Home Wine Business Editorial Expert Editorial Opinion: Natural Winemaking Is the Most Natural Thing

Opinion: Natural Winemaking Is the Most Natural Thing

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Hands off those vines, hands off those wines—what comes naturally should be respected

Randy Caparoso

I love natural style wines. In fact, I’m partial to them, and for good reason: Because wines made in this style give you the highest percentage chance of experiencing a wine that expresses the vineyard where it’s grown, or the appellation of its origin.

It’s not so much a matter of personal taste, it’s more about how I originally came into this industry when training to become a full-time sommelier, back in the late 1970s. In those days we learned, for instance, that Lafite is Lafite, which is different from Margaux, Haut-Brion, or Cheval Blanc. Why? Because they are different vineyards, reflecting completely different terroirs—naturally. This was as basic as A, B, C, and still is.

For the longest time, however, I could never understand why American wines couldn’t be understood, or appreciated, in the same way. It seems American wines have historically been made to fulfill expectations such as “varietal character,” or to reinforce sensory qualities associated with specific brands. That’s how many premium producers chalk up the “scores,” which drive wine sales.

Yet, in the US, vineyard or regional expressions, a sense of place, terroir—whatever you want to call it—typically takes a back seat.

Harvesting Nebbiolo grapes in Serralunga, Italy. Grapes will be used in the process to make Barolo, one of the most famous red wine.
Nebbiolo harvest in Serralunga, Italy /
Andrea Cairone, Unsplash

But American wines don’t have to be that way. In fact, more and more of them aren’t. The more a winery is willing dispense with machinations meant to conform to varietal standards or brand style, or the more a winemaker is able to restrain personal compulsions to do this or that to a wine, then the more likely a wine is able to attain sensory qualities that express their origins—naturally.

This, if anything, is the essence of the so-called “natural” style.

Many of the consumers who are now looking for “natural” wines, of course, are not necessarily longtime wine lovers with copious amounts of wine knowledge. There is a lot of evidence that this growing preference is generational—harbored by the simple fact that new generations do not necessarily have the same taste as their parents or grandparents in much of anything, including wine.

A lot of these consumers have obviously had enough of what might be considered “conventional” wines—domestically produced products that continue to dominate America’s commercial market. Like it or not, these consumers find most of these wines to be either boring, unfulfilling or, simply, unpleasant. So, they look for alternatives—wines that speak to their taste and, often, also fit in with their values as consumers. For many of them, that alternative is “natural.”

Put it this way: To you, it may make more sense that a Cabernet Sauvignon should be intense and powerful, a Pinot Noir soft and sumptuous, and a Chardonnay rich and layered. But there are now many wine lovers who prefer red wines that are lean, sharp, earthy or herby, and white wines that are light, stony, decidedly un-fruity, even “un-varietal.”

The positive thing about the interest in natural wines is that they do, indeed, push conventions. On the negative side, we see continuous criticism of producers and companies marketing natural styles because it is felt that their sales pitches suggest that wines not made this way are somehow inferior. But that’s sales. No matter what you pitch—be it native yeast over inoculated fermentations, neutral over new French oak, amphorae over stainless steel finished wines, or even simply pushing your specific AVA— this does not automatically mean someone is saying that the opposite of said winemaking choice or style is bad. This is just how wines are sold.

The other common criticism is that people should not be allowed to use the term “natural” because it’s not clearly defined and is unregulated. Terms like “Reserve” and “Old Vine” are also ill-defined and unregulated, but who wants to give up the freedom to use those designations as they please? As it is, there are plenty enough things on wine labels that you do not have any freedom to fudge on. A while back, the feds in their great benevolence decided to tackle the term “organic,” and look what that got us—the absurd law that only unsulfured wines may be labeled “organic.”

Notwithstanding France’s 2020 enactment of official guidelines for Vin Méthode Nature wines, the stupidest thing we can do is beg our own government for more regulations. For now, we’re better off letting people call their wines “natural.”

I only had two mentors in the early part of my career, André Tchelistcheff and Kermit Lynch. While he is now retired, Lynch’s role as an importer of terroir-focused wines has had a huge impact on the way Americans look at wine. While being “natural” was absolutely never a defining objective by which Lynch made his selections, it’s no coincidence that most of the wines in the Kermit Lynch Wine Imports portfolio tend to meet this criterion. He is now considered The Godfather of this movement.

