On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe take a well-earned victory lap for having foreseen the backlash against “funky wines” coming from the natural wine movement. The three then talk about why some of natural wine’s most important advocates and influencers are pushing back against “funky.” Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Wow. We’re just marching through October, aren’t we?
J: Yeah, in a blink.
A: In a blink.
Z: Yeah. Passage of time.
A: It’s a fast month.
J: It’s 31 days, and yet it feels really quick.
A: Quicker than the others.
Z: Yeah. Unlike February, which never f*cking ends.
A: February. 28 days of the worst thing ever. No. For anyone who likes February, who hurt you?
A: So what have you been drinking, Zach?
A: Wait, why?
Z: The Mariners beat the Blue Jays in two straight games. It was dramatic. We’re not going to talk about what’s happened since, which has caused me to drink for other reasons. But yeah, so I opened up a 2016 Blanc de Blancs from Treveri Cellars here in Washington State. That was nice. Got to drink a little toast with my mom after a truly borderline miraculous comeback with the Mariners in the second game there. Down 8-1 in the sixth inning and then came back and won. So that was nice. Had a little bit of that and had to immediately drive my children an hour and a half back home to our house, which was less miraculous, but that’s okay. And then the other thing I had recently, literally had this bottle that had been kicking around since before I even met my wife. A bottle of 2011 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling, and which kind of was time for it to be opened and we got some takeout.
A: It was time.
Z: Well, Riesling can age for sure and it certainly could have gone longer, but we were both kind of ready to give it a try. And we got some takeout dumplings the other day and opened that bottle. And interesting, definitely showing its age in some ways. Not in a bad way, but just in the way that Riesling can get a little bit honeyed, a little bit nutty. And a little bit of that gasoline kind of smell, which I don’t mind in Riesling. It was a really good, tasty bottle of wine. So yeah, just some nice bottles of wine, for now. We’ll see what the next week brings. How about you, Joanna? What have you been drinking?
J: So I had a few nice things at the office last week. Katie, just on a whim, decided to pop a bottle of Etoile Brut from Chandon that they had sent to her, I think for her birthday, which was very nice. And I’d never had this before. I think it’s fairly new, but that was really good. And then Keith very graciously shared a lovely bottle of Chianti with all of us. Castello di Radda Chianti Reserve, a 2015. And we actually have another bottle of it right here that we’re staring at.
A: I’ll be taking that home.
J: Yeah. I don’t think you had it last week.
A: I didn’t.
J: It was really good. So those were the two standouts for me last week. Do you guys ever feel like you have to drink for the podcast so you have something to talk about?
Z: I mean…
J: Just me.
Z: Do I ever drink things with the podcast in mind outside of what we do on the Friday episodes? Occasionally, maybe.
Z: But no. I would say that drinking is a part of my life, as you might expect given this and everything. But there are definitely the weeks where I look back at my drinking and think it wasn’t that exciting. I mean that is definitely a reality.
J: Pretty mediocre.
Z: And some weeks, it’s amazing. But no, I don’t think I feel like I have to grit my teeth and have a drink just for the sake of the podcast. That’s not really my relationship with drinking at this point in my life.
J: Well, it’s never gritting my teeth and drinking something, but definitely trying to seek out more interesting things to talk about.
Z: That I think is maybe true. Yeah, I definitely think there are times when, if I didn’t have this podcast in mind on a weekly basis, would my drinking be slightly more humdrum? Possibly. But I fortunately have lots of interesting things that come across my transom, as it were. And even though I don’t get to go out and drink as much as the two of you, I do have some opportunities, which is nice too.
J: What about you, Adam?
A: So I had a really nice Champagne last night.
A: Champagne Chavost, Rosé de Saignée. I can’t speak French, man. It’s fine.
J: This is why you like Italian wines better.
A: Yeah, they’re sort of a new-ish producer in New York and I had it at this restaurant called Fradei.
A: In Brooklyn, which was great. And then I also had a really delicious Martini this week at Bar Goto Niban, which was awesome. Those were probably the two big standouts for me in terms of delicious drinks.
J: What kind of Martini was it?
A: Really, really tasty. So that was, for me, the highlight of my week. There can be good Martinis out there. They all don’t have to be $30 Vodka Martinis.
