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.