For a long time, I viewed oenophilia as the province of chefs and dorks alone. Notwithstanding problems of access, anybody can appreciate fine food. Even at its prissiest, reduced to gels and foams and bearing a price tag that’s as high as a used car’s, food is a necessity — we all must eat it, and so it stands to reason that we all share the basic tools for learning about it. But wine? The days are long gone when every person drinks it for every meal, at least in the U.S. It’s rarefied stuff, and the lengthy descriptions of “notes” and “balance” that accompany it on wine lists have made me resistant to it. I like to drink it, but know little about it, and never had much interest in becoming an aficionado.
Then, of course, there’s natural wine, which has existed for as long as wine itself, though it only found the spotlight recently. Essentially, it’s wine minus the added sulfites, the ingredient that preserves conventional wines and keeps them free from undesirable bacteria. (Note that this doesn’t mean natural wine contains no sulfites at all because, well, that’s impossible.) Marian Bull’s excellent explainer in Vox tells us how natural wine is made and, more importantly, how it differs from my beloved two-buck Chuck:
“Natural wine … is made from grapes not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Natural winemakers handpick their grapes instead of relying on machines to harvest them. When it comes to turning those handpicked grapes into juice, natural winemakers rely on native yeast, the stuff that’s whizzing around in the air and will land on grapes if you put them in a vat for long enough, to set off natural fermentation. And unlike most conventional winemakers, they don’t use any additives (like fake oak flavor, sugar, acid, egg white, etc.) in the winemaking process.”
All this adds up to a final product that many wine lovers agree is more exciting in taste than the sulfite-heavy conventional stuff. That at least is the kind of language I see most often in praise of natural wine — exciting, unusual, lively. Because it contains none of those pesky added sulfites, which extend a wine’s shelf life by fighting off microbes, natural wine tastes different from its sulfite-heavy kin.
As trendy as natural wine seems now, it’s arguably conventional wine that’s the trend. For one thing, as Bull points out, neither pesticides nor commercial yeast were available much before the mid-20th century. Later, winemakers may have tried to curry favor with wine critics by producing a great number of wines that resembled the ones they liked best — a process that depended on even more added sulfites to foster an otherwise impossible consistency.
Still, I suspected that the recent fervor for natural wine was less a desire to de-homogenize wine than it was another manifestation of Americans’ desire to eat only what is “natural.” It doesn’t matter to us how shallow that understanding of “natural” often is, as evidenced by the FDA’s famous refusal to even define the word for consumers’ benefit — we associate it with goodness, freshness and purity. So I undertook some research on the movement in favor of natural food, including wine.
Crucially, it’s not even possible for us Americans to eat much “natural” food. It’s not available or, in many cases, legal. Let’s assume that, in order to be “natural,” the milk in my morning cereal needs to have come directly from the cow and undergone no adulterating procedures on its way to my stomach. Let’s say this is so important to me that I drove to a special market and sought out a glass bottle that claims to have come to this shelf from a small farm where the cows are not only free-range but essentially in charge of the farm. The thing is, all milk in the U.S. must be pasteurized by law and is often weeks old by the time it makes its final trip into our refrigerators — even the fancy stuff from cows with sterling pedigrees.
Pasteurization is a good and necessary thing, allowing us to dodge food-borne illnesses. But when all you know is pasteurized milk, your first glass of raw milk is stunning. The first time I tried butter fresh out of the churner and mere hours out of the cow, I would have gladly succumbed to any of the diseases that pasteurization is designed to eliminate if it meant eating that butter for the rest of my life.
We’ve eliminated freshness from our diets along with risks. Yet, after all these decades of eating safe and uninspiring food, we’ve begun wondering what we’ve been missing. Hence the popularity of restaurants where the menu is assembled from whatever was particularly exciting at the farmer’s market that day. Hence, I think, the popularity of natural wine. Milk or meat or fruit or wine, it’s all the same — we’ve been safe from the perils of fresh food for so long that we’ve gotten bored. Where we go wrong is in conflating the thrilling taste of fresh food with moral goodness on the part of the people who eat it.
Now, I won’t pretend to be a wine guy. Neither am I one of those cranks who thinks all wines are identical and the supposed subtleties between them are bullshit. But let’s face facts here: I do not know what a “full-bodied red” is. “Dry” is an antonym for “wet,” and its translation into affairs of the palate is incomprehensible to me. I have never once tasted hazelnuts or blueberries in a wine whose accompanying description on a wine list claimed I would.
