[This post was written immediately after the authentic/natural wine festival Rootstock that I attended a month ago. I’ve held off publishing it until now.]
The subject of natural wine is still controversial. Rootstock, which is pretty much a natural wine fair, has many friends, but also its critics, and I feel caught in the middle, slightly. I love natural wine, but I am not fully Rootstockian. Post-event, here’s how I’m feeling.
First, do I have to choose? Sometimes it seems this way. Are you in or are you out? I want to be part of the Rootstock scene, and I love natural wine. But I also love wine that wouldn’t meet the strict Rootstock criteria, but which express their place beautifully, and are made by sensitive people who listen to their vineyards and interpret them through what they do and don’t do in the winery.
Can’t I like both? Does one (moving in a natural direction) have to lead to the other (the destination of nothing added at all)? Working more naturally is often a key to producing more interesting, expressive wines. That’s why I was drawn to the natural wine movement: because I liked many of the wines. They were really beautiful and elegant. Some wines, though, are beautiful and elegant and they have 100 parts per million of total sulfur dioxide. I love grower Champagne, which inevitably uses some cultured yeasts for the second fermentation. I don’t want to give that up. Sometimes I’m in the mood for cloudy Pet-Nat, sometimes not.
It clearly isn’t my job to set the rules for Rootstock or to tell the organizers what they should do. But I have a slight concern. Let me explain. I stayed with Michael Dhillon at Bindi last night. Aren’t the Bindi wines beautiful? They’re pretty natural, by most counts. But Michael may occasionally have to add a bit of acid (he rarely does), and he adds enough sulfur dioxide to make sure the wines age properly (although some no-added sulfites wines age well, he’s not sure that his would). So when he was invited to Rootstock, he had to decline because he didn’t think he could honestly say he fitted the criteria. That’s honorable, but producers such as Bindi would be a great addition to Rootstock.
I don’t care for the (admittedly unspoken) ‘you’re in, you’re out,’ nature of Rootstock, but I do understand the need for entry criteria. Could these criteria be more results focused, though? People who work pretty naturally, but who are invited on the basis that their wines are really interesting? There’s just too much obsession with sulfur dioxide levels are the moment.
Rootstock, along with the natural wine movement, has to go back to the vineyard a bit more. It has to return to the place where the wine is really grown. And it’s not just as simple as organics and biodynamics. In some ways, to consider a wine natural simply because of stuff not being added or done to it in the winery is a bit bonkers. I could buy a couple of tons of grapes, rent some winery space, make a few barrels with no additions, design a zany label, and declare myself a natural wine grower. If it went wrong, I could turn it into Pet-Nat. But this isn’t really meaningful or interesting, unless the real focus was where the grapes came from, and in some intelligent way I interpreted that place.
But then again, Rootstock makes me question my own beliefs, which is a good thing. One question I am posing myself: do we make too much of stability in wines? We complain if every bottle isn’t the same. But should wines be living and vital, changeable and unpredictable? Have we listened too carefully to the wine scientists? Yes, an acidified, fined, clean, sterile filtered wine with healthy free sulfur dioxide levels will be stable. But what about a wine that has a healthy microbial ecology all through its life, and is never sulfured, never fined, never filtered? Aren’t some wine problems hospital diseases, caused because over-cautious interventional practices have created a microbial desert so bad bugs can come and have a field day? Is it a bit like the vineyard: once you begin with the mentality of immediately spraying in order to deal with some microbe or insect problem, then there’s a strong risk you are committing yourself to increasing intervention like this because you have created an imbalance, in the vineyard as well as in your mind.
We’re sometimes so close to wine that we lose the ability to keep a perspective. This is shown time and time again in discussions on natural wine. You simply can’t think of wine as this one single thing. Segmentation is absolutely necessary, because the rules that apply to one segment of the market don’t apply to others. To think of natural wine with a commercial/commodity wine viewpoint just leads to a ridiculous discussion where no one really connects.
If you are a wine buyer for large retail outlets, such as supermarkets or wine chains, then natural wine fairs are not for you – in a professional capacity, at least. Of course these wines are irrelevant to large retail. They are hand made in relatively small quantities and they need to be explained or understood. If you come at them with a commercial mind, then you’ll find problems with them. This doesn’t stop them being delicious and commercially valid, in their segment.
Let’s use cheese as a comparison (it’s sometimes healthy to step away from a subject we are too close to). Supermarket cheese illustrates the point quite well. By far the bulk of the offering is highly standardized, commercial cheese. It just tastes of cheese. Or, more accurately, it tastes of a commercial version of the type of cheese that it is. Customers want mild Cheddar that tastes of mild Cheddar and which is affordable and offers no surprises. They want affordable Parmesan, affordable Mozzarella, affordable Manchego, affordable Gruyère – all of which will offer a bit of the personality of the type of cheese they are, but not too much. Then there’s the ready sliced or grated versions of cheese, and so on. A supermarket cheese offering delivers quite a range of familiar cheeses, some of which are OK, and many of which do their job perfectly well.
Then we have artisan cheese shops. They might have versions of the famous names, but these will usually be much more expensive and have much more flavour. And then they’ll have a range of really interesting, often strong tasting cheeses with a real story to tell. For flavour-geeks like me, this is very exciting. But take those cheeses and put them in a supermarket, and they won’t sell, and you’ll likely upset the customers who buy them without realizing what they are buying.
In the wine world we have the sorts of people who should really be sticking to the artisan cheese shop criticizing the supermarket cheese range. And we have a whole bunch of folks who don’t like artisan cheeses criticizing the artisan cheese shop for not being more commercial and for offering cheeses that normal people would find objectionable.
Natural wine is hugely commercially relevant, if you do your market segmentation first. Commercial wine? It will always be commercial wine, so we shouldn’t waste too much time worrying about it or writing about it.
I can imagine some readers seething in indignation at this point. How elitist! Normal people drink and buy inexpensive, fruit forward wines, so those are the ones you should be writing about! People love sweet reds and wines with added fruit essences, so how elitist and out of touch you are for ignoring them! We need new wine communicators who will talk to normal people about the sorts of wines they drink!
Well, I don’t think this way. For a start, ‘normal’ people – who the wine trade is so desperate to reach – simply don’t read about wine. It’s far too abstract. Second, it’s just not honest. I don’t think there’s much to be said about mass market wines. They taste of wine. There’s a need for them. But I’d be dishonest to rave about them, even if my motivation was to help the wine trade. I want to tell the world about wines that excite me. What’s the point of compromising my integrity to write something that no-one will read? It’s a wonderful lose-lose scenario.
Do you know what I think is really elitist? To think that normal people can’t cope with interesting wine. Many of them won’t ever want more than just simple, affordable wine, but there’s a small subset of the population who are interested in flavour, and unless they get a chance to develop that interest by experiencing interesting wine, then this interest will lie dormant, which is a shame.