Tag Archives: Natural Wine

Northwest Natural Wine Night

As dinner party’s go this one turned out to be out of this world. The mix of characters worked swell, the invited included both curveballs and straight shooters— this the odd woven with the even. There was even an expectational tardy arrival of our party’s Hickey Boggs from The Iceman Cometh along with his second player— Larry Slade the syndicalist anarchist.

Putting things on ice

By paternal drive I was sent at subsonic speed into Seattle’s undercover natural wine scene. Sure, there is biodynamic wine, there is organic wine and then there is this all but impossible category to pin down that enthusiast’s refer to as “natural wine.” This is the best of the best or depending on your taste the mother of all disasters. Robert’s Rules of Reality (just back off buster I’m allowed to create my own reality) clearly state there can exist no such mapped location— fads, sensations current trends are all mere phantoms— natural wine like our favorite gods come scattered across the firmament, they are unbound and hidden everywhere.

Non-interventionist winemaking will never scale, the wild eyed ‘vineyardistas’ are in pursuit of an experience that the mainstream wine industry has all but relegated to the past. Too many pragmatic winemakers have lost the capitalistic chutzpa to bring this quixotic narrative back to life. Natural wine is the small is beautiful-keep it simple stupid answer to mind numbing sameness. Mistake number one is the conventional wine industry overuses the yeast strain— saccharomyces cerevisiae— favored by winemakers for its predictability— this mindset has ensnared the industry into producing wines that are too often too similar. 

Interior hallway garden

Let the nation of Georgia be an example. Long before they’d become trapped in the Soviet Union’s nation building racket, before Rome had tried to subjugate them, before all that grasping at empire some very enterprising non-aligned apolitical Georgian’s gave winemaking a try. Like you know 8000 years before present. That’s not just trying that’s inventing— 

Aged in clay vats, the rot from the grapes, the feral yeasts from the fields where the fruit was grown by the magic of fermentation transformed the Georgian grape juice into world class wine. Figuring out how to do this trick reliably was man’s first trick. Second, was getting the next batch to taste as good. Third, was improving the taste because by now you’ve made some good and bad wine and if you’re going to make wine at all you might as well try and make the good stuff.

That returns us to this moment in oenological evolution, what my spirit guide tells me is located at the tip of the nose, our meditation teacher calls it the present moment, to be precise it’s just under that too prominent pug sniffer and if you can breathe in and breathe out without labeling just experiencing the air moving through your nostrils without adding anything else, you’ve pretty much now know where I found myself fixated Saturday night and this without me having to screw the whole thing up by adding anything extra. For fun the debate of whether the corkscrew represented the whip used to make the cart or the horse go was eagerly bantered back and forth.

Behind the Door were Seated Six

We’ve got this problem as advances in technology trample age tested tradition. All this extra stuff we’ve acquired in the last eight-thousand years— turns out most of these improvements are superfluous— don’t need them, don’t want them— and if you dig being true to the method of making natural wine— you wouldn’t use these newfangled interventions— to the natural wine apostle’s you’ve broken faith and turned your back on what the ancients of Georgia have passed down to mankind. 

Participant’s imagining there is money in the natural winemaking racket need to hang up their cleats and take a seat on the bench. Thinking you can bottle natural wine as if you were running a printing press— business planning that imagines getting more from a winemaking style that is so capable of producing spectacular failure— the natural winemaker is always rolling the dice, coaxing a grape into a reliable bottle of wine is no sure thing. The standout feature of natural wine is that any batch or bottle can turn out flawed. Each case, every bottle is on its own journey, enough makes it through, some never will. Trying to engineer the problems out of the inherently volatile ingredients only makes matters worse— all these modern-day interdictions if that’s the road you walk will render the final product something other than natural. Imagining you can do better than just taking what Mother Nature has handed you only seals your fate on this conventional road toward the modern globalized wine industry— this is mission creep— tannic deep dark red wine to bright yellow buttery oaked chardonnay will be the hill you plant your broken winemaking dreams on.

