In a 2019 Financial Times article, wine writer Jancis Robinson posed a provocative question: “Why is natural wine so divisive?” She was, of course, referring to the deep rift between those who drink, produce, and sell wine made without pesticides or additives and their traditional industry counterparts. The groups have long turned their noses up at each other, but lately, it’s the chasm within the natural wine community that seems to be growing. Language —
“Most of our use of language is not regulated,” explains Dr. Marjorie Pak, a senior lecturer in linguistics at Emory University. “Words end up just meaning what the community passively agrees that they mean. It’s totally normal for people to disagree about exactly what a word means and whether it’s appropriate to use it in this or that context.”
So when, why, and how should “natural” and “low-intervention” be employed? At face value, “low-intervention” appears to be more descriptive than “natural,” which has a fraught reputation across several industries as a vague, overused word. “I think ‘low-intervention’ is both more informative and accurate,” Robinson comments. “I don’t like the fact that the term ‘natural’ implies absolutely all other wines are unnatural.”
Author, former beauty editor, and language scholar Amanda Montell takes issue with the use of “natural” as well. “The word ‘natural’ is tossed around willy-nilly in [the beauty] world a lot,” she says. “The problem with it is that it doesn’t mean anything because there’s no FDA regulation associated with the term. I bristle when I hear the word because I don’t find that it’s specific enough to have any meaning. In a lot of industries, it has been beaten to death and rendered meaningless.”
But for some, the choice of terminology is a more emotional one. Australia-based winemaker and writer Rachel Signer has such a strong attachment to the word “natural” that she used it in the title of her debut novel “You Had Me at Pét-Nat: A Natural Wine-Soaked Memoir.” She reasons, “I still like the term ‘natural wine’ because it was the original term that got me interested in the movement and it referred to that original crowd of people. … I find myself continuing to use it because of that. It’s almost nostalgic.”
When it comes to a shift toward using “low-intervention,” Signer detects nefarious undertones. “It’s a marketing term,” she says. “It’s kind of an insult to natural wine. They’re saying, ‘I still add some sulfites and I’m pretty happy with sulfites. I’m going to keep adding them, but I want to market myself as part of the natural wine world, so I’m going to choose this very carefully phrased term so that you’ll know that I am part of that trend.’”
RAW WINE founder and author Isabelle Legeron views the issue more matter-of-factly. Since she started hosting fairs in 2012, she’s categorized zero-zero wines as “natural” and those with few sulfites added as “low-intervention.” She makes a point to note the farming practices used to grow the grapes for each bottle, which she values more than what happens in the cellar.
“Farming is the most important thing now because there’s a whole generation of young drinkers who think of natural wine because of its [cloudy, funky] looks and the fact that it’s quite trendy, but no one really thinks about what’s happening to vines and the soil and the bugs living underground,” Legeron laments.
Winemakers are mired in the debate, too. For example, Martha Stoumen of Martha Stoumen Wines tends to choose one term over the other depending on her audience. “My main goal is to push forward more responsible farming in this industry,” Stoumen says. “It’s more of a philosophical decision to make ‘natural wine.’ For those who aren’t quite on the same wavelength, ‘low-intervention wines’ is a little bit of an easier term to use.”
Meanwhile, Megan Bell of Santa Cruz Mountains-based Margins Wine exclusively uses “low-intervention” in her branding to cater to the community bias. “I think they’re interchangeable, but not everybody does, which is why I don’t use them interchangeably,” she says. “I use ‘low-intervention’ because I am reserving the term ‘natural wine’ for the folks that are making zero-zero wines and not adding any sulfites. They think they’re the only ones making natural wine, so I just go along with that because I don’t care to fight about it.”
Ultimately, attempting to define “natural” and “low-intervention” is futile when no one is seeing eye to eye. LaLou co-founder Dave Foss summarizes the conundrum well when he says, “It’s a very gray area. … There are some very popular ‘natural’ winemakers who add some sulfites and some winemakers who identify as ‘low-intervention’ who don’t add sulfites. It’s a complicated question.” Divisive, indeed.