Rethinking natural wine

It was less than half a decade ago that natural wine was a wildly polarizing topic, riddled with acerbic accusations and challenged viciously by the then wine establishment.

That was then–thankfully.

Today after the hard work of many and a shift in marketplace itself, the idea that we can make excellent and interesting wine, naturally without additives and minimal intervention from organic fruit is simply part of our consuming culture.

This is grounded in a ever-growing population of winemakers from every possible corner of the planet and a powerful, congenial and loose-knit community of winelovers that binds it all together.

What is astounding is that natural wine is the only segment of the massive natural food market that has carved out an authentic consumer definition without certification, without governmental control, without a governing body of any sort.

To me–it is certainly the better for it.

Some may argue that this is its shortcoming. I think just the opposite.

Natural wine is a cultural exercise in authenticity and transparency. And I’ve come to realize recently, one where inclusivity and diversity on both the producer and the consuming side are key to its allure and staying power.

The inspiring creativity of the winemakers themselves within this segment, the support of an ever-growing and aware consumer market, and a global supply chain of producers, importers, shops, restaurants, bars, bloggers and super enthusiasts have come together to make this so.

This change could only happen from a bottoms up market-driven movement, not one mandated top down by legislating bodies.

The magic of course is that natural wine doesn’t end with a label or cert on the bottle or even a scale of taste owned by the pundits.

It culminates when the expression of the artisan meets the satisfaction of the consumer around a collective ethos of taste.

Natural is a choice. Self policed in many respects.

Certainly there are people who stretch the common definition and those that abuse it.

But wine generally, and natural wine specifically, is almost never a self-serve market.

As a product wine is not bought, it is sold.

Sold by people who are the curators of these often unique approaches and who they themselves, by their own knowledge and reputations, certify the truth of the disclosures around what they are selling.

I admit that there is both ambiguity and messiness here.

But I believe that the success of natural wine as an approach to winemaking with its corresponding market is more powerful because of this.

Winemakers follow their hearts and beliefs, consumers simply listen to what excites them, feels true and authentic.

Within this loose definition of what is natural wine is a built-in flexibility, an acceptance not of a standard or taste, but by an acceptance of diversity of taste itself.

I’ve blogged on this since the beginning and have fought against the idea that only by certs does authenticity stay honest.

But I’m also realizing that the inchoate nature of natural wine is what let’s it grow and continue to evolve.

In thinking about the upcoming Raw Fair and my panel of natural fermenters making honey wines, ciders and Vermouth, this has jumped out at me.

It’s been an education as I’ve dug into how mead, cider and Vermouth are made from a technical standpoint. And different and truly fascinating they are to this natural wine geek, but that is not what interests me most.

As I start to understand these fermenters, as individuals and artisans, they are similar at their cores to many of my heroes in the natural wine world.

Impassioned and astutely knowledgeable. Impractical and iconoclastic. Driving a process that they both control by their decisions and are simply holding on to in others as nature simply takes it course.

Each and every one of these artisans starts with an ethos of how they view their relationship to place — their definition of local–be it the Hudson Valley or Vermont, or Brooklyn.

How they include the intent of the maker in the definition of terroir. How they think about how they farm bees, for example, to create the raw honey for the mead with as much studied knowledge and personalized mythologies as many approach Biodynamics as a way of farming.

How diverse these disciplines truly are — in some ways more so–than wines made from grapes.

How by adding herbs, botanicals and vegetables to the fermenters ingredients, they are sculpting something quite new. A fermented natural beverage but not simply wine.

This has been both challenging and inspiring to me as I think about this panel. Trying to uncover what matters to the market and what challenges these artisans have.

And I’m considering an approach that focuses not by how what they do is different, but by how they approach their trade and carry through a similar set of ethics in a different process to a common end.

These questions are bubbling up for the panelists:

-Certainly they are all fermenters, but do they consider yourselves winemakers?

What does this mean to them as you move through the process, for example, of collecting botanicals or managing their hives that is so different from what the market thinks of a winemaker?

-How does the idea of terroir play into cider, mead or Vermouth when ingredients are not always under their control?

Or is everything you use grown or foraged or sourced by you?

-What does natural mean in the product that they make?

Do you add SO2? Anything else? Does certified organic really matter at all?

-They refer to themselves as farmers, more often then winemakers and have to wonder whether this drives the same panache to the market?

And my favorite one.

-What do they want the natural wine market to think of them ?

As something uniquely different and dancing to a different drummer? Or part of the diversity of making fermented products in ancient ways for a modern market? As winemakers?

This is good stuff and worth the time to consider.

It’s about wine certainly. It’s about an embrace of a natural approach to create something new. It’s about how we as a culture think about, categorize and embrace the things that matter to us.

If you are in New York next Sunday and Monday, the 6th and 7th of November, come see us at the Raw Fair.

If you are around on Monday in the afternoon, I would be thrilled to meet you at the panel.

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Originally published at

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