By Mark Middlebrook
illustration by Margo Rivera-Weiss
Wine would seem to be the quintessential natural beverage: pick grapes, crush grapes, and wait a little while for the native yeasts that nestle on grape skins to do their job of converting sugar to alcohol. Yet the history of winemaking, especially since the 20th century, has been one of increasing intervention in both the vineyard and the cellar. The goals are various, and include better quality, greater consistency, higher yields, and achieving a particular flavor profile. Some of the means seem benign, such as innovative vinetraining systems or temperature-controlled fermentation vessels. Others seem more invasive: the arsenal of synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers employed in many vineyards, or the addition of oak chips and other flavoring agents to wine vats.
In response to these less benign manipulations of vineyards and wines, a “natural wine” movement is germinating among some winemakers, importers, retailers, restaurants, and wine bars. The movement is most pronounced in France, but there’s plenty of natural wine—and argument about it—flowing in the Bay Area as well. Not all of that wine is imported, as was demonstrated in the June 12 tasting at Terroir, a San Francisco wine bar and retail store devoted to natural wines. The event, “A Taste of East Bay Natural Wines,” featured four producers:
Steve Edmunds (Edmunds St. John), Chris Brockway (Broc Cellars), Tracey and Jared Brandt (A Donkey and Goat), and Mike and Anne Dashe (Dashe Cellars). All make their wine in Berkeley or Oakland; the grapes, of course, come from farther afield. I attended the tasting and spoke with the producers about their motivations and methods for making natural wines.
Mike Dashe summed it up this way: “So-called natural wines exhibit subtleties and complexity that I feel you can’t get using more industrial techniques to make squeaky-clean wines—which taste more stripped of flavor and are, generally speaking, less distinctive.” His use of “so-called” highlights the tricky business of defining “natural wine.” As Edible East Bay contributor Derrick Schneider points out, “all wine is interventionist to some degree: The resting state of grape juice is vinegar, not wine.” Steve Edmunds elaborated on this truth: “If wine is to be successful—i.e., delicious to drink, evocative of its place of origin, and a reminder of the gifts of Nature—then the presence of a human mind and soul and human hands are required. Without those, the beverage will quickly spoil and die. If ‘natural’ means nothing added and nothing subtracted, then the success of the wine depends on the attentiveness and skill of the human whose mind, soul, and hands are involved.”
Mike Dashe enumerated the kinds of human manipulation that all four of these producers eschew: “My definition of ‘natural winemaking’ is to be as non-interventionist as possible.” Dashe explains that he selects vineyards for distinctive characteristics, and then in his winemaking he seeks to highlight those characteristics without introducing extraneous aromas or flavors. Specifically, he does not use cultured yeasts, since they introduce flavors that are by definition industrial selections for specific characteristics, or malolactic bacteria, for the same reason. “I use techniques that are intended to keep subtle characteristics of the wine and original grapes intact.” He says that, in general, he does not fine (clarify) wine, that he keeps filtration to a minimum (if possible), and that he does not put additives of any kind (including acid) into the wine.
Tracey Brandt compiled a list of things that she and her husband, Jared, don’t do while making their wines from red and white Rhone varieties and chardonnay: “We add nothing at the vat after crush save the occasional minuscule dose of SO₂ [sulfur dioxide] if we have a rainy year where rot is an issue. That means no enzymes to enhance color and extraction, no tannin, no commercial yeast, no nutrients to feed the super yeast and 95 percent of the time no SO₂ until after malolactic fermentation completes.”
Anyone wanting to make a more natural wine obviously would forgo the chemistry set of additives available to those winemakers seeking to control a wine’s evolution and “sculpt” its flavor profile. But what about the insistence upon using only native yeasts (that is, the wild yeasts living on the skins of grapes and often in the winery itself), which is one of the central tenets of the natural wine movement? Cultured yeasts—yeasts of a single strain made in a laboratory and sold to a winemaker—generally give more-predictable fermentations and flavors. Advocates of native fermentation argue that wild yeasts lend more character and complexity to wines, in part because wild yeasts are of multiple strains, each of which creates subtly different aromas and tastes as it ferments grape sugar to alcohol. In addition, wild yeasts are arguably a part of the terroir of a wine, along with all the other specific qualities of a vineyard: soil, slope, orientation, mesoclimate, vine and rootstock type, and so on. If a winemaker wants to make wines that express the terroir of their sites, then letting the native yeasts of each site do their stuff seems like the natural way to go.
