name="description" content="Terroir-expressing natural wine minimum intervention">

Monday 6 October 2014

Back-Label Feedback

I got some ‘interesting’ feedback recently from some #winelovers on FaceBook. See this comment thread.

My first reaction to these comments was great surprise and incomprehension, because it wasn't at all what I was expecting. And now that a few days have passed and I’ve had plenty of time to think it over and prepare replies in my mind, etc, … my second reaction is still great surprise and incomprehension!

But first things first. Here’s the offending back-label itself:

Before replying to all the comments in the thread, here are my reasons and motives for designing and using such a label:

1. First and foremost in my mind and overridingly most important to me is the “labelling issue” for wine. As I’m sure you all know, wine (for whatever reason) is exempt from the labelling requirements that all other food and drink products have to comply with. I consider this to be against consumers’ best interests.

I believe that this class of legislation is passed with the consumers interests in mind. In fact, surely it’s the only reason that such legislation exists in the first place? Otherwise we would be back in the nineteenth century where producers could do exactly as they liked with no regard whatsoever to consumers’ health and safety!
Things have moved on a bit since but the same basic principle applies, and consumers now have a right to know what’s in their product, so that they can make an informed choice on whether to purchase it or not.

So I decided to voluntarily publish the list of ingredients in my wines and processing that I subjected them to, and not to wait for the lawmakers to make it obligatory. (I reckon it will be a long time before that happens, given the strength of the industrial lobbies and the weakness of consumer interest lobbies!).

2. Secondly, I was hoping that such a gesture would generate some publicity in a legitimate and productive manner. Productive because it would stimulate some debate and inspire people to think about the labelling issue; and legitimate because I haven’t deceived readers or distorted the truth in any way, I’ve just given bare facts.

So, onto the comments themselves:

Here’s the first one from Magnus Reuterdahl:
“It’s not a label that sells a wine though it could be used for samples!”

Magnus, yes, you are probably right, but my objective in using this label wasn’t to sell wine. I am a very small producer (about 15,000 bottles of about 8 different wines) and so I can easily sell all my production every year, without need of any crazy marketing gimmicks!

Next up was a mini-sub-thread from Suzanne Werth-Rosarius, Sam Jorgensen and Ryan Opaz:

Suzanne: “my translation of the label is: whatever it tastes like, you should drink it because it’s ecologically and morally correct.”

Sam: “Is natural wine intrinsically more “moral” than other wine? Highly doubtful, if you ask me.”

Suzanne: “I guess that’s what he wants to make us believe.”

Sam: “Moreover, drinking only natural wine is as bloody-minded a philosophy as the concept that all natural wine is bad.”

Ryan: “... I would have to say I think it’s pretty silly too, but there is a demand for it.”

Sam: “It’s certainly what he wants us to believe. It’s still a ridiculous assertion."

Suzanne: “Sam, or the other way around, that all ‘non-natural’ wine is bad.  Btw, is there any wine that is not natural? Grapes are natural products. Full stop.”

Sam: “Exactly. The militancy some people have means they miss out on some incredible wine, which is a massive price to pay.”

What? I beg your pardon? Where on earth does it say that I want you all to believe that natural wine is more moral? I have never said any such thing, anywhere, anytime, let alone on this back-label, which after all is just a list of bullet points!

As the sensible and rational #winelover that I like to think I am, I obviously agree that it is silly and bloody-minded to hold such radical philosophies, but my question remains: “Why this leap of logic from an information-loaded back-label, which can only be of benefit to consumers, to questions of morality, radical philosophies and militancy? (which are of course extremely interesting topics - but I didn't mention them on the label!)

Susan Hadbled:
"It certainly is a statement. A niche would like to see detailed labelling. Think it’s gone too far.”

Yup, it’s a statement alright! But you think “it’s gone too far”?  It hasn’t even started going anywhere yet! At the moment winemakers are totally except from listing the ingredients they put into their wines, unlike producers of any other food or drink product. Consumers just do not have the information they need in order to choose if they want to buy or not.

Perhaps I have gone too far with this particular back-label, in that I’ve also listed what I didn’t put in. But that was just to make my point! If winemakers were required to list their ingredients, then they would have to expressly list all those substances (that I haven’t used). And then, with that information, consumers could decide whether to buy or not.

