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.
What in the world are natural winemakers trying to do to us?
I recently came across an article entitled "What is natural wine?" in, of all places, National Geographic. Obviously, this publication is no longer just about science, geography, the experience of exotic places or the phenomenons of Mother Nature. Although there are many wines, when you think of it, that can be phenomenal, and many of the world's finest wines are very much reflections of their geography.
This particular article on natural wine was penned by Fiona Beckett, an iconic British wine and food journalist/book author. Beckett's definition of the "natural" movement occurring in the world of wines is as good as you'll ever find:
"Walk into almost any newly opened restaurant or wine bar these days and you’ll find natural wines on the wine list. Even if they’re not actually described as natural, the chances are many on the list will be. If you’re wondering what exactly natural wine is, you’re not alone.
"The term has no official definition and tends to annoy conventional wine producers, who resent the implication that their wines aren’t natural.
"The term essentially refers to wines that are made without the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, with minimal sulfites and using wild yeasts found in vineyards rather than those manufactured in a lab. In addition, natural wines are often unlined and unfiltered and, in some cases, even made without oak—or at least no new oak—in an effort to preserve the flavour of the terroir. ‘Nothing added, nothing taken away’ is the natural winemakers’ mantra...
"And what do they taste like? The reds are generally bright and juicy—what the French describe as a vin de soif. The whites, however, tend to be more appley and hazy (critics dub them ‘cidery’), although fresher, more citrussy styles are now more commonplace. There’s a purity and fragrance to them, though, which is particularly appealing—especially when they’re made from aromatic grape varieties like Malvasia and Torrontés.
"Natural wines also tend to have lower ABVs (alcohol percentages) than conventional wines. This is partly due to native yeasts, which are less efficient at boosting alcohol, and partly due to earlier picking times—natural wines are rarely left on the vine until they’re super-ripe."
The only thing about Beckett's observations that makes me uncomfortable is her well meaning attempt to describe the taste of natural style wines. Like that of many writers, it ends up only confusing the issue, misleading the uninitiated.
For example: It is true, as Beckett writes, that many natural style reds are "bright and juicy," and often accessible (re her reference to vin de soif, which generally describes wines that are lower in alcohol, thus easy to drink). While this may describe many such wines, it does not mean they are all like that. The reason they aren't all like that is because being bright, juicy, light or low in alcohol aren't really the point of natural style wines. The point, if any, is to produce wines as naturally as possible. If this means ending up with a wine that is 14% or 15% in alcohol, or barely 10% or 11% in alcohol—or for that matter, big and austere as opposed to light and easy-drinking—so be it.
Same for natural styles of white wine: If it ends up fizzy or still, hazy or crystal-clear, rough or soft, funky as a monkey or clean as a whistle, so be it. Specific sensory qualities do not define what makes a wine "natural." The far more important point of this emerging category is being grown and produced with as little intervention as practically possible, for any number of reasons or purposes.
But as Beckett correctly points out, much of the conventional wine industry strongly resents the term "natural" because of "the implication that their wines [i.e., conventional wines] aren’t natural." I find this strange, considering the fact that well over 99% of wines sold in the U.S. definitely fall on the conventional side. Natural style wines are hardly a threat to the conventional wine industry; commercially, rhetorically or otherwise.
Another salient point: Although there are wineries that advertise themselves as "natural," many if not most of the vintners actually known for natural style wines never use the term. Why? Because in their minds, they aren't trying to fit into any category. They're just trying to make the best wine possible.
Earlier this year, for instance, I asked Patrick Cappiello, the owner/winemaker of Monte Rio Cellars which has become a poster child in numerous natural wine bars and retail outlets, what the goal of his typically low intervention approach to winemaking—entailing foot treading, native yeast and whole cluster fermentations, as little oak influence as possible, etc.—really is. His exact response: "To give a pure platform for the terroir and varietal characteristics to show through. These fermentations tend to... amplify the more savory and mineral characteristics as opposed to amplifying the fruit characteristics, which we have an abundance of naturally in our wines in California."
In other words, vin de soif or anything like that is not on Cappiello's mind. More than anything, he wants to make wines that taste like where they come from—in his case, by trying to bring out sensory attributes unique to respective vineyards or appellations. Varietal fruit characteristics are important to Cappiello, but not more important than characteristics specific to places; and for Cappiello, as it were, that "place" is Lodi, because that's where he sources over 95% of his grapes.
