Day 31: Alice’s Untitled Letter

Alice Feiring is a wine journalist and author living in New York and you already knew that

The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.—Simone Weil

Dear David,

I got to Paris on the 14th. Five closed restaurants, four cloudbursts and three blisters later, with relief, I ended up at Le Garde Robe, eating and drinking to the French Revolution with Bindernagel’s Cremant de Jura and Puzelat’s Le Rouillon. These are the wines that keep you and me armed with a corkscrew, hoping to find that harmonic convergence where man, nature, culture, art and tastes meet, no? The night melted and now I’m on the TGV to Cognac (Don’t ask). As you can see my brain is all over the place. Hope you can forgive me for this delayed response because I really enjoyed reading your reflections on Eric’s natural wine piece.
I have a hard time with the snark aimed at natural wine—its name and its existence. What matter of shmendricity is at play? Could this be merely post-traumatic stress disorder terroirism? The movement (nor the name) ain’t exactly new; it just disappeared for a while. But thirty years ago, the practice of making grape wine with little coaxing was resurrected.

People forget that in 1981 scientist/vigneron, Jules Chauvet teamed up with Marcel Lapierre to make a wine from living soil, with nothing added and nothing taken away. Four like-minded others (Yes, Jon Bonne, those prices have soared, one reason I genuflect to Loire Valley gamay.) banded together and out of that a movement was born.

Movements fracture. Vin Nature split into two camps: the hard and the less hard core. If wine made from grape alone with a touch of sulfur if needed is the SDS, those who would rather eat their first born than add sulfur are the Weather Underground. I love many in both camps. Don’t make me choose. (Kidding!)
The label Vin Nature followed practice. And now it seems that almost every other day there’s some lunatic ready with a Straw Man argument about why it doesn’t exist or why it’s a fad, merely an overnight sensation.

Love this one: “Natural wine can only be natural if the grapes ferment on the vine and then you get down on your knees and suck it in right there in the vineyard.”

Xenophobes on bulletin boards are panicked. A winemaker on Wine Beserkers wrote, “The real issue is that there are no standards and “natural wine” is mostly marketing B.S.”

Oh, David! Marketing? It’s hard for most American wineries to fathom that most vignerons live a twelve-month cycle that begins in the vineyards and ends with making wine. They have neither money, need nor inclination to market, nor have I ever seen vin naturel on a European bottle. On an Australian bottle of something called Mod Gamay? Whoa! Evoking the name of Chauvet? Twisting the meaning of natural? Now that’s marketing! Standards? Who the hell needs standards? It’s simple, nothing added, nothing taken away.
This all leads me to believe that critics of natural wines are either in willful denial or holding out for set of standards complete with loop holes that will allow spoof to masquerade as real. No matter what the wine genre is called-Spoof, Naked, Live, Naturel, the word can be and will be co-opted. Mark my words, the Gallo Natural line extension will be upon us before the next hyped Bordeaux vintage or Brunello scandal.
Mike is clearly in agreement with your sentiments posted on Jancis’ board. He weighed in this way: “The phrase natural wines is irredeemably problematic. The discussion just can’t seem to get beyond this phrase. I think the people using the term “natural wines” need to come up with a much more convincing justification for its use, or they need to find a better, less loaded term to describe the wines.”

Yes, the word ‘natural’ is an easy mark. Look, I don’t love my name either. I think life would have been easier as a Sophie, but I grew into an Alice the way these wines grew into Natural. To paraphrase the late charismatic Teobaldo Cappellano, the more we have fake the more we need real. (Natural = real. There you go. I’ve no problem with the word.) There is no bullet proof name and you know what? The more the controversy rages, the more I resist the very idea of a definition and look for refuge in anarchy.

Recently, I sat down for a coffee with silver- haired Francois Morel, the editor of Rouge et Blanc. That’s the magazine that focuses on independent vigneron and wines that stand by the grape alone. I’ve seen Francois at the off- tastings in France for the past ten years, yet I had no idea until recently how he had been part of this all since the beginning. He not only organized the first unsulfured wine tasting in France in the 80’s but he also set up the first a bar a vins naturel, les Envierges. Seems like his love for the wine started with a love for a girl, from the Beaujolais and knew Lapierre (all roads lead to Marcel.). Before we started on our espressos he said to me, ‘First we have to agree on what natural wine is.”

“Which is what to you?” I asked.

“Without artifice,” he answered.

Now, if there is a wine without artifice does someone else make artificial wine?

Yes.

If there is natural wine, does that mean others are unnatural?

Yes.

Any wine that deploys aromatic yeasts, enzymes, bacteria, new oak, toasted oak, oak additives, tannins, gum arabic, reverse osmosis for concentration or alcohol removal, spinning cone, excessive sugar, mega-purple thermo-vinification, cold-soaking, anti-foaming agents, ultra-sulfuring and god knows what else, in any combination, is far from natural. To argue the point is being combative, or desperate.

