I’m no nature boy, but I’m willing to experiment

Natural

Natural

Joe Dressner, renown importer of natural wines passed away Saturday. My heartfelt condolences to his family and all those who feel his absence. 60 is way too early to go.

I did not know Dressner, so I defer to Eric Asimov for  the eulogy (and the inability to resist interjecting a bit of the “don’t-analyze-wine-or-use-specific-descriptors” ideology into said eulogy). Not sure how Dressner and I would have got on, but I suspect we’d be at odds about the idea of “natural” wine.

Quite serendipitously, Joe Roberts reviewed the movie ” Wines From Here” today – about a week after Jamie Goode’s Book “Natural Wine” hit the shelves.

I pushed, in the comments on Jamie’s blog and the Palate Press review, for concretes about what distinguishes a “natural” wine from the alternative (“unnatural”?…). What discernible characteristics differentiate it from more manipulated, “inauthentic”, wines?

I like to have these things spelled out. Call me weird. Alas, I heard nothing but crickets.

“Wine is artifice”, asserted Larry Brooks (as did several other winemakers), when I was interviewing him for a three-part blog piece about “wild” yeasts (on winesooth.com).  My friend, Jeff Miller, agrees. If wine grapes, left untouched, ultimately turn to vinegar (or ethyl acetate or some other undrinkable funk), then “Authentic Wine” is just “inauthentic”, “unnatural” wine made with a different intervention/manipulation paradigm.

In Joe Robert’s piece, a “natural” winemaker is quoted as saying:

“Our goal is to do nothing [to the wine]; so if we have to do anything, we want to do as little as possible.

If we understand that the natural history of grape juice is NOT wine but vinegar, then the above statement is like saying:

“Our goal is to do remain virgins; so if we have to have sex, we want to do it as little as possible [so we remain virgins].”

Just what am I not supposed to do in the vineyard to prevent loss of vines to nematodes, gophers or Pierce’s disease and loss of fruit to powdery mildew or botrytis?

What should I not do in the cellar and yet ensure that brettanomyces, dekkera or other spoilage species do not make my wine undrinkable (if a touch of brett gives wine complexity, how do I ensure that I get only a the right amount of “touch” in my wines)? How do I keep my wines stable if I do not make enough to afford to lose a few gallons in filter pads or do not have the ability to bottle in sterile conditions, under negative pressure?

It doesn’t help the no-chemicals ideology of “natural” wine advocates when studies indicating that sulfur dioxide may have a “positive effect on a grape berry’s composition” like this one are published. Similarly, the contention that wines made from organically grown grapes are somehow better, are discounted by findings like these (Stu Smith must have loved that one!).

So maybe all that “unnatural”, aberrant, deviant, perverse manipulation is about keeping the wine clean and ensuring it does not spoiled -as is well argued here.

When former banker, then self-proclaimed wine expert was anointed by Robert Parker as his successor to the throne of the California Wine Pontificate, he said (in one of the interviews immediately following) that he’d be looking for “authenticity” in the wines he reviews. In almost the next breath, he admitted 1) limited familiarity with California wine and 2) having visited Burgundy (the other end of his wine beat) only a few times.

“Authentic” means “the real thing”. To know it when you see it, requires familiarity – both with the genuine article and the counterfeit. So you can understand why I had to self-administer the Heimlich maneuver after getting hit with that absurd bolus of verbal vomit. I may have been able to tolerate it if he’d made drug references and wore thumb rings….

But, I’ve gone afield of my intended point:

I’m willing to make a small batch of “natural” wine from the same lot of fruit as I make the rest of my wine this year. This will likely be Suisun Valley Montepulciano. I have no control over growing, but once the fruit is in my possession, I can make it any way I want to.

All I need is the “natural” wine proponents to tell me how to make my batch of “natural” wine:

  1. What should/can I do at crush? Can I add bisulfide, tartrate, DAP? (should I even bother checking pH and specific gravity?)
  2. How do I prep my fermenter (I propose using a stainless steel fermenter to make a 3 gallon batch)
  3. Do I inoculate with malolactic bacteria?
  4. How do I prevent contamination with ambient yeasts in my 12′ by 12′ basement, which is open to the crawl space, where all sorts of insects that traverse the space and, along with even the lightest draft, carry all species of microbes (conditions not too divergent from those in the cellars of those “natural? winemakers)?
  5. What are we looking for? What in the finished wines will be the correct character of my “natural” wine? What will be the hallmarks of “unnatural” wine?

