Do we still need a natural wine category?

Natural wine bubbled up from the simple belief that there was a uniquely different and more natural way to produce, enjoy and celebrate wine.

That there was a new language, more common to us all, to articulate our tastes and understand winemakers as part of a natural process.

That wine, personal wellness and the popular embrace that we are stewards for our planet are all connected in some way.

A dance between ancient methods and modern interpretations. A mashup between science and lore.

The power of natural as a category was its flexibility and openness. Its inclusiveness and diversity.  Its very lack of definition spurred innovation in how wine is made and appreciated over the last decade.

As we look across the wine world today we see a huge uptick of innovative producers, an almost unimaginable number of excellent natural wines and a shared knowledge base across a global community of winemakers.

We are all the beneficiaries of this.

But something is shifting on the edges of this world.

An almost unfettered spike of diversity and bold innovation within the ‘traditions of natural wine’ (if I dare to use that term) and as well, very much out of that mainstream.

Spurred I think by a generational shift in the producers and the consumers alike.

There has been a huge influx of first generation winemakers across the spectrum of ages and backgrounds but as a rule—smart, innovative, knowledgeable of tradition but cut loose to push the boundaries on every front.

Natural wine was never a flag to be worn.

Never a slogan on a t-shirt or for that matter, up front and in your face from the most successful producers, importers, retailers and bloggers during the formative years.

Some of the most famous natural producers, disliked the word but embraced the idea in their craft.

But is was most assuredly a belief that bound a community together.

It was part of a continuum and a collective reaction to a world of wine that eschewed the modernization of its language, that fought against accepting change in the definition of the product itself and rejecting the wisdom of the market itself to define what it liked.

This is a formative period in the history of the natural wine market.

While percentage wise natural wine (if really countable) is small, it is economically substantial by the size of the total market itself.

It is influential beyond its size and has not only helped recalibrate what we consider good taste, but has impacted acceptance (and growth) of organic and bio-dynamically produced grapes worldwide.

Look at the spikes of innovation at the edges of the natural wine category today.

The truly exhilarating experimentation with skin-fermented white wines has taken over the imagination of the market this year. Quietly disrupting a host of preconceptions about what we taste, where it is comes from, and the role of intent in the hands of the winemakers themselves.

Open your mind and your tastes to the products that are coming out of the mostly millennial back-to-the-farm generation of winemakers.

This generation came of age when the natural market was already in place along with an infrastructure of distributors and shops, bloggers and financing.

They are making wine from mead, apples and fortifying traditional beverages like Vermouth in whacky and wonderful ways. Steeped in (literally) and brilliantly knowledgeable of herbal and botanical traditions, they are Apple farmers, apiarists and herbologists making fermented beverages.

Different, delicious and natural.

Selling into the same markets and sitting on the shelves in wine shops next to bottles of skin-fermented Grillo from Marsala or unsulfured Mouvedre from the highlands North of Sacramento.

I believe that the idea of natural for food and wine is just getting started in our markets and will continue to evolve at an even faster rate.

My bet is that a few years from now we will certainly be drinking herbally-infused grape wines and fermented Kvas sold in our local wine shops.

We will be seeing categories of natural foods coming from hydroponic factories growing kale for urban consumption in refabricated warehouses in Green Point.

As a population we don’t need clubs to feel wanted or to influence markets with our purchasing power, we need communities that are supportive of change and innovation.

We don’t need flags to exclude those with different ideas, we need open belief systems that are inclusive by nature holding forth on core ethics and lionizing innovation above all else.

I think natural in wine is one of those anomalies in the history of community movements that understands that its power is in its looseness of definition and its ability to encourage change.

There is no real debate on definition. It’s  just an approach, an underlying ethical glue towards what we consume as food and drink.

People need language to think in, categories of beliefs to rely on and community to identify with.

Natural wine just works–and is organic enough as a construct to evolve with us as we and the product itself changes.

My bet it’s going to be here for a long time to come and we are better for it.

