Here's a post of mine that's also being run as day 9 in Cory Cartwright's 32 days of natural wine series. You can read it here or there, but make sure you read every other day on saignée, there's some really thought-provoking stuff going on there.
a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true
Lately, natural wine lovers have been accused of being overly dogmatic. If you say your wine is natural, you're implying that other wines are less natural, and therefore inferior. Traditional wine fans bristle at this comparison, and assert that their wines are the best in the world, and they have a lot of books and articles on their side to back that up. But isn't that just dogma of another color? In my opinion, if we natural wine fans are being dogmatic, it's only in response to an overbearing dogma that's been the order of things for quite some time. The old school dogma is one that needs a bit of toppling, and the insane prices of the "top" wines of this world are proof enough of that for me.
My training in wine began at the Wine Spirit Educational Trust (WSET), a British-based organization that is almost universally accepted as the most professional and widely available wine training out there today. I'm going to be a bit critical of the WSET here, but let me first say I think it is a fantastic place to start from. You can't beat the palate training you get there, and it gives you a very solid command of the basics of how wine works all over the world. The problem I have with it is that it's not a truly objective view of what wines are good.
You see, there's an established order of the top wines of the world. This includes the top growths of Bordeaux, the best parcels of Burgundy, Barolos of Piedmont and such other similar fine-wine producing areas of the world. And the WSET teaches this established order. The WSET education is full of ideas like, "Chardonnay reaches its fullest expression in Burgundy, France" (not a direct quote, I'm paraphrasing from memory here.) Now doesn't that sound like dogma to you? Anyone out there prefer the chardonnays being made in the Jura right now? Not to mention everyone out there who loves a tropical oaky chard from California much better than a steely minerally one from chablis. They also make it sound like you can't make good wine without sulfur, and that indigenous yeasts are unpredictable and dangerous. You could argue that they're just teaching about the bulk of wines, and don't have time to cover a very small minority of wines being made in different ways. But in my opinion, that skips out on some of the most interesting and complex wines being made today. The further I've gotten into learning about natural wines and meeting with the winemakers, the more I've had to discount most of what I learned about winemaking at the WSET. Seems like a pretty big omission to me.
As someone who worked in retail, the point where this old school dogma really falls apart for me comes when we start to talk about price. Of course there are some very fine chardonnays being turned out in Burgundy. But they cost 2-3 times as much as the natural stuff from other areas. Even if the prices of Burgundies somehow magically came down to equal the other wines, I would still prefer some of the crazy, funked out, natural wines I've tried. Now, of course, as with everything, some of this does come down to personal preference. I don't think Kermit Lynch, for example, would always agree with me. I like crazy funky wines. I like them a lot. I think he probably prefers wines that are a little more "normal" than I do. Others prefer their burgundies oaked to the max. And that's ok, there's room for all our palates at the table. But if it's a question of personal preference, why all the dogma?
So imagine you're someone like me who prefers the crazy wines. In fact, you think they're your favorite wines in the whole world to drink. You like them so much you decide to start making some of your own. Maybe even your father made wines like this, and your grandfather before him, and you see yourself just continuing their work the way it's always been done. Then you have all these people saying that the way you make wines isn't the best way, that theirs is instead. Don't you think it would be natural for you to get some friends together and start talking about how your way is better instead?
So what we have here are two competing dogmas. According to the definition of the word, both of them can't be right. In fact, I don't think either of them are right, for everyone. It just depends on what you like. But I think you can understand why it happens on either side. People like to categorize and rank things. They like to make top 10 lists, and they to disagree with other people's lists perhaps even more. It's just the way we work.
Truthfully, in my experience over here in France, if you ask most winemakers if they make natural wine-- even if you're talking to them at a natural wine tasting-- they usually won't say yes. They might even belong to the AVN (Association des Vins Naturels). They're not particularly dogmatic people. They tend to be people that like to do their own thing and don't follow along with existing trends just because lots of other people out there are. They resist pigeonholing and stratification. It's really mostly the writers, bloggers, critics, and fans that come up with all this anti-dogma dogma.
Natural wine as a term certainly is full of flaws. You can't pin down exactly what it is, and it's ripe for big commercial business to come in and pluck for their own nefarious marketing plans. But you could say the same thing about any other wine marketing term out there. How about Grand Cru? Does that mean it's the best wine? Even the WSET wouldn't argue that. So does natural mean good? Absolutely not. How do I know when a wine is natural? I can tell when I taste it. Or I buy it from someone who I trust to know what natural wine taste like. Simple. No need for dogma. Just drink it and see if you like it.