Here’s the thing to know if you lose your way and end up a landowner. You want to get a plot of dirt— better still forget the soil— make it slate, limestone or volcanic ash. Plant your best vines, don’t do anything to help the little devils, and when they’ve ripened, you’ll pick, crush and then wait while the grapes become wine. Sure, there are issues of the peel of grape skin coming in contact with the juice, yes, and sometimes not always the minimal use of sulfites, they’re added to prevent premature oxidation— Conventional winemakers in comparison will add up to 10 times the amount of sulfites, and forward leaning sulfites in wine are a tell— sulfites steal what is right and true.  The natural winemaker makes every effort to not add or take away anything, there are virtually no interventions, the wine stands on its own, right or wrong, good, bad or until bankruptcy papers are filed.

Out in the vineyard you’ll want sunlight to do its thing, hope to hell it rains now and again, pull a few weeds, pray the pests stay the hell away and that at the end of the year hope to find other growers like yourself agreeing that this new vintage coming up in the clay vats has turned out to be a pretty good year.

With the right weather and a good grape struggling to mature in miserly soil you’ve got a decent chance of making something authentic, something with its own voice, something that stands on two grape stained feet and speaks for not just for itself but for Zarathustra and his crowd. What is being attempted here is to make something that is honest and expressive of the place and time it is from. Rather than doll the wine up the natural winemaker wants to pour you a fated faithful glass filled to the rim with a field of truth. 

I’ve learned grapes enjoy struggling— Freud would call these obstacles to happiness neurosis— that these obstacles add up to a quirk— a specific quality of nature you’ll be able to taste, this is the unfiltered and unfettered nature of this endeavor.

And now knowing all of this you have some perspective of the six obsessed members of a Seattle sited dinner party as this half-dozen plunge into the dapple lighted natural wine abyss. 

Smith- Maker of Things

Our Capitol Hill host, Alana Smith had set the table, prepared dinner— if the meal were munitions, we’d say the food was on target and laser guided— including down to the fresh cut flowers and white and blue printed linen napkins. 

Four of us enjoyed tongue loosening cocktails, Ian mixed Negroni’s, of course they were crafted with Millennial preferred mescal— gin drinking is and always will be a Boomer choice— even good gin is booze to distance oneself from like running boards, buggy whips or Studebakers. 

Matt a local on Capitol Hill now, once a Boise kid and Nick from Eagle Rock in LA, the last two for supper—the pair from the play by O’Neil were dug in a few blocks away imbibing, comparing tasting notes, squeezed into a corner booth at this local pizza joint— Blotto’s on Capitol Hill is by the way true, fresh and fun— go now— hope you can get in. 

The pair from Iceman were picking the mind of the other, Nick was serving Matt the hot scuttle on the happenings in the wine scene in LA— it’s sick, it’s fucking slaps.  Matt was hipping Nick to the Northwest natural wine distributors and how his preferred wines are hard to find, when he can find what he is looking for they are flying off the shelves in the local shops, and people do notice, his distributor thinks natural wine scene is— totally lit.

Mezzo sticking his nose into the frame

Hickey and Larry arrived well oiled, mildly repentant, unless you know Matt running behind isn’t meant to offend, his zeal for all things human burns time off the clock, that’s just how enthusiasm works. Nick pulled three bottles from his backpack— Matt presented one he’d had ringed with his hand about the bottle’s neck, our host had plenty more, the catalyst for this evening’s conversation were within arm’s reach, anything on this Saturday night was possible, our natural wine séance would commence departing outbound on a mission to make contact the other world.

Uncorking a prized bottle is akin to spelunking an unmapped cave, you plunge into the thing without helmet or headlamp, a true risktaker comes to pour wines they’ve never tasted before, until now, and at this moment among friends. It is a small but significant experience— one of the better ways to live a best life. 

