The Article About Wine We All Hated, And The One You Need To Read

Verre Volé sign 2014
my favorite natural wine spot in Paris, Verre Volé

Recently, an article came out in the New York Times that really upset me; in fact it upset just about everyone I know and respect in the wine world. It was an opinion piece by a writer I know, someone I’m friendly with. My first reaction upon reading it was to feel betrayed. This is someone I’ve had a glass or two of wine with, and who I know attended RAW Wine Fair last fall in Brooklyn–which is partly why I reacted with confusion, rather than vitriol, at first. I wondered: did her agent persuade her to write this piece in order to get attention? (If so, congrats: it’s working, although I’m not sure it’s the kind of attention you want.) Also, do the author’s editors at the Times think they are being cute or smart, because natural wine is a so-called “trend” and it’s so adorable to be contrarian?

I think probably both of the above are true, and they are really disheartening to me. The desperation to sell a book should never lead to this kind of terrible, misguided journalism. And I know that a lot of editors and wine publicists like to call natural wine a “trend”; and flag it as some elitist circle of hipsters, and I have really had it with this attitude. Natural wine is a movement of people who believe in expressing what the earth says through grapes. True, sometimes they have a bit of a hipster swagger. And, yes, there are natural wines out there with tons of volatile acidity and perhaps they could have benefited from just a touch of sulfites. But you know what? Natural wine might be one of the last true hold-outs of free-thinking, libertarian, even slightly anarchistic political culture in the world, and for that it is beautiful. Nobody needs to ask permission to make natural wine the way they want to make it, and nobody is dying for you to like it.

At the same time, the movement does deserve recognition, and it is a good thing that it’s growing and spreading. Because for every single hectare that’s farmed without dangerous herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, the soil is healthier, and the ecosystem is better able to thrive and to resist climate change–and the people who live and work around that vineyard are grateful. I know people like to point out copper’s harmfulness, and I also know that organic is not everything–with or without certification. Some winemakers I respect very much are not 100 percent organically farmed–but it’s not something they celebrate, as if they are proud to use chemicals. It’s the reality of the challenges of farming in certain climates. But I’ve stood in organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, and it’s quite obvious that life is thriving within them: cover crops, butterflies, birds, rich and healthy soils are present, whereas I’ve also stood in a massive plantation of conventionally farmed Chardonnay in Sicily, at an unnamed winery’s estate, and gazed in horror at the cracked, dry, ugly ground. The difference is really just so obvious to see, and you can’t ignore it if you care about nature or the planet. Meanwhile, it’s also important to mention that “organic” or even “biodynamic” doesn’t mean a wine is made naturally; it’s still possible for additives to come into the picture. It also doesn’t mean that a wine is necessarily good.

People who work in mainstream wine PR, or older wine writers who seem befuddled by the natural wine movement, often ask me: “but how do you know it’s natural and that the winemaker isn’t lying to you? Aren’t people so easily fooled by marketing?” Here’s the thing: The natural wine movement is not about audits, or strict rules that determine whether you can be “inside” the club; it’s not even about cute labels only, although it does seem to excel in label design. The world if natural wine is, effectively, governed by relationships. Most naturally-working winemakers are part of a lineage–they worked for other producers who are in this movement. Their importers are constantly visiting them and providing insights from these visits (and I do these visits, too, whenever possible). The winemakers visit New York on a regular basis, to pour their wines and talk about what they do. There is no thick black curtain–meanwhile, corporate wineries do have such a thing, which is probably why they thought they were so clever, allowing Bianca Bosker the wine journalist to take a peek and report back to the public. Well, it’s not cute. It’s goddamn insulting. If people want to drink that shit, fine. I can’t stop anybody from eating disgusting chicken nuggets, or from buying factory-made clothes from China, either. But maybe what I can do is carve out a better space for wine writing that capitalizes on the incredible momentum that the natural wine movement has built. It’s not a trend; it’s hardly even niche any more–look at how many natural wine restaurants we’ve seen pop up around the U.S. in recent years! And they are continuing to open their doors, to much success.

