The Natural Wine Debate Gets Ugly

Houstonian Lewis Dickson is the only Natural winemaker in Texas.
Houstonian Lewis Dickson is the only Natural winemaker in Texas.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.

"Natural wine is wine to which nothing has been added," said the leading advocate of Natural wine in the U.S., Alice Feiring, when she visited Texas in October 2011 to promote her new book Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally (Da Capo 2011). She was speaking at an event in a wine bar, and I asked her to give the audience a definition of Natural wine.

One of the biggest issues in the debate over Natural wine is the Clintonian question of what the definition of what Natural wine is is. The bottom line is that it's not easy to define Natural wine. At the same time, as Supreme Court Justice Stewart once said about obscenity, there is no shorthand description of what Natural wine is but I know it when I see taste it.

This week, in his weekly column in The New York Times, wine writer Eric Asimov wrote that Natural wine "advocacy lights a short fuse that explodes into hissy fits. In fact, as is so often the case with annoyances, the reaction brings the irritant far more attention than it might have earned otherwise."

What is the Natural wine movement? he asked, offering the following definition:

No more than a tiny collection of winemakers who, along with a motley crew of restaurants, wine bars, consumers and writers, prefer wines that are made with an absolute minimum of manipulation: grapes grown organically or in rough approximation, then simply set forth along an unforced path of fermentation into wine, with nothing added and nothing taken away.

Eric's article, "Natural Wines Worth a Taste but not the Vitriol," was published (and posted online) the day after one of the top wine bloggers and marketers in the U.S., Tom Wark, wrote scathingly about the "denigration marketing" tactics adopted by many marketers of Natural wine. Instead of writing about the virtues of the products they represent, he wrote (and I'm paraphrasing here), they viciously attack "non-natural" wines:

What I'd like to see is some natural wine producers disavow this kind of thing. It's in their best interests to do so. The cacophony of denigration, spite, nastiness coming from many marketers and promoters of Natural Wine is getting awfully close to making all producers of natural wine look and smell like spoiled, oxidized wine. No one wants to drink that stuff.

In response to Tom's post, Eric's article, and the subsequent dialogue that exploded in the enoblogosphere, Alice wrote on her blog: "My advice, keep out of the sandbox."

On Wednesday, another of my favorite wine writers, Thor Iverson (and, by the way, I am a fan of Alice, Eric, and Tom, as well), made the following observation on the "Natural wine conversation" on his blog oenoLogic:

The natural wine conversation goes in cycles... for, against, for, against... and while I don't expect this to change anytime soon, we've now moved into a more tiresome phase in which the subject is less natural wine and more how we talk about natural wine, or (worse) who talks about natural wine. On wine fora, we used to call this "talking about talking about wine." It was considered the final stage of the entropic dissolution of any once-useful topic then, and it should be now.

As in the political conversation in the U.S. today, it seems that civility has taken a back seat to "hissy fits."

Although the so-called "Natural wine movement" continues to lack "leaders, orthodoxy and an agenda," as Eric pointed out, Natural wine as a category of wine has become part of the fabric of wine marketing, wine sales, and wine consumption. And while few consumers are aware of Natural wine, most wine professionals today are familiar with the term (in part because the discussion of Natural wine among members of the trade and "wine geeks" is very popular in social media, including the fora to which Thor refers).

The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Natural wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemicals and vinified without the use of added (i.e., cultured) yeasts. As Eric wrote, they are wines "set forth along an unforced path of fermentation into wine, with nothing added and nothing taken away."

Many in the wine trade see this path as one that leads to defective, faulty wine. Others -- much fewer in number -- see this route as a pure expression of "place" and "terroir" and they often embrace and champion the wines' quirkiness and delicacy (Natural wines are much more difficult to ship and need more time to settle after shipping because they often leave the winery before fully stabilizing).

To my knowledge, there is only one Natural winemaker in Texas, Houstonian Lewis Dickson, who grows grapes and makes wine in the Texas Hill Country at his Cruz de Comal estate.

And while we don't have a wine shop in Houston that specializes in Natural wine, you will find a number of Natural wines here: Look for Movia (Slovenia), López de Heridia (Spain), Clos Roche Blanche (France), Coulée de Serrant aka Nicolas Joly (France), Occhipinti (Italy), COS (Italy), Paolo Bea (Italy).

(Spec's and Houston Wine Merchant are your best bets to find these wines.)

A handful of the Natural wine producers in California will ship to Texas. My favorites are Donkey and Goat, Clarine Farms, and Coturri, but there are others as well.

Have you ever tasted a "Natural" wine? Share your thoughts and experience in the comment section...

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