Opinion Changing the Rules on Natural Wine

Changing the Rules on Natural Wine

Natural wine has been called a lot of things. Now it's fascist too, apparently.
© Raw Wine Fair | Natural wine has been called a lot of things. Now it's fascist too, apparently.
Is there any chance mainstream wine writers will stop attacking natural wine on principle? Probably not.
By Oliver Styles | Posted Saturday, 09-Jan-2021

Richard Dawkins. Remember him?

There was something therapeutic about watching YouTube clips of his talks back in the day: the assured polemicist; the well-crafted, rhetorical diatribe delivered passionately, adamantly from the podium. For God's sake people, God is dead. Except he had been for a while, hadn't he? He'd been left behind since John Lennon announced it in 1966.

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So, for all the enjoyment I get from Dawkins (and there's much to enjoy), there's also something just a bit too easy about pounding atheism into lecture halls full of liberal Westerners. It's not like he was hawking The God Delusion around the streets of Tehran or taking the show on the road in the Bible Belt. He was preaching to the converted, if you'll excuse the metaphor. Great telly. Predictable audience.

And so to a recent piece attacking biodynamics (the second such anti-biodynamic post in 2020) by Josh Dunning ,which places biodynamism's godfather Rudolf Steiner on the far-right, fascist end of the political scale. It gives me all the feels of a Richard Dawkins lecture. I'm neither upset nor offended by it – I'm not even mildly aggrieved. It's just that anti-biodynamics seems a little too easy – a little bit Dawkins. It's like pointing and laughing at a hippy shuffling along the high street.

First up, though, let's be clear: Steiner was an odd fellow. He thought there was gold in the center of the world and was adamant that gnomes exist (and will die if they ever let themselves fall asleep).  But as UK wine writer Jamie Goode pointed out, it is possible to dissociate biodynamics today from Steiner of the 1920s (Steiner died in 1925).

That fascist groove thang

Sure, it's important to review the link with Steiner and fascism but it's problematic in the same way that Nietsche and Nazis or Wagner and Nazis is problematic. Steiner (and his insomniac gnomes) are very much "of their age". If you want more concrete historical links between agriculture and the Nazi party, you'll be more richly rewarded in the sphere of conventional farming and science. The IG Farben behemoth (founded, funnily enough, in 1925 from the likes of BASF and Bayer) springs to mind. The company was dissolved after World War II in circumstances a stint on Google should rapidly make clear.

Furthermore, if we're serious about fascism and wine, why are we still not raging about Dino Frescobaldi and Albieria Antinori’s comments on Mussolini (he got the trains to run on time and was a firm hand the country needed, apparently) in the 2004 film, Mondovino?

And until the majority of our herbicided, fungicided, synthetically fertile (and, currently, scientifically safe) vineyards are overrun by blonde-haired, blue-eyed anthroposophical stormtroopers brainwashed by the hippy couple with the 10 rows of Madeleine Angevine in the corner, I'm not convinced this sort of "polemic" does anything but serve to uphold the status quo.

For a start, I don't think the biodynamic crowd pose a clear and present danger to much more than fashion and team sports. "Trashing the wine industry and hardworking folk is not OK," said Dunning in piece attacking the Clean Wine thing earlier this year. Unfortunately it's a sentiment that clearly doesn't extend to the hardworking peeps in biodynamic vineyards around the world, but that's his prerogative.

Blinded by science

And then there's the science. Science says that if you put a spray on the grapes in the vineyard and observe the withholding period before harvesting said grapes, that fruit is safe for production and consumption. The science doesn't say: "Hang on, 'withholding period'? Wha'?"

And like calling all natural wines faulty or emailing a tiny-volume producer to call her wines rubbish, an attack on biodynamics doesn't accomplish much but a kick in the guts for a the minority of people doing something a bit differently.

That doesn't mean minority issues should be left alone because they are a minority issue (bad taste, sexist natural wine labels is, I'll admit, niche ), it's just the whole science-trumps-biodynamics thing seems too much like an oven-ready bone of contention à la Dawkins, in which the object of ire is unlikely to be incredibly offended but conventional practices are bolstered.

Dimethyl dicarbonate is a relatively common treatment for wine, but you don't find many producers boasting about it.
© Velcorin | Dimethyl dicarbonate is a relatively common treatment for wine, but you don't find many producers boasting about it.

Are there not more mainstream, mystical forces we could apply ourselves to? Could we not deploy our rational brain to propose an updating of the 1855 Classification or a sub-division of the Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru into something a little more reflective of its geology – I mean, going from village-level Vosne-Romanée on one side of the wall to Grand Cru on the other is willing the suspension of disbelief a little, isn't it?

But the establishment resists all such endeavors – just look at attempts to keep classifications "up-to-date" (Saint-Émilion or Cru Bourgeois spring to mind): doomed to failure because they put the status quo into question, and we can't have that.

That doesn't mean it's all cynical. James Molesworth and the wider editorial team at Wine Spectator have been relatively vocal and open in their support for minorities and POC in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. No matter your point of view (and, given the high-end wine-drinking demographic of the country, I suspect the publication would not have made the move lightly) that's ballsy. And, well, good on them.

But to return to the topic at hand, Dunning's right to ask for a more scientifically "robust", non-mystical agricultural standard. Unfortunately, that's effectively what we have now. That's the status quo. Everything is safe and robust until it is proven otherwise in a journal, reviewed by its peers (although let's not talk about global warming, right?).

You can indeed add dimethyl dicarbonate (generally better known in the wine industry by the brand name, Velcorin) to wine and, as long as your staff are properly trained and you use the approved, $80,000 dosing machine, it is unequivocally safe. It's a toxin (as is our humble copper) but science backs it up – the EU even convened a panel to investigate it (its EU number is E242, by the way). I'm not saying that to make a point or to spread the fear (it's likely way more prevalent in other drinks anyway), but just find me a winemaker who is happy using it, a marketing campaign that is happy to state it, and a wine drinker who will knowingly drink it. And then tell me wine isn't a bit mystical.

I actually think that it would be great if some well-meaning souls could put together a non-mystical, regenerative, more-than-organic, polyculture-based, sustainable, non-exploitative and ecologically friendly set of rules for the vineyard and winery. As yet, unfortunately, this hasn't occurred. I'd say we could get by in the meantime with just a set of guidelines rather than rules, as some producers will want to pick-and-choose from that list (for whatever reason) but here again, we've already got that: it’s called "lutte raisonée". As far as I can make out, lutte raisonée differs from conventional viticulture only in that it might involve a passing thought prior to the application of a vineyard spray.

My sincere apologies to the hardworking people using lutte raisonée to up their game and actually improve their vineyards. Nonetheless it remains a mystery why, with so many column inches of the last few years dedicated to lambasting natural wine for not having a formal charter, the concept of lutte raisonée (which is defined, I might point out, albeit in delightfully couched language) somehow passes into the lexicon with minimal commentary – accepted like a blanket for our ignorance to snuggle in.

But it’s not a mystery is it? It's simply the status quo circumventing an obstacle. Is it not time to take our complaints a little higher? Could we maybe stop picking on the small guy (as my gnome keeps telling me)?  

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