Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
August 29, 2023 | Randy Caparoso

The flip side of alternative wines

I love alternative-style wines. They have kept my interest in wine perked up for the nearly 50 years that I've been working in wine-related industries. Otherwise, I'd be bored to tears.

Still, I have to admit: Many of the alternative wines of today are no more original or innovative than conventional wines. Over and over again, you hear the same words:

"Native yeast"
"Skin contact"
"Whole cluster"
"Orange wine"
"Neutral wood"
"Foot tread"
"Pét Nat"

What is "glou-glou?" If you have to ask, evidently, you don't belong (news flash, I had to look it up).

But this reminds me of my years in the restaurant industry when you'd hear many of the same words:

"Sun-dried tomato"
"Crème brûlée"
"Molten chocolate"
"Wood oven pizza"
"Red wine reduction"
"Sustainably fished"

And on and on.

During my restaurant career (I've opened over 30 restaurants from Hawai`i to New York), no matter where you'd go you'd always find the same dishes utilizing the same ingredients done in the same cooking styles. Sure, the fun part for foodies and industry professionals alike was experiencing the endless variations. But it was still like finding the same chefs cooking in the same restaurants no matter where in the country you went. The slavish adherence to food trends has always been fun, but predictable... to the point of insufferable.

The "new" style wines are exactly the same. When speaking to many of today's winemakers, you don't really have to ask how they make their wines. They make them all the same way. Yet each and every one of them is convinced they are doing something different. They are busily reinventing the wheel. Only, it's the exact same wheel everyone else is inventing.

Don't get me wrong. It's all good. If anything, today's cutting-edge wines are more terroir-expressive than the usual commercial products. It's important for Lodi-grown wines to be terroir-expressive because most people have a hard enough time understanding where Lodi is, let alone how a Lodi-grown wine tastes.

Commercial brands, as it were, tend to taste alike because, well, they're "commercial." They're supposed to be predictable in order to meet most consumers' expectations. At least, when you taste most of the alternative style wines, you are more likely to experience wines the way they're meant to taste, which is like the grapes and vineyards from where they come, not a brand style, typical varietal character, or a winemaker's ego. I'd call that progress.

What I don't get, though, is how formulaic even alternative wines have become. The latest generation of winemakers, for instance, are fermenting on skins or as whole clusters whether or not the grapes from particular vineyards or regions warrant that. I love it when they're working with a vineyard for the very first time, and they still follow the exact same protocols.

When I ask them to explain why they do what they do as if I were a two-year-old, they say pretty much the same thing to the effect of, "This is how I express myself." It is not, of course, really about expressing a vineyard or place. It's never about that if you follow the exact same script for wine after wine, no matter what the grapes or where they come from. This is not true, non-commercial "art." It's more like paint-by-numbers.

Winemakers, of course, are sensitive people. I get that. They wore proverbial soul patches the way the French wore berets. This is no different, of course, from men wearing man-buns or women sporting full-arm tattoos and nose rings, totally convinced that no one else in the world is like them. The clichés become so rampant, that it's a wonder they don't do the opposite. 

The worst of it is that these styles of wines have become clichés. This leaves them open to criticism, the same way Democrats are lampooned for being wishy-washy and Republicans for wanting things to be the same as they were a hundred years ago. Is there a solution?

One might be a more official, or at least better defined, affirmation of the new styles. In France, for instance, there is now a category for wines eligible to be classified as Vin Méthode Nature (a.k.a., vin naturel) Among the specific requirements for this labeling:

  • Wines must be produced by hand-picked grapes from certified organic vines and vinified with indigenous yeast.
  • In the winery, cross-flow filtration, flash pasteurization, thermovinification, and reverse osmosis are prohibited.
  • Up to 30 mg/l of sulfites are allowed, although there is a separate designation for wines produced with no added sulfites.
  • Wines are subjected to yearly third-party verification.

Is this possible in the U.S.? Don't hold your breath. Methinks the conventional side of the industry may prefer to keep the numbers of this tattooed or bun-wearing faction on the low side. They wouldn't want to legitimize them by giving them their own official classification.

While I hate sameness, I also hate to see the products of wines and vintners pilloried for their earnestness. Maybe they should have their own little vin naturel club. You wouldn't have to like all of these wines; but if your tastes swing in that direction, at least you'd have a better idea of where to look.




Lodi Wine Visitor Center
2545 West Turner Road Lodi, CA 95242
Open: Daily 10:00am-5:00pm

Lodi Winegrape Commission
2545 West Turner Road, Lodi, CA 95242
Open: Monday-Friday 8:00am-5:00pm

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