Day 23: The Perils of a “Natural Wine” Label

Brooklynguy lives in Brooklyn of all places.

The other day I went to a small wine shop because they had a particular Champagne that I wanted to bring to a wine dinner. I saw it on the shelf and let it sit there as I browsed the rest of the selection. The woman behind the counter came out to talk with me as I looked around. She was very pleasant and also very proud, rightfully so, of the wines she chose for her store. She was talking about her favorite summer wines and she pointed to Dominique Derain’s Allez Goutons, a distinctive Aligoté imported by Jenny & François, and said “This wine drinks like beer. I bring it when I’m hanging out with beer drinkers – they always like it.”

I’m familiar with Allez Goutons and I like the wine very much. I think I see the connection with beer, as the wine is cloudy, low in alcohol, and sometimes a tiny bit spritzy. I imagined serving the wine the next time I cook something Vietnamese or Thai, something spicy. Then I imagined those beer drinkers she was talking about, tried to picture them. Would they be more or less interested in Allez Goutons if they knew it is a natural wine? The word “organic” on food is appealing to consumers – would the word “natural” on a bottle of wine make it more appealing to customers?

A simple means of identifying natural wine would probably help the average consumer. Imagine something like the Demeter certification, but not only for biodynamic wines, for all natural wines. When shopping for wine, discerning between natural wines and other wines would become as simple as discerning the reds from the whites. There are many people who eat consciously and carefully, yet unknowingly accept the destructive farming practices and the frightening chemicals used to make the wines they drink. Proper labeling could help these folks to spend their money on wines that jibe with their ethics regarding food.

And you know what – in spite of all of that, I sincerely hope that this kind of labeling never happens. Natural wine is a legitimate movement, and as such, it is at risk of being co-opted by the marketing folk. The “natural” label, as I see it, might do more harm than good.

Remember when the word “organic” really meant something? It wasn’t all that long ago when the most common way to buy organic food was at your local farmer’s market – organic produce was scarce in supermarkets. Now organic food is everywhere, and anything can be organic. Dole sells organic bananas and there are Organic Cheetos. Soon we might see organic Dick Cheney and organic BP, and the sad part is that people will feel better about them once they’re organic.

“Organic” has become a marketing term as much or more than it is an indication of the healthful qualities of a food product. What does it even mean to say that food is organic? From the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service:

Organic production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (PDF) and regulations in Title 7, Part 205 of the Code of Federal Regulations to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards.

Sounds good. But think about the way this actually works: food ingredients are scrutinized by a governing body and either approved or disapproved for use in organic food production. If a food producer can show that they only use ingredients and techniques that are approved by the governing body, their product can be labeled as organic.

I poked around the website and looked at three petitions for approval of chemicals in the production or handling of organic food products, selected because their names sound vaguely frightening, but otherwise chosen randomly.

Octadecylamine is a synthetic material that “forms a molecularly thin film on the interior of steam lines.” This chemical is a boiler water additive that prevents the corrosion of boiler water and boiler water distribution equipment. The petition points out that no toxic effects were found when Octadecylamine was fed to rats or dogs. In spite of this, the petition for use in handling organic food products was apparently denied.

2,4,7,9-Tetramethyl-5-decyne-4, 7-diol “is used as a wetting agent, de-foamer, rinse aid, viscosity reducer, penetrating agent, and lubricity additive in industrial applications as well as consumer products.” From what I can tell, it is an inert ingredient in pesticides. The FDA didn’t approve it for use as a food additive, but the Environmental Protection Agency has apparently granted it three exemptions so far, and it was not approved for use in organic products.

Sucrose Octonoate Esters “act as biopesticides by dissolving the waxy protective coating (cuticle) of target pests (e.g., mites), causing them to dry out and die.” Hmmm, it dissolves waxy protective coatings, but I’d like it be sprayed on the wheat that goes into the cereal that my daughters eat. This substance was approved for use in organic food production.

Actually, one out of three is really not that bad. What were you expecting?

