Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Examining the natural wine movement

Examining the natural wine movement
I actually put my money where my palate is when it comes to supporting traditionally grown and produced foods. Some people may refer to these types of victuals as “organic” or “natural” products, but I don’t like labels nor do I wish to be associated with food fanatics who assail anyone who produces or consumes food products available in the commercial marketplace.

Hey, I’ll admit it, every now and then I love to wash down a bag of Uncle Homer’s Chipotle Pork Rinds with a 20-ounce Diet Dr. Pepper!

While I am not an organic foodie zealot, I truly do believe in buying locally, particularly when the producers use natural methods to grow fruits and vegetables, as well as to raise and feed their animals.

What does any of this have to do with wine? Well, there has been a big brouhaha over the past couple of years regarding the supposed differences between commercial vineyard/winery practices and those who claim to produce their product using only natural or organic processes.

This “natural wine” movement is particularly popular in France where the true believers have lifted their Gallic noses up even higher than normal to proclaim their practices superior to the overwhelming majority of operations around the world who use modern techniques in the vineyard and winery.

In a nutshell, natural wines use very little or no manipulation in the vineyard or winery. They claim to use no sulfur to prevent oxidation of the wines, will not add any yeast cultures to insure a stable fermentation and would never allow oak aging. The natural wine advocates are also extremely disdainful and critical of the vast majority of wineries using modern methods to produce their wines.

As you might expect, this has drawn the ire of many wineries around the world and has stirred up the wine press. The doubters believe the natural movement is more about establishing a marketing niche among those to whom the words
natural or organic appeal, rather than in any holy crusade to produce pure, unadulterated wine.

But, as wine lovers, you need to decide for yourself so you may make informed buying decisions. Is there really any qualitative or health reason for seeking out these self-proclaimed “natural” wines?

I can buy into the sustainability practices of the natural movement that was defined for me by an Oregon wine producer. He said sustainability means using natural fertilizers, composting and the cultivation of plants that attract insects that are beneficial to grape vines.

Further, he noted, sustainability practices in the vineyard also extend to actions you would not suspect have a relationship to the quality of the vine such as providing areas for wildlife to flourish and allowing weeds to grow between the vines.

But I draw the line at the bio-dynamic aspect of the natural movement. Here’s what I said about it a couple of years back:

‘ Bio-dynamic farming is sustainability on steroids! It involves some things that are downright loony. It can include practices such as stuffing cow horns with manure and burying them in vineyards over the winter, fermenting flowers in stags’ bladders, and timing these unorthodox methods of farming with the phases of the moon and the location of the stars in the night sky.’
Beginnings of a biodynamic prep - cow horns filled with manure.  Photo taken by Jeff Weissler,

As I stated earlier, I believe in supporting naturally produced products. We’ve been buying meat from Sandy Creek Farms near Ravenswood for more than two decades. Sandy Creek has used organic methods in raising and processing their meats well before “organic” became an overused and overhyped marketing term.

We also purchase more than half of the vegetables we consume from locally farmed produce or reputable retailers like the Purple Onion in Charleston’s Capitol Market. In addition, we regularly buy from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Fish Hawk Acres in Rock Cave, West Virginia , and from a Monroe County farm co-op.

To be sure, we still shop at supermarkets and love the produce supplied by reputable local wholesalers like Corey Brothers in Charleston. But it is somehow very satisfying and reassuring to eat food produced nearby, particularly if the stuff is grown in a sustainable manner. I also support our state wineries, many of which are using sustainable practices to produce their wines.

So what’s the answer? Well, I guess it’s a personal decision. I certainly have tried some of the wines that claim to be “natural” and some are good. Some aren’t.

However, I am not convinced that anyone is compromising their health by drinking the 99% of other wines produced without the application of “natural” techniques such as stag’s bladders, cow horns or phases of the moon.

Cow horns filled with manure. Photo: Jeff Weissler,
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