Natural Is As Natural Does

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So-called "natural wines" are under the microscope these days
By Courtney Cochran
Twitter: @HipTastesMaven

The natural wine debate reached a fever pitch last week when the San Francisco Chronicle's head wine scribe, Jon Bonne, penned a blog post asserting that "natural wine is toast." At the core of his rant? The co-opting of the term - intended, at least initially, to describe wines made with minimal intervention - by marketers who wish to capitalize on its buzz-worthiness. The problem with buzz, of course, is that as soon as something becomes earmarked as "buzz" it's usually lost most of its potency anyway.
Confusion Reigns, Marketers Win?
So what IS natural wine, anyway?  It's an admittedly vague term, generally referring to wines made with indigenous or natural yeast (as opposed to the man-generated varieties so often used in commercial winemaking), then often finished with minimal sulfur dioxide - a preservative used frequently in winemaking - in the process.  There are all sorts of practical problems with this sort of winemaking (stuck fermentations, spoilage, short shelf life) which I won't go into detail on here, but suffice it to say that natural wines are most definitely NOT as a rule better than non-natural wines.

Cut back to Bonne's piece. "Let [the term natural wine] take its place alongside artisanal, hand-crafted, sustainable" he scoffs, clearly fed up with the lack of authenticity that now accompanies the latter monikers. He's got a point. Natural wine has officially been elevated to the echelon of marketing spin, where it will be manipulated, stretched thin and applied (thanks to its broad vagueness) to any wine with a touch of the "less is more" style.  The result will be that its true meaning will become so much further clouded as to elude the understanding of experts even.  Then again, looks like we're already there.

Yeast Tales & Label Woes
Further proof of the lack of clarity on the subject is the paucity of labeling laws that help consumers to identify which wines are "natural."  But if you're looking to gain a bit more insight into the topic, check out Ed Thrallis' interesting post at PalatePress (Yeast: From Behind the Scenes Into the Spotlight) about yeasts used in so-called natural wines, as well as a broader definition of commercial yeast. It's all a bit wine geek-y, but it's one that will only continue to be debated, given our country's growing interest in the provenance and integrity of what we consume.   

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