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On Natural Wine 🍷
as an existential threat.
I saw some memes on Instagram that pissed me off, to the extent that I pushed the newsletter I’d already prepared for today to after Memorial Day, which is throwing off a carefully curated summer editorial calendar. (Interestingly, this might actually be a fitting lead-up to the series I’m planning, in which I will discuss the ties of organic farming and white supremacy, among many other topics related to explaining what is meant by the phrase “food is political.”) The urge to do a nice old-fashioned rant hadn’t hit me in a while. I want to take advantage of the generative rage.
These memes were posted by a very popular account called @cocktailman, which already says quite a bit about the world they inhabit: It wasn’t too long ago that no one took cocktails seriously, and the “cocktail man” has certainly been a skewered cultural trope—the “mixologist” with mustache and suspenders who will laugh at you for ordering, I don’t know, vodka in your martini? (It’s not for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not for someone!) This is a wounded character in food and beverage culture. It’s a figure ready to lash out at a new sector of beverage seemingly becoming accepted without question, without the fight cocktails had to endure to regain relevance.
The memes in question were little graphics showing various cheeky definitions of “natural wine”: “flat cider”; “proof that trend-chasers can be fooled into anything”; “has the shelf-life of a bar of chocolate in the Spanish sun.” The one that, of course, stopped me in my tracks when I saw it shared—stopped me in my tracks and sent my eyeballs rolling into the back of my head—read, “The Vegan movement of the Wine world.” (Caps here belong to @cocktailman.)
If there is a commonality between natural wine and “the vegan movement” (there is no cohesive “vegan movement,” I can tell you, as someone who studies meatless eating in a Western context), it is that people who do not participate in them overstate the influence and strength of both of these concepts. They are threatening because of the perceived “aggression” of the believers, forcing bottles imported by Jenny & Francois and Impossible Burgers down everyone’s throats! (This is not happening.)
Meanwhile, natural wine—a term that describes a process of minimal intervention in the fermentation of maybe organically grown grapes and zero-to-low additives, to define it very generally—is still quite niche, especially outside of major cities, and vegans account for perhaps 1 percent of the global population.
What the insurgent “coolness” of either of these things does to people is make it seem as though one must fully buy-in or reject them. There is no way to participate, apparently—no way to drink a glass of Czech pet-nat or eat a dish that is animal-product-free—without fully embracing some sort of ideology that would radically alter one’s worldview or self-perception, like when dudes order a cocktail usually served in a coupe but ask for it in a “masculine glass.” This is all childish and incurious, but when has that ever stopped anyone?
Natural wine isn’t just confusing meme-making bartenders on Instagram. The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague wrote an infamous piece recently where she went to a few of New York City’s most prominent natural wine bars and was simply aghast. “I’ve had some natural wines that were pleasant and many that were not,” she writes in the first paragraph. Sub “natural wines” with literally anything on planet earth and the sentence would work. That’s not really the basis of sound argument. But giving her a run for her money is Giles Coren in The Times last year reviewing a London restaurant and somehow comparing natural wine to being trans? (I truly do not wish to dedicate more time to thinking about his argument, but it’s deranged and wildly offensive.)
Now, it should be said that I am a wine drinker—all wine, any wine, unless I can tell by scent or sip that it will be the sweet type to wake me up in the middle of the night to vomit, though sometimes even that has not stopped me—and appreciator, and I do prioritize drinking natural wine because I like the principles and the environs in which it tends to be served (sue me), but I’m no expert. I find its place in the culture fascinating, especially because it continues to be treated as something strange and not just a style of winemaking that one can enjoy or not.
It’s just so funny to see natural wine and veganism compared, because how many natural wine bars are you going to that prioritize vegan dishes? Not many, from my experience, because veganism as it’s often perceived goes against the tenets of natural wine. Natural wine bars serving food, generally speaking, are going to be big on seafood, high-end butter, increasingly specific regional Italian cheeses, and less popular cuts of meat—food that’s the result of farming that prioritizes a whole-ecosystem approach and animal welfare. (There are many arguments to have about an idea of “animal welfare” that results in the animal’s death; we’re not having them today.)
