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.


To experience my visit to Marsala, post here.

First Pet-Nat of the Summer: Broc Cellars 2015 Sparkling Chenin Blanc

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This is one delicious bottle of wine!

When I think of Pet-Nat, I think vivacious, fun and in the hands of most winemakers, gentle and soothing effervescence.

More something to accompany than to lead.

I think of easy afternoons and leaning back. I remember with a smile my friend Sophie Barret calling Pet-Nat some years back ‘a summer’s fling’ when comparing it to the perfection of Champagne.

This bottle is so much more.

It wraps the trifecta of an ancient plot of California Chenin Blanc, the simple methodology of Pétillant Nature with the light and minimalist touch of one of my favorite natural winemakers, Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars.

To the palate, this bottle of 2015 sparkling Chenin is alive and approachable, carrying a powerful balance of minerality and acidity.

To the nose, something floral in the oozing effervescence.

And to the body and soul, just satiation that wafts easily on a warm day, yet with the indelible mark of a unique place and specific winemaker.

To those who don’t know Chris’s work, consider yourself fortunate to have such discovery in front of you.

He is one of the new world natural winemakers who are all in on a non-interventionist approach, without being ostentatious or loud about it.

Just making wine naturally that carries his individual fingerprint as a winemaker be it this bottle, his Grenache, Syrah, white or red Zin.

He makes his wines in Berkeley, California sleuthing out the organic, the obscure, the said-they-couldn’t-be-found plots of grapes everywhere. His wines are by definition restrained, terroir-obsessed, naturally low in alcohol, residual sugar and SO2, yet strong and resilient in character.

His wine feels kindred in character to the remarkable Clairets from Domaine de la Tournelle in the Jura. Such a light yet studiously standoffish touch with such strength of conviction in the result.

Every bottle is unmistakably his.

From the often ethereal graphics on his labels to the undeniable take-away of satisfaction, this wine is not in your face, but in your head and on your palate in a memorable way.

I fell for Pétillant Naturel as a way of making sparkling wine years ago, from the very first time someone poured one. I think one from Philippe Bornard.

An ancient and simple method, basically bottling wine before it has finished fermenting. With the bubbles forming naturally as the wild yeasts digest sugar in the grape juice and release carbon dioxide that is trapped inside the bottle.

Often hand disgorged as the lots are small, and in this one, non-dosage (no added sugar) as well.

The conundrum here of course is that Chris made only 152 cases, and his wine disappears into the glasses of the community quickly.

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 7.17.48 PMTry and find it. At $30, it is a true afternoon delight. If you do, check out the technical notes as they will deepen the story and your enjoyment along with it.

If you can’t find this one, try something else of Chris’s.

More and more I believe that vintage or even grape is somehow less important.  That the wine we love comes from an emotional affair between a unique place in time and the intent and skill of each individual winemaker themselves.

I’ll consider this post a success if it spurred you to uncork one of his bottles, Pet-Nat or no.

And a huge from-the-heart thanks to my friend Arianna Rolich at Chambers Street Wines, who always saves bottles of the very best and most interesting for me to try.

She was so right on with this one!

The times are a changing in the wine world

There was a quiet announcement this week that Alice Feiring has been chosen to chair a new award, Free Wine, at the annual Italian wine event Vinitaly.


Alice is a friend–all heart, smarts, passion and spunk. She has also been pioneering natural wine with unabashed frankness and tenacity for as long as I can remember.

One one level, I wanted to raise a glass and point to my post from 2012 where I imagined that the natural wine movement was indeed going mainstream.

That is naive of course.

Too simplistic a retort for a uniquely complex market with wildly nuanced relationships with a variety of consumer wine segments.

In the last 5-6 years the wine world has changed dramatically. We are in a renaissance reveling in innovation and excellence.

Small lot producers have populated the top of the wine lists and the top shelves at retailers the world over. Somms champion them, special events showcase them, the retail model pioneered by Chambers Street Wines here in New York has been innovated on everywhere.

It is certainly true that with winemaking innovation occurring everywhere I can buy an unsulfured bottle of amazing wine every day at below market prices 100 feet from my subway stop.

But something of far greater import is going on.

Beyond me certainly.

I believe that the process of aculturation that happened with organic food and ingredients, driven by stores like Whole Foods is just beginning to happen to the wine world.

Not everyone who shops at Whole Foods buys organic products. A very small percentage of consumers shop there at all, but from an awareness level of organic and farm to table produce, the explosion of green markets in urban centers and the scores of startups connecting farms to city residents, what they popularized has certainly trickled down.

Way down to the middle of the market. To every strata of generational uniqueness from the millennials to the baby boomers.

From what Alice Waters pioneered to the fortunate few in Berkeley back when to the Falafel stands in every neighborhood using organic produce and offering gluten free pita today.

This change has contributed to the rise of the wellness market where it touches how we view the world as consumers and what and where we buy with our expendable incomes.

Wine is not food of course.

And while many classify it as a luxury item they are missing the point.

Over the last two decades wine has slowly started to become part of the fabric of our culture.

It entered as a luxury item certainly, and in our unformed cultural state, our standards for taste were dictated by the unambiguity of the Parker point scale that kickstarted a movement that subsequently grew up and disowned it.

And by a host of pundits who aloof from the realities of the marketplace have defined excellence to their own standards. Not necessarily incorrect just increasingly more irrelevant and arcane.

This is why I’m excited about Alice’s work with Vinitaly.

Certainly there are many events and shops, blogs and tastings that are highlighting the changes in our wine world.

But what needs to happen now is—and I can’t believe I’m saying this honestly—not for natural wine to be known and adopted more widely but for a new era of wine as part of our culture to begin.

For new awareness by more people and a corresponding open language of appreciation to be created at a consumer level.

This will happen not only through the enthusiast wine community that I am very much a part of.

But through new communities and clubs that approach this in their own ways.

Smart groups who by understanding their markets and the unique way wine is part of their lives, will find a way to make it feel natural to them. New language to express what they like. New ways to buy and socialize it.

We are in the very primordial days where broader market segments are creating their own communities of interest and understanding about wine.

Where the consumer will internalize a vocabulary of appreciation of wine that is natural to their own speech. That is based on enjoyment and grounded in the curiosity that people naturally want to understand what satisfies them. To simply have fun.

That is what we do with food.

That is what we will do with wine. As part of our culture and part of how we interact with people.

So why is it important that Alice is chairing a new series of wine awards? Being given a microphone of influence to the market?

Alice is someone with very strong opinions, unique tastes but she approaches wine with openness, complete transparency and an understanding that it is about people and enjoyment.

She is simply completely unafraid to be different and that is what we need.

She may look at something obscure like the trend towards no sulfur added wines, but she will evaluate them, in her own words, for “emotional impact, liveliness and drinkability”.

She will bring the unique and the interesting to the many in language they can make their own. With approachability for people to learn from and enjoy.

This is why I applaud this.

A changing of the guard from the old generation to a new kind of expertise.

A new openness to change that speaks to enjoyment and the connection with a changing marketplace of people with a new set of beliefs.

A world where an ethos of taste can be a new criteria for excellence.

Big congrats Alice! Choosing you is the wise choice for all of us!