On the Nature of Wine
And the Cultural Contradictions of Artisanal Capitalism
The winemaking facilities at Paolo Bea are not what you might expect.
Giampaolo Bea’s family has made wine in the region for almost 500 years. He is one of the founders of Italy’s natural wine movement and evangelizes his craft, claiming to make wines that represent as pure an expression as possible of the fruit of the vine, with as little human intervention as possible. No synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are used in the vineyard. No chemicals are added during fermentation. He makes wines of exceptional freshness, and his wines have garnered a cult following among natural wine lovers around the world.
But a primitive operation Paolo Bea is not. Bea’s son Giampiero, an architect by training, designed the state-of-the-art winemaking facility. Clad in handsome white stone, the building could easily be mistaken for a modern art museum. Passively heated and cooled, the facility houses four stories, with two floors bunkered into the clay soils to keep the wines cool. Gravity moves the wine from the warm upper floors, where the grapes are crushed and the fermentation is started, through a series of troughs, pipes, and tanks to the lower floors, where the sediments are allowed to settle and the wines finish their fermentation and are aged in oak barrels for up to four years.
Bea may forgo the commercial yeasts that produce a more predictable fermentation and use minimal sulfur dioxide, the preservative that winemakers use to stabilize wines for shipment and sale. But it would be a mistake to assume that Bea’s methods are not technological. If anything, making natural wines that are consistently palatable requires greater precision and control than conventional winemaking. Mistakes in the vinification of natural wines are not easily corrected, and much more can go wrong, as rogue bacteria, temperature fluctuations, and a raft of further variables can quickly turn wine into vinegar, or something equally unpleasant.
Nor does the dependence of this supposedly antediluvian school of winemaking upon modern technology end at the cellar door. Because they forgo the use of preservatives, natural wines are highly perishable. Natural wine enthusiasts who cue up in Tokyo, New York, and Sydney for Bea’s latest releases are only able to do so thanks to a modern transportation system that whisks his wines from his passively cooled cellar to natural wine bars and retailers around the world.
Nonetheless, the gestalt of the natural wine movement is raffish, with more than a bit of Occupy-style radicalism thrown in for good measure. At a tasting in San Francisco some years ago dedicated to the struggles natural winemakers have had with the traditional French appellation system, a lineup of local importers blamed familiar suspects: Monsanto, GMOs, and globalization, framing the struggle as one between big agribusiness and small artisanal farmers. And yet, notwithstanding the rhetoric, and the rejection of particular technological interventions, it would be a mistake to conclude that natural wines are any less a product of modern science, technological innovation, and global commerce than are conventional wines.
Not so long ago, all wines were natural wines. The elaborate ritual at table’s side, where the waiter shows the label, opens the bottle, presents the cork, and then pours a taste of the wine, is a vestige of a time when wines spoiled often and were adulterated frequently. All wines were produced with natural yeasts, and temperatures during vinification were difficult to control or even measure.
Winemaking was so poorly understood and spoilage so common that in 1863, the French government commissioned none other than Louis Pasteur to study the problem. Identifying many bacterial causes of spoilage, Pasteur pointed to temperature and oxygen levels in the barrel as the key culprits.
Since then, science, technology, and infrastructure have provided the foundation upon which the art of modern winemaking relies. This includes greater understanding of fermentation and spoilage (until Pasteur, no one knew that it was yeast that converted grape sugar to alcohol), superior technological ability to control the winemaking process (the use of refrigeration, metal tanks, thermometers, and artificial carbon dioxide to control the temperature and levels of oxygen the wine is exposed to), and modern transportation infrastructure to get the product in palatable form from producer to consumer.
It would be a mistake to conclude that natural wines are any less a product of modern science, innovation, and commerce than are conventional wines.
