A Menace to Sustainability
At the height of Wine industry’s synthetic tyranny, one man sought out in pursuit of juice, unencumbered by the chemical enhancements of the 21st century. A failed musician from California explored outmoded and esoteric regions of Europe. He discovered ancient vines planted in untouched soils, preserved by the hands of father and son winemakers who hadn’t yet lost their souls. He dined at their tables and traversed their dark cellars. He was a purest on an “anti-filtering crusade” determined to familiarize American palates to the nuances of terroir.
His name is Kermit Lynch.
American author and wine merchant Kermit Lynch invested in Berkeley, CA, when he set up a small, European wine shop in 1972. Resistant to modern technologies and fashionable manipulations, Kermit single-handedly created a market for natural, old world wine in the United States.
So when an article graced my presence arguing that natural wine and clean wine are not the same, I thought, what the hell is ‘clean’ wine?
According to Thrive Market, an e-commerce health and lifestyle retailer, clean wines "are farmed organically or biodynamically and developed with minimal intervention in the winemaking process."
Which is the exact same thing as natural wine according to The Court of Master Sommeliers who says, “The idea of sustainable viticulture, an unregulated (and therefore abused) term, is ultimately to return the vineyard to a self-sustaining position in harmony with the larger ecosystem to which it belongs. Its many adherents interpret the idea in different ways and to different degrees.”
With an attempt to inscribe clarity of the enigma, Jeanne writes:
“While generalizations are tough, “clean” wine doesn’t seem to tell the story of a producer or a specific vineyard, but rather speaks to broader health marketing trends.”
But Jeanne didn’t execute the distinction with clarity.
Courtney Dunlop is the founder of Good Clean Wine, an e-commerce wine delivery service. She interviews with Jeanne for the article and states that “Truly ‘clean’ wine is more than just using organic grapes. You can grow organic grapes and then still throw a bunch of junk in the wine while it’s fermenting or being bottled.”
What Courtney addresses is called Vinification. The winemaking process after harvest. The magic that happens in the cellar. It’s also an unaided process. For further information on their cellar process, I took a brief retreat to the company’s website. It was no surprise to see that the clean wine brand does not expand on their methods of minimal intervention, or what makes their “first-rate soils”…first rate. Instead, I met a FAQ page that read, “We do not publicly disclose our winery partners because, quite frankly, we don’t want them to be questioned and harassed.”
The only credential to the ethical and so-called healthy winemaking style they declare is a wine classification, not a certification. Without boring anyone about Italian wine law, one should know that is is more about designating regional zones and regulating grape varieties than production technology. And since this particular company is alleging IGT for most of their product, they are not controlled by the severity of other, higher quality classifications. Quite disappointing for a brand that believes, “Wine is long overdue for transparency.”
New companies claiming they have cleaner and healthier wines but are inadequate in showing how, elicit an artificial sustainability, pitching products they know nothing about to people they care nothing about. Anyone who has ever taken an interest in wine or their health should know that sustainable, quality wines, come with a plethora of specificities, whether it be from the winemaker, wine merchant, or wine distributor.
Sharing knowledge is the very ethos of sustainable culture. Any erudition regarding soils, practices, vineyards, should be just as easy to access, as the product itself. Otherwise, it’s just “Brand California” all over again. Industrial winemaking (from God knows where) with the veneer of authenticity. Without accessible information, how can we know?
I guess we are just supposed to trust them.
As frustrating as it is to see old traditions packaged and branded as something new, It’s more frustrating to see that the new natural lacks sustainability.
The natural wine industry came to exist in the United States because of America’s favorite wine merchant. But the freedom to advertise it was also because of his persuasive talents.
The wine industry in the United States dangled by the strings of the federal government in the late ’80s regarding controversial labeling regulations. Issuing a requirement for wine bottles to carry warnings that include “may cause health problems.” To which Kermit Lynch fought diligently to counterbalance. After three years of back and forth, Kermit convinced the Clinton administration to approve his message “Necessity of Life” as a benefit of the wine’s commodity. And it has been on the back of every bottle of wine he has sold, ever since. An argument won on the implication that the wine wasn’t healthy, only that it was a pleasure to have.
A victory won for the wine merchant and arguably for branding agencies today. But note that Kermit didn’t advertise these wines without knowing how special they were. He didn’t market them by targeting a vulnerable audience. He never claimed they were something they are not. Instead, he supported and therefore sustained their very existence by learning and sharing stories of the legends that made them. He has 47 years of newsletters from his Berkeley retail shop to prove it.
The resolution between ‘clean’ and natural wine is clear. Jeanne’s statement differentiating the two wasn’t wrong. It just lacked elaboration for new eyes.
‘Clean’ wine speaks to a target audience, much like the big industrial monsters do, without transparency. It threatens the sustainability of organic culture and the longevity of small independent winemakers.
It doesn’t cultivate relationships or educate future generations on sustainable farming. It doesn’t care about a sense of place, or what makes soils so special. It threatens the business of small family wineries and retailers like Kermit. It discredits the legends and traditions that have produced natural wines for decades.
The only innovative thing about ‘clean’ wine is the shiny new word that will sell it. It is not the same as natural wine, no. It’s the opposite.
But, whether we see slogans that claim a happy lifestyle or a healthier lifestyle, it’s important to remember that “To be organic, it’s a question of culture. It’s not a question of fashion. Culture stays, fashion goes.”
And one day, when natural wine has lost its distinction to the evils of mass marketing, there is one thing that will reveal which is more natural.
And that my friend is a thing called Humility