That this year, 2017, might go down in the record books as the year natural wine turned a corner into the mainstream consciousness is evident in a serious uptick in media coverage (see: this, this and this), a raft of new events (in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.) and a skyrocketing cool factor among young consumers. Clearly, there’s nothing new about the existence natural wines. But what comes next for this movement that has prided itself of being small, thoughtful and free? The wines aren’t a fad, but will their popularity be?
For our digital roundtable, we approached a panel of wine writers, makers, sommeliers, retailers and importers to see where they think natural wine is now, where they see it going and what its pitfalls might be.
Our panelists include: Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Wine Shop in Los Angeles; Jon Bonné, Senior Contributing Editor, PUNCH; David Bowler, owner of distributor, David Bowler Wine; Chris Brockway, Winemaker and Owner, Broc Cellars; Alice Feiring, wine writer and author of The Dirty Guide to Wine; Helen Johannesen, Wine Director, Animal, Son of a Gun and Helen’s Wines; Rajat Parr, Partner/Proprietor, Sandhi Wines and Domaine de la Côte; and Matthew Rorick, Winemaker and Owner, Forlorn Hope Wines.
For a movement that that built its reputation on being at the fringes, how will natural wine adjust to a more “mainstream” status?
David Bowler: It won’t. It can’t, really. It will just mean more importers and more winemakers will focus on trying to get into the club, as it were. You’ll see more mainstream wines trying to copy the label and winemaking styles, but the true natural wine movement, those small wineries that are focused solely on wines made without any additions/subtractions combined with minimal use of sulfur, will remain the same.
Chris Brockway: I don’t think natural wine needs to adjust to anything. The mainstream needs to adjust to natural wine. Once you try to adjust for a bigger audience then it’s over, your mentality is wrong and much of the creativity is lost—it just becomes marketing.
Jon Bonné: When you stop existing on the fringe, you have to transition from being a movement, as it were, to embracing a commercial proposition—being just another thing that gets bought and sold. So while a lot of natural-wine proponents love the popularity, they’re still behaving like natural wine is some special thing that exudes virtue and light. You can appreciate the virtue of good products, but a product is still a product.
Matthew Rorick: The mainstream can be just as fickle and demanding as the fringes, and there will be segments of the movement that will make the transition, and others that will decide that they’re more comfortable back at the fringes and maneuver themselves to remain there.
Lou Amdur: Mainstream? Ha, if only! Us natural wine drinkers live in a perceptual bubble in which everyone, other than our Aunt Naomi, is drinking natural wine. But what percentage of wine sold is natural? My guess is that natural wines represent, at most, one percent of total wine sales, which is quite a far way from making it a mainstream category.
Has this “mainstreaming” changed the way producers and buyers are thinking about the wines?
Helen Johannesen: Buyers are in the market of sales, so if the consumer is hot on a trend, the buyer is going to be more apt to appeal to these buzz words. For me it’s about moving the consumer beyond these notions and towards a deeper understanding of what this all means—and the fact that many of these wines existed before the movement.
Bonné: In terms of buyers, I worry that “natural” has become just another catchphrase. “Oh, our list is all natural.” For sure, there’s value in capturing the zeitgeist, and when Esquire and Vogue are writing about natty like it’s the most fashionable thing since Rodarte, there’s temptation to follow fashion. But too often I worry that the necessary thought exercises—What does it mean to make natural your focus?—aren’t taking place. This was my conclusion after spending several days at Dive Bouteille, watching the herd jump from one trendy producer to the next, and I got the same vibe at RAW in New York. Enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate into good decisions—or good wine choices.
Brockway: [As a] producer it definitely seems like there is more freedom right now to make what you like and what interests you because there is a more overall acceptance of experimentation from buyers and the public.
Rorick: Moving to the mainstream may mean having to consider some of the demands of the mainstream market, and that won’t always be comfortable. For buyers, it would seem having the wines they want to drink more readily available would be a good thing—though, is your favorite underground band still cool when they get signed to a major label? Did you like them because no one knew who they were, or is the music all that matters?
Alice Feiring: Major importers who have eye-rolled in the past are now creating their “natural wine portfolios.” They see money to be made. That’s a big difference considering what a hard sell it was for Jenny Lefcourt, for example, when she started up Jenny & François in 2001.
