What is Natural Wine in 2020?

The evolution of language is very interesting to observe even for someone with no expertise in this matter. Over the past years of being involved with “natural wine,” what the term means to me has changed into something I am not as proud of. What happened? Countless transgressions, many involving social behaviors that are contrary […]

The evolution of language is very interesting to observe even for someone with no expertise in this matter. Over the past years of being involved with “natural wine,” what the term means to me has changed into something I am not as proud of. What happened? Countless transgressions, many involving social behaviors that are contrary to what someone would call “natural,” and have slowly eroded the value of a term we once loved and put our trust into.

We often use indie vs mainstream when it comes to music and brands, but rarely think of the implications of such definitions beyond popularity as a metric. Ever hear the line that goes a little like: “which weighs more 100 pounds of bricks or 100 pounds of feathers?”

Think of the difference between the following: thousands of music streams or downloads vs millions of streams or downloads and thousands of wine bottles or sneakers vs millions of wine bottles or sneakers. The capital requirements, labor standards and environmental impact are so much more relevant in the latter industries.

As industry participants, we must be conscious of what certain production levels imply, it helps us remain educated and aware. Recently, a tipping point occurred with @glougloumagazine investigating the labor practices associated with Valentina Passalacqua’s father’s businesses, of which she is a beneficiary and at some point had an active role. We found ourselves ignorant, complicit and frustrated on many levels. Accountability mechanisms is a topic for another day, but very much a part of this conversation.

Organic growth is not only great for the grapes in wine, but also the industry that supports the many businesses involved. As the demand increases too fast, the supply side has to get creative and for a product that is not streamable or downloadable, this can be a very delicate matter. There’s been a rush to start or adapt businesses, create content, publish media and sell hyped wines (guilty) to capitalize on the growing trend.

In addition to some of the old injustices, like Caporalato, there are other newer instances of the supply side getting creative leaving me unsettled. There is a media that regurgitates PR scripts written to take advantage of the increased SEO value of “natural wine” as a way of converting customers through a form of deception. There is the emergence of Good Clean Wine, which to anyone with a sound mind, let alone the knowledge of anything wine related, can tell is a marketing/branding ploy. They are not leaders promoting smart environmental practices or even walking the talk they are putting forth. Might be clean in the name, but with undisclosed minimal additives and other missing details, it sure seems opaque to me.

People saw the success of natural wine and pushed to make it bigger. Sometimes the growth was not organic and fueled less by passion for the wine, and more passion for the profit (this will be a challenge for anyone that depends financially on their activity within the sector, myself very much included). There’s a healthy, clean dollar to be made, but there’s nevertheless some compromise behind it.

Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I’d like to argue we should start thinking more in terms of patronage and support for the great causes as the sincerest form of flattery.

What can this mean? Drink more with your heart, palate and morals. Care about details that don’t always impact the taste, but almost always the price, such as regenerative agriculture, fairly paid labor, and the integrity of a winemaker. Value the wines that you know meet these and other moral standards, because we all know how easy it is to pretend that they are met.

The economy rarely accounts for the true cost of a product and a consumer rarely pays the right price as a result. As participants in the global wine trade we are all involved in, we should start to think about these externalities and be proactive about them, especially when they deal with nature or systemic injustices.

Grapes are not like songs that can be streamed time and time again. They are not even like chickens that can lay eggs daily year round or vegetable beds you can turn a couple times. Grapes grow once a year and never in a predictable enough way. They are participants of an environment that has changed rapidly mostly due to us humans. Growing grapes is challenging and harvesting them is not any easier. Let us care for the nature that provides us with such wonderful fermentable juice and keep the cycle as healthy as possible.

The glass bottle is not the receptacle that is best for the environment and there will most likely be constant improvements to whatever is, but part of the problem is customers embracing the format, so let’s talk about boxed wine and getting more high quality products into the most eco friendly receptacles. If you’re selling it as glou glou and a wine to drink now, then maybe it does not need the glass bottle and high quality cork since you’re not cellaring it anyway.

As a consumer, retailer and participant in the industry, there are plenty of compromises that are ok to make, the winemaker bottled with a little sulfur to make sure the wine gets well received in foreign markets. The wine has a little residual sugar and may or may not have gone through a secondary fermentation. These are compromises we’re ok with and just want to make sure these facts are not hidden. We’re not ok with mistreating people or the earth as part of the product and we’ll work towards more transparency on both fronts.

AS a NY retailer, we’re here to bridge the gap between the importer and the consumer. This comes with it’s own set of challenges, but often also involve a delicate balance of supply and demand.

Let’s make sure natural wine is more than a trend that astute marketers have come to want to capitalize on.

I will work harder to exemplify some of the above in my business. I believe building out the website’s content will be key. Obviously, this is our businesses responsibility and takes a lot of work, but if anyone ever wants to share information, resources, we’re happy to be a part of that.

So what is natural wine in 2020? Consider the above and let’s say, it is not something that takes advantage of humans or nature, and in fact should be one with a healthy cycle around both people and the environment.

We’re going to go with the following starting point and hopefully have a more permanent and thorough definition always on our website and updated when necessary. Remember a natural wine can have a catchy or cute label, but that label does not mean the wine is natural.

  • organic or biodynamic farming (people sometimes assume this means no spraying, which is not the case, there are organic materials that can be sprayed)
  • native yeast fermentation
  • fair labor practices (no employee can earn less than the local minimum wage and fair conditions)
  • no additions with the exception of sulfur up to 30mg/L (we’re ok with hybrid products that mix different fruits together or other ingredients that grow from the earth and are clearly presented as part of the product)
  • limited to no filtration and if so preference for simple racking
  • no chaptalization
  • TRANSPARENCY – winemakers, importers and retailers can still maintain trade secrets, but should be ready, willing and able to offer the necessary information about wines and do their best to present them as truthfully as possible.

Added bonuses:

  • regenerative agriculture
  • zero zero aka no sulfur at all
  • eco friendly packaging
  • local community involvement
  • charitable pledges (many wineries have found ways to support causes at no added costs by creating awareness on their packaging Anders or Kopitsch) NOTE: there are companies trying to tie in charitable causes to non natural wine products.

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