Beer connoisseurs long hailed the complex flavors of the Old World’s traditional sour ales, most of which take years to create, often using hundreds of different types of wild yeast and bacteria. Then craft brewing came up with the kettle sour: a quick brew usually soured with only one type of bacteria — Lactobacillus — which is then pasteurized in the brewing kettle, shortcutting the time-consuming processes of the original sour ales while offering a hint of their characteristic tartness.

Could the same thing happen with the charismatic, sometimes sour, often rustic flavors of natural wine?

Those who saw how quickly kettle sours took over the ground once occupied by traditional sour ales can easily imagine a world in which industrial wine producers pull a similar trick in the natural wine space. The earthy, barnyard flavors that are some of the hallmarks of popular natural wines? Possibly faked. The cloudiness and sediment? Those can be aped. The tartness and acidity? Copy and paste.

Get the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.

In fact, discussions with winemakers make it clear that fake natural wine is far from a long shot. At this point, the only real question is whether massive industrial wine companies feel like taking the plunge. According to winemakers, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

Invisible Imitations

When I reach out to a winemaker friend in California’s Napa Valley, he makes it sound like natural wine is hardly flying under the radar, even at large, well-known wineries that are owned by huge international conglomerates, like the one he runs.

In the middle of his conventional winemaking each fall, he says, he takes an allotment of grapes that looks good, crushes it, and lets it ferment without any added yeast as an experiment. “I do it every year,” he says. “It’s just for s*its and giggles. It keeps me interested.”

“If it turns out really nice, as it has a couple of times, we’ve just bottled it as a tasting room wine,” he adds. Those bottles have also been offered through his winery’s direct-to-consumer sales. “Even if people don’t gravitate towards it, it’ll disappear within a year.”

Occasionally, he notes, that low-intervention approach does not yield good results.

“Sometimes it doesn’t turn out, and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m just gonna blend this away into a giant blend, and nobody will ever see it again,’” he says.

Because of the risks involved, he tries to keep his natural-wine experiments at a limited scale of only about 200 cases.

“When I do that, it’s just the smallest volume you can think of,” he says. “That’s thinking from a strategic point of view as well. I don’t want to take a giant risk, like a 10,000-case risk, and then have to explain it to my boss later, or put the company at liability.”

“I think if somebody like Constellation was going to do that, they would straightaway just buy some bulk wine, package it, and see if it sells.”

If he were tasked with making natural wines on a larger scale, he says, he’d consider pasteurizing the grape first, killing the natural yeasts and bacteria, but in a way that would still allow him to claim that it was a natural fermentation.

“If I was really trying to eliminate risk and not add yeast, [I] might do something like flash heat the grapes to start with, so that they’re sterile,” he says. “You can do flash-détente, and that would just get you all your color and fruit. And then if you’re in a winery full of fermentations, there’s yeast floating everywhere, and if you have this flash-pasteurized juice in an area where there’s a bunch of yeast floating around, it’s going to take off in fermentation. It’s not going to be yeast from the vineyard, which is what people would expect for a wine like that, but literally, it’s a native ferment, because you didn’t inoculate it.”

Nonetheless, he’d be reluctant to use his winery’s regular grapes for that purpose.

“If you were going to do something along those lines at your own winery, that’s more of a commitment,” he says. “Because then you’re taking grapes that probably were destined for a different product and gambling on them.”

Instead, if his company asked him to release a large-scale natural wine, he’d take the easy way out: buying it in bulk from wine brokers.

“You can talk to brokers and say, ‘I’m looking for something that was made with native yeast, ‘organic vineyard,’ things like that,” he says. “And they’ll look around and say ‘Yeah, we’ve got three lots, and one of them tastes like vinegar.’”

To maintain the cloudy appearance that is often characteristic of natural wine, he’d skip filtration and settling, he says, and would not add sulfur dioxide. A “hippy-dippy” label, he says, would help give that bottle the appearance of a small producer, even if it were really coming from a huge industrial concern like Treasury Wine Estates or Constellation Brands.

“I think if somebody like Constellation was going to do that, they would straightaway just buy some bulk wine, package it, and see if it sells.”

Hardcore Rustic Flavors

But would a giant producer like Constellation Brands consider jumping into the natural wine space at an industrial scale? In a way, there’s not much to stop them.

