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Is There a Middle Way Through Wine’s Naturalist Divide?

How a number of today’s wine programs are bridging the gap between natural and not.

Once upon a time, there was a particularly controversial wine—the 2003 Château Pavie. Pavie is in Bordeaux’s Saint-Emilion appellation, and at the time, it was newly owned by Gerard Perse, a Parisian supermarket tycoon who wanted, as new holders of château keys do, to make an impression. The wine did, although maybe not in the intended way.

The 2003 Pavie got a very respectable review from Robert Parker, the era’s kingmaker, for being made in the ripe and luscious style he enjoyed. Parker’s would-be foil, Jancis Robinson, had a different and more skeptical view, finding the wine heavy, Port-like and “ridiculous.”

This should have been a modest difference of opinion, but it came at a moment when wine people were starting to fret about “Parkerization.” Their disagreement quickly became a flashpoint for the fight that lots of people—not just the two critics—were gunning to have about that era’s amped-up style of wine.

Parker got on the warpath, taking aim at Robinson for her “nasty swipes” at Perse as well as the wine. Robinson fought back: “Am I really not allowed to have my own opinion?” And so it went.

The reason I bring up the Pavie scuffle isn’t to re-spark old debates. Instead, I like to think back on it as a reminder that, not too long ago, wine fights were kind of quaint. Yes, something like the difference of opinion on Pavie—a minor squabble over a relatively minor wine—briefly lifted the curtain on some deeper schisms. Are you for Parker or part of what he once dubbed the “anti-flavor elite”? Are scores a godsend or the end of culture as we know it?

But on balance, most of the skirmishes during the “anti-flavor wars,” a decade ago, were relatively trite, in that we were debating minor points about style and pleasure. Yeah, Chianti sucked for a while (and still kind of does) but no one questioned the innate value of Chianti. If I had issues with the dark place Napa cabernet went in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I never questioned the validity of either Napa as a great terroir or its cabernet as a valid wine.

Today, though, the schism that we find ourselves with is different. The divide, in essence, is between wines that are considered natural, and everything else. This is a split that makes a lot of difference—sometimes all the difference—among a small but growing set of consumers. And it manifests itself, increasingly, among wine shops and especially restaurants who either feel compelled to identify one way or another. The fact we’re now supposed to choose allegiances when we sit down at the table seems to drain a lot of fun out of wine.

Why? For one thing, “natural or not” is a taxonomy that’s fraught in a thousand ways, namely because no one quite agrees what natural wine is. As much as anything, it’s a question of winemakers self-identifying as natural, and I’m natural because I say I am is a difficult way to play a game like this, as we see ever more frequently. This Manichean view of the world has led wine into a realm that’s bluntly political—and by political I mean with resonances of the uglier political movements of the past (and, depending on your view of things, the dark populism of the Trump era). Wine bars are either natural or not; wine shops proclaim their naturalist leanings; restaurants tout those natural lists; natty fans wave badges of indie honor. Are you with us, or against us?

This stark vision of the wine world is the very opposite of what wine should provide. I’m hardly saying naturalists need to lock arms with La Crema drinkers and sing in harmony. But how have we so completely abandoned the large middle—the grey area that composes the vast majority of wine today? Those of us who wish to somehow reside in that middle are given no quarter.

Also, this latest divide comes from a different, perhaps angrier, place. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of joy and pleasure to be found in the natural-wine realm. But at least on these shores, and on European shores, too, there is so much divisiveness—a need to affirm or deny your affiliation, which is something that people who buy and sell wine, from importers to sommeliers, were never previously asked to do. It feels, not unintentionally, as though the wine world has cleaved in two.

To most of the world, it’s bonkers to throw down over how grape juice gets fermented. But wine has a deep psychic hold over Western (and increasingly other) cultures. It is a totem for culture itself. So these silly fights do matter; they are no different than scuffles over Richard Prince or “Bodak Yellow.”

I think sometimes about an app called Raisin, helpfully designed as a navigation aid for the naturally minded to locate the bars, shops and restaurants that align with their tastes. It is, in that way, a very useful compass for wine nerds. But seen another way, it almost resembles a wartime atlas—a path for the naturalist drinker to travel the world safely from one safe house to the next, never encountering wine that might go counter to his tastes.

