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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Long Live Natural Wine - in this Infinite and Holistically All-powerful Universe! Vive le vin Naturel!

Thank you, Oh Infinite Universe, for putting Tom Wark in my path!

I've learnt a lot from him over the years, though it's taken me years to realize it. Over the years of interaction with him (always on the topic of natural wine, in the form of comments to his posts) I think I've gone through all the emotional phases, starting with anger, hate, resignation, frustration, pity and finally now, acceptance and gratitude.

His latest post on natural wine, here, just brought it all home to me. I now realize that we humans are just extraordinary in our diversity, and that all our diverse points of view represent richness and complexity and wondrously different ways of seeing the same world in which we live. This applies at all levels of philosophy, not just the limited and trivial world of wine which we wine geeks think represents the entire universe!

But anyway, even though I disagreed completely with everything he wrote, here's what I enjoyed about Tom's latest post on natural wine, which could be seen as yet another rant in a series of over 20 similar posts, but which I believe is not:

The first thing that struck me was his extraordinary tenacity in clinging to the primary dictionary definition of the word 'natural, despite the fact that native English speakers (and proficient foreigners) are perfectly aware that words in the English language can have many, many different meanings, and sometimes even apparently contradictory meanings too. Tenacity is a quality to be admired, IMO, and success is often built on it. I like to think that I have my fair share of it too.

Allow me to be really boring for a few paragraphs here and actually provide the links to several reliable, recognized and respected linguistic sources, just to prove what I said above, ie that the word 'natural' really does have multiple meanings, including the one used by people talking or writing about natural wine, and that it wasn't just invented a few years ago by the evil scheming marketers in the employ of some natural wine producers:

- Mirriam Websters (Definition 2: not having any extra substances or chemicals added : not containing anything artificial)

- FDA ("...the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.")

- Oxford English Dictionary (1991 edition) (subscription only) gives as part of meaning 7a: 
manufactured using only simple or minimal processes; ”
- Encyclopedia Brittanica (1888) edition). (That's eighteen eighty-eight). A long article on wine in general, where 'natural wine' is discussed in the same sense as we do today.

- Do bianchi. An interesting post with explanations and links to an Italian text from 1896 on natural wines.

- French Wikipedia article on the uprisings and riots in Languedoc in 1907 where the slogan "Vive le vin naturel. A bas les empoisonneurs" was used.  (Translation; "Long live natural wine. Down with the poisoners!"  Can you imagine anyone using that slogan today? ha ha!)

Text of the speech given by Marcellin Albert on 9th June 1907 in Montpellier during a demonstration of around 500,000 protesters, during which he uses the phrase "natural wine".

To summarize: the main primary meaning of 'natural' is "existing in nature; not man-made" (eg, an ocean, a mountain), the meaning that Mr Wark believes is the only one; but other meanings exist, have been around for a long time, and are used by many, many English speakers in a perfectly natural way.

Basically, what I'm saying here, by providing all this evidence, is that the use of the word 'natural' is more than justified and legitimized by these authorities and by the length of time that the term has been used.

But in addition to that (as if it weren't enough), sheer common sense and intuition should be enough for any native English-speaker to realize that words have more than one meaning. Just think of the word 'organic'. The primary dictionary meaning is 'containing carbon atoms', or 'applying to living things'; historically the word has been used in phrases like 'organic chemistry', 'organic compounds', 'organic growth', 'organic waste', 'organic history', 'organic molecules', 'organic synthesis';

Then at some point in history (1970's?) the word started to be applied to agricultural products made in a certain way, and we got 'organic farming', 'organic fruit', 'organic vegetables', 'organic wine', 'organic soil', 'organic agriculture', etc.  Wow! A new meaning for the word 'organic'! Now it means, not only 'containing carbon atoms', but ALSO the meaning we all know and love and accept today, ie "grown without the use of synthetic chemicals". I wonder if there were people back then who fulminated against the 'organic' movement and accused the marketers of organic fruit and veg of deceit?

The second thing that struck me was the wonderful and amazing leap of logic that formed the basis of his latest post, showing incredible ingenuity and creativity:

1. Take a set phrase in the English language ("as nature intended")
2. Interpret the words separately and literally
3. Provide a long list of links to blog posts that used this phrase in connection to wine
4. Allow something wondrous to happen in the language processing centers of your brain
5. Lo and behold: the conclusion is that the "natural wine movement" believes that Nature has consciousness and intentionality!

I think that all native speakers of English understand what 'set phrases' are, and use them accordingly in everyday speech and writing. Just look up a dictionary to see what "as nature intended" really means; as you can see, the phrase just doesn't mean that nature actually intends anything, like Mr Wark suggests. It's just a set phrase that has the general meaning of "not interfering too much in a process or situation".

Here are some more set phases:

Let nature take its course, Nature abhors a vacuum, To answer the call of nature, Mother Nature, The call of the wild, Silence is golden, Money talks, As chance would have it, Put your cards on the table,...

There are thousands of them in English, and not one of them means what the individual words mean literally. It's quite intuitive really, and actually more difficult to explain than it really is!