As such, I liked the sound of natural wine, whose supposedly unusual taste was attributable not to matters of the palate, but to actual, actionable differences in preparation. Anytime I drank, say, a Riesling, I felt tormented by my inability to pick out the “notes of apricot” and “rich mouthfeel” that were supposedly in my glass. But I kept seeing descriptions of natural wine as “funky” and “pungent,” and those descriptions lifted my spirits. I thought it would be the same unmistakable difference between eating farm-raised chicken and wild grouse — a gaminess I’d never tasted in wine.
Natural wine could also be, I was relieved to discover, just as cheap as the sulfite-heavy stuff with the twist-off caps that I favored as an accompaniment to my meals. (Sidebar: The twist-off caps are because I can’t open a bottle of wine anymore. Why? I worked as a server for this terrifying woman in an Italian restaurant in Annapolis, and on my first night I had a couple who ordered a bottle of wine. This broad stood with her chin an inch from my shoulder while I tried to open the bottle, my hands shaking so hard that I fumbled and nearly dropped it. Of course the cork got stuck, and she snatched the bottle from me to open it herself and then screamed at me in the kitchen so profanely that the listening couple tipped me 40 percent. I haven’t touched a wine key since. I did my time. You open it.)
Anyway, I picked up a bottle of eleven-buck (all-natural) Chuck and got a-tastin’. “The Curator” was a red blend that claimed to have a “lovely bouquet of mulberry, red plum, rooibos and light fennel aromas.” Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, I’m long accustomed to the panic of reading a description that I knew would never match my experience. So rather than smack my lips for 10 minutes trying to identify the “dab of pepper” that I would supposedly taste, I looked out primarily for the funk, the pungency. The wild taste of natural wine.
It was indeed gamier than an equivalently cheap bottle of unnatural wine would have been, or at least I imagined it was. It was appealingly spicy, with an almost velveteen texture — it coated my mouth in a way that one of its sulfite-laden cousins never had. Some people swear that natural wine doesn’t cause hangovers, which I always believed, and still believe, is bullshit. Bull’s explainer is agnostic about this — it seems that some wine experts believe the added sulfites contribute to hangovers, while others point out that even natural wines contain some sulfites, so they’re probably not the culprit. In any event, I know that we’re all looking for ways to pin every possible evil on pesticides and food processing, but you will absolutely get a hangover if you drink too much and hydrate too little, and you can’t blame Big Wine for it. Still, “The Curator” tasted pretty good, the way I think most wines taste pretty good.
Like I said, we Americans are just beginning to wake up to what we’ve been missing during these recent years of eating food that is both “safe” and processed to high hell. Every discovery of a new way to strip a previously processed food closer to its natural state is followed by a period of mania for it. I remember a recent period when sandwich shops and diners of a certain pretension all boasted that their sodas were made with “pure cane sugar” rather than the corn syrup we’re most familiar with. Subsequent manias have also included antibiotic-free livestock, free-range chicken and grass-fed beef. We know just enough about how our ancestors grew food to yearn for it, without ever interrogating that yearning or what obstacles truly lie in the way of resolving it.
In the case of natural wine, it’s possible to grow grapes without pesticides and to ferment them only with the yeast that’s already in the air. The resulting product may taste better in a way that we associate with greater freshness (without added sulfites, natural wine has a short shelf life and must necessarily be consumed fresh). The production process may indeed be a relief on the earth, particularly in France, where Bull notes that wineries are a massive polluter. And we consumers may then flock to the stuff in droves, certain that by partaking of its characteristic gaminess we will also be able to access what we see as the hardscrabble wisdom of our ancestors, who probably would have given anything for the convenience of the preservatives we have now. As the problems plaguing the world change, so does the way it prepares its food.
Buying a bottle of natural wine, or eating a piece of raw milk cheese, isn’t a solution to the traumas caused by mass factory farming. We know those traumas are massive, and we turn to these individual “solutions” with that classic American optimism that we can buy our way to a better world. This isn’t to retread that tired old bromide that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism — if you feel better as a result of consuming a slightly less destructive version of a destructive thing, then by all means do so. It’s certainly not a bad thing to weigh one’s options and make the least destructive choice available. But the only problem we can satisfactorily address by choosing natural wine instead of conventional wine is that of taste.
To me, natural wine tastes pretty good, and I’ll probably drink it again. I’ll just banish those impossible questions of purity and how I can personally fix the problems of the world from my mind while doing so.