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Drinking Out Loud

When Did Wine Become So Partisan?

Why crusades are a fool's errand

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 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.

Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  July 15, 2014 2:36pm ET
As always, thanks for the insight.
Never heard of such methods for wine making - reverse osmosis, vacuum concentrators..?
I'll leave that to the oil drillers.
Dragonette Cellars
Los Olivos, CA —  July 15, 2014 10:27pm ET
How does this article only have one comment?! "...we should think that all crusades are fool's errands. They are futile. And destructive. Above all, they are poor substitutes for considered thought." Well said.

Much wisdom here. Thank you!

brandon sparks-gillis
Dragonette Cellars
Jennifer Frank
New York —  July 16, 2014 9:50am ET
Pretty much everything you say in this article is what goes through my head when I read the diatribes coming from both sides. I certainly could not have put it so eloquently so, THANK YOU! - Jen DiDomizio; California Wine Merchants NYC
Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  July 16, 2014 10:55am ET

Great article and really well written. I think you cover all of the salient points here and do it in a way that is palpable.

The only point I'd like to make here may be a good one for discussion:

When you say 'Natural wines . . . can be more tender, subtle, etc.' I'm immediately drawn to the question - unless these winemakers are making the wines in a more 'traditional' manner as well, how do we know the end result is from their 'natural' winemaking and not inherent in the grapes themselves?

A really challenge to me in the wine biz is that winemakers, and consumers, assume that there is a direct relationship between cause and effect in what happens during the winemaking or grape growing process. Sometimes there is - but sometimes there is not.

To say something is 'more subtle or complex' without doing a true A/B comparison is, to me, a bit of a stretch. Does that make sense?

Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  July 16, 2014 1:46pm ET
Mr. Schaffer: You write: "Unless these winemakers are making the wines in a more 'traditional' manner as well, how do we know the end result is from their 'natural' winemaking and not inherent in the grapes themselves?"

This is, of course, a valid point. But I don't think that it's essential to have, as you put it, "a true A/B comparison" in order to reach a conclusion about the effects of winemaking on the style of a wine.

To begin with, none of us tastes wine--any wine--in isolation. We all bring with us taste memories of wines we've had previously. Consciously or not, there's an almost autonomic mental taste comparison that occurs in literally the first sip.

Does the wine have finesse? Obviously we can only conclude that it does or doesn't based on previous experiences with other wines. Is it light or heavy? Rich or thin? Tart of flabby? We don't need "A/B comparisons" of the exact same wine in hand in order to arrive at a conclusion about its attributes or deficiencies.

The same may be said about a taster's impression of so-called natural wines. I know of no wine zone anywhere in the world where all the wines in that zone are made the same way, let alone all of them being made "naturally". So right there we have a reasonable basis for comparison, one neighbor to the next.

A good example would be comparing several different versions of the same cru Beaujolais, a Morgon or a Moulin-à-Vent or a Fleurie. In each zone you have "natural" winemakers cheek by jowl with producers using different grape-growing and, especially, winemaking techniques.

Such a comparison is not, of course, the ideal of that performed in a laboratory setting. But it's close enough. After all, some of these producers' vineyards are practically contiguous. (And in the Côte d'Or you can find producers--"natural" or otherwise--sourcing their grapes from the exact same vineyard only rows apart from each other.)

Bottom line: It's quite plausible and legitimate to reach a conclusion about the effects of certain approaches to winemaking without a scientifically rigorous A/B comparison. Every winemaker I know feels very free--and quite confident--to declare that this wine was made in one fashion or another.

They know--and far better than a writer such as myself, to be sure.

But even a non-winemaker can at least sense a difference. For myself, I find so-called "natural" wines--when well-made--to somehow be more tender. When I've asked winemakers about this, they most often point to the effects of using sulfur dioxide. It "hardens" a wine, they say.

For myself, I believe--and this is utterly unprovable and certainly unscientific--that the whole "natural" approach lends itself to a mental stance, to a different definition of beauty in a wine.

The complexity of winemaking is found, as I'm sure you well know, in a strikingly long series of seemingly minor decisions that start in the vineyard (irrigation, pruning, picking times, etc.) and continue in the winery (sorting, fermentation, barrels, aging, racking, filtering, etc.) Some of these decisions, in themselves, may be quite minor. But taken in the aggregate they add up to a profound effect.

I always think of the story told by the writer Gene Lees about the great jazz pianist Bill Evans, who was legendary for the delicacy of his touch:

“I kidded him about his rocking a finger on a key on a long note at the end of a phrase. After all, the hammer had already left the string: one has no further physical contact with the sound.

‘Don’t you know the piano has no vibrato?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Bill responded, “but trying for it affects what comes before it in the phrase.”

All those choices about seemingly minor details affects what comes next in the "phrase" of a wine. And what emerges in the end can be recognized. You can identify a Bill Evans version of the same classic song from anybody else's. (And if you can't, it's usually because the artist was so strongly influenced by Bill Evans.)

