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Why Natural Wine needs to go Extreme

The natural wine movement, while gaining a flow of momentum, will always be a small tide pool in the wine world ocean unless vignerons and winemakers embrace the extreme.

Simply, it’s not enough for natural wine proponents and winemakers to eschew technology while embracing organics, and ambient yeasts.  Nope, it’s not nearly enough.  In order to gain real mindshare, to create a real revolution, to incite consumer interest that transcends the fringes, they have to go to the fringe … and beyond.  They must go to the outer edges, past what is known as sellable in commerce, to that dark unknown area where real risk lives. 

Without risk there can be no widespread consumer movement, adoption, international acclaim, and reward.

I have been thinking about the nature of the natural wine movement, and the flaws inherent in carrying a flag for something both nebulous and reasonably unknown.  And, mostly, I’ve been thinking about this within the context of a debate format where an argument is easily rendered moot and invalid.  And, unfortunately, it’s too easy to shoot down natural wine proponents with a reasonable argument. 

Recently, Alice Feiring, at her blog Veritas in Vino, Truth in Wine, enunciates the components of natural wine.  There she lists the following attributes:

1) Assume minimal chemical to no chemical farming.

2) Wine with grapes and nothing else added. And that means yeast.

3) No forceful machinery to alter the taste, texture or alcohol level of the wine.

4) S02? Softcore natural means a little SO2 (sulpher dioxide as a preservative) at bottling. Hardcore natural, means non, no way, no how.

Personally, I don’t have a vested interest in either camp, but I will note that the problem with this natural wine definition is it immediately invites the contrarians – those who easily and readily are prepared to say that any intervention in the process immediately renders the conversation null and void.

Proponents of “natural” winemaking will indicate that the use of new oak barrels is a no-no because it imparts a flavor profile.  But, what of storage in a neutral, older barrel?  Is that not interventionist in nature?  A cooper made the barrel with significant process. Or, what about something as simple as trellising for grape vines – that is certainly human intervention.  The “natural” wine conversation always devolves into this sort of “what-if” philosophical debate.  I’ve seen arguments where people indicate that the Romans used clay vessels with tar as a sealant and that is certainly human intervention dating back a couple of thousand years.  I would urge you to read the comments at Alice’ post to see a reasoned bit of contrarianism—it’s a useful illustration for the wide swath of gray area that the natural wine movement lives in. 

However, there is a way to counter this argument.  In her post, Alice alludes to “militant vegans.”  It’s a good analogy because “militant vegans” are hard core and earn respect from anybody that encounters them based on the true north nature of their compass related to their diet.  This is especially so within the context of other “lite” variants of vegetarianism – pescatarianism, lacto-ovo and the like.  Simply put, vegans look down their nose at those that don’t adhere to the rigor that they do and anybody who has cooked with a vegan, outside of being annoyed with what they DON’T eat, comes away with respect for their discipline if not a little bit of interest in learning more.

The natural wine movement needs to move to the edge like vegans.  They need to go to the edge and risk alienation and lack of understanding, transcending the hypotheticals.

image

In my worldview, it’s not enough to do minimal chemical or even Biodynamic farming.  It’s not enough to hand harvest and use ambient yeasts and it’s not enough to bottle without SO2.  Nor is it enough to be a proponent of massale selection vines versus clones.

If the natural wine movement wants to earn real simpatico respect, while gaining broad mindshare, the vignerons need to move further afield and embrace the quirky and what some might say is even weird, highlight the contrasts to the starkest degree.  They need to risk abject failure.  Playing it safe by trying to create a nice wine free of mechanization and engineered yeast isn’t going to get the job done in terms of fomenting a movement.

Winemakers and vignerons need to take a block of vines, tear out the trellising and allow the grapes to do what they want when they want enjoying Mother Nature’s whims with absolutely no care whatsoever.  Go native.  Leave it alone.  Harvest what you can. Risk failure.

When those grapes are harvested, they need to be foot-treaded (crushed by foot) and allowed to go into fermentation naturally, ideally contained in a vessel that is of the earth.  From there, the wine needs to be bottled.

That’s it.

This small addition of wild vines and foot-treading to a “natural” definition moves the conversation to the realm of the esoteric and the extreme away from engineered barrels.  Granted, it leaves small cracks in the sidewalk for conversational weeds, but it also eliminates much of the “what-if” conversation because the grapes are what they are, they are harvested by hand, they are crushed by foot, they are fermented with what’s in the air and then bottled.

By taking out some of the liability in what constitutes a “natural” wine, you are creating a wooly-bully wine that is truly of its place and merely shepherded instead of made.  And, at the least, that invites curiosity and interest – enough so that it might just transcend the mud wallow that is the current conversation.

