29 July 2013

lettie teague nearly encounters natural wine, remains skeptical

Vis à vis this howler of an article published earlier this month by Wall Street Journal wine critic Lettie Teague, I'm like the medieval juror who shows up late to court only to find the guilty defendant has already been executed. My work here seems to be done.

Teague's article was so journalistically bankrupt, however, and betrayed such an objectionable misunderstanding of the subject of wine in general, that I thought I might blow on the embers around the stake a bit before I return to my day job.

My few French readers might quite like my chief criticism : that Lettie Teague passed public judgment on an arguably French phenomenon without quoting any French people whatsoever. It's like asking Europeans to define barbecue, or brunch. The sources she quoted (full list presented in all its absurdity after the jump) seem to have been chosen at random, or perhaps in the course of research for unrelated articles. Teague's conclusion, after sampling no self-identified natural wines and speaking to precisely one person with more than a peripheral relationship to the scene (Alice Feiring), is that some wines considered natural taste good, others don't, but she doesn't want to hear about it either way. She just wants a nice beverage.

That this presents a rather narrow view of the role of wine critic is an understatement. It means approaching the subject as it is understood by the very least-informed of readers. Like the career of Sarah Palin, it represents total parity of expertise between authority and audience. Any lay writer could have pulled sources for a natural wine article from the same hat Teague used. Here they are, with Teague's own justifications for choosing them:
  1. William James: "not only a famous philosopher, but a source of some pretty memorable quotes"
  2. Alice Feiring: "a natural-wine authority"
  3. Jared Brandt: "a well-regarded natural winemaker and proprietor of Donkey & Goat Winery in Berkeley, Calif."
  4. Stu Smith: "of Smith-Madrone Winery in the Napa Valley," "[not] a natural grower by naturalist standards (which he rejects), though he, too, makes well-regarded wines."
  5. Michael Andrews: "of the Natural Wine Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y."
  6. An Unnamed Clerk: [at] "Wine Hut in Manhattan"
  7. Charles Massoud: "of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, N.Y., who has researched the topic."
  8. Andrew Chen: "of New York's Flatiron Wines & Spirits, another retailer specializing in natural wines."
Now, I've never lived in NYC. But from my perch in Paris, I'm still surprised she didn't think to consult Fifi Essome from Ten Bells, my friend Zev Rovine of Zev Rovine Selections, or the folks from Chambers Street Wine Merchants when writing about natural wine in NYC or the USA at large. It's unsurprising her sources gave her differing definitions of natural wine, because, who the hell are they ? Have they even heard of each other? The only common thread among them is they all work in the US wine industry.

That's the problem. As Feiring neatly summarised in her response to Teague's piece, the term "natural" as applied to wine originated in wine bars in Paris in the latter half of the 1980's. I'd argue that the term attained useful meaning, and largely still retains it, mainly in reference to the France's natural wine scene.

Only in France, thanks almost entirely to the influence of Jules Chauvet and Marcel Lapierre, does one encounter such a concentration of natural winemakers. Only in Paris are such a plethora of their wines available. Only in Paris do you have an entire generation of experienced buyers who throughout their careers have, incidentally or not, come to define natural wine :  people like Michel Moulherat (formerly of La Cave de l'Insolite), Olivier Camus (Le Chapeau Melon), Philippe Pinoteau (Le Baratin), Pierre Jancou (ex-La Cremerie, ex-Racines, now Vivant), Cyril Bordarier (Le Verre Volé), Bertrand Auboyneau (Bistrot Paul Bert), Michael Lesmasle (Cru et Découvertes)...

Michel Moulherat
Ardêche natural winemaker Gerald Oustric; Michael Lemasle
Pierre Jancou

(This is to say nothing of the role of winemakers like Catherine Breton and Nicolas Joly and Thierry Puzelat, and writers like Sylvie Augereau, all of whom organise or have organised influential tastings that have played a major role in defining natural wine.)

The Renaissance des Appellations is one of at least three significant natural wine tastings held every January / February in the Loire. 

Outside of France, winemakers working in a natural way might have a real use for charters and legally defined terms. In France, and particularly, Paris, the fundamental cliquiness of the scene operates as a system of mutual oversight.

In her article, Teague finds it problematic that natural wine "has a lot more to do with individual belief than it does with incontrovertible fact." But if a community of individuals, as cited above, all comes to believe similar things, then you arrive at a functional idiomatic definition, which I'd argue is the only non-disastrous way of defining natural wine. Once a definition becomes law, as in the case of the term "organic," the meaning is frozen is such a way as to permit large-scale abuse. After all, the only entities with financial wherewithal to influence the drafting of agricultural legislation are the ones who, not coincidentally, have the most incentive to want it watered down as much as possible.

Hence perhaps the easiest definition of natural wine: if you are stocked at the aforementioned Paris establishments, or demonstrably make wine much like the vignerons who are, you're making natural wine.

Gilles Bénard's annual natural wine tasting at Quedubon.

Of the wine Teague sampled in her survey of natural wine, precisely none are stocked in natural wine restaurants and wine shops in Paris. As she writes:
"I purchased 15 wines altogether, ranging from $15 to $40 a bottle, from France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the U.S."

That she would expect to find common "natural" traits between wines from such disparate places betrays a misunderstanding of natural winemaking as an ethos, perhaps even of terroir and the basics of wine appreciation. Natural winemaking is largely about not doing things, in order to let the nuances of terroir and vintage express themselves. As such there should be very few common "natural" traits between the natural wines of the US and of France. Shared traits would derive from specific viticultural or cellar practices, or basic varietal character. The wines could share something in spirit, or personality, but when those terms come into play, how can one reasonably complain about the vagueness of the term "natural"?

And if one were after a way to get at that spirit, that personality, wouldn't one simply taste self-identified "natural" wines beside conventionally made wines from neighboring domaines in the same vintages? Not the easiest tasting to organise, admittedly. You'd almost have to be, I don't know, the wine critic for a major mass-market publication or something.

There's still a teachable moment to be salvaged from Teague's dunder-headed fumbling in the world of US wine retail: is "natural" wine as useful a term when applied outside of the limited French market? In France when you enter a wine shop, you find mainly French wine, with a smattering of overpriced Italian, Spanish, and Greek wines thrown in for variety. In the USA, wherever Teague and those like her shop, one finds wines from all over the globe, presented in impressive scope and breadth. It seems understandable that, scattered in the latter retail setting, "natural" wines might seem a bit lonely and suspect.

To figure out what unites the wines of winemakers as disparate as Paolo Bea, Emmanuel Houillon, Eric Pfifferling, Claude Courtois, Elisabetta Foradori, Stefano Bellotti, and so on, one might have to read the labels, or do a little research. But that is not Teague's job, not how she sees it.


The idiomatic definition of natural wine - the one I personally apply, and the one I find most useful for explaining natural wine outside the context of France - is this: it is a spectrum with just-barely-more-than-organic wine at one end, and totally non-interventionist unsulfured biodynamic wine at the other end.

When I need to refer specifically to unsulfured wines, I just say "unsulfured," which is not so divisive a term as "natural" in the narrower, sulfur-free definition, and which has just one more syllable. (I'm aware that this puts me at odds with many of the self-identified natural winemakers I admire. But it seems relevant that with the exception of Vivant, all the Paris natural wine establishments I mentioned above stock some wines that see light sulfur addition at bottling.) I personally don't consider light sulfur addition at bottling too heretical or non-natural, though I sympathise with those who do and their beliefs don't frustrate me.

I just figure that the definition of natural wine, like the changeable, soulful, market-disoriented wines themselves, will necessarily have to remain somewhat fugitive.

Me, my friend D, and the remains of a bottle of 2000 Marcel Lapierre Morgon beside the river in Isle-sur-Serein recently.

Related Links:

Lettie Teague's original article in the WSJ.

A very diplomatic response to Teague by Alice Feiring at TheFeiringLine. Contains a great mini-history of natural wines in Paris - which, as discussed above, is in my view utterly critical to arriving at a useful definition of natural wine.

A thoughtful rebuttal to Lettie Teague at InsideItalianWineMerchants. The author brings up a helpful comparison to obscenity law : narrow definitions of anything only aid those seeking to abuse the wider, idiomatic definition.

A intelligent but slightly sneaky apologia for Teague's conclusions at Fermentation.

A hilariously restrained response to Teague's article at OrganicWineJournal. The author's point ? That all wineries espouse a philosophy, whether "natural" or not. This is true. But in regards to Teague's article it's a little like arguing that the First Amendment is okay because we all speak freely sometimes, not because it's a cornerstone of democracy or anything. 


  1. I would like to point out that in fact, As a employee of a retailer, and a buyer who's focus is natural wine. Now, I know, by reputation, if not more seriously all of the people on that list. All of them are respected professionals, however only Alice really works in natural wine. The natural wine company a good store, but not specifically natural wines (neither is my store). Why Lettie didn't consult Zev, Kevin Mckenna, Lee Campbell, or Fifi is a very good question. I loved this response, and would think there is a good workable definition of Natural wine in here.
    Ben Wood

  2. thanks ben ! for your response, and also for giving me the benefit of the doubt about what, in retrospect, may have appeared harsh treatment of the people teague DID consult for her piece. i definitely don't mean to disparage any of them. they just look silly in a list together. like when mass-market publications compile Album of the Year lists and place Beach House next to Skrillex next to Taylor Swift.

  3. Agree completely, the article was ridiculous both in scope and in journalistic depth. But we've come to expect that from Lettie's writing. I am not a huge fan of hers, I think she tries to be at the same perceived level of knowledge as her readers, when, as a supposed authority, she should be guiding them forward instead of stumbling about drunkenly.

    She should have consulted all the people you mention and more, so many good references that are eager to talk about natural wines and their place in the US wine business. **shakes head and grabs glass of natural Gamay from Azay le Rideau**