Another natural wine imbroglio

by blog on October 15, 2012

–Doug Wregg.

A few months ago a some officers from the Italian agriculture ministry paid a surprise visit to the Rome-based wine shop, Enoteca Bulzoni. They slapped them with a fine (and possible prosecution) for selling and advertising ‘vino naturale’ (aka natural wine) without certification, which is apparently illegal in Italy.

Of course this is a further example of the moronic inferno of boneheaded bureaucracy spewing forth red tape and strangling enterprise.

les caves de pyrene

There are two issues here. One concerns restraint of trade. We need to pose the obvious questions:

Is it dangerous or misleading to advertise that the wines you sell in a shop are naturally made if you cannot prove it?

It is certainly not dangerous; you could even argue that it was warning – caveat emptor. For “natural wine” is a pejorative term if you don’t like that sort of wine, and descriptive for those who would like to sell the wines as having a point of difference to chemically manipulated wines and for those who want to buy wines without additives. Fining and prosecuting (I nearly wrote filtering, some habits etc) someone for expressing their opinion that a wine is natural, or as natural as can be, is absurd, because no-one legally  has established that the wines are not natural. So they are prosecuting the use of language not the actualité of the wine. This is nothing to do with wine and everything to do with regulating the meaning of words, a concept familiar to those who have read 1984. If one sells wines that are low intervention, minimal manipulation, raw, naked (take your pick)… why are these words more acceptable. Is it that “natural” is a trademark and cannot be used (if so what does it represent) or is that it cannot be applied to wine (if so what is the reason) or are there qualitative connotations. The authorities have not come up with a standard definition of natural and yet they would deny others using the term.

Secondly, definitions, per se, are highly suspect. Organic, for example, covers a range of meanings. It sounds wholesome; but organic farming can be industrial farming. Organic eggs are not necessarily free range eggs. Organic vegetables may have a lousy green footprint. Organic is thus an arcane term – its rules may preclude the use of certain types of pesticides and herbicides in the production of food and drink products, but there is a range of good practice that it does not enshrine or promote. It then becomes a marketing tool and part of a billion pound industry; its sheer vagueness is becomes a common denominator inclusiveness, but since it is administered by various bureaucratic bodies it therefore has legislative teeth.

les caves de pyreneThere is a pub in London that prides itself on only serving organic products. And that everything they sell is certified organic. So they have farmed salmon on the menu, and farmed everything else. Nothing wild – because wild is not controlled and therefore cannot be certified. This is everything to do with trendy definition and nothing to do with provenance.

The term natural wine is not an imprimatur of quality, but signifies an intention to go beyond the narrow system of accreditation. We all know what it means in principle and most of us, whether we like the wines or not, would be able to muster a general definition. But as for measuring and controlling inhibits the freedom of expression of the grower and winemaker. We equate progress with the quality of the labelling on a package as if it serves to define the contents in any meaningful way.

So where is all this heading?

When asked what he thought of the French Revolution, the Chinese premier allegedly replied that it was too early to judge.

The Chinese vision of their civilization covers thousands of years, whereas ours covers a few centuries. The story made me reflect on our society – the perennial desire for instant gratification plus demands for innovations and change for the sake of it, before we have understood how we function in relation to each other and our environment.

Wine has been made for 8,000 years give or take. I don’t suppose in ye early days in the Caucasus people were going around and saying: “This stuff sure is natural”. (Why do I imagine that Georgians have broad southern American accents?) Natural wine is not a short-term quick-fix philosophical trend but an artisan way of doing things. Artisan means getting your hands dirty.  Or, in another sense it is about making do with you have got. Throughout the history of humanity progress has been always associated with doing more and more, making things easier (theoretically), defining, refining and technically improving. Now we have machines to do the work for us. Depersonalising the winemaking process is the ultimate “refinement!. I like to think that the best natural wines are made with tons of patience, a wedge of human intuition and a massive shrug of the shoulders.

Despite that there are still vignerons who make a wine for the kitchen – a super-fresh, bubbling liquid that is alive – in a jug, the beaker of the warm south. This wine is for the grower, family and friends, for pleasure; the thought of some distant tasting panel analysing it chemically and passing judgement is so removed from the spirit of natural enterprise. These are the wines we want to find, living, breathing, oh-so-fresh, nourishing and digestible.

To protect against fraud and to ensure a certain quality wine became subject to analysis and evaluation. Labelling became as important as the liquid inside the bottle; appellation laws had to be adhered to, certain denominator standards upheld. This may have been done with the best of intentions but, as a result, wines started to be made to appeal to taste of consumer panels. At some point wine became a product and therefore had to be “product-worthy”.

With this in mind  winemakers began to view wine in terms of the means of production and see grapes not as the juice of the vintage or as transmitters of terroir, but rather as the building blocks (I use the term advisedly) of something specific, a “wine profile”.

Genuine ignorance is… profitable because it is likely to be accompanied by humility, curiosity, and open mindedness; whereas ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish waterproof to new ideas.  ~John Dewey

I like to think that natural wine appeals to a kind of genuine ignorance, it tests the simple proposition that wine was and can still be a naturally pleasurable drink free of dozens of allowable additives. It attracts the open-minded; and those who give these wines a go are wine explorers.

Pierre Jancou (Racine) says that he opened a wine bar so that he could drink the wines that he enjoyed.  Natural wines, simple food well-sourced and well cooked, attracts like-minded people. It is not a movement in the structured sense, it is word of mouth, word of blog, exchange of experience. The only philosophy I’ve read (other than poetical musings by certain enthusiastic growers and proponents) have been from an embryonic counter-cultural movement of individuals whose sole purpose in life might be to scoff at anything that finds new favour. As anyone who has read Alice Feiring or Joe Dressner, or glanced at my tongue-in-cheek natural wine manifesto, will realise we don’t take kindly to people grafting their prejudices onto us. We are saying that natural wine is good, healthy and generous by virtue of the fact that “it embiggens the soul” to borrow from the Simpsons, not that all wines vinified in the name of natural wine are good. I am equally dubious about conferring an aesthetic to natural wine – you might as well say “Pinot Noir is a great grape”. In the hands of the right person it can be great.

les caves de pyrene

On reflection we could look at the Bulzoni episode in various ways. One – spit tacks liberally and rage incontinently. My preferred option! Two – laughingly dismiss this as Italian keystone cops bureau-bungling. Three – wonder why anyone would bother to be upset in the first place. Four – lobby for counter-labelling on bottles. Those bureaucrats who live by the s(word) should then inflict their über-labelling requirements on all wines. See how the industry reacts to that. Five – just accept that the makers and purveyors of natural wine will always tweak the tail of the establishment, whether they mean to or not. And that this stimulates debate and increases public awareness of the nat wine phenomenon.

I do believe that natural wine should contain a drink warning. People interested in this subject should drink more (and better) and think less.

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