Day 8: Natural Wine and Intention
Vincent Fritzsche is the author of élevage and produces local wine as Vincent Wine Company in Portland, OR.
I thought we were past defining natural wine. I thought I’d write about how I have a vision of a natural wine culture in America, something well beyond any current efforts here to produce wine simply. About how my town of Portland, Oregon, needs natural wine, with producers in the city making truly low input wines sold like growlers of beer. I just can’t, yet.
Really, what is “natural?” We still don’t know, or if we think we know, we’re alone. We don’t agree. If you read widely about the subject of natural wine, you will find many definitions and strident opinion from all comers. Natural wine is a scam, it’s just marketing, or it’s the only way to produce real wine. Or it’s impossible, impractical, reckless. I read recently the claim, essentially, that natural wine is an affront to others’ pragmatic decisions to make more conventional wine.
Or perhaps it’s simply acting naturally in the pursuit of wine, intrinsic to the ways humans have made wine throughout much of history. Humans are natural, no? We’ve cultivated grapes simply for eons. We’ve made wines without much fuss. It’s worked, or we’d never have gotten to where we are with this global wine industry.
Over time technology has changed the vine growing and wine making processes. Yesterday I saw a tweet from @decaturwinedude quoting Freddie Mugnier: “Technology cannot create beauty, technology can only help to protect beauty.” Of course, technology isn’t always about protecting such natural beauty in wine. Instead, it is usually about making wine what it might be, what it could be, to improve the wine, fix its faults, and no matter how delicious that beverage might end up being, wine cannot help being denatured along the way.
That’s what natural wine is really all about to me. Are you trying to improve something? Or just trying to express what it is, essentially, intrinsically, in fact contextually? If so, the result will be natural wine, sometimes glorious, sometimes not so great. There are no guarantees. We can’t write about natural wine and not recognize those difficulties, those wines compromised by the risks inherent in the lack of process. But when successful, the result can most clearly show the wine and its context – the grape or grapes, their place, their season.
Does context matter? The wine world isn’t alone in this question. Literature, too, struggles with questions here. Is it important to understand where a work comes from? Does the culture and experience behind a work matter? The formalists who dominated much of 20th century literary theory are the anti-terroirists of literature. To them, the author doesn’t matter. Her background and oeuvre only gets in the way of determining meaning and greatness in an isolated work. What’s on the page is all that counts. If you ever explicated a poem in school, that was formalism. Explication is the blind tasting of literature. The influence of formalism on generations of US school children helps me understand the dominance of certain absolutist wine criticism today.
Then there are later 20th century literary concepts like intertextuality, which suggests interpreting a work through other works, from that author, that region, that period, perhaps others, comparing and contrasting, all with the goal of understanding and appreciating the one most completely. What it is, where it came from, when it was produced. Here context is everything, meaning less determined and prone to shaping by the future as much as the past. Perhaps the emergence of such ideas has fueled interest in sustainability, organics, even natural wine, were outcomes may be less certain.
Somewhere in between is the notion of authorial intention. What about what the author intended in the first place? In graduate school, my thesis was all about textual instability and the difficulty of knowing an author’s intent. What do you do when authors revise and rewrite their work? Which version is the real version? Is there one, or many? If you’re not up on Wordsworth’s oft-revised poem The Prelude, I’ll put it in more common terms. How do you feel about your favorite musical act rearranging old hits? If Dylan really loves his latest arrangement of Like a Rolling Stone, are you ditching memories of the original recording in favor of that? Or wishing he left the past alone? Whether we like it or not, intentions change, if they were ever clear to begin with.
In my thesis, I argued that authorial intention was so indeterminate that it became irrelevant to the reader. What matters in cases where texts vary is that all those versions exist, so readers must deal with them. You can read the “original” Prelude and think you’ve read it all. But you haven’t. Like Dylan, Wordsworth went through religious conversion, and his intentions changed along with the revisions. You need to consider it all if you are considering it at all. I still feel that way, about The Prelude anyway. Context matters, but intentions are difficult to pin down. I have no idea what Dylan’s going for with some of his current renditions of old hits, nevertheless I love him just the same.
Yet on the topic of natural wine, I’m lured by the importance of intention. There’s a focus on the reasons for making the wine in the first place, why we take the time, what the point is. I see a distinction in the intention of that purpose versus the intention of making some predictable product. Natural wine to me, at its core, is about the intention to allow and reveal context in wine as it is, not as I think it should be to be a more marketable, consistent product.
So what’s natural about making wine in the first place, doing all of the several things grape growers and winemakers do to make what can even still be considered natural wine? Well, lots. We’re making wine. It is a product. Wine requires intervention. And human intervention is natural, though not every intervention. The key is asking yourself why you’re intervening. What’s your intention?
If you’re looking to improve the wine, like those texture enhancers in sandwich bread, great. That’s not natural to me, but it can produce goodness. I like sandwich bread fine. I prefer bread with flour, water, maybe yeast, maybe salt. That to me is more natural, more essential, more about the context of where something came from and what it’s all about, even if it’s not perfect or consistent. More worth writing about. More worth getting up for each morning.
Let’s be clear – as a new and small producer of Oregon wine, I don’t claim a natural wine label. I don’t believe you can stop using yeast (which I avoid) and sulfur (which I consider a friend), among other things, and claim a natural banner. Our culture here is dominated by what I’ve heard Randall Graham call wines of effort, and while it seems charmingly American to want to plant the natural wine flag and make a claim, I think there’s need for a broader cultural change before we’re really doing anything substantially natural. It’s something deeper that will take time. But I’m very interested about these things, about natural wine, city wine, growlers with wines full of energy that people drink quickly for refreshment, that don’t need to travel the world, that become a natural part of life here. That’s my intention, anyway.
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Up next: Nick Gorevic on why so much dogma?, or; Aren’t we all a bit dogmatic?