- March 18, 2013
First as Tragedy, then as Farce?: A Short Story about Natural Wine
- by Kevin Goldberg
"Natural wine” continues to have a peculiar existence. While wine has historically been at the forefront of innovation in the realm of food and drink, it seems now as if we wine lovers are playing catch-up to the robust advances made by all kinds of “organic” (“bio” in German) and “natural” food purveyors and devotees. Part of the lag is due to our inability to put forward a singular definition of natural wine, or, in fact, to agree whether or not the concept needs defining at all. International wine bodies have similarly failed to clear fresh trails, preferring instead the safer path of inaction. Although the wine trade no longer serves as the pacesetter in gastronomic trends, its critics, journalists, and bloggers continue to stake positions, often with great emotion, defending, denouncing, and deconstructing natural wine.
In spite of its problematic nature, the concept is not without merits. Natural wine, its critics notwithstanding, appears to most of us as politically progressive, environmentally friendly, and seemingly more authentic than mass-produced, industrial brands. Among its great advantages is its alleged proximity to terroir. By consuming natural wine, we believe—no matter the extent of objective justification—that we are circumventing the intrusive hand of man and drinking directly from the Earth, reveling in its unfiltered riches. While there is little consensus among growers, merchants, critics, and consumers about what exactly “natural” means or is, there is no denying its magnetic appeal; we all desire, somehow, that our wines be closer to nature.
In Germany, the natural wine movement is as fractured as anywhere else (of course, using the term “movement” implies more coherence than there actually is), and definitions there remain as elusive as they are here, in the United States. Somewhat surprisingly—given the impotence at present—the movement’s history in Germany is extraordinarily long, reaching at least as far back as the 1840s. Still more astonishing, 19th-century debates about natural wine were even more vexing than they are today! In fact, I would argue that the so-called Kunstweinfrage, or artificial wine question of the late-19th century, pitting proponents of Naturwein, or natural wine, against its alleged defilers, was the single most-explosive dispute in the German trade before the First World War. Similar debates in France, Italy, or Spain, all occurring decades later, hardly approached the intensity and obstinacy which pitted growers and merchants in the Bavarian Pfalz against their peers along the Prussian Mosel, and then, after unification of the Second Reich in 1871, Germans against Germans. It should be noted that both the Pfalz and the Mosel were only recently annexed territories, neither of which had a particularly loyal attachment to Bavaria or Prussia, respectively. Making complete sense of this dispute requires that far more attention be paid to these nuances of region, religion, occupation, and class than what we can achieve here, though a brief sketch of the turbulent Mosel trade in the 1840s–1870s, particularly the part played by Ludwig Gall, reveals some of the force of this fascinating moment.
In spite of his being dubbed “the first German Socialist,” a pioneer in “theoretical interventionism,” and an “unknown early Keynesian,” Ludwig Gall’s (1791–1863) greatest influence might have been in the area of winemaking. As an eyewitness to the chasms created when unfettered markets struck the European countryside, Gall, a native of the German Duchy of Jülich, embarked on a career dedicated to eradicating inequalities left in the wake of industrialization, economic modernization, and political reaction. Following a series of bureaucratic positions and failed attempts at establishing utopian settlements, including a short-lived stay in Pennsylvania, Gall jumped headfirst into the political strife erupting across the continent in the wake of harvest failures and unrest in 1848. Settling down once and for all in the Rhineland following another forced exile, this time from Hungary (where he no doubt learned much about winegrowing), the social-reformer Gall was moved to improve the lot of Mosel winegrowers through technological innovation, that most powerful tool of the mid-19th century utopian.
Though inconceivable today, Mosel winegrowing was collapsing in the difficult 1840s, wracked by consecutive poor harvests, increased competition because of the expansion of the Prussian Customs’ Union in the 1830s (which took away the Mosel’s monopoly in the North-German region), and the enduring problem of the stinging acidity of Mosel wine in under-ripe vintages. Gall believed that rational science provided the blueprints to correct the problem of poor harvests and high acidity: He was convinced that if the thriving of vines depended upon the heavens, then harvest and fermentation were squarely in the hands of man. Nature’s deficiency, manifested in sour Mosel wine, could, in a sense, be cured by human intervention. Building on existing vinicultural knowledge, including the work of Frenchman Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Gall improved, and, more importantly popularized, a process in which a calculated sugar and water solution would be added to the grape must in order to reduce excessive acidity. Far removed from pernicious “improvement” techniques which endangered the lives of consumers, Gall’s technique used nothing beyond that which was already provided by nature in the grape; sugar and water.