Amdur: There are a few natural wines that were once available to me whenever I wanted them, which are, due to their popularity, now scarce and allocated. Customers learn about these wines and understandably want to try them, but what do you offer someone who comes in asking for a bottle of Cornelissen in December, when customers snapped up all the wine in June? My hunch is that they might enjoy an alternative bottle, but it’s hard to loosen your grip on a specific something that you’re told all the cool kids are drinking.
What will need to happen for natural wine to continue to increase its market share?
Bowler: I don’t see too much more share to grab at this point. It is running its course. That course is driven by sommeliers, natural wine bars and certain specialty retailers, aided and abetted by importers who are trying to get as much share of the market as they can while the fun lasts. Has it peaked? No, but it will.
Rorick: Greater consumer understanding of where their wine comes from, and how any particular wine is grown and produced, would be a good place to start.
Johannesen: It’s about reading and championing truth and supporting small businesses. Education is key to the expansion of anything good. But it also needs a little more definition.
Bonné: Natural wine as it exists today can’t be built up to scale. It’s intended to be on the fringe, at least if you define it by its originalist roots as a slightly Marxist notion touted in Paris wine bars. What’s more likely is that the best ideas of natural wine—farm virtuously, don’t fuck around in the cellar—will find ever more acceptance among good winemakers. This sulfur debate will finally taper off. And we’ll end up back where we were a decade ago, where the focus is on the virtues of working transparently. Then we can stop with this binary “natural or not” parlor game everyone wants to play right now. We can get rid of fluff terms like “real wine” and deal with the relative virtues of wine in specific.
Rajat Parr: I think once it is correctly defined, it will grow. There are a lot of bad natural wines, with excessive VA, Brett or mousiness. That’s the reason I don’t want my wines to be in the natural wine category—though, we think we make natural wine. Vines need care and so do the wines in barrel or tank. Wines don’t make themselves.
Is there an increase in quality or a decline as more and more winemakers jump on the bandwagon?
Bonné: The flaws are real. They’re a big problem. And they’re mostly a problem because of a new wave of wannabe winemakers who love the ideals of natural wine, but have no idea what they’re doing. Frankly, they’re ruining it for everyone else. I have moments in France where I wake up and just hope for a day without mouse. And it shouldn’t be that way.
The other half of the problem is that there are a lot of natural-wine drinkers who aren’t identifying flaws, or who see flaws as “character.” They’re being sold faulty wines, and loving it.
Bowler: What’s a flaw, really? The only thing never acceptable is cork taint. Other than that, it’s about taste preference, regional style and history. I have had to adjust my own palate over the years as an importer/distributor, in order to understand and appreciate unfamiliar regions and newer styles. We don’t have to love the wines, or even like them, but we need to criticize them for the right reasons—not because they aren’t what we are accustomed to. Personally, I have a high tolerance for so-called flaws, both in friends and in wines.
Amdur: I think that by focusing on natural wine faults we accede to the agenda of the little houses on the hilltop folks. And, for those of us on the other side, it allows us to comfortably overlook the more glaring issue, which is the ever-increasing number of boring, taste-alike natural wines. Great, another carbonic-macerated wine with lots of volatile acidity, aldehydes and more than a touch of Brett. For a category that is ostensibly all about terroir, there sure are a lot of wines that taste very similar, and could come from anywhere.
What is the one thing that seems to hold natural wine back as a category?
Bonné: It’s not only that there’s almost no criticism of most of these wines. It’s that the very idea of criticism is verboten to many naturalists, because it implies that you’re imposing your values onto the wines, when the wines are simply expressing their naturalness and are thus beyond crtiticism.
Thing is, all wine gets to be judged—by me as a critic, by buyers, by consumers. And it’s not OK to put natural wines off in their own corral, and insist they’re going to play their own reindeer games. They have to play the same game as everyone else.
Brockway: Price. The wines are getting so expensive and becoming out of reach for many people. It runs the risk of just being enjoyed by the privileged few.
Feiring: There are a lot of people passing themselves off as experts. [It’s] no wonder new drinkers of a certain age and old-guard critics have total lack of knowledge and understanding of what the scope of natural wine is and can be. I would love to see the end of the dumbing down of wine and to once again celebrate the idea that intelligence, exploration and thoughtfulness matter.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.