Opinion

The Wine Industry Needs to View Vines as More Than Production Tools

Ahead of the first Raw Wine Alive! conference, Isabelle Legeron, MW, highlights the importance of treating plants as individual beings—and how it can transform our industry

Vineyard in Swartland. Photo courtesy of Raw Wine.

Organic, biodynamic, and natural wines have made huge strides since I founded Raw Wine nearly a decade ago. We’re in a very different market now; it’s not like it was twelve years ago, when natural wines wouldn’t sell. Not only do consumers seek out natural wines—they’re willing to pay a premium for them.

But while we’ve gotten good at selling natural wine by its taste, its color, or its funky label, the industry is overlooking a key component of wines both natural and conventional: the plants themselves.

It’s this concept of “plant blindness” that spurred me to create Raw Wine Alive! (December 5 and 6, 2021), a first-of-its-kind virtual conference entirely focused on plants—how they communicate with both us and their environment, and what they need to truly thrive. As an industry, we’ve become trained to see vineyards as blankets of green or brown, depending on the season. But we don’t see the individual vine, which is an individual being.

As a result, we just think that vines are a tool of production. By completely transforming the way that we view, understand, and interact with these plants, we can transform our industry—and the world.

Photo courtesy of Raw Wine.

Looking Beyond the Vineyard to the Vine

My background directly relates to much of the content that Alive will center on. I was brought up on a farm in rural France, and our day-to-day life was completely driven by the season. We grew everything we ate; we didn’t really buy anything. 

Though I moved away from home, when I later started my second career in wine, I didn’t agree with a lot of the conventional farming and production in the wine industry, which spurred me to work with natural, organic, and biodynamic wines and create Raw Wine in 2012. 

At the time, we didn’t really talk about natural wine. But since then, we have expanded to host events from London to Los Angeles, share information on our organic, biodynamic, and natural wine producers through profiles on our website, and foster real awareness and community around these wines.

But we still have work to do, particularly when it comes to plants. When we started doing outreach for Alive, many in the wine industry said to us: “Why is a wine company doing a plant-based conference?” This really tells me that the way we look at wine is so narrow-minded. If we were hosting a conference on cheese, wouldn’t we talk about the cows?

It doesn’t make sense to carry on farming the way that we are right now, from an economic or environmental perspective.

This idea of focusing on each vine as an individual being is important for a few reasons. First, it creates healthier vines because individual plants have different needs. If each individual vine is healthy, there is less disease risk, resulting in better quality grapes and wine. 

Second, it’s intrinsically connected to the idea of terroir in wine. Terroir is only possible if you have soil life and a connection between plants and their environment. You cannot claim that you are getting any terroir expression if you are using fertilizers, irrigation, or systemic conventional treatments; you might as well be putting your vine into a bowl of water because it will not translate soil into the wine.

But we also need to take the wine out of it. To me, as members of this planet, we have a responsibility to care for other species—including plants—as best we can. I think it is quite important to be nice to your plants (and I know a lot of people will say I’ve completely lost my mind), but if you claim to want to produce quality wine, you have to start with organic farming. 

Photo courtesy of Raw Wine.

Inside Raw Wine Alive! 

Raw Wine Alive! isn’t just about vines; it’s about plants in general so our virtual “main stage” will have speakers from both the plant world and the wine world, including a few people who rarely speak publicly about their research. For instance, Hiroki Fukuoka, the grandson of the late Masanobu Fukuoka, will discuss his grandfather’s do-nothing farming philosophy—something he’s never spoken about in public.

Several plant neurobiologists, like Elizabeh Van Volkenburgh, a professor of biology at the University of Washington and president of the Society for Plant Neurobiology/Plant Signaling and Behavior, and Paco Calvo, PhD, a professor of philosophy of science and principal investigator of Minimal Intelligence Lab at the University of Murcia, will speak about their research surrounding vine perspectives and functioning. By understanding the research showing that vines are sentient, that they have feelings and can see, perhaps it will spur us to think about caring for them differently.

A seminar led by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and author of the book Finding the Mother Tree, will discuss her research surrounding the connectivity of and communication between trees—research that is true of vines, if it is true of trees.

Terroir is only possible if you have soil life and a connection between plants and their environment. You cannot claim that you are getting any terroir expression if you are using fertilizers, irrigation, or systemic conventional treatments.

I’m hoping that by bringing on experts and researchers from other industries that we, as a wine industry—whether natural or conventional—can really start looking at plants differently. In a seminar from Julie McIntyre, an herbalist, writer, and educator, we can discuss how to start communicating with a plant at a heart level, and feeling its energy. 

She often gives this example: When you walk into a restaurant, you pick up the energy right away. We can have that way of feeling for plants, too, just as we do for animals or people. Instinctively, we can read all of these signs, but people have lost the ability to through plant blindness.

Alive will also highlight stories from the field, featuring growers and producers from the Raw Wine community alongside other viticultural experts. This is really about how the growers who don’t necessarily have the theory or research to show that plants feel, communicate, and adapt—but they know this from practice. These people, who look at individual vines as individual people, will show that theory in action. 

For instance, Martin Lichtenberger, who makes Lichtenberger-González in Austria with his wife Adriana González, will explain that when he prunes vines with students, they often ask for the recipe. He tells them that there is no recipe—you have to feel when the vine needs something. This is reflective of McIntyre’s philosophy; intuition and feeling are part of farming.

Finally, we have the “we dig wine” stage, which is where we really put everything together through one-on-one discussions with winegrowers and winemakers—essentially, how looking after plants in this way translates into the way a wine tastes.

Torchio Wines. Photo courtesy of Raw Wine.

The Time is Now

There’s very little understanding that you have to farm well in order to produce a really great wine, and farming well means making sure your vine can communicate with the soil and with its environment while fending for itself. But there are larger reasons to rethink the ways we approach plants.

We are in a global environmental crisis. The wine industry is the lowest in terms of organic farming and organic conversion. (According to a September report from the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV), an estimated 6.2 percent of the world’s area under vine was certified organic in 2019.) The reason? People don’t care. 

That makes me angry because even though the growth of Raw Wine has shown that a lot of people are getting it, so many more people are not getting it. Changing our way of thinking around farming makes complete sense from an environmental perspective so that we don’t pollute our waters or soil by blanket spraying, or use precious water resources by irrigation overuse. 

Not only does organic farming produce a product that is cleaner and better for the environment, but on top of it, we produce a better product. We’ve already done the groundwork; organic wine is actually selling better, for more money. Our audience is younger—between the ages of 25 to 45, largely—and they are prepared to spend more money for something that is ethical. It doesn’t make sense to carry on farming the way that we are right now, from an economic or environmental perspective.

Though vines essentially fuel our industry, much of the wine industry just doesn’t care about plants. But if you claim to want to make the best wine you can in that bottle, you have to care about plants in a different way. That will result in a better wine—and a better world.

Raw Wine Alive! will be held virtually on December 5 and 6, though seminars will be accessible through the conference’s website after each discussion takes place. SevenFifty Daily readers can use the code SevenFifty10 for $10 off the ticket price.

— As told to Courtney Schiessl Magrini

Isabelle Legeron MW, France’s first female Master of Wine, is the founder of internationally acclaimed RAW WINE—the world’s largest community of low-intervention organic, biodynamic, and natural wine producers, featuring annual fairs in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Montreal, London and Berlin.

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