Natural Wines: Eric Asimov's Take

Remember our discussion here on natural wines? Eric Asimov writes about them in today’s NY Times:" onclick=";return false;

although i found asimov’s diatribe on u.s. syrah deeply insulting considering we have yet to distinguish cali terroir from cali terroir from cali terroir, i did find this article interesting - thanks wv

One of the weaker pieces of writing I’ve seen. He rambles, cites no facts, gives only a hand-waving description of what “natural winemaking” is, and falls into the old trap of assuming that the description “natural” makes something “better.” To me, “natural” is the most marketing-oriented approach to selling wine of any of them, just like it is in the food industry.

I see absolutely not problem with his article. As an industry, the term “natural wine” has no meaning. It is whatever one wants it be be. Define education today. Define the level of education a high school diploma represents or even a BS/BA. It means absolutely nothing. I get college degreed applicants whose writing skills appears to be on a 6th grade level. We test math skills for about a 7th grade level of math. No Algebra, Geometry, or Trig, just simple math. Over 50% of college grads fail the math test. Education has no meaning today, same as “natural” wines. The important thing to remember is that all the governing bodies work very hard to keep the system as is. Hell, it might be bad for a winemaker’s self esteem not to be able to RO his wine, then dump megaPurple in, and not call it natural! RO is natural dude! Won’t even go into the people doing chants in the vineyard and calling their wines bio dynamic. I just want some of what they are smoking.

I thought it was an excellent article, as was his Syrah piece, but I’m in agreement with him most of the time. His taste, like most of the movers and shakers of the NY wine scene, is old world, so it’s no surprise that time after time the most vociferous criticism of his pieces come from folks in CA.


Well at least he defined it for his purposes -

intended to mean wines made of grapes grown organically, or in rough approximation, and then made into wine with a minimum of manipulation — nothing added, nothing taken away, the winemaker simply shepherding the grape juice along its natural path of fermentation into wine.

It’s a little simplistic to say the winemaker simply shepherds the juice into wine tho - don’t forget that if you pick a little later than some people want you to, the wine won’t have terroir or varietal character and if you macerate the wrong way it’s going to be spoofilated. So he’s got to refine that definition a little bit otherwise hell, somebody could be thinking he’s making “natural” wine and instead he’s making globalized wine. Sigh. It’s tough these days . . .

Love your rant Gordon!

Don’t know who “owns” the term natural wine, even after all these discussions. Asimov’s definition goes out into the vineyard quite explicitly. In our long thread here, it was all about what happens and what doesn’t happen inside the winery, and don’t worry about growing practices.

I almost always like Asimov’s columns, but not this one I’m afraid.

As a working, general definition, I don’t see a problem with that quote. He’s not saying NO intervention, he’s saying a minimum of it and I imagine would concede that this will vary by winemaker, vintage and region.

The thing people seem to get stuck on is what that drawing precise lines where THIS is natural and THAT, just over some line, isn’t. To me, there’s no bright line where a certain technique or set of them takes a wine from what I’d consider to be natural. At some point a wine leaves the region of natural, but as with all things like this it’s easier to talk specific cases than setup clear but general rules.

To me it is not the specific drawing of precise lines, it is the principles behind where those lines are drawn. I have no problem if natural winemakers are simply doing what they think will create the best tasting wine, as Asimov indicates:

For fans of natural wines, and I am one, the criticism can be profoundly frustrating. Most people who make or like the wines feel as they do simply because they enjoy the way the wines taste, not because they follow a particular dogma. When successful, natural wines can be superb, seeming bold, vibrant and fresh, graceful and unforced.

In that case, would they test using non-natural techniques and blind taste it against natural controls. If a non-natural technique provided a better wine would the winemaker use it? If the principle is making the best wine then they would use the non-natural technique.
The difficult cases, and when the natural term would really matter, are when a winemaker would have to sacrifice something (flavor wise, consistency, some form of quality) in order to make the wine natural. Then the criticism that frustrates Asimov is valid.
If there are sacrifices to be made in order to remain natural, then what is the principle behind natural winemaking? And if there are so many small decisions that can be contradictory, can natural winemakers actually stay consistent to those principles.


Rick - I don’t actually have a problem with the quote and I appreciate that he’s defined it for purposes of his argument. And I don’t have a problem with where someone draws his own line or with trying to make the best wine possible. It’s the connotation that other wine is somehow unnatural that I find misleading. There is nothing in the entire process of winemaking, from selecting a site and a variety and then grafting that variety onto a different rootstock that is “natural”, other than to say that it occurs by the hand of man and everything that so occurs can be defined as natural or else it wouldn’t have occurred.

