By Elissa Jordan
"Getting away from the idea that idealism trumps enjoyment is hard to do."
Halfway through the eighth season of 'How I Met Your Mother' a 30-something Ted inadvertently found himself dating Barney’s 20-year old hipster half-sister. If you’ve never seen the show, much of it revolves around a group of friends drinking at their favourite pub, MacLaren’s, sharing stories of their lives and relationships.
Gathered around their regular table at MacLaren’s, Ted categorises his date as a litany list of ‘pointlessly weird combinations’: from splitting a kimchi cupcake with bacon frosting, washing it down with a cucumber, jalapeno egg cream to rollerblading off to a club in Chinatown under a manhole cover.
Like kimchi cupcakes with bacon frosting, natural wine suffers from something of an image problem.
Opponents of the movement say that natural wine converts are seduced by a concept, rather than wines that actually taste good - or at least that’s the argument natural wine warrior Alice Feiring most often faces and rails against in her 2011 book 'Naked Wine'.
Even those not looking to tarnish the good name of minimally fiddled-with wines can contribute to the image problem. In a recent Punch article the millennial cohort are subdivided into archetypes and it’s the Naturalist, or new-school hippie with an agricultural interest in what's in their glass, who is drawn to natural wine. Implying that it’s the drinkers’ values and their interest in the environment that are the primary drivers.
Getting away from the idea that idealism trumps enjoyment is hard to do, especially when natural wine champions open a bottle of funky wine and gush about the amazing 'feral, wet animal hair' notes as part of their sales pitch for enjoyment, like my friend did just recently.
This image problem isn’t just being projected onto the consumer, it’s something that is propagated within the wine community itself. Last year, as a part of my WSET diploma studies, our study group was asked to research a wine trend we thought was of relevance to the business of the wine unit we were focusing on. I brought the increasing importance of orange and natural wine to the table. This was to the horror of our tutor who is a traditionalist by nature. A discussion ensued - surprisingly to me, most of the group had limited experience with natural wine.
In the spirit of education, our tutor had a bottle of unfiltered amber wine from Georgian producer Pheasant’s Tears at home, and she agreed to bring it in for us to taste.
She did. We did. And then our tutor declared it unfit for drinking. The dye was cast: "This is not wine".
This experience was surprising first because there were a half dozen or so WSET diploma students who had never tasted an orange wine specifically or had much exposure to natural wines in general. And second, based on the rather extreme nature of the Pheasant’s Tears, the general consensus was that they had tried the wine twice that day - for the first and last time. Or so the chatter in the room led me to believe.
While not everyone needs to embrace natural wine and feel compelled to champion its every virtue, to help the masses move beyond the inherent image problem means getting those people who make and love the stuff to talk about it differently. Wine - natural or not - can be enjoyable or abhorrent or somewhere in between. The natural wine lover needs to look to change the commentary.
I would argue that for a start - stop calling it natural. Try authentic wines, unmanipulated wines - most anything else is better. The call of this post is to separate natural wines from any association with kimchi cupcakes so that natural wine can become normal wine, allowing it to become an everyday drink for anyone who enjoys wine. By becoming normal and everyday the wine lover can then start the discussion with an engaged audience about what makes unmanipulated wines worth championing.
This argument is extended to the need to share with the consumer wines that are both natural and approachable. In other words: meet the consumer where they are. While the already converted can celebrate the virtues of the more avant-garde wines out there, the unconverted will approach with trepidation - make it easy on them by giving them wines they can build their appreciation from as an accessible gateway and build from there.
For the wine writer and the wine educator, focus on those who aren’t already converted and understand the impact your influence can have - choose your words carefully. For those in hospitality, talk to people about amazing, well-made wine - that it’s natural doesn’t need to be a part of your opening remarks. Introduce them to the production details after they’re sold on the taste. For the wine lover, when out with friends, get them to try natural wine as much as possible, but don’t force your opinions on them unless they ask.
I believe that meeting people where they are is the way to resolve the image problem natural wine is currently dragging around. So much of what’s happening at the moment is preaching to the converted, rather than engaging in dialogue with those who want to be making better choices but have yet to understand what their options are. Afterall not all natural wines are kimchi cupcakes and feral animal hair - some you wouldn’t even know to be naturally made without being told.
Elissa blogs about wine, runs wine tours, tastings and classes through her own, Wellington-based company Winefulness, and is currently finishing up further study to become a fully-fledged wine-educator.