Sarah May Grunwald:
"If you have to spend the money on a label like this maybe the wine ain’t so good. I only drink natural wine but this is kind of douche”

Sarah, I hardly spent any money at all on this label! I wrote it myself on a Word file and the printer is a friend who gave me a very good rate. In any case I don’t see any connection between the cost of a label (pretty or awful) with the wine inside. What’s one thing got to do with the other?

“I totally believe in ingredient labeling on wine, consumers should know what is IN the wine but not what is NOT”

Couldn’t agree more. This is the whole point of the label! :)  Perhaps you’re right, in that it may be excessive to list what’s NOT in my wine, but no harm done I think. If and when the legislation forces winemakers to list the ingredients in their wines, then it will certainly no longer be necessary.

Mafalda Bahía Machado:
“The most important question is: Is the wine good? “Natural” wines are a good concept, and also good marketing, but if it is not good, then for me it does not matter if it is “natural”!

Yup, I agree 100%.  By my book, ‘natural’, ‘organic’ ‘sustainable’ or any concept, philosophy or process you care to mention is no excuse for bad wine.

Alfonso Fernandes Marques:
“ridiculous stuff ... typical wine wacko...”

I’m sorry Alfonso, but I’m anything but a wine wacko. Just read my blog posts, or any third-party interview with me, and you’ll see what a normal, reasonable, unradical, person I am!

Jonathan Hesford:
 “It’s what I would call over-egging the cake”

Yes, you’re right, but until the legislation changes and makes ingredient listing obligatory, then there’s no harm in exaggerating, is there.  It’s a bit like the “Critical Bike” people who demand more facilities for cycling in cities, by riding through town naked!  There’s no actual need to go naked, but it helps draw attention to the problem they’re trying to solve! :)

Jai Arya:
“...Borders on militant differentiated marketing..!”  

I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I’ll take it as a compliment :)

Daniele Endrici:
” Who knows if it is drinkable...”

Who knows indeed? You personally may or may not like it, obviously. But even if my wines may not be to everybody’s taste, they are certainly acceptable to many people to the tune of about 15,000 bottles/year, which I regularly sell year after year. I’ve even had good reviews from conventional wine critics (for example, Luis Gutiérrez, from El Mundo newspaper, and Andrew Jefford, from Decanter magazine, who are hardly natural wine fanatics). And if you look at pictures of the inside of my bodega you’ll see lots of empty spaces, ie not piled up with unsold pallets of wine!

Marco Montez:
 “In processing, was electricity used for crushing, racking or pressing? That would certainly disqualify it from being 100% natural, right?”

Marco, I use electricity to power a hydraulic press and a motorized crusher, when I am processing big lots of the same grapes, ie over 2,000 kg. For racking all wines, even large lots, and for crushing and pressing small lots (less than 2,000 kg) I use manual non-electric machines. And I use electric lightbulbs so I can work when the sun is below the horizon! This post here, which I wrote back in March 2013 covers precisely this question.

Yes, depending on your definition of natural wine (because as we all know, there is no ‘official’ definition) no wines are 100% natural.  I have this fascinating theory/opinion about the “scale of naturalness” which you can read all about in this other post  :)

Dan Pastore:
“Geez...stop. Reminded me of something Einstein wrote “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” – Albert Einstein

You mean it’s meaningless to try to define natural wine ‘scientifically’? I think probably you are right. If ‘natural wine’ were ever to be legally defined, it would not be to everybody’s liking, taste or advantage, and you can be sure that within 2 days of that law being passed, a group of disgruntled winemakers, distributors and drinkers would some invent a new category for themselves using some other word.

Suzanne Werth-Rosarius (again):
“I drank a lot of non-sulphured wines which turned out to be completely undrinkable after only a couple of months. Do get me right: I think detailed labelling is absolutely important. What i find kind of absurd here is the wording.”

Sarah May Grunwald (again):
“Sarah, that is another topic. I have had many non-sulfured wines that last weeks after opening. Like conventional wine, there are great wines and awful wines”.

You said it, Sarah, and I agree “Like conventional wine, there are great wines and awful wines”, and it’s kinda really pointless to generalize individual wines that one has tasted to a whole category.

Suzanne Werth-Rosarius: 
“ ... talking wine is not for sissies!”

Right! I am so glad that I’m thousands of miles from you all, well protected by distance and behind a computer! I’m having to deal with a really awesome quantity of flak – just for printing lots of information on a label! Only joking! :)

Sjoerd de Jong:
 “Don’t take this too seriously. It’s a joke...”