Natural winemaking is arguably more dependent upon all of those capabilities than are conventional wines. Making wine with natural yeasts and without preservatives is a high-wire act requiring even greater knowledge of the biology of fermentation, greater control over temperature and oxygenation, and an advanced global transportation network that can keep a highly perishable product at a precisely controlled temperature from a cellar in Jura or the Loire Valley to a wine bar or retailer halfway around the world.
But for the addition of sugar and sulfur, natural winemaking shares all the basic hallmarks of modern wine production, and both of those practices in fact predate the advent of commodified industrial winemaking. Chaptalization, the practice of adding sugar to wine during fermentation in order to increase its alcohol content, dates to at least the French Revolution. Winemakers began applying sulfur in their vineyards in the mid-19th century to combat a new form of mildew. Around the same time, they began burning sulfur sticks in wine barrels to produce sulfur dioxide in the wine for preservation.
There is a long-standing trope among wine aficionados that great wines are made in the vineyard, not the cellar. But the thing that distinguishes natural wines from conventional wines, in a way that is recognizable even to unsophisticated palates almost immediately, happens in the cellar, not the vineyard. The central fact of natural winemaking is the use of little or no sulfur dioxide to preserve the wines.
Natural wines taste different — of juice and stems, but most of all of fermentation, in a way that beer and kombucha do and conventional wines do not. The results can be startling and, for some, off-putting. Bea’s Arboreus, made from 130-year-old Trebbiano vines grown to the size of small oak trees, has an ethereal bouquet, smelling of orange blossoms and spices. But the finish tastes more like apple cider.
For this reason, natural wines are controversial. The lack of preservative results in wines that are less typical and less predictable. A syrah or chardonnay bottled without sulfur dioxide often doesn’t taste the way one expects a syrah or chardonnay to taste. In a long and impassioned 2014 web posting, the uber-wine critic Robert Parker branded natural wine proponents “absolutists” and the wines “flawed, desiccated, stinky, oxidized, astringent, vegetal, and under-ripe.”
Parker’s jeremiad included many grievances. But at bottom, it was mostly a defense of the elaborate hierarchy for describing, categorizing, evaluating, and classifying wines that generations of wine professionals have laboriously constructed. Implicit in that hierarchy is the presumption that there is a natural order of wine reflecting the intrinsic qualities of the soils, climates, and grapes from which they are produced.
What many natural wine enthusiasts object to is the transformation of an agricultural product, reflecting a local place and its traditions, into a commodified, luxury product.
One can see it on any well-curated wine list. At the front of the book are the Champagnes, starting with the nonvintage versions accessible to mere mortals. Then come the vintage Champagnes, at prices that edge into the stratosphere. After that might be a short list of other sparkling wines, priced for the diner on a budget.
The pattern repeats itself throughout the book. Page after page of Bordeaux and Burgundy at ever-escalating cost. Followed perhaps by a short section of more reasonably priced wines from the Rhône Valley, Provence, and perhaps Piedmont or Tuscany. And then another section titled “Other Regions” or perhaps, more cheekily, “Interesting Reds.”
That hierarchy is literally codified in French law, where the appellation system methodically categorizes wine regions, subregions, and even subregions of subregions. Burgundy is subdivided into so many appellations that some are just an acre or two of land on one particular hillside with one particular exposure and soil type. The appellation system stipulates which grape varieties can be included in the wine, and any deviation risks losing the appellation designation, which in a place like Burgundy can be extremely valuable, signaling to wine consumers around the world that the contents of the bottle will be of high quality and unique character, only achievable in that place, from that soil, from those grapes.
For this reason, there is not much natural winemaking in the great appellations of France, which, whatever else they may represent, are international brands for which consumers pay a premium. The few producers who have dared to try are frequently denied the appellation designation on grounds that the wines lack “typicity,” an arbitrary term that belies the fact that natural winemakers in these appellations follow all the stipulated rules, producing wines from the designated vineyards with the designated grape varietals.
By contrast, natural wine production has blossomed in what have historically been considered lesser appellations — places like the Loire Valley, the Jura, and the Languedoc. In these regions, deviations from what would be considered the typical are less consequential economically.
