Why are natural wine drinkers perceived as "elitist"?

I began my foray into natural wine well before I was even aware what it was. I'd always had a penchant for ethics and transparency, but for some reason, I'd consistently made concessions when it came to wine.

It didn't help that for the better part of my adult life I was married to a man best described as an outdoorsman - weekends spent hunting, snowmobiling and inevitably sipping PBR. Introducing wine into our circle of friends immediately established me as "snob" - all well before I was drinking natural wine.

A particular memory stands out. After a successful hunting trip, we proudly transported a deer home that we harvested ourselves - utilizing everything from hide to hooves. The trimmings made dog food, the best cuts were marinated and saved for cherished meals with friends, and the remainders used for jerky.

One afternoon was devoted to making sausage - crafting our own spice blend, carefully selecting the correct casing, and inviting friends over to help. The party happened in the comfort of the garage (aka Mecca), everyone sipping cheap beer while country music thundered from a speaker.

I opted for a bottle of bubbles - La Marca Prosecco - affirming my position as pretentious oenophile among this particular crowd (because any choice other than Bud Light was deemed snooty). I never could have fathomed the irony all of us ignorantly missed. We had painstakingly sourced the purest form of meat - all the while sipping mass produced plonk that represented its antithesis.

Consciously consuming when it comes to food has become trendy - apply this same ethos to wine, however, and you might be accused of being militant.

It's an all too common phenomenon. When I asked Rachel Signer, natural winemaker and writer her opinion on this disconnect, she shared:

'For years now, I've made an effort to consume organic, whole food, purchased from close to the source (i.e. farmer's market or butcher versus large supermarket) whenever possible, so why wouldn't I do that with wine? I also don't buy clothes made by irresponsible fast-fashion companies, and I don't use beauty products that are tested on animals and/or contain parabens, sulfites, or primarily non-plant based ingredients. The large-scale problems of the world are primarily a result of mass consumption that focuses on cheap and abundant products rather than ethically and consciously made goods. In other words, greed and mindless consumption have brought the world to its current state. Not only do I think we can make a political impact by putting our dollar where our values are, I also personally don't want to consume things that represent social injustice and environmental destruction. If I can't stop them from existing, I'll keep them out of my body and home as much as possible."

Rachel has chosen a lifestyle that gives her access to the wine she loves to drink - residing on a vineyard in Southern Australia in Basket Range - having married Anton Von Klopper of the acclaimed natural winery Lucy Margaux.

For most, however, it's much harder - requiring extreme discipline and restraint. Friend, and sommelier and wine educator, Maja Roy, embodied this ethos while on a weekend getaway in wine country recently. After drinking natural wine for the better part of the day on mostly empty stomachs - we saw a McDonald's and were desperate for something greasy. Maja remained steadfast in her beliefs and opted not to partake.

"The most ironic is the fact that I am being perceived as elitist all the time. Eating organic, drinking natural wines, taking care of my body in America is perceived as “fancy” and elitist. In reality, it is all about perception and most importantly education about food and wine. Yes I eat all-organic, mostly an all plant-based diet but I am trying to be as smart about it as possible. Buying beans, legumes, vegetables - foods that fill me up and nourish me for longer than anything processed. If we compare my grocery bill to one from people buying all-processed, food we would come to the same number. The same goes for wines. People say “I can’t afford organic wines” so they drink highly abused conventional wines in litre or five litre formats because they get more for their money. But do they really?" 

For Maja, her lifestyle choices go far deeper than just nourishing her body. Having lost her mother to cancer was a much needed wake up call to take far better care of herself, but, she shares, "We don’t need to wait for catastrophe to happen and get sick, get into an accident or see our loved ones passing before we are able to change our lives and the condition of our world. It can start with small steps."

Maja's outlook struck a chord for me - while I champion natural wine, not all my choices are consistent. I still drink conventional wine from time to time, and I still occasionally eat fast food. While she was here visiting, we spoke at length about why our choices need to have meaning, in order for them to truly shift behaviour. Up until seeing Maja, I had continued to make concessions.

Ann Sperling spoke on this topic recently, while I was visiting Southbrook Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where she works as head winemaker. Ann is a Canadian icon - the OG of organic, biodymanic and natural winemaking in both BC and Ontario. We met recently, where I had the opportunity to taste through her portfolio, and she had this to say on the notion:

"I find that many people, especially farmers tend to learn one system and then, at best, make slight modifications, or often, just not change. This fact of human nature means that it's hard to revolutionize. At this point in Canadian viticulture it take rebels or very motivated people to push barriers and advance organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking. We have a dedicated contingent, but I feel we need more to create a greater critical mass. BC is on the edge of something big, and it could tip over into Ontario."

Whether natural wine continues to be perceived as elitist or not, the greater issue is challenging the practice of conventional thinking. Until this shifts, mass consumption will reign. It is up to the conscious consumers to work toward shifting sets of beliefs and connecting choice with behaviour.


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