Please, tell me.

Finally, who will sit in judgment and discernment over these wines?

Please, tell me.

About SUAMW

Father, husband, physician, amateur guitarist, wine lover, wine writer, wine grower and wine maker trying to do it all within eye shot of downtown Los Angeles. http://www.shutupandmakewine.com http://twitter.com/Dr_Arthur_P
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22 Responses to I’m no nature boy, but I’m willing to experiment

  1. Oded Shakked says:

    Arthur,

    Great post and great attitude. I made my first natural wine in a garage in 1986… it taught me some great lessons about perishability. I think experimenting is the mother of progress and fun, but I reccommend you do it on a VERY, VERY SMALL batch. Think salad; great right after you make it, not so great after two days in the fridge. Attached a link to my post about some of the issues.

    http://longboardvineyards.com/blog/category/green

    Oded

  2. SUAMW says:

    Thanks, Oded.

    I plan to use one of the 3.5 gallon stainless steel stock pots I use to pasteurize my meads as a “fermentation tank”. That should give me about 2 gallons of finished wine. I’ll probably rack into and do secondary in 1 gallon jugs.

    The main concern for me is contamination in my tiny basement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAcWX6DHPjA (it has been significantly tidied up since this was shot).

  3. Arthur – I am not a “natural” wine adherent, but I have been moving toward doing less and less with the wine every vintage. It’s taken me 25 years to develop my “pre-emptive minimalism” – what Stephane Vivier proudly calls “lazy winemaking” – to it’s current level. I can say definitively that doing nothing is not for the un-practiced or un-committed.
    But since you are “willing” here goes – as I said, not a “natural” guy but I will attempt to answer your questions. 1) Sulfite only, just a little, if the grapes come in with rot or bird damage. 2) Scrub and sanitize like you are prepping for surgery. Why set yourself up for failure? 3) No. 4) You don’t. “Natural” means living with the winemaking environment you have. Funny how this fact seems to get lost in discussions of terroir. 5) There is no answer to this. Philosophers much more weighty than you and I have debated variants of this existential question through human history, to no resolution. Safe to say, with what I understand to be your predispositions and predilections, you probably will not like the result. But if you carry the experiment off – or if you are just lucky – you will make something that somebody out there will like.

  4. Thanks for the link/mention. Great points – I think there are a lot of holes in the Natural winemaking manifestos, but I also applaud the desire to do something as naturally as possible. Kind of like the Biodynamics debates – it’s all good, but neither side can really say the other is somehow “wrong” for doing it a different way (though they will! :).

  5. SUAMW says:

    John
    To your thoughts about #5: I will be making a “control” wine same fruit, same cellar. Presumably, we should be able to discern differences between the ‘natural’ wine vis-a-vis the perverse and unnatural one. The assumption, is that the ‘natural’ wine will show ‘place’ more clearly or faithfully.
    I am not out to make a wine anyone likes or dislikes. I am interested in how that sense of place will be manifested in the wine. The question is: which place? The vineyard? my car used to transport the fruit? my basement?
    So what do we expect the “natural” wine, to look, smell taste and feel like – relative to the “unnatural” one?
    Let’s speculate and see what we get.

    Joe:
    It’s not about “right” or “wrong” of the process for me. It’s about *”HOW”* the two finished products are different. Of course year-to-year consistency of that “HOW” would be interesting to observe. One year, I’ll have a lot of insects moving through the cellar – before, after and during fermentation. Another year, there will be more rodents…. Both are vectors of fermentative species.