What I find more interesting is Tchelistcheff, who you can say made wine for, or consulted with, companies that, even to this day, are considered conventional. What I remember most about him is his insistence that, when it comes to vineyards, Mother Nature has the final say on what grapes should be planted, how they are farmed, and the style of the resulting wines. Tchelistcheff believed that “man” has only so much control, and that what comes naturally should be respected.

These values were good enough for Tchelistcheff and they’re good enough for me.

Author with Andre Tchelistcheff and John Salvi, MW / Kapalua, Maui, 1982
Author with Andre Tchelistcheff and John Salvi, MW / Kapalua, Maui, 1982 _______________________________________________________________________

Expert Editorial

Randy Caparoso
Randy Caparoso

Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at [email protected]

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Randy,
    Interesting bit. Great pic from Hawaii. Did you know André’s son Dimitri? My late father worked on a fun project “Pineapple 🍍 sparkling wine w Dimitri and Richard Peterson.
    Mahalo,
    Gino Filippi

  2. Natural wine

    Some thoughts while pruning after the annual reports.
    Natural wine. While it has no generally agreed upon definition, it does have a legal one in the USA. It means no alcohol has been added, legally, the vast majority of wine in the 7-14% alcohol range is Natural Wine. The French government is working on a legal definition. I find it a meaningless phrase.
    Wine is not natural. It is an artifact of human activity. It exists in the natural world as a few fleeting molecules before turning into vinegar and other substances.
    It’s not natural.
    Wine requires a vessel and a human. Then some processes to get fruiting bodies into the vessel and manage the results.
    I prefer to keep it fairly simple. I introduce selected yeasts and bacteria ( all found originally in “ natural “ fermentations) to supplement those coming with the grapes, picking process, and winery process. I mostly put juices and wines into barrels to manage the environ and results. I use no SO2 prior to fermentation.
    It’s not natural.
    I focus most of my efforts into growing as perfect a grape as I know how. We are in our seventh year of being a Zero Pesticide Vineyard. No insecticides, herbicides, fungicides( sulfur IS a pesticide). We planted non-indigenous species. We trellis, irrigate, shoot thin, leaf pluck, … , it’s possibly insane human intervention. I’m a servant to my vineyard.
    It’s not natural.
    Natural. A word loved by folks making granola with multiple sweeteners, also loved by folks trying to make a living by creating verbiage while writing about wine, especially “Pet-Nat” bottlings. Loved by people using additives produced in a chemical factory in New Jersey. Ultimately a deceptive marketing BS word.

    We ingredient label, I’ve not seen that on many bottles of “natural wine”, our list is very short. Grapes, yeast, potassium metabisulfite, malolactic bacteria would be a typical red wine. Oh yeah, if we use a pesticide, we list it, at least since labeling rules allowed it.

    Grapes have been grown with zero pesticides, exceeding Organic standards and not meeting Biodynamic because we have sprayed them with nothing, no magic potions. Biodynamic requires spraying, with “preparations”, I didn’t attend Hogworts, I don’t know how to make magic potions.
    It’s still not natural, except when communicating with the TTB..

    I prefer my food to be pure and simple and wholesome, I’ve been an organic gardener/ cook for 55 years. I’m not obsessed, at this time of year I buy some supermarket produce. It’s not organic in our little town and I won’t burn fossil fuel to drive to the next town for organic salad greens. I try and put the carbon footprint first.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard
    Winegrower of ingredient labeled wines from a Zero Pesticide Vineyard, certified Organic by WSDA

  3. What is kind of sad though is that I’ve heard Kermit talk about the natural wine movement and how much it hurts him to see that people don’t include his producers in their lists. You can go thru the “cool” kid “natty” wine bars and restaurants and rarely see a wine imported from Kermit Lynch. Because now they want the wine to TASTE natural, to taste flawed to be able to be called natural.

    I watched a so-called “tastemaker” in Portland Oregon, Dana Frank, head a “natural” wine panel and taste a Morgon from Guy Breton and then say “this isn’t natural!, I doubt it’s even natural fermentation” and then moved on and wouldn’t talk about the wine. Guy Breton? One of the “gang of four” that brought natural wine to the forefront was dismissed by a hipster who is supposed to know what they are talking about. It was because the wine was without noticeable flaws and that’s what people expect from a natural wine now.

    That’s where the natural wine movement has gone too far, a person who wants a super funky wine or only drinks pet nats is no better than the person who wants a buttery chardonnay. It’s a style of wine they prefer and not the ethics behind it.

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