As shocking as this is, there is no doubt Valentina Passalacqua will have US representation again. And like Bressan, the drama will be placed into a dark and unsuspecting corner of the mind of the market and the wines will find their way onto lists and shelves.
But below the surface of the Passalacqua drama was a significant development – a new iteration of the natural wine movement I am calling Big Box Natural.
Filling a Need
In February, my wife and I went to a wonderful restaurant with a voluminous natural wine list in Montréal and I asked the talented and well-traveled sommelier about the current craze for the V. Passalacqua and his response was startling:
“She is rich and has 80ha of vines. Her wines fill a need.”
Which need is that? Between the lines of this statement is a powerful cultural shift in the shape of the natural wine tribe movement.
Valentina Passalacqua didn’t just expose worker rights and issues, Passalacqua cemented the new business model – Big Box Natural.
And with it, comes a whole new iteration of the natural wine movement that has a far-reaching impact. What was unthinkable a few years ago has happened. Natural now has a proven, scalable, and repeatable business model and will get the full profit-driven treatment.
The Fundamentals of Big Box Natural
A decade ago, the early-adopting ambassadors of Natural laughed when you called a family estate of 15ha “a small estate.” Now, that definition no longer applies.
We are a long way from the barely-attended Dive Bouteille held outside in the rain.
The market driving forces of the Natural Wine Movement have been scarcity, fear of missing out on the new producer, approachable prices, and most importantly, being a part of a fun, kinetic tribe that is going against the grain. This is a movement that thrives on being David versus the commercial wine Goliath.
But, because demand firmly outstrips supply and pricing is now elevated, the producers of the Natural Wine Tribe have encountered a conundrum that will drive this new business narrative: not enough wine and less affordability.
The fundamental change in the Natural Wine Movement is that large production is no longer off the table. Big estates that would be laughed at as a member of the tribe will now be considered natural. It’s done, and Valentina Passalacqua proved it.
According to the facings in stores today, even a large farm where a portion of the vineyards are farmed sustainably, another portion organic, and the third portion biodynamic, can produce natural wine. These wines are bought by the truckload and portrayed as natural on shelves and lists.
Going forward, having a larger quantity available at a moveable price tier is where the action will be. Wines that hit that magic fire price point below $19.99 will become much more prevalent.
For the above reasons, you will see many more private labels masquerading as Natural. Veiled collaborations that make it sound like a well-known producer made the wines or they were made to certain specifications. Even wines where the source is more than dubious will be passed off as natural.
In concert with this phenomenon, many natural wine producers will start sourcing from outside their appellation, expanding their holdings, and borrowing/trading fruit to supplement production and profit.
Large retailers will buy these labels from private-labelist importer/distributors until they decide to jump past the importer/distributor and source their own next best thing at the lowest possible price, expanding this space even further.
Big Box Natural is the new fire category where the growth is going to be dramatic, mind-bending, and turn this David into more of a Goliath player.
Will this snake eat its own tail? Will this ruin the artisan, wabi-sabi model, or will all boats rise? We are going to find out in 2021.
*For a quick take on the V. Passalacqua drama, Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote an eloquent piece you can read here.