of natural wine is a key point in the whole debate so bear with us and we will come to it shortly. Our problem is not so much with natural wines, but more with the dogma behind the movement and the attack on wines the naturalists don’t see as conforming to their movement.

Now to definition. There is no single manifesto for the movement, no all-encompassing set of criteria to definitively state what is a natural wine and what is not. For many, that is the movement’s biggest failing: they are staunch advocates of something they cannot define. We are not members of the movement so don’t expect us to come up with its first definition. But to put you in the picture, the natural wine movement advocates wine that has a minimum of intervention in both the vineyard and in the winery. The movement decries the use of additives and technological processes as not on. And the movement is rigid in their antipathy toward wineries, bloggers, critics and journalists who are not among their number. It is this last feature that we think takes their battle the furthest from being correct.

To make a “natural wine” there is a list of “don’ts” that, depending on who compiles the list, would include, among others, the following:

  • No additives to the wine of any kind (sulphur as an additive is debated within the group)
  • Nothing taken away (no fining, no filtration)
  • No adjustments (such as acid level, alcohol level)
  • No new oak barrels
  • No mechanical processes (mechanical harvesters, micro-oxygenation, cone spinning, etc)
  • No commercial yeast (indigenous yeasts only)

Barrels2Of course any list can easily be faulted for not being exhaustive or for having the occasional exception. The naturalists get around such criticism by saying that criteria are not necessarily set in stone, that they are more ideologists than regulators and when trapped they retreat to the tall grass of stating they are a movement, not rule makers.

But that last statement does not stand up to scrutiny. Their exhortations against what they perceive as the establishment, and the inflexible way in which they dole out criticism, does not allow them to make any such claim. Alice Feiring is a wine writer that has published two books on the subject of natural wine as well as a blog and a monthly newsletter. She is among the best known within the movement and among the most dogmatic. She is quick to dish out criticism to those not making and advocating natural wines. I read the book she published in 2008, titled “The Battle for Wine and Love: How I saved the World From Parkerization”. The grandiose title tells you a lot about her viewpoint before you get into the book. “Battle” is a key word. Ms. Feiring is combative. She takes on the wine establishment as one would a foe, listing what she perceives as their mis-deeds (not conforming to her ill-defined version of “natural”), referring to their wines as “industrial”, “manipulated” and other pejoratives as well as de-crying their marketing budgets. She does not indicate how that last item might affect the taste of the wine. “Saved” is another key word. Feirng does not so much write as she evangelizes. Hers is an almost apocalyptic vision of the industrial wine establishment trying to homogenize the world of wine into a sea of similar-tasting wines, innocuous and devoid of character, and serving the single purpose of getting more Parker-points. Feiring is her own hero in this drama, the savior of “honest” and “real” wine. And like all good drama of this sort you have villains: pretty much every big winery (big enough that is to have a marketing budget ) and of course the centre-point for attack, the arch-villain: Robert Parker. Parker is portrayed as the staunch advocate of everything the natural wine movement is against. He is said to like big, alcoholic, heavily oaked wines, influenced by the manipulative ways of the globe-trotting oenolgist (and in her opinion) arch-manipulator, Michel Rolland. Or did that happen in Mondo Vino? We forget. Was Feiring fed that concept of a one-wine world as expressed in Mondo Vino or did she come up with it on her own? She does not credit Mondo Vino, but the concept, and particularly the treatment of Parker, is almost identical. I found the book doctrinaire in its polemical viewpoint of naturalist versus industrialist and opinionated in its holier than thou tone. Clearly Feiring has made the rules, and though the rule book is kept in her back pocket, those who break those rules are subject to the acid of her tongue.

BudbreakThe philosophical underpinning of the natural wine movement is problematic. Their fundamental error is their failure to recognize and give due to the fact that wine does not occur naturally in this world; it is the result of man’s work with nature. Nature gives us the grapes, but it takes the intervention of man to make wine. Those grapes won’t crush themselves and naturally ferment into that beverage that has inspired such a huge and passionate following. It takes man to intervene in the field and plant a vineyard. Yes, grapes grow on their own, without the intervention of man. But they do not grow in neatly spaced rows that are required to produce wine. Once planted, that vineyard needs tending. Feiring and the Naturalists are fighting for minimal or no intervention in the vineyard and in the case of chemical fertilizers it is easy to garner some sympathy for their point. But at what point does work in the vineyard become too much intervention? What about trellising? Or vine spacing? Or canopy management? Too much intervention? And in the winery where does the winemaker’s hand cross the line and render the wine as not natural? Chaptalizing (the addition of sugar) or cone spinning (a technological process to reduce alcohol) would again be points where the Naturalists would gain sympathy. But what about pump-overs? Batonage? Cold soaking? Too much intervention? How about the sorting table? Is that man playing God and daring to select some grapes and not others that nature has given him? Again, too much intervention? The problem is definitional: the natural wine movement asks to remove man from the equation that he is fundamentally a part of. Without a fixed definition of what constitutes a natural wine, it becomes arbitrary as to which of man’s activities become “too much intervention”.