The success of Gallisierung, or Gallization, as the process would soon be known, was instant. By the mid-1850s, praise for Gall rang up and down the Mosel and Rhine rivers. Reporting on the latest agricultural advances at the 1853 Bonn Country Fair, the Cologne Times felt certain that the future of winegrowing “belonged to Gall.” Dr. Kaufmann, Professor of Economics at the University of Bonn, lauded Gall as a “representative of truth, science, and progress.” Other supporters of Gall spoke of him in almost superhuman terms: “Gall is able to accomplish what nature cannot. If the sun was not warm enough to create a balanced wine, Gall can still bring the grape’s main components—sugar, acid, and water—into proper form.”
Gall’s methods circulated throughout the winegrowing world—even in North America—where ruined Rhinelanders settled by the tens of thousands. The 1860 U.S. Report of the Commissioner of Patents for Agriculture contained a translated excerpt from Gall’s Practical Instructions, including the crucial sections on de-acidification. Agoston Haraszthy, a flamboyant and fascinating Hungarian immigrant to the United States, later dubbed the “father of American wine,” also translated Gall’s work and included an extended analysis in his 1862 Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine Making. The president of The Mississippi Valley Grape Growers’ Association (MVGGA) declared that he recognized in Gall’s method “an attempt to make the best possible use of and improve the gifts of nature, supply wants, remedy deficiencies, and attain the highest perfection under the circumstances.” It was clear to the Board of the MVGGA that “there is not the least prospect that gallizing and chaptalizing will ever be abandoned.”
But Gall’s success was not met with universal acclaim. Many critics blasted Gallisierung as artificial, unwholesome, and unnatural. A veritable firestorm was soon unleashed against Gall and his method, eventually necessitating the intervention of the German legislature. For decades, the artificial wine question towered over all other viticultural problems, including phylloxera, nearly monopolizing headlines in the German wine press. One influential Central European wine-trade publication, Die Weinlaube, would claim in the 1870s that “no subject of modern enology has been given to such divergences of opinions and points of view among lay drinkers and wine experts as the question of improving the taste of wine through Gall’s method.”
However, objections to Gall’s method were hardly of a unified voice, offering instead a cacophony of protestations rather than a coherent narrative. Some of the loudest objections to Gallisierung came from the Association of Wine and Fruit Producers, whose annual congresses usually erupted into vocal tirades against the advances of Gall’s method. Sebastian Englerth (1804–1880), a winegrower and merchant in Franken, was one of the fiercest critics of the intrusion of technology into the winemaking process. According to Englerth, “There are already winemaking factories which seek to artificially improve great quantities of wine, thereby creating a bridge between improvement and falsification, thus bringing the original idea of rational-artificial improvement into the realm of affectation, cover-ups, and deceit.” Another critic, Privy Counselor Mangold of Oehringen in Württemberg chastised would-be wine defilers by challenging their sanctity and faith: “We must trust in our all-mighty God, who in his great inimitable kitchen of nature, through the powerful effects of the earth and of the alternation of rain with sun, makes wines each year which may not always be equally good, but nevertheless always have their own unique characteristics.”
Suspicions of Gallisierung soon turned into threats. Franz Peter von Buhl (1809–1862), an estate owner in the Pfalz, demanded that Gall’s method attract the eye of the government, and even initiated legislation that sought to criminalize certain winemaking technologies if undisclosed by grower or merchant. The anti-Gall camp was able to reach vintners through gatherings, newspaper articles, and political pamphlets. In 1854, an anonymous member of the Agricultural Association of Rhenish-Prussia published yet another defamatory piece. Aside from causing massive headaches, Gall’s wine was said to lack the true bouquet and taste of natural wine. The piece charged that “artificial wine is neither as pleasurable nor as healthy as natural wine, and cannot be considered a means against sickness.” It has been proven, the piece continued, that wine is not just a product of fermentation, but of the vegetation process which is already manifest in the unfermented grape must. A manipulated fermentation thus leads to an unnatural bouquet and taste. Natural wine and non-natural wine (Kunstwein) were two separate categories of drink, the former being the true and inimitable wine. Producers and merchants were warned not to dabble with Gall’s idea lest they open themselves to communal scorn and possible fines and imprisonment.
