As the late and very great Barolo producer, Teobaldo Cappellano said, “The more there is fake the more we need real.” And that was how natural wine, the overnight sensation that took over forty years became such a force to reckon with.
But I knew nothing of this when, tired of the impoverished struggling artist life, I experimented with wine sales. It was the 1990s and I was sitting cross-legged on the office floor of my new employer, a New York City wine importer tasting through samples. Two of them, early vintages of a bottle that said Clos du Tue Boeuf, a winery I’d never heard of before. The bottles were on the cheap side, the label was minimalistic. What was inside stunned me. The wine had personality, life and freedom. I didn’t know how else to describe it, but it was exactly what I was looking for. “If you don’t bring this in, you’re an idiot,” I said.
At that moment I think I started to form the basis for what I viewed as a great wine, and one of the most powerful elements was its power to provoke emotion.
Around the time of the millennium, natural wines began to creep over the Atlantic from France. Following Puzelat, the Rhône’s Dard & Ribo soon became available. These wines were extraordinary and I happily hunted them down at my standby Parisian wine bars, Le Muse Vin (now defunct) and Le Verre Volé. But when I landed in the Loire in 2002 –years after leaving my brief stint in wine sales, all hell broke loose for me. I discovered something the world needed to know about and as a wine writer there was no turning back.
That winter I arrived in Angers to cover the corporate Loire Salon, but arrived a few days beforehand to go to a tasting, rumored to be a spectacle. This was the third edition of La Dive Bouteille. Merely walking through the icy parking lot was enough to pierce my down coat with its thunderbolt dagger. The vibe was more like Be-in, than a tasting. A crowd slurped craggy oysters just before the reception. I paid something like six euros, was handed a glass and a short list of winemakers. Inside, it was petite, cute in fact, with maybe 30 winemakers (the current Dive hosts close to 200).
The wines, poured from unpretentious beakers, were vibrant, fizzy and cloudy. All were nubile, a preview of what was going to be eventually bottled. Not too long ago, none of them would consider bottling and selling a wine a mere four months out of harvest, as is common today. All the era’s vinous rock stars were there, Thierry Puzelat, René-Jean Dard & François Ribo and other pioneers pouring and drinking through the day. Wines made by the people for the people. Wines that came from organic viticulture, wines that had as it’s ideal, nothing added or taken away. What started off as seeds of the movement in the late ‘70s, had taken hold and by the time I was at that initial Dive, the first of many more, it was in first leaf. To paraphrase Dylan, we were young and it was our world.
To put it all into global perspective, those years were the height of the international-style where all wines were powerful, oaky and chewy. There was one natural winemaker in California who didn’t even know he was natural; he was just being a hippie (Tony Coturri). There were a few traditional holdouts in Italy, but mostly the country made undrinkable mass-produced blockbusters. There were no natural wines being made in Greece and none in Spain. There were no natural wine bars in Burgundy, none in Copenhagen and none in New York City. But it was happening, slowly, one drop after the other. Before social media, trends took time to cook instead of boiling the minute they were put on the stove. But ever since Facebook, Twitter and especially Instagram, the genre became a seemingly overnight sensation. Some mistook the craze for a fad. Except it wasn’t. As Cappellano believed, the delight of natural wine was built on a very human motivation, the need for truth.
It’s tempting to fall into being an old sentimentalist; wax poetic about the days when the wine revolution was fresh and saving the world from drinking mass produced crap from chemical viticulture. But today, forty years after its debut, the genre is stronger than ever and some of the wines as well. Its phenomenal success has even spurred on low-rent knock-offs such as recent supermarket versions: a machine-picked “Orange” “natural” wine is out from Romania. From Spain there’s the “Organic is Orgamic,” product line. How really natural these are? That’s dubious. However vibrant the previously innocent and idealistic world of natural is experiencing problematic growing pains.
Among the issues; those looking to launch their celebrity through social media, using wine as their platform. Cut throat importers (previously only seen in more conventional wine circle) trying to grab the wines (even the bad ones) and poach from their colleagues. There’s tribal infighting about which wine is superior, zero/zero or minimal. For the first time in the idealistic natural environment we are seeing people entering the market not just to make money, but make a killing. At least in America, the first natural wine importers brought with them a passion and idealistic values. We are now in the era of the capitalists, chasing the market.
Then there are the wines themselves. As is inevitable with the current high demand, quality is flagging. Natural wine today is getting bottled and sold too quickly. Where in the early days of La Dive, no winemaker there would have bottled their juice in four months from vintage, today it’s common. Many are made to a style, murky, leesy and unfinished, one of the reason for the growing number of glaringly faulty wines, giving natural wine haters, like wine critic Michel Bettane, plenty of arrows for their target. Almost every conversation I have with those remember a previous vin naturel generation, no matter in which country, seems to devolve into lamentations.
With apologies to Leo Tolstoy’s for adapting his most famous lines, every unhappy wine is unfortunate in its own way. Goût de souris* however, is the most unfortunate way. The fault experienced as a taste is actually a retronasal smell that explodes like a stink bomb in the back of your tongue, filling up the mouth with the most vile of –kombucha-gone wrong aftertaste. Today, it’s pandemic.
