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Nice, but is it 'Natural'? Brooklyn wine makers and purveyors weigh in on the raging debate over 'Natural Wine'

While browsing the shelves of their favorite neighborhood wine shops over the past few years, Brooklyn wine enthusiasts are sure to have noticed an increasing number of bottles sporting ‘organic,’ ‘biodynamic,’ and ‘natural’ labels. While the meaning of ‘organic,’ and ‘biodynamic’ grape-growing and winemaking practices are somewhat well defined, ‘natural’ can be a little more opaque.

In his column for The New York Times last week, wine critic Eric Asimov highlighted the surprisingly incendiary debate within the wine community over the meaning of ‘natural wines.’ Robert Parker, the all-powerful wine critic who revolutionized the wine market by awarding point-scores to vintages (a practice which has caused its own fair share of controversy), calls natural wines, “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers.”

What exactly is ‘natural wine’? Therein lies the problem – there are no clear lines of demarcation defining the boundaries between ‘natural’ wines and everything else, and the natural wine movement, which Asimov compares to Occupy Wall Street, seems to like it that way.

In general, those who identify themselves as natural winemakers practice organic or biodynamic viniculture, and minimize human interference in the making of their wines. They eschew age-old practices like the replacement of the wild yeasts that grow naturally on their grapes with foreign yeast cultures – something most winemakers have done for generations to better control the outcome of their finished wines – and the use of sulfur dioxide, a method developed by the ancient Romans to stabilize wines and prevent spoilage.

Proponents claim that the natural approach allows the true nature of the wines and their terroir to shine more brightly. Detractors argue that the lack of clear standards renders the term meaningless, and suggests unfair or non-existent divisions within the winemaking community. Most of the loudest voices on either side of the debate stand united in aversion to the industrial approach to farming grapes and making wine that produces the vast majority of wine on the market. Asimov writes:

“What is this movement? No more than a tiny collection of winemakers who, along with a motley crew of restaurants, wine bars, consumers and writers, prefer wines that are made with an absolute minimum of manipulation: grapes grown organically or in rough approximation, then simply set forth along an unforced path of fermentation into wine, with nothing added and nothing taken away.

Nothing ought to be wrong with that. Yet the notion of such advocacy lights a short fuse that explodes into hissy fits. In fact, as is so often the case with annoyances, the reaction brings the irritant far more attention than it might have earned otherwise.”

Where does Brooklyn come in on the debate? We asked a few local wine makers and purveyors for their thoughts on ‘natural’ wine.

Christopher Nicholson, Winemaker at the Red Hook Winery:

Eric Asimov’s excellent article on opinions within the wine world regarding natural wines highlights a few important questions: 1) Are natural wines any good? 2) What do people find threatening about natural wines (and their drinkers and makers) and 3) What is the definition of an “un-natural” wine and is natural wine everything that “un-natural” wine is not?

As a young winemaker, I have brief thoughts regarding these questions:

1) Are natural wines any good? This question should be answered using the same tools that a wine drinker brings to any wine: Is it a pleasure to drink? Does it make sense? Is it from a place? If it has ambition to be a great wine, is it complex, balanced, and does it possess length?

2) What do people find threatening about natural wines (and their drinkers and makers)? It is my opinion that, as Mr. Asimov pointed out, the lack of codification (“leaders, orthodoxy, and an agenda”) can certainly make natural wines, as a movement, seem threatening. If two speakers aren’t speaking a language that shares the same rules, can they have a conversation? What does one angry foreigner say to another angry foreigner?

3) What is the definition of an “un-natural” wine and is natural wine everything that “un-natural” wine is not? Winemaking does not, in my opinion, happen in nature. Bacteria and yeast (a fungus) both eat sugar and convert it to various substances but they do not, without the presence of a winemaker, make wine. The intervention on the part of the winemaker, on a series of levels (temperature control [or no temperature control] and protection from or exposure to air are among the most basic interventions; manipulation of sugar concentration and pH are another possible level; introduction of cultured strains of yeast are another; additional levels include but are not limited to the introduction of enzymes, storage in wooden or non-wooden vessels, and finally, use or lack of use of sulfur dioxide throughout the process) determines the creation of a wine. Since these interventions do not occur (in order or by design) in the natural world, the answer to the question is rooted not in biology, husbandry, or chemistry, but in language.