Now, I’m not sure if this wine will be any good or even sellable, but that’s not really the point when you’re trying to simultaneously debate a philosophical question while swimming upstream.  Risk, and moving to the extreme is where the real reward exists.



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Posted in, Free Run: Field Notes From a Wine Life. Permalink | Comments (26) |


Comments

On 08/28, Josh wrote:

Heavy sigh.

I have an amphora at my house. It is wide mouthed and un-sealable, full of small cracks. My neighbor has head trained Zin planted decades ago, and probably won’t be able to sell it all.

You will ride a horse driven buggy out here from Indiana. It will likely take a month, but you’ll be just in time. We’ll pick the grapes off the vine with our grown-out fingernails, and trod upon the fruit with our bare feet, feeling the sticky juice burst forth from the slippery skins between our toes.

Then we will dump the warm must into the earthen vessel.

After an indeterminate period, perhaps two weeks to a month, we will press the skins by the handful, one by one. We will dump our fermented must into terracotta containers and press the grape hulls between our palms back into the amphora. We will cover it with wax coated muslin and tie it with hemp twine.

And we will wait. But not too long.

And then we will toast to a job well done. Holding our cups aloft - earthenware, natch - we will commend each other an a job well done, and sip.

And throw up a little in our mouths.

On 08/28, kelley styring wrote:

Oh, Josh, that’s hillarious.  But seriously, with the exception of the yeast, we already do all four things suggested and with excellent results.  As a small producer, I just can’t take a chance on wild yeast.  If I lose a fermenter, it’s 25% of my total production.  In all other aspects, we’re hard core, chemical-free, light SO2, gentle process, etc.

On 08/28, vinosseur wrote:

....enter Frank Cornelissen

On 08/28, Jeff wrote:

Thanks for the comments, guys and gals -

Josh, too funny.  Do you think about this or just pound the keyboard?  Either way, it’s hilarious.  And, you kind of make my point for me—it’s all marketing, baby.  Until Lenny Bruce went blue in comedy you had Milton Berle being merely bawdy.  Anything that was ever great had to start at the very edge before it gets watered down for the populace.  And, that’s my point with “natural” wine.  It needs to get to the edge, because right now the conversation is so namby-pamby as to be a non-starter.

Thanks to all for reading!

Jeff
http://www.goodgrape.com

On 08/28, Dylan wrote:

Kelley brings up a very valid point for small producers. How much risk can you take with this process? One slip-up could cost you a majority of your hard-grown crop.

On 08/28, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Unfortunately there is no Edge to go to in Natural wine making. By definition “Natural” is gray and devoid of logic. It is all about rules. It is based on the belief that certain enlightened humans can ascertain God’s intentions and give us his rules. This gives us a world with different religions in competition, each its their own interpretation of God’s word and their own set of rules.  Similarly when we apply Natural Law to wine we’re talking about a world where, to some, burying cow horns in feces and later spraying composted feces with horn magic on vines is Natural and selecting a wild yeast from a mixed fermentation and using it as an innoculum Unnatural. To others Man’s unnatural intervention might be the reverse.

The exact rules of “natural” don’t matter so much as there be Rules and there are people to preach them to us. What is scary to the Feirings of the world or others (who want to tell us what God has to say about wine making) is that no one would care what they believe. And horror of horrors, imagine the Pagan winemaker with no Rules doing anything and everything possible to make wine that is healthy and wonderful tasting. That would truly be the Devil’s work.

On 08/28, Jeff wrote:

Now, now Morton.  Did you have your morning constitutional today?

grin

All the best,

Jeff

On 08/28, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Fortunately, yes… on an Unnatural man-made elliptical conveyance while listening to the Devil’s music.

On 08/28, Jeff wrote:

Haaaaa.

Too much.  This blog pays for itself.  I’ve had two very good belly laughs from you and Josh today.

Thanks for commenting, Morton.

All the best,

Jeff

On 08/28, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

When it comes to wine, in the larger context of living and going forward functionally and sustainably today, what are the goals? Tasty, interesting, diverse, wines reflective of their terroirs, and made in sustainable low impact ways. Can we agree on that?

But then the sheer diversity of situations and circumstances defeat the notion of a set of rules right off the bat. If the ends can be agreed upon, a reasonable diverse set of means are inevitable and should be acceptable.

That brings us to the idea articulated here, which really is more about the marketing of “natural” wine. I don’t think
adopting more extreme methods is a recipe for expanding market share. Maybe some extremists, able to demonstrate exceptional success, by meeting the goals via the most extreme methods will be able to drag the less extreme majority in that direction. If so that will be
a strong positive.

Unfortunately natural wine is a multi faceted, complex topic requiring a certain depth of knowledge that is not going to exist broadly. It is just one of many topics swirling in society, often debated loudly by folks with agendas and faulty “facts”.

