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.