The name “Natural Wine” is not only inaccurate, it is a little bit offensive. What do you call a wine that does not meet the naturalist’s criteria? An un-natural wine? A manipulated wine? Wine of intervention? The moniker does not really help their cause, unless the goal is to put down all of those wines that are not “natural”. The movement fails to acknowledge that even their natural wines are not “natural”, they too were made by man from grapes grown by man. In her book she also uses the term “authentic wine”, and her newsletter the Feiring Line is subtitled “The Real Wine Newsletter”. Does this mean wines not meeting her criteria are fake or inauthentic, or even worse, not really wine?

VinesThe problem with Ms. Feiring and those within the Natural Wine Movement is not so much their intention, but the way they go about trying to achieve it. Less intervention to achieve wines of greater character seems to us to be a laudable initiative. It is an initiative that her foe Robert Parker has in fact been pushing for 30 years; he has been a vocal critic of both fining and filtration when done to excess. Before Parker the great oenologist Emile Peynaud also advocated a hands-off approach. In fact it is pretty much accepted doctrine within the fine wine community to let the “vineyard speak” and to try to deliver a product where the winemakers hand is not too much in evidence. The other laudable aspect of the Naturalist’s crusade is their respect for the land and their stance against the use of chemicals and artificial fertilizers. But again, this is and has been for many years generally accepted practice among all of the fine wine producers we have encountered. So just what is it that the natural wine movement is trying to achieve? It must be they seek a winemaking ethos that has even less involvement by man than currently exists. Then why not simply state what practices are allowed and what are not? Why is there no bright line standard that all can refer to and gain enlightenment from? That test does not exist because it simply cannot exist in the real world of man working with nature wine making.

The problem is the natural wine movement’s dogmatic approach where they decry man having a role in a man-made product. They adopt descriptions of themselves that imply if you are not one of them you are somehow a phony. They use pejoratives to describe those not within the flock as making wine that is “industrial”, “manipulated”, “Parkerized”, “fruitbombs”, “over-oaked”, and “over-alcoholic”. They talk about their task as being a “battle” with the naturalists as saviors, as though they were on some noble, God-approved mission. They separate themselves from those who truly want to make good wine and are doing so with just a little help from sulphur to keep their wine stable, from new oak barrels to impart a bit of seasoning and body, or purchased yeasts to ensure a fermentation, but are generally in favour of a less is more attitude towards intervention. The separation is fine, but the sense the naturalists are somehow superior is not.

FerrariVinesIt has been our experience that the vast majority of those producing fine wine are doing so with minimum intervention, with sustainable farming practices and are producing a delicious product. The natural wine movement does not need to be the self-appointed vigilantes trying to oversee a group that needs no oversight. The movement’s laudable desires to see low levels of intervention in winemaking are already being practiced for the most part by the premium wine industry and generally advocated throughout the blogosphere and within wine journalism.  But the movement’s pejoratives are battle cries against a foe that does not exist. In an effort to find an enemy they have had to draw their shifting line that ignores the practical reality that wine is only made by the interaction of man with nature.

Where is the enemy that the natural wine movement is battling against? That enemy does not exist among any of scores of wineries we have visited or winemakers we have talked with. We don’t ever hear the wine-making community state they want their consumers to taste noticeable oak, or the particular flavor of a commercial yeast, etc. They simply want to produce the best tasting wine they can. That does not mean that every wine out there is a huge success. Some succeed more than others; some do not succeed at all. Success or lack thereof is a function of many things that happen in the vineyard and in the winery, some from nature, some from man.

Every winemaker knows that like a good chef, they must let the flavour of what they are preparing shine through. But like a good chef, they know that a little bit of the right seasoning or using the right tools in the kitchen can enhance those flavours. Ms. Feiring and her natural wine movement don’t need to battle against the premium wine industry or save us from their “un-natural” wine making ways. There is no foe and nothing to be saved from.


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