If you have ever visited us and heard me wax philosophic about winemaking, you know that I use a lot of labels. “Olde World”, “New World”, “Organic”, “Sustainable”, “Earth-y”, “Dry”, “Flabby”, “rustic” (my new, favorite word). They are all ultimately short-hand for what can be much more complex dynamics.
Here in modern American society we live in a world of labels. We label everything. Assess, whip out that old embossing label maker, punch out our impression (in 20 characters or less…yeah, take that Twitter, us older folks don’t need 140), peel the back, slap it on. It is a cultural shorthand that has become necessary in an increasing complicated world. It allows us to quickly create a sense of order to the universe (however ephemeral that actually turns out to be).
The use of labels is not without its drawbacks, however. Once a label is applied, pulling it back off can be problematic, and always leaves a sticky residual of glue to whatever the label was applied to.
Once a label gains meaning, that meaning is awfully hard to change. If language truly is power, then the ability to define a label is potent indeed. Not to get too far out into the weeds, our political campaigns these days seem to be all about defining and applying labels.
There is one label I shy away from. That is the term “Natural”. “Natural” seems like a word that I would throw around a lot, given that I trend towards a less interventionist style of vineyarding and winemaking. Alas, “Natural” has a meaning in winemaking now. It is a clearly defined meaning. When winemakers use the term “Natural”, we (winemakers) all know exactly what is being described. And it doesn’t describe what I do here.
I find “Natural” winemakers and their fellow travelers to be a mostly insufferable lot. It’s like the early adopters of the Prius (yes, I know, I was an early adopter of the Prius). Their wines are “more holistic, better for you, more what true wine should be”. And most natural winemakers know their wines are superior to their “non-natural” counterparts. It’s that “superior” part that likely irritates me most. Especially since I believe that proponents of “Natural” winemaking have wrongly defined the word “Natural” as it applies to vineyarding and winemaking.
One of the central components of the “Natural” movement is the use of naturally existing flora in the vineyard to ferment crushed grapes into wine. No commercially purified, strengthened wine yeasts are used. Only the yeasts/fungus’/micro-organisms that are carried into the winery from the vineyard ferment the grapes into wine. This, of course, makes the resulting wine more “natural”, more interesting….better than wines made using wine yeasts that come out of a package. Baloney. I have stacks of research papers that clearly indicate that if a commercial strain has ever been used, yesterday, last year, in 1986, in a particular winery environment, heck, if your next door neighbor has ever used a commercial strain in his winery…guess what micro-organism is fermenting your “natural” wine? Nature didn’t decide how your wine gets made…your neighbor did.
And while I’m on a roll, how did those grapes make it to maturity, all nice and plump, with good uniform color, no powdery mildew and no bird-damage? That trellising didn’t spring up out of the ground naturally. Trellising is a man-made intervention. You’re making a “natural” Cabernet Sauvignon? I had no idea Cab was native to California. That is another man-made intervention.
When you read about a wine that is “Natural”, they are applying a label that has been defined to mean something that it really doesn’t. Are “natural” wines even less interventionist than Montoliva wines? Yes, probably. But they aren’t naturally “Natural”. And they definitely aren’t “Superior”.