Let me begin with the conclusion. Yes, if you’re interested in wine, you should read this book. It proselytizes for natural wine, a significant movement in winemaking today. It is something important to know about whether you agree with its philosophy or not. Besides, the book is delightfully written.
“Natural wine” has no precise definition. Essentially, it is wine from grapes grown organically with no additions in the winemaking process and no extraordinary manipulations. A sticking point is the use of sulfur, which most winemakers feel is required to prevent spoilage. Sulfur may be permitted in organic winemaking but is sharply frowned upon for natural wines.
The book Naked Wine is a largely first-person account of Alice Feiring’s encounters in this semi-cult-like world. Feiring travels from the wine country of California to France, Italy, and Spain investigating the origins of the natural wine movement and detailing its present manifestations. She uses the account of her personal adventures along with vivid portrayals of the colorful personalities she meets (some unquestionably oddballs) to convey her crusading passion for her subject. She writes engagingly and her explanations of sometimes technical aspects of winemaking are clear. She does seem to go overboard in her insistence that many (not all) natural wines are delicious and that most other wines, particularly those containing more than a modicum of sulfur, are undrinkable.
Nevertheless, I feel obliged to question the premise upon which the book is ostensibly based, that is, the assumption that natural is always inherently better than artificial. Where is it written that nature’s efforts have to be superior to man’s? Such a conviction seems to be based on a new-agey sort of mysticism: something that is natural is better simply because it is natural.
As a physician, I can testify that in many situations, nature messes up big time. In diseases such as heart failure or kidney failure, the initial damage is often minor compared to that caused by the body’s ongoing misguided efforts at amelioration. The major thrust in the modern management of heart failure is to counteract the body’s defense mechanisms that are the cause of progressive deterioration. These are mechanisms that, having evolved to cope with entirely different problems, are now deployed as an inappropriate approach to novel circumstances not foreseen by evolution. So don’t try to tell me that Mother Nature knows best.
The majority of our aroma and flavor preferences are acquired, that is, we learn them in the process of growing up. What we like depends on experience, sometimes very early experience. In Germany, for many years most baby formulas were flavored with vanilla. Investigators presented German adults with two samples of ketchup (Haller, 1999). They were the same except that one contained added vanilla. Those subjects who had been bottle-fed preferred the sample with vanilla by a factor of 2 to 1. In contrast, most of their breast-fed contemporaries liked the plain ketchup better.
My generation and some of those that followed were brought up mostly on natural ingredients, because that is what was available. That’s why we prefer natural flavors. Now that almost everything in the supermarket is processed and includes unnatural substances, our children and grandchildren may be in the process of acquiring a different taste profile. They could end up preferring artificial favors in many instances over the natural.
So I don’t accept the idea that a “natural” wine must be intrinsically superior by its nature alone. That doesn’t mean that such wines can’t be very good. I can think of three reasons why natural wine might be better than conventional wine. The first is that natural winemaking avoids many of the pernicious practices employed by less fastidious producers. Secondly, it is a quasi-evangelical movement overseen by dedicated and conscientious winemakers who would undoubtedly make excellent wine regardless of the philosophy under which they worked. Finally, the wines produced are individual and distinct unlike the uniformity of many contemporary wines, which appear to be made to appeal to the aesthetic of a small group of wine critics.
The proof of the wine is in the drinking. At the end of her book, Ms. Feiring provides a list of winemakers who employ the practices that she extols. I collected about a dozen wines from those producers that were available in my area and not too expensive. I drank them along with my wife and a friend.
Overall, we were quite impressed. Most of the wines were very good. There was only one that we really didn’t like. It may have been a spoiled bottle, something that is not altogether unexpected in wines with little or no sulfur. That one disappointment was balanced by a marvelous red Burgundy from an unheralded appellation (Savigny-les-Beaune “Les Lavières” 2009, Domaine Chandon de Briailles), which I am tempted to put in the category of a great wine. It is unfair to do so, however, until one sees how it ages at which point, again, the lack of sulfur becomes an issue.
Beyond a favorable price-to-quality ratio, these wines are also very individual. They have distinctive character. Some accentuate the characteristics of place or varietal, while others seem to go off on a tangent of their own. They are wines with personality in a world threatened by uniformity of style.
The book was fun and natural wine is fun, but it is not the only act in town. A great many wines give pleasure and most are not in the natural style. I am enthusiastic about many categories of wine, including Rieslings from Austria, Germany, and Alsace. If I come across one from a natural producer I will be eager to try it, but I will certainly not confine myself to those kinds of wines alone. Nor am I ready to give up aged Bordeaux or grand cru Burgundy. Still, I am very pleased to have been introduced to the category of natural wine.
Jeffrey D. Postman
Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York
Haller, R., Rummel, G., Henneberg, S., Pollmer, U., and Koster, E.P. (1999). The influence of early experience with vanillin on food preference in later life. Chemical Senses, 24, 465–467.