Minimal intervention allows nature to do the work
"Natural Wine" is a somewhat squishy term referring to wines made with minimal inputs and minimal intervention. Its practitioners convert their musts with indigenous yeasts (disdaining commercial versions) and eschew the enzymes and other additives used to hurry along, shape or complete fermentation. They do not add fixatives, colorants, tannins, acid, oak (neutral barrels are OK); they do not add water if they can help it. They use sulfur minimally, if at all, believing that its prophylactic facility comes at the expense of the wine's more essential expressive properties. And they swear off scores of other practices to "correct" or otherwise redirect a wayward wine into something more desirable or critic-friendly. The idea is to make something as close to 100 percent wine as is humanly possible, more expressive of grape and place than of man. (See note below story.)
Photo: Alice Feiring. Credit: Annaïck Le Mignon
I had occasion to contemplate this question at a natural wine dinner late last month at the Beverly Hills restaurant Saam, a private dining venue within “the Bazaar” restaurant in the SLS Hotel, where José Andrés conducts strange, wonderful, largely concocted (not to say unnatural) interpretations of iconic Spanish cuisine.
There a meal was prepared in honor of Feiring, the New York author whose impassioned book "Naked Wine" is perhaps the most unabashed of recent efforts in endorsing the cause of le vin naturel. Of all the recent books on the subject, hers is the most personal, the most agitated, the most illuminating voice in the din.
A 'Naked' voice rises
Feiring has been writing about wine for nearly 20 years; about a decade in, she realized the wines she loved and considered authentic, "the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world," were receding into the background, as wines preferred by critics like Robert A. Parker claimed a very boozy, vociferous foreground.
When she investigated, she learned that to gain favor with the world's most powerful critic, wine production had morphed into a contortion of itself, marked by gaudily ripe fruit, its excesses corrected by various means in the winery: less-than-natural practices were not only accepted, they were being rewarded with high scores and market dominance. This Feiring found increasingly repellent.
Rather than concede the point, Feiring became a gadfly; she called out producers for their spoofulating ways, demanded accountability for egregious growing practices, sought to expose a winemaking praxis that had become craven, formulaic and contrived. In doing so, Feiring put the entire commercial wine industry on the defensive -- an extraordinary feat. Needless to say, the natural wine movement was elevated by all of the attention -- sommeliers especially took notice, filling restaurant wine lists with natural offerings.
"Naked Wine" is in part a history of the rebirth of natural wines and a personal history of how Feiring, you might say, "regathered" them -- helped to collectivize a group that might not be a group without her (and others') attention. The dinner at Saam featured six of her "discoveries," each of which played a part in the "Naked Wine" narrative. To taste the wines and hear Feiring speak of their creators was to catch a glimpse of the natural wine movement, in all its virtues and faults.
For those of you who haven't met Feiring, she hardly seems like a person to lead a global initiative. Small and ginger-haired, she speaks with a diminutive, almost quavery voice and is prone to dramatic displays of apprehension and self-doubt. (Early in the book a shrieking encounter with a scorpion in a French bedroom adds the impression of her being somewhat "girly.") It is easy, then, to underestimate her conviction, not to mention her feistiness.
Feiring spent part of her career writing fiction, and like most fiction writers (I include myself here) is attracted to good stories, and the characters who provided them. Over and over in "Naked Wine," Feiring relishes in the eccentricity of her subjects: Eric Texier is "a searcher;" Patrick Desplats is "erratic and volatile" (so too are his wines, apparently); Jacques Néauport, a consultant of sorts who becomes something of a quest-figure in the book, is at first spectral and grail-like, with a reputation as "an unsung saint."
Natural winemakers, in short, amount to some of the industry's most identifiable iconoclasts -- they're antic, energetic, seditious characters going against the grain of a multibillion-dollar global enterprise. Their efforts, too, are often less than commercial; La Clarine Farm winemaker Hank Beckmeyer, describes his winery as "an art project with commercial leanings." Most writers can't help but be seduced by such grandly romantic efforts, and seduction may help to explain a certain level of myopia, when it comes to evaluating or forgiving less than sound wines and winemaking.
Natural wines put to the test
Which brings us back to dinner. Sommelier Maxwell Leer has paired six wines with six courses: most of the wines had been explored within the pages of "Naked Wine." All expressed, to one degree or another, the natural aesthetic, from the sublime -- Lopez de Heredia's breathtakingly soulful 2000 Rioja Rosado from Viña Tondonia, for example -- to the downright weird.
The wine from the Andrea Calek, for example, was ostensibly a sparkling wine -- it had no effervescence that I could detect, just a haze of tropical flavors; the Mendall Macabeu "l'Abuerador" from Spanish naturalist Laureano Serres bore the off-grey color of a dirty T-shirt, cloudy and thick, with flavors just as vague. But I was most affronted by the fifth wine of the night, a Loire red made by Christian Venier called la Gautrie, bearing the concentration of a rosé and sweet, strawberry-like aromas. It was agreeable and nondescript, unremarkable until Feiring informed us that the wine was cabernet franc, adding, "I can identify this as a natural wine before I could identify the varietal."
By this she meant that a portion of the winemaking method -- carbonic maceration -- was easier to detect than the varietal itself. This was absolutely true, but in that moment, it seemed like an astounding admission. What self-respecting natural producer would be content with a method -- however natural -- that obliterated the wine's typicity? Why make a cabernet franc to taste like something other than what it was? How was this not an act of will upon the wine?
Feiring counters that within the natural movement there are vins de soif and vins de terroir -- the former meant to be drunk without forethought, to be charming and convivial; they serve a different purpose than more "serious" efforts; the "la Gautrie" was certainly such a wine.
But I remained troubled that the wine's purpose -- a commercial purpose, after all -- came at the expense of its varietal identity. That indifference to type and place didn't seem all that different from a wine altered to target a commercial flavor profile -- the very thing that Feiring was railing against.
It reminded me what some West Coast sommeliers had been telling me in the last half-year or so (sotto voce, of course: coming off as contra-natural wasn't to their advantage). They'd admitted they were wearying of natural wines, because, they said, the wines all seemed the same, no matter what they were made of, or where they were from. That seemed grave to contemplate. In fact in this particular corner of the wine world, it seemed like a crime against nature.
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.
*Note: While the term "natural wine" was coined to describe winemaking practice, it's assumed that the fruit is grown with analogous restraints, e.g., without the use of chemical additives, fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. Organic and biodynamic viticulture fall comfortably into this realm; naturists, however, might give pause at what some of the sustainable growers must resort to.