Z: This is interesting to me.
J: Or dirty.
Z: Because I feel like rose water is one of those ingredients in cocktails that I have a hard time with. It’s so intense. I remember years and years ago when I was bartending, we had a drink that used it, and it was like the one drink on the cocktail list that I hated to make because you needed to be so precise about how much you used. It started out with it in a dasher bottle and then we had to get a dropper. And this was not that kind of bar generally, but it was like one drop was fine and two drops was way too much rose water.
J: Too much.
Z: Or whatever. I don’t know if it was one or two, but it was in that ballpark. And I’ve just never gotten that into it. But it’s cool if people can make it work. It’s just for me, whether it’s in food or in drink, it’s so intense and can so quickly kind of take over anything else, that I stay away from it. But it sounds like you liked it, so that’s cool.
A: It was nice. It was nice. It was a really good cocktail. I like that bar too. I think Bar Goto in the Lower East Side, and Bar Goto Niban in Brooklyn are both really, really solid bars in the city.
A: Very, very cool. All right, so, you guys, we called this.
A: We knew this was coming.
Z: Victory lap time.
A: We called this years ago. But it seems the backlash has finally happened where some natural wine producers as well as purveyors are now anti-funk because they have realized that what we said would happen is happening. And most consumers are now starting to think that natural wine is not natural unless it’s funky. And guess what, people? Thems be the breaks.
Z: Bed you’ve made, now lie in it.
Z: Or whatever it is.
A: That is now happening. What do you guys think? Crazy but also so fun to be right.
J: Why do you think this is happening now?
A: Because I do think that a lot of people who are passionate about wine and natural wine, also are passionate about clean wine, and I think it’s getting out of control. I think a lot of the wine that’s being sold by a few of the more prominent importer distributors is wine that would’ve never been sold 10 years ago. People would’ve been like, “Nope, this is sh*t. Try again. We can’t sell this. This can’t be in a book. This is faulty wine.” And now it’s being sold very easily and at very high prices. And I think a lot of people are like, “This is just not okay. We’re literally selling crap.” And it’s turning off a lot of consumers, I think. I think it’s starting to fill up a lot of books and I think there are now I think buyers who are like, “I’m still looking for fruit and I can’t find it anywhere.” It’s okay if there was a little bit of Brett on top of the fruit or a little bit of VA or things like that that you could tolerate. It’s what everyone likes to say about Italian wine. That Italian wine all kind of has a little bit of VA, but everyone tolerates it because that’s kind of what makes it Italian in a way. But now I think that literally everyone is just pouring kombucha. People are selling pét-nats that aren’t carbonated because something went wrong, but it’s natural, so it’s okay.
A: Yeah, so natural is the excuse for bad wine because it was natural. So they can’t help that things didn’t go the way that they were supposed to go. And I think there are now a lot of producers, I mean a lot of buyers and consumers who are like, “That’s not cool. I couldn’t turn in a piece of work.” Your doctor couldn’t be like, “Oh, I botched this surgery, but it was a natural surgery, so sh*t happens.” You know what I mean? And you are having winemakers who — and this has been coming — but winemakers who have gone to school and gotten advanced degrees in this and done apprenticeships who are starting to call it out louder and louder too. Who are saying, “This is not cool. Winemaking is not just something you can do because…” You cannot, I’m sorry. You can’t be a failed furniture designer or a crochet artist that all of a sudden decides you want to make wine, and think that you can buy a bunch of bulk grapes and stomp on them with your f*cking feet and then all of a sudden you’re going to make wine. That’s not what this is. There’s a true, actual skill and art.
J: Did you say a crochet artist?
A: Yeah. Put a bird on it, man. This is in Portland, Ore. I mean, it’s all over Portland. You know what I mean?
Z: Yeah. Lots of foot trod grapes in Portland, Ore. I can confirm.
A: Yeah, everyone’s foot trodding, man. Stop foot trodding, stop everyone making carbonic everything. And I think that there’s just a lot of backlash to it now. Everything can’t be a pét-nat. You can’t make piquette with everything. Just stop.
A: Just stop. And I think that we’re starting to see the backlash from buyers who are saying, “There’s got to be a better way.” And they’re starting to see that their consumers want clean wine.
