Cutting through the funk
I first heard about natural wine a few years ago on a date with bartender. “Is natural wine just another way of saying organic wine?” I asked, feeling like a dummy but hoping to avoid being mansplained. Bless his heart, the guy simply said, “Yeah! Pretty cool, right?” But after that, I did more research, realizing that while organic wine is made with organic grapes and minimal additives, natural wine is a completely hands-off method of wine production, nothing is added and nothing is removed. Because of this, the wine can be pretty funky, some may even say it’s flawed, or doesn’t taste good. Yet I can’t help but notice the cool food folks I follow on Instagram now more than ever are flocking to restaurants that serve natural wine, and paying $20-plus for bottles on the regular at their local wine shop.
I tend to maintain what most would call a “healthy” diet. Growing up, my peanut butter and jellys were on sourdough bread with natural peanut butter; I put honey on plain yogurt instead of buying the cups presweetened with corn syrup, pink from red dye 40. I’ve eaten wheat germ on more than one occasion. Naturally, when the wellness movement began to take off, I was intrigued—suddenly, my friends stopped making fun of me for drinking a glass of soy milk or making my own salad dressing in the dining hall. Almost overnight, they wanted to do those things too.
I like natural wine as a concept, but I have not enjoyed every sip of the stuff. Each bottle is an experiment. Like trying the newest health craze, be it gluten free bread or a $55 jar of adaptogenic herbs called “Brain Dust,” every natural wine experience is unique, and they won’t all be pleasant. Sometimes a wine tastes like a cold kombucha, tart and fizzy; other bottles are crisp, juicy, and all too easy to finish in an hour or two. Yet there are also natural wines that are overly savory or sour, and you just spent $32 on what tastes like six-week-old rancid apple cider. Like the collagen peptides (which definitely taste like dusty meat powder) I tried once and immediately shoved to the back of my fridge, I haven’t made it to the second glass of several bottles of natural wine.
New York Magazine ran a story by Maureen O’Connor this week questioning the natural wine obsession. “Natural wine is weird, funky, even dirty. Sommeliers are obsessed. But does it actually taste good?” asks the subheadline. The article describes that while many younger wine drinkers praise the obscurity of the natural wines they’ve started drinking, the old guard of the wine world remain unimpressed. Slowly, though, more professionals have grown to appreciate the distinct funk of many natural wines. “If taste is a performance of cultural knowledge, then rarefied taste suggests knowing more than everyone else,” writes O’Connor. “By the logic of one-upmanship, taste-chasers will be locked in a race for ever-rarer exemplars and more extreme versions of their taste.”
To me, this sounds exactly like the first wellness influencers, who parlayed their disapproval of white sugar into full-fledged movement, where everything from their morning cereal to their midnight snack must be “healthy.” Do you like brownies made with black beans? Most likely no, but that’s not why you made them. You did it because it proved you knew something others didn’t, and they admired you for it. Even if you find that glass of super-rare natural wine distinctly barnyardy, you’re probably still going to Instagram the label. (It looks like an album cover! Your friends will wonder how you found it!).
Ten years ago I couldn’t find a smoothie made with more than yogurt, ice, and frozen fruit, but now it’s a given to have your drink made with almond milk and enhance it with spirulina, bee pollen, and matcha. Just after I was introduced to it, I stayed on the lookout for natural wine and was usually disappointed. Restaurants sometimes had an organic red on their wine list, and the clerks at my local wine store in New Jersey either rolled their eyes (they were “serious” wine folks) or had no clue what I was talking about. In the past year, I’ve noticed my local shop has launched a whole “biodynamic” section.
Of course, the natural wine movement doesn’t come with the more troubling implications of the wellness movement, namely its ability to go hand-in-hand with eating disorders like orthorexia, also known as an obsession with only eating foods one considers healthy. But I still wonder, as O’Connor notes, what will happen to natural wine when the pendulum inevitably swings? I believe the biggest part of the original wellness movement has run its course. Even recipes posted on healthy websites will include prosciutto and heavy cream sometimes, because why deprive yourself of food that tastes good if it's honestly made? I’m not planning to stop eating the foods I grew up with, but I have noticed that there isn’t the same interest in these “healthy” foods as there was even a few years ago. I wonder what will happen to natural wine if the cool new trend suddenly becomes the equivalent of an old-fashioned dessert made with real flour and bleached white sugar.