One writer and natural wine importer has penned a great response to the Times opinion piece, which I really encourage you to read if you’re craving a view other than my own; he has written in an extremely approachable and sound way, and I’m grateful for it–check out Marko Kovac’s piece here.

And as some of you may know, I’m working on launching an independent print magazine this year–which will aim to produce really great, detailed, literary journalism about natural wines and terroir-driven foods. Stay tuned for details, and follow us on Instagram here.

Keep calm, carry on drinking great wine made by honest growers, join the ACLU, fuck Trump, and have a great weekend.

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12 thoughts on “The Article About Wine We All Hated, And The One You Need To Read

  • Re the wines you praise in general, and your favorite wine bar, Verre Volé, in particular.

    I live 200 m from the Verre Volé wine shop (same ownership) on rue Oberkampf in Paris.

    A few comments:

    1. For all their concerns about health, the staff at VV is constantly outside smoking cigarettes. And what about those extra-heavy bottles for those that say they want to save the environment?

    2. Some unsulphured wines (including some that I otherwise like) make me sick — kidney problems that have to be treated with antibiotics. I mentioned this to Jean-Louis Trapet (a little involved in the unsulphured movement), and he said that he had encountered these problems.

    3. No one at VV or many other wine stores and restaurants in Paris that carry unsulphured wines bothers to store them properly. I’ve had many ruined bottles from VV due to improper storage. It’s instructive to visit Pais stores in very hot weather to see who is air conditioned and who is not. (There are other stores and restaurants, of course, that take excellent care of their bottles.)

    4. Are you familiar with the epilogue to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Kermit Lynch’s “Adventures on the Wine Route”? It seems many “true-believing” people are not; hence, e.g., 40 Maltby Street in London last month which quoted Kermit on their all unsulphured wine list, but didn’t seem to be aware of his revised views. Kermit, of course, imported Jules Chauvet’s wines back in the day (and I bought from Kermit, cellared, and drank with delight many, many Chauvet bottles). Chauvet, of course, is the inspiration for the natural wine movement, and Kermit is the one who really put them on the map. But except for Lapierre, Kermit now asks ALL his producers to add a little sulphur at bottling, and I have to agree. (You also might want to ask Jacques or Roz Seysses at Domaine Dujac about their experiences with Chauvet; Gérard Potel at Domaine de la Pousse d’Or had some interesting experience, but alas, he’s nearly twenty years dead.)

    There’s a lot of good about the “natural” wine movement, but also a lot that ignores reality in the name of true belief.

  • Hi there, thank you for reading my blog and sharing these thoughts!

    Regarding Verre Volé, yes the people that work there are a bunch of hooligans and they smoke too much, from what I’ve seen. I don’t think people who drink natural wine are generally aiming to be really healthy, because wine, whether organic and sulfured or not, is still wine! Meaning, it’s alcohol and should be consumed in moderation. But organic wine definitely tastes better to me and those of us who love natural wine, and it’s better for the planet than putting tons of chemicals into the soil. Sulfites affecting your health, I’m not sure about–again, I think it’s more about expressing terroir.

    Regarding the use of glass or the sustainability of wine production in general–producing anything is wasteful, and overconsumption of anything is irresponsible. But if we are going to be living on the planet, we might as well enjoy what it offers. I guess the only perfect solution would be to become a monk and live off moss in the woods–but I’m definitely not going to do that anytime soon! I’d make a terrible monk.

    Yes, I know that Kermit Lynch decided to increase sulfite additions in the wines he import. I have no problem with that–people can do whatever they like with their businesses. A lot of the wines I enjoy do have some sulfite additions. I’m not dogmatic. Not sure about these stories regarding Jules Chauvet; I would love to hear them sometime though. There are some books about Chauvet that have never been translated into English; once my French is more fluent I plan to read them. And I’d certainly love to go to Domaine Dujac! Crazy good wines.

    Oh, and your point about the storage–same issue in New York! My only thought is: maybe the idea is just to drink the damn wines rather than having them sit around too long?

    cheers,
    Rachel

  • Good luck with the magazine! We need more wine magazines.