  6. If you’d like Jamie Goode to spell it out, Arthur, how about actually reading the book?

  7. SUAMW says:

    Hi Tom
    If I get a copy, I will.
    I did not get the impression that the book offers case examples that, beyond what you described as a sincere go at categorizing of the impacts of various factors in the wine making process, illustrate how individual wines demonstrate how ‘naturally’ made wines differ from those made ‘unnaturally’.
    It’s not that I think the wines are not different. What I’d like to see is a demonstration of a common character in the wines of several producers making wine this way, using the same fruit and having their wines, as a group, be somehow distinct (in a common way) from wines made from the same fruit but with more conventional interventionist methods.

    • It goes into great detail about almost every addition a winemaker could make and reasons why or why not to pursue it. It’s very technical and I think you’d enjoy it.

      • SUAMW says:

        Tom, I’m sure I would – as I probably would enjoy the Louis/Dressner imports (as Mike Steinberger described them today).
        One hang up, for me, is that BD/Naturalists tout these wines as having greater fidelity to place (as opposed to the grapes?…). Yet, I have not come across a comparison of two or more wines, from the same vintage and vineyard, where one is made the ‘natural’ way and the other is made the conventional way.
        How can the claim of ‘showing place’ be made when such comparisons have not been articulated?

  8. Oded Shakked says:

    To All,
    One other insight from 25 years of molesting grapes… I find it helpful to think about winemaking in reverse. Start by thinking about when do you want the wine to peak and what do you want it to be like at that time (there is no right or wrong, just your subjective preference). Do you want it to be a fruit bomb or do you want some mushroomy layers showing? Will you need to (circle your choice) sell/drink it fast or do you want to let it age? It is easy then to get parameters for bottling, work back to barrel regime (if any), fermentation parctices, fruit handling, harvest parameters, and growing practices. For example: if you plan to age the wine 18 months in barrel and another year in the bottle then your yeast selection almost does not matter because yeast differences dissappear fast. Please DON’T take my word for it, make a trial and conduct a valid duo-trio test.
    Best natural wine I’ve ever had: 2/3rd fermented Pinotage served with ice cubes in a pint glass on a 108 degree day.

  9. SUAMW says:

    Wow, on the heels of my voicing frustration about Brett taint, comes this:

    http://www.winebusiness.com/suppliernews/?go=getSupplierNewsArticle&dataid=92569

    “Scott Laboratories is now offering Lallemand’s Anti-Brettanomyces product NO BRETT INSIDE to the North American wine market. NO BRETT INSIDE is a natural polysaccharide extracted from the Aspergillus niger fungus. Its effectiveness at controlling the Brettanomyces population has been demonstrated for several years in multiple laboratory tests and industrial-scale trials. Applied at the rate of 4-8 g/hL, No Brett Inside can reduce Brettanomyces populations significantly within days of treatment.”

    Is this “natural” (like casein, egg white or isinglass fining)? It certainly would eliminate the need for bisulfide at crush…

  10. Sulfites are added at crush to control undesirable bacterial species more than to control Brett. In reds, the sulfittes also sequester and stabilize some fraction of anthocyanin, that can later participate in maintaining the wine’s color. Sulfites also irreversibly bind to aldehydes – hopefully not present in fresh grapes but sometimes are – and increase their sensory threshold to the point they no longer “smell.”

    And IMO, no – the new anti-Brett product has no more place in the “natural” practice than the other fining products you mention, or gum arabic, or Velcorin, or MegaPurple (and so on, and so on…)

  11. Gee, how did I miss this debate?

    I think that Arthur is onto something: to “prove” the proposition that a “natural” wine expressed terroir more so, or better than a “manipulated, thereby unnatural” wine one needs to have side-by-side comparisons of grapes grown one way and the same grapes form the same vineyard grown another way (or would that be a number of other ways?); then, one needs to produce wine from the “natural” vineyard portion one way and wine from the “unnatural” vineyard portion another way (or would that be a number of other ways?)

    Have I made it clear yet how absurd this conversation can become?

    In my view, most of this nonsense is more ideological than it is winemaking.

    Maybe the Hippocratic oath was misapplied to medicine when it was meant to apply to winemaking: do no harm.

    • SUAMW says:

      Hi Thomas!