So in part of necessity, the natural wine movement has been forced to champion the qualities of wines from lesser appellations. Nobody knows what Domaine de la Romanée-Conti bottled without any sulfur dioxide tastes like because at upward of $2,000 per bottle, nobody is willing to take the chance that the wine will spoil, or be off-putting, or just not taste like what a Romanée-Conti is supposed to taste like.
In the fall of 2015, Maxwell Leer, a young progressive sommelier and natural wine enthusiast in Los Angeles best known as the inventor of the wine rave, helped open a new restaurant in Venice Beach. The restaurant was well reviewed, but Leer’s natural wine–heavy list was not. A reviewer from LA Weekly described it as “Dadaist wine performance art” and a “hostile document.” And by all accounts, the list was unreadable. That, arguably, was the point. There was not a word on the list that would tell a seasoned wine lover what they were likely to enjoy. Instead, the list featured wines named not for their producer or region but things like “ham wine” and “coffee.” Leer’s intention was to disorient, to give the experienced wine consumer no familiar point of reference.
Taste, in most cases, cannot be separated from culture and context. Much of Asia prizes durian fruit and fermented fish, delicacies that most Westerners can’t stomach. Scandinavians eat astounding quantities of lutefisk, which their European neighbors find disgusting.
As in life, so too in wine. The Japanese love “mouse” in their wines, a flavor component that most oenophiles consider a flaw. And even sophisticated wine drinkers, according to one recent study, when confronted with wines whose color has been changed, can’t taste the difference between red wine and white.
Many of the foundational characteristics that oenophiles use to classify wines into the “natural order” also turn out to be associated with good taste for highly contingent reasons. In an era when wines needed to survive long-distance travel without refrigeration, wines that traveled well also tended to age well. Both characteristics were necessary for anyone interested in collecting wines. Hence structure, tannin, and extraction became defining traits of fine wines, particularly red wines.
For a new generation of wine consumers, it’s not clear at all why these particular characteristics ought to govern their preferences and consumption. Few buyers of fine wine cellar their wines for very long, if they cellar them at all. And with today’s GPS-tracked, temperature-controlled global shipping industry, there is little reason to select wines because they travel well or to sulfur them so that they will.
For these among other reasons, many wine consumers have already gravitated toward wines that taste fresher and lighter bodied. And once the basic hierarchy of quality and value started to fall apart, other previously taboo assumptions about what wines are supposed to taste like were soon to follow.
The gestalt of the natural wine movement is raffish, with more than a bit of Occupy-style radicalism thrown in for good measure.
“What we try to do,” Bradford Taylor, the owner of Ordinaire, a natural wine shop and bar in Oakland that has become the spiritual home of the West Coast natural wine scene, told the San Francisco Chronicle recently, “is get [customers] excited about the things that are disturbing them about the wine.” Once you’ve decided, for instance, that a bit of lactobacillus developed during fermentation (a bacteria that conventional winemakers generally eliminate through sulfuring their wines) tastes pleasantly of yeast and freshly baked bread rather than disturbingly like mouse urine, why add sulfur during fermentation or bottling to get rid of it?
Ultimately, for Taylor, Leer, and others, making wines correctly is less important than making them with integrity. What many natural wine enthusiasts object to is the objectification and transformation of an agricultural product — reflecting a local place, its traditions, and all the variances that come with the weather and the proclivities (and mistakes) of a winemaker — into a commodified, luxury product that has been tailored to suit the tastes of the fine wine–drinking public and the various tastemakers who set those preferences.
The “flaws” of natural wines, in this view, are a feature, not a bug. The wines may sometimes be unbalanced or have flavor components that many consider undesirable, but with that come unusual and sometimes ethereal expressions of fruit that can’t be realized conventionally. The flaws are the cost, so to speak, of producing wines that are authentic.