As accidents go this grouping of souls was not a mistake— not a drop of wine tasted by any of us was thought to be off base. There was no funk, mouse, skunk or stink. There was more than luck involved. At least three had encyclopedic knowledge of the wine’s we were opening. Most cast their fate and wallet to the whim of trial and error— unless you are a pro, unless you are tasting regularly, taking notes, have a good nose and near photographic memory. Lucky for the six we had three that have gone near broke on the journey to possess such talents. 

La R’Vole was the first bottle to be uncorked, from Beaujolais by Michel Guignier, this a simple (the conceit is that nothing is so simple) drinkable Gamay. You begin here and embark toward something more, something better, that’s the idea, you don’t want to peak too soon.

Keep a List, Cook with Passion

The dining table was set, there were roasted trumpet mushrooms, steamed artichokes, Yukon golden potatoes smothered in roasted garlic and tomatoes, fennel and carrot salad, asparagus with goat cheese, thick hand cut sourdough toast and olives and radishes.

Nick Delozier (Larry Slate) born in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, started out a pipefitter, the younger Nick didn’t reckon he wanted to end up doing his whole life punching a clock, there was the pull of other worlds to explore. Like anyone stuck where he’d come up as a kid, he figured there had to be more to life, took a shot on LA, second time was a charm, found a job that paid and then some, the natural wine enthusiast stages real estate when he isn’t laying the groundwork planning to go full time marketing what he loves most— natural wine. That is no sure thing. Bearded, stocky, red headed, a man that is kind of spirit, Appalachian lilt to his voice, Southern mannered, tattooed, and tattooed by a lot, I’m talking he didn’t go light on the ink, but that’s how passion works, spins people off on their path, sometimes it ends up looking like a Tennessee raised tattooed wine lover— there are worse turns of fate. Copeland’sFanfare for the Common Man may well have had a man of Nick’s character in mind when composing this masterpiece.

Matt’s partner Liannabelle, this the Peruvian born muse a Tinkerbell sized laugh riot. Nicknamed El-Bell, the fiery loving petite one that always plays bigger than she appears had survived a week in Tracy, California. The monotony of tract home hell had brought on fitful pangs and homesick blues, grateful to be back in the mashup of Seattle’s architectural eclectic, funky and trendy scene that is Capitol Hill. El’s a city girl now, there are no same-same suburbs in her future, only plans to dodge being stuck in them.

Gone in a flash

Matt and Nick poured— La Tour Sarazine, the winemaker is referred to by his initials JYP. This is a white wine— Muscat Blanc and Jacquère grapes grown in the French Alps by Jean Yves Peron (JYP). Again, this second glass held its own and then some. JYP’s are hard to come by in Seattle and trickier still in San Francisco or Oakland. It’s all about your local importer, what they know and what they can get their hands on, natural wine doesn’t grow on trees and doesn’t arrive on container ship.

I’m like Ian who had joined the table to eat, drink and be part of this thrall— both of us know a mere fraction of what Matt, Nick and Alana have stashed away inside their heads. Amari’s are an Ian favorite, often described as intentionally bitter tasting, this is a much in demand classic Italian aperitif, bitter is not at all an accurate characterization for those that have acquired the taste— a well-balanced Amari will provoke and persuade. Like a Ferrari, divorce or caviar they don’t come cheap, they do come rare, hard to find, a second bottle is often impossible to put your hands on— but all of this is redeemable, the Italian aperitif is a simpler, smaller, easier class of beverage to become fluent in.

Other Worlds— a natural wine shop will open one day once city hall, building inspectors, liquor license authorities sign off. Atop the bustle that is Seattle’s Capitol Hill soon local natural wine enthusiasts will be able to go to the shop at Pike and Madison. The spry entrepreneur Matt Lucas suffers no illusions, he full well knows this effort will require every known sacrifice, getting the Other Worlds open is one thing, making his passion for natural wine work as a durable business, keeping the shop out of the red and into the black, and forget all those get rich quick schemes, Matt is hoping for something more modest, something tangible, something that he can be proud of, he seeks to build integrity into this wine shop, something that remains true to the product— the wine and its merchants work best as a matched pair.