Opponents of Gallisierung did manage to organize themselves around a few common tropes to discredit producers of gallisiert wine, but they still lacked the ability to challenge these allegedly artificial winemakers in any serious way. One key reason for their failure was the powerlessness of south-German (non-Prussian) winegrowers and merchants in influencing Prussian politics in any significant way. Following German unification in 1871, however, natural-wine advocates were given a fairer opportunity to influence new national laws and policies. Such an opportunity first presented itself at the 1874 Congress of southwest German Wine and Fruit Producers (Wein- und Obstproducenten des südwestlichen Deutschlands) held in Trier on the Mosel. The theme of the three-day event was the encroachment of Gallisierung and other types of “artificial” improvements, and their detrimental effect on production and consumption. The moment would prove to be a pivotal turning point in the development of a modern taste discourse, catapulting the concept of “natural wine” into the national spotlight.
The over 100 attendees in Trier included estate owners, merchants, chemists, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Their primary goal was strategizing a platform for the discrediting of various types of cellar manipulations, including de-acidification, while trumpeting the use of traditional vinicultural practices as natural. The vehicle created to accomplish these tasks was the German Vintners’ Association (Deutscher Winzer-Verein), soon renamed the German Winegrowing Association (Deutscher Weinbauverein). The Association’s purpose, as articulated in its founding statutes, was the promotion of the production and consumption of natural wine. With 800 members by 1876, the Association included many families still recognizable on the Mosel (Thanisch, Prüm, Bergweiler, and Kerpen), all who feared the complete discrediting of the Mosel through its entangled reputation with Gall.
A Natural Correlation?
The political significance behind the term Gallisierung fell away as Gall himself was quickly forgotten after the turn-of-the-century. The ersatz term, Nassverbesserung, or “improvement with water,” though more accurate in description, lacked the concomitant historical tension. If Ludwig Gall’s ambitions were part and parcel of his wide-ranging goal of reducing vintner poverty while improving, rationally, the quality of Mosel wine, then we might with good reason be suspicious of the aspirations of those who would object. While oversimplified, there is every reason to believe that the origins of natural wine had less to do with wine, per se, and more to do with preserving the status quo in the trade. Mapping this somewhat crude reductionism onto the present, while requiring a good deal more prudence, is enlightening in at least one important way. While we as consumers might revel in the good-natured sparring over minutia in our particular definitions of “natural,” we all should recognize at least one important point: The very concept of “natural” is itself a man-made invention, often arising during times of crisis or great change.
The battle over natural and artificial, beginning with the many reactions to Gall’s method, would rage intensely for at least another three decades, with its embers—as we know from today’s reiteration—never really extinguished, completely. Daniel Decker’s Im Zeichen des Traubenadlers (von Zabern, 2010) brilliantly narrates the history of the 20th-century natural wine movement through the consolidation of regionally divided auction consortiums. The dogmatism touched upon here which divided the debate in the 19th century was firmly rooted in class antagonisms, occupational divides, and even political allegiances, a fact which would endure at least through the end of the Second World War. While a kind of dogmatism still pervades the discussion today, and certainly the passion with which people align themselves with particular winegrowing and winemaking processes might be as strong as ever, this is, I think, less a sign of political dragooning and regional mercantilism, and more an attempt to connect winegrowing with forward-thinking lifestyles. There may be nothing natural about that either, however. ♦
Image: Ludwig Gall sketched by an unknown artist for an illustrated calendar (1860).
Kevin D. Goldberg is an instructor of History at Kennesaw State University. From 2011–2013, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University. He is currently working on a book, The Fermentation of Modern Taste: German Wine from Napoleon to the Great War.