Nicholas Pratt is a longtime sommelier in Berlin, Germany, who is moving into wine production. Reached on the phone during a research trip to California’s Central Coast wineries, he points out that there are very few regulations that could keep large producers from making a fake natural wine.

“This concept of ‘fake natural wine’ to me is definitely a theme, just because there are very little controls or regulations surrounding wines in general, especially from Europe,” he says. “And there is no official certification, outside of France, in which you can certify your wine as ‘natural.’ There isn’t one definition of what natural wine is.”

“I don’t think you can take a wine consumer who knows wine, and then have them get into those funky wines. I think you can take a new consumer, and if they’re introduced to this as they’re being introduced to wine, there’s potential.”

The question remains if there’s a market for it, or at least enough of a market to attract larger players. In Pratt’s experience as a sommelier, many wine drinkers under the age of about 30 are actively seeking out natural wines with wild flavors and occasional tartness. Drinkers over 40, he says, are much less inclined, even if they do enjoy a natural wine they unexpectedly encounter through a restaurant’s wine-food pairing.

“If the wine is sound, meaning it’s not leaning too far in one direction, and it works with the dish, then yes, they’ll be up for it,” he says. “However, if they were to search a bottle out themselves on the list, they would never be choosing these more natural-leaning wineries. They would choose something that they’re a little bit more comfortable with or have tried before. And that tends to be more of the classic or conventional styles of wine.”

It’s clear that some rustic flavors, including those that were long considered faults, have become more acceptable of late. In 2017, winemaker Mandy Heldt Donovan started adding Brettanomyces, a wild yeast commonly considered a wine spoilage agent, to Merisi Manic White, a special release of her Carneros Pinot Gris.

Other vintners are more skeptical. Jim Duane, the winemaker at Napa’s Seavey Vineyard who also hosts the Inside Winemaking Podcast, says that he has trouble believing that experienced drinkers will appreciate the more hardcore rustic flavors of some natural wines.

“You’ve got what one of my friends calls the ‘anti-flavor elite.’ It’s a very small market, but you get a lot of press.”

“I don’t think you can take a wine consumer who knows wine, and then have them get into those funky wines,” he says. “I think you can take a new consumer, and if they’re introduced to this as they’re being introduced to wine, there’s potential. But I don’t know any wine consumer that takes a normal, healthy, clean wine and then has gotten into natural wine.” He personally finds the rustic flavors of most natural wines unattractive, and notes that he hasn’t often talked about natural wine on his podcast, even over the course of nine years and 150 episodes.

“No, I s*it on natural wines, every now and then, because they’re gross,” he says. “A good wine, to me, tastes like the grape that it was grown from, or the blend, or it tastes like the place. And when you have natural wine, you introduce all these extraneous flavors.” For him, the funk, acidity and mousey aromas of many natural wines destroy the grape varietal character or sense of where it was grown.

“What’s the point?” he asks. “Why take a certain grape from a certain place? Why not just go get the cheapest grapes from the cheapest place? Mousiness is just mousiness, and with the sourness of the acetic acid, you lose the varietal character. What’s the point of getting nice grapes from a good place?”

The vintner at the large, well-known Napa winery echoes those thoughts, adding a point about commercial viability. “Where’s the growth?” he asks. “It’s a very small market. The thing is, I’d get fired if I made those wines, because Americans in general like fruit. They want those fruit flavors.”

While the natural wine movement has benefitted from prominent fans like New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, he says, those prominent fans seem out of touch with what most American wine drinkers want.

“You’ve got what one of my friends calls the ‘anti-flavor elite,’” he says. “It’s a very small market, but you get a lot of press.”

If Constellation or Gallo felt that there were millions to be made, he says, of course they would get into natural wine. But because of the small size of the natural wine market, that’s unlikely to happen.

In the end, that might be what ends up saving the natural wine movement. On the VinePair Podcast earlier this month, hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe discussed the perception that the wind has gone out of natural wine’s sails, noting that many wine lists that were once devoted to natural wines are now returning to conventional producers. If the natural wine market is just a small niche and probably even shrinking, it’s unlikely to attract the attention of giant makers. And in the end, long-term fans of natural wine are unlikely to be fooled by a commercial product aimed at the mass market, the vintner at the well-known Napa Valley winery argues, much like knowledgeable music fans of 30 years ago.

“That whole crowd, the Asimov crowd, will just call it out, like, ‘This is actually a Constellation product!’” he says. “They’d say, ‘This is fake. This is fake cool.’ It’s Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam.”