That’s way too zen-like for me. Moreover, it suggests a polarity that is really irritating. It’s either me or you, good or bad, black or white, Dem or Republican, natural or unnatural, and so on. To his credit, Asimov pointed out that some “natural” wines suck. I like the idea of not using chem fertilizers and not using chem weedkillers or fungicides or insecticides. Why not just state that? And if you don’t de-alc or water back or chaptalize or acidify, or add sulfur or MegaPurple, why not just state that?

Bottom line is I don’t think most people, if anyone, can ID a wine as “natural” or not by tasting. Mega Purple and acidification, maybe, but not much else. Including “native” yeast which is another load of BS.

One of the reasons that people focus on where the lines are drawn - and the issues around the edge - is that is where you find a philosophies weaknesses and the reasoning (or lack thereof) of its supporters. This is true for virtually all philosophies. I am reading a fascinating book on the concept of Original Sin and, sure enough, one of the first areas that was focused on was what happened to children who died - were they affected by Original Sin, did they go to hell, etc? –

We go to the edge to find the strength of the middle.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Greg, could you explain what you mean by the wrong way?

I really find nothing confrontational, nor very earth shattering, in this article whatsoever. That said, it is interesting and does bring up some interesting points.

Just as everything else in winemaking, there’s ‘the truth’ and ‘reality’, and somewhere in between is what really happens. And unless winemakers and wineries abide by a ‘higher internal code of ethics’ we will really never know what is actually happening. Are wineries now using this ‘buzz word’ to try to sell wines that were possibly not done ‘naturally’? Of course they probably are.

Just as with ‘low alcohol syrah’, I am now seeing more and more retailers and wine bars ask the question - Is This ‘Natural’? - when presenting wines. As Eric points out, it is a disproportionately growing at this time, and many out there are looking for the holy grail.

I understand where Asimov (and Bonne and others) are going with their liking these wines and their philosophies - less is more. Less intervention in the vineyard; less inputs in the winery. These, on the surface, are helping carve newer (or many would say older) paths.

But ultimately, IMHO, the proof is in the final product, not the path taken - unless your goal is to make wines for just your own consumption. The wines should have to pass the same ‘litmus test of good and bad’ as all other wines do, and not receive a ‘free pass’ because of how they are made. If the wine 'does not taste good but was made ‘naturally’ so that’s okay;, then, again IMHO, we have some ‘problems’ here.

I hope the movement continues to get out there and be heard and seen - just as I hope syrah continues to be discussed on the national level. ALL of these discussions are great for our industry, for we get people talking - and hopefully trying - more and more wines!


Natural should never be an excuse for lousy wine in the same vein that points should never be used as declaration of a great wine. But the winemaking path taken is becoming a hard line as to whether or not people want to purchase, consume, or place certain wines anymore. Some folks refuse to eat food w/ MSG, even if it is hard to deny that it can make things delicious…

The great thing about this- consumers and buyers are asking deeper questions. This is beyond does it taste good-- it is how did you get it here? And whether that vibes with their own idea of wine.


He mailed this one in.

People keep saying this but if this is the case don’t you find it strange that none of the wineries or importers supposedly using this term to “market” their wine even use the term on their labels. Where exactly is all this marketing taking place?


I can only attest to having knowledge of a handful of folks making ‘natural’ wines in CA, and you are correct - they are not putting it on their labels. This, of course, does NOT mean that they are keeping quiet about it on their websites, in blogs, when meeting with restaurants and retailers, doing interviews, etc . . .

The term is being used to help differentiate these wines from others - ie marketing. But as far as I’ve seen so far, it is not an ‘in your face’ approach - yet.


I’m not even sure the TTB would allow it on a label…

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Oh as if THAT matters [stirthepothal.gif]

Its funny that when people talk about “natural” winemaking that they ignore talking about Champagne. Champagne has to be the most manipulated wine in the world yet it is delicious. And most red wines in the world sit in chared wooden barrels sucking up those flavors. Is that natural winemaking? Seems that the natural flavor of the wine is being changed with a pretty heavy handed introvention there. In germany they aggresively manipulate wines so that they have RS. Is that natural winemaking? How about Port?

I haven’t really participated in these threads so Im sure I am saying things that have been said before, but I am not so sure that “non-intervention” is always better as my examples above illustrate. Perhaps what really is important is wether the intervention matches a particular vineyards potential. I think one could argue that the méthode champenoise plays to the strengths of the juice that is comming from Champagne. Perhaps overly ripe, watered down and dealched wine doesn’t place to the strengths of many of the vineyards that those techiques are being applied to.

So is it really an issue of intervention being bad in and of itself? I think it may be more of any issue of applying the right interventions to the right juice.