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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Natural Wine Debates – Critics Barking Up the Wrong Trees?

There’s so much to be said and debated about natural wines, so many topics and issues related to natural wine that are not only interesting in their own right, but which could be of benefit to the whole wine world, especially to consumers, but also to the trade. Like the following:

- Can/do natural wines express their terroirs better?

- Is there a point at which too little intervention destroys terroir, just like too much intervention?

- Transparency and honest labelling of ingredients and processes?

- Environmental impact of natural wines?

- Health implications of natural wines?

- When is a wine fault not a wine fault?

- Are natural wines more delicious and alive?

- What could be learned from natural winemaking, that could lead to improvement of ALL wines?

-   ... and many other interesting questions ...

But are these topics being discussed and talked about? No, they’re not, as far as I can tell. I suspect that many producers, distributors, traders and consumers of natural wines know the answers to these questions already, and are just quietly getting on with it, ie growing grapes, making wine, distributing it and drinking it! And even though we’re a tiny insignificant percentage of wine production (the last figure I read was < 0.05 percent) we're happy and growing.

So what are the angry critics so angry about? Beats me, but this is what they’re focusing on:

- The word ‘natural’

- The words uttered by certain individual natural wine marketers

- The existence of a “Natural Wine Movement”

- Funky wines

Go figure! I STILL don’t understand what makes them some of them so angry and vitriolic, and others just obsessed with these topics to the detriment of other more interesting ones. And I’ve been thinking about it and trying to engage with them for about two years now.

I’ve changed my opinion several times over those last two years as to what their problem is. I used to think, at one point, that they were worried about losing market share, but I realize now that that’s just ridiculous. Even if there are 100’s of natural winebars in Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, etc, and 100’s of natural winemakers, and 1000’s of natural winelovers, the numbers are just too tiny to be taken seriously!

So why are they focussing on those four boring and unfruitful topics? Are these topics interesting to winelovers? to the general wineloving public who might want to learn a bit about natural wine?  Well, I suppose a little bit in a superficial gossipy sort of way, but I really don’t think that they’re worth taking all that seriously. Basically, they’re not central or core topics of interest or of use to someone wanting to find out about natural wines. Like I said, they’re very soundbite generating, they may help to sell more newspapers or drive readers to websites, but really they don’t address any of the important, interesting or useful issues raised by natural wine. Are they useful, productive, beneficial, constructive topics to invest ones time on? Not really, but let's have a look at them anyway:

The word ‘natural’

So, what is the critics’ problem with the word ‘natural’? A number of separate things, as I’ve discovered over the years:

1. The fact that wine is not actually natural, in the primary dictionary-defined meaning, ie natural in the sense of occurring naturally, like a mountain, a tree or an ocean, without any human intervention. They point out in excruciating detail, that wine is not actually natural because it has to be made by humans. Hmmm! And then the critics go on to provide umpteen examples of how wine isn’t natural: vines have to be planted in rows, trained on wires, pruned with man-made scissors, the grapes then have to be harvested either in man-made boxes or by man-made tractors, taken to a man-made building full of industrial machinery and equipment, subjected to processes like crushing, pressing, racking, filtering, etc, bottled in man-made bottles, etc, etc, zzzzzzz, snore, yawn, ad infinitum. There is sometimes an attempt at humour at this point, like: for a wine to be natural it would have to drip out of the grapes all by itself into a hole in the ground to ferment there all by itself and be drunk before it turns into vinegar, ho, ho ho!

Well, what can one say to that? Well, apart from just ignoring it (probably the most sensible course, and in fact the one that many natural wine people have chosen), I say this:

To me it's a fascinating linguistic and semantic topic in its own right, and there are many serious and reliable sites on the internet where such topics are discussed, ie how the meanings of words in the English language evolve over time, how new meanings are created and acquired, how old meanings fall into disuse, etc.

I would recommend anyone interested in the semantics and etymology of the word ‘natural’ to look out one of these sites. My favourite one is Anatoly Lieberman’s blog on the Oxford University Press. I’ve actually consulted this very question with him and he even posted a reply, which you can read here. Interestingly, he also pointed me to a secondary meaning of the word ‘natural’ in the Oxford Dictionary, 1991 Edition, which is “manufactured using only simple or minimal processes;”. Interesting!

2. The fact that calling a style of wine ‘natural’ implies that all other styles are un-natural? Well, is that really a fact? Does everyone automatically think that? Always? Well, I myself used to think so a couple of years ago, but not anymore. The English language is full of words whose opposites could have connotations and implications. Perhaps it may be true the first time you hear the phrase ‘natural wine’ when you tend to take the meaning literally, but after a period of exposure and use, I think the secondary meaning is the one used by all language-using humans.

Think about “organic” agriculture and “organic” fruit and veg. Who in their right minds, when they buy some organic potatoes thinks that non-organic potatoes are in any way inorganic? After all, the primary dictionary definition of ‘organic’ is in fact ‘made up of carbon atoms’!!! Same thing applies to ‘natural’. maybe this same debate raged in the 70's when organic agriculture started becoming popular?

