A Manifesto for the Agriculture and Natural Wine

Natural wine challenges viticultural and cultural norms by being unapologetically connected to nature

In the current toxic environment –toxic for the planet, toxic for the heart- environmentalists, culture-lovers, humanists, progressives are not accustomed to good news of any kind. So at the risk of disappointing those caught up in the vortex of dread,

I would like to offer (cautiously) some cause for optimism.

Natural winegrowers from Alsace to Vermont, from Mendoza to Marsala are leading a raucously civil and rootedly cosmopolitan insurrection against all the forces conspiring to wrestle the planet to death. Their engagement in completely material, agricultural questions (without ever losing the spiritual dimension) have created a model for rural renewal and may hold a key for a reinvigoration of urban culture as well.

A dozen years ago, it seemed that the future was as bleak for the partisans of wine as an act of culture as it is for partisans of any cultural expression today. It appeared that eight thousand years of viticulture were going to be annihilated by the double whammy of chemically destructive industrial wine and the pseudo-artisanal version of the same, simply repackaged as a luxury product. And this was true from Chianti to Bordeaux to Napa. For any genuine, ecologically engaged artisan, the war seemed lost.

There was no comfort in any country from the various institutions supposed to protect authenticity: the AOC (Appélation d'origine controlée) in France, the DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) in Italy, universities from Chile to Australia where agronomy was taught, government watchdog agencies like the FDA or the European Union's agriculture commission.

It was as if they'd all suffered the invasion of the winebodysnatchers. Almost all agricultural research was being dictated by the multinational agrochemical industry and its lobbies, including the drafting of ridiculously porous organic regulations on all sides of the Atlantic and Pacific that allowed for numerous chemical additives and manipulations. Journalists submitted, out of cynicism, laziness, or ignorance, to the viticultural aberration, and each year consumers and merchants become more accommodated to a bogus system.

It seemed unlikely that an unbowed, renegade winegrower could survive.

But not only did a handful survive, they succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of colleagues and newcomers to embrace agriculture as an act of liberty and as an ethical and aesthetic endeavor. Above all, given that most individual farmers in the twenty- first century were ending up isolated, burdened with debt, and excluded from the marketplace, the greatest miracle of the natural wine movement may be that it generated a spontaneous network of farmers' solidarity across the globe, which in turn created an alternative social and commercial urban network, from São Paulo to Paris to New York, largely populated by young people and economically viable.

Picking wine grapes
Harvesting wine grapes in Israel. David Silverman/Getty

A new culture—aesthetic, social, and economic— emerged, uniting the countryside with the city in a single phenomenon. Today natural wine is a concrete economic and cultural reality, linking Chicago to London to the Catalan hills. It's made up of old farming families, those who never abandoned what the French and Italians call (uncondescendingly) "peasant common sense," resisting the siren call of chemically enslaved agriculture. But there are just as many neo-farmers, urban exiles who often have abandoned more conventional cultural activities to become voluntary refugees from a social order they found physically and morally untenable.

Natural wine is more a phenomenon than a movement because, like Occupy Wall Street, it has a natural disdain for imposed rules. But unlike Occupy, it is only concrete. It has brought together tens of thousands of winegrowers, each one radically different from the other, each one determined to preserve his or her subjectivity and independence. Predominantly French and Italian for the first years, today natural wine-growers are present in every winegrowing region of the world, and some are even pioneering new areas with brio, like Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber in Barnard, Vermont.

Maybe the most significant contribution of the natural wine movement has been to encourage us to reflect on agriculture as a cultural gesture in itself. Which inevitably leads to a keener understanding of how critical agriculture is for the future of humanity, especially given that scientists attribute at least a quarter of the causes of global warming to industrial agriculture.

The natural wine movement has led many city dwellers like me to see it as the (most chatty) ambassador for the culture of the countryside at a moment in history when the fate of our species may depend greatly on reinventing the urban-rural relationship.

What distinguishes a natural wine? Like organic wines, the vineyards are worked without any herbicides, pesticides or chemical interventions of any kind, with only a tiny amount of copper sulphate. Unlike many organic wines and almost all so-called conventional wines, the yeasts that magically transform the grape sugar into alcohol, enabling the mineral salts to create flavour do not come chemically engineered (often from a lab in Denmark) but spontaneously from the local population of yeasts. It's the difference between seeing the digital reproduction of an ersatz tourist knock off of the Mona Lisa and contemplating the painting itself. Thereafter, the magically transformed juice is allowed to develop its quirks and personality largely unmediated by the hand of man. This would be the difference between an actor reading from a teleprompter, force-fed the intonation from a meddlesome director and Marlon Brando inventing ferociously (or intimately) accompanied by the gentle, shepherding hand of a director like Elia Kazan.

OrganiC Vineyard  France
This vineyard in Queyssac-les-Vignes, in south-western France, is make up of half organic agriculture. Georges Gobet/ AFP/Getty

In fact, when I first started tasting these wines twenty years ago, they were so much less polished --and sheeny than what I'd become accustomed to—that I got the same sort of jolt from the first time I laid eyes on the cinema of Federico Fellini, Rainer Fassbinder, and John Cassavetes. I was tasting reds that were lighter-bodied, more taut and acidic than the fuller, more alcoholic, sweeter wines that had dominated the marketplace since the "go-go, Coca-Cola, and cocaine" 1980s. But the rupture with what had become conventional white wine was even more radical. Like a certain self-consciously spare indie making style of the 1980s, white wine had been neutered—either stripped of its content and made colorless and odor-less, or it touched the other extreme, made over- stuffed and cloyingly sweet, like Hollywood's 1980s love affair with bloated bimbos, steroidal special effects, and saccharine comedies.

In complete contrast, the natural white wines I was discovering were often tannic, aromatic, and deeply colored, sometimes even orangey-amber, and always in a saline, bitingly acidic, down-to-earth register. These whites astounded me for their tactility and their vitality.

It took me a while to understand that I was tasting the shock of the new, but also the shock of the old. As with any moment of cultural rupture, the act of innovation cannot have any enduring value unless it is also a profound regeneration of the past. In this case, I was tasting wines that I would discover were renewing, in a contemporary idiom, a tradition stretching back at least eight thousand years, a tradition sundered only after World War II with the global imposition of chemical agriculture. These natural wines restore a vital link to civilization's founding gestures that began with the first agricultural practice ten thousand years ago.

As with my first encounter with films as a cultural and political force , these wines never left me indifferent: neither those that entranced me nor those that unnerved me. Their vital energy necessarily provoked reactions of equal intensity. It seemed to me that their natural effervescence (many in fact are bubbly) was genuinely radical, in the metaphoric but also the literal sense of radix, Latin for "roots."

Today it's virtually impossible for me to drink a so-called conventional or traditional wine with any pleasure, especially since what is presented as "conventional," from the legendary Château Haut-Brion in Bordeaux to America's favorite, Sutter Home, is in fact in the most violent rupture imaginable with the conventions of any era, so disfigured by chemicals are their lands and so technically manipulated are the finished wines. They suggest in fact how far man is capable of muzzling nature and any territorial expression, just as film directors are confronted with technology as a substitute for the (potential!) humanity of their actors.

Chateau HAut-Brion
Wine production at the famed Chateau Haut-Brion in Pessac, a suburb of Bordeaux. Patrick Durand/Getty

In each cultural sphere, it has become necessary to invent not just new forms but new systems of production, exchange, and rewards in an expression of completely equitable commerce. In each field— publishing, film, plastic arts, teaching, journalism, music, dance—there could be a complete renewal, exercised with the same courage and ethical back-bone as in the natural wine world.

Given the obscenity of exploding global inequality and the consequent threat of ecological apocalypse—and its corollary detail of the disappearance of all traces of human civilization—it's easy to feel defeated. What should be heartening, however, is that even within a society where the odds are so stacked against any idealistic venture, natural winegrowers provide a gleeful, unbombastic counterexample.

Our profoundly de-ruralized society has forgotten a simple truth; that it's not coincidental that ten thousand years of human civilization have run concurrently with ten thousand years of agricultural activity. And no matter how barbarous much of our history is, with the exception of a tiny fraction of that time scale, there has been some form of equilibrium between the two.

In the subsoil of our devastated contemporary chemical landscape—nature's archive of our collective history now deprived of its mineral memory—it could seem quixotic that these natural winegrowers continue to plant their minuscule but dynamic and deep-rooting seeds.

They confront a society that seeks only what is efficient in its conversion to profit, what is disposable and replaceable, what is artificial, where science is disconnected from wisdom and conscience. A society as dedicated to eradicating life as propagating it.

Three glasses of wine
The final product: Red, white and rose. Jean-Philippe Wallet/Getty

Natural winemakers have confronted their own world of agriculture, a land crushed as if in a totalitarian regime by the transnational megaliths practicing the law of the strong, the principal agents for the murderous abuse of scientific ethics. They have confronted their own craft, the world of wine, transfigured by the mechanisms of big agro on the one hand and disfigured by the cultural lies of the consumer society of the spectacle on the other.

And yet in a joyous and pacific but unquestionably insurrectional fashion, they fight. They struggle so that agriculture can once again become culture, what it had been until the era of chemical warfare, speculatory financial orgies, and the anthropocentric arrogance of man as "artist."

Natural winegrowers of course are ecologists in their relationship to nature, but they are equally ecologists in their consideration of culture. And this should give us all at least a fragment of hope for the future of the two sisters, culture and nature: twinned in our youth, twinned, let's hope, in our future.

Jonathan Nossiter is a writer and prize-winning director of six feature films including Mondovino, which was nominated for a Palme d'Or. His previous book, Liquid Memory, won the World Gourmand Award for Best Book of Wine Literature. A trained sommelier, he's curated the wine lists for restaurants in New York, Paris, and Rio, including Balthazar and Il Buco. He was born in DC and now lives in Rome with his three children. His new book, CULTURAL INSURRECTION: A Manifesto for the Arts, Agriculture, and Natural Wine, examines food through context, and takes an impassioned look at an intersectional cultural and agricultural reawakening birthed inside the natural wine movement.

A Manifesto for the Agriculture and Natural Wine | Culture