Last June, I was finally back in France. It was partly holiday, visiting old friends to keep in touch, as well as to catch up with the pulse of the wine world. The idea of the latter is to discover new talents who make truly compelling wines, to curate a portfolio of producers who capture the zeitgeist of progressive handmade wines, whose attitudes and aesthetics create something good beyond themselves, and therefore are culturally significant.

Friends asked if I was on the path of seeking out natural wines. I was hesitant to answer, because while I am certainly very fond of them, I am reluctant to be bound by the category. I mean, what is natural wine, anyway?

It is a funny question because for some years now, nearly every bottle I have bought for myself falls within this ‘category.’ I struggled with the term not because there is anything disingenuous about the genre. Neither was I wanting to avert confrontation with its detractors — people who have been turned off by a bad experience with a bottle, or with natural wine zealots, or those who take issue with its lack of precise definition. To be clear, I was not ambivalent. I just needed to find the essence of these wines that matters to me, something beyond a physical type, and simple categorisation. I knew it would require deeper reflection and listening to the people who make them.

I managed to visit about twenty addresses in this trip and this time around, I made it a point to take my time with each producer. I never had to chase the next appointment, quite unlike my previous job. Most significantly, this tempo suited me much better.

It was late spring and the weather had turned unseasonably hot in the recent weeks. Every vigneron was spending all their time in the vineyard, so getting in touch during the leading weeks was quite challenging. Yet miraculously they found time — more than I expected — and obliged my request for a visit.

We spent plenty of time among the vines. With great enthusiasm, our hosts explicated the composition of the soil we stood on, recounted how their parents (or masters) trained them husbandry skills, one moment pointing to the little berries on the verge of *veraison*, then to where the vineyard folded into the forest the next, at times interposing with anecdotes of the honeys they would harvest from the neighbouring woods, before contemplating on the specific mineral tone one always gets from the site. Nature seemed like, well, second nature to these people. But the point was made: the air, light, colour and scent of each place are indeed different from one place to the next. Often, it only took a few footsteps to sense the difference.

At another domaine, we walked past a room strewn with kid’s toys to walk up to the balcony which overlooked what appeared like a cross between a barn and a hangar behind the house wall, all under construction, destined to be the young couple’s cuverie in the near future. The wife recounted how they wore their neighbour down to sell this next-door property. They were persistent because her husband grew up on the same street as a child; making wine in situ might recapture a slice of personal history in the bottle. As I listened to each quaint story, I caught a glimpse of an extraordinary human spirit. It was humbling and edifying all at once.

The wines were beautiful, of course: fluent, fluid, lucid, luminous, highly peculiar gems. And invariably delicious. I count myself fortunate to have tasted many famous rarities with very special qualities before, and I dare say that these wines were no less distinguished. Exquisitely formed, there is a sense of presence within, all serene, seamless and free.

They came from vines that saw no chemicals. The fermenting yeasts were wild and vinification took place without any additives. Wine geeks will correctly categorise these as natural wine, but I must confess the only thing I thought about in the moment was just how *good* it was. Involuntarily — perhaps even voluntarily — they escaped my technical examination. Of course. Why bother when they were providing such fascination and distinctive pleasure? The natural-conventional wine divide suddenly became moot, even irrelevant.

Each of these wines comes from a distinct geological and cultural ecosystem. Yet as I travelled from one village to the next or hopped to a completely different region, there is one thing that unites them, *Nature*, and along with it a shared devotion to preserve it, as well as the humility to cede control.

There is a Japanese word that perfectly captures these attributes and attitudes: *shokunin* (職人). Loosely translated, shokunin is an artisan, a craftsman. The shokunin spirit refers to a lifetime pursuit of perfection in the craft of making something from what Nature provides. What is rarely understood is that a shokunin’s dedication is also morally and socially conscious. The shokunin is obliged to process Nature’s gift in a way that contributes to the welfare of others, and contrary to the popular image of an artist working solo, a shokunin belongs to a community of fellow craftsmen. The work they do is not self-centred: it is altruistic and communal.

Like their counterparts in various disciplines in Japan, the wine growers I met have a profound understanding that what Nature gives is unique, beautiful and time-bound. Their common response is to gently shape the outcome of their work so that it will be identifiable, complimentary and as nourishing as Nature intends.

This code underlies the sustainability philosophy and low-intervention cellar practices of the naturalists I have met. And this ‘definition’, corroborated by the quality of the wines they produce, is something I am happy to work with.