With that in mind, during some recent travels across the country, I was on the lookout for places that embrace a middle ground. More than a few brave souls have forged an alternative path, one you might call post-naturalist. It’s as simple as being natural-curious without being bound by dogma.

Take the very thoughtful wine choices being made by Joe Campanale at Fausto in Brooklyn. Campanale has ample cred to play in both worlds: His lists at Dell’anima and L’Artusi were diverse, hitting most corners of Italy and some relevant spots elsewhere, while he used his wine bar, Anfora, as a place to highlight the very sorts of cool-kid wines and techniques, especially orange wine, that are now mother’s milk to naturalists. His list at Fausto provides just the right level of natural-curious without being strident. Champagnes from a naturalist icon like Jacques Lassaigne can reside next to those from Jérôme Prévost; Pietracupa’s greco can sit a few seats down from the minimal chenins of Stéphane Bernaudeau (which sits right next to those of Saumur’s Romain Guiberteau, a good emblem of the virtuous if not natural). Everyone manages to play nice.

Staying with the Italian theme, there’s similar alchemy going on at the Manhattan restaurant Scampi, where Kimberly Prokoshyn has assembled a taut list of wines that encompasses the curious, like Ettore Germano sparkling and Riccardo Bruna pigato, with at least a few things—Foradori, the Etna wines of Eduardo Torres Acosta—that the naturally minded would be okay to drink.

I found a similar approach on the brilliantly contrapuntal wine list at Giant in Chicago. Josh Perlman, who spent time at that city’s groundbreaking Avec, has similarly spent enough time navigating more mainstream wine realms to comfortably serve naturalist producers like Marnes Blanches, Lo-Fi and Alexandre Bain alongside more classical choices like Arnaud Ente, Arnot-Roberts and even the wines of Madeira. Again, everyone gets out alive.

On a much smaller scale, there’s a similar attempt at balance with the wine selections at Suzi An’s Vita Uva in Seattle, technically a wine store in the back of a pho shop, which rides a fine line of natural without necessarily doing a deep dive (although those who write about An’s work seem to always use that particular word). In a much more traditional realm, there’s the work of longtime Chez Panisse wine director Jonathan Waters, whose selections remain of-the-moment in a way the Berkeley restaurant’s legendarily simple cooking perhaps willfully does not. California naturalists like Martha Stoumen are welcomed alongside classics like Littorai and Turley; hipster Burgundy from Domaine des Rouges-Queues can cohabit with old-guard choices like Domaine de Montille. You can find similar ecumenism at One Fifth in Houston and even at spots like LA’s Bestia and Hatchet Hall, which have mellowed after some flamethrowing early days.

The great ability of places like these is to please all comers—to provide an inclusive space, rather than a safe house. (Good restaurants are, almost by definition, meant to be inclusive.) They’re why I’m pretty sure the middle path is going to win out—because progress comes from meeting in the middle. And I’d posit that if we step out of our little wine bubble, we’ll find most people are curious, not strident. Maybe they’re keen to explore this “natural wine” thing, because “natural” is a term that draws curiosity and because it’s been written up in the right places. Maybe they gravitate to natural because it’s The Thing of The Moment and they’re dedicated followers of the tragically hip. But first and foremost, they’re seeking something good to drink. They see no need for a fight.

That isn’t to say, by the way, that we can’t have reasonable arguments. To most of the world, it’s bonkers to throw down over how grape juice gets fermented. But wine has a deep psychic hold over Western (and increasingly other) cultures. It is a totem for culture itself. So these silly fights do matter; they are no different than scuffles over Richard Prince or “Bodak Yellow.”

Once the naturalist hype mellows—once “natural” is viewed as the marketing tool it too often mutates into, and the wine fairs that today seem like carnivals of cool are revealed as the trade fairs they really are, the good ideas within wine naturalism will still be worth embracing. The thirsty among us will happily do so. If 15 years ago, wine people were all flustered by two critics trading jabs over a wine that has largely been forgotten, it’s safe to say we’ll survive this current moment. In the meantime, wine programs like those I mentioned, and their creators, are going to help open up a middle way. And their approach is what’s going to endure.