It was less than half a decade ago that natural wine was a wildly polarizing topic, riddled with acerbic accusations and challenged viciously by the then wine establishment.
That was then, this is now–thankfully.
Today after the hard work of many and a shift in marketplace itself, the idea that we can make excellent and interesting wine, naturally without additives and with minimal intervention from organic fruit is simply part of our consuming culture.
This is grounded in a ever-growing population of winemakers from every possible corner of the globe and a powerful, congenial and loose-knit community of winelovers that binds it all together.
What is astounding is that natural wine is the only segment of the massive natural food market that has carved out an authentic consumer definition without certification, without governmental control, without a governing body of any sort.
To me–it is certainly the better for it.
Some may argue that this is its shortcoming. I think just the opposite.
Natural wine is a cultural exercise in authenticity and transparency. And I’ve come to realize recently, one where inclusivity and diversity on both the producer and the consuming side are key to its allure and staying power.
The inspiring creativity of the winemakers themselves within this segment, the support of an ever-growing and aware consumer market, and a global supply chain of producers, importers, shops, restaurants, bars, bloggers and super enthusiasts have come together to make this so.
This change could only happen from a bottoms up market-driven movement, not one mandated top down by legislating bodies.
The magic of course is that natural wine doesn’t end with a label or cert on the bottle or even a scale of taste owned by the pundits.
It culminates when the expression of the artisan meets the satisfaction of the consumer around a collective ethos of taste.
Natural is a choice. Self policed in many respects.
Certainly there are people who stretch the common definition and those that abuse it.
But wine generally, and natural wine specifically, is almost never a self-serve market.
As a product wine is not bought, it is sold.
Sold by people who are the curators of these often unique approaches and who they themselves, by their own knowledge and reputations, certify the truth of the disclosures around what they are selling.
I admit that there is both ambiguity and messiness here.
But I believe that the success of natural wine as an approach to winemaking with its corresponding market is more powerful because of this.
Winemakers follow their hearts and beliefs, consumers simply listen to what excites them, feels true and authentic.
Within this loose definition of what is natural wine is a built-in flexibility, an acceptance not of a standard of taste, but by an expectation of diversity of taste itself.
I’ve blogged on this since the beginning and have fought against the idea that only by certs does authenticity stay honest.
But I’m also realizing that the inchoate nature of natural wine is what lets it grow and continue to evolve.
It’s been an education as I’ve dug into how mead, cider and Vermouth are made from a technical standpoint. And as different and truly fascinating they are to this natural wine geek, but that is not what interests me most.
As I start to understand these fermenters, as individuals and artisans, they are similar at their cores to many of my heroes in the natural wine world.
Impassioned and astutely knowledgeable. Impractical and iconoclastic. Driving a process that they both control by their decisions and are simply holding on to in others as nature simply takes it course.
Each and every one of these artisans starts with an ethos of how they view their relationship to place—their definition of local–be it the Hudson Valley or Vermont, or Brooklyn.
How they include the intent of the maker in the definition of terroir. How they think about how they farm bees, for example, to create the raw honey for the mead with as much studied knowledge and personalized mythologies as many approach Biodynamics as a way of farming.
How diverse these disciplines truly are—in some ways more so–than wines made from grapes.
How by adding herbs, botanicals and vegetables to the fermenters ingredients, they are sculpting something quite new. A fermented natural beverage but not simply wine.
This has been both challenging and inspiring to me as I think about this panel. Trying to uncover what matters to the market and what challenges these artisans have.
And I’m considering an approach that focuses not by how what they do is different, but by how they approach their trade and carry through a similar set of ethics in a different process to a common end.
These questions are bubbling up for the natural fermenters at my Raw Fair panel:
-Do you consider yourselves winemakers?
Or something completely different?
Legally you are winemakers making alcoholic beverages sold to the public, but in the market’s eye, the process of making mead for example is so dramatically different than the traditional concept of a winemaker. Is this a branding challenge for you?
-What does idea of terroir and the importance of place mean to you?
We think of winemaker and place more than grape and vintage for natural wine. They are an expression of place itself, literally part of their own terroir.
Is this true for you?
-What does natural mean to you?
Do you have a different definition that you adhere to? A modified version tied to the characteristics of your product. What are you criteria for using additives including SO2?
-How does referring to themselves as farmers and artisans impact the market’s view of your craft?
Do you think of mead or cider as closer to a crop that a farmer makes, or closer to the luxory item that wine certainly is to the broader marketplace?
-What is your view of the role of the artisan as it relates to intent on how your product should taste?
Natural winemakers consider themselves not shepards of a natural process, but more sculptors making decisions and integral to the expression of place usually thought of as terror. Is this the same for you?
-What do they want the natural wine market, the consumer to think of you?
As something uniquely different and dancing to a different drummer? Or part of the diversity of making fermented products in ancient ways for a modern market? As winemakers?
I noticed that Ciders and Vermouths are sold through the same channels as wine. At least in my neighborhood, this is not the same for mead? I see this as a concern especially in New York as here, the most influential people in the wine business are the buyers working the floors of our wine shops, selling to the public.
This is good stuff and I think the telling discussion topics worth considering.
It’s about wine certainly. It’s about an embrace of a natural approach to create something new. It’s about how we as a culture think about, categorize and embrace the things that matter to us.
If you are in New York next Sunday and Monday, the 6th and 7th of November, come see us at the Raw Fair.
If you are around on Monday in the afternoon, I would be thrilled to meet you at the panel.