Conor McCormac, Winemaker at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Winery:

First, I would like to point out that “natural” wines are not a new phenomenon, but only the term in which to market them that way is.

Second, what is “natural” wine? This is at the heart of any confusion as there is no clear definition.

The “natural wine” movement is suffering from the same issues as the current “occupy movement” in that no one really knows what it encompasses. Ask five different people what it means and you will get five different answers. For me, a “natural wine” would need to be grown completely without the use of pesticides and sulfur, left to ferment with native yeasts, aged without the use of sulfur or any other additives, and bottled un-fined and unfiltered.

In 2010, I made a Chardonnay from Seneca Lake that was fermented to dryness on the skins with native yeast, pressed to 12 year old oak barrels, and allowed to age without the use of sulfur and then bottled un-fined and unfiltered. I am thrilled with the resulting wine that is orange in color, with a rich phenolic mouth-feel and dark flavor profile. Not a wine for every palate though. In the winery, this is as “natural” as it gets. Yet I would not label it a “natural” wine, as the vineyard required sulfur sprays to combat mold pressure during the growing season.

Lastly, just because a wine is called “natural” does not mean it is better than other wines (or better for you). In fact, I think some are even using the term to explain away blatant faults in the wine. For me, minimal intervention will always yield the best results in the winery. Is that natural?

Talitha Whidbee, of Williamsburg’s Vine Wine:

As I read through the article I was reminded of how much we lost in the wine world with the passing of Joe Dressner. He was always such a huge proponent of the very intrinsic idea of “natural wine” yet he hated the title or the label of ‘Natural Wine’.  There is a part of me that responds to this whole natural wine movement in the same way that I respond to a high school clique full of the “cool kids”.  Since there are no set rules defining natural wine, and because it seems to be an arbitrary term bestowed by a particular importer and subset of the wine industry, it seems to be almost exclusionary in practice, which to me is not what the wine industry should be about.  I love some of the wines that are defined as natural wine, and I love some wines that one wine friend termed ‘laissez-faire’ wines, more informed by the grape and the terrior than by the dogma of any particular wine making style.  Whatever happens in 2012 with wines, natural and not, I believe that the continuation of this conversation is fantastic for the industry as a whole.

Michael Andrews, of Williamsburg’s Natural Wine Company says:

The conversation about Natural Wine that Asimov references is simply that: a conversation among wine industry insiders that is largely irrelevant to our customers, or to us.  We all use multiple standards to choose what we purchase – from food to clothes, cars to wine: we care about quality, taste, and more and more, we care about sustainability.  Like Asimov, we love and sell wines that are “made as carefully as possible by farmers who practice classic forms of viticulture and winemakers who may try to guide the path of production but don’t seek to control it.”  We shop at the farmer’s market, buy organic produce when possible and care about what we eat.  Why should wine be any different?

Jeff Patten, of Williamsburg’s Uva Wines and Spirits:

We, like Eric, try to avoid the crazy vitriol regarding natural wines.  We carry one of the widest selections of self-identifying “natural” wines in NYC and we love them and drink them frequently.  We also admire, stock and drink other wines that are made according to methods that are minimally interventionist but for whatever reason do not identify with the natural wine move — like Lafarge, Huet, etc.

But we do that because we like the wine, not because of their political affiliation.  We also carry Raveneau and Carillon, which make some of the very best and most terroir-faithful white wines in the world.  But both producers innoculate with yeast, add sulphur dioxide, and commit other unnatural sins.  We don’t think people should fight about this stuff.  They should just drink good wine.

Michael Yarmark of Thirst Wine Merchants in Fort Greene:

The “natural wine movement,” is just an attempt to build a community of like-minded artisanal winemakers, retailers, restaurateurs, wine drinkers.

Ron Kyle of Dry Dock Wine and Spirits in Red Hook:

“It is an interesting debate but for us at the end of the day it comes down to the taste of the wine itself and whether it is good or not.”

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3 Responses to What’s The Ruckus Over ‘Natural Wine’? Brooklyn Wine Makers & Purveyors Weigh In

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