J: Yeah. I mean I think we’ve gotten to this point because — and we’ve talked about this before — but when funky is what everyone is looking for, or it’s the prerequisite for their wine choice, and they kind of don’t understand what it means and just associate it with this very one-note, specific flavor type of wine. That kind of flies in the face of all these people who are working really hard to produce these really clean natural wines. And I imagine that, like you said, that’s pretty frustrating for them. So yeah, I totally get it. I get it happening now.
A: I just think the damage has already been done. I’m curious what you think, Zach. But I feel like if this would’ve been pulled back a few years ago, maybe. But at this point, I feel like this is the same as what’s happened in the craft beer world with IPA, where it’s just the biggest hoppy flavor possible.
J: The hoppier, the better.
A: People just want to get slammed in the face with hops when it comes to IPAs. And I think that’s the same with what the general consumer thinks of as natural wine is now funk.
A: And I don’t see how that gets corrected in this group of natural wine consumers’ minds.
Z: Well, I think that the complicating thing here too is you are facing perhaps a challenge on multiple dimensions for natural wine. One of them is what we’re talking about here. And I think something that’s important to note is, when you’re selling point for natural wine, or at least the thing that consumers identify with, is a flavor profile and an aromatic profile of funkiness. Well, the problem there is if you’re trying to provide an argument for why a specific natural wine is better than another, or why this wine should cost you $50, $60, $70, $80 a bottle in whatever setting — or more than that in a restaurant setting — but the dominant flavor is something that anyone can get anywhere because it isn’t really about the quality of the grapes particularly. Especially when you’re talking about things like pre-tannin ICs or volatile acidity or whatever. You kind of run into this problem for producers and the people who sell wine, which is like, “Okay, but someone can get this other bottle that’s also funky that’s 20 bucks.” And maybe it is that crochet artist’s foot-trod bulk wine, and has a cool design and cost 20 bucks on a shelf.
A: A design that your sister drew on the bottle.
Z: And does anyone really care about the provenance of the grapes? Well, maybe not. If the thing they’re looking for is this kind of macro flavor profile. And at least with IPAs, it was well understood, I think, that hops, as the sort of dominant flavor agent in those beers, have a price and the more hops you put in, the more expensive the beer might have to be. That’s obviously a little reductive. It doesn’t simply boil down to that. But that’s, I think, how consumers might have thought about it. I think the other problem is you’re perhaps also getting pushback from not just buyers, not just purveyors, but also possibly drinkers themselves. Because in the same way that some IPA drinkers — obviously IPAs are still very popular, big hoppy IPAs are popular — a certain segment of craft beer drinkers, certainly the craft beer media, etc., started to push back, and brewers themselves, against the notion that the only way to make craft beer was to kind of load everything up with hops. And I think you’re seeing this pushback from within natural wine. This is why when we started talking about this on Slack, I think Josh referred to it as natural wine eating its own tail. This is a thing where you have the people who perhaps once loudly championed wines that are undeniably funky, are now themselves saying, “Well actually we maybe need to look at clean winemaking and fruit expression and aromatic purity and all these things. And yeah, we still want you to make it with minimal sulfur and from biodynamic grapes, etc. But we also want the wine to be clean.” And I think those are admirable goals personally, for my own flavor preferences and stuff. But that’s putting a much bigger burden, or it’s making things harder on the producer because making clean wine is harder than making flawed wine. I mean, if it was easy to make clean wine, people wouldn’t make flawed wine, generally speaking. And so I think that we are seeing this problem twofold. The category has exploded and it’s brought a lot of people in who maybe don’t exactly know what they’re doing. And at the same time, you have some of the tastemakers within natural wine circles starting to reject what they, a year or two or three ago, embraced. And that’s a whiplash effect for producers and perhaps for consumers most of all. But it’s also a sign of an unstable ecosystem in a way.
J: Yeah, I mean you mentioned this before, Adam, but I also think at a certain point, drinkers, I mean this happened for myself, realize that it just tastes bad.
J: These wines just taste bad. And then like you said, Zach, it’s kind of hard to justify making the jump to a more expensive bottle that will taste better. So instead, just rejecting the category. Why would I spend so much more on something if you assume that it’s going to taste funky anyway?
