Sometimes we rail for change over a long period of time, wake up one morning, and find that we have already turned the corner.
With the often rancorous debate over natural wine, I believe this has finally happened.
I just returned from the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Izmir, Turkey, where a Natural Wine Panel, with an A list of presenters in front of a large global audience of wine influencers was billed as a main event.
As articulate as the panel was, as polarized as the views certainly were, it seemed somewhat irrelevant to today’s marketplace. Quaintly retro and academic like a lecture on social issues years after a shift in norms.
It just didn’t seem to matter any longer.
We live in a different world today.
Dramatically and wonderfully so from five or six years ago, when natural wine as a ‘movement’ under the leadership of Alice Feiring and others, collided with the wine world’s establishment. The marketplace has evolved and moved on. The pocketful of remaining natural wine naysayers sound shrill and out-of-touch.
There’s a new global culture at play today. An almost perfect wave of change with an informed market and a feeling of collective responsibility for our personal health and the health of the planet.
Add to that the ubiquity of the social web that has normalized a globalization of local markets, and a consumer propensity towards the artisanal, towards the unique and towards interesting over perfect, especially in our food products.
This is true of a population of consumers wherever I travel in the states and Europe. En route back from my trip to Turkey this week, I can state that this exists firmly on both sides of the Bosphorus!
I am not talking just about wine. Wine didn’t invent the category of natural as a phrase or filter for consumable goods. It does, however, fit nicely under it.
In today’s world, people don’t just buy products, they buy beliefs.
True for jeans. True for food. True for wine.
The broad market, empowered and informed, has leaned toward natural as a norm, healthy as sexy in our food and agricultural products, sustainability as something to be striven for, social responsibility in manufacturing.
This is neither cult nor religion, just a general state of how an ever-growing portion of the population perceives what is ideal and right. The market would rather buy local, buy fresh, and would rather take referrals from friends rather than dogma from pundits.
It’s a signature of our times.
Natural as a term thrives in the marketplace because it is neither a definition nor a certification.
Organic is regulated certification with legal meaning on a wine bottle. This is true for Biodynamic as well. These certifications serve their purpose and tell the buyer how the grapes were grown.
But for wine, these certifications tell only a small part of the story, concentrating only on what happens in the vineyard. With the exception of sulphur, not at all on what is added or what happens in the cave.
Natural is a category, not a certification and a superset of both Organic and Biodynamic. It provides a lens into how a wine is made beyond how the grapes are grown. It guides you to discover the intent of the winemaker and starts you on a path to understand how a wine is made beyond simply the fruit.
Natural means loosely that people made the wine with organic materials and a non-interventionist approach. It means in many cases that the intent was to make the wine with natural yeasts and indigenous grapes in a traditional fashion.
These are neither rules nor laws, they are intents. The winemaker or your merchant can tell you what was done. The natural category just guides you to the point of discovery and disclosure.
The wine world is bereft of labels. Bereft of ways for the consumer to find some way to approach wine without mandatory education and with comfort.
Natural does this job well.
Interesting is the new perfect.
We live in the era of the small brand. The individual. The artisan.
Remarkably, what the Internet and technology have done to a flattened global world is to put the local, the unique, the hand made and the limited production on a pedestal.
We want to buy products that smack of the place they were made and the person who made them.
When I crack open a bottle of Vitovska from Carso on my roof deck in Manhattan and talk about how in Sandy Skerk’s cellar you can see the vines working their way through pure limestone and iron, friends get it immediately. They can taste the story in all its unfamiliarity and natural interest. This bottle is the product of that unique place from this unique winemaker with these wonderful (and unique!) grapes.
Nothing tastes more perfect than a story and a belief that is unique and geo-stamped as a place in your thoughts.
Natural wine as a belief doesn’t have a lock on interesting, but interesting is one of the characteristics you certainly do look for in a natural wine.
The market is not the least bit confused.
Natural as a category is everywhere in New York City. As the moniker under the name of a wine shop or bar. On menus. Used by sommeliers at the best restaurants.
Pundits are (sigh!) still decrying the confusion of the term natural and even some of my favorite natural winemakers, like Frank Cornelissen or Salvo Foti do indeed balk at being classified.
But the consumer cares.
Most consumers understand little how wine is made, and are happy to have a category that gives them comfort and consuming direction. They don’t wear t-shirts with natural written on them, but they do search for wines and food and product that are just that.
Natural wine as a category, a refrain even, used by boutique distributors, custom importers, shops and many winemakers, is a connector to a customer base that cares, that wants great taste and that want to shop within its beliefs.
The world has turned a big corner to a new path.
And in the wine world, this is the most exciting, open and undefined time to make, sell and enjoy wine made by individuals in unique spots on the globe with a belief in making wine as naturally as possible.
I’ve been striving to understand, and blogging on natural wine for years. It excites me intellectually and challenges my palate.
All the discussions in Turkey driving me to write this post on the way home have really whetted my thirst for something wonderful. I’ve been day dreaming about walking into Sandy Skerk’s cellar with him in Carso and tasting Malvasia from his barrel.
Time to shut the laptop and head to the wine cooler.
I’m thinking of that bottle of Ograde from Skerk that I’ve been saving, or maybe that Foti field blend that I first tasted at the Vigna del Bosco vineyard with Etna smoking in the background, to sip as I push this post live.