An all natural wine selection for Thanksgiving

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I use the same headline every year for my Thanksgiving post.

And every year there are more quality natural wines, from more diverse places, made by producers I’ve never drank before, showing new innovations and at better prices.

There has simply never been a better time in history to be alive and be a lover of wine. We are so very lucky in this respect.

This year with the help of my good friends Ariana from Chambers Street Wines and Christy from Frankly Wines, I think I nailed it.

Truly outstanding wines from Oregon, Quebec, France, Sicily and Spain. With a splash of mead thrown in.

Here’s the selection:

Terroir Historic (Terroir Al Límit) 2015 Priorat Negre ($28.99)

The crowd favorite red this holiday.

Dominik Huber is a truly talented German winemaker making restrained natural reds and whites in the Priorat, in Spain.

Much less ripe that you’d expect, significantly reduced alcohol and making not a wine of place, but a wine of region. This bottle is a blend from a scattering of organic plots with telltale llicorella clay and alluvial soils of the Priorat.

Tightly wound acids, brambly herbal berries. As Ariana Rolich put it well, ‘a Priorat for minimalists’.

To me the bottle simply says Drink Me now!

Partida Creus 2015 Catalunya Massís de Bonastre Xarello ($29.99)

This was the crowd favorite white. Basically vanished in a moment.

We know the grape Xarello from Spanish Cavas, but was new2me as a still wine.

This is simply a head-nodding beautiful bottle–mineral rich, bright, citrus, nteresting and juicy at the same time.

This one is naturally a bit wild, no added SO2, and six months on the lees. Some time on the skins is obvious through the grip of the tannins and bouquet.

I’m buying a magnum for the Chanukah gathering of the same group.

Buy and try this if you can find it.

Swick Wines 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir  ($27.99)

Joe Swick and I have spoken in depth about natural wine. He is outspoken, so very wine savvy, an uncompromising purist and 5th generation Oregonian from Portland.  And need I mention, a true talent.

This bottle is a silky, textured and brambly Pinot, sourced from several cooler Willamette Valley sites (Cancilla, Medici, and Fairsing vineyards). A light touch with a satisfying palate that leaves you with berries on the mouth, savory in the nose, and just satisfying all over.

I’ve been drinking this bottle over and over since its release.

Feels just right each time.

Joe nailed it with this one.

Romeo del Castello 2015 Etna Rosato Vigorosa ($28)

I had the pleasure of meeting Rosanna Romeo and her daughter Chiara Vigo when in Etna a number of years ago.

I remember well their story of how the eruption of Mt. Etna in 1981 reduce 60 hectares of vines to 14 and left huge lava beds on their property.

This wine speaks to me of my love of Etna and my pining to return.

That unique taste that even in a rose is vibrant and savory, bright and acidic with a crisp finish and a spice to the aftertaste that simply won’t end.

Delicious bottle that was a perfect complement to the others at the table. I kept this one near to me the entire meal.

Source du Ruault 2013 Saumur Blanc “La Coulee d’ Aunis” ($17)

I knew this wine the least prior to drinking it. Quite a discovery.

Comes from a tiny one-hectare parcel of Chenin Blanc of almost entirely Turounien Limestone in the Loire Valley.

Perfect pre-meal, hanging around nibbling while cooking and chatting. It is lean, mineral with a silky suppleness to it that that drew me in immediately.

A bit too austere for the group, but I grabbed and nursed this one myself.

A discovery and a huge bargain at $17.

I have another one in the fridge for for some saw goat cheese I picked up at the market today.

Desrochers–Foehn Ferme Apicole Honey Wine ($37)

This is a completely natural Pet Nat mead from Northern Quebec.

Unfiltered. Unfined. No added SO2 with the yeasts cultivated from the pollens collected from the same bees that brought in the honey for this bottle.

I met the winemaker and apiarist at my panel at the Raw Fair a few weeks ago and tracked this bottle down.

As intriguing as it is delicious. Clearly not a wine made from grapes and as a beekeeper years ago, I could taste the honey in the aftertaste though it is completely dry and magically satisfying.

