by Ron Washam

Frank Buck: natural wine hunter

They’re out there, natural wines, you can smell them. You just have to hope that they can’t smell you first, smell your fear. I hunt them. Someone has to. I hunt them to bring them back alive to an unknowing audience of wine lovers: people who think that wines are only supposed to smell good, taste fresh and lively, deliver satisfaction—narrow-minded people. The wine world’s a bigger place than that. It’s easy to find a wine that smells of peach or pear or melon. I hunt the ones that smell like durian—natural wines. There was a time, and not that long ago, when most of the world had never seen a giraffe or a rhinoceros. Not alive, anyway. And that’s what I seek, wines that are not alive, wines whose very existence astounds the civilized world.

You’d think they’d be easy to find, natural wines. You’d be wrong. They’re hidden in the strangest places—dank cellars, remote islands, buried underground, on the wine lists of the addlepated and anosmic… You might wonder why someone would bury a wine in the ground in an amphora. It’s not hard to understand, really. It’s for the same reason we bury the dead in the ground–to make the smell go away and stop the spread of disease. Though natural wines are an ancient and primitive breed (they had close ties to our earliest human ancestors who needed a wine to pair with human sacrifice), they’re surprisingly elusive. But I’ve studied them for decades, tracked them relentlessly, learned their ways, and I have the nose for them. I’ve almost come to like the way they smell, though I have to guard against that. Many wine critics have fallen prey to their Siren song of scent, only to discover that the Sirens’ song always foretells death and corruption, not to mention a waste of your $29.99.

Is hunting natural wines a dangerous occupation? It can be. Remember, hunting natural wines is as dangerous as the hunt for Bin Laden was. Like Bin Laden, natural wines are surrounded by zealots and true believers willing to defend their beloved to the death. And jihadis have nothing on biodynamic proponents. Except the biodynamicists use a better grade of fertilizer for the car bombs.

Natural wines began in Europe, but have spread all over the world, like pigeons, rats, Lady Gaga and other vermin. I’ve hunted them in Italy, in France, in Spain, and now in California and Australia. My job just keeps getting harder. It’s more and more difficult to tell the difference between natural wines and wine. Many wines mimic natural wines. It can be frustrating. I think I’ve captured a new species of natural wine only to discover it’s just wine. It has the distinctive coloration of natural wine: hazy and impenetrable, the hue of a summer day in Los Angeles, which may explain their popularity there. It has the telltale smells of natural wine, sort of a cross between Clive Coates’ Depends and the Exxon Valdez. And it burns going down, like the Hindenburg. But then it turns out it’s not natural wine. It’s just crap. The difference is minimal, but real. I am forced to ask myself, “If all natural wines are crap, are all crap wines natural?” A slippery philosophical and oenological slope. My hunt begins anew.

Though I may have great disdain for natural wine, for the outright stupidity of the category, I believe that it has a right to exist. Natural wine advocates are the Amish people of wine, yearning for the clock to turn itself back to a simpler time when wines were not about celebration and pleasure, but about suffering to achieve the simple joy of insobriety. Technology and science are the downfall of the human race, an insult to almighty God and His chosen critics who walk among us, the Naked and the Goode; and winemakers making wines using chemistry and sophisticated, newfangled equipment are but poor, lost, spiritual souls who should be pitied, but not mocked. Why I’d visit your winery in Sicily, Frank, but the horse drawing my buggy will drown. But I have no desire to live in a world without Amish people. Just keep the crackpots out of my neighborhood.

One has to creep up on natural wines. They’re delicate, easy to spook, slippery and hard to get a handle on. The people who guard them are spellbinders, able to convince you through the power of their hypnotic suggestions that your taste buds are mistaken, your foolish notions about wine misguided, your first impressions completely and utterly wrong. Soon they will tell you how one knows natural wine is superior. Because superior people make it and drink it, that’s why. Wine is always about class and status, but which class is on top, and for how long?

One week it’s lower alcohol that the wise and privileged are drinking. The next, it’s the 100 point wines from The Greatest Vintage Ever – the kind of vintage, by the way, that only the wastefulness of a decadent, petroleum-based economy can bring to our overheating world. The spellbinders weave intricate and scary tales of what unnatural wines do to our lost and crumbling planet, that they ruin the environment, unlike the ships and CO2-belching trucks that deliver the natural wines from Europe to the Amish wine people in America. They tell you what others dare not tell you of what horrible chemicals and agents are added to the wine you drank last night. Now, there, doesn’t this orange Ribolla Gialla taste better? Of course it does, keep your eyes on my pocketwatch, you were simply misguided, we forgive you, you can have a case.

There may be no end to my hunt for natural wine. It’s the albatross around my neck, my tell-tale heart, my theme from “It’s a Small World.” I can’t stop hunting natural wines. I’m driven to expose everyone to them, to bring them forth from all the strange and foreign places they live, wrest them from the seers, soothsayers, saints, psychos and Sirens who harbor them, to try to wipe the mystery from them and bring them to the foolish masses who think wine is a mealtime beverage created by man from grapes to help him escape his world-weary woes. It’s not. And woe unto you who believe it is. You’re missing the point. Wine isn’t for pleasure, ask a jihadi or the Amish, wine should be for more than that. All wine should be like natural wine – just the right amount of alcohol with a satisfying dose of smug.

Ron Washam is a recovering sommelier and former comedy writer, who also judges at many major wine competitions, whether he’s invited or not. He blogs regularly and rather pathethically at HoseMaster of Wine.