Sommelier Roundtable: Where Are You at on Natural Wine?

Now that it's not just the new thing, we asked 7 somms how they're feeling about the progress of that perennial hot-button style, natural wine
Sommelier Roundtable: Where Are You at on Natural Wine?
Natural wine still makes some wary, but somms point to winemakers from Berkeley, Calif., to Spain's Ribeira Sacra as leaders in quality. (iStockPhoto)
Jan 24, 2020

Few topics have become quite as much of a flashpoint in the wine discourse as natural wine. Is natural wine better, purer, more eco-conscious, a cri de coeur against industrialization and mass-production? Or are its wines too likely flawed, its adherents too likely loud and its definition unlikely clear?

The debate has echoed from the Loire to Singapore and one vintage to another for a while at this point. Looking toward a new decade in conscientiously made wine, we asked seven somms from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners what they think of the natural wine movement right now, its progress and who's doing it right. Quotation marks around "natural" have been preserved where respondents intended ....

Wine Spectator: What are your thoughts on natural wine generally, at this point? Who are some winemakers you think are making natural wine well?

Angela Gargano, wine and spirits director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Mont.

While discussing biodynamic practices he was using in his vineyard, a very wise winemaker once told me, “I can’t explain why it works. But it works.” That sums up my view of natural winemaking. While I don’t think that natural winemaking offers any guarantee of quality—and in fact there are many poorly made natural wines out there—many of the wines I love most use some degree of natural winemaking techniques, including wines from Éric Texier [in the Rhône] and Elisabetta Foradori [in northeastern Italy]. Is it the "natural winemaking" that makes their wines so special? I don’t know and can’t explain it. I just know that what I taste in the glass works.

Jonathan Adkisson, beverage director at the newly opened Riddler in New York, sibling to Award of Excellence winner the Riddler in San Francisco

Natural wine is what it is. My philosophy is if it is natural then it must be well made. That doesn't mean I have to like it, but it can't be an excuse for sloppy winemaking. Laura Lorenzo is crushing it right now [with Daterra Viticultores in Spain's Ribeira Sacra] and Julien Labet [in France's Jura] as well.

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner RN74 in Seattle

Wine first and foremost is a product of the human hand. I am still unclear exactly what "natural wine" means; it needs the clarity of a definition. I feel the best “natural” [winemakers] don’t feel the need to join, or even acknowledge, the club, roadshow or camp. They keep on keepin’ on, farming holistically or biodynamically and making wines as they always have to reflect the land they work.

All too often the wines and wineries that shout at us that they are “natural” are deeply flawed. Despite the winemaker’s intention, the variety and sense of place is lost to bacterial infections and spoilage yeast to the point they taste like “natural” wine, not wines of terroir. The terroir of an unsound wine no longer reflects the grapes or place, and the whole point of a less-is-more approach is lost in flaws. There is an ocean of mediocre wine in every category, but in the natural wine world they have become largely acceptable.

Andrew Pattison, beverage director at Award of Excellence winner Sushi Note in Los Angeles

I view it as a category of wine that has its own audience at this point. We still have work to do in terms of educating consumers about what they actually like [in general] and giving them the correct vocabulary to convey their preferences.

There are countless winemakers who make "natural" wines that do not need to market themselves as such to sell their wines. In Burgundy, I'll always drink Sylvain Pataille's wines when given the chance, as well as anything from Tomoko Kuriyama and Guillaume Bott's Chanterêves.

James Bonner, sommelier at Award of Excellence winner Red Pump Kitchen in Charlottesville, Va.

I honestly do not understand the point of natural wines. I get the point that they are organic and have fewer additives. For me, nothing beats a well-aged Virginia red blend, something natural wine can't compete with. Most natural wines are for immediate consumption and have little room for aging. Nowadays you can find plenty of organic wines made from sustainably [farmed] vineyards.

Ted Rink, beverage director at Award of Excellence winner BLVD Chicago in Chicago

If it helps people drink more wine, I'm all for it! This is certainly a trend we will have to ride for a while. Many producers in the Loire have given perspective and credibility to the movement, Joly being one of the standard-bearers.

Evan Danielson, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner City Winery Nashville in Nashville, Tenn.

I enjoy many natural wines, although, as with most things in life, the middle ground and striving for balance is key. Ultimately, many of the greatest wines are made with as little intervention as possible, but the winemakers still intervene when necessary. The natural wine movement often runs the risk of placing philosophy and approach above the final product, which may be a noble endeavor but sometimes results in a product that would be more enjoyable if the hand of the winemaker had a bit more of an imprint. Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars [in California] does some awesome wines that seem to ride the line.

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