🍇 The Grape Regulation Debate

Soooooooo. Regulation. How about it? Yeah or nah? Can I get an awa awa? Why does it even matter? This topic is a controversial one, kind of a big deal in the natural wine world, and a process that has actually already begun kicking off in France (more on that later). 

The concept of regulation is in essence as boring as it is bureaucratic. I.e. the antithesis of the very spirit the natural wine movement was founded on - a reaction to the orthodoxy of big wine in Europe with all of its rules, regulations and expensive certifications. Also: making all small independent winemakers pay for expensive certifications would mean you’d have to be pretty rich to even get a foot in the door, and that cost would in the end be passed down to you, the beloved drinker.

As wine writer Alice Ferring said in this New York Times pen dance:

“We need to safeguard the category, but the notion of government intervention seems loathsome to a movement started in the spirit of anarchy.” 

Fuck yeah, 🤘😎.

If you didn’t know already, in the beginning (thousands of years ago) basically all wine was natural wine. And then the lord said (post-WWII), how good are chemicals, how good is technology, and how good is modernising agriculture with all of the above. The push to create high-tech, highly-sprayed, highly-processed wines resulted in the stuff most people drink today. Poisons ruined precious topsoil and meant vintners had to rely more heavily on things like synthetic yeasts. A slippery slope. Then in the late-’80s, legends like Marcelle Lapier and Nicolas Joly started toying with natural winemaking again and years later here we are. What. A. Wild. Ride.

Over the past 10 years of running DRNKS, I’ve watched the industry go from a weird, nerdy thing that existed on the fringes, to so cool and so popular that big wine’s suddenly thinking maybe this is for us. I imagine their faces look something like kombucha girl.

Natural wine as a movement has been called all kinds of anarchy-adjacent things: punk, grass roots, you can’t sit with us. What it reminds me of, though, is being 19 years old in the Adelaide CBD, deep in the indie music scene. It was a rebellion against big guys in suits on the boards of record labels, made possible by being able to share music for free on the internet. Everyone knew everyone else, we wore silly vintage tees, listened to the same music, hung out in the same places and shared new finds. I think that is what they call “community” 🧐

Anyway, back to THE POINT: will regulation be good or bad? And is it inevitable the natural wine scene will get regulated when it gets to a certain size? Maybe. I have opinions. (Have you met me? Lol.) But I also wanted to dial in some other heavy hitters who have helped shape this industry here and abroad - winemakers, vineyard owners, importers and restaurateurs who think about this stuff everyday. A bit to unpack. Let us discuss. 

James Hird, Sommelier, Icebergs Dining Room & Bar
Regulating the term natural wine seems the wrong path to me as we already have organic and biodynamic regulations. Getting stuck on the term ‘natural’ seems like a legal quagmire. For me, the most important thing in labelling is transparency. When we buy an orange juice we are told what’s in the bottle and if it’s farmed organically that’s stated too. It would be great if wine was treated in the same lucid manner.

Pat Underwood, Winemaker, Little Reddie
It would be pretty easy to regulate: start with a certified organic vineyard, provide cellar records (just as we need to do to guarantee origin when we ship wines overseas) and then send finished wines off for analysis to confirm they contain no more than the naturally occurring levels of sulphur and are unfiltered etc. However, there is one main reason we don’t want to pursue regulation as a community: there wouldn’t be many people left in the community after that process became law. I don’t present my wines as natural wines because they’re not. Certification would be very limiting to the inclusiveness of what is most of all a beautiful and welcoming community, where the driving factor is doing what you think is right for the wine and right for the vineyard. That’s what ‘natural wine’ is all about. Basically, I see a prescribed set of rules as somewhat against that very spirit. 

Owen Latta, Winemaker and Vineyard Owner, Eastern Peake + LattaVINO
“Natural wine.” The best thing ever to shake up the wine industry locally and globally. I think if they were to bring in a governing body for the term “natural wine” it would maybe lose its fun side, its looseness, the creative edge perpetuating the momentum of this movement. Within the movement, there’s an element of self-policing, and it could be good to just leave it as it is. Don’t get me wrong - I’m all for governing on the vineyard side of things, and I get that organic and/or biodynamic certification is important, but getting a cert can also be challenging (and expensive). 

Sholto Broderick, Winemaker and Vineyard Owner, Basket Range Wines
I think the consumer or the owner of a business which serves/sells wines should regulate the wines they buy or consume themselves based on their ‘standards’, whatever they may be. Winemaking and grape-growing practices should be transparent or accessible to a consumer, who can then make their decision based on whether they want to drink or buy the wine. But an objective regulation of what ‘natural wine’ is would be difficult, as we’ve seen in the past.

Gio Paradiso, Restaurateur, 10 William St & Fratelli Paradiso
My first question is, who’s the regulator going to be, what are the rules or guidelines and where’s the money for fees and certifications going to go? As for self-regulation, I feel most of the people working in natural wine are pretty smart, intelligent and pretty fucking good at what they do. Why should a young maker who’s producing 900 bottles a year have to pay for their certification? There’s a hell of a lot of European winemakers who haven’t had their wine certified by your Demeters because of the prohibitive cost. Admittedly, there are a lot of people out there claiming to make natural wine and a lot of it isn’t that good - that’s where retailers and buyers like Joel and James and myself come in. When I was importing, for example, I would rarely pick up a label without doing my due diligence and visiting the sellers and vineyards in person. We’re not going to give our customers shit wine or just give them wine just because the label looks cool. 

Ned Brooks, Importer / Distributor, High Hopes Wine Co.
No, I don’t think natural wine should be regulated. In my opinion, it wouldn’t make the term any clearer for the consumer. Greater detail in labelling would provide better transparency on things such as viticultural practices and SO2 use, but this should not be limited to “natural wine,” this should be commonplace across all wine produced in Australia, and potentially imported as well. Just as Nutritional Information Panels are required on food.

In conclusion, let’s just self-regulate 🙃

As I said earlier, natural wine regulation actually already exists. As of last year, a Loire Valley winemaker, Jacques Carroget, won a certification he’d been lobbying for for close to a decade. It’s called the Vin Méthode Nature, and basically means if your wines are certified organic, mostly sulphite-free, hand-picked and made with indigenous yeasts (among a long list of other things) you can put a very expensive sticker on the bottle. Is it going to take off? Well apparently Spain, Switzerland and Italy will be next… So there you go. 

The bottom line for me is essentially what all of those guys said above. Greater transparency = you, the customer, being able to make more informed decisions. Self-regulation = a community/industry free to experiment and set the ever-evolving terms from within. If you already buy spray-free veggies from your local farmers markets because you know the grower can’t afford a six-figure organic certification, you probably don’t care if your natural wine’s certified or not. I love supporting small-scaled, family-owned businesses. It’s almost more important than doing the wrong thing. That’s generational stuff, people staying on the land and passing down knowledge as well as trying new things. It’s a romantic view, but I guess a bunch of guys and girls reviving old methods is, at the end of the day, a pretty romantic thing to do.

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