Neither does Cappiello employ new oak barrels in his cellaring regime, mostly because you can find the same flavors of oak in wines from anywhere in the world. In this school of thought, oak as a sensory component does not enhance terroir. By the same token, Cappiello believes there is no point in trying to get the same expressions of fruitiness that you can out of vineyards anywhere else in the world. Instead, he tries to coax out aromas, flavors and sensory profiles that can only come from specific vineyards or regions. A Zinfandel grown in Mokelumne River-Lodi, for instance, tends to be more floral, a little earthier, and more gentle in phenolic content than Zinfandels from elsewhere in California. Therefore, Cappiello adjusts his winemaking to highlight the floral, earthy and rounded textures of his Zinfandel.
Whether or not Cappiello ultimately succeeds in this endeavor really comes down to what consumers think. They are the final judges of quality. The only ones who get to decide if Cappiello is capturing sensory profiles that are actually appealing. If the Monte Rio brand fails, it fails. So far, though, a small but growing number of enthusiasts seem to be saying "thumbs up."
In the past in this space, I have also written about two of the major advocates of natural style wines who source a large percentage of their grapes from Lodi: Marchelle Wines' Greg La Follette and Sandlands Wine's Tegan Passalacqua.
Aficionados of natural style wines adore La Follette and Passalacqua, but neither one of these vintners would ever describe themselves as natural. They employ minimal intervention practices to capture as much of their interpretation of grapes, vineyards and appellations as possible, in the same way that painters bring Nature to life or novelists conjure up a story, each and every work different from any that came before.
La Follette, if anything, takes almost morbid pleasure in knowing that his wines are not for everyone; mostly because they do not meet the usual sensory expectations, even when made from widely familiar grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot noir or Zinfandel. Utilizing his renowned mastery of oenology to submersive ends, La Follette describes his wild primary and secondary fermentations as "pushing the dragon's tail," similar to the way Kermit Lynch has called his uncompromisingly unadulturated imports as "dangerous." Says La Follette, the purpose is to drive "sauvage et animale [no translation needed!] qualities in each bottle."
What's up with that? More than anything, because when La Follette spends time in vineyards he does not perceive, say, only the scent of well ripened fruit. Grapes are at an optimal stage of ripening for only two or three weeks out of the year. All during the rest of the year vineyards emanate the scent of leaves, woodiness, earth, microorganisms and flora growing in surrounding areas or dancing freely in the air, not to mention the parched skin, soiled clothing, sweat and blood of the people working in the vineyards. Hence, La Follette's sauvage et animale. The idea that interesting wine should taste like more than fruitiness. Since winegrowing can be savage (and winemakers, savages), wines should be, too.
Passalacqua is more bullish about the fact that the goal of whatever low intervention winemaking philosophy he employs is not to attain a certain taste—most certainly, not any kind of taste associated with natural style wines—but rather, the essence of the Sandlands brand, plainly stated on its website: A line-up that "encompasses the forgotten classic California varieties, primarily grown in decomposed granite (sand), from regions and vineyards that have been farmed for many generations but have remained the outliers of California viticulture... primarily head trained, dry-farmed and own-rooted, the vineyards we work that harken back to California’s roots of exploration, wonder, and hard work."
In this sense, Passalacqua is, more than anything, motivated by an intellectual passion, especially concerning winegrowing history. In his estimation, the California pioneers had not only figured out the best places to grow grapes, the very fact that many of these own-rooted grapevines are still alive and well after over 50 or even 100 years just goes to show how wise these instinctive farmers truly were. Passalacqua's winemaking methodology is primarily meant to preserve the attributes natural to these vineyards, representing the heroic labors of the past. It's about wines being true to origins, in fulfillment of their heritage.
The overlap of Passalacqua's historical obsessions with consumer' growing predilection for non-conventional wines would not be happening if there weren't fundamental changes in values. If Passacaqua can capture his "sandlands" profiles by picking earlier at lower pH, stick to native fermentations ending up at 13.5% alcohol and finishing wines in low key 1,000-liter Austrian ovals, that's exactly what he's going to do. Power to the people, hail to the artist.
Perhaps the question is not so much "what is natural," as why?
Take natural wine bars (see Esquire or tastingtable.com). Ten, twelve years ago natural wine bars did not even exist. If they did, they weren't called that. But now you find these brazenly named places—where consumers can go to find the latest, minimal intervention, responsibly grown wines made by the most itty-bitty, inconsequential (by big production commercial standards) brands and wineries—in every city and town of decent size in the nation.
Make no mistake, natural wine bars, and the wines served in these curious spots, add up to something of a current marketing trend.
If you're an old-timer and still scratching your head about why this is happening, just think back, say, to the 1980s. At the start of the 1980s, wines like fruity White Zinfandel and even Chardonnay were not even on the average table wine drinker's radar. They drank either jug wines such as "Burgundy," "Chablis" and "Vin Rosé," or popular branded products such as Blue Nun, Wente Grey Riesling, Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc, Mateus, Lancers or Riunite "on-ice."
