If you haven't at least heard about the natural wine movement, it's likely you haven't been paying attention. If you have been paying attention you probably know that it's an amorphous phenomenon with heroes but no real leaders, that it's fueled by a good deal of rhetoric and earnest manifesto-making, that it frequently marches in step with the agricultural theories of Rudolf Steiner (biodynamics), that it's obsessed with the particularities of place and with regional, sometimes hyper-local, vine varieties, that it has a bone to pick with the use of sulfur, and that while some of the people pleased to be associated with it are of the talented and reasonable variety, some appear to be neither - or so it strikes me.
The whole business has become rather contentious, to the point where to merely suggest that contention exists is now considered a contentious statement.
I don't plan to say anything contentious here. I merely wish to point out that at its base, the natural wine movement rests on a series of assumptions about the natural world and our place in it that received their classic formulation in the works of poets, painters, dramatists, and musicians whose work we have long used the art history term Romantic to describe and that these assumptions inform every meaningful aspect of this school of winemaking.
I was thinking about all this yesterday while reading a recent post on Alice Feiring's blog The Feiring Line. Feiring, whom I have met and respect, has emerged as an important advocate of natural wine and an interpreter of the movement associated with it. Her recent book Naked Wine as an extended meditation on the natural wine movement, its history, personalities, and approach to winemaking. In her post, California winemaker Hank Beckman responds to a Feiring request to explain his process in vineyard and cellar. He begins this way:
I use pretty common technologies: hands, feet, brain, and a really nice, gentle pneumatic press. Some of the folks from whom I buy grapes also use tractors. Specifically, I prune in the late winter (using a device called pruning shears), and then watch what happens. After a time, I may go back into the vineyard to remove some excess shoots to allow some sunlight and air into the vine's canopy. I rarely remove any fruit. Then I watch some more, and wait. When the grapes taste good, and they still have very nice acidity, I pick them, stomp on them and let whatever yeasts are around do the alcoholic conversion. When that is complete, I press the new wine into tanks or some old barrels, and leave them alone. I do taste the wines occasionally, just to see where they are "at". I rarely rack any of them off of the lees, as I find the lees protect and nourish the wines. When I think the wine is ready, I'll rack it into another tank, add a very small amount of SO2 (often its first encounter with a sulfur compound), and bottle straight from the tank.
Beckman's casual tone reinforces what he presents as a casual approach. A sequence of events unfolds of which the winemaker is mainly an observer, not an agent. He watches, he waits, he sees, he allows things to happen, he leaves things alone. Grapes have their own ideas about what sort of wine they ought to become and the winemaker has no intention of providing direction. Grapes have no house style to hew to, no reputation to maintain, no target market to please, no objective at all except that, at the end of the day, there will be wine - and grapes knows best what that wine should look, smell, and taste like. This is the absent-minded method of winemaking. At least, that's how I read it.
The sentiment expressed by Beckman sent me rummaging for my copy of The Prelude, William Wordsworth's autobiographical poem and canonical Romantic source document. You don't read far before hearing the familiar chord struck: