Natural Wine: In Defense of Culture, Agriculture + Freedom

In his provocative and fascinating book, Cultural Insurrection, Jonathon Nossiter explains how in the last ten years independent winegrowers making natural wine have “succeeded in staging a small, calm revolution”*

As individuals without an institutionalized organization, they have spontaneously created a model for protecting culture, diversity and freedom. It works because a tiny alternative market (about 1%) appreciates and supports the uniqueness and amazing gamut of their wines.

They have found a way around the tyranny of “the market” (a kind of monster of consumerism gone wild) that has largely rejected artists, photographers, journalists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. Everything and everyone is subject to popularity ratings. The popular ones survive (blockbusters, best sellers or whatever can garner with thousands of followers on social media), and the rest fade away.

So far, Cultural Insurrection has only been published in French and Italian, but its importance, especially given the events of this week, led me to write about it. Nossiter goes into depth explaining the links between culture and agriculture/viniculture. Both require “fertile ground” for growing and creating. And both require the development of individual taste. Nossiter writes: “Exercising critical judgment is the fundamental basis of cultural activity and democracy.” (p.39)

It is the opposite of the homogenization of taste that he documented in his 2004 film, Mondovino. In the film, he showed how Robert Parker’s point scores sent wineries scurrying to hire consultants and use all available chemicals and technology to make wine that would satisfy Parker’s palate. Wine started tasting the same everywhere.
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I saw Nossiter present the book last week at the natural wine fair, Vini Dei Vignaioli with winegrowers, who appeared in his film Natural Resistance. Here left to right: Stefano Bellotti (Cascina Degli Ulivi), Jonathon Nossiter, Corrado Dettori (La Distesa) and Stefano Borsa (Pacina) He stressed the importance and urgency of independent artisan winegrowers continuing to do what they do.

Many have faced criticism in the past or difficulties with the government authorities. Nossiter recounts stories with one of the most poignant being that of Emilio Pepe. A farmer and winegrower in central Italy (Abruzzo), in the 60s he refused all the fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides that were supposed to make his vines and grapes grow faster and better.

He was considered a fool and an outcast but wouldn’t give in. Nossiter lauds the fact that Pepe’s wines (Trebbiano and Montepulciano D’Abruzzo) are each unique…”even in the same year. Even in the same lot. Even in the same case. From the first to the last sip of the same bottle.” (p.191) The wine is alive.

Nossiter addresses the fact that pure marketing and commercialization can occur in natural wine as well as conventional and that certifications like “organic” and “biodynamic” don’t necessarily mean that the wine is free of manipulation or linked to its terroir in a unique way or pleasurable to drink. He cites the example of Mt. Etna in Sicily where non-Sicilians—Frank Cornelissen (Belgian wine investor), Marco De Grazia (American wine importer–see Barolo Boys) and Andrea Franchetti (Tuscan businessman)—created “luxury products” far from the spirit (and prices) of artisan natural wines.
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At one point, he delves into two of the most important technical aspects of wine. He first explains that synthetic chemicals in the vineyard are devastating. Among other effects, they hinder the roots of the vine from going deep in the soil and from absorbing the substances that are present in healthy sold filled with minerals and micro-organisms. This is what naturally gives wine its richness, complexity and uniqueness.

He also points to fermentation where naturally occurring yeasts on the grape skins and in the cellar have a similar effect. The opposite is true when grapes are treated with sulfites to kill native yeasts and afterwards, fermentation occurs with commercial yeasts that have been chosen to add desired characteristics to the wine.

Nossiter’s core message is to underline the importance of individual judgment and choice. We can each make a difference in culture and in agriculture by not simply following the crowd or the expert arbiters of taste. I agree. Defending culture and agriculture is critical to the future of democracy and to humanity.

* Insurrection Culturelle, Jonathon Nossiter and Olivier Bevelet, 2015 p.12

November, 2016

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