The natural wine fair, RAW Wine, is coming to the U.S., for the first time, in November. I heard about it first online and then again on Tuesday from a smarmy hipster who was full of ideological zeal for the natural wine category. I overheard him at my local coffee hangout, telling the person next to me how excited he was - he had just booked his ticket to New York to go to RAW Wine.
I leaned over and introduced myself to learn more about his passion for natural wines and why he was going to the Big Apple. (Or more precisely Brooklyn, epicenter of hipsterdom.)
I told him I write about organically grown wines. It hardly seemed to register. Was he thinking, natural wine is so much more than organic - how can she ever understand?
I asked him who he liked in the natural wine world and if he knew any local producers.
"Do you know Ruth Levandowski?" he said. "Do you know Les Lunes?"
I had to say, no, I didn't.
He was enthusiastic about going to the RAW Wine fair. I asked him why he wanted to go. Did he know any of the local organic, native yeast, low sulfite producers?
"I go to Ordinaire," he said, referring to a wine shop in Oakland that carries a lot of smaller labels. It features wines from California producers like Matthiasson***, Broc Cellars and more. "Yes," I said, "but most of the wineries there don't have organic grapes that are grown without herbicides or fungicides. Sometimes they might be. But mostly, no."
He said he wanted to meet producers who weren't local and that they would be at RAW Wine. That's true, but in my mind, he hadn't found the local producers - only the ones sold at Ordinaire, et al.
Distribution for organic producers in the U.S. is a huge problem for smaller wineries outside of the industrial winemaking world. Only a few have broken through (examples: Frog's Leap, Grgich Hills), and they generally make more than 50,000 cases a year. The 1,000 case a year producers haven't found a niche in distribution because they often only sell direct to consumers or in local shops. For natural winemakers, there's a niche market in New York's hipper wine outlets and wine bars.
It brings up another important point - exhibition. There's a dearth of wine fairs and exhibitions on the U.S. that focus on organic or Biodynamic producers. In fact, there are none. So no wonder the general wine loving population doesn't know about these wines. There's also no web site, no association, and no fair. And there are no importers to sponsor such a wine fair. (RAW Wines' sponsors are mostly importers.)
There's so little attention paid to organically grown wines that when I go to events at the David Brower Center, a building in Berkeley dedicated to offering office space for environmental nonprofit activist groups (including Earth Island Institute), I cringe. The center pours Barefoot Wines and acknowledges them as a sponsor on their web site and in their event emails. Barefoot Wines is from Gallo and is made with tons of pesticides. David Brower would roll over in his grave if he knew. (It would be like the Sierra Club having McDonald's as a sponsor.)
Later on in the day, I had a flashback about my conversation with the coffee guy. I sheepishly remembered back to my initial flush of enthusiasm for natural wine about five or six years ago. I used to go (and sometimes still do) to Punchdown in Oakland. And Terroir in San Francisco. I recalled uncorking natural sparkling wine, cloudy and yet still good, at my birthday dinner awhile back. It was delicious.
In the same era, I'd gone to see the documentary premiere of a film about natural wines and was quickly disenchanted. Okay, it seemed like you could be organic in the vines, the winemakers in the film were saying, but you didn't need to get certified. Somehow that was just not cool and not done. This was a club of the true believers and they were above all that. (To their credit, they at least grew their own grapes.)
Alice Feiring, the most well known writer about natural wines, was at the film premiere. Asked to come up with a definition of natural wine, she gave one. I asked her in the Q and A after the film about Frey Wine because they met every criteria in her definition. Her eyes rolled. Later she redefined her definition, eliminating Frey. "That's industrial wine," she said.
Natural wine is a meme, and a meme that younger, less experienced wine appreciators can easily get into. It's for hipsters. And so, "I'm hip" by definition, if "I love natural wine."
The fellow having coffee was eager to learn and spread the word. "I want to introduce people to these wines," he said. "I want to show people that wine is not elitist, nothing fancy."
"Great," I replied, thinking that most of the natural winemakers I knew did not price their wines for "the people."
"Do you know Martian Ranch & Vineyards?" I asked.
Martian is a Santa Barbara label that makes $20-$25 wines from Biodynamic vines, a price point that few in the hand crafted, minimal intervention category can match. Nor can the natural wines from the U.S. which are often priced from around $30-40. At Donkey & Goat, a producer of lovely natural fine wines, prices range from $24 to $75. AmByth Estates are uniformly priced at $45 each.
"You can buy it at Bi-Rite market in the Mission," I said. (Although I'm not sure that's still true, it was true once upon a time.)
"Never heard of Martian."
I asked him if he knew any local winemakers.
"What about Qupé? Beckmen?" I asked.
Organic - not interested. Biodynamic - not interested. Only natural wines. (He didn't know that Biodynamic Wines fit almost all of the criteria for natural wines - but that's understandable since hardly anyone does).
"Permaculture! Permaculture is above organic and Biodynamic," he said.
