Terroirists vs Naturalists: Tribal Wine Wars

terroirWine has many tribes — you probably belong to one of them. Last week I wrote about the Martians, who are interested in only the best in wine and are often disappointed with what they find, and the Wagnerians, who promote a more democratic “everyday wine” vision.  They are often disappointed, too, but in different ways. You can read more about these tribes here.

Land versus Brand

I don’t really understand why the Martians and Wagnerians can’t find common ground (Oregon’s A to Z winery says that it offers “Aristocratic wines at Democratic prices”), but the tension endures, which is how tribes work I guess. There are two more tribes that we need to discuss that, on the face of it have so much in common that they might be cousins, but that also have that tribal feeling. They are the Terroirists and the Naturalists.

I wrote about the Terroirists in my book Wine Wars. Terroirists are all about wines of place — they are protagonists in the Land versus Brand battle for the soul of wine that colors much of my analysis. Terroirists can go to shockingly unnecessary extremes to defend their turf as some French terrorist terroirists demonstrated when they sabotaged wine tanks full of cheap Spanish bulk imports. But this is the exception.

I have to admit that, even though I appreciate how important brands are in today’s crowded market, I identify pretty closely with the terroirist tribe. I look for local and single-vineyard wines, I get excited about field blends and old vines, and I seek out wines made from native and threatened grape varieties. My idea of a great day in the Napa Valley takes me to places like Tres Sabores and Robert Biale winery where other terroirists hang out. Think global but drink local — that’s a rule that I try to follow as much as possible.

The Naturals

I have friends (you know who you are) who belong to a different tribe that I guess I will call the naturalists. Their idea of wine seems to be less about where the wine comes from than how it is made. They want wines that are as close to nature as can be, with as little manipulation as possible and often, at least for the white wines, with a lot of skin contact. They hang out in natural wine bars or attend events like RAW wine, where they can contemplate natural wines from all around the world.

Sue and I have had several very positive experiences with natural wine, so I have never thought of terrorists and naturalists as opposing forces. We are big fans of Chateau Musar, for example, one of the early champions of the natural wine movement. And our visit to Georgia, the cradle of wine, exposed us some of the most natural — and quite delicious — wines on earth.

The natural wines we have tried varied, of course, but that’s true of wine generally. Some were more interesting than delicious. We were done with others after the first sip. Meh. The nature of their production didn’t overcome the problems we had with what we found in the glass.

Most of the natural wine makers we’ve encountered have been terrific, too, although I admit we met a couple of naturalists who went a bit over the top. One winemaker, for example, tried (unsuccessfully) to convince us that a “mousey” characteristic is a feature not a flaw. I checked Jamie Goode’s book Flawless and, sure enough, he says it’s a flaw. “Always bad,” according to Dr. Goode. I agree.

Wines of Place or of Style?

Both terroirists and naturalists are attracted to nature, so it seems that they should be allies in the wine wars. But the particular ideas of nature when it comes to wine don’t always match, so there is a tension. I didn’t really appreciate this until we were invited to seminar and tasting of natural wines and a question came up about wines of place (terroirist wines) versus wines of style (a reference to naturalist wines).

“Is this a wine of style or a wine of place?” asked a panel member as he swirled one of the natural wines in his glass. “Definitely a wine of style,” the wine’s maker shot back without hesitation. He makes lovely terroir-driven wines that Sue and I admire a lot, but this wine wasn’t about the vineyard, it was about the cellar, the way it was made, and perhaps the philosophy behind that technique.

Jamie Goode, who was part of the panel discussion, tried to bridge the gap between place and style. Perhaps natural wines do tell a terroir story, he said, but we are just don’t understand it yet because natural wines are so different. Maybe we need more experience in order to pick out the place when the glass in front of us contains natural wine.

The Natural Divide

This is a very sensible perspective, and I look forward to doing some research, but sometimes sensible middle grounds get over-shadowed by tribal conflicts. Jancis Robinson wrote in a recent Financial Times column  about the extreme positions some natural wine proponents take and the extreme reactions to them. Real tribal stuff. It is easy to see how things could get out of hand.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that wine has become this way.  Politics has become more tribal and more confrontational, reflecting general social attitudes.  Wine was bound to become more divided, too.

So what’s the particular problem that divides the terroirists and the naturalists?I think it has partly to do with the word “natural,” which the naturalist wine tribe seems to have claimed (or, in some cases, been labeled with). Natural is a privileged word. To say that something is natural is a powerful statement. If something is natural you almost don’t have to argue its legitimacy. It is just there, like the natural rights cited in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. No wonder Enlightenment scholars claimed it to justify their claims.

Terrorists think they are making natural wine since they seek to draw out the nature of the place where the grapes were grown. Naturalists want more. Easy to see why there is tension, but the the differences seem to cut deeper. Come back in two weeks for a wine book review that might shed some light on this question.

4 responses

  1. Hi Mike – much enjoying this discussion on the tribes of wine – very relevant in how things have been evolving. I think a lot can be attributed to considerations of marketing and both the need to ” belong ” but with also an element of individuality – as in not all eggs in one basket.
    A lot of this seems to spring from a protagonists education (and that needs to be understood rather critically ).Some people seem to have well articulated fluency in their chosen position but after a little probing it is often a surprisingly shallow understanding.

  2. Mike – Great post. In today’s world where wine and juice is bulk shipped in huge bladders all over the world (some blended) to make really nice affordable wine, we lose sight of the place and the brand becomes King. I personally care less about where the juice originated or what the label looks like than the varietal (even blend) and how much I enjoy the wine. I’ve paid a lot for bottles that I didn’t care for and gotten a few for under $10.00 that I thought were great, even outstanding. As old guy looking forward, I see they younger generation looking at convenience, price and enjoyment over all the stuff we used to consider sacred.

  3. I am really enjoying this series of columns, Mike. As someone who knows a bit about wine marketing, it is crucial that we understand the different segments of the market…and you’re helping. Keep it up!

  4. Interesting article, Mike. My understanding of the “natural wine” movement is that it can better display a wine’s terroir. Least that’s what some of the proponents claim.
    And so why is “mousey” bad in a wine? Simply because JamieGoode declared it to be a flaw?? In so many cases in wine, it’s because a distinctive smell/taste triggers some memories in our brain. And we associate “mousey” with those little rodents that scurried around our kitchen at night and leave mouse poop on our counters. “Mouse”=”bad”. Our Moms taught us that. But what if, as a child, you had this cute little mouse critter you loved to play with and you didn’t mind the mouse poop he’d leave on you hand or bed. Then, maybe, “mousey” would not be a bad character/flaw in a wine??
    Tom

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