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The Great Natty Wine Arms Race [And Why It’s Out of Control]

Years ago, when RedThumb was just an idea bubbling away in our brains, I wanted to give Diego a look at the world of natural wine. While his wine knowledge and experience were much deeper than mine, this new faction within the wine community was a bit of a blind spot for him. Amidst some complaining, and with the promise of a decent steak dinner, I dragged him out to Los Angeles for the RAW Wine Fair, ground zero of the natural wine movement.

RAW has been the most important natural wine show since its launch in 2017. The producers they feature make wine to strict standards, and those standards helped shape our standards at RedThumb. The 2024 Los Angeles edition of the fair was just a few weeks ago, and for the first time in years, I didn’t attend. I looked at the list of winemakers that would be showing their wines and just couldn’t get excited for it. Sure, there were a few old favorites, but increasingly the show features newer producers, and in my experience, those newer natural winemakers make wines that I just don’t enjoy that much. 

Here’s why: there has been a shift at the forefront of the natural wine world over the last few years towards making the most aggressively “natty” wines possible instead of making balanced wines that still meet the strict standards above.

Should fringe standards become natural wine dogma?

This is how these movements go, right? What begins as a reaction to over-commodification eventually splinters into two groups: true believers who understand the reasons behind the movement, and holier-than-thou zealots who love gatekeeping as much as [or more than] the inspiration for it. The standards set up by RAW Wine are a great guideline for making delicious low-intervention wine, but when the standards become the goal rather than a means to making a great product, we lose the signal amongst the noise. The same thing happened with punk rock, disco, and free jazz.

In the case of natural wine, we’ve seen more and more extreme instances of removing human intervention from the process. First came zero-zero, the idea that nothing should be added to or taken away from the grapes, either in the vineyard [no fertilizers or pesticides of any kind] or the cellar [no fining or filtering to remove solids; no additives of any kind, including sulfur].

A more extreme approach is Do Nothing Farming. While my inherent preference towards less work is intrigued by the idea, I have to wonder when a farmer ceases to be a farmer and becomes a forager? 

Too much of a bad thing is … still a bad thing

In skilled hands, any of these methods can produce wines that are incredible expressions of a varietal and a place. In less competent hands, wines can be unbalanced and deeply flawed to the point of being undrinkable. Continuing the music analogy, my favorite music is not “perfect.” When a voice scratches in a particular way, or a note unexpectedly bends, it gives music character – uniqueness – when used sparingly and harmoniously within a song’s context. The surprise and specificity of the “flaw” can elevate the music.  But too much character without a baseline of competence can get ugly, fast. 

Now more than ever, natural, low-intervention wines that are clear in the glass and retain recognizable flavors are the outliers on the scene. The innate deficiencies of hyper-natty, highly-volatile, kombucha-style wines have become predictable. 

The road to rebellious typicity is paved with patchouli. 

The loudest voices don’t always know best

And herein lies the biggest problem in the current natural wine movement: standard bearers [early natty adopters, media, celebrated somms] have been so focused on supporting new natural winemakers and furthering the movement that they are reticent to point out when wines are poorly made. It’s as if following a set of growing and production standards shields producers from any criticism of their final product. This reaction makes sense given the traditional wine community’s eagerness to dismiss natural wine as a fad, but not holding natural wines to a high standard of quality only serves to make the naysayers’ point for them.

In the end, as with all other products, consumers will decide what they want. Natural wine’s share of the market has been increasing for quite some time, with sales climbing even as the overall wine segment struggles. Maybe consumers’ palates are more evolved than we give them credit for? Or maybe those natural wine tastemakers have convinced a whole generation of wine drinkers that off-flavors and flaws are signs of quality? In the end, the best approach is to make wines that are honest representations of what you want to have in your own glass, regardless of trends or fads.