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Natural Wine Priorities

The Natural Wine movement contains several strange bedfellows whose agendas can’t all be satisfied by a single set of winemaking rules.

America (Country Appellation)

Natural Wine:
Choosing Your Priorities

by Clark Smith
April 25, 2008

Next week, at the invitation of my ethical sparring partner, Alice Feiring, I sit on a panel at the Portland Indie Wine Festival to discuss “Natural Winemaking in the Age of Technology”. Since the issues are a bit too involved for a ten-minute talk, I thought I’d use this space to set down my thoughts on the growing Natural Wine movement.
~ Clark Smith, Enology Columnist

DropCap M36any consumers realize that we live in a Golden Age – the consumer has never had it so good. We have twenty times the choices we had two decades ago, and the incidence of poor wines has nearly vanished. If what you are after is drinkable quaff, you will find it more consistently and cheaply than ever before. And the New World has learned how to make Big Wines, just as workaday Hollywood now pumps out Action/Adventure blockbusters with machine-like dependability.

But the new millennium hosts a growing discontent with impact wines that lack finesse, fruit-forward styles which die young, and global monster wines which are hard to tell apart. The internet now resounds with voices demanding ”somewhere-ness”. Many critics, newly aware of the recent technological revolution in winemaking, have sought to demonize new winemaking techniques as sources of shallowness and sameness.

These arguments haven’t gone smoothly.

Two circumstances lie at the root of the considerable confusion which surrounds this subject. First, the rapidly expanding availability of new tools, coupled with a decreased willingness to share techniques, has led to a substantial information gap between winemakers and their customers, and a sudden sense of betrayal has emerged, leaving wine lovers with a desire to get back to basics.

Artisanal 252.jpg
Spoofulated or Artisanal?
Much more on this subject is enumerated in my piece “Spoofulated or Artisinal?” at APPELLATION AMERICA. Suffice it to say that most folks don’t know much about the new techniques, and a lot of them don’t trust winemakers to employ them properly, any more than they trust some airlines to service its planes. Having written for several years in an attempt to close this educational gap, I’m going to shift my attention here to the other problem.

To whit: The Natural Wine movement contains several strange bedfellows whose agendas can’t all be satisfied by a single set of winemaking rules. The more knowledgeable you get, the clearer it becomes that there is, in fact, no consistent stance that satisfies all players.

A simple example is the Federal requirement that all organic wine be sulfite free. This untimely bureaucratic decision has spawned a category crammed with defective and inconsistent products, which is shunned by nearly all producers and most serious buyers. Bingo: a schism between connoisseurs and health activists.

The Eight Constituencies Of The Natural Wine Movement

Below are the eight constituencies of the Natural Wine movement and a few words describing the motivations of each. I recommend to readers to peruse this list and rank them in the order in which you identify personally with each.

A. Non-Interventionist. Wine should not be fooled around with. Traditional winemaking is fine, but techniques which cheat or hide flaws are reprehensible. The best wine makes itself.

B. Environmentalist. Winemaking should not damage the environment. Concerns include erosion, petrochemicals, deforestation caused by barrel production, carbon deficit and recycling.

C. Conventionalist. I don't want to drink anything I can't pronounce. Give me standard winemaking without all the weird stuff.

D. Traditionalist. Pre-modernist who prefers time-tested methods; the older the better. I’m suspicious of all recent technological innovations including the use of electricity, chemistry, microbiology, genetic manipulation and petrochemical agriculture.

E. Health-conscious. I want to control my food sources and protect the health of winery personal as well. In addition to restricting the use of chemicals in vineyards and in wine, I prefer moderate alcohol and need full disclosure of potential allergens.

F. Collector. Serious investment in age worthy wine requires dependable microbial stability. My passion is great wine that improves with time. Don't take chances on my nickel. Techniques that haven't stood the test of time make me nervous.