This is an unstoppable story, and the plot line gets juicier. California is returning to native yeast. We have our clutch of natural winemakers, are own band de cinq! The reliance on additives is being challenged. But industrial wine will not go down in the rip tide. Lots of people just like thick wine they can depend on year after year. However, to make sure they don’t lose market, brands looking for the loophole will squirrel a way to natural wine flavor extensions just the way Häagen-Dazs has their (actually decent) Five Ingredients. (“Because we make Häagen-Dazs products in the most natural way possible-…. .” Yes, natural IS problematic, but so what?) A name and definition can’t prevent the inevitable dilution and commercialization. But real, real wines will remain. The power of authenticity –another overused world– is undeniable.

In a few hours, I will be on the job and in between interviews, plied with utterly spoofed Bordeaux. In the last minutes before I detrain, I’ve got a big fat rationalization to run by you. Americans have enthusiastically co-opted the words appellation, terroir and vigneron, so why resist Vin Nature? The troublemakers in this debate are winemakers, writers, bloggers and those wanting their 100-point wines to gain in value. For those who have walked through the looking glass into the crazy mixed up world where there’s a sentence from Finnegans Wake in every sip? A streak of purple that goes to green? A glide down the mountain and a fierce pedal up to the peak? A mink-stoled violinist in frigid Krakow? An army of bats that streak around the farmhouse at dawn? To us, it’s all about the aroma , the taste, the texture the thereness, not the name. To hell with the name.

I hope, to be continued.

Fondly, Alice

Follow day by day here: http://saignee.wordpress.com/32-days-of-natural-wine-links/

Up next: Eric Texier talks to a serious problem with the current debate on “natural”, or; Something to think about…

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~ by Cory Cartwright on July 19, 2010.

21 Responses to “Day 31: Alice’s Untitled Letter”

  1. Farmhouses, mink-stoles, violinists, bats, and Joyce. I feel you, sister. Namaste. You’re really just the best.

  2. Wow. Great. Thanks Alice!

  3. Alice,
    terrific! yes indeed! The now-closed Les Envierges is one place where I drank vin nature before anyone was calling it anything in particular about 20 years ago. François (Ecot) just said “The wines here are so delicious, so real”.. and that changed our lives. No techno wine ever did that. As inexplicable as love.

  4. Awesome Alice!

  5. Enjoyed the spirit of the article.

    But no reason to roam from fact. You write:

    “People forget that in 1981 scientist/vigneron, Jules Chauvet teamed up with Marcel Lapierre to make a wine from living soil, with nothing added and nothing taken away. Four like-minded others (Yes, Jon Bonne, those prices have soared, one reason I genuflect to Loire Valley gamay.) banded together and out of that a movement was born.”

    This is a telescoped vision that has little correspondence with facts. Chauvet had an independent negoce company and did intensive research on wine. He didn’t team up with Lapierre or the other members of the gang of four. There was no Natural Wine Convention and nothing organized took place.

    Shit happened. Vignerons were inspired by aspects of Chauvet’s works and went further. But there was no St-Jules and no St-Marcel.

    Telescoping history makes for easily consumed copy but doesn’t always correspond to past realities. As you point out in your article, nothing is never that neat.

    Marcel Lapierre certainly played the central role in the movement and continues to be a major support for everyone working with these type of wines.

    François Morel and Bernard Pontonier were the people who really set the scene in Paris before anyone really talked about this wines. They were truly the pioneers.

    Good article, although I think you mistake blog noise for real arguments. Who really cares? Drink up!

  6. Love that you started out with Simone Weil. Well put, as usual! cheers, Amy

  7. Alice Feiring, professional author, quote of me: “Natural wine can only be natural if the grapes ferment on the vine and then you get down on your knees and suck it in right there in the vineyard.”
    Actual statement: “By some people’s definition of natural wine, the only true example would be fermented fruit eaten off wild vines that have not been evolved through human intervention. It’s a silly definition.”

    The context of my statement was in discussing the nature of intervention. Some winemakers, who call themselves natural, actively intervene in ways they may not realize have a negative impact on the wines (especially various non-organic vineyard practices). I also argue that passive and negligent practices can be interventionist, in that they can detract from the natural expression of a wine. So, are heavy reduction that won’t (can’t) blow off, or heavy brett, or heavy geosmin, any less of a distraction from a wine’s nature than new oak?

    So I’m a lunatic? I’m a xenophobe? Who’s the one who won’t answer specific questions, and instead retreats here to mischaracterize the conversation? Who’s the one constantly spewing California-phobic statements? If she’d actually come here and explore, she’d be surprised by the number of wines she’s like that meet her definition of natural.

    • Wes,

      I you read carefully Alice is using this as an example of a straw man argument (one repeated right here by Tom Wark) and she doesn’t attribute it to any specific person. She does however attribute her next quote to someone.

      - cory

  8. nice one sophie!

  9. Hello Alice. Wondering why in your opinion a “cold soak” disqualifies a wine from being natural. Seems to me it’s just making use of juice and skins in much the same way “whole cluster” makes use of stems. All seem very much a part of the plant and by extension, nature itself.

