Pure Vintage

Is natural wine a fad or the next big thing in sustainable viticulture?


It’s easy these days to find out what’s in your food — and to avoid foods that contain GMOs, pesticides or simply too many unpronounceable ingredients. But turn into the wine aisle and all bets are off.

You can avoid synthetic pesticides and herbicides by choosing wines that are either certified organic or biodynamic. But most bottles contain all sorts of chemicals and additives that were added in the wine cellar. While not imminently dangerous, consumers might refuse to ingest these if they were listed on a loaf of bread or a box of Grape Nuts.

But because the FDA doesn’t regulate wines (that job falls to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), there are no labeling requirements for what goes into each bottle.

If there were, buyers might be shocked. In addition to the pesticides and herbicides that many conventional wineries use in the fields, winemakers routinely use chemicals and additives in the cellar.

Some of the more egregious include Velcorin (dimethyl dicarbonate, which essentially sterilizes the wine and requires wearing a hazmat suit to dispense it); a plastic polymer known as PVPP (used as a fining agent to remove astringency); and something called Mega Purple, a grape concentrate that is used to “plump up” the color of a pale red wine and add a jammy flavor.

Though USDA organic standards forbid the use of most of these additives, they allow less benign substances like enzymes, powdered tannins, oak chips, dry powdered fish bladder (Isinglass) and egg whites.

As the market for organic food has soared over the past decade, a parallel movement has been quietly humming along in the wine world. It turns out that many mass-produced wines have been tinkered with endlessly in the cellar; they might contain anything from designer yeast strains and bentonite clay to the chemicals listed above.

So, mirroring the organic-food movement, a scrappy and somewhat rebellious movement has sprung up that champions so-called natural wines. The phrase, and the practice, is controversial, because there’s no agreed-upon definition of natural wine, and neither is there a third-party certifier.

However, Dana Frank, the co-owner of Dame, a new Northeast Portland restaurant that exclusively serves naturally made wines, says the wines that make it onto her list are first and foremost made from organic or biodynamic grapes; are wild fermented (made with native yeasts, found in the cellar or on the grapes themselves); contain no to low sulfur; and don’t have any synthetic chemicals, period.

Even chaptalization — a common winemaking practice in which you add sugar to the unfermented grape must to increase alcohol content — alters the character of the wine, says Frank.

“If certain years don’t give you enough sugar, that’s partly the story of our climate change,” says Frank. “Not to be cliché, but there is truth in wine.”

Natural wines are nothing new. In fact, wine has been made in this way for around 8,000 years, especially in Old World wine regions like France, Italy and Austria. But a new generation of wine drinkers, sommeliers and restaurant owners has fallen in love with these minimally manipulated wines. In recent years, wine bars and restaurants devoted to serving natural wines have popped up in New York, San Francisco, Montreal and now Portland — with both Ardor (on North Killingsworth street) and Dame opening in 2016.

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Though nearly half of Oregon’s planted vineyard acreage is certified sustainable, according to Michelle Kaufmann at the Oregon Wine Board, the board doesn’t keep track of who practices natural winemaking. Anecdotally, the number of Oregon wineries making natural wines is small, but bar owners and distributors say they see a steady increase in interest.

“Natural wine is definitely becoming more prominent,” says Owen Kotler, a Seattle-based natural wine importer who distributes to Ardor and Dame, as well as Portland restaurants Headwaters and Holdfast.

It’s impossible to know just by looking if a bottle of wine is natural. Splurging for a higher-end bottle doesn’t ensure it’s minimally manipulated; many expensive wines contain chemicals and additives.

At Ardor’s high-ceilinged space — Red E Café by day — you can sample one of a dozen or so natural wines by the glass or order from among 200 bottles. Making natural wines accessible to all people is important to co-owners Ryan Jones and Victor Martinez.

“I tell people who come into the shop that natural winemaking is Montessori school for grapes,” Jones says. “The winemaker is the teacher and their job is to provide some guidelines, as opposed to the tyrannical teacher who knows your intended outcome before you start.”

Frank, whose husband Scott is the (natural) winemaker at Bow & Arrow wines in Northeast Portland, says she had more selfish motives.

“These are the wines I like to drink the most,” she says.

Both spots are up-front about their focus. “If you’re gonna bill yourself as a natural wine bar, you have to have a tightly reined-in dogmatic definition of it,” says Jones.

Though some extreme natural wine folks subscribe to a zero-sulfur ethic, Martinez, like Frank, allows minimally sulfured wines to grace his menu. Both owners define natural wines in terms of organic or biodynamically farmed grapes, no manipulations or additives, and only native yeast fermentations.

While Frank and Martinez embrace dogma, many of the Oregon winemakers whose wines make the cut at Dame and Ardor avoid strict definitions, including the “natural” label, like the plague.

For example, Chad Stock, proprietor of Minimus Wines, who uses either no sulfur or exceedingly low sulfur (depending on the grape) and doesn’t manipulate his wines one bit, and Kelley Fox, whose wines are on the menu at Dame, don’t market themselves as natural winemakers. Johan Vineyards winemaker Dan Rinke also eschews the natural label because, he says, it’s contentious.

He prefers the term terroirist.

