'Natural’ versus ‘technological’ just romantic schtick?

Discussion on Chris Kassel's Facebook page in response to his question "Is the idea that some decisions made by winemakers are ‘natural’ versus some which are ‘technological’ just romantic schtick pushed by marketing people who have no idea how wine is made?"

My two cents.

I believe the Natural Wine movement is something the wine industry itself inadvertently created through its failure to be forthcoming and aggressively educate the public about the sweeping changes in winemaking.  The primary manipulations the Twentieth Century introduced were born of electricity: pumps, lighting, refrigeration, stainless steel, inert gas are all artifacts of the Electrical Age, and altered winemaking into unrecognizability.  Yet Alice Feiring, like the rest of us, has these things in her kitchen, and raises no issues with them because she is comfortable with their impacts and more or less trusts them.

The winery is just a kitchen, but we have moved in some new ap0pliances and haven’t discussed why.  After decades of claiming to “do the minimum,” the backlash is to be expected, and we can scarcely complain about its ignorance, when it is we who ought to have been the source of the missing education.

Concerning yeast, the source of the problem, in my opinion, is the outlandish and (in my experience) laughably inflated claims of the commercial yeast catalogs as to the flavors they impart.  I’d be carrying a torch alongside Alice were I not aware that the flavor claims are largely bushwah.  A couple examples:

“Ideal for the production of complex and well-structured wines with an elegant bouquet of cherries and plums.”

“Saccharomyces cerevisiae that produces intense and fresh aromas of green apple, pear and flowers.”

Yes, if there are bound terpenes, we can vary their release to one or another extent, just as varying the cooking heat can produce different levels of caramelization in a sugar cookie or impact the tenderness and moistness of meat.  But ferment either of these yeasts in sugar water and what you will obtain, once the fermentation odors subside, is essentially flavorless alcohol.

New techniques for tracking yeasts and bacteria reveal that wineries, like kitchens, harbor a complex microbiome adapted to the specific environment of the cellar, and thus likely to dominate fermentation over any organisms borne in from the field and may even be as important as any commercial yeast we introduce.  Cheeses are well known to take on the bacteria and resulting odors of bacteria that thrive in the armpits, navels and tears of their makers http://ind.pn/X33Meq.  

It has become customary to speak of an un-inoculated fermentation as “autochthonous,” a geological term meaning “originating in the place where found.”  Obviously, no life ultimately originates from some latterday version of Genesis right there at the winery, so the terms has a short-term meaning.  But it does not refer to the vineyard.  It simply means that the fermentation got started from organisms that were present in the tank after crushing.  How they got there is, at this point in our understanding, anybody’s guess.

To my mind, the most interesting winemaking issue is not which organism carries out the fermentation, but what is allowed to occur previous to it.  Autochthonous fermentations commence very slowly, and until there is alcohol present and anaerobic conditions, a much broader range of organisms can thrive and produce their own complexities.  Sometimes this is good.  However, bad actors can lead to nasty stuff like acetic acid, mousiness, biogenic amines, urea (a carcinogen precursor) and ochratoxin (a carcinogen). 

Much depends on the conditions at the winery (temperature, microbiome, humidity, sanitation procedures, personal hygiene and history) and additives like SO2, and what works for one winery may not work down the street.  Wineries that have developed a long history stand at much better odds to have things go well than new ones do, and the whole continent of Europe is full of wineries that never knew to do anything else throughout hundreds or even thousands of years, and many have developed their own recognizable stamp of place (Chateau La Gaffalière’s unique pumpkin aroma comes instantly to mind).

Nowhere in any of this do I see real good and evil, save that winemakers ought to be more forthcoming and passionate about communicating what they do and why.  To claim to “do the minimum” is, in my book, the ultimate manipulation.