By Eric Asimov (The NY Times)
THE world of wine is full of hornets’ nests. The minute you step on one, whether you nudge it accidentally or boot it with malice aforethought, the angry buzzing begins, rising to a high-pitched howl that would send anybody in search of shelter and a beer.
Prime among these are natural wines. These wines, which barely make up a tiny slice of the marketplace, effortlessly polarize, not least because of the implied repudiation contained in the word “natural.” If your wine is natural, what does that make mine? Unnatural? Artificial?
Even defining the term incites the sort of Talmudic bickering usually reserved for philosophers and sports talk-radio hosts. Generally speaking, though, it is intended to mean wines made of grapes grown organically, or in rough approximation, and then made into wine with a minimum of manipulation — nothing added, nothing taken away, the winemaker simply shepherding the grape juice along its natural path of fermentation into wine.
This would seem to be the kind of laudable idealism worth encouraging. Instead, in recent months natural wines and their adherents have been harshly criticized in newspaper and magazine articles, in conferences and on Internet bulletin boards. Some writers have warned of green-washing, the practice of making false or exaggerated claims about ecologically virtuous practices in order to reap marketing gains. Others resent what they feel is a scolding, finger-wagging sanctimony inherent not only in the term “natural wines,” but also in the admirers of the wines. Most damning is the assertion that many wines regarded as natural are unclean, impure and downright bad.
“Natural Isn’t Perfect” was the headline in The Washington Post this spring for an article by the wine columnist Dave McIntyre, who wrote, “The minimalist approach of the natural-wine movement, taken to its extreme, can be an excuse for bad wine-making.”
For fans of natural wines, and I am one, the criticism can be profoundly frustrating. Most people who make or like the wines feel as they do simply because they enjoy the way the wines taste, not because they follow a particular dogma. When successful, natural wines can be superb, seeming bold, vibrant and fresh, graceful and unforced.
“Do you like raw milk cheese and dry-aged beef, do you prefer real sourdough over white bread?” asked Lou Amdur, whose wine bar in Los Angeles, Lou on Vine, took part last month in a series of seminars and discussions of natural wines. “These wines are in the same constellation.”
A lot is expected of natural wines, partly because of the term’s connotations of purity. Yet to criticize the genre because not all the wines measure up holds them to an unfair standard. Bad winemaking is bad winemaking wherever you find it. Mr. McIntyre could just as easily criticize mainstream brands for using their popularity and financial success to excuse atrocious winemaking.
I’ve had natural wines from the Loire and Beaujolais, where the movement began, that are as clean and crystalline as anybody might ever want. Others have been murky and funky, yet nonetheless enchanting. And yes, some have been microbiological disasters, refermenting in the bottle or worse. The mistakes have been few, though, while the good examples have been among the most beautiful, intriguing wines I have ever tasted.
“These are often experimental wines, and I love that people are risking their livelihoods making their wines,” Mr. Amdur said. “These people are not making a lot of money.”
Nonetheless, some producers are trying to capitalize on the growing environmental awareness of consumers by touting their wines as biodynamic or organic. Partly, this parallels the organic-food movement, in which big corporations, not wanting to cede the business, have instead tried to co-opt it by weakening standards and employing their marketing might.
“There are producers who say they are farming organically, but when you dig a little deeper you find it’s true only 85 percent of the time,” said Scott Pactor, who owns Appellation, a wine shop in Manhattan that carries a loosely defined collection of organic, biodynamic and sustainably produced wines. “Greenwashing creates cynicism.”
Indeed, some wine writers have used examples of this sort of greenwashing to batter the entire genre.
I’m not surprised to find exaggeration among those who claim to make natural wines, or any other kind of wine. The history of the wine trade is replete with fraud, adulteration and all manner of chiseling from antiquity to the present.
While the numbers of natural-wine makers and of restaurants, bars and shops that champion them is small, their influence is disproportionate. Like artists, musicians and writers in the avant-garde, the movement traffics in ideas that swirl far beyond the interests of the vast majority of ordinary fans. Nonetheless, their ideas may change the way people think of grape growing and winemaking.
Some of the winemakers might be primitive in their methods, but others are decidedly scientific in their craft. The fact is that making wine without benefit of chemicals or other technological shortcuts demands precision and exactitude. Far more so, perhaps, than in conventional winemaking. I find this passion and determination inspiring.
Not so long ago the organic and local food movements were condemned as the province of eccentrics and fanatics. Yet the proof was in quality and flavor, and many of their ideas have won out. The same may eventually be true in wine.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 16, 2010 on page D4 of the New York edition.