In his January 25th article, Eric Asimov in the New York Times has thrown a huge log on the bonfire of controversy that is the ‘natural wine movement.’ What gives here? Why does this seemingly simplest of goals cause so much ire and confusion, especially since it is less than 1% of wine sales? I am not sure but I will share some thoughts and radical solutions.
As outlined by Asimov, the problem with buying a wine labeled “natural” is that the buyer doesn’t know how the winemaker defined the term. For some it means no added flavors, sugars, foreign yeasts, and sulfites; for others it is sulfites but organic grapes; for others it is both.
First off, wine as sold in its familiar bottle is one of the least consumer information friendly products. Often only a brand name and grape type are provided. Sometimes only a Chateau and region are on a label. Vintages are optional, grape type and blending information is too. Forget added ingredients and vinification methods. Manipulations in the fermentation process or the use of color and flavor additives are never on the label.
Basically the consumer is drinking blind…unless the wine maker volunteers to tell us what he is doing. Then it can be very enlightening. Exact altitude of the vines, grape clone, method of harvesting, details of fermentation, finishing and bottling and production quantity, name of the family dog are a few of the types of information available.
So why the disparagement and controversy about natural wine? I agree with Asimov that there are no standards, but also, I think there is a lack of trust. Unfortunately, I know this exists for good reason. I have often gone to a vineyard and heard a glowing report about all their practices, only to go down the road to a neighboring vineyard, and hear that it was not true. There is a fair amount of professional disparagement in the winemaking world, as there is in every professional association. Jealousy, envy, and distrust have not been eliminated amongst growers and vintners. That is a fact. We all know it.
It is also in the interests of the conventional winemakers to sow confusion as to what is natural wine. It distracts the potential buyer from the evils of manipulated wine, made with grapes that are grown in a stew of toxic chemicals including cancer-causing pesticides and planet-destroying herbicides, and then subjected to a dozen added chemicals and flavors. This certainly is not natural wine. Wine that is blended and homogenized so as to drink like Coca Cola denies the very essence of what wine is supposed to be. It is not paranoid to assume these mega-vintners and their global brands do not want anyone reflecting on what they are really drinking.
Like the Chinese authorities who cannot stand a single poet to speak against the party, any and all discussion of natural wine makes the wine higher-ups very nervous. So the confusion comes both from the “natural” winery and the corporate boardroom.
What to do? Technology may hold the answer. QR-codes on bottles could just do the trick. Let every vintner or distributor use this tool to link to an information page detailing exactly how the wine is made. Let us have a step-by-step methods report on what is in the bottle. If it is nothing but grapes, naturally fermented with indigenous yeasts, the description will be very short. If it is more, let us learn that too. We can all be informed about the wine. If someone lies or distorts the truth, it will not be long until an employee will bust them for dishonesty. In our Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook obsessed world, lies and falsehoods are hard to maintain. What winemaker would want to be exposed and publicly rebuked for falsely stating his vinification process?
The new interconnected world of marketing and instant information may level the playing field for small artisan winemakers who have a true story to tell. It will put at a disadvantage the mega-budget brands that rely on clever graphics and ad copy to sell unwholesome wine. Natural wine communities can use the Internet to organize their own standards. They can use the Internet to promote transparency.
So let us all work together to get past the confusion. Wine growers, vintners, and distributors should use today’s amazing technology to get the truth into the hands of wine lovers everywhere.