What does natural wine even mean?
My latest story in Edify is a deep(er) dive on natural wines. I really wanted to dig into this topic further and explore what’s going on with natural wines in Edmonton particularly. I spoke with Erik Mercier of Juice Imports, Alberta’s first natural wine import agency, as well as Jordan Clemens of Clementine and Ben Staley of Yarrow.
I think the story is pretty good but obviously I’m biased. I had a bit longer word count than normal, which was nice. I also think I did a good job maintaining fairness and objectivity. I will be totally honest in admitting that I’ve said some unflattering things about natural wines in the past, but I wanted to rise above my kneejerk reaction and spend more time looking at the subject on a deeper level. Scroll down for the link to the story.
Over the Christmas break, I splurged and bought a bunch of natural wines to try – about a case or so. I am disappointed to report that I disliked most of them. There were a few that were OK and a couple that were pretty good. The majority, however, were nigh undrinkable. I ended up dumping a lot of wine down the drain, which was a real piss-off – especially because all of these bottles were at least $30, often more.
I wrote about a couple of them on this blog, and I have a couple other reviews lined up that I haven’t published yet – though I might not even bother, to be honest. Usually I don’t like saying mean things and I don’t really see the point in doing so. (Yes OK, being mean does give me some petty gratification when I’m in a bad mood, but then I end up feeling guilty about it when the mood lifts.)
If you like these wines, great. There isn’t much point in me publishing scathing reviews of wines that suck, and if you are one of those militant natural wine adherents then nothing I write will change your mind anyway. If I do decide to write about something, I will do my best to maintain critical objectivity and not pull any punches. But often when something is truly dreadful, I just want to dump it out and move on with my life.
So, I’m still extremely suspicious of natural wines. Or rather, I’m extremely suspicious of the wines that run around advertising their natural-ness. (Naturality? Naturalticity?) Most of the “natural” wines that I enjoyed didn’t advertise this word anywhere. Go figure.
And because people like to infer things that aren’t necessarily true, let me set the record straight by stating clearly that I support low-intervention winemaking. It’s great. We need more of it. That should be the goal of every farmer, whether they farm grapes or cattle.
But first and foremost, we need the wine (and beef) to taste good. If it takes a bit more intervention to get wine to taste good – say, in particularly challenging vintages, or because a new grape variety didn’t perform up to expectations – then so be it. Winemakers have to do what they can to make that wine taste good so that they can sell it and then hopefully re-invest those profits into things that minimize vintage issues, transition to varieties better suited to their terroir, etc.
Similarly, if your cows get sick, you give them medicine – just like how you take medicine when you get sick. And no, I’m not talking about the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in farming as a preventative measure, because that’s stupid and has a lot of terrible consequences (hello antimicrobial resistance). I’m talking about situations like giving cows antibiotics because they’ve developed a bad infection. If you develop a nasty infection, I’m willing to bet you take antibiotics to clear it up. There is nothing wrong with this and in fact it’s a good idea because before antibiotics were invented, people (and animals) died of infections all the time.
I am aware of the limitations of this analogy – cows are not grapes and the two farming processes are vastly different. However, I support generally low impact, low intervention farming practices in general no matter what industry, with the caveat that sometimes you do need to take action with some higher levels of interventions than you might prefer. There is a complex sliding scale for determining the type and extent of those interventions, requiring a lot of nuance and consideration to judge one way or another. And that’s why you can’t just say “natural wine/beef/etc good, everything else bad.” That’s just ignorant – things are so much more complicated than that.
So long as wine doesn’t taste like liquid cherry gummy candies, I’m OK with some additives and intervention. I think words like “chemicals” and “laboratory techniques” have been turned into boogie-men over the last few years, so that we hear them and automatically think “bad.” This is why greenwashing is so prevalent.
The reality is that you eat and drink and use things made in extremely clinical laboratory settings all the time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with something that’s not “natural” – because what does natural even mean, anyway? If something isn’t made in a way that you deem natural, does that make it unnatural? Are unnatural things inherently bad, and natural things inherently good? Nope, nope and nope, I say.
This post really got away from me, so I’m going to stop now.
Here’s a link to the story. I would love to hear what you think!