This focus on vineyard flavors is a theme that comes up repeatedly among makers of natural wine. As Mike Dashe said, “For me, natural winemaking is trying to keep the wine flavors purely reflective of the vineyard, which means simply keeping in mind the focus on distinctive, characteristic flavors that are evident year after year from the same vineyard.”
Vineyard farming methods of course play a large part in natural winemaking. None of the four producers at the Taste of East Bay Natural Wines event own their own vineyards, though all of them are involved—and often intimately involved—in the decisions about how to farm and when to pick. Understandably they have an affinity for organic or biodynamic farming. Steve Edmunds observed that many of the most compelling wines he’s bottled were made from organically grown grapes: Old-vine Mourvedre from Mt. Veeder, in Napa, and roussanne from limestone soils in Paso Robles are the first that spring to mind. “Organic farming at its best is very attentive farming.” We tasted that attentive farming in Edmunds St. John’s still fresh 2004 Roussanne Paso Robles Tablas Creek Vineyard.
Most of Dashe Cellars’ “Les Enfants Terribles” line of wines (currently a Potter Valley Zinfandel, Mendocino County Zinfandel, and Dry Creek Valley Grenache) are from organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards. Many of the wines produced by Broc Cellars and A Donkey and Goat are from such vineyards as well.
Nonetheless, whether by necessity or choice, none of these producers is inflexibly dogmatic about the farming methods in the vineyards from which they draw their fruit. There seems to be a trend among conscientious wine grape growers in California toward organic, biodynamic, or sustainable farming, but such practices are not yet as common as they are for other kinds of produce. In addition, the majority of growers and winemakers aren’t interested in organic or biodynamic certification. There are practical and historical reasons for this certification antipathy, but the consequence is that those of us who are concerned about how the grapes in our wines are farmed need to learn about producers and their vineyard sources rather than rely on a certification agency.
The use of sulfites (sulfur dioxide and other sulfur compounds) is another big source of discussion among makers and drinkers of natural wine. SO₂ helps protect wine from microbial spoilage and oxidation; it’s also sometimes sprayed on vines to combat mildew. None of these uses is inherently bad. (The required “Contains Sulfites” labeling on wines in the United States is supposed to alert people who have asthmatic or allergic reactions to sulfites.) However, there’s no question that some producers overuse SO₂ during the winemaking process, both in quantity and frequency. Natural winemakers, including the four at the Terroir tasting, generally seek to reduce SO₂ use to a practical minimum.
Mike Dashe described his practices this way: “I use quite low levels of SO₂, particularly in my Les Enfants Terribles wines, so that the native yeasts are able to ferment and create complex flavors. Low SO₂ levels seem to keep the wine flavors more evident and more layered, which results in a more complex wine.” And Steve Edmunds discussed the evolution in his thinking: “The first wines I made I added no SO₂ until bottling, and then only a very minuscule amount, and the wines were fine for a couple of years, though the volatile acidity levels seemed a bit high to me. I have subsequently adjusted the amount of SO₂ I’ve used, without being formulaic or dogmatic; the amount used will depend on the particular wine in question.” As mentioned above, the Brandts avoid adding any SO₂ until after malolactic fermentation finishes; they add a minimal amount before bottling.
And the results of more-natural farming in the vineyard, less intervention in the cellar, and low SO₂ use? Tracey Brandt made the case: “Natural wines are true. They are honest. They are unique. They do not hide who they are behind designer yeast, expensive oak, enzymes, and other enhancement techniques, and they do not remove their ‘freckles’ or cover their wrinkles. Their beauty is often rooted in what the other guys would consider imperfections. They evolve and change both in bottle and in the glass. They taste alive.”
east bay natural wine makers
Broc Cellars (Berkeley)
A Donkey & Goat Winery (Berkeley)
Dashe Cellars (Oakland; tasting room in Healdsburg)
Edmunds St. John (Berkeley)
Terroir Natural Wine Merchant & Bar (San Francisco)
Mark Middlebrook is wine buyer for Paul Marcus Wines in Oakland. He loves wine, naturally.
Artist Margo Rivera-Weiss lives in Oakland. She makes a full range of food-related art in watercolor and other media. More of her work can be seen at www.margoriveraweiss.com