It's no less so with wine, "natural" or otherwise.
Hilliard Bruce Vineyards
Lompoc —  July 16, 2014 3:31pm ET
We need to use technology where it belongs: large wine manufacturing plants. For wineries providing the market inexpensive wine, I understand the need to manufacture for a price range. But small wineries present themselves as artists and to be fundamentally altering wine is tantamount to putting one over on our friends who believe in what we are doing. Traditional techniques work and it is helpful that naturalists point out the inconsistency of using enzymes, mega purple, reverse osmosis and DAP in wineries who pretend to be artisan. But the term natural is not well defined and this leads much of the wine world to operate in a parallel universe . A mild case are the winemakers who believe they use natural yeasts when that might not be the case. More serious cases are the pseudo sciences of astrology and homeopathy paraded about by the naturalists in the wine world as if there was one iota of truth to them.
Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  July 17, 2014 11:26am ET

Thanks for replying and great information as well.

That said, I will disagree with you a bit. It truly is 'impossible' to understand the 'cause and effect' relationships on steps taken during the winemaking process and attribute 'mouthfeel' or 'aromatics' to one particular thing. Yes, you can have wines made side by side by different producers using different methods, even from estates that sit right next to each other.

As an example, there is a 'conventional wisdom' that seems to exist that 'native' or 'natural' fermentations lead to 'more complex' wines. Please some one show me how this is . . . Yes, it's easy to 'say' it, but without truly proving that those yeastie beasties caused those attributes, we'll never know.

I don't believe wine can nor should be broken down purely into scientific terms - I tend to be believe winemaking is about 50% understanding science, about 25% 'art', and about 25% pure luck - we simply do not control all the steps in the process.

But in order to 'make claims' such as 'this leads to this' or even something as simple as 'Wines that have less 'human intervention' are 'better', one does need to step back a bit, have our BS meter up, and say 'why'? Please prove it to me . . . . That's all I'm saying.

Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  July 17, 2014 1:10pm ET
IMHO, the main reason is that one "side" framed the debate, and did so unfairly. Even going so far as to co-opt the meaning of the word natural.

The world isn't made up of only the natural wine folk and huge industrial wine, despite what the natural camp would like everyone to think. There are a myriad of small artisan winemakers who don't use all the technology that the natural camp eschews. These folk (like me) see nothing wrong with using cultured yeast or sulfur - which are often really the only differences. Therein lies most of the contention.

And I find it a bit ironic that you, Matt, decry the partisan nature of wine today when (even in this blog) you help perpetuate the things that create the divide. Just look at the terms you used to define the "sides": Natural Posse and Mainstream Mob. Aside form the false notion that there are only two sides, i.e. Natural Wine against the world, the words Posse and Mob have their own connotations. Posse is usually favorable, and Mob is always unfavorable. And comments like - "Those virtues, if achieved without any winemaking flaws, incontrovertibly make a wine "better." regarding natural wines - only help to widen the gap. Incontrovertibly? Seriously? Even with the caveat of "without flaws", I think there's more than a small percentage of folk who would completely disagree that natural wines are actually better by any standard. Not that they can't be good, but defacto better because they're "natural"? Nope.

Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  July 18, 2014 10:32am ET
Matt, I like your article. It is a great starting point for a discussion.

Given all the heat and light that this topic has generated over the last few years, it is difficult to determine when this diatribe/discussion actually started. The genesis of the original spark has been possibly lost. My first awareness came from Tom Wark's posts on this topic 2-3 years ago.

I fall in the middle of the spectrum. I don't like the use of additives like Mega Red, vacuum concentrators, and overly long hang times because the resulting wine doesn't resemble anything like it's terroir or even what the grape variety is. But I also don't like the use of the Natural Camp's view that only "they" make a pure/better wine because they eschew any intervention. By their definition Domaine Leroy, DRC and many other great domaines are not making "pure wine". This is preposterous. Tom's rant is that the Natural Winemaking movement is denigrating the product of those many winemakers that are either organic, biodynamic or minimalist.

My own view is that both sides have valid arguments and the real truth is somewhere in the middle. But we won't have any true discussion and movement toward better winemaking unless both sides get off their high horses and start working constructively.
Nathan Machin
Seattle —  July 20, 2014 1:50am ET
Mr. Kramer, thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece on such a wrought subject.
In this instance, as in so many others, truth is approached not by triangulating between extreme positions, but by ignoring them.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  July 20, 2014 3:45pm ET
The violence of the discussion comes from two directions, as I see it.

1)The "Mainstream Mob" is winning and they are using the entrenched billions won in the retail trenches of low priced wine to transform what the market perceives as quality at higher price tiers. Ex: the "high-end" brands created by Jackson Family Wines or the way Meiomi is transforming the way Pinot Noir is expected to taste.

2)The "Natural Posse's" insistence on no-sulfur and wild yeasts can create some abject failures that no one should defend as good wine. They also alienate wine brands that should be allies to the 'natural' movement.

It is like medicine. The person who never takes their children to the doctor is a crazy person, but so is the person who has multiple plastic surgeries to the point they no longer look human.

Perhaps we need a middle category - "Repectful Wine." Wine that is respectful of terroir, grape variety, vintage, scientific advancement, and the need of the consumer to have wines THAT TASTE GOOD AND FEED THE SOUL AT THE SAME TIME.
Bruce Nichols
Naples, Florida —  July 24, 2014 10:20am ET
Touche Brian Loring!
An added thought/challenge Matt: Line up a dozen; six from the Mainstream Mob, six from the Naural Posse (obviously same varietal, vintage, price range). Taste them blind. Let us know the results.

Wilson Mctavish Zildjian
Castine, Maine —  July 24, 2014 10:37am ET
I agree with Mr. Beeman above, and so, it seems, do the French: There is an agricultural category called "agriculture raisonne'" in which farmers (Grape growers included) make every effort to follow sustainable, organic practices, but are allowed to resort to mainstream methods in times of crisis where organic processes are overwhelmed.
As for the cellar, I would look kindly on a wine that is made organically most of the time, but which has the occasional touch of reverse osmosis after a particularly rainy harvest, or that added a commercial yeast if the wild stuff didn't catch on that year...especially knowing that the aim was to return to organic when conditions returned to normal.
Robert Camuto
France —  July 25, 2014 2:04pm ET
Matt , I believe that while you describe the natural extreme pretty accurately, I think the other wing would better be called the Industrial or Techno Mob.
In my view from France and Italy, most decent winemakers (the non-supermarket mainstream) don't fit in either camp. They make classic wines without all those expensive new fangled processes you describe, are attentive to the impact of their agriculture without going to the no-sulphur fringes.
Interestingly when it comes to provence rosé most everyone-- even the otherwise natural crowd-- uses a bit of technology especially in the form of cold temperatures and selected yeasts.
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  July 26, 2014 4:54am ET
Mr. Kramer

Active partisans in this ongoing clash also include wine consumers, not just wine writers, bloggers, and people in the trade. Consumers may not be as vocal, yet ultimately they are the deciders. We will move on from this debate for sure.

The empathy you show those who believe in natural wine is telling. Much of what folks favor about natural winemaking--organic and biodynamic farming, allowing the wine to ferment with indigenous yeasts and bacteria, eschewing additives, and minimal or no addition of sulfur--MAKE SENSE (to borrow a phrase from you). Why anyone would not find these goals worthy of pursuit I fail to understand.

The crafting of natural wines is not just some wild dream, it's a reality that's been around for some time, and a growing number of wine consumers are becoming aware of it. Check out the natural wine scene not just in Paris, but in the Nordic countries, Belgium, Australia, and especially Japan. Try the wines from Paolo Bea, Radikon, Lapierre, Angiolino Maule, Frederic Cossard, Jean-Claude Rateau, Overnoy-Houillon, Octavin, Jean-Marc Brignot, Olivier Merlin, COS, Occhipinti, Cornelissen, Massa Vecchia, Thierry Allemand, and many, many more. And the list is constantly growing, including here in California, where I could name a few like La Clarine Farm, J.Brix, Salinia. These are producers that ferment with native yeasts, don't use additives, and use minimal or no sulfur. Many of them also vinify without temperature control.

If one pays attention to what's happening, there shouldn't be any debate. Natural wines are here and they drink very good.

Alex Bernardo
Vineyard Gate
Eric Campos
Canada —  July 26, 2014 5:26am ET
I`m surprised that actual reader experiences have not been touched upon.

In recent days I have opened two `natural` wines from chic, reputable producers that have certainly made me better appreciate the cleanliness and predictability of `commercial` wines. The first, a Cote-Rotie from a producer who has previously rated very well on WS, was very reductive, but eventually opened up, alas, on the second day, the fruit was dominated by barnyard/brett. The second one, a cab sauv-franc blend from the Loire, like the first, had funk that took forever to blow off, and though it was cleaner than the first, the absence of SO2 did not result in particularly vibrant fruit.

My disappointment was all the more given the effort required to procure these wines. I don't know that I will do so again. And if I do happen to purchase another highly 'natural' bottle, I suspect I will open it pretty quickly to make sure I can get a refund if needed!

For now, I think I will stick to those producers that apply non-intervention/organic/biodynamic winemaking pragmatically, and are not shy about using SO2 at key stages, lab testing, and screwcaps. It seems like this is becoming the norm now among top wines in the categories and regions I purchase, anyways, even if I'm not actively using these as purchase criteria.

As for the Cote-Rotie producer, it made me wonder whether he did not have recent published reviews because of off-bottles...
James H Richardson
Houston TX USA —  August 2, 2014 7:13pm ET
I can tell you from personal experience that the low/zero sulphur content in the brands I represent can present a challenge when showing the wines. When natural wines are on though , they show beautifully.
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  September 6, 2014 9:49pm ET
So everyone agrees then.
That's nice.
I agree with Austin Beeman.
And I REALY do not like Meiomi. Yuk!
92 points?!!!!

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