    I read Bosker’s piece and found it to be a good piece of journalism. I’m also finding the reaction pieces illuminating. Most people no longer welcome journalism in wine writing: they want advocacy. Go back and read it again, less emotionally, and tell me what if anything she is actually advocating. The problem for so many people reacting to the article isn’t her position: It’s her neutrality. That makes me sad.

    • Hi Blake,

      I read the article a few times. I really, strongly disagree that it’s neutral, or even close. The headline itself makes a point, a declaration, an injunction. There are opinionated statements strewn throughout the piece (“But they are wrong. These maligned bottles have a place. The time has come to learn to love unnatural wines”), implying that small-producer, natural wines represent snobbism. It really does read like a piece of advocacy for Big Wine. And how could you possibly call an article this one-sided “objective”? Bosker made no effort to interview small growers and winemakers, or their importers, or sommeliers. I don’t even know where she got that random Selosse quote from, but I doubt it was a direct interview, as Bosker does not speak French and hasn’t to my knowledge visited Champagne. By definition, using only one source for an article is imbalanced journalism. That’s journalism 101, and it’s why this article was published in the Opinion section.

      I really can’t believe you’d find anything she writes in the piece neutral, at all. To be quite honest, that you’d do so makes me question your analytical skills, and I apologize if that sounds harsh, but it’s pretty clear to me where Bosker applies rhetorical tactics to sway readers over to her viewpoint (which, as Alice Feiring points out in a recent blog post, is an entirely manufactured viewpoint, different than the one Bosker reaches in the actual book itself).

      More importantly, I just don’t know why this article needed to be written. As a lover of artisan wine, every time I visit my family, I’m reminded that the majority of people out there prefer cheap, mass-produced wines that lack terroir entirely. I’ve tried to expose my mother and siblings to handmade, single-vineyard wines, and they do notice the improvement in taste–but they just don’t really care. But I’m not going to start championing cheap, manipulated wines just because people I’m related to, and most people around the world, enjoy drinking them. These wines are already displayed on the grocery store shelf for $10 a bottle, which is all the marketing they require.

      Thank you,
      Rachel

  • Nothing is completely neutral, Rachel. But Bosker went to learn something and did. I don’t see how you can read that piece and come away wanting to try one of those wines. She objectively reported how they tasted to her. She also reported on how they’re made, and again, I don’t know how you could find that appealing OR find that reporting to be pro-manipulation.

    She reported on a topic that the vast majority of wine writing ignores. And she didn’t bend over backwards to expound a philosophical stance. To me that’s good journalism. I learned something from her that I don’t from 1000 sound-alike columns on natural wine — even though I would rather drink natural wine than the wines she wrote about.

    Go ahead and question my analytical skills. That kind of personal attack is what makes wine, er, aficionados so charming! (I’m with you on the headline, btw, but she didn’t write the headline. Did you know that already?)

  • Good piece and you are new to me even though I”ve blogged on natural wine since the beginning.

    Curious about your new mag. Wine in general and natural wine as well have always been content light as far as information goes. Not a fault just a reality. And a function of the diversity of the market certainly.

    Good luck with it.

  • I agree with your posits completely, but please stop denegrating older people. Older people are not closed minded when it comes to natural wine. Most of the people who are the pioneers are older and I am older and have an open mind. It does not pay to get caught in the ageist headlights of the young “open minded” somm scenes across the country.

  • Great post, Rachel! I love your blog and you are so spot on about Bianca’s press release. Also, thanks for hipping me to Marko’s excellent post. Congrats and all good wishes for the launch of your new masthead.

    “Keep calm, carry on drinking great wine made by honest growers, join the ACLU, fuck Trump, and have a great weekend.” I’ll take two, please!

  • Who cares? People drink what they like and what they can afford. You think making a $10 bottle of wine is easier than making a “natural” wine? “Natural” wine fans (and bloggers) yearning for authenticity in their lives is so boring. It’s great to hear a rebuttal to all the industrial wine bashing carried out by the younger, maybe less experienced, wine drinkers who have such strong opinions about how a wine should be made and what it should taste like. And let’s be honest with ourselves, if you have to sell your wine based on how it is made rather than how it taste, that’s called marketing.

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