Natural wine, what the fuss? We have it all wrong…

parzen familyAbove: my now bi-weekly Sykpe sessions with Giampiero Bea — the president of the ViniVeri Consortium of natural winemakers — include a little family time. Our girls are really curious about him and they are starting to get interested in Italian and the fact that their mommy and daddy often speak in Italian.

Just when some had written off “natural wine” as passé, the category seems to have sprung up once again in the wine dialectic and discourse.

Just last week, the Amsterdam-based food and wine writer Simon Woolf published a post on Palate Press entitled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly… of natural wine.”

“Things get troublesome,” he writes, “when acolytes start to defend wines and producers just because they are ‘natural,’ forgoing any kind of quality control in favor of idealism… Well-meaning and enthused they may be, but in truth [“naturalistas”] are quite poisonous to the natural ‘niche’ as a whole, because they give the flawed impression that no-one in the sector has any skill or selectivity.”

And earlier this month, Eater wine columnist and wine professional Rachel Signer asked “Does ‘Natural Wine’ Deserve Its Own Classification?”

“The natural wine movement is reaching new heights,” she notes, “both in terms of production and consumption. Young, upstart natural winemakers have made their careers in the last ten years throughout France, Italy, and the U.S., thanks in part to high-profile restaurants and bars focusing bottle lists on less manipulated juice. All of which begs the question: Is it time to define these wines so consumers know that what they’re drinking is — to some extent — natural?”

And as surreal as it may seem, even “big” wine is embracing the de facto category: the world’s leading advocate for natural wine Alice Feiring will be chairing a natural wine tasting panel and competition at this year’s Vinitaly, the Italian wine trade’s annual fair in Verona.

The award is “a way to bring the conversation about what wine is — not only natural — to a much larger audience,” wrote Feiring on her blog last month.

“The fact that [Vinitaly] embraced this category is ground-breaking. Frankly, it is a big deal and is bound to shake up the status quo.”

(Alice’s subscription newsletter, btw, is imho the best resource on natural wine today.)

giampiero beaAbove: my chats with Giampiero have radically reshaped my thoughts on natural wine.

For the non-Italophones among us, I’d like to add a voice to that chorus by sharing my excerpted translation of a short post by Armando Castagno, one of the top wine educators and writers working in Italy today and one of the technical tasters and intellectuals I admire most.

“When uttered in the context of wine,” he wrote on Accademia degli Alterati last week, “‘natural’ is not the opposite of ‘artificial’ as those who can’t see the forest for the trees struggle to understand (or worse, don’t realize that they don’t understand).”

“‘Natural’ is the opposite of ‘ideal.’ It is something that doesn’t have a canonical form to which it can aspire or achieve by means of addition or subtraction.”

Make of it what you will, but the conversation on natural wine today is as vibrant as ever — on both sides of that great misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic.

Throughout this dialectic and its metaphysical contradictions, my own thoughts on natural wine have been evolving rapidly thanks to my now bi-weekly conversations with Giampiero Bea, natural winemaker at Paolo Bea and president of the ViniVeri Consortium of natural winemakers.

A few weeks ago, he asked me to give him a hand in raising awareness of the upcoming ViniVeri fair and the consortium’s causes. (You can read my posts on the consortium’s site here.)

In our confabulations, Giampiero has never wanted to talk about whether or not natural or conventional wines are good or bad. He has no interest in discussing the epistemological nature of the dialectic (i.e., what is natural wine? and how do we define it?). In his mind, it seems, these questions have either been resolved long ago or are simply not relevant to his agenda.

The thing he wants to talk about is glyphosate, the compound used in the widely applied herbicide Roundup.

The European Union’s Standing Committee on Plant Health will soon be considering a ban on glyphosate. And Giampiero’s most urgent cause is spreading the word about this issue and drawing attention to a petition to ban the substance.

He’s also organizing presentations on the threats posed by the widespread use of glyphosate. He plans to take them to elementary, middle, and high schools where students can be affected by the spraying of glyphosate in adjacent fields.

“Yes, it’s important to teach children about spring and the beautiful poetry of flowers blossoming, pollination, and honey,” he said to me on Saturday. “But spring is also the time that winemakers begin to spray their vineyards with herbicides. And my hope is that we can raise awareness of the harm these practices can inflict.”

Giampiero has two sons, both under 10 years old. They both go to schools in a rural area where spraying could have a direct and ill effect on them.

It’s one thing to advocate for or critique natural wine when you live in a major urban center far from agriculture. It’s another when they are spraying glyphosate in your backyard.

And that’s what made a whole new mindset click for me. The discussions of what natural wine is or is not and whether it’s good or bad are perhaps not irrelevant but they don’t address the issue that matters most to me.

What matters most to me — and I believe to Giampiero — is the enogastronomic legacy that we will leave to our children when we are gone.

As Giampiero has said to me so rightly, natural wine is a human right, just like potable water is a human right. We should all have the right to have access to food products grown without the use of dangerous chemicals. Whether or not we choose to exercise that right is another question. But we should all enjoy that right, no matter where we live.

Someday, Tracie P and I will take Georgia P and Lila Jane to Umbria to meet Giampiero and his family so that our children can play together on their playgrounds and we can all share a wholesome meal.

Thanks for reading and for supporting natural wine — for what it’s worth.

Americans really shouldn’t sign the petition to raise awareness of the glyphosate debate in Europe but please check it out here. And please read this excellent National Geographic article on the current debate over glyphosate in this country (in English).

3 thoughts on “Natural wine, what the fuss? We have it all wrong…

  1. It is a bit of a Catch-22, is it not? Part of the reason that so many are turned off by the Natural Wine “movement” is due to their often aggressive dismissals of more wide-spread practices. Few would likely know about natural wines, however, if their proponents were not screaming for attention.

  2. I am not for or against natural wine. What I am against are the fanatical followers of natural wine who insist we should only be drinking natural wine.

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