During 2003 and 2004, life in Paris was full of wonders for our family. Bread was really art, we learned. And tarte tatin, which Amie had modified for years using mangos in Costa Rica, is best of all modified by using various French heritage plums available in a nearby marché in late August. And cheese! Plus plenty more, but for now I am reminded of the occasional wine expositions–cavernous spaces filled with hundreds of kiosks of artisanal wine makers–we would attend. At one of those I first tasted natural wine. So today, this headline shouts down all the others. Just the fact that Eric Asimov is still on this particular beat is enough to make me think things are okay, or will be okay, or at least could someday be okay:
The wine industry and many consumers have long sought a definition, but the adoption of a voluntary charter may not clarify anything.
Natural wine is healthy and pure; natural wine is wretched and horrible. It’s the future of wine; it’s the death of wine.
For 15 years, natural wine has been a contentious time bomb that has divided many in the wine community, creating conflicts fought with the sort of anger that stems only from extreme defensiveness.
Since 2003, when I first encountered what has come to be called natural wine at the seminal restaurant 360 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I have been a fan, though a cleareyed one, I hope.
I believe in the promise and beauty of natural wines, while acknowledging that many examples are not good, as is true with all genres of wine. The truth is that natural wines have made all of wine better.
Natural wines could not have offered a more luminous contrast to the industrial practices of the wine industry, a business that marketed itself as pastoral. Many mainstream wines are made from chemically farmed grapes, then produced like processed foods, with the help of technological manipulations and artificial ingredients, to achieve a preconceived aroma-and-flavor profile.
Natural wines, made from organic grapes or the equivalent, and fermented and aged without additions, are unpredictable but alive, energetic, vibrant and surprising. It’s like comparing fresh cherries picked off a tree to red Life Savers.
The winemaking spectrum offers many shades and degrees. Not all conventional wines are processed wines. Not all wines called natural adhere to a strict “nothing added, nothing taken away” protocol.
But the appearance around 20 years ago of natural wines as a group challenged an industry dominated by a postwar promise of better living through chemistry and technology.
Back then, the prevailing wine culture was marked by increasing homogeneity. Wine was elevated to a luxury good, and grapes were placed in a caste system and ranked by their “nobility.”
Natural wine, on the other hand, promoted a diversity of styles. It resurrected and celebrated indigenous grapes and local traditions that had been forgotten or dismissed by wine authorities. It sought to knock wine off its pedestal with irreverence, presenting it as a delicious, fun drink that nonetheless packed emotional and cultural power.
Most of all, it reconnected wine to classic farming as it had been practiced for centuries before the rise of industry and technology. Wine as a product of the earth resonated with young people concerned with the environment, with health and with wellness in its full, and now fashionable, sense.
I’ve seen the audience for natural wines evolve from the nerdy inhabitants of a small, secret parallel universe to a curious, eager, ever-growing crowd. In the last few years, natural wine has been anointed the next big thing, the new “it” wine and all the other tiresome labels issued by professional trend spotters.
In this time, natural wines have stepped out of the underground into the sunshine. Natural wine bars are common in almost every big city, while even some high-end restaurants have devoted entire lists to natural wines.
This new popularity has forced the sort of reckoning that natural wine producers have for so long successfully avoided — namely, what exactly is natural wine and who is permitted to use the term?
In the past, it was the wine mainstream demanding a definition for natural wine, an entreaty that most producers blithely ignored. Definitions smacked of authority, orthodoxy and bureaucracy, exactly the binding forces that many natural wine producers have long viewed as inhibiting their freedom.
I always saw this refusal to be pinned down as a strength. Allowing natural wine to be strictly defined would set it up to be co-opted, the way many organic food companies are now largely profit-making subdivisions of Big Ag…
Read the whole story here.