As to what might constitute commitment to extreme natural, not long ago, I posted elsewhere wondering just
how monocropped straight rows qualified as biodynamic.
It seems to me that real biodynamic practice would involve vines grown in patches among other plants, like
fruit trees, berry bushes, etc. Sure the manual labor would be very intensive but that’s generally how nature works.

On 08/28, Anthony Nicalo wrote:

“Natural” makes no sense in the context of wine or any other agricultural product because we live in a backwards world. Farmers who eschew use of synthetic products have to prove it, while chemical farming is acceptable, even normal. Proponents of working in harmony with nature are left with trying to stand on “natural” ground, but agriculture itself is a cultural innovation requiring human intervention. Of course, “natural” then becomes indefensible. What Alice is really referring to is the definition of wine as an agricultural product. Anything else is a wine-like beverage. But their are billions of dollars spent marketing wine-like beverages and not much money behind real wine, wine as an agricultural product. And, as you say Jeff, it is all about marketing and people defending Wine are forced into a slightly awkward, unnatural corner.

On 08/28, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Is wine art or Commodity? if wine is art then you could apply this “natural” methodology you will produce many sketches and attempts but may only produce a few masterpieces during your entire career. if wine is a commodity then we are striving for a certain level of consistency for this very inconsistent product. as long as you look at your product from a business prospective you will never be truly “natural” for fear of fiscal repercussion so exceptions. i.e. just a little sulfur exc. will continue. Then again by the fact that you planted the vine in a area of your choice most likely of foreign decent then picked the grapes and conciliated them into a single vessel you have eliminated any concept “natural” so unless your idea of a great glass of wine is picking up fermented berries dropped from wild vines I am afraid our wine will never be natural. The goal should be “Minimal Manipulation” just no ring in that though! however if we strive to guide our wines and not force or coerce them we should consider that a success. But in wine nothing is absolute!

On 08/28, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

“Winemakers and vignerons need to take a block of vines, tear out the trellising and allow the grapes to do what they want when they want enjoying Mother Natureís whims with absolutely no care whatsoever.  Go native.  Leave it alone.  Harvest what you can. Risk failure.

When those grapes are harvested, they need to be foot-treaded (crushed by foot) and allowed to go into fermentation naturally, ideally contained in a vessel that is of the earth.  From there, the wine needs to be bottled.

Thatís it.”

I realize this whole thing is a piss-take, but in all seriousness, these are the kinds of wines I aspire- and love- to drink, and aspire- and would love- to make. Honest, pure fruit, zero oak, no ML innoculation, no SO2, and no filtration. These wines- and they are out there, in every sense- are infinitely more profound, interesting, and thought-provoking than any airbrushed CA cult cab. Gravner, Tissot, etc: superb, delicious, and mind-blowing…

Regards,

jb

On 08/29, Francesco Vigorito wrote:

When I hear or see the word “natural” branded on a product it just annoys the crap out of me.  People say, ” Oh, its all natural so its good for you.” Or when you see 100% Natural Olive Oil.  Its not like they can make a synthetic olive tree and press the grapes to make oil.  I think people think that the word “natural” is synonymous with being “good” for you. If you want “natural” wine go find a wild vine somewhere and start eating the fermented dried grapes that have fallen to the ground.  You will also get some “natural” protein from eating all the ants and bugs that have managed to find it as well.

On 08/29, vinosseur wrote:

Francesco!

I couldn’t agree with you more!

First of all, truly natural products don’t have to brand themselves that way on the labels! It’s a philosophy and an attitude that’s most important
Second, just cause it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you, especially if you over do it!
Moderation is the key to a healthy life!

salute!

On 08/29, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

I’ll make a proposal: every wine writer who has a philosophy about how wine should be produced and marketed should be forced to grow grapes and produce wine for about six years before enjoying the privilege of telling everyone else how it should be done.

I think Josh’s funny post makes the same point, but better than I.

On 08/30, Jason wrote:

Did anyone mention the ultimate intervention - the fact that grapevines are cloned?  Yes, let’s now make wine from “wild” grapevines without hundreds of years of artificial selection. I’ve got one growing by my mailbox, the berries are small and green and will probably max out at 14 Brix.  Delicious!

On 08/30, john wrote:

Natural is almost like trying to define a jew-culture?religion?bloodline?...Bottom line, I try to let the wine make itself-native yeast, open the cellar door to start ML, no so2 till bottling and then 25 ppm. I pick by hand from vineyards that don’t make wine-otherwise the spent grapeskins go back and the dominant yeast may be from a lab in France! Use of oak(natural wood?) occurs, but no racking and no fining or filtering-on a scale of 1-100, where do I stand?