Our conversation ended not long after. But as I reflected over the next day, I realize I had, strangely, actually learned a lot from him.
One, young people like young people winemakers. The can-do-ism of it all. People like me are making wine. Maybe someday that could be me.
I read the RAW Wine web site carefully and started looking at all the U.S. exhibitors. In the past, there have only been a few wineries from the U.S. in the tastings in Europe. For NYC, about 20 U.S. producers are listed.
I dug into these wineries' web sites. I was happy when I found one making wine from organic grapes, and chagrined when I found non-organic sources. I already knew several of the producers - Eyrie, Maysara, Kelley Fox, AmByth Estate.
A great many of the RAW exhibitors I went on to read about on the RAW wine web site - the ones I didn't already know - are young.
Some have been at the RAW Wine fairs in Europe.
Day Wines is one. This Willamette Valley wonder was founded out of a burning love for wine by Brianne Day, a former Little Bird restaurant waitress who also worked in the tasting room at Eyrie. After pursuing harvest work around the globe for years, she started out making 125 cases in her first vintage in 2013. Then a Cinderella fairytale happened, and a backer magically appeared who helped her launch her brand. Today she sources from four vineyards; two are organic or Biodynamic.
Via Vecchia is another winery that's attended RAW Wine in Europe. An English winemaker born to an Italian family, Paolo Rosi, runs it (with a partner). He grew up making wine with his Italian father in their London garage. Today he buys all his grapes from Lodi. They're trucked to his winery in Columbus, Ohio in refrigerated compartments. One of his wines comes from organic vines. The rest are all made with grapes that are conventionally grown. I didn't have to research this; he told me.
Ruth Levandowski is new to the list. This was one that my coffee drinking, natural wine fan was hot to trot on. Evan Landowski trucks grapes from Mendocino to Utah where he lives. But almost all of the grapes he buys are not organic - not even practicing organic. One wine comes from certified organic vines. This he told me. He was confused about another vineyard, that he thought was organic, but is not. And he told me the other five wines he makes all came from a vineyard that he thought used maybe a little herbicide. (Those five are from Fox Hill Vineyard, which regularly uses Rally fungicide. It's a developmental and reproductive toxin. Not nice stuff.)
And these producers are not alone. Dirty and Rowdy. I asked if any of the grapes were organic a few years ago and they really did not want to talk about it. (Updated text here, revised from the original blog post): Today they have changed their policy and they state on their web site how their grape sources farm. Most of the vineyards are not farmed organically. So my question is, should wineries knowingly using pesticided grapes be allowed to call themselves natural winemakers, since using organic wine grapes has been a defining characteristic of the natural wine movement?
Author of the book Natural Wine, Isabelle Legeron, who organizes the RAW Wine fair, says she wants to increase transparency in the wine world. Her goal is to help consumers find out which wines from organic and Biodynamic vines are made without industrial practices, additives, and other no no's in the natural wine aesthetic. While the grapes are supposed to be "organic, Biodynamic or equivalent," a number of these U.S. winemakers rarely seemed be measuring up to this standard.
In fact, most of them did not have their own vineyards, so they were pretty far from the Feiring ideal of a vigneron who raises his vines and makes wine out of them with his or her bare feet and hands.
A few are in the ideal Feiring realm - true vignerons who grow their all of their own grapes.
In fact, anyone making Demeter certified "Biodynamic Wine" would be meeting all of the standards that Legeron puts forth with one minor difference. The only additive that can be used in Biodynamic Wine is sulfites - and not much of that - just 100 ppm. (Legeron calls for natural winemakers to use a maximum of 70 ppm.) In certified Biodynamic Wine, native yeast must be used - nothing else. The grapes must be certified organic and Biodynamic by Demeter. And ten percent of the land must be set aside for biodiversity. A diversity of crops is also encouraged. (There are some other minor differences for making certified Biodynamic Wine - if you want all the details, see here.)
So, so far, I'm not really clear on why natural wine would be better, different, preferred...
Well some of the "natural wine" wines do taste different often - wild, sort of feral - but often they're just clean and elegant.
I looked to old Eric Asimov articles about natural wine for guidance. I found this, from a 2010 article in the New York Times, quoting Scott Pactor. (I had also interviewed Scott several years ago for an article I wrote on "green wines" for Beverage Media).
"There are producers who say they are farming organically, but when you dig a little deeper, you find it's true only 85 percent of the time," said Scott Pactor, who owns Appellation, a wine shop in Manhattan that carries a loosely defined collection of organic, Biodynamic and sustainably produced wines. "Greenwashing creates cynicism."Well, it's certainly not worth going down that path, but there might be a better way of showcasing natural wines than leaving it to producers to self-certify as "organic, Biodynamic or equivalent."