In my real life I work with people in city and state governments, and I’ve intimately seen and occasionally been part of the amazingly bureaucratic mechanisms that create and implement public policy. People say things like “They should have rigorous standards for deciding whether or not something is organic or can be used to make organic products,” and I agree with them. But it’s easy to forget that there is a concrete set of operations that must occur on order for that to become a reality. And I’m talking about after legislation passes. I’m talking about the actual mechanics of the process of implementing standards. A group of human beings is responsible for reviewing these petitions, and they have bosses who can override their recommendations. Who knows how these decisions are really made – do you, or does anyone you know actually follow these petitions as they work their way through the machine?

Yet most of us are content to accept the healthful and environmentally friendly implications of “certified organic” on our food. We are probably putting too much trust in our governmental organizations here – there are lobbyists and lawyers and various interested parties involved in the production and labeling of food, just like there are in the oil industry. If there were an entity charged with deciding the wines that receive the “NATURAL WINE” label, why would that process be any less problematic? In the end, I imagine that natural wine as a label would mean as little as organic means now means in a couple of years. Then again, we might be able to buy things like Yellow Tail Natural Shiraz, and that would be great.

We have wine labeling problems already. Wine makers sometimes have to lie a little bit to the government bodies that regulate the labeling of their products. They might say that only Nebbiolo or Pinot is used, but do other grapes ever make it into the final blend? Historically, the answer has been yes. The label says 13% alcohol, but could it really be higher? Yes. The labels don’t tell us other important things too – whether or not the wine was chaptalized, whether or not industrial yeasts were added for fermentation, and so on. I’ve heard stories proudly told by wine insiders about various bottling chicanery, like the one about the same exact wine being bottled as two different wines at different prices. The only way you will ever truly know what’s in the bottle is if you come with a chemistry set.

I hope that as natural wines become more and more popular with consumers, that we do not give in to the temptation to ask a government body to do our thinking for us. Those of us in the wine business, and folks like me who simply drink a load of wine – we can continue to make our purchasing decisions on our own. But somewhere down the line, a group of marketing types are going to argue that there should be some agency with a method for reviewing wines and deciding which are NATURAL. I hope we are wise enough to resist.

Follow day by day here:

Up next: Cider, or; We can’t drink wine all the time, can we?

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 11, 2010.

9 Responses to “Day 23: The Perils of a “Natural Wine” Label”

  1. American’s are the masters of bastardizing words and rendering them meaningless. Gourmet is the grand-daddy of them all. Last time I checked my Korean Bodega two blocks from my house did not serve “gourmet” food as they claim on their sign which says “Happy Gourmet Deights.” Or Chablis maybe in the 70’s by Gallo. OIr Mountain Burgundy. The list goes on and on.

  2. most excellent piece. regulations set by bureaucrats, while they can be helpful, are never going replace personal responsibility. if consumers are concerned about what goes into their wines, they should find a wine monger that understands that and will put the work into researching wines. i don’t mind if that retailer than uses shorthand techniques to sell natural wines; i actually have the “real wine” page from the louis/dressner printed out for customers to get an idea of what i’m talking about, from there they can ask me, or read the signs i write to find out how a wine was made.

  3. The AVN (Association des Vins Naturels) over here in France, has discussed trying to create some kind of AVN approved label. They are afraid if they don’t that larger wineries will start calling their wine natural and then it’ll be too late to claim back the title. The AVN is a super small organization, composed of all the winemakers that started this whole natural thing in the first place, and others that they’ve befriended since then. Their list of winemakers is no where near comprehensive. That’s because it’s basically just a group of friends that got together and formed an informal association.

    There would be challenges, but doesn’t it seem like the AVN’s idea could work some day? If it’s guys that make this kind of wine, personally knowing the people who get the label and verifying their practices, I can’t really see that getting corrupted by bureaucracy. Perhaps there’d be lots of winemakers making natural wines who would end up not getting the label, but at least there’d be something there. The key problem would be marketing the label and branding it. That whole branding thing is not a strong suit of natural winemakers, as I’ve seen it. They tend to avoid marketing like it’s the plague!