Z: Well, and also I think it’s not even just that it tastes bad, it’s that it’s fatiguing. It’s not the only thing people want to drink. I think it’s not that people who like natural wine are like, “I will never have another funky wine.” But it’s like, “I don’t want just funky. I want other options within the natural wine sphere.” And obviously they do exist and have existed, but so many people have been brought into the natural wine camp as consumers, by people talking about the funkiness, the strangeness. They’re like, “Oh, you’ll never have a wine like this.” And that’s a cool selling point at first, but at some point, I think most people are like frankly, you said it before, Adam, they’re like, “Well, why aren’t I just drinking kombucha, which is cheaper? Why am I paying big money for wine that doesn’t taste like wine? And the novelty has probably worn off on me.”
A: Yeah. I just think, again, there’s amazing stories of people who come into wine from a variety of different places in terms of making it right. But I do think that also if you were to make a satire about natural wine and what it’s become, the general satire would be, “This wine is made by someone who left a different job — probably a crochet artist or professional quilter — in order to be a winemaker. This is their first vintage. It’s super funky, but don’t worry, it’s natural. And they’re just trying really hard.” And I think that that’s also, that’s very upsetting to people who — this happens in every movement. This happens in art, too, where there were a lot of artists that were like, “Wait, what? We’re championing art that doesn’t seem to have any technique and doesn’t seem to be thinking about any of the past.” This happens in every movement. We’ve talked about this before. But I think the problem with this is how powerful the bacterias are that can get into the wine when it’s not made well, and how dominant they become. And it just creates this very uniform flavor no matter where the wine is made in the world. And that is just unfortunate, but that’s kind of the cool thing about making alcohol, actually. That there’s this bacteria that everyone has to fight against and figure out how to defend against, and there’s volatile acidity that has to be figured out. It’s like, there’s true skill. And when it does come in, it doesn’t matter if you made the wine in from premier cru vineyards in Burgundy, though they would never do this. They would freak out. But if that’s where you got your fruit from, or you got your fruit from Virginia, you got your fruit from Napa, or you got your fruit from Tasmania, this is what happens to the wine. And I think we’re all starting to, I think there’s a lot of this rejection because people are saying, “Wait, so if this wine tastes the same funk as that wine, but this wine was $20 and that wine is $50 at the shop. And one was from France and one was from Australia, but they taste the same to me, then what’s the point?”
Z: Well, and I also think, you talked about this being a sort of thing that we see in movements or sort of outsider movements within, whether it’s art, fashion, wine, whatever. And I think wine in particular has had some very similar experiences in the last few decades, because there’s always been a sort of counterculture in wine pushing back against the dominant style. And it was people pushing back against, in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, it was people saying, “Wait a second, why are these sort of relatively tart, medium- to light-bodied wines from Europe, the dominant fashion? When here in California, whatever, we can get more ripeness, more flavor, we can use new oak in a sort of prominent way and produce these very kind of pleasurable wines.” And then you had people push back against that, or people kind of set out to do the opposite or something very different than that. And then those people perhaps went — I don’t know if they went too far — but then there became a sort of fetishization of high acidity. And picking grapes really early and sort of seeing that and that there being a movement that saw that as being the sort of pinnacle of wine making. And in all these cases I think the best producers, the best sort of longest-lasting people within these movements, recognize that both of them had a point. But also the preexisting landscape wasn’t completely f*cked. And it wasn’t a complete joke. And there were reasons why people did things the way they did. And in this case, I think a lot of producers are like, “Oh, sh*t, there’s a reason people have used sulfur for hundreds of years. Because it’s a hell of an effective preservative.” And that doesn’t mean that you should go hog wild with it. And it means that perhaps for some producers, using as little as possible, or maybe finding other ways around, other ways to preserve their wine besides using sulfur, are still things that they see the value in. But this sort of revolutionary zeal tends to sort of be beaten out of people because, as you’ve both pointed out, making wine is really f*cking hard. And making wine consistently year in and year out, that’s good, that’s shelf stable, that people want to drink, is not an easy thing to do. And tying one arm behind your back technique-wise is perhaps not a great idea, especially if you’re not very, very experienced. And it’s why I think you see some of the most prominent and most successful people in this space are people who have come to whatever we consider natural wine, or low-intervention wine, or whatever with a lot of experience already. They understand what they need to do, what they can do, and what they can maybe not do, that is no longer necessary or that they can work around. And it’s the people who are the sort of foot soldiers in the revolution — and maybe this is a pun about foot tread and grapes — who in the end kind of get in and then find themselves overwhelmed because the process of making wine is really f*cking hard. It’s not something that anyone can do, whatever their sort of belief in themselves might say.