As these variations suggest, natural wine is divisive within the industry. Conventional winemakers say natural winemaking is a silly trend that often produces “flawed” wines with barnyardy flavors.

Tony Soter of Soter Vineyards is one of the skeptics. He practices biodynamic farming and is not a fan of over-manipulated wines. But Soter scoffs at natural winemaking. “I think so-called natural winemaking is simply a fad. It’s not, to my way of thinking, unlike barrel fermentation or battonage [an old-world winemaking method involving hand-stirring]. These are all ways to market wine.”

“Not to be cliché, but there is truth in wine.”

Winemaker John Grochau thinks natural winemaking is here to stay, but he’s bothered by the lack of definition. “It’s more a philosophical theory that’s amazingly malleable depending on who you talk to,” he says.

For their part, natural winemakers argue their wines are unusual, alive and expressive of what’s happening in the vineyard.

“I think by adding nonessential things — tannins, enzymes, acid, water, sugar — that all changes the flavor of what the vineyard gives you. And so, in a way, you’re bastardizing terroir by adding any of these things,” says Rinke.

Many natural winemakers say conventional winemakers manipulate their wines in part because reliably consistent tasting wine is what sells best. Scott Frank, who claims the mantle of a natural winemaker, is amused that someone making natural wine might be a de facto insult to people who make wine conventionally.

“I think all this hostility comes from a feeling of insecurity. It reminds me of old people getting cranky at the music their kids are listening to. ‘That’s not music! It’s just a fad! You should listen to Peter, Paul & Mary!’”

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There’s definitely a nonconformist bent to this band of purists — a defiance of being put in a box. Many of them listened to punk music (or were in a punk band); they talk wistfully of drinking “challenging” wines from Italy (and from their own cellars); they swear freely. And many are wary of pushing forward with an official “natural wine” certification.

“I don’t think natural wines should be defined because the first thing that will happen is it will be bought, owned and capitalized on by the big négociant wineries,” Fox says, referring to big wineries that buy up grapes from smaller growers.

What’s more important to Fox — whose logo immortalizes the ubiquitous earwig — is her loyalty to the two biodynamic vineyards she sources from.

“Is the farm living? Does it have harmony? Is it not a monoculture? It’s not just the earth, it’s who lives there — it’s the stars, the butterflies, the flora and fauna,” she says.

Though Bow & Arrow wines are natural, Scott Frank doesn’t lead with that. “I think 90% of the people who drink my wine don’t give a shit. So why would I force this narrative on them?”

What’s more curious to Frank is why the subject is so controversial in winemaking circles.Screen Shot 2016 12 22 at 11.05.21 AM

“Would you rather have a food that has a lot of chemicals and unnecessary ingredients in it, or would you rather have food that’s devoid of that?” he asks. “I’ve never found that to be a difficult subject matter to wade through, but it seemingly causes a fair number of winemakers a fair amount of consternation.”

Some non-natural winemakers are more accepting.

“When you really talk to natural winemakers, their main argument — which I think is completely valid — is that they don’t want to mask their soil,” says winemaker Alex Sokol Blosser. “They don’t want to mask their vintage. And if the vintage gives you stinky wine, then it’s going to be stinky. I’m all right with that. That’s valid. That’s cool.”

His family’s winery, Sokol Blosser, has been a pioneer of sustainability in the Oregon wine industry. But the wines themselves are not what Sokol Blosser would call natural.

“But at the same time,” he says, “if you can use a wine-making technique to ensure that it’s not a draconian process and you’re able to make a wine that is cleaner and higher quality, then why not do that?”

Sokol Blosser filters and fines the wines and uses non-native yeasts.

Though natural winemaking comprises just a blip in terms of overall wine production in the U.S., the movement seems here to stay, say many in the industry.

“The people who are behind it are fully behind it and unwavering,” says Megan Krigbaum, a contributing editor at Punch, an online magazine that covers the drinking culture.

Krigbaum cites the uptick in natural wine-focused bars, restaurants and shops across the U.S. — from Rouge Tomate in New York City to Lou Wine Shop in Los Angeles — as a sign of the wine-drinking public’s continuing interest in non interventionist wines.

Last February, the two-day Big Glou in Williamsburg, Brooklyn featured 100 natural winemakers and attracted more than 1,000 natural wine lovers. Isabel Legeron, author of Natural Wine, founded the RAW Wine fair in London in 2012, and since then it has become a multi country affair with outposts in Berlin and Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Here in Portland, natural-leaning winemakers Kate Norris and Tom Monroe at Division Winemaking Co. are planning the American Wine Revival, a natural wine fair focused on New World producers, for 2017.

In France the authority that oversees the country’s 350-plus wine appellations is exploring a government-controlled regulation for natural wines. But Fox isn’t the only Oregon vintner skeptical of natural wine certification. “The natural wine movement is made up of a bunch of fuckin’ rebels that essentially don’t want to be regulated,” says Chad Stock at Minimus.

Whether or not natural wines are ever defined or regulated here, Stock believes the mainstream wine-drinking public’s tastes are starting to shift. “How long did it take for us to stop eating TV dinners and start embracing organic food?” he asks.

A version of this article appears in the January 2017 issue of Oregon Business.

Hannah Wallace

Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based writer.

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