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 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.

10.1 Awesome Natural Wine Focused Shops in the US

Too many people use this ambiguous term that is natural wine, it’s become quite bastardized and at times we have been a small culprit. We’ve done our best to communicate that not every product we sell is natural (though the large majority of bottles priced above $20 fit the bill) and that many people have variations of what it means. You may have seen other lists that say things like “10 Trusted Online Vintners That Deliver Natural Wine To Your Doorstep.”

These lists are very deceptive, because you have to be sure to not miss things that say something like this:At Company X, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Company X may earn commission.

Please keep in mind that there are way more than 10 amazing shops in the US and you should support local as often as possible. Also, shops in certain markets may have strategic pricing advantages by being located in the same market as the importer such as NY and California.

Without further ado or explanation, here are shops that are better than what you will find on most lists, in alphabetic order (i’ve put an * next to the ones that I’m not sure if they ship or not). Apologies if I forgot you, I’m sure you’re doing great things and this list is far from all encompassing (repeat there are plenty of other great stores!) :

Chambers St (Manhattan), Crocodile Wines*(Asheville, NC), Discovery Wines (Manhattan), Diversey Wines (Chicago), Domestique (DC), Domaine LA, Foret* (Queens), Graft* (Charleston, SC), Helen’s (California), Kingston Wine (Upstate NY), Maine and Loire* (Maine – I actually recently bought some wine from them), Natural Wine Naples (Florida), Ordinaire* (SF), People’s (Manhattan), Primal Wine, Psychic Wines*, Upstream Wine & Spirits* (Upstate NY), Thirst (Brooklyn), Vino Carta (San Diego), Wild Wines* (Brooklyn), Wine Therapy (Manhattan)

Villalobos Wines from Chile

Villalobos is 100% a family project, and 100% a passion project. All the labels are paintings done by papa, who is a well respected artist in his own right. The wine is more like an extension of his creative side than a traditional business. His sons handle the biz part.

People like to talk about “sauvage” or “wild” wines, but few are literal examples. Villalobos’ “Silvestre” cuvee is sourced from a forest of fruit, where the carignan grows in wild bunches 18 feet off the ground. That’s insane. These are ungrafted, bush vines on quartz and clay that are left untouched until harvest. It does not get more natural than that folks.

People like to talk about “sauvage” or “wild” wines, but few are literal examples. Villalobos’ “Silvestre” cuvee is sourced from a forest of fruit, where the carignan grows in wild bunches 18 feet off the ground. That’s insane. These are ungrafted, bush vines on quartz and clay that are left untouched until harvest. It does not get more natural than that folks.

In addition to the wild wines, they source organic fruit from two farmers. All the negoce wines are 100% stainless, native yeast, unfined, unfiltered expressions of Pacific terroirs. These are much lighter, fresher examples of Chilean viticulture than we are used to tasting, but ones that still express a clear sense of place. That’s a nice balance. 

We know it’s a tricky time to introduce new wines, but maybe that’s exactly what we need at this moment. These wines show us there is always something new to discover and bring a totally fresh perspective to a genre with a somewhat tired and cheapened reputation. And a fresh perspective is exactly what the doctor orders right now! 

– Adam Eisenberg
Viñedo Silvestre 2018 (Carignan) – $18.99

100% Colchagua Valley fruit from 80 year old “wild” vines on clay/quartz. Stainless native ferment, aged 18 months used French oak. Unfined, unfiltered, minimal s02 at bottling. 9k bottles produced.

Lobo 2018 (Carmenere) – $18.99

Sourced from 20 year old trellised vines in Lolol, a microclimate in the Colchagua valley. Fermented in stainless, unfined, unfiltered, min s02 at bottling. Only 12.5% alcohol.

Zorrito Salvage 2018 (País, Cinsault) – $18.99

Sourced fruit from 100 year old cinsault  vines on granite (Itata) and 100 year old pais on clay (Maule). 50% each. 100% stainless. All native yeast, unfined, unfiltered with a touch of s02 at bottling.

Costino 2019 (Cabernet Sauvignon) – $15.99

Puts the sauvignon in cabernet! Sourced from 20 year old vines in Lolol. A very “Pacific” cab, unfined, unfiltered and min s02 of course.

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