Thirdly, I was saddened to read that Mr Wark is continuing with his personal crusade against Isabelle Legeron MW. Very saddened. At least there were no direct personal insults, like in this previous post of his; this time he just used some indirect denigration by associating her name with Wiccans, Pantheists and Druids, and April Fool's Day. Not much good karma there.

Fourthly, there's the question of setting up straw men (that's another set phrase, not men made of straw!!!) so as to proceed to knock them down. I think it's rather pointless and silly of Mr Wark to do this, because attacking distorted or fictitious aspects of natural wine does not really address the actual real position at all, let alone engage in a constructive dialogue.

But getting back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post, I believe that at last I've found peace with myself, and with this whole 'natural wine' thing, thanks in part to Tom Wark's posts over the years. Basically, I think that the semantics and history of the word 'natural' is irrelevant (even though it's interesting in its own right, especially to people with an interest in linguistics and etymology. Like me!). No, the important aspect for me is the qualities and characteristics of the wines that are made in a "natural" way, and which for me boil down to three aspects:

1. Can natural wines express their terroirs better?

2. Are natural wines safer and/or healthier?

3. Are natural wines better for the environment?

Obviously, I believe that the answer to all three of those questions is YES. That's why I find myself in the natural wine camp, not because I think it's a great marketing idea. I was in fact making wines for 7 years in this way with no contact with the outside wine world, until I "discovered" blogging, and social media etc in 2009, at which point I also "discovered" natural wine! And the rest is history! Was I happier in those days? Was I making better wines? No, I don't think so. I think I was probably making worse wines, and that I've become a lot stricter with myself and more demanding, especially over the last 3 or 4 years.

Am I going to promote and market my wines as 'natural wines'? Yes, but not exclusively. There are several inconveniences about using the term natural wines to market my wines, that I have to bear in mind. The main one is that most consumers don't know what it means! Because there is no official or legal definition. Another inconvenience is that there are a lot of bad, faulty and extreme wines out there that I don't want to be associated with. I want to produce interesting, complex, terroir-expressing, comment-worthy wines, not wines that can just be slotted into a marketing category. I want to make wines that smell good and taste delicious! Just like the majority of natural winemakers.

Since my family hasn't been making wine for generations, and customers aren't beating a path to my cellar door, I have to promote and market my wines somehow or other. The use of the category of 'natural wines' may or may not be good for me: I will have to decide. Not only do I have to be a good winemaker, but I also have to be an astute marketer! I will just go with the flow and try to keep some grace while under pressure :)

The obvious advantage for me in marketing my wines as 'natural wines' is that ALL my customers, and contacts in the trade, know exactly what is meant by 'natural wine', and the quality and characteristics of my wines can speak for themselves. This is because my production is so small, that all my sales are within the 'natural wine community' or wine-lovers who already know what natural wine is all about. If and when I ever significantly increase my production and have to reach out to the wider wine-loving community, then I will have to think about it. A problem of plenty, really!

Interesting times we're living in!


  1. " the main primary meaning of 'natural' is "existing in nature; not man-made" (eg, an ocean, a mountain), the meaning that Mr Wark believes is the only one..."

    You haven't paid close attention. I recognize another meaning of the phrase "natural wine".

    "Natural Wine" (noun)

    1) A deceptive phrase used to for marketing purposes

    2) A vague marketing-speak often used in association with derogatory descriptions of other wines

    1. Tom, that's fine. You are free to propose any meanings you like for words. And if a critical mass of English-speakers ever recognize those meanings too, then the editors of dictionaries will take note, writers and journalists will use the word with those meanings, and the common people will also use the word with those meanings in conversations. But it seems pretty unlikely that that's ever going to happen with those meanings you propose! Though of course all things are possible, and stranger things have happened!

  2. Hi Fabio et al,
    just a point. Here and there we can hear and read that as far as there's no legal or oficial defnition people do not know what's 'natural wine'. Well, I don't agree with this. Despite there are a lot of different definitions we all (adults) know what's the difference between 'good' and 'bad' and in some manner we all know in a sort of an inner way what's a 'natural wine' or a 'non-natural wine'.

    I do always try to explain this with greens. We all have quite clear what's a natural plot with greens, no chemical treatment and we all always say how goooood are these tomatoes and all the fuss with no added (shit) substances so... why we do make a different approach with wines?



    1. Thanks José, I know what you mean, and thousands of other natural winelovers also know.

  3. Fabio - you know what I think. You have expressed the arguments beautifully and with generosity and humility (naturally!)

  4. Thanks Doug, it must be due to all that umbilical wine I've been drinking! :)

  5. Julio Romero Tera21 February 2014 at 11:40

    Fabio, me da igual lo que diga el Sr.Wark. Casi me da igual lo que tú escribes; pero sigo disfrutando enormemente de tus vinos, incluso sin etiquetas. Lo natural, como bien apunta Joan Gómez Pallarés, es un concepto vital, cuando no es así, el vino lo manifiesta. Provocar discusiones semánticas, diluye el verdadero mensaje, son maniobras de distracción. No inviertas tiempo en ello Fabio. Lo necesitas para seguir haciendo vinos placenteros.


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