    • i think the term ‘cold soak’ is referring to the intervention of (what can be somewhat) extreme temperature control. It’s not a bad word against those first few (or more) days of pre-fermentation maceration when the little yeasties haven’t started up yet.

  10. Hi Alice, I LOVE your passion and your eloquent prose about Natural Wines. I laugh when many in the wine world get so uptight, forgetting that the cliche “wine is just fermented grape juice” is the most natural of all.

  11. I completely disagree with everything everyone has said! Even the things I agree with!
    “Salud y buen vino” (ie, health and good wine!)

  12. Hi everyone, First of all thanks to Cory for birthing this idea and including me. Thanks tfor all of the comments. Putting something like this up is not as easy for me as some might think.

    Dan, thanks for calling me Sophie!

    Joe, you could have been so much harder on me, so thanks for that. I’m lighting my St. Jules candle right now.

    Now Wes, I have no idea who you are, and so I certainly wasn’t talking to you in this piece.

    You’re not a winemaker, correct? If you ever used that reductive argument, I’m not aware of it, it’s been used, it’s almost a cliché, and that’s why I played with it and the sexual reference. Also, the ONE quote I used? That was not yours, correct?

    Matt! Right. I don’t like excessive cold soaking. To me, that isn’t in the spirit of natural as it is headed towards extraction and personally I find it numbs a wine.

    This has nothing to do with stems–which I find falls into ‘winemakers choice.’ Sure, the most ‘natural’ choice are stems but I don’t believe in taking the winemaker and choice and preference out of the picture. Anyway, unlike choosing a manipulation like cold soaking, the stems are part of the plant (duh, Sophie!). Sure, the inclusion or exclusion changes the flavors and aromas dramatically but stems also offer (it seems) a built in natural temperature control + pH balancing. In verticals in Burgundy I’ve seen that the most successful wines in difficult vintages are the ones where stems were included. In California where the fruitiness to me is a liability, stems are moderating.

    • Thanks for clarifying, Alice. I am curious about cold soaking (and whole cluster). The Kiwi viticulturalist Daniel Schuster once told me he thought it a grave mistake for new world (Pinot) winemakers to cold soak. Said it promoted fruitiness at the expense of minerality (provided the wine has the capacity for such a thing). Anyhow, we are wrestling with such things at Lioco. As for stem inclusion, we love it and duly committed in 2009. Hope we can sell the stuff–overtly fruited CA Pinot these ain’t…

  13. [...] Read the full post. Latest stories in FeaturesLyle Fass: Let Mikey Try ItAmy Atwood: Portrait of a Natural Wine Seller as a Young WomanMorgan Harris: Long Live Natural WineWhat went wrong with the EU organic wine certification?Why I Created A Biodynamic Wine List [...]

  14. Alice

    As usual, very expressive, just like the wines we drink. I too get tired of arguing that Natural wine is a “fad”, it’s just a term. This term may well be a fad, but these real wines have been around for over 5000 years, are around today, and will be around tomorrow, perhaps under a different moniker.
    How about just calling these “natural” wines just “wine” and calling the manipulated wines “wine flavored alcoholic beverage”??

    cheers and good gulping!

  15. I need this sentence filled out:

    Wines that are more natural are better than wines that are less naturals because….

    It seems to me we can say—objectively—that some wines are more natural than other wines. However, I don’t see how we can say—objectively—that more natural wines are better than less natural wines anymore than we can say—objectively—that simple ground peanuts are better than Skippy.

    Until bottles with wine start growing on vines, no wine can be truly called “natural”. The manipulation begins with the tilling of the ground before the rootstocks are ever planted. Wine is no more a “natural’ product than bars of soap are a natural product.

    This is why trying to define what makes a wine “natural” is no more useful than trying to define what makes an idea tangible. And this is why taking issue with the implications of a “natural” title on a bottle of wine is reasonable.

  16. Better for your health for one. People will debate this but I believe it based on my own personal anecdotal evidence.

    Better for my personal taste. It’s just the kind of wine I really enjoy drinking. I liked the first one I tried and it’s been a process of discovery of even more I like better since then. But everyone has different taste. If you don’t like them they may just not be your cup of tea.

    Better from a price perspective. A lot of these wines are flying under the radar right now. Maybe that will change some day, and Alice will turn into the Parker of natural wines, crowning winemakers with price raising reviews. But probably not. That would be pretty funny.

    I feel like your question implies that they don’t taste that different from non natural wines, so you’re looking for a benefit to the process itself, regardless of taste. Am I reading in too much? For me its really all about the flavor.

  17. [...] The underlying ideology behind all of this is fascinating.  For a most eloquent discussion of the term “natural wine,” for instance, I would recommend reading Alice Feiring’s letter. [...]

  18. [...] severe description comes from Alice Feiring, author of Naked Wine, on Cory Cartwright’s excellent Saignee blog. Here she describes in a letter to Cartwright what “Vin Nature” wines are [...]

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