Super natural in every way. Twelve months on the lees, non dosage, nothing added.

Not only does this winemaker have real talent but he is certainly part of a new generation that will I am certain redefine what natural means to all of us.

Try this or the other wines linked to in the post of my panel.

I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

To close

Been a while since I threw together a post on what I’ve been drinking, rather than spit out bottle pics on Instagram

This was more fun and more useful.

I hope you enjoyed it. I am certain you will enjoy the wine!

Rethinking natural wine

It was less than half a decade ago that natural wine was a wildly polarizing topic, riddled with acerbic accusations and challenged viciously by the then wine establishment.

That was then, this is now–thankfully.

Today after the hard work of many and a shift in marketplace itself,  the idea that we can make excellent and interesting wine, naturally without additives and with minimal intervention from organic fruit is simply part of our consuming culture.

This is grounded in a ever-growing population of winemakers from every possible corner of the globe and a powerful, congenial and loose-knit community of winelovers that binds it all together.

What is astounding is that natural wine is the only segment of the massive natural food market that has carved out an authentic consumer definition without certification, without governmental control, without a governing body of any sort.

To me–it is certainly the better for it.

Some may argue that this is its shortcoming. I think just the opposite.

Natural wine is a cultural exercise in authenticity and transparency. And I’ve come to realize recently, one where inclusivity and diversity on both the producer and the consuming side are key to its allure and staying power.

The inspiring creativity of the winemakers themselves within this segment, the support of an ever-growing and aware consumer market, and a global supply chain of producers, importers, shops, restaurants, bars, bloggers and super enthusiasts have come together to make this so.

This change could only happen from a bottoms up market-driven movement, not one mandated top down by legislating bodies.

The magic of course is that natural wine doesn’t end with a label or cert on the bottle or even a scale of taste owned by the pundits.

It culminates when the expression of the artisan meets the satisfaction of the consumer around a collective ethos of taste.

Natural is a choice. Self policed in many respects.

Certainly there are people who stretch the common definition and those that abuse it.

But wine generally, and natural wine specifically, is almost never a self-serve market.

As a product wine is not bought, it is sold.

Sold by people who are the curators of these often unique approaches and who they themselves, by their own knowledge and reputations, certify the truth of the disclosures around what they are selling.

I admit that there is both ambiguity and messiness here.

But I believe that the success of natural wine as an approach to winemaking with its corresponding market is more powerful because of this.

Winemakers follow their hearts and beliefs, consumers simply listen to what excites them, feels true and authentic.

Within this loose definition of what is natural wine is a built-in flexibility, an acceptance not of a standard of taste, but by an expectation of diversity of taste itself.

I’ve blogged on this since the beginning and have fought against the idea that only by certs does authenticity stay honest.

But I’m also realizing that the inchoate nature of natural wine is what lets it grow and continue to evolve.

In thinking about the upcoming Raw Fair and my panel of natural fermenters making honey wines, ciders and Vermouth, this has jumped out at me.

It’s been an education as I’ve dug into how mead, cider and Vermouth are made from a technical standpoint. And as different and truly fascinating they are to this natural wine geek, but that is not what interests me most.

As I start to understand these fermenters, as individuals and artisans, they are similar at their cores to many of my heroes in the natural wine world.

Impassioned and astutely knowledgeable. Impractical and iconoclastic. Driving a process that they both control by their decisions and are simply holding on to in others as nature simply takes it course.

Each and every one of these artisans starts with an ethos of how they view their relationship to place—their definition of local–be it the Hudson Valley or Vermont, or Brooklyn.

How they include the intent of the maker in the definition of terroir. How they think about how they farm bees, for example, to create the raw honey for the mead with as much studied knowledge and personalized mythologies as many approach Biodynamics as a way of farming.

How diverse these disciplines truly are—in some ways more so–than wines made from grapes.

How by adding herbs, botanicals and vegetables to the fermenters ingredients, they are sculpting something quite new. A fermented natural beverage but not simply wine.