      Wouldjabelieve I was just thinking about calling you to see how you were?
      I am not out to “prove” anything – certainly not the superiority of one method over the other.
      I am simply curious to see how wines made from the same batch – one by “natural” methods and the other by the current, conventional methods, would differ.

      I don’t think there is anything absurd about that.

      I think that “natural winemaking” ought to be more than just a PR story. There should be a discernible difference in the wine such that if you drink a wine made with “natural” methods, and you don’t know that it was made that way, you would say: “Hmm, this and that about this wine makes me think it may have been made with “natural” methodology.”

      Otherwise, who the hell cares how the winemaker communed with the grapes, yeasts, etc.

  12. The problem is, Arthur, as I tried to point out: with all the methods of grape growing and wine production at our disposal, to make an experiment mean anything requires that you figure out every conceivable combination of “natural” and “unnatural” method/possibilities and then have to make the final decision concerning which of the myriad methods have validity. After that, then you must decide what the differences between or among the wines actually means with regard to grape growing, wine production, and “terroir.”

    I cannot understand why a beverage has such power over our intellects that it causes us to want to count the number of angels on that pin, unless, as I’ve commented above, these kinds of rabbit-hole-like discussions are as much (no, more) about ideology than they are about wine.

    There are two ways to produce wine: your way and someone else’s way. There is one way to drink wine: your way. The consumer’s task is to find the wine that fits his/her taste and ideology, because there’s going to be at least one out there that will do the trick.

    I boil the “natural/unnatural” argument to my ideology, which is, I want few or no petro-chemical or other chemistry in my wine that may be hazardous to my health. Other than that, how the wine gets to its state is a wonderful subject for the sake of knowledge, but meaningless for the sake of taste. An orange, oxidized, oddly impossible wine that was untouched by human hands still sucks to my taste as does an over-extracted, bombastic alcohol infusion device that made liberal use of coloring and chemistry.

    As for how I am doing–can you tell that I haven’t changed ;)

    • SUAMW says:

      Thomas, You know as well as I do that this is not how you test a hypothesis. You test one factor/element/variable at a time.

      In either case, the more I hear people discuss this, the more evident it becomes that “natural” winemaking is a PR gimmick, a BS story used to prey on peoples’ naivete. Sort of like Cherokee Hair Tampons (google it).

  13. “Cherokee Hair Tampons…”

    Yikes!

  14. Incidentally, I agree that the “natural” nuttiness is marketing (although there certainly are people who make a living writing about the phenomenon). I also believe in mass hysteria, and such things as this fit nicely into that niche.

    Still, a lot can be said for keeping a consumer product as chemistry free as possible. That’s why I grow my own fruits and vegetables, and maintain a freezer for the excess. Could that also be why I am crazily going to make wine this season???

    • SUAMW says:

      Well, Thomas, I have no issue with untainted consumables. Problem is that those contaminants that are harmful usually have a biological effect at levels below those of human thresholds of detection.
      It’s nice to know you’re putting safe things in your body, BUT the “naturalists” say their wines show place better – which means they taste different than those made in other ways.
      If this is not the case, then we are dealing with just a story. A warm, fuzzy story that appeals to people who have one view of the world.
      If you say your product is different in discernible ways because of the way you make it, then tell us what those detectable, observable traits are.

  15. Arthur,

    I don’t disagree with you on the marketing angle of the whole thing. Where I disagree is that you take the argument to the wrong entity.

    To me, the problem is not with those who seek to exploit through marketing; the problem is with those so easily open to being exploited.

    The people who write tomes that cloak their self absorption in some sort of crusade for the good of humanity–or the good of consumers–understand their prey. Neither the application of reason nor of intellectual pursuit will change that.

    • SUAMW says:

      I think that bringing this discussion to my tiny crevice of the Ethernet, I can create some sort of record which offers a moment of pause to those who stumble upon it and take the time to read.
      I don’t delude myself about changing the world. I am much too insignificant for that.
      Back when I was writing and recording music, I wrote a song which included the following lyric:

      In the heart of the crusader
      Lies a fundamental need
      Not to save the heathen
      But to watch him bleed

      You are preaching to the choir on your last point.

  16. I guess now I’ll shut up and make wine…

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