Natural Winemaking Still Needs Tools


Kudos to Eric Asimov of The Pour for another article telling it like it is. Journalism like this makes it possible for winemakers like Mike Havens and Randy Dunn to come forth honestly about their use of micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis. In the current reactionist environment, make no mistake that these men are heros.

And I loved Eric's method to define “natural wine” by discussing the wine list of one of my favorite dining spots, Restaurant 360 in Brooklyn's Red Hook district. I know exactly what he means, because proprietor Arnaud Erhart picks such pearls from the Loire and all over which really exemplify the aesthetic I believe in -- wines of living soil that take skillful chances in the cellar and deliver as a result a dimensionality and soulfulness normally absent in today's scientific wines.

Thing is, Arnaud and I see completely eye to eye. My Roman Syrah is just such a wine – though I say it myself, one of the most successful sulfite-free syrahs on the market. I learned from Organics sage Paul Frey a key aspect, that living soil is necessary for this type of winemaking. I believe the enhanced mineral uptake gives the wine a healthier immune system. But just as important is a refined structure, for which I need proper ripeness and oxygen for structuring. I’m not making Parker wine – you won’t find many more distinctive, true-to-terroir offerings. I just need to work with the tannin until it integrates the aromas which the natural microbes impart into a single “voice,” so they will occur as soulful rather than spoiled.

So I do have one beef with Eric's article. Everything novel isn’t equally evil or industrially fabricated. In his description of natural winemakers, he seems to be under the impression that MOx and alcohol adjustment are lumped in their minds together with petroleum agriculture’s herbicides and pesticides. Without naming names, I can only assure Eric that this is far from the case. The opposite, really, in many cases, for our tools open the door to many organic practices.

Once again, the apparent weirdness of the names of these techniques seems to affront the scribes much more than the practitioners. In truth, plenty of conventional practices are interruptive of natural processes. They don’t sound weird, but they really are. How about electricity, inert gas, stainless steel and chlorine bleach?

Tannin refinement is what the Aztecs taught the Belgians. Chocolate making doesn’t deserve to be painted with the Technology brush – it’s just an artisanal cooking technique. Winemaking is a branch of cooking, and we’re employing exactly the same technique. Why consider it any differently? Oxygen is, after all, as natural as the air we breathe.

What’s the difference between industrial manipulation and artisanality? Asimov points to a failed wine on 360's list, a papery Alsatian riesling. Lesson learned: the trappings of non-interventionism don’t automatically make for good cooking! The key distinction is not in the tools, but how they are employed. Does the winemaker (or the chef) honor first and foremost the distinctive natural terroir expression, or do elements of stave wood, overripe jam and megapurple extract predominate? Does the wine have soulful dimensionality, or is it dull and predictable?

Hey, it ain’t easy. We are asking scientifically trained winemakers to move beyond what they know. To have a faith in natural balance and understanding of her proclivities requires commercial risk few outside wine production can fathom. Paradoxical though it may seem, the new tools Vinovation provides are allowing winemakers a safety net to experiment with the high wire act natural winemaking represents.

These issues are in flux. We’re on a steep learning curve, and no winemaker worth the name has his or her mind made up. Winelovers can encourage this process to be more public by maintaining an open mind. That’s my main dream: an open forum for winemakers to speak frankly and compare notes without fear of being type cast as Industrial Manipulators. Writers like Asimov make a huge contribution every time they bring insightful and generous journalism to this critical and, actually, tremendously entertaining enquiry.