Not a joke, I’m afraid!

Denis Andolfo:
“No mention on how they farm their vineyards...”

Alfonso, I follow organic practices in my vineyards, ie no chemicals.

 “no pesticides, no insecticides, etc. What I would also like to know is whether they treat their workers fairly.”

Suzanne, I don’t have any workers, except for myself, and I exploit myself brutally and mercilessly. I often force myself to work 12 or 14 hours/day and don’t pay myself any overtime. I regularly make myself work on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and over vacations, again with no overtime. In fact I don’t even pay myself regular wages, though I do faithfully pay my social security contributions to the Spanish government. But, seriously, I do manage about 3 ha of vineyards all by myself, and in addition I buy in grapes from local organic growers.

Dominic Lombard:
“Looks like a label sample or something that has a shitload of ingredients if you don’t read it.”

Yes, I suppose it does look crap. But I’m not a designer, or artist or marketing guru, and I also have really bad taste in clothes and art, so that’s that!

Philippe Joulkes:
“Love it!”

Hooray, at last, somebody likes my label! :)

Elisabetta Tosi:
“Well, at least you have something to read when you’re drinking it!”

Absolutely! Another positive aspect! :)

Markus Hammer:
“I’ve had so many non-sulfured wines that just tasted like oxydized crap that I really feel sorry for the grapes that ended up just becoming hipster vinegar. It’s not like adding 30 ppm SO2 suddenly kills any expression of terroir and I am really really getting tired of this merry jerry ride along the non-sulfur train.”

Yes, heard that one before, but as I answered to Sarah Grunwald above, some wines are good, and some are bad, no matter what category they are in. It’s should be patently obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that not ALL non-sulfered wines are neither awful nor awesome, and that we will find examples of awful and awesome wines across all categories. I absolutely agree that a touch of sulphites does no harm whatsoever.

As I said on the original comment-thread on FaceBook, I never release wines that show any signs of turning into vinegar. I would just die of embarrassment! I usually just pour such failed lots down the drain, but this year I decided to keep two small lots and really make some real vinegar! Watch this space! :)

Dominc Lombard (again):
"I might try and Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. I understand what you want to do but you have to present it in a simpler friendlier way. Fabio, are you going to the Peñín tasting on the 16th?” “Like a natural wine, less is more, at times”

Dominic, thanks for the advice, but I don’t need to or want to keep it simple. The reason for this horrible, ugly, oversized and outrageous label is to draw attention to the labeling problem, not to promote sales.
Yes, I hope to go to the Peñín tasting, if I can find a ticket for free! You going? You wouldn’t have a ticket for me, would you? :)

Mark Perlaki:
Regrdless of info, or contents of bottle, it looks like a wrinkly plaster. I applaud low-budget solutions and home labelling and it must survive refrigeration intact, but...

Yes OK, it’s horrible. In fact, it’s even worse that it should have been due to a last minute decision (after the labels had been printed) to use a Burgundy bottle for my Airén instead of a Bordeaux bottle. So, of course there is less flat space on a burgundy bottle on which to stick said massive label, and it didn’t quite fit! Not even after I’d manually chopped a few millimetres of top and bottom off of each and every labels using a paper guillotine. Live and learn. No more Burgundy bottles!

I have no idea if it can survive refrigeration in an ice bucket. I haven’t received any feedback on that point. (I dread to think!)

Rob Hansult:
“This “natural” irrational abhorance to technology (especially the rejection of 2000+ year-old use of sulphur) makes me sad.
BTW, in what desert are vinifer grapes grown with no fungacides? Characterising yeasts and bacteria as “industrial” is also a misnomer."

Rob, just for the record, I have no abhorrence of technology. In fact I quite like it! You may have noticed that I’m regular user of FaceBook, Twitter, email, I own a mobile phone, and watch TV sometimes. I have a car with an internal combustion engine, and I regularly ride on buses and trains.

Sulfur. I have been known to use sulphur in my vineyards, and even in my wines: see these posts if you don’t believe me: here and here. But the reason I don’t use sulphur by default, is not because I irrationally abhor it, but simply because my vineyards are blessed by such a benign climate that I don’t need to use any. And I generally don’t need to use any in my wines because I’ve found by experience over the past 10 years, that it’s enough to use top quality grapes and to keep all my equipment scrupulously clean.