Anyway, that's another fascinating semantic-linguistic issue best discussed in the non-wine forum of your choice!

3. Certain critics have written or implied that the “Leaders” of the “Natural Wine Movement” actually took an active decision to deliberately call their wines ‘natural’. This is an extraordinary assumption to make, especially as these critics are well-educated intelligent writers. Another piece of evidence that makes me think that they don’t do any research before posting.

If they had done some research, before typing up their posts, they would have discovered that the term ‘natural wine’ has been around for a long time, since 1907 at least, and that it wasn’t invented a few years ago by the evil scheming leaders of a shadowy movement!!! Again, there are some good linguistic history forums out there in the internet. See the French Wikipedia entry for natural wine here, if you're interested.

The words uttered by certain individual natural wine marketing persons

This always makes for a good headline or sound-bite, because it’s so easy to take words or whole sentences out of context and base a whole ranting natural-wine-bashing post around them.

It’s ridiculous to generalize what an individual says or writes, to a whole group of individuals who may or may not agree with them, is it not? Seems like common sense to me.

And anyway, I don’t believe that the comments, opinions, viewpoints and soundbites you can find online about natural wine are a true reflection of the reality on the ground. I am sure that many people are bored to tears by the semantics debate and by the utterances of individual naturalistas that don’t represent the rest of us.

The existence of a “Natural Wine Movement”

Certain critics seem to know nothing about natural wine and the people involved in it, and give every impression that they haven’t even bothered doing any research before posting or commenting. They have this imaginary fantasy in their heads of what they think natural wine is about and they just run with it despite any evidence to the contrary.

For example they believe that there’s a “natural wine movement” out there, with a dogma, beliefs, leaders, etc. They constantly write things like “The Natural Wine Movements believes that ...”, “The Naturalistas say that...”, “The champions of the Natural Wine Movement...”, and the like. You’d think that after so many years they’d know that there is no movement, organization or body. It’s just a motley collection of winemakers, distributors, winebars, restaurants and above all consumers, who share a liking for a particular style of wine.

Obviously, there’s a sort of movement, or affinity, in the loose, vague sense that all these people share certain interests; for example, they are all are concerned about the environment, and/or their health and/or have an interest in drinking and talking about complex terroir-expressing wines. But there’s certainly no official, formal movement with leaders and articles of association, etc. There are no official spokespersons who can speak for anyone apart from themeselves.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve posted a comment on various blog-posts saying just that, but has it had any effect? Nope! They go right on posting about how “The Natural Wine Movement believes this, that or the other”!

Another thing I’ve noticed is that they hardly ever give names, surnames or links, when they make some sweeping generalization. The few times they do provide a link, and if you follow it, you can see that the person in question is actually quite reasonable and that the quote has been taken out of context and its meaning distorted.

Faulty wines

Another case of generalization. The classic sentence is “I’ve tasted natural wines before, and they’re oxidised, cloudy, Bretty, stinky, taste of cider, etc, insert your adjective here”. I've come across a few attempts at humour and/or creative writing at this point too!

The obvious reply to that is so obvious that it seems like a waste of time actually writing it! But obviously the reply is that of course there are some bad natural wines out there – just like there are bad examples of ANY category of wine you care to mention. DUH!


My learning curve has been long and slow!

At first (a few years ago) I used to get very angry and upset when I read about any of those four boring side-issues I’ve just discussed above. And I even wrote stuff (posts on my own blog and comments on other blogs) that I now regret.

Then, more recently I went through a “constructive engagement” phase, where I was reasonable and polite, and took a lot of time to do research and attempt to explain things. But to no avail!

Now, I think I’m entering the “Just ignore this” phase. I have plenty to be getting on with! Apart from growing grapes, making wine, promoting it and selling it, I would also actually quite like to write about it, and about natural wines in general.

I have in fact been guilty of complaining about a lack of debate about the issues that “I” believe are interesting and useful, but haven’t actually done anything about it! Hopefully that will change soon, and I hope to participate in some 'interesting' discussions in the future!


  1. I hesitate to respond to this, having covered all of this ground with you and with Arnold W at some length. Arnold and I have closed the debate and agreed to disagree. I'd propose that you and I do the same after this exchange.

    As I said in a previous response, you can't set the rules of what other people find interesting or important. I could - and am very tempted to - say that everything "natural wines" want to focus on is "boring and unfruitful", but I won't, because it would be neither polite, nor fruitful. You are not empowered to frame the debate.

    I - and a number of other people - do not like the wines we produce and enjoy drinking being termed "un-natural", by implication. At the EWBC debate, I wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the word "honest", to make my point. The trouble is that I now have no further use for it; there's no way that I'd wear it - any more than I'd set my wine as being morally superior to others, especially without any form of verification.

