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Why I’d ban the word ‘natural’


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While making prophecies is a loser’s act more often than not, most contemporary pundits know little of the bitterness of the draught of contrition which should follow when they’re wrong.

Beyond that prediction that goes rancid even before it leaves the mouth, the current lot misses the sensory opportunity of tasting the bitter sourness of failure: they’re more likely to wipe the lies from their lips with the back of their hand and get on with spitting all over you.

Contrarily, there’s a sort of naive Yoko sweetness in declaring something’s over if you dislike it and wish it was. Something about the VMat2 gene and the titillation of the risk receptors: that sparky frisson triggered by the likelihood of failure.

At the risk of getting a contrite mouthful of traditional wormwood and gall a bit later on, I’m gonna go for some short-term sweetness by suggesting the current fad of allegedly “natural” wine is little more than a predictable hippy reaction against the vino-industrial complex. And it’s doomed to fail if its goal is to break the back of that vast and powerful ethanol-peddling machine.

How vast? Take Diageo, the world’s biggest liquor manufacturer. In May last year this outfit had a market capitalisation of £48.9 billion ($A94 billion), making it the eighth-largest company on the London Stock Exchange. Ethanol, see?

You might find two or three people drinking illegal biodynamic goat’s milk at times like this when transport and refrigeration is good. But most people drink Coke, with or without Diageo, and will go straight on doing so.

On the fashionable matter of reactionary protest, it wasn’t hippies who stopped the Vietnam War. It was sharp thinkers and brittle rationalists and persistent, hardened radicals who risked repeated arrest, criminal conviction and the ASIO car parked out the front of their hovel. While our victory saw the US and Australian troops return from Indo-China, the overall war picture doesn’t appear to have changed much other than its location. The military-industrial complex has never looked fatter.

The whole point of winemaking is the vigneron interrupting the natural workings of nature to avoid naturally rotting grape juice from naturally turning to a natural vinegary bacterial soup

I’d nearly forgotten about all this natural wine nonsense. Put it out of my mind. But the other day, when The Drinks Business made the droll revelation that one-quarter of all Californian Chardonnay had, one way or another, undergone the removal of some of its alcohol, there was the great Oxford University wine author Jancis Robinson on Twitter, smarmily declaring “T’ain’t natural”.

I could feel the buzz of the ethanol mob’s complaint channels rushing my traitor status to ASIO when I responded: “That’ll knock out goodness-knows-how-much of Australia if you push it, Jancis. Some of your favourites, I’d think.”

The great lady responded with the obvious: “eg?”


The most vulnerable part of the hippy wine movement is its claim to the exclusive right to the word “natural”. There is a certain tight-lipped sanctimony inherent in this: it’s equivalent to the superior feelings their piety alone instils in the likes of the Exclusive Brethren. The whole point of winemaking is the vigneron interrupting the natural workings of nature to avoid naturally rotting grape juice from naturally turning to a natural vinegary bacterial soup by encouraging the creation of clean ethanol so you instead end up with potable wine.

Natural? If, like me, you know that plutonium is natural, you must concede that the hippy wine movement needs to come up with a more fitting word for its retro appellation. Since its commencement in Caucasian Georgia about 8000 years ago, the act of deliberate winemaking has become a long and rather complex procedure which has incorporated quite a lot of activity this murky wine movement would call unnatural.

The first unnatural interruptions in the ancient natural rotting of juice came about when humans moved the wild vines to growing sites which better suited them. Then they learned to unnaturally re-route water to keep the plants alive.

You can see where this is going: we wire the vines up with steel from the dreaded mining industry, dig with steel shovels, prune with snips, carry with tractors and buckets to a tankfarm made of steel and oak cut with steel on a slab of concrete which once again comes from the mining business. The walls, the insulation, the roof. Everywhere we use plastic from the petrochemical industry. Even if you use a horse, it will have shoes of rubber or iron; if you use clay amphoræ, you will need to dig that out, too, using shovels and machinery and a carefully-constructed kiln fired by fuel you have found somewhere else and unnaturally transported.

Without entering the obvious discussions about petrochemical vineyard management, yeast cell manipulation, enzyme addition, filtering, or all the other modern sophistry of the biochemistry of wine, it’s obvious that some folks will always grow and make wine in a more pure and simple manner than, say, your transnational ethanol peddler with his vast monoculture grapeyards and shiny refineries. That’s always been the way.

The more time we waste arguing about whether or not such caring practitioners can properly use the word “natural”, the less likelihood there is of actually getting things moving in the general direction of improvement, with better-quality, safer, more gastronomically enjoyable product, and a better public health and environment outcome.

Having known such great wine scientists as Ray Beckwith, who in the 1930s discovered that the manipulation of pH in wine would make a safe, more stable and less wasteful product, I reckon he’d be giggling in his grave if he could see this current “hipster” fad. (When I was an angry long-haired anti-war hillbilly driving round in a Falcon full of Bibles and shotguns at the birth of the ’70s, a hipster was a sort of a cross between a hippy and a beat, so perhaps a little politicised, but nowhere near as radically cool as, say, the Panthers or the Weathermen. Or a proper thoroughbred hillbilly.)

While this discussion is still, shall we say, primitive, it’d be really silly to bring on an edict of law to regulate the word “natural”.

If I were King I’d ban the use of it now, mind you. Until the likes of Brian Croser and Barnaby Joyce – bosses of the biggest wine police, the Australian Wine and Grape Authority – actually interfere in all this, l make one suggestion.

If there’s something you don’t want in or near your wine, like high science or a simple sieve to strain the greeblies from it, and you think your achievement is significant, why don’t you simply say so on your label? This may be a challenge to those who increasingly sell “natural” wine without that horrid capitalist intrusion, the label, but they must know somebody who can write.

As we learn to accommodate the new heat blistering our vineyards and sending sugars through the roof, we can also learn to accommodate the fact that to make a better drink, some winemakers dare to use reverse osmosis or brilliantly-conceived centrifuge technology to remove bits of the wine that we don’t want, like too much alcohol.

It’s like taking the pips and stalks out.

I’m sure the hundreds of responsible Australian winemakers who lower their alcohols with an unnatural dribble of water at ferment would love to see the law changed so they can continue this ancient practice with impunity. They’re all obliged to list their final alcohol on the bottle, within a point or two. Surely that’s the vital bit.

In the meantime, it was a delight to see Inkwell Wines proprietor Dudley Brown respond to Jancis’s “Tain’t natural” claim by suggesting “there’s plenty of natural taint”.

There will always be unstable murky wines and great wines and a lot of stuff in between. But if this retro/natural/hippy wine movement is to get close to winning any wars, I reckon it should abandon the sanctimony and adopt the appellation name Jancis invented.

If your wine’s murky and you’re proud of the fact, simply state “Taint Natural” on your label.

Sounds as good as Methode Champenoise.

Now, for being wrong, I’ll get back to the penitence of drinking my bitter wormwood in this here 68 per cent alcohol Pernod Absinthe. With water, so it goes murky, and I don’t explode and mess up the snow.

Cheers, and good luck with the thing!

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