RAW wine fair, New York, October 2019
About two thousand years ago, there was an interesting place called Qumran in the Judaean Desert. In this tiny settlement just off the Dead Sea lived a Jewish sect whose identity remains unknown, but thanks to the writings they had left behind, we have some idea about their beliefs. One of these was that they were the sons of light, at war with the sons of darkness. They represented truth, having recognized the correct path, and everyone else was deluded, if not downright evil.
Walking around this year’s RAW wine fair in New York, I was reminded of the Qumran community. RAW is an independent fair celebrating low-intervention (natural, organic, biodynamic etc.) wines; we may perhaps even call it a movement today. The central message of RAW fairs, to bring ‘authentic’ wine to the consumer, seems to me a strong value judgement: what we offer is wine – everything else is a fake, unnatural, or, even worse, toxic. We know where the truth lies and whoever is not with us is misguided. According to the picture presented by RAW (go to their website for more details), there are two kinds of winemaker: the large, industrial undertakings that fabricate artificial, heavily manipulated drinks which reflect neither the character of the land nor that of the grape variety. Opposed to them are the small, independent, ethically minded winemakers who, unlike the big corporations, care about nature, tradition and origin. While this depiction may not in itself be untrue, it fails to present the full picture. The people left out of this division are precisely those who I think work hardest: all the serious and devoted winemakers who are equally lovers of land and fruit but are at the same time committed to excellence and aesthetics.
What I have found at RAW fairs is that many of the ‘natural’ winemakers are far more interested in ideology than in making excellent wine. They are there to demonstrate and propagate a world-view: no need for intervention, let mother nature create the wine she fancies, and look how excellent it is! Well, often it isn’t. Far from it, in fact. Many of the natural wines I have tasted are unclean, unintegrated, messy and imprecise. This doesn’t seem to matter much, though, because the faithful seem very happy with the hazy liquid in their glass, the symbol of their conviction. Advocates of natural wine often use the term ‘alive’ to describe these drinks, suggesting that all other wine is dead – has, perhaps, been murdered. This view too is questionable. What makes a wine alive is not the fact that it’s packed with microorganisms, and dynamism is not the same as unfinished fermentation.
RAW seems to be popular and has been expanding. It started in London a few years ago; today Berlin and several North American cities have been added to the list of venues. My hunch is that many people are attracted to the community feel these events create. RAW, like other contemporary alternative movements, offers a platform where opponents of industrial production and mass consumption can find themselves a like-minded crowd to hang out with. The vibe of counter-culture surrounding RAW’s events is quite exhilarating actually, and I agree with the way the organizers, producers, and participants make a stand against consumer culture and mass-produced anything. The revolution started by Isabelle Legeron is without doubt drawing attention to important issues. At the same time, I am troubled by the cult-like, sectarian undercurrents of RAW. The fact that natural wine is small-scale, grassroots, and radical doesn’t necessarily make it good. To me, winemaking is about one thing: creating the best possible wine. The excellent Loire winemaker Eric Morgat told me, ‘I have an organic certification but I don’t put it on my label – because I do wine, not “organic”.’ Morgat wants people to buy his wines for their excellence, not for the ideology.
Exhibitors at the New York event came from all over the world, but the vast majority were from the Old World regions, mainly Italy and France. It was among the French winemakers that I found the most consistency and quality. I was impressed by their professionalism and the high level of craftsmanship. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines of Domaine Landron (Loire), for example, showed high precision and individual character. The reds of the Vacqueyras producer Clos de Caveau (Rhône) were intense, complex, and packed with fruit. Another Loire winery whose Chenin Blancs and Cabernet Francs I enjoyed was Clos de Quarterons.
For any serious winemaking, effort is required. From the moment the vines are planted, the winemaker is constantly making decisions that will influence natural processes. Intervention is a must: without it, the grape juice would turn into vinegar not wine. As many examples at the New York RAW fair proved, very good wines can be made using sustainable methods (hooray hooray!), but an intrepid spirit in itself is not enough. What I would like to see is for RAW to move in the direction of culture rather than cult, where tradition and quality, not radical views, take centre place.