On 08/31, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

What is funny is that idiots are encouraged to share their opinions…

“but in all seriousness, these are the kinds of wines I aspire- and love- to drink, and aspire- and would love- to make. Honest, pure fruit, zero oak, no ML innoculation, no SO2, and no filtration. “

Really JB? I suspect that if we found your wine stash that it would be full of wines that don’t taste like crap. And really, malic acid is disgusting in a red wine, who wants to produce a product that is garbage for you when the majority of people want something drinkable. You believe what the label says? Honestly? I’ve got some excellent agricultural land for sale in FL. Perhaps you would like my buy one farm get a bridge special? The %Alc on the label is generally +/- 2% and you print labels MONTHS before you stick your product in the bottle. Whoops, I filtered this out of necessity after the labels were printed, should I change the label? Nahh, too expensive…

Just like the majority of people who don’t understand what they want you have formed a belief around how a wine is “supposed” to be “made”. I got some news for you. The entire process is done by bacteria and yeast and some of them are understood and others are not. The “winemaker” has about as much impact on the final status of any wine as a soccer mom has on the score of her kids game. That is, unless the winemaker sets up adjunct trials like tannin additions, fining and acidulation. Guess what, bacteria and yeast are natural (even the lab isolated strains for you numb-skulls that don’t bother to read up on GMO regulations regarding single-cellular organisms). Buy microbiology books and learn about bacteria and yeast metabolism if you really want to understand a fermentation. If you think natural = good perhaps it is time to start manufacturing some Solanum green tea.

On 08/31, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Why not grow your grapes under trees? The natural way for grapes to propagate is by being eaten by a bird which drops the seeds from a tree into a pile of fertilizer. Then let the powdery mildew attack the berries. Only a few exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun will escape and ripen. Finger press those few remaining grapes into a clay jar, wait a week. Remember the Bible says not to get drunk on new wine, so wait another week and enjoy it on your salad.

On 09/01, Tim Keller wrote:

I love tom pellechia’s comment that wine writers should have to make wine before opining on how to make it.

Alice Feiring is right about what kinds of wines should be made- but for the wrong reasons.  The suggested “rules” for natural winemaking aren’t just impractical, but they miss the point.  Anyone who understands the nuances of the issues that are bandied about by this movement understand that it’s all based on some romantic notion of wine, not reality.

A good example arose in this comment thread when Jason made the comment about vines being cloned.  I’m sorry jason, but you only reveal your total ignorance about what that term means in respect to grapevines. 

A clone is simply a cutting taken from a specific place that is propegated the natural way - through planting of cuttings.  There is NOTHING different between “using clones” as Feiring would say, versus using your own cuttings (if you have them)  It’s just you selecting the clone you already have vs. the clone someone else might have.  No labs, no genetic engineering - just slight variations provided by mother nature.

Want natural?  How about the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon is a man-made hybrid between cab franc and sauvignon blanc?  Isnt that too manipulative?  Perhaps. Did it result in a truly noble, beautiful varietal? - you bet!

At the end of the day, winemaking is interventionist by it’s very nature.  Man needs to plant and cultivate the vines, man needs to pick them at the right time and ensure that they only spoil “halfway”  (the sugar decomposes to alcohol but not to vinegar)

The key in my opinion is about balance and restraint.  If you are a formally educated winemaker like myself, you leave school with a bag full of hammers - and it is easy to see every problem as a nail.  Maturity, and art in winemaking lies in the ability to leave a few nails sticking out every once in a while…

Now, that said, I agree with Jeff that the natural movement needs to go extreme - why?  because it allows people like me who believe in the rational, moderate, useful applications of this theology to produce the wines you ‘really’ want while still sounding like a moderate rationalist winemaker!  I can do partial-native ferms, I can have a basis for using less oak etc etc..

If you go the ‘natural’ way that is currently proposed.  I’m sure that some really nice wines will be produced, but only rarely amongst the other 80% of wines that turn to shit, which is not a expectation that is rational under any circumstances.

On 09/01, Tim Keller wrote:

Hmm… there needs to be a sarcasm font…  I’m wondering if Jason’s comment was meant sarcastically….  too hard to tell in written form.  If so..  I apologize - if not, take your beating!  smile

On 02/05, Francessca wrote:

Ive really enjoyed reading these articles on goodgrape. Im totally new to wine but im learning so much so quickly.

On 11/17, Jordan wrote:

Do not believe that the natural wine should need to go extreme because I believe in the saying that wine matures with time hence why should people create extreme steps to make wine better? I like it when it matures by its own.

On 01/07, cilt bakimi wrote:

I got some news for you. The entire process is done by bacteria and yeast and some of them are understood and others are not.

On 01/10, contractor mortgages wrote:

Thanks for giving me an amazing post, its great time to read your post. I’ve got some more interesting topic for discussion. So keep it up.


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