J: Yeah, I agree with all of that. I just think that as the category has expanded, and like Adam said, we’re seeing these wines on menus and more people are exposed to them and are trying them as part of this movement and then rejecting it, right? Because it doesn’t taste good. Or if these are the wines that they’re exposed to and then they don’t like them, they’re like, “Well, natural wine is a stupid movement and these wines are bad.” That’s not good for the quote/unquote “movement” either. So I see them, the people who are spearheading this or really passionate about it, feeling like what’s happened to natural wine, especially recently, has been kind of counter to its own counter-movement.
A: Yeah. Well, and as we’ve said before, and we will say again, if to most consumers, natural doesn’t mean what all of the evangelists think it means. So what they think it means or what they want it to mean, is amazing farming practices that take care of the land, that honor the land. That are organic or biodynamic, or that leaves something for the future, which I think we can all get behind. And then minimal intervention in the cellar, allowing the grapes to speak for themselves, as it were. Those are all really good things. But the problem is, if instead what natural wine has become is known for a flavor, the flavor can be created by larger brands. And that’s what I think people are — even though podcasts like ours and publications like ours have been saying this forever — I think they’re starting to become a realization from some of the leaders in the movement that that’s the case. That it’s not that hard to infect a bunch of industrial tanks with Brett and tell people that this is a natural-style wine.
J: A natural-style wine.
A: And that’s a very quick turn of phrase that most consumers won’t even pay attention to. They’ll glaze right over, “Oh, natural-style, cool.” And all of a sudden you have bigger brands creating these wines that taste like it, with natural-sounding names that are completely the antithesis of what this movement is supposed to be about.
J: Is meant to be. Yeah.
Z: Yeah. Well, and if-
A: And so that’s why.
Z: You can see the bottles on the shelves right now, right? They’re kind of opaque.
Z: They’re often really bright colors, not just the labels, but the wines themselves are kind of vivid.
J: Yeah. Very juicy.
Z: And they have all the iconography that surrounds natural wine. And it’s as if hindsight is 20-20 — although I think for all of us, it was pretty clear when this was picking up steam — that that’s where some of the people who welcomed anyone on the bandwagon who wanted to talk about natural wine and champion it, maybe went wrong. Because once you start to accept everyone under the tent, regardless of what the wine tastes like. Because you’re like, “Well, it’s natural. So it’s just a natural expression of whatever.” You now have lost the ability to say, “Wait a second. Yeah, okay. You didn’t use any sulfur. And yeah, okay, the grapes are organic, but what the f*ck is wrong with your wine? This is maybe arguably not wine. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not wine in the way we think of it.” But it’s packaged like wine, it’s talked about like wine, it’s made from grapes, it’s got alcohol in it, so we can’t really gatekeep that. And I can’t lie there’s a part of me, like I think for both of you, that’s a little, as we said before, you sowed, now shall you reap. But it is interesting to see. It’ll be interesting to see over the next couple years where things go. And whether you start to see more and more of these people who were evangelists for natural wine, who were prominent producers, really move away from natural as a term. I think we will see that.
Z: I think we’ll see, unfortunately, migration into low intervention as a term, which I don’t love either. You can read my piece about it on VinePair.com, you might have heard of it. But in general, I think that you are going to see people kind of trying to abandon this terminology because they’ve realized that they no longer can control it. It is Frankenstein’s monster.
A: And with that, told you so. Told you so.
J: You’re such a told-you-so person, Adam.
A: Only on the podcast, actually. I don’t think I am-
J: Not in real life?
A: No. Ask Naomi. She’s always right, I’m never right. But I mean, this one feels good.
Z: Hey, take the victory laps when you get them. That’s what I say.
A: And with that, I’ll see you both Friday. Check you back here. See you, natural wine.
J: Have a great week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.