By the end of the 1980s, White Zinfandel and Chardonnay were a very big deal. Domestic wineries posted humongous sales of these "new" varietal categories. They became so entrenched in the market, you might have even thought that White Zinfandel and Chardonnay were always what people drank. But they weren't. They just happened to pop up at a particular space in time, in a matter of just four or five years, and the consumers loved them. Simple as that.
Think of the process of trending wines in another way: In 1960 no one heard of The Beatles. By 1964, after scoring hit after hit, there were still more than a few music industry professionals who were calling Beatlemania a "passing" fad. By 1970 absolutely everyone was listening to The Beatles; in fact, they were even sad about the fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo were breaking up.
Did you own an iPhone in 2005? Of course not, the first iteration of iPhone didn't come out until 2007. No matter how ubiquitous world-changing products are, just about anyone can remember a time when they didn't exist.
And now, like it or not, there are "natural" wines. Which always existed in Europe, of course. But not too long ago in the U.S. few consumers could conceive of it.
Just over a week ago I sat on a winemaker panel on the Mendocino coast and the subject came up in relation to marketing trends and the even heftier subject of global warming. Even wine professionals who hate natural wines will admit that interest in this niche market has been growing because of the small yet growing number of consumers looking for alternatives to the usual commercial products manufactured with comparatively zero consciounessness apart from the basic question, "does it taste good?" Many consumers now want wines that can demonstrate some degree of environmental responsibility or reflect personal values, however vague that might be.
Jennifer Reichardt and Sara Morgenstern of Little Trouble Wine Co., two joyfully "hands off" winemakers.
One of the winemakers on the Mendocino panel openly admitted: "Natural wine bars are opening everywhere, but I don't get it... most of the wines aren't even that good!"
That same winemaker asking why natural wines exist, ironically, also pointed out the fact that hip-hop music has recently celebrated its 50th year. This is presuming that hip-hop didn't exist 60 years ago, but the bigger point is the fact that huge chunks of the population in the U.S. and around the world still can't name one hip-hop artist, let alone any hip-hop song. Yet hip-hop is a gazillion dollar industry. It obviously isn't for everyone. But just because, like natural wine, it isn't for everyone, it doesn't mean it's not important.
Ergo, if people want to drink, and even spend good money on, wines that might taste plain ol' weird to most people, try stopping them. Not only will people always drink what they want to drink, quite often many of these very same wines end up becoming some of the most important wines in the world.
We know this to be true, in the world of wines, because many of the most legendary wines of the world are, in fact, very natural, and extremely unpredictable—the opposite of commercial, clean, manipulated or manufactured. Wines with attributes as likely to be ascribed to the whims of Nature as the skills or artistry of vintners. There's a certain beauty to wines controlled by Nature.
I'm talking about famous French wines such as Domaine Tempier Bandol in Provence, the Burgundies of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or the Alsatian whites of Marcel Deiss. Lebanon's Chateau Musar is similar in that respect, as are the wines of Vega Sicilia in Spain, Agricola Tiberio in Italy or Sadie Family Wines in South Africa. And that's just the tip of iceberg.
There is nothing predictable, "clean" or commercial about Domaine Tempier, DRC, Chateau Musar, Vega Sicilia, Tiberio or Sadie, yet these wines are considered among the greatest today, if not all time, precisely because they are like none other. Each vintage is unpredictable; heck, every bottle is an adventure. Yet everyone in the world wants them.
If there are small, handcraft American producers aspiring to similar loftiness, in their own little ways—like the "naïve domestic Burgundy" of the old James Thurber cartoon—they should be praised, not disparaged. They are shooting for an ultimate level of wine quality and appreciation.
Consumers are catching on, as they inevitably do. As a critical mass puts more energy into finding wines fulfilling growing needs for values such as originality, authenticity, diversity, environmental responsibility or even perceived health benefits, the wine industry will inevitably adapt and change in response. Even if kicking and screaming. Consumers, after all, still drive the market everywhere in the world.
Trail Marker Wine Co.'s Drew Huffine, who with his wife Emily has been crafting puristic wines from some of Lodi's more unusual grapes, such as the Blaufränkisch (in photo) grown by Mokelumne Glen Vineyards.
A region such as Lodi—given its natural conditions extremely conducive to winegrowing—is set up to meet many of these inevitable changes in taste because it can offer a huge variety of wine grapes (over 130, and counting) at price points attracting an increasing number of small, handcraft producers who very much subscribe to natural dispositions.
As strange as it might sound, for many avid wine lovers a wine tasting "good" is no longer good enough. After all, we're only human. We always want more than what we did before.
Something is happening here, as Bob Dylan once sang, but you don't know what it is. No matter, it's coming down.