    I also question any kind of fuzzy category or designation. Tasting l'Arpent Rouge and your orange-white is like looking at a steak and kidney pie and a lemon sorbet. I can't see any point of kinship between them. Naturalistas say there's no need for one: it's all to do with the philosophy of the winemaker. They're entitled to that view, but it won't get them far with most wine drinkers. (Not that most naturalistas have much time or interest for "most wine drinkers").

    Your resentment of critics' (and some prominent wine merchants) attacks on natural wine "faults" is downright disingenuous. The "movement" of which you are part wilfully chooses to fully or largely dispense with SO2, a product that has offered protection against oxidation and spoilage for well over half a millennium. It's a bit like cutting down on the use of soap in a restaurant kitchen.

    Your wines - the ones I tasted in Turkey - were not actually spoiled or oxidised or cider-like. Too many others I've tasted have been. It's why a number of my wine professional and enthusiast friends prefer not to eat at Terroir in London, despite the quality of the food.

    Finally, I have a question for you - and many other naturalistas. Please can you explain the use of clear glass bottles. (See

  2. Interesting reading and good advice. As per my comment to Arnold recently, the easiest way forward is just to take the name, the process, for granted, and get on and ask those follow-up questions. People can decide to get on board or not. Hopefully those who stay behind to discuss the same old stuff will eventually realise they've missed their ride.

  3. Robert (McIntosh),
    Thanks, glad you liked the post. Yes, that's what I intend to do. Eventually! Like I said, my learning curve is long and slow, but I think I'm getting there :)

  4. Robert (Joseph),

    OK, I’d be perfectly happy to agree to disagree. It’s clear that we can’t achieve anything positive merely by writing to each other on blogs, but I look forward to meeting you in person sometime and having a good long chat over a few glasses of wine – and not necessarily natural ones :)

    Yes, I realize that neither I nor anyone else is empowered to frame the debate. You have just as much right to focus the debate on the semantics of the word ‘natural’, etc as I have to attempt to focus it on the expression of terroir, the fine line between faults and characteristics, etc that I personally find more interesting.

    Implications of 'natural'. I’m sorry, but the English language works the way it works, not the way you’d like it to work. Like it or not, words in English have multiple meanings. If you insist on sticking solely to the primary dictionary meaning of a word and ignore the secondary meanings, then that’s not my problem! People already familiar with natural wines know exactly what is meant by natural wines without having to look up a dictionary. And people who are in the process of becoming familiar will also know soon enough too! What you say about other wines being termed unnatural by implication is just not true after a certain amount of time of usage and exposure to the term ‘natural wine’. Just like people now don’t think that ‘organic’ fruit and vegetables imply that non-organic fruit and vegetables are somehow inorganic and don’t contain carbon atoms!

    I’m afraid I lost you totally in your next paragraph. Firstly, I’ve never tasted L’Arpent Rouge. Secondly, I’ve no idea why there should be a kinship between it and my orange wine, let alone whether there is one or not! Thirdly, “Naturalistas say....” as if it were some sort of official viewpoint or policy! Who said it? Speaking in the name of who else? Fourthly, (shock, horror!) I think I agree with you, in that most natural winemakers probably don't in fact have much time for “most wine drinkers” because, imho it will always be a niche market and “most wine drinkers” are irrelevant to us. But maybe I’ve misunderstood what you were saying :)

    I’m not at all ‘resentful’ of criticisms of faults. I’ve never “defended” all natural wines as a category – that’s just silly. I’m sure I’ve said many times that there are bad and faulty natural wines out there, just like there are bad and faulty (name-your-category) wines out there too. This is in fact one the issues that I am interested in discussing, ie when is fault not a fault?

    SO2. Oh please! Surely you know that the ‘sans soufre’ natural winemakers, the ones who have renounced the use of SO2 on principle, are a tiny minority of natural winemakers? I can’t of course speak for any other natural winemaker, but I believe that most (sensible) natural winemakers (like myself!) have not renounced the use of SO2 like a religious dogma, but have simply renounced its AB-use.

    "Your wines - the ones I tasted in Turkey were not actually spoiled or oxidised or cider-like. ..."
    Well, thanks, I take that as a complement :) Maybe I just don’t get around enough or taste enough natural wines, but I seem to have the opposite problem, ie I just can’t get to taste any funky, spoiled, Bretty, biological swampwater-like natural wines!!!

    Question. I’m afraid I’ve lost you again! I like to use clear glass for my white and orange wines so that consumers can see the colour – despite the fact that it offers less protection. I’m confident enough of the quality of the wine, I’m confident in my importers and distributors, and outlets who all use suitable transport and storage facilities, so I think it’s worth the risk. Why do you ask anyway? Is this some dogma of the “Natural Wine Movement” that I don’t know about? :)

    And I have a question for you too: Why can an orange wine not express its terroir, just like a white wine or a red wine? Thinking of Georgia, Friuli, Castilla La Mancha, and probably other regions that I don’t know about.


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