I worked at a wine bar in the East Village from 2018 to 2019. They didn’t serve exclusively natural wine, but there was one model who loved to come in near closing during my Monday shifts and lean over the bar to ask about “orange wine,” which has come to be a signifier for “natural wine.” That model annoyed the crap out of me, but imagine if I were like, “I hate natural wine because of that annoying model”? What a baby I would be! But this is the approach so many folks take toward both natural wine and veganism: Someone who was into it annoyed them, so they dismissed the idea wholesale.
(To belabor this even further, if I gave into the feeling of intimidation I felt as a teenage girl trying to shop at Record Stop in Ronkonkoma, which was staffed seemingly exclusively by bearded, stone-faced men, I wouldn’t have spent the summer of 2002 listening to John Frusciante’s To Record Only Water for Ten Days, and that was a very formative time for me.)
Jason Wilson, the writer of Everyday Drinking, recently wrote about having the dump bucket thrown on him when he told a natural winemaker that his pet-nat was flawed. This is a hilarious story, and Wilson could have been crueler in his write-up. But instead, he accepted that this reaction was borne of an uphill battle: “A natural winemaker, trying to work within a strict set of virtues and principles, is fighting an underdog’s battle in a corporate wine world that would like to see wines like his eradicated. His defensiveness and reaction made all the sense in the world, and I respect it.” Many vegans are fighting an underdog’s battle to end industrial animal farming, while agribusiness and governments are in cahoots to see it continue, to the suffering of animals, human workers, and degradation of the planet. That, too, can result in some anger that is occasionally misplaced.
Neither natural winemakers or drinkers nor vegans are the powerful ones here. If you’ve been thinking they are, perhaps it’s time to interrogate why you feel that way—to ask how we can move forward for a better world, instead of mocking anyone trying to do things a bit differently.
The actual similarities between natural wine and veganism are, at the end of the day, about giving a shit. There was a time not too long ago when cocktails required a bit of embarrassing care: caring about ice, caring about fresh juice, caring about measuring rather than free-pouring. Had we never stopped mocking the cocktail man, we might still be drinking margaritas made with sour mix. What world can caring about wine-making practices and ending industrial animal agriculture build for us?
Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be about how to master the art of quick-pickling just in time for summer, as well as how to put quick pickles to use. Last week’s was about the oat milk experiment performed in Indiana (a sentence not many people can say, I would think). See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers.
Programming note: In next Monday’s newsletter, I’m going to take the time to introduce myself—because I’ve been sending these out for three years, the audience grows every day, and I’ve never actually done so! I know that it will be a holiday in the U.S., so I figure it’s a good opportunity for a light lift.
Two exciting pieces of news: I will have an essay in this year’s edition of Best American Food Writing edited by Mark Bittman. It’s this essay commissioned by MOLD for their series of essays inspired by the IPCC climate change report. I’m excited that something so polemic, for an indie magazine, was chosen. You can preorder this year’s anthology here.
I worked on a five-piece capsule collection with by ren, the jewelry designer who made my wedding rings. Rachael reached out after I’d posted a picture on my Instagram of eggshells, toast, and cabbage to do some items inspired by my interest in organic shapes and sustainable fashion, influenced by my approach to food photography. There are even cocktail picks for martinis!
These pieces are all made to order by Rachael at her studio in Philadelphia. The above photo is from my photo shoot with the pieces, which will be available through the end of 2023. (Note that I do make a bit of money if you buy any of these pieces!)
I took off my shelf Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and Hilton Als’ White Girls. I started a new book proposal; these are what called to me on the shelves for inspiration.
My husband and I have really been machine-like in the kitchen lately in the name of both deliciousness and efficiency. No leftover left behind; every ingredient used to the best of its ability; each of us doing the tasks we are best at. Last Friday, we had a pizza night. I made a focaccia with potato and rosemary, plus a tiramisu with homemade ladyfingers! A process. We’re going out less for myriad reasons, but what’s nicest is learning that I am not so overwhelmed by daily cooking if I let go of being controlling and allow Israel to cook. Imagine that!