G. Authenticity Enthusiast. Wine should be made from grapes alone, with as little addition and manipulation as possible in order to present a distinctive expression. If Nature gave us a difficult vintage, let's taste it!

H. Terroir Enthusiast. I want to taste the unique flavors of a place. Please don't obscure the wine's distinctive expression with excessive alcohol or wood, or employ practices that make wines all taste the same.

The table below is not data of any sort. I have simply expressed in numbers my own guesses about the way a person in each of the above categories, one sufficiently hip to the ins and outs of that topic, would rate each issue listed. In this scale, +10 is very favorable and -10 is very averse. Ratings are my own estimates of what a well-informed proponent of each position would be expected to conclude. I’m proposing here a temporary working algorithm which we can adjust later in response to reader comments.

Now take your top two categories and scan the table below, looking for disparities in ratings between one of your positions and the other.

Those are the issues for you to study in order to develop a personal position. That’s what my blog is for. To get started in your research, just use the Search function to bring up my blogs on these subjects.

As you can see, despite mutual attraction to the aesthetic trappings of naturalness, there is room for lively debate on its ethics among these groups. I’ll touch on a few more points of difference.

From the conventional perspective, French oak barrels symbolize the epitome of artisanality, separating the diminutive chapels of the boutique elite from the immense tank farms of the typical Central Valley industrial mega-producer. Yet, to the informed environmentalist, they represent the grossest form of wastefulness and affluent display, which today is no longer restricted to small wineries.

The trees from which French oak barrels are made must be 200 years old, and ever since Robert Mondavi chose the device of installing a hundred thousand barrels to distinguish his infant Woodbridge within the Big Valley, Bronco and other competitors have followed with six figure installations of their own. Today, the lion’s share of barrels are housed in vast Valley warehouses, resulting in deforestation on a scale unanticipated by plantings and never before seen.

For each of these venerable trees, 75 percent of the prime wood is discarded because it cannot be fashioned into a piece of fine watertight furniture. These portions can instead be used as sources of oak extractives (chips, staves, nuggets or whatever), and in conjunction with existing neutral

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Reader Comments... [16]

Jim Adelman , Today I'm a chemist
Qupe Wine Cellars,
How is your sulfite-free wine superior? A wine that tastes great at a very young age does not make it superior. That assumption makes you sound like the great Parker and Laube.

Craig Pinhey , Wine Writer
freelancer, New Brunswick, Canada
If I recall correctly, at a tasting a few weeks ago of wines from Perrin et Fils, Thomas Perrin explained that for most of their wines they use no sulfites and farm organically or buy from organic farmers (not sure about the Le Vielle Ferme brands, but certainly for the more premium wines), which caught me off guard. The only other sulfite free wine I have had was microbiologically unstable - had gone cloudy and tasted sour & phenolic (wild yeast I assume, and bacteria maybe).

All the Perrin wines I tasted were excellent and, perhaps on an unrelated note, or perhaps not, I noticed none of the screwcapped wines had any sulphury notes, a problem I've been encountering far too often on S/C wines.

So, will these Perrin wines age?

Oh, and by the way, if I have to pick 2 of those categories in your article, I am mostly H.) Terroir Enthusiast, but also am a bit of F.) Collector (for the few aging wines I do have, and buy for work events).

Dan Thompson , CEO
Thompson Wine Group, Southeast USA
Hey Clark: Awesome story and I plan on studying your table and getting on your blog later this week. Bringing winemakers and consumers together through honesty is what it's all about!
P.S. - I've enjoyed your WineSmith wines thoroughly since purchasing a mixed case through Appellation America late last year!!

Victor Gallegos , GM/Director of Winemaking
Sea Smoke, Sta. Rita Hills AVA, CA
Mr. Smith,
Not like you to shun a controversial topic, but it seems to me a discussion of the currently vogue practice of adding poison to wine prior to bottling (e.g. Velcorin, aka dimethyl dicarbonate) would have been in order.

