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Inquiring Winemaker

 

Natural, Natural Enough, And Sort of Natural

December 2011
 
by Tim Patterson
 
 
In the past decade, a potpourri of unconventional winemaking strategies loosely grouped under the rubric of “natural winemaking” have received an immense amount of press and engendered countless arguments. Techniques ranging from spontaneous fermentations to eliminating sulfite additions—from fermenting whites on the skins (“orange wines”) to fermenting reds in clay amphorae buried in the ground—have gained adherents, detractors and photo ops.

Now the natural wine “movement”—it is, of course, a little looser than that—has become enough of a big deal that it features prominently in two new books. In “Authentic Wine,” British scientist and wine writer Jamie Goode and New Zealand-born consulting winemaker and master of wine Sam Harrop examine a number of practical issues in wine production to sort out the philosophical and technical concerns. Writer Alice Feiring’s “Naked Wine” recounts her meetings and conversations with an international who’s who of natural winemakers who are, as you might expect, a colorful group.

Both books, plus my own discussions with practitioners of more or less natural winemaking, help throw some light on three major questions about this entire trend:

1) What exactly is the definition of “natural winemaking?” Is there one? Does declaring some wines “natural” imply the rest are “unnatural?” Is there some middle ground between letting microbes run free and soulless industrial extrusion?

2) Does the natural wine movement, however loosely defined, have any significant commercial potential? Can its influence extend beyond hipster wine bars into the mass-market mainstream?

3) Whatever the contours and potential of this quasi-movement, are there techniques and approaches that natural, hands-off, minimalist winemakers employ—in addition to all the things they don’t do—that more conventional winemakers could learn from?

“Natural” as opposed to...what?
Interestingly enough, neither of these books puts the term “natural” in its title, though Goode and Harrop’s subtitle is “Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking” and Feiring’s is “Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally.” Goode and Harrop apparently had “Natural Wine” as their working title, but then substituted “Authentic” to signify something broader—not just minimizing adulteration and manipulation in the cellar, but having a sense of place, maintaining the diversity of grapes and styles and incorporating environmental responsibility. Feiring concentrates on natural winemaking in the narrower sense, but apparently preferred a racier adjective for the title.

The difficulty in formulating a precise definition, which all three authors acknowledge in different ways, stems ultimately from the fact that no wine on earth is entirely natural—and yet every wine is, at its core, natural. Wine does not make itself; human intervention and conscious choice is involved at every step from planting to bottling. Even in its most bare-bones form, winemaking is far less “natural” than, say, foraging for wild mushrooms.

At the same time, every wine depends fundamentally on the act of fermentation, which sets entirely natural forces to work. Grapes are full of sugar, and yeast just wanna have fun. Even in the most highly engineered setting, the vast majority of flavors in the bottle trace their lineage to the madness of the ferment, no matter how many other tweaks and fiddles and oak adjuncts come into play. Researchers often construct “model wines” by combining water, alcohol, flavorings and so on in wine-like proportions; but no one drinks these fermentation-free concoctions.

So if every wine is both natural and not natural, that may not be the most useful word with which to make a point. Worse, as Clark Smith pointed out in a recent column for Wines & Vines (“Natural Wine Nonsense,” May 2011 issue), the varying understandings of the term held by different stakeholders often mask irreconcilable differences.

Feiring starts her journey hoping to confirm the validity of the simple proposition, “nothing added, nothing taken away.” That, among other things, would translate to mean no sulfites, no commercial yeast, no enzymes or tannin boosters as well as no fining, no filtration and surely nothing remotely resembling reverse osmosis. As she makes her rounds in France, Spain, Italy and California, she discovers that all her heroes have, at one time or another, added something or taken something away—at least in a pinch. When fermentations refuse to ferment, a commercial yeast might save the day; some admitted to using sulfites with rot-prone fruit, and some used low levels of sulfites routinely. Feiring is told more than once that “there is no recipe.”

Alongside her travels, Feiring’s book has a second plot line in which she plays a role in making an actual wine, a 2008 Sagrantino from grapes grown by Ridgely Evers in Dry Creek, Calif., and eventually bottled under his DaVero label. Feiring doesn’t really make the wine—veteran Sonoma winemaker Kevin Hamel does—but her input comes in the form of using whole clusters, crushing them with her own foot-stomping over several days and letting a long, slow, spontaneous fermentation take place on its own. She agonizes over the prospect of adding water to reduce the potential alcohol, a step Hamel eventually takes. Not mentioned in the book but included in the winemaker’s notes on the DaVero website are a “touch of sulfur” for stabilization after the fermentation was complete and an eventual fining with “two organic egg whites from our very own chickens.”

