Natural wine = good/conventional wine = bad ?
Recently, acclaimed natural wine ambassador and writer, Alice Feiring, published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Is Natural Wine Dead?".
The piece raises a number of issues worthy of conversation. Rife with natural wine fodder - it ruffled the feathers of many industry experts. The piece begins by condescending the "Yellow Tail" crowd, thus affirming her own choices as "better". Sure, Yellow Tail is synonymous with poor quality conventional wine - but haven't we all at one point in time or another drank less than desirable wine? It creates a dangerous dichotomy: natural wine = good, conventional wine = bad. The tone is salty, akin to an aging hipster complaining that the band she loves "sold out". Whether or not that's the case, she’s making the claim of "bands" imitating originals and pumping out cheap copies. But does the musician who used a popular chord progression "own" the notes? What Feiring misses entirely in her ode to natural wine, is that her snootiness scares people away. A reader recently shared with me, "It feels impossible for someone like me to get into natural wine now, because I am jumping on the bandwagon and wasn't there in the beginning when it was cool. It’s like missing out on being in Greenwich Village in the 60's so I can't enjoy Bob Dylan." The reality: the average consumer is willfully unaware of a movement being touted as "wildly popular" (it's not, unless you're entrenched in the wine community). Feiring goes on to say she can easily find a glass of natural wine pretty much anywhere she goes (big cities, mainly) - then contradicts herself by saying there isn't enough to go around. Feiring gives numerous examples of wineries and retailers not being entirely honest with their labels. Yet are labels really the root of the problem? Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post columnist comments in the recent book "A Matter of Taste" by Rebecca Tucker: "Enough people say "clean labels!" and we get clean labels. It's an idea that undermines the narrative that we are victims of a supply foisted upon us. Collectively, we can change things. Ultimately, we will get the supply we demand. Too bad we are squandering that power by demanding clean labels."
How can natural wine be widely accessible when there are so many ideals to follow to be able to call yourself "no intervention"? And how can the movement maintain its momentum when half of the producers will be forced to price the ordinary buyer out of the market because of their "by hand" practices? Beyond that, the wines at times, can be so unusual to the average consumer with so much bottle variance and massive vintage difference that most of them will never embrace it on general principle.
Ultimately, anything boutique is inherently elitist and exclusionary. People like Feiring tend to use postmodern buzzwords of equality and inclusion et al as a ruse to assuage their own guilt.
Many natural wine influencers seem to have little or no training in the fundamentals of wine and wear their "anti knowledge" badge proudly. Jay Whiteley, Toronto wine educator elaborated for me on this recently: "They don’t care about Pommard or are too good for Bordeaux, but tout the joys of "funky" wines from unheard of appellations just to make a point about how much they know and how “old school” others are. Then they go home and spin some vinyl." Do these types of attitudes really affirm the idealist notion of honesty and enlightenment that natural wine presupposes it is?
Ultimately, elitism, exclusivity and inaccessibility shouldn't stop people from trying the good wines. Everyone who is interested to take the next little step forward should feel welcome to do so, nor should they be chastised for their curiosity. As long as they are trying, learning and mindfully consuming, it's a sign of progress.
However, if they are doing it because it's cool, "natural", or chasing scores, it's for the wrong reasons. These are enough clout chasers and fickle people out there already who are easily distracted by the next big thing.
The real question remains: How many people are actually going to put in the work, develop their palate, and take the time to educate?