Like no Other…

To finish off the evening our host Alana had saved a favorite bottle to share. It was a Sylvain Pataille, his Fleur de Pinot, this is his Marsannay Rosé. Mr. Pataille has been making a spare no expense Burgundian, this a dry version since 2002— two decades of trial by error. For our last tasting we would enjoy the winemaker’s sage like 2018 vintage. 

Our waiting concentrated minds. Uncomplicated— no, it was anything but, this one goes on and on, it is why you chase such an expressive wine. It is remarkable in its directness— it is easy to understand— it must be difficult to make and expensive too. Like an epic hike it is in the doing, the telling part misses the mark, still if the bottle was a girl that you were sweet on, she’d be the best love you’ve ever chased, the best you will ever hold in your arms— when you are not sure what to do, vow to never let go— squeeze hold like your whole life depends upon it— wine and love, bitter or sweet, until death do we part— wine can be like that— life! Beyond the wine’s length on the tongue there are the changes it will put you through, until you must admit this one— this bottle, has more and more to say— 

The dinner party had nowhere to go, further would have clouded the mind, Mr. Paitille had somehow found a way to bottle the last word.  

sunlight catchers

It is the simplest things that make all the difference. Getting closer to the original source works too. The Japanese tea ceremony is an example. Soaking at a remote hot spring you’ve spent the day hiking into is more what I mean. I always have thought street theater to be one of the simplest performing art forms, artist-audience…the experience. That’s all, nothing extra is needed, nothing more is added, a street show is complete in every sense. Stripping down until you are touching the essence is a specific cognitive pleasure. The exquisite nature of being pleased by simplicity is not uncommon. The temporal coordinates within our mind, the pleasure center where the appreciation for what is the best least complicated experience can be navigated to again and again once you have recalibrated, once you understand the nature of satisfaction and fulfillment.

After morning coffee, appreciating how good the day promised to be, then scanning my surroundings for signs of fascists, white supremacists, or Confederate flags (luckily there were none) I rolled to Amador City.

A longtime friend and I drove out east of Plymouth to the Shenandoah Valley. This is the wine country part of the Mother Lode. Not all the miners struck it rich but there were barrels of wine, companions to sweet talk, rich or poor there was fun to be found scattered between the gold nuggets. Ancient zinfandel vines are still here even if all the gold in the world is now long gone.

The Croatian winemakers Milan and Victoria Matulich arrived here in the valley back in 1995. By 1997 they had a tasting room and wine cave completed and Dobra Zemlja Vineyard was born. The immigrant winemakers planted viognier, grenache, sangiovese, barbera, syrah and zinfandel. The valley’s ground consists of volcanic Sierra Series soils – primarily sandy clay loam derived from decomposed granite. Think about struggle, how a vine might produce a dwarfed berry, how coming of age, reaching maturity might best happen if you can build character into the journey. Granite and volcanic rock offers this obstacle to a grapevine’s personality.   

From the start the immigrant old world winemakers wanted to make natural wines. Wild yeast is very much part of the story. The Shenandoah Valley yeast found growing on the batch of grapes harvested directly from the field is the only yeast that will do. The natural winemaker uses the indigenous local wild yeast for fermentation. I’ve always had an irrational faith in the notion of symbiosis. I like the idea that there are mutual beneficial pairings to be found in nature. The wild yeasts found on the skin of the grapes turns the grape juice to wine by consuming the sugars and transforming them into alcohol. The wild yeast imparts its own specific aromas and flavors. Modern winemakers will add various laboratory derived yeasts aiming to take their wines to an altogether different specific destination. There is no good or bad here, simply different, natural wines tend to meander like a lazy river, modern wines are built to come charging at full force arriving with a louder bang, pop, and purpose. Natural wines exist down at the level of village, conventional wines aspire to command the lofty heights of nations, states and world.

