“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.
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.
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.
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.”
Which side are you on?