by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
“Natural” and “unnatural” are really very charged words. But they are words that we use and accept superficially, and which, on examination, really have nothing to do with much of anything, really.
Take, for example, something that I’ve heard many times in my life, “homosexuality is unnatural”. Well, it only takes a second’s thought to realize that this statement is factually false. Homosexuality exists in nature. When someone says homosexuality is “unnatural,” that is not a comment on whether it is really natural or not, but the moral judgment of the speaker. And that’s generally the case when it comes to “natural”. When someone says something is unnatural, it’s not a comment on whether it exists in nature (which it always does), but the moral condemnation of the speaker.
Which brings us to wine. And the “natural” wine movement. If you can call it a movement. I guess when it comes to “natural” wine, there is a little bit more validity to the idea in that it bespeaks an adherence to low-tech wine production (though there is no real agreement about what qualifies and what doesn’t, since there are no clear standards on what you need to do to qualify as a “natural” winemaker).
For example, I think most “natural” winemakers would at least tow the line that they are against the use of chemicals. Of course, since everything is chemicals, that really doesn’t advance the discussion one whit. Now you can say it’s okay to use naturally occurring chemicals, but not those made in a laboratory. But is it okay to use sulfur dioxide? If you want to talk about relatively noxious chemicals, sulfur dioxide certainly meets the bill. But only the most extreme of “natural” winemakers eshew the use of sulfur dioxide for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to make a good wine that will last very long without it. So orthodoxy has to yield to expediency.
What about something like a centrifuge? In a sense, this is pretty natural since all it does is spin something around to clarify it. But I don’t think most “natural” winemakers would have much tolerance for centrifuge use.
So, “natural” winemaking really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what is truly natural, but with what a group of self-proclaimed prophets want you to buy. Which is, not surprisingly, their wines.
I do think that there is a type of “generally” minimalist winemaking which “generally” adheres to the idea that when in doubt, do less. I myself subscribe to this winemaking philosophy. But I think it is fair to say that to the extent someone describes this philosophy as “natural”, he is engaged in an exercise in marketing more than anything else. The things that you do to wine which are in excess of minimal, are every bit as natural, in the sense that they use natural processes and exist in the real world.
And much of what the most minimalist winemaker does uses techniques that are intended to inhibit what wine would otherwise do. After all, left to itself, the endgame for wine is not wine, but vinegar. And nobody wants that, except maybe on their salad.
For, truth be told, even the most minimalist schools of winemaking routinely use materials and techniques which, though natural, or not “natural”. But, then again, if “natural” is really just a marketing moniker, then what difference does it make as long as you’re moving cases.