Natural Foods Merchandiser
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Secret Shopper: What makes natural wine different from others?

To test a retailer's knowledge of natural wine, the Natural Foods Merchandiser secret shopper stopped by a natural specialty store in the Great Lakes region.

NFM: I’ve heard the term natural wine a lot lately. What does that mean and how do I tell that a wine is natural by looking at the label?

Store: Do you mean organic wine or specifically natural?    

NFM: I mean natural. I understand organic, but natural seems more nebulous. Isn’t all wine essentially natural?

Store: OK, so from what I understand, the difference is in how the wine is processed—mainly without all the additives. But I don’t think there are particular standards for natural, so you’re right: It is a bit nebulous. I just know that some wines we carry are natural, but not all of them say that on the label, so I’m not sure how you’d know if you didn’t know, if that makes sense.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Jenny Lefcourt, founder of Jenny & François Selections, a natural wine importer in New York

I love that this retailer checked to make sure the shopper really meant natural wine instead of organic wine, which shows she knows there is a difference between the two.

For a wine to be considered natural, the winemaker must start with certified organically or biodynamically grown grapes, but on top of this, the work in the cellar is more than organic. That is, the winemaking uses none of the 300 legal additives and takes nothing away—the wine is just fermented grapes! Natural wines often look cloudy and taste complex, with a bouquet of aromas rather than just one aroma created by some lab yeast. These are the purest and most exciting wines out there, in my opinion.

I also love the retailer’s sense of modesty. She does not affirm that she has all the answers, and she is open to a dialogue with the shopper. I must say that most of the natural winemakers I know are similarly modest—that’s a sign of intelligence, I believe.

But to answer the question, the best way a shopper can know whether a wine is natural is to ask the retailer which of the importers the store carries offer natural wines. Then if you turn the bottle around, some importers, such as myself, specialize in natural wines.

Because this shopper is clearly interested in natural wines, in this case, I would add a passionate explanation to encourage their curiosity. The retailer could then tell the story of a specific winery and wine, depending on what the customer is looking for and how long they want to talk.

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