When Did Wine Become So Partisan?

Why crusades are a fool's errand
Jul 15, 2014

If you're an ordinary wine drinker, someone who pops into a grocery for tonight's Chardonnay, chances are that you're unaware of an increasingly high-pitched crusade being waged in the fine-wine aisle.

The crusade on both sides involves how your wine is made. On the one side—let's call them the Mainstream Mob—the object is to deliver to you a reliably tasty wine. Whatever technology or winemaking craft is required to do that, such as using enzymes, vacuum concentrators, reverse osmosis, added tannins and wine concentrate among many other techniques and ingredients, is a matter of necessity. For the Mainstream Mob the ends justify the means.

On the other side—let's call them the Natural Posse—ideology is everything. For them, the means are the end. The resulting wine is merely a byproduct, as it were.

The Natural Posse pursues a vision of winemaking purity that condemns the use of cultivated yeasts (as opposed to wild), all but the most minimal addition of sulfur dioxide, an absolute rejection of high-tech gizmos such as reverse osmosis and vacuum concentrators, no filtration and, above all, an adherence to organic or, better yet, biodynamic precepts in vineyard cultivation.

Now, all of this might seem a much of a muchness. And to a degree that's so. However, what's disturbing is the increasing level of denunciation and disparagement that accompanies the latest communiqués from each side.

Worth noting—and this is important—much of the fireworks come not from the wine producers themselves but from their partisans: bloggers, importers, distributors, retailers and wine writers.

You think I'm exaggerating? Well then, try this headline from, of all places, the tame likes of Newsweek magazine: "Why 'Natural' Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider"

Need I tell you what the writer had to say? I didn't think so.

The Natural Posse, for its part, is equally or even more accusatory and defamatory. Precisely because it's a crusade sides must be chosen—or so each side ever more devoutly believes.

The Natural Posse, which, of course, is an extension of the organic food movement, is resolute in its conviction of the rightness of its cause. The Mainstream Mob sees them as not just dreamers but Luddites.

And what should we bystanders think? I'll tell you. Put bluntly, we should think that all crusades are fool's errands. They are futile. And destructive. Above all, they are poor substitutes for considered thought.

Is the Natural Posse off its head? Actually not. They have a point and it's a pretty good one. The Mainstream Mob has been discreet—one is tempted to say "furtive"—in not drawing attention to the many ways some of them choose to handle their wines.

They know that much of modern technology is decidedly unromantic. They also know that modernist techniques can be taken to extremes where the end result, i.e., the wine in the bottle, can be dramatically removed from anything that you or I might consider a reasonably straight-wire result from vine to wine.

The Mainstream Mob, for its part, has its own reasoning. And those reasons are persuasive. Modern technology does allow—and has succeeded admirably—in crafting ever-larger quantities of ever-better wines.

You're not going to be able to do that without real control. Such control does not and cannot come from a dreamy vision of ideological purity, however admirable in the abstract. Bottom line: Hands-off winemaking is a contradiction in terms.

What we're seeing now is a classic "He started it!" cycle of finger-pointing and retaliation. Each side demonizes the other. Any practice the Natural Posse doesn't approve of is called "manipulation." The Mainstream Mob hurls back a variety of accusations of incompetence along the incendiary lines of the Newsweek diatribe.

What's the reality? For this observer it's this: The so-called "natural" wine movement has a point. When fine wine becomes so divorced from the message of the grapes and site (which can and does happen with the use of vacuum concentrators and reverse osmosis), we've lost something vital, namely, an essential kind of truth.

Am I sympathetic to what the "natural" wine types are seeking? Yes I am. They are moving the needle. I believe that those who adamantly oppose their objectives are, ironically, opposed to what is progress in 21st-century winemaking. One of the great ironies of our time is that many of the “improvements” in today’s best wines are achieved by returning to practices once derided as outdated. (Technology has always arrogated to itself the accolade of "progress," but it's not always so.)

When done well—which assuredly is by no means always the case—"natural" wines created with the intention of a purity of expression can be more tender, more subtle, more nuanced, more dimensional and layered. Those virtues, if achieved without any winemaking flaws, incontrovertibly make a wine "better."

But what we don't need is the sanctimony which taints the Natural Posse. The Mainstream Mob has a rightful point: supplying fine, well-made wine to an ever-growing audience requires a clear-eyed view of what is unromantically but accurately called wine processing.

Can this be achieved without distorting a fine wine's "message of the land"? Of course it can. And many of today's most accomplished winemakers do so on an impressive scale, never mind whether they're reading from the same hymn book as more "natural" sorts.

For those of us on the sidelines, watching the crusaders on both sides saddle up for yet another joust leaves a bad aftertaste. And that is surely not what fine wine is supposed to be about.


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