The Sagrantino presumably fits into a new category Feiring herself offers: “natural enough.” The flexibility and open-mindedness implied in “natural enough” makes for a much more inclusive outlook, but at the same time knocks advocacy of “natural wine” down from the moral high ground it often tries to occupy. As Goode and Harrop observe more than once, hard-line zealotry about strict versions of natural winemaking only makes conventional winemakers less and less interested in hearing about i t.

Natural potential
Right now, the volume of “natural” wines produced by self-consciously “natural” winemakers around the world is roughly the same volume that Gallo or The Wine Group pull for lab samples every year. Nearly all the producers—international and domestic—are tiny, making a few hundred or at most a few thousand cases per year. A somewhat larger amount of wine, especially in Europe, is made “like my Grandfather made wine”: following many of the natural wine tenets, but without any philosophical overlay. These wines, however, are rarely marketed as “natural” or aimed at the same high-end, wine-savvy customers as the nouveau naturalists.

There are several reasons to doubt that self-consciously natural winemaking will ever become a major factor in the wine industry. The first obstacle is scale: Implementing fully hands-off winemaking in large operations would be incredibly risky. It is one thing to lose a single barrel to Brettanomyces through a slip-up in a no-sulfite regime; it is quite another to lose 10,000 gallons. It is highly unlikely that large or even medium-sized producers will ever go whole hog for “letting grapes do what comes naturally.”

There is also a very real limit on how broad a consumer base natural wines can develop because of hedonic, organoleptic issues and expectations. As many proponents of natural wine readily admit, sometimes even with pride, these wines are “not for everyone.” Some fabulous wines get made in this category, but more than a few carry a somewhat elevated level of volatile acidity, show less than crystal clarity, offer lots of flavors other than primary fruit, show some signs of oxidation or may not be entirely stable under less-than-careful shipping and storage conditions. None of this automatically means they are “bad wines,” but it does mean that a vast swath of casual wine drinkers will look elsewhere, even as a small slice of wine enthusiasts revel in them.

One of the elements Goode and Harrop include in their recipe for authentic wine is that it be sound—that is, not so marred by one or another fault that the sense of place gets lost. Their book includes a long chapter about the nature and origins of major wine faults, while suggesting that strict adherence to natural wine doctrines can increase the risk of developing most of them. A slight touch of this or that can be a complexing agent, but that’s a very slippery slope.

What does have great potential, Goode and Harrop argue, is for the entire wine industry to embrace movement in the direction of more natural winemaking as part of a commitment to authenticity—and, of course, as part of a narrative that would distinguish wine from generic beverage alcohol and thus be good marketing. What they aim for might not be “natural enough” for Feiring, but it would clearly be “more natural” than current practices.

Something along these lines is already happening in vineyard practices with organic, Biodynamic and broadly sustainable farming methods steadily gaining ground. Major retailers have had success by highlighting sustainability/green-ness/purity as part of the appeal of wine. In the cellar, plenty of steps can be taken to reduce the environmental impact of winemaking and limit unnecessary manipulation and adulteration. And there is plenty of room to challenge the dominance of a half-dozen “international” varieties with the amazing diversity of regional specialty grapes.

Converting the industry to doctrinaire natural winemaking is not likely. But moving the industry’s practices, not just its image, in a more natural dimension is quite possible.

Winemakers speaking naturally
Time to hear from some real-life winemakers. I spoke with four California producers whose wines would certainly fit Feiring’s “natural enough” criterion; all four, in fact, are mentioned favorably in her book. Coturri Winery in Sonoma has been on the pretty-darn-natural path since 1979; Steve Edmunds at Edmunds St. John has made highly regarded, low-intervention, low-sulfite Rhone-style wines (and others) since 1985; Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts are in their 10th unconventional vintage at Arnot-Roberts in Healdsburg, and Jared and Tracey Brandt, who learned their trade with leading French naturalist Eric Texier, have been putting out hands-off wines from warehouse space in Berkeley for several years, this year making The San Francisco Chronicle’s short list of winemakers to watch.

A prominent school of thought holds that making wine with no sulfites and whatever yeast happens to float by is a recipe for disaster. But if that were always true, these wineries would have been out of business long ago. Yes, there are some risks, but clearly those risks can be managed, sometimes for a decade or two at a time. So instead of asking these winemakers to list all the products and machinery they don’t use, I asked what they do use, what they concentrate on and what they think explains their ability to flourish without the usual net.

Tony Coturri started with the long view: that people made wine for thousands of years before Pasteur, using yeast before they knew anything about yeast, let alone pectic enzymes. And he’s certainly right; there’s an analogy here to organic farming, in which all farming was organic from the beginning of cultivation to the mid-20th century, when agrochemicals created what is now “conventional” farming.

Coturri thinks grapes are special. “Of all the fruits and berries,” he says, “grapes are one of the few with the balance of tannin structure, acid structure and sugar/alcohol that can preserve them. The fear is that without chemicals, wine is defenseless; but in fact it has built-in defenses.” He also highlights the evolution of wild yeasts into strains that can complete a fermentation: “Cultured yeasts often come from places where they originated as natural yeasts.”

The first thing everyone I talked to emphasized was good, healthy, balanced fruit—grapes that do not need superhuman efforts to rescue them from themselves. “The main thing,” says Nathan Roberts, “is working with fruit that will produce wine that doesn’t need messing with.” These producers tend to pick on the early side, with relatively lower Brix and pH levels and higher aci dity.

“A lot of the resistance to natural winemaking,” says Roberts, “comes from people who want to use fruit that’s too ripe, which means having to use nutrients, color extraction enzymes and so on. If you hang the fruit long enough, the nutrients diminish. You cannot make those big, extracted, high-alcohol wines in a natural way.”

Every one of my informants emphasized cleanliness in the cellar as absolutely indispensable. Every winery in existence endorses cleanliness, but these producers clearly make it Job One, with an attention to detail made easier by relatively small production. (At “5,000 cases in a good year,” Coturri is the biggest label in this quartet.) Scrubbing surfaces, sanitizing everything that comes in contact with grapes or juice or wine, topping barrels religiously—these seem like mundane things, but they matter.

The Brandts emphasize the importance of sheer physical cleaning, getting every speck of every kind of stuff out of the way. Since their fermentations take place in wooden vats, that means ferreting junk out of the slats and crevices with a toothbrush; they also employ “pigs” to traverse their hoses and scour them out. In a more high-tech vein, several of these producers use ozone for at least part of their sanitizing, as well as steam, hot water, Peroxy Clean and similar antimicrobials, citric acid, metabisulfite and rinse after rinse.

Temperature control is important in the cellar, but the same holds true for wine after it goes into the bottle. Coturri, for example, makes sure its shippers and retail wine shops keep the wine at or under 55ºF for long-term stability; they simply don’t ship to the East Coast, where they have a large presence, in the summer.

The wineries do varying amounts and types of lab work to keep on top of what is happening as their wines progress. Coturri and Arnot-Roberts rely mainly on basic juice and wine parameters; Donkey and Goat will sometimes make use of ETS Laboratories’ Scorpion tests for certain situations; Edmunds will send samples to a service lab to find out the levels of potentially troublesome critters before deciding on filtration and the timing of filtration. Most of these producers have made some sort of attempt to identify the yeast strains at work in their wineries, but without any conclusive results.

Nobody uses enzymes, nutrients or additives, and their rates of stuck fermentations are lower than most wineries. Yeast happens. In the “winemaking manifesto” on the A Donkey and Goat website, in fact, Tracey Brandt says the only stuck fermentations they ever suffered were from commercial yeast trials. Steve Edmunds says that every now and then, some particular batch refuses to take off, and so after a few days he relents and inoculates to avoid the buildup of ethyl acetate and other negative aromatics.

There are some differences among them in sulfite protocols. Coturri just says no; the others use very small amounts at various points—at the crusher, after malolactic, before bottling—depending on the state of the fruit and wines. None of them comes close in total additions to the levels prevalent in the industry.

The light bulb went off for me as I was talking to Steve Edmunds. If there is a lot of bird damage, he’ll use more sulfites at the crusher. If the fermentation just won’t ferment, he’ll buy some yeast. If the wine hasn’t reached clarity, or the bad microbe count is too high before bottling, he’ll filter the wine or wait a year for it to work things through. And so on.

In other words, the natural winemaker as pragmatist, not zealot. There are no recipes. If the wine comes out fine year after year without a smorgasbord of packaged additives, why bother? When trouble hits—no more often than it does with conventional winemaking—either fix it or, if it’s a small enough batch, dump it. But if it ain’t broke…

Going this far “natural” may be too much of a stretch for most wineries. But the fact that these techniques can work, and demonstrably work well, should at least be food—and I don’t mean DAP—for thought. These examples might provide a good occasion for more conventional wineries to review what they do, especially those things they do on auto-pilot just since they’ve been on the checklist for 10 years, and make sure there’s a good reason for doing it. It’s entirely possible that a winery could save itself a lot of time, trouble and money—and become more “natural” in the process.

Tim Patterson is the author of “Home Winemaking for Dummies.” He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.

 
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