(Added, Nov. 2016) And yet, here's Dirty and Rowdy - they source from 12 different vineyards. I'm adding this bit after hearing from Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy in a comment (published below). Their web site says seven of the vineyards are organic. But how do we know? They don't say who's certified. If transparency is truly the name of the natural wine game, I'd like to see "natural winemakers" list everything used on the vines so consumers can understand exactly what they are buying into. In the case of Dirty and Rowdy, you'd buying wines from grapes that are treated with Roundup (containing glyphosate, the herbicide that the UN labeled "probably carcinogenic"), which stays in the wine, and probably a very healthy dose of fungicides, most of which contain imidacloprid, the widely used bee killing insecticide banned in Europe. I'll bet most natural wine consumers do not want to consume or support the use of these agrichemicals.
Here in California, we have this wonderful law that requires producers to report everything used on the vines - even materials that are approved for organic farmers and growers. It's called the Pesticide Use Report. (It is not required anywhere else in the world.) You can use it to look up any vineyard in the state and see what is being applied. I wonder if it could be of use to Legeron. She might now know about it since I don't believe they have it in France or any of the other countries involved in RAW Wine. I think I am maybe the only wine writer who ever reads it.
But let's not digress.
I guess part of the allure of natural wine is in not defining it too, too much, as Asimov points out. Get on board, support experimentation. I'm a fan of many natural wines - including Biodynamic Wines - for many unique flavors, and a skeptic over many natural wines I don't find appealing.
At the same time, I don't see why producers can just gloss over where the grapes from, and become "natural winemakers" just because they use native yeasts and don't use additives in the cellar. Should process trump grape source? Is that a natural product?
(The marketing blurring also applies to many organic producers in the U.S. who produce two types of wines - organically grown wines from their organic estates as well as wines made from chemically farmed vineyards they purchase grapes from. Their branding narrative may be about organic, but their wines may, predominantly in many cases, come from the non-organic growers.)
These points may seem a little complicated to understand, but they are nevertheless essential to finding and buying the wines you really want, if you're looking for organically grown products.
There are some wineries that also source organic grapes for a single vineyard designate. But no one making single vineyard designate wines from organic vines would be likely to classify themselves as organic producers and they would be unlikely to present their single organically sourced wine at an exhibition devoted to organic producers. The same cannot be said of natural wine producers.
Granted, the wines made by natural winemakers from non-organic vines are not being presented at the fair (we hope). But given that many of these U.S. "natural wine" producers make wine from purchased grapes that are grown with pesticides, and that most consumers are not able to distinguish between the farming practices of various vineyards that a natural winemaker is making wine from, one could easily be confused. So how transparent is this?
Should a winemaker be able to buy grapes from one organic source and also buy 90% of its grapes from pesticide vineyards, and make those wines in a natural way (i.e. native yeast, sulfites under 70 ppm) and be considered a natural winemaker? That is what is going on with some of these RAW Wine producers. That's not my impression of what the natural wine movement was supposed to be.
From my database (developed for my forthcoming web site) - a directory of all the U.S. wines from certified organic vines - I've seen that there are 100's of wines made by organic and Biodynamic producers that follow these very guidelines - organic or Biodynamic grapes, native yeast and low sulfites. And these people are not inclined to self identify as natural wine makers.
It seems that labeling oneself a natural winemaker is more of a marketing decision, a rallying cry and meme attractor than a description of the product or the producer.
I would like to encourage groups like RAW Wine, since they create their own standards (without having to go through a government), to set a minimum bar for producers who are purchasing grapes - to source at least 50 percent of their wines from certified organic or Biodynamic vines and to refrain from making wines from pesticided grapes altogether.
I decided the best way to help those of us who, like me, might want to know which wines at RAW Wine are from verifiably organic or Biodynamic vines (certified) was to make a list. Then you can find the natural wines that come from certifiably organic or Biodynamic vines.
Demeter Certified Biodynamic Wines - Estate Wineries*
• AmByth Estate - everything (certified grapes, certified wines)
• Maysara - everything (certified grapes, certified wines)
Demeter Certified Biodynamic Wines - Purchased Grapes
• Kelley Fox Wines - Momtazi vineyard designates (certified grapes, certified wine)
Demeter Certified Biodynamic Vines - Single Vineyard Designate Wines **
• Donkey & Goat - Filigreen Farms vineyard designate Pinot Gris
• Montebruno - Momtazi vineyard designate Pinot
Organic Vineyard - Estate Grown Wine
• Eyrie Vineyard - Pinot Gris (estate wines)
Organic Vines - Single Vineyard Designate Wines** - Purchased Grapes
• Barber Cellars - Zinfandels (from Topolos Vineyard)
• Day Wines - Cancilla Vineyard designates (also coming: wines from Biodynamic growers Johan Vineyards and Momtazi Vineyard)
• Ruth Levandowski - Testa vineyard designate (Carignane "Boaz")
• Swick Wines - Cancilla Vineyard designates
• Via Vecchia - Cabernet Sauvignon Respiro (from Arbor Vineyards/Mettler Family, