The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Natural Wines and Other Inflammatory Issues

Posted on | April 30, 2012 | Written by Janice Cable | 2 Comments

The biodynamic vineyard of Castello dei Rampolla

I get it. “Natural” is a slippery term. Even the lyrics to the Carol King-penned, Aretha Franklin-sung standard “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” suggest exactly how fraught the idea of “natural” is (to wit: if you’re a natural woman, do you need someone else to make you feel like one?). Add the idea of naturalness to marketing and you’ve immediately got an incredibly slippery slope, one that “pure,” a kissing cousin to “natural” can easily illustrate. After all, Ivory may be 99% pure, but doesn’t that 1% of impurity cast a doubt on the whole purity enterprise?

In short, it’s hard to define “natural.” And perhaps it’s this very slipperiness as applied to natural wine that Tom Wark of the Fermentation blog has taken to task so repeatedly and so vehemently. Most recently, Wark said this about natural wine:

I fear this one is with us for a long time to come, yet a gimmick it is with no real meaning and, worse, an ideology underscoring it that demands all other wines be denigrated in order for this niche to gain real, honest credibility. We are talking about a marketing term here and very little else. Everything claimed to be spectacular and miraculous and lovely about “natural” wine is very old hat, techniques mastered by many a winemaker over the past 20 years on every continent. Yet, gimmick it is.

I’m someone who grew up in the ‘70s, and thus I have seen “natural” coopted by corporate giants. Nature Valley Granola Bars are hardly no more natural than Herbal Essence shampoo, and yet both products—along with scores of others—were marketed for being natural. I can understand Wark’s incredulity at the concept of a natural wine, especially as he contends that many natural winemakers add sulfites to their wines (many do) and that many indulge in negative marketing of non-natural wines (also true). That said, as a writer who markets wines to wine-lovers, and as a wine-lover myself, I get why natural wines are legitimate, important and different.

Wines, as everyone knows, embody two very specific sites: the vineyard and the cellar. Thus, these two sites play into the naturalness or the artificiality of a wine. I’m going to begin where the wine begins, the vineyard.

Most of the food I eat is organic. I choose organic food because I’d prefer that my body didn’t absorb pesticides, GMOs, and unnatural fertilizers; I also prefer to live on a planet not covered with them. That said, I do buy conventional produce when the produce in question doesn’t absorb as much of the chemicals. I use this list of “the dirty dozen” in choosing my produce (money is a factor); grapes are one of the dozen. Why would I choose my wine any differently? In addition to grapes absorbing pretty much everything that’s sprayed on or around them, grapes aren’t washed before they turn into wine. Maybe it’s merely a mental thing, but I’d like my wine made from grapes that haven’t been sprayed with a host of chemicals that coat the skins and imbue the fruit.

I recognize that certifying organic is a tricky business, especially in other countries. Here in the US, we have not only organic, but California organic, suggesting the play in the lines of regulation. Italy, to take the example I’m most familiar with, has really stringent regulations. You can’t get certified organic (or “bio”) unless everyone whose lands abutting your own also grow organic, and you all go at once to apply for an organic license. On the one hand, this is great because if it’s organic, it’s organic—no water table contamination there. But it’s tough logistically. For example, Il Palazzone grows their grapes organically, but not all of the seven other growers do, so they can’t get certified. It’s easy for Cupano, who is out in the middle of nowhere, but hard for folks whose lands are in the middle of everything.

Fortunately, it’s not so difficult to find out how the wine you’re interested in—or already love—grows their grapes. Most vineyards have websites, and those who grow organically proudly tell you. Like them, when I write marketing copy for IWM, I always specify whether the vineyard grows using organic, biodynamic or non-interventionist protocol. I recognize that there are others like me who consciously choose organic celery, apples, berries, kale and, yes, grapes when they shop.

As squidgy a site as the vineyard is, the cellar is yet more fraught with natural nightmares. For one thing, winemakers often cloak their making in a shroud of mystery. For another, as Alice Feiring, who literally wrote the book on natural wine, has pointed out, there is a plenitude of ways that winemakers can alter, manipulate, add to, or otherwise mess with wine. Take a gander at this list and wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I have a quick, visceral reaction to wines that have been unduly messed with. It’s a searing headache, often accompanied by serious sinus pressure. I’m not certain which of the many chemicals that winemakers add to their wines gives me this somatic fun, but it does make me shy away from wines I haven’t researched. I am, in fact, the woman who will whip out her iPhone and Google an unknown wine before I accept a glass. I dislike headaches, but I also dislike the “purple” taste that often accompanies seriously manipulated wine. It’s a thing, and maybe it’s pretentious, but all things being equal, I like a wine that’s made with minimal crap added to it.

I have—much to my dismay—drunk an unholy amount of Gravner and been totally fine the next day. Gravner does make wine in the most ancient of ways, wine that is natural and vital and unusual and lovely. I have drunk serious amounts of Movia, ridiculous amounts of Paolo Bea, and altogether too much Bodega Chacra. None of them made me hurt, and that means something to me. Wine shouldn’t make you hurt. And that’s one reason why I gravitate toward producers who do employ non-interventionist methods in the cellar.

But as I pointed out gently, and Wark has pointed out more strenuously, the cellar is a place of mystery and intrigue, and it can be hard to really know what goes on in the dark. This is why, again, I try to pick my producers from those who work within ViniVeri guidelines, or those who are pretty explicit about their methods, philosophy and zeitgeist. It’s an imprecise science—more like a guideline than a code—but it works.

As a wine marketing professional, I work to tell our clients how winemakers make their wine. I visit producers. I email them. I ask them questions. And then I relay that information on our website, e-letters and blog posts so that people can make informed choices. At IWM, it’s not that difficult. Sergio holds big love for wines that smack of the places they were born, and those wines tend to be wines that people make in a hands-off kind of way. Our clients want to know where, who, and how, and we like to educate them.

For all of these reasons—personal, professional, and ethical—I don’t see natural wines as a marketing gimmick. Sure, it can happen. But mostly it’s about an informed choice about what we put in our bodies, whom we want to support with our money, and what happens on the earth around us. I know how I make my choices, and when I can, I opt for wine made by people who understand the fragile beauty of nature and who honor it.

UPDATE: Tom Wark has written a lovely response post to this one on his blog. He and I may disagree, but I respect this writer’s thinking and attention, and I do love a healthy, respectful debate.


2 Responses to “Natural Wines and Other Inflammatory Issues”

  1. Tom Wark
    April 30th, 2012 @ 5:31 pm


    Nicely put!

  2. Janice Cable
    April 30th, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

    Lovely of you to say, Tom. I appreciate it.


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