Mouse is connected to individual saliva pH—a percentage of the population can’t even taste it —then there are 80% of us cursed with its inescapability. Telling a winemaker their wine has it, takes the kind of courage to tell someone that they have halitosis. While I’ve yet to see a winemaker proudly present me their wine and pronounce “Mouse!” the new drinker seems to have a positive Pavlovian response to it. Tony Coturri, the long-time Sonoma, California natural wine maker astutely calls this a fetishizing of faults.
Here’s a perfect example. A wine importer I know here in NYC brought some bottles for me to taste. I was looking for aligoté and he showed one from a producer whose wines I know to be uneven. I tasted and grimaced. Let’s just say there was a whole family of mice in that glass. “Souris,” I said.
He laughed and shrugged. “The kids like it,” he said.
The causes that lead to the taint are not obvious. The problem begs for research instead of ignoring or celebrating the issue. The Australian writer, Mike Bennie is one of the many colleagues I’ve often bemoaned the situation with. His observations were completely in step with mine, “For the first 10 years of my career it was ‘the unicorn taint’, one I couldn’t learn about, as nothing had it,” he said. “Now, I see it almost daily.”
It’s not only about the mouse but the total complement of faults in so many of today’s fashionable natural wines. Co-owner of the new, one-star Michelin restaurant in the 16th, Comice, and long time champion of natural wine, Etheliya Hananova sees an abundance of “high volatile acidity, very prominent reduction/oxidation, goût de souris, etc.” But what stuns her is their acceptance. “People at the tasting were loving them and I see those very wines on the hip wine lists all the time.” She has begun to ask herself, “ Maybe, I’m getting stodgy?”
I’ve considered the same thing about myself. Must I accept what I cannot change? Can so many of us who have helped nurture natural wine into today’s world be so wrong? When I see an importer shouting out this or that fabulous wine, when all I can taste is a whiff of fruit resolving into putridness, I have to call it just as I called those Parkerized wines undrinkable.
Even over at the Mary Celeste group of stylish Parisian restaurants wine director, Josh Fontaine concurred that there’s now a larger market for selling flawed wines and it’s usually where the only criteria is the level of sulfur. “All too often people buy and are served flawed wines because neither the salesperson nor the sommelier can recognize the flaw. To them it’s just generic « natural wine taste. »
The notion of natural wine being reduced to a style is offensive to me. After all wasn’t natural wine in part a reaction against making a market-driven product? Isn’t its diversity and unpredictability that is part of its nature? There is always a need for simple and easy vin de soif. This, by the way, least outside of France—has become known as glou-glou, easy drinking, low-tannin wine akin to fruit juice—with or without mouse and with or without plenty of earthy reduction. For many, this, style of wine is the only one that is natural. But what about wines of structure? Food wines? Wines that age? Those, these days seem suspect to especially, the new drinker. And, when it’s the only style of wine celebrated by someone as high profile as the rapper, Action Bronson, we can get into trouble.
Bronson, who, by-the-way, is a sweetheart, is the weed-smoker, beer-drinker rapper, television star (and BFF of Clovis Ochin), has been seen as this outsider wine expert and truly has done a lot to boost natural wine’s profile. In his book, F*ck, That’s Delicious! Bronson has equated ageable and structured with conventional and murky and fresh with natural. He’s turned on a new generation to natural wine, which is terrific, but that also might be the prime reason people are waltzing into wine shops asking for a cloudy or a fucked up wine, because, of course, that’s natural.
All of this leaves me to lament about the decline of the natural wine Utopia. Have the wines I’ve been drinking and the community I’ve loved been hijacked by faddishness? Distributors selling messed up wine as the hot new Instagram star is worsening the situation. My fear is that while they elevate this “style” as the real natural wine, there is no pressure on the winemaker to clean up their game.
I circled back to the maker of my gateway drug in 1998, Thierry Puzelat for his reflection on the current state of affairs, “For winemakers”, he wrote to me from his perch in Les Montils, “the biggest mistake is to forget their job: making good wine. For drinkers and winemakers, in our world where everything is immediate, they generally don’t understand that wine and nature needs time.”
Taking time, what a strange concept for a social media generation with an attention span doesn’t last more than it takes to post the next snapshot to digest. But thankfully, my Australian friend Mike Bennie set me right. He reminded me to take care, all was not lost. “There’s still a global community that is warm, embracing, explorative, unifying and beautiful.”
Historically, natural wine was the market reset for a wine world obsessed with control through technology. The wines made from organic viticulture and no additives, minimal or no SO2 additions are the only possible great wines for me, and will soon become how fine wine is evaluated. Even with all of the noise and grousing, there are still superlative, earthmoving wines. They are just a little harder to find. These are wines that provoke emotional response. They are not just labels to collect and boast about but wines that transport and can change lives. I’ve seen it happen. I want to trust that the new drinker will evolve and stop accepting furry or shrill under-wined wines. I would love them to understand that a natural wine does not have to be flawed to be natural. I hope they will begin to say no when a very damaged wine is passed off as cool. I want a world where vin de soif sits next to the vin de garde, where wine isn’t a style, but a drink of beauty. Wine, after all, is the most powerful and enduring symbol of society and culture. We will survive the current bumpy buzz and faddishness and arrive to sanity.
© Meyer/Tendance Floue