Consumer information seems to be the touchstone for your article... I can't imagine a subject that would be of more interest. For those doubting the level of interest on the part of their consumers, a good test might be to invite a key customer to bottling and put them in charge of the Velcorin dosing. The required hazmat suit would be such a fashion statement! And the memorable photos they would have of their time making wine would be cherished by friends and family alike.
Victor Gallegos

Mark Beaman
It is clear that a lot of time went into producing this article and the chart within. Well done.

Wine drinkers are constantly educating themselves and information in an easy-to-read format is a useful tool. I am a little confused on the scores for the Environmentalist, Traditionalist, and Health Conscious groups. It seems Biodynamic scored lower than Organic Certification. No disrespect or slight to Organic certification or practices, however, it is my understanding that Biodynamic farming and winemaking practices meet and/or exceeds Organic certification requirements. The main difference being that “Organic Wine” has no added sulfites, where “Wines made with Organically Grown Grapes” or wines made in Demeter Biodynamic Wine classification may have up to 100ppm Total measurable sulfites at bottling.

From an environmental, traditional, and health conscious perspective I would think a self-contained system of natural input farming such as Biodynamic Farming would satisfy those positions lending to higher score on your chart.

Overall an interesting read.

Clark Smith , Winemaker Columnist
Appellation America, Sebastopol, CA
To Jim [comment #1]:
You are a very good winemaker and know better than to critique a wine you haven't actually tried. I would not say that a 2004 Syrah is at a very young age. Further, any wine of four years which improves from a week of breathing is doing pretty well. The wine does not owe its charm to its forwardness.

To Craig [comment #2]:
I am the same as you -- mostly Terroir Enthusiast and a bit Collector. But I'm less skeptical about the ageworthiness of properly made sulfite-free wines and MOx wines because I have much more experience with them than most collectors, so my chart looks a lot different than what I put down for the typical collector. To me, looking at ageworthiness of these experimental wines is, for the true connoisseur, one of the best reasons to collect wine. Not as an investment, but as an adventure.

To Victor [comment #4]:
We have been developing other methods to sterilize wines without sterile filtration. Velcorin definitely presents a hazard in the workplace, though not at all to the consumer, and so we'd like to replace it with another method such as pressurization, high tech pasteurization or liquid CO2 injection / degassing / recapture. These methods rate much higher for Health Conscious and Environmentalists, and satisfy the Collectors and Terroirists. Only the Traditionalists get left out, and for these, a Non-Interventionist microbial balance makes, to me, the very best wine (as embodied in Roman Syrah) though in an antique style not every conventional palate will appreciate.

Thank you to all the commentors for their thoughtful contributions.

Craig Pinhey , Wine Writer
freelancer, New Brunswick, Canada
Do you know how Perrin keeps their wine stable if they use no sulfites, as they claim?

I had a glass of their Vaqueyras last night at our local wine bar, and it was fantastic!

~ Craig

Jim Adelman , Today-pest control
Qupe Wine Cellars, Santa Maria Valley, CA
I didn't see the vintage date in the article. Secondly – The wine industry has to be completely transparent. Knowledge about winemaking is empowering to consumers. There are some misconceptions about why certain products are added to wine.

Clark Smith , Winemaker Columnist
Appellation America, Sebastopol, CA
Craig [comment #7],
I owe to Paul Frey and Patrick Ducournau the keys to good sulfite-free production. From Paul I learned the preservative power of wines grown in living soil. Associated with mineral energy in the finish, it explains why Mosels last so long without tannin. From Patrick I learned the anti-oxidative strength of tannins picked ripe but not overripe, and how to harness that energy (paradoxically with oxygen) to create a structure that integrates microbial flavors into the wine. Perrin follows these principles and so do I.

For a more complete discussion, see my blog

Daniel O'Byrne
Clark, rock on man!
What’s your position on acidulation?

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