WTF Is Natural Wine?

I have been trying to understand wine for a minute, figuring my coffee knowledge would give me a leg up in learning this world. You’d be surprised at how much beverage processing overlaps across drinks, and understanding something as complex as coffee offers a window into tea, beer, you name it.

But lemme tell ya, wine is confusing. This is partly due to the fact that the wine industry has had longer to professionalize than coffee. The specialty, single-origin coffee movement didn’t start until the 1960s and 70s (and didn’t really pop off until the 1990s), whereas wine-heads have been obsessing over terroir and technique for hundreds of years. The result is that the most basic aspects of wine-making are obscured by complex industry lingo and often, marketing nonsense.

One thing I’ve really been trying to figure out is WTF is “natural wine?” I hear this buzz-word everywhere in Philadelphia, our bougie restaurants are absolutely mad over it. They’re all marketing their natural wine selection but not a single bartender has been able to satisfactorily explain to me what natural wine is—they’re always extremely vague.

This summer, I visited two well-known Texas vineyards, and asked staff at both to explain natural wine. They looked at me blankly. One woman with almost 35 years experience in Texas and California wine, flat-out told me, “I don’t think that’s a thing.” I was baffled as to why people who work for wine producers didn’t know what I was talking about, when customers are bombarded with this phrase at point of sale.

So I decided to do some furious Googling to get to the bottom of this, and I think I have a hazy idea of what natural wine is. I had to rely on my coffee knowledge to get any insight out of the articles, which offer only the most vague and basic definition of natural wine, which is “Wine made without any interventions.”

Interventions? WTF are you talking about? I eventually gathered that it means low processing and no chemical/preservative additives, basically, a more old-fashioned way of making wine, without all the trappings of modern technology. (There is similar ambiguousness about “natural coffee,” which is really just the traditional, low-tech way of processing coffee and has nothing to do with being organic.) What complicates wine is that in addition to “natural,” the words “organic” and “biodynamic” are thrown around in there as well, and all of these words mean something different. (This article does a decent job explaining, but watch out, it is also trying to sell you wine.)

I don’t mean to condemn natural wine, not at all. I support any food movement that is trying to make a product more healthful or sustainable. But I am wary of these buzz words and food trends, and think we all need a deeper understanding of process before we jump on the bandwagons. When it comes to wine, I have a lot more learning to do!

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Kate Kelly