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Dan Berger On Wine: Natural wines: a fraud on wine lovers?

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Jan. 31, 2020 series
  • Updated

In the last several weeks, I have seen four different articles about a subject I rarely address, and when I do it’s without much enthusiasm: natural wines.

All the articles said sales of natural wines were rising, and interest levels in such products by upscale consumers were increasing rapidly – and this despite the fact that no one really knows what a natural wine is or is supposed to be.

An article I wrote a decade ago mentioned this minor wine industry niche in passing. The reason I didn’t go into any depth is that, in my view, “natural wine” is a fraud on wine lovers, a point on which I agree with Robert Parker.

There are many reasons for this. The main one is that almost all of the natural wines I have tasted were pretty awful.

Another problem: almost no one (including its most passionate supporters) agrees what a natural wine is. No one has codified how it should be defined, what principles must be at play to qualify for the use of the term. And that leads us to the fact that the term is not permissible under federal laws.

We do expect that if a wine is ever to be designated as natural, the grapes for it must be organically grown or farmed biodynamically.

Some natural wine adherents say the term applies to wines made using nothing artificial in the process, which includes prepared yeast strains and other tactics aimed at making wines that are sound.

And that, alas, is one of the things proponents of natural wines usually “forget” to tell consumers who want only natural wines: many are spoiled in one way or another.

Wine educators would say that a wine with an easily identifiable flaw is not drinkable, no matter how “natural” it may be. So such wines are not likely to be appreciated by wine lovers. Casual drinkers? Maybe flawed wine is OK for such folks.

For about 8,000 years, all the world’s wines were made naturally. No one used anything but grapes and wild yeasts; no other interventions were used.

Starting roughly 1,000 years ago, humans stopped consuming spoiled wine, even though it wasn’t dangerous to drink.

In the mid-1850s, Louis Pasteur explained the principles of fermentation for the first time, and as a result, winemakers began to understand how to improve wine quality. Some of the processes that were then developed entailed the use tactics that today’s natural wine proponents decry.

But the new ideas made far better wines.

I have tasted probably 200 or so wines that were not made with any sulfur dioxide (a widely used preservative that in wine has no known health risks). Natural wine lovers say sulfur dioxide is the work of the devil.

Most wines with no sulfur are unstable and susceptible to spoilage.

A friend and 40-year Sonoma County winemaker has studied this curious subsidiary wine category and says it’s a haven for some peculiar wine people: “Most people who are playing in this game (natural wine) have no skill at it,” he said to me last week. “Many of them think that benign neglect is the highest virtue.”

That reminds me of a story: A Napa Valley winemaker once told me of the time he was a student of enology at UC Davis.

He approached the late, esteemed Prof. Maynard Amerine and asked how many critical decisions a winemaker has to make from the date of harvest until the wine was in the bottle.

Amerine considered the question for a while, and then said about 200 – adding that only a small percentage of those decisions entailed doing nothing.

The New Yorker magazine of Nov. 25, 2019, had a lengthy article about natural wines. The author implies that the natural wine “movement” was partially a result of the desire to be chic, au courant, hip. Apparently, taste was optional.

A byproduct of this movement is that proponents say all wines that aren’t natural must somehow be unnatural. This would include almost all of the finest wines in the history of the world.

Toward the end of The New Yorker article, even the author admits to feeling perhaps a bit cheated by natural wines. At one point she agrees to pay $16 for a glass of a natural wine, offered by a waiter who told her in advance that the wine might have a “farty smell.” The writer says she found the wine “dirty.”

I don’t know any true wine lover who would agree to drink such pigswill. But the articles I saw say a lot of people want this stuff. Hey, whatever floats your hot-air balloon.

Yet some who thrive in this minor offshoot of wine making even liken it to a cult. In fact, that’s almost exactly what I was feeling about four years ago when I was Australia for a week as a judge at an international wine competition.

After one particularly grueling day when we evaluated well over 100 wines, one of Australia’s top wine judges asked me if I was interested in an unusual sort of wine bar. I said I was up for anything, and he promised that the food was “pretty good.” He said the wines were natural.

The Sydney wine bar, called 121BC, featured only Italian wines, all of which claimed to be made by natural techniques.

My friend the wine columnist told one of the owners that I was thinking of writing about natural wines, so he began pouring almost everything he had in the place.

Not one single wine was sound enough to consume. Most were awful. I consumed maybe five ounces from more than 20 glasses. The rest were discarded.

Had any one of these clunkers been presented to a UC Davis professor of winemaking, it would have received a failing grade. Not even D-.

Among the descriptors I would have used had I written about them: “dirty,” “swampy,” “moldy,” “bacterial,” “funky,” “acetic,” “sweaty saddle,” and the most positive term of all, “rustic.”

Yet these were wines commanding $8 to $12 per glass in an upscale, hip Sydney café-bar. It cost me more than $300 to determine that the natural wine movement had a long, long way to go. (Incidentally, 121BC has since gone out of business.)

Not all of the world’s natural wines are bad. Some are fascinating. Frey Vineyards of Mendocino County just celebrated its 40th harvest and it has been making sound sulfite-free organic wines since the start. Most have been tasty when young, but for a long time most were short-lived.

In the last few years, Frey has released some excellent wines that, under some definitions, could be considered natural.

My friend, the Sonoma County winemaker, praised Frey’s chief winemaker, Paul Frey, saying, “It took Paul a long time to get this right, and today he’s making some of the best wines of the category.”

Still, without a definition for what constitutes a “natural wine,” it’s difficult to take the wines seriously. And since proponents of the category seemingly will never agree on what processes must be employed and avoided, it is unlikely that the term will ever become an indicator of quality.

For now, it seems to indicate little more than being bizarre.

Wine of the Week: NV Frey Vineyards Organic Red, California ($9) – Zinfandel appears (in the aroma) to be at the heart of this lovely medium-weight red. It has a hint of raspberries, a balanced mid-palate (less than 14% alcohol), and is a decent quaff at a fair price. No sulfites were added.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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