I realize that a bit of SO2 also stabilizes wines so they don’t evolve over time, but I don’t mind that – in fact I like it! And I’ve had no complaints from my happy customers! And in addition, it’s like having two wines for the price of one: because it’s a totally different wine in June than it is in January! :)

Technology. I believe that we humans should use the technology that is most appropriate to the intended use. I think it’s irrational to use the latest technology just because it’s the latest. Is it inherently ‘better’ just because it’s the latest? For example, I’ve recently started using a hand-operated pump to rack my wines, instead of an electric motor. Why? Because it’s more appropriate and much more convenient for me. See this entire post which is all about my reasons for using this pump and my criteria for selecting the appropriate level of technology. Technology is mankind’s slave, not the other way around! See this post for some thoughts on technology and a nice pic of that pump!

Deserts. Vitis vinifera has grown in the wild in the north and south temperate zones of the planet for over 200 million years; that’s about 198 million years longer than homo sapiens has existed. Then it grew for another 2 million years without assistance from homo sapiens till about 8,000 years ago. Then it grew for about another 7,800 years without the use of fungicides produced in factories. Are you telling me that Vitis vinifera suddenly now needs homo sapiens’ chemicals?

I suppose one way to produce millions of litres of table wine is via intensive chemical viticulture, but it doesn’t seem like a very clean, efficient or sustainable way of going about things to me.

Industrial. It’s not really a misnomer, as the types of yeast and bacteria I’m referring to were created and packaged in a factory, ie an industry. True, these packages originally came from some particular strain from some particular location in nature, at some time or other in the past. But which strain? Which location? How long ago? I bet it doesn’t say on the label! I can be almost 100% certain that the strains in an industrial package of yeast were not local ones from Sierra de Gredos in Spain. So why should I use a strain from a distant unknown location? What’s wrong with the local strains anyway?

Sorry for such a long answer – nothing personal. It’s just that you managed to bring up four highly interesting topics in two short sentences! :)

Jan Kiegeland:
” Fabio, the label in the end does not tell anything about the wine. It does tell me a lot about you, which is fine. But: where does the wine come from? How do you work in the vineyard? What is your type of trellis? Type of soil? Don’t you have anything to say about the terroir, which makes the wine so special? Instead you blame other producers making industrial crap. I find it sad that some natural wine producers create their image by talking bad about others instead of pointing out their own strengths and USP.

Jeez! You mean you want me to put even more information on the label? I will have to sell my wines exclusively in magnums or bigger! The type of information you ask for is well covered in the Pages sections of my blog, at the top just under the header: here.

Actually, I don’t blame industrial producers of commodity table wines. I think that the wine world is big enough to accommodate all types of wines, including the niche natural wine sub-sub-category! I understand what you’re getting at, but it’s very difficult to walk that walk. Sometimes it’s easier to explain yourself in contrast to the mainstream, as opposed to just describing yourself in a vacuum as it were. This point is closely related to the labeling problem, as I think that most consumers believe that wine really is a natural product with no added ingredients - precisely because there is no information on the label!

Leah De Felice Renton:
"Why have the QR code if you’re going to squish it all on the bottle anyway? This looks terrible. And the wine looks like cider."

Yes, There was absolutely no point in including a QR code. It’s just that I still think that they look kind of cool! Like I said above I have really bad taste in clothes and art and stuff (so people tell me) so I just stuck it in!  Also, even worse, I believe that now you can just scan a label directly with your mobile and there’s an app that recognizes labels and takes you straight to the appropriate page! RIP QR Codes I suppose :)

And yes, I know it looks terrible - see my other responses above.

The wine looks like cider? And so...? Are you saying that I should filter it and/or clarify and attempt to imitate 99.9% of all other wines in the market? Surely there's nothing wrong with a bit of diversity? Many people are intrigued by the cloudiness and sediment and end up not bothering so much about the appearance. If you filter and/or clarify you remove interesting and 'good' aromas and tastes.


In conclusion, thank you all for your responses. I think I learnt more about other issues than about the labelling issue itself, which is what I was most concerned about. Still, all such knowledge is both interesting and welcome.

I wish I could send you all a bottle of wine, but I think it’s a bit impractical, especially for those of you living in the USA and other restrictive market countries. The bottles would just get confiscated by the Customs authorities. But if you ever come to Spain, you are all hereby invited to a comprehensive wine-tasting at my bodega :)

And please feel free to comment here below. I know it’s difficult to have in-depth complex debates online, but at least here on a blog, it’s better than a comment thread on FaceBook!

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