  4. […] España es todo, como decía uno por la radio esta mañana Y así nos va. Taodavía con la ¿’erterna’? discusión sobre el nombre de los vinos naturales, vamos a ver si metemos en el saco de ‘o todos naturales o ninguno’. Como aquello de…’o follamos todos..o matamos a la puta’. Pues no señores Los vinos naturales no mueren, porque están vivos, más claro, AGUA. Y se llaman como se llaman porque lo son, y le podemos buscar sinónimos ‘vinos sin aditivos’, ‘vinos anormales o paranormales o supranormales’ o ‘vinos sin sulfuroso’; da igual, seguirán siendo VINOS NATURALES. Lo que entienda cada uno por ‘capitalismo’ o ‘comunismo’ me la trae al pairo, que se informe el personal, que pregunte, que quiera saber, que luche por su supervivencia (o sea por tener vivencias super) tampoco se lo vamos a estar masticando. Y si alguien me preguntó en USA, ¿natural wines or not sulfures wines? ‘Natural wines, of course. Aunque edito esta entrada y… a ver ojo con las etiquetas!!! (esa será la próxima. ). […]

  5. Nick,

    The problem is that the AVN hasn’t the manpower to fully police their own labeling without some significant changes to their organizational structure. Someone would eventually break the rules, it would come out, small scandal ensues and then the government takes an active interest and then ten years later (this is French bureaucracy we’re talking about) we have a comprehensive natural wine label that has nothing to do with a wine being natural. I say it’s best to just leave the issue alone, draw less attention to the issue via labeling of any sort, and just do what we always do.


  6. […] Day 23: The Perils of a “Natural Wine” Label « saignée […]

  7. Devil’s advocate response: those organic Cheetos do not seem to have the USDA Organic label, but rather are labeled “natural.” Just like a zillion other “natural” products. Is that not telling? And if indeed “natural wines become more and more popular with consumers,” is not the greater risk that the term “natural” becomes even more meaningless without standards, without regulation? When does Fred Franzia get in on the act?

    Of course, the “Cheetos” part of “Natural Cheetos” says more to me than “Natural.” But that’s because I understand what Cheetos are, as lots of people do. The average consumer does not and will never understand that, as Bert points out, polymers like PVPP can be (and are) added to rosé to lighten its color and make it conform to expectation, and said consumer will certainly not understand that completely natural substances like water and citric acid and (organic!) beet sugar can be added to wine in ways that completely undermine natural wine as many discussing it here understand it.

    As (Western) human beings, we want to label everything, but we resist it, too. We want certainty and we want freedom. We want our wine to be natural but we largely accept that human intervention is necessary to create wine. Sulfur is a natural substance, but when is adding it acceptable? At bottling? At crush only? What about the vineyard? When I visited Benoit Courault last month, he and his friends discussed the “problem” of natural wine being undefined. Concerns were expressed about the potential meaninglessness of the term. Yet Benoit clearly cherished that he and his peers (e.g. Jérôme Saurigny) could trade ideas and pursue their specific, individual paths toward natural wine.

    I, too, cherish individuals’ paths, so this is my long-winded way of saying that I agree with Brooklynguy’s conclusion. I do not want wine to be regulated the way coal emissions should be, or even the way that organic products are (with value, I think) being regulated. Nor do I want unregulated dogma and intellectual ossification to win the day. I much prefer a wine world where I’m asking questions and where Benoit and his friends are wrestling with meaning, and where the conversation gets teased out into a million conversations. I want experimentation to continue unabated, to flourish, and for those of us who are consumers, I’m thankful that many small winemakers are willing to be honest about just what it is they do so we can participate in the conversation.

  8. What’s so bad about a little lubricity?

  9. […] As for the definition of “natural”: anyone who’s actually read all, or even most, of the series’ contributions (and those of the previous year) now must understand very well that there is anything but a definition of natural wine shared among its proponents. Or rather, that there what skeletal definition exists is of motivation and intent rather than practice. On the specifics and details, there is not only no agreement (even among those who appear to have agreed), but often an aggressively-pursued disagreement. And maybe it’s better this way. […]

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