Around the time that Whole Foods’ annual revenues began to exceed those of Monsanto, many advocates of organic agriculture decided that where food was grown and who grew it were at least as important as how it was grown. As the market for organics grew, large enterprises like Dean Foods and Driscoll’s demonstrated that the tangle of arbitrary rules and practices that constituted organic agriculture was no less amenable to large-scale commodified production than was conventional agriculture. Many of those practices came at a cost to consumers (and it has more recently become clear, to the environment). But given a sizable enough market willing to pay that premium, corporate agriculture was more than happy to play along.
Natural wine today faces similar contradictions. Because natural winemaking requires a level of precision and control that is well suited to technological intervention, there is no particular conflict between scientific winemaking and natural winemaking nor any reason that larger producers might not be able to adhere to the rules, such as they are, of natural winemaking. And increasingly at West Coast natural wine events, alongside the leathery faced winemakers from France, Italy, and Spain who have long been the face of natural winemaking, one finds young UC Davis–trained enologists putting their scientific training to use to make precise, carefully balanced natural wines.
This development has not been entirely welcome. “I like winemakers more than I like wine,” Josh Eubank, a friend and sociologist turned wine importer, recently observed in response to criticism that many natural wines are flawed and poorly made. Implicit in this distinction is the egalitarian notion that by rejecting the platonic ideal that wine critics, sommeliers, and collectors would impose upon wine — the idea that there is a good, better, and best of wine that demand and prices should reflect — those who produce, distribute, sell, and consume natural wines might escape the culture of modern capitalism.
True to that aspiration, when Eubank purchases wines from winemakers, he doesn’t just purchase the wines he likes or thinks he can sell; he purchases all of a winemaker’s wines, in order to support producers who won’t tailor their winemaking to suit the preferences of the market. Make wines with integrity, make them naturally, and make them without one eye cast to the global marketplace, Eubank is telling his producers, and he and his customers will drink the wines and like them, the disasters as well as the triumphs.
Like virtually all forms of artisanal production in advanced developed economies, natural wine production is better understood not as an alternative to global commodified capitalist production but an elaboration of it.
In this regard, the rise of natural wine has been driven as much by producers as by consumers. Faced with an appellation system that relegated them to selling grapes cheaply and anonymously, a new generation of winemakers less willing to accept their lot as peasant farmers, together with an alliance of small importers, distributors, and retailers, created a new class of wine and, of no less import, a new market for those wines.
If the natural wine imaginary seems unlikely, as some proponents hope, to produce fundamentally new social and economic arrangements in place of global capitalism, it would appear that global capitalism has quite successfully turned that imaginary into new products, supply chains, businesses, and livelihoods, a reversal of sorts of Marx’s famous observation that capitalism turns all that is solid into air. Capitalist modernity has proven so resilient in no small part for this reason — its capacity to constantly create new values and then absorb them.
In this, the realities of natural wine production and consumption are a case in point, not a counterpoint. Like virtually all forms of artisanal production in advanced developed economies, natural wine production is better understood not as an alternative to global commodified capitalist production but an elaboration of it — a froth of alternative values and production possibilities that can only exist atop the sea of standardized, mechanized, and industrialized materiality that is the predicate for modern life, modern social identities, and the global cosmopolitan values that allow an architect or software programmer in San Francisco to identify passionately with the parochial interests of small producers of long-forgotten grape varietals in Catalonia or Sardinia.
In the end, the lessons that natural wine has to offer are not so much agricultural or economic as sociological. There is no such thing as a natural wine any more than there is a natural order of wine. The latter simply reflects an idealized distillation of modern, universalist values while the former reflects a postmodern reaction to those values. In this, natural wines are something new, not something old — a product of modern technology and infrastructure, new configurations of production and consumption in mature market economies, and the new values, identities, tastes, and aspirations that continue to evolve alongside them.
Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 8
Featuring pieces by Charles Mann, Steven Pinker,
Varun Sivaram, Jonathan Symons, Tisha Schuller,
and Jenny Splitter.