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.

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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.