2013_01_02 Harpers Goode v Waldin 123456
1) Monty Waldin | Whereas those making ‘sustainable’, ‘organic’, ‘biodynamic’, and ‘vegetarian’ wines subject themselves to independent checks, the natural wine movement’s winemakers and cheerleaders appear adamant third-party certification is neither desirable nor necessary. It goes against natural wine’s counter-cultural ethos. But to me certification offers professional wine buyers, commentators and, crucially, consumers unambiguous parameters when making choices. Certification also offers wine-growers clear rules on what can and cannot be used in vineyards or wineries. Both producers and consumers know where they stand. Record-keeping to the standard organic and biodynamic certifiers require is good management. New Zealand’s James Millton calls certification “probably the best business plan any farmer can do.” Certification is not foolproof; and like appellation contrôlée, doesn’t guarantee wine quality. But cheats eventually get rumbled when sales numbers (Red Bicyclette) or residues in soil or wine are analysed.
Natural wine’s increasing commercial success risks attracting those talking-the-talk rather than walking-the-walk. I worked in one self-styled natural wine producer’s cellar making wines built on great marketing and some shabbily unnatural winemaking. The trickery remains undiscovered in the absence of third-party checks. The contradiction I sense is whilst natural wine makes a virtue of its fallability, its winemakers demand we accept them as infallible.
2) Jamie Goode | I have followed the natural wine movement with interest over the last few years, not from the perspective of a true believer, but as someone who enjoys many of the wines a good deal. (I also enjoy many conventionally made wines.) The natural wine movement isn’t really a proper movement; more a sort of unofficial alignment of like-minded producers, and wisely they have resisted organizing ‘natural wine’ into something official, with a strict definition of ‘natural’ and a set of rules for members to follow.
In effect, part of the reason why the natural wine movement has been so engaging is because it is countercultural. There’s a sense of freedom about it that would be at risk if there were a certifying body. Many of the winegrowers who take part would also resist being organized or bossed around by an official body. Attempts to certify would cause fights and divisions within the movement (there already are tensions). Who would get to run the certifying body? Who would decide the rules?
I understand Monty’s desire for checks and regulation. But before certification we’d need a definition of ‘natural’—one which currently doesn’t exist. And certification would also cost money, something that many natural winegrowers don’t have a lot of.
3) Monty Waldin | I understand Jamie’s point that natural wine producers don’t want bossing by outsiders. But all natural wines are subject to external controls anyway, via appellation contrôlée at the regional level and import controls when crossing borders. But these controls don’t cover the “natural” part of the natural wine equation. What irks is how natural wine has been adversarial, giving a sense that natural wine is “better” by claiming fewer winemaking aids, agents and additives are used in its production. I don’t think it unreasonable to ask those making such claims to be able to prove their bona fides via some kind of external audit. I think this would actually strengthen natural wine by making it more transparent. Clear winemaking rules exist for certified organic and biodynamic wines: why not natural too? The majority of wines at the 2012 RAW and Real Wine Fairs contained added sulfites. I think many consumers might be surprised by this. If natural wine is to define itself it needs to get away from the “don’t do this”, “don’t add that” culture that dogs organics. I found biodynamics more positive because it encourages sustainability via a “do this, do that” mentality. Having good rules can be very cost-effective.
4) Jamie Goode | I understand your frustration, but I don’t think certification would be much help here. The natural wine scene is dynamic, growing and seems to be getting along just fine without a strict definition and a certifying body. Why try to fix something that isn’t broken? We all know what sort of wines we’ll encounter when we visit a natural wine bar. And most of them won’t make any claims to being natural on the label. They just happen to be made by growers who have aligned themselves to the movement. I think the system is self-regulating in that if anyone could be bothered to join this merry band, then they’d be found out pretty quickly if they were cheating. There’s no incentive to cheat, anyway. Adding sulfites before bottling is something that’s seen as OK in the natural wine scene, even if some will try to get away without adding any at all. To add them and then deny it would be wrong, but since so many do add a bit of sulfur dioxide before bottling, and this is accepted as a necessary compromise, then there’s no huge incentive to lie. These are small growers, on the whole, and certification would be a major hassle for no real benefit.
5) Monty Waldin | So, natural wine implicitly accepts the potential for the unscrupulous to board its bandwagon. And while Blossom Hill or Yellow Tail cannot be marketed as organic or biodynamic, there’s nothing to stop anyone marketing them, or even a GM wine, as natural. Egregious examples perhaps, but I am following your logic, Jamie, here and elsewhere where you’ve recently been quoted* as saying “Even so-called industrial wine is still pretty natural.” Does natural wine really want to stay small-scale, lacking funding for certification and happily occupying its unregulated niche? Call me an idealist but the technological and logistical know-how exists for small to become big whilst staying beautiful; that hypermarkets could become big versions of traditional corner shops, full of artisan perishable foods and natural wines. I revel in the fact that biodynamics works as brilliantly on large vineyards as on small ones. Bonterra, Seresin, Zind-Humbrecht, Concha y Toro, and Chapoutier are examples. But biodynamics, which is deemed far more loony than natural wine, has thrived because it learnt that only with an organised framework would it gain transparency and increased market share. Natural wine risks becoming like Occupy Wall St, a protest with an agenda for protest, not concrete change.
6) Jamie Goode | Good points, but I still feel that certification just doesn’t fit with the natural wine movement. It’s not really an organized movement in the first place; the term ‘natural’ has just been used as a convenient banner for some like-minded winegrowers to gather under. And it all seems to be working fine for now. Even foisting a definition of ‘natural’ on this band of growers would be pretty much impossible; much less getting them to agree to establishing some official certifying body. I can’t see much of a benefit to all this effort. Many winegrowers have been influenced by organics and biodynamics without becoming certified. Likewise, many have been influenced by the natural wine movement without joining in. When I stated that even industrial wine is pretty natural, I meant that among alcoholic beverages, wine is as natural as they come, because people aren’t allowed to add flavours. Inputs during winemaking are processing aids, not flavourants. This perspective is important. And there are, as yet, no GM wines. Working more naturally is often a way to make more interesting wines with a sense of place, and I think the natural wine movement has made people think a lot more about how they are working. So, for now, I reckon things are OK as they are, without any certification.