Q: I saw an ad for a wine club. They say their wines are "natural," with grapes grown without chemicals, they don't add sulfites, the wines are 100 percent sugar free, and they are much better for your health than other wines. It sounds good, but my visceral skepticism has me on the fence. What do you think?—Jerry, Minneapolis, Minn.
A: I've seen those wine clubs advertised. Minimal-intervention winemaking is a popular trend right now. Some of these vintners have adopted the term "natural" to describe their wines, which makes me a bit uncomfortable for several big reasons: I don't like that it suggests that wines not adopting these practices (or terms) are "unnatural," there isn't any consensus about the definition of what a "natural" wine is (so I'll continue to put it in quotation marks for now), and the claim that these wines are "healthier" for you is dubious.
Despite all that, I would expect that these "natural" wines are produced on a small scale, and are made sharing some of the ideologies that you mention, and that might be very appealing to you.
But are these wines healthier for you? Wines grown without pesticides are certainly better for our environment, and that's good for us all. But there are plenty of wines that are grown sustainably or organically that don't call themselves "natural." These growing practices don't affect the parts of wine that have been linked to health benefits—polyphenols, antioxidants, resveratrol, etc.—all wine contains those. And lots and lots of laws are already in place that prevent the sale of wines with detectable levels of pesticides or other chemicals that come anywhere near levels that would be considered harmful for human consumption.
The sulfite thing is slightly more complicated. All wines contain sulfites—it's a natural byproduct of winemaking. Many winemakers add additional sulfites to help keep wines stable and prevent them from spoiling. There's a very small percentage of the population that are very sensitive to sulfites, so they are probably staying away from wine no matter what to avoid some serious respiratory difficulties. And most wines don't have added sugar (aka chaptalization)—but if you need to keep an eye out for sugar in your life, check out our complete guide to what wine drinkers should know about sugar, and also talk to your doctor.
I think your skepticism is well-founded, but I also think it's OK if you decide these viticultural and winemaking practices are important to you and you want to sign up for this wine club. I just hope you also like the way the wines taste!