Natural winemakers speak in the idiom of understatement, they do not make wines that overwhelm, of course that’s the aim, controlling the whelming, dialing your offering into the target zone doesn’t always quite work out that way. Remaining faithful to the fruits character, bringing out its identity, letting the hint of the specific dirt and soil interact with the grapes, that’s the way, this is the pleasure. I like that there is no official definition for what is in or not in a bottle of natural wine. Perhaps it is a winemaker’s faith and courage to not intervene and let the field of grapes speak with its own specific voice.

In a world that is increasingly more and more complicated the adventure found in drinking a simple glass of natural wine is something akin to playing a favorite song off of a vinyl record. Natural wine is about letting go of your bike’s handlebars, it is a revisiting of our analogue world, this is wine that can bark or bite, they are wines that can play cute or play dead, you’ll never know your wine for sure, natural wine is nothing if not fickle, like skydiving landing sites are approximate, they are unpredictable and temperamental, natural wines appeal to our desire to be taken somewhere we have never been.

I like that here in the American West there is a place open to immigrants, Croatian’s, from the Balkans, arriving to make a fresh start, newcomers arriving to risk their daring and do.

There are two merchants that specialize in natural wines in Oakland: Ordinaire and Minimo both focus on small production, sustainable, indie wines from around the world. Terms like biodynamic farming methods or that the grapes are certified organic does not always indicate that what you are buying will be a natural wine. The technique has more to do with minimalism, no added sulfites is the goal, there is no filtering or finning, the less meddling the better. None of the 60 additives approved by regulators are used to make natural wine. The tradition of natural winemaking is sometimes referred to as “méthode ancestrale” and as the terms suggest has been around since the beginning. In its simplest form natural wine is unadulterated fermented grape juice, that’s it, that’s the long and short of the simplicity that is sought.    

Then, there is the wicked tasty dazzling category of sparkling natural wines. Here you will enter the world of fermentation that utilizes the ancient method that the French term ‘pétillant naturel’ meaning ‘natural sparkling’— Uncorking a Pét-Nat is always an adventure as these are wines that have spent their lives coming of age in a bottle, alone, separated from inception, left to ripen to maturity, to take form without a clue to how its kin has done, whether each bottle will be alike or how no two bottles will ever be the same. Pét-Nat’s are bewildering and unbridled. They are either glorious or have gone wrong, the balancing act to achieving a drinkable Pét-Nat is a bottle of uncertainty discovered almost by sheer audacity to blunder into the sublime. You’ll need pluck and a soul of fool’s errand to build a Pet-Nat.

Dobra Zemlja, (pronounced — Zem ya) will release their first Pét-Nat this December. The ancient sparkler’s can come dry or off dry, acidic, floral to sour, my favorites seem to arrive at their destination zigzagging through my mouth, like four friends all careening in a car, the point of the thing is that it is a collection of impressions that act like a thrill ride or when it goes the other way, you’ll be eager to pull over to the side of the road and get off. Most important is to go into the thing admitting these are not serious endeavors, Pét-Nat’s are flights into the wild blue yonder of something so close to ordinary as to make the experience a vivid simple pleasure.

Laura Irmer is the General Manager for Dobra Zemlja. Surrounded by other wineries, their competitors, all in pursuit of making big reds there is this sense at Dobra Zemlja of a winery seeking to bring to market a wine that is a true expression of what is found right here, a sense of individuality, a sense of allowing for an experience that is in direct contact with the vine and soil, a sort of direct transmission of the experience we know as wine.

My palate has shifted. I crave natural wines whispers of the fantastical, for small and simple, for being yourself. Perfection can taunt beauty. Striving for reality, for making what is found right here, is more poem that prose, more from the heart than the head. Natural wine appeals to my wanting to get away, to go places I’ve never been, to being content to experience a less visited destination. Natural wines are the wild hot springs of the spa and sauna, they are the flirtatious eye contact, the one only time you will meet, they are your courage, timidity, the haunting aching memories of a love affair, they are down to earth, truth, these original wines invite you to meet in the nude, without dressing up, without pretense, here is another possible opportunity to taste a winemaker’s language written in grapes, these sunlight catchers create wine that speaks of what it means to let nature take its course.