Ruling the unruly

–by Christina Pickard.

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.

wine with christina

But wait–no certification for natural wine exists, right? Right. In other words, the ministry was telling the Bulzonis they couldn’t sell natural wine at all, through a flimsy legal loophole. So basically, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

My initial reaction to this involved a dropped jaw and a few curse words heard only by me but hurled in the general direction of the ministry. When I then heard the rumours of dirty dealings–that there may have been some highly influential and disgruntled commercial winemakers behind the move–yet more cursing ensued.

But then I made myself a cup of tea and thought about it some more. For a very public, scare-mongering move like this to even have occured is a reflection of the¬†remarkable success natural wines must be enjoying in Italy. In less than a decade the country has gone from barely a handful of natural winemakers to being the second most important place (after France of course) for natural wine. If the rumours are true, and the big commercial winemakers are so threatened by these mostly tiny-scale producers they would go to such absurd lengths to ensure their wines don’t get sold, natural wines must be making a serious impact on Italian wine culture.

All press is good press. Isn’t that what they say? This rather lousy move went very public. It made national and international news. Most everyone’s reactions (that I’ve encountered) have been against the ministry’s decision, regardless of where they stand on the issue of natural wine. So surely this will only fuel an interest from people in the exact wines they’re trying to ban. Those who’ve never heard of natural wines will be curious to try them, seeing as they’ve caused such a commotion. And those who already love them will get behind them even more. The regulatory regime designed to ‘protect the consumer’ (according to the ministry) has backfired.

wine with christina
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This incident of course drags up the old argument about creating a set of rules and regulations for natural wines. The term ‘natural’ alone seems to cause such fuss amongst some members of the wine trade (although I’m not really sure why, it is just a name after all–it may not be the best one but it’s the one that stuck, like it or not, so surely the focus should be on the wines themselves).

On the subject of regulations I am sitting somewhere in the middle of the proverbial fence. On the one hand I’d like to see ingredients listed on the back of bottles. I think it’s incredibly unfair and deceptive that the food we eat must come with an ingredients list, but the wines do not. And the fact is, most consumers are still under the false impression (thanks to the millions of glossy adverts¬†shoved in front of their faces by enormous big-budget wineries depicting winemaking as a romp around a few glistening vineyards) that wine is made by fermenting grapes and that alone.

However, when it comes to regulating winemakers I’m not sure layers of bureaucracy is the way to go. It seems to contradict everything the movement is about. Alice Feiring puts it perfectly when she says, ‘To me, it‚Äôs a heartbreak that a category of wine that has been grassroots, and just doing what is in one‚Äôs heart, all of a sudden becomes a package ‚Ķ There‚Äôs something unseemly about it to me.’ However Alice suspects that as the natural wine movement progresses and grows, regulation is inevitable. ‘Any group goes through this wonderful moment where you‚Äôre together and everything‚Äôs in balance, and then group politics get involved and it changes’.

I like to think of regulating natural wine like I do Communism (bear with me here). In theory Communism sounds fantastic. A utopian classless society where all are created equal and wealth is distributed amongst those who need it most. Of course we know that the reality is quite different. I like the theory of creating a set of natural wine laws because of the transparency it provides the consumer. It would make life a heck of a lot easier if people could walk into a shop and recognise a natural wine symbol on a bottle and feel good about themselves knowing they’re buying a wine without a laundry list of additives.

wine with christina

But the trouble comes in the creation and execution of these regulations. Who’s going to do it? Look at the debacle made recently of the long awaited and ultimately useless new EU organic rules–we waited years for them to stop bickering and decide upon the new regulations and in the end the changes proved so watered down from the original proposals, so as to appease commercial wineries wanting to slap the word ‘organic’ on their labels to sell more wine while continuing to add their myriad additives and bundles of sulphur (the true organic producers weren’t in the least affected by the new rules as they already work well within them). So are these the people, or similar, who would regulate natural wine? And once the regulating begins, where do you draw a line?

We have to accept that most winemakers will continue to make natural wine with the right intentions, and others will unfortunately have jumped on the bandwagon to profit accordingly. Natural wines will always be a hand sell–their stories need telling, and indeed are being told with vigour across the globe, whether it be virtually or face to face. Setting out a list of rules for natural winemakers to follow will not hinder those with ill intentions. In fact, by providing them with a ‘recipe’ of sorts to follow, it may even encourage them, all the while diminishing those with purer motives.

If Alice is right, and the introduction of regulations for natural wines is just a matter of time, my hope is that their grassroots spirit isn’t lost in the process.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. gavin

    I can just imagine some of the arguments that might ensue. Particularly:
    Additions: is acidification or chaptalisation ever okay? Neither are ideal, but both can help save disasterous vintages. If so, should limits on how much you can add be set? At what level?
    Oak: I’ve read some commentators suggest that natural wines shouldn’t use any new oak. Or even any oak. This would exclude most natural winemakers I know, though.
    Sulfur: How much is it okay to add: 50ppm? 20ppm? 0ppm? Whilst some winemakers have had sucess with sans-soufre wines, others haven’t. My guess is that some wine styles/regions are more stable with no added sulfur than others.
    I just hope if there is ever formal regulation, it’s not too dogmatic. Yet not so loose that it’s open to abuse. Easier said than done!

    1. blog

      Gavin, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

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