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Slate's Mike Steinberger on "Natural" Wines

Pinot Gris grapes
Pinot Gris grapes
Neal1960/Flickr

A natural chicken still spends the entirety of its short life in a factory--stacked with its brethren in a feathery, disease-ridden pile. A natural soda still rots your teeth. As applied to food, the word "natural" is a marketing construct designed to make consumers think that some products are better for them than others--healthier maybe, or kinder to the environment. It doesn't necessarily mean a thing. When it's affixed to a wine label, however, does "natural" have a firmer connotation?

In a piece published on Friday, Slate's Mike Steinberger takes a look at the "natural wine" movement, beginning with the kind of manipulative viticulture that sparked the trend in the first place. "Science has given vintners a vast arsenal of tools that can be used to change the fundamental character of a wine, altering its color, structure, texture, and taste," he writes. "Inferior land, bad weather, and shoddy farming are no longer necessarily impediments to producing appealing wines; using technology, winemakers can now override the will of nature and perform all kinds of nips and tucks on their cabernets and syrahs."

According to Steinberger, natural wines aim to reveal less of a human touch:

"As with organic and biodynamic wines, the grapes must come from vineyards that have not been treated with synthetic chemicals; what sets natural wines apart is that the same hands-off approach is supposed to be carried into the cellar. The winemaker performs only those tasks that require midwifery, such as crushing the fruit. Apart from that, the wines are left to birth themselves--nothing added, nothing taken away. . .This means relying on ambient yeasts--those floating around the cellar and vineyard--rather than commercial ones, eschewing high-tech toys like spinning cones and reverse osmosis machines, and neither acidifying wines nor otherwise tinkering with their composition."

While the author describes numerous natural wines he loves, he suggests that, because it's simultaneously uncertifiable and vaguely alluring, the label is ripe for appropriation by large winemaking corporations. Once the word--regardless of how exactly it is defined and applied--loses credibility by being associated with mass-produced, industrial wines, it becomes "meaningless". Steinberger says "natural advocates" should focus on individual wines, how they exemplify the places where they're made, not how they adhere to a doctrine, particularly a tenuous, easily usurped one. "Isn't that what the natural wine movement is supposed to be about, anyway?" he asks. "Standing up for individuality in a world full of cookie-cutter chardonnays? Call them good wines, call them distinctive, soulful, or funky wines--just don't call them natural wines."

As a side-note, it's also humorous how Steinberger demonstrates the extent to which the fervor surrounding the "natural" label usually comes, not from winemakers themselves, but from bloggers and journalists--whose job it is to find and label movements, not make wines.

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