By Michael Eigen
I’m going to dip my toe into the natural wine discussion. I will say off the bat that I’m not a fan. I will also say that I’m not being a hater. Which of course brings me to my usual way of doing things: the long and difficult way. It will include some profound philosophical questions, some glib comments, and maybe some hipster-bashing.
First we have to start with a definition: what is “natural wine”?
I don’t really know. Nor do a lot of people. In my copious research, I went to the website of a leading importer of natural wine and read their definition which I will broadly paraphrase. They call natural wine that which has been made using the barest of intervention in both the field and the winery. This includes organic or biodynamic viticulture, no additives, and no sulfur added as a preservative. Even they cannot really achieve an exact definition of what a natural wine truly is. It’s kind of a movement, it’s kind of not a movement. Natural wine has some proponents but probably more detractors. Why would that be you ask? If a wine has minimal intervention and is organic, wouldn’t it have people clamoring to get at it? You would think, but there is one big problem with natural wines: most of them just don’t taste very good. Even many of the people that are advocates for natural wine agree that much of it doesn’t taste very good. They drink it because they know it’s not always about taste (sly wink).
So why should we be drinking it? I don’t actually have an answer. A few years ago, before this became a “thing” (see my post on bourbon to know what a “thing” is) among the sommeliers of Brooklyn and their hipster acolytes, I was asked to try a vendor’s wine. Not knowing the book, I told them to bring up six of their most representative wines. I tried through them and really disliked them all. I couldn’t even find one to buy as a courtesy. Later on as the movement took on a character, I realized that I had tried natural wines. Most of them have a funk on both the nose and the palate, they’re unstable, don’t transport well, and can vary greatly bottle to bottle. There is no overall manifesto either. So what is natural at one place may not be natural elsewhere. In other words it’s the wild west of winemaking.
Oh, did I say winemaking, I’m sorry, I mean, allowing the grapes to become wine as they do in nature. Because as you know, in olden times grapes fell off the vine into bottles by themselves without the hand of man having anything to do with it. “Really?” you say. No. Wine was invented by humans and requires human intervention. We invented it, we figured it out, and we’ve done pretty well with it. There is nothing non-interventionist about wine. It’s been around for thousands of years and for all those years it has been cultivated in a vineyard and created in a winery of some kind using some form of technology, whether it be interventionist or not. And what has been the result? Some pretty amazing wines that not only taste good, but might also have a little tiny bit of sulfur so they can safely travel more than 200 feet from the winery.
One article I read suggested that people should adjust their palates for the funky and off tastes of natural wines. Again: Really! There’s no real good reaction to that, because why should you willingly force yourself to drink something that doesn’t taste good? If you’re one of those people that need to be hipper than thou, and on top of every micro-trend then be my guest, it just means more Burgundy for me.
I get that sommeliers need to present interesting lists, and that they need to show how deep their knowledge is to justify their existence. It’s fine; it’s part of the restaurant experience. I just don’t get the vociferous defense of bad wine that some people exhibit in the interest of being perceived as “in the know.” Loving Burgundy doesn’t make you less hip just like loving Jura wine doesn’t make you more hip. Most better quality wines ($20 and above, let’s say) are made using only grapes and a little sulphur, thats it, and without any further intervention, so most better wines are “natural.” Wait, how’s that? Oh, this can get confusing….