This has been both challenging and inspiring to me as I think about this panel. Trying to uncover what matters to the market and what challenges these artisans have.

And I’m considering an approach that focuses not by how what they do is different, but by how they approach their trade and carry through a similar set of ethics in a different process to a common end.

These questions are bubbling up for the natural fermenters at my Raw Fair panel:

-Do you consider yourselves winemakers?

Or something completely different?

Legally you are winemakers making alcoholic beverages sold to the public, but in the market’s eye, the process of making mead for example is so dramatically different than the traditional concept of a winemaker. Is this a branding challenge for you?

-What does idea of terroir and the importance of place mean to you?

We think of winemaker and place more than grape and vintage for natural wine. They are an expression of place itself, literally part of their own terroir.

Is this true for you?

-What does natural mean to you?

Do you have a different definition that you adhere to? A modified version tied to the characteristics of your product. What are you criteria for using additives including SO2?

-How does referring to themselves as farmers and artisans impact the market’s view of your craft?

Do you think of mead or cider as closer to a crop that a farmer makes, or closer to the luxory item that wine certainly is to the broader marketplace?

-What is your view of the role of the artisan as it relates to intent on how your product should taste?

Natural winemakers consider themselves not shepards of a natural process, but more sculptors making decisions and integral to the expression of place usually thought of as terror. Is this the same for you?

-What do they want the natural wine market, the consumer to think of you?

As something uniquely different and dancing to a different drummer? Or part of the diversity of making fermented products in ancient ways for a modern market? As winemakers?

I noticed that Ciders and Vermouths are sold through the same channels as wine. At least in my neighborhood, this is not the same for mead? I see this as a concern especially in New York as here, the most influential people in the wine business are the buyers working the floors of our wine shops, selling to the public.

This is good stuff and I think the telling discussion topics worth considering.

It’s about wine certainly. It’s about an embrace of a natural approach to create something new. It’s about how we as a culture think about, categorize and embrace the things that matter to us.

If you are in New York next Sunday and Monday, the 6th and 7th  of November, come see us at the Raw Fair.

If you are around on Monday in the afternoon, I would be thrilled to meet you at the panel.

What is naturalness in fermented drinks beyond wine?

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This is going to be fun!

On Monday November 7th, I will be moderating a panel at the first New York Raw Wine Fair on how we think about naturalness in fermented products besides wine.

And how those products are positioned in a marketplace that has adopted natural wine as a standard that consumers have come to understand.

I’m honestly psyched about moderating this panel.

First is the people.

The quality and passion of these four crazy fermenters is off the charts.

Within the categories of Vermouth, Mead and Cider, they are the natural rockstars. The innovators and iconoclastic change agents for their disciplines.

Their stories, in a few cases, are being told to the New York wine community for the first time at this panel.

This is not only about fermented drinks, it is about a perfect wave of cultural change in our world.

The natural wine revolution over the last decade has been a mirror into a much larger, inclusive and global cultural change.

There has been a perfect storm brewing where a growing and influential segment of the population is thinking about what we eat, drink and how it is made. They are taking responsibility for not only the health of the planet but of their own health and wellness as well.

And embracing diversity not simply in the details of a biodiverse agricultural approach, but in our view of a more diverse culture, wired together by communities across the web.

I have called this the Ethos of Taste.

On this panel, we will see how these ideas come together for these individual fermenters.

How their products which are made so differently from wine, are indeed  ‘natural’ and how that plays into the broader marketplace.

The four fermenters are:

Raphael Lyon from Enlightenment Wines (Mead, New York)

Géraud Bonnet from Ferme Apicole Desrochers D (Mead, Canada)

Jonny Piana from Fable Farm Fermentory (Cider, Vermont)

Bianca Miraglia from Uncouth Vermouth (Vermouth, Brooklyn)

If you care to offer me some advice.

I am in the process of creating questions for the panel and thinking through the format as we have only an hour for the session.

If you have ideas, share them.

If you have strong opinions on a structure that would work, I’m ready to listen.

A shout out of  Thanks! to my good friend Isabelle Legeron.

Isabelle is the vision and passion behind the Raw fairs, held throughout Europe.

She is also a powerful and authentic voice for natural wine, for biodiverse agriculture, for the ethos of what we believe in and how it redefines scales of taste in wine and food.

Big thanks for letting me be part of this Isabelle!

So–come to the fair, to the tastings, to the sessions and the parties!

It’s going to be a full-blown bacchanalia like only the natural wine community in New York can put on!

Trust me on this, as there many winemakers in town and they will be pouring not only at the fair, but at wine bars and restaurants across in the city. This community seriously knows how to celebrate.

The Raw Wine Fair runs Sunday and Monday the 6th and 7th of November in Brooklyn. Details here.

See you there!

Serendipity in a bottle

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Few things can satisfy, connect and inspire, yet remain as inexplicable, as a bottle of wine.

Few things carry with them such an encyclopedia of scientific knowledge that is invariably trumped by the simple power of nature’s almanac.

And for all of the things we love and write about, we are always a bit speechless to communicate the nuance of how a bottle of wine, uniquely special with all its details, is really only about our experience of it.

This strikes home when you have one of those serendipitous wine experiences that open up a stream of connected remembrances.

The other evening, this bottle of Grillo was the Proustian trigger that kicked this off.

I was at an impromptu family gathering at Taboon on 10th Ave in Hells Kitchen. Last minute call to celebrate a  birthday.

Mediterranean food was piled high on the table. Plates of hummus, bowls of salsa, chopped salads, Baba Ganoush, Tabouli, grilled Octopus, Tuna, tomatoes, squash and pita to die for.

The big aha was discovering this almost-never-seen-in-New York bottle of Grillo from Nino Barraco, an obscure and quite wonderful natural winemaker,

I know this bottle well as five years ago this September, I had visited the winemaker with a group of friends and remember the jolting ride down a long, bumpy and soggy road to his vineyard where the salt marshes outside of Marsala, Sicily touch the steep cliffs above the sea.

There was literally nothing there but the Mediterranean in front of you, breezes rolling cross the sea from Africa and windswept untrellised Grillo vines everywhere. Unplanted almost nowhere else. Indigenous to this part of Sicily but still a rarity.

The group of us (see pic in this post) were hanging around a makeshift shack with Nino, the winemaker, in the warm afternoon Sicilian sun, drinking the very first vintage of Vignammare, 100% Grillo, grown in the tiny vineyard where we stood.

He laid out the feast on a wood plank along with fresh sea urchin and shrimp that the his family had harvested for us that morning.

Picture of a truly joyous and perfect day.

The sea, the grapes, the purity of fermented juice made with such passion and intent.  As natural and non-interventionist  as can be– organic, spontaneous fermentation. Unfiltered, unclarified, unsulphured.

And very special to me in retrospect, as this was still an early taste of skin-fermented white wine—somewhat new to me then, an obsession to me now–adding the minerality of the soil, the salt of the sea, the bouquet of the marsh and the bite on the palate as a pinch to memorialize all this together.

I shared this story with the table in the very noisy corner of the restaurant, heads shook with appreciation as they emptied glass after glass, after bottle.

I had them look at the richly golden color of the wine, held up against the candle light, appreciating that this was white wine, made like red.

They listened to my over zealous spin on why skin is the human touch of winemaking, where people meet the true depth of place, and somehow, it becomes the epitome of connection, perfect as the fingerprint of time, place, people, weather under the overarching shades of our own thoughts that color everything we do.

They literally drank it in.

My enthusiastic story of Marsala and my community of blogger friends by the sea wedded to this gathering of family in Hell’s Kitchen on a steamy, raucous and joyous New York evening.

This is the good stuff of wine and life  to me.

Proust may have had his madeleine to spur a long and meditative tale.

We had our bottle of Grillo to celebrate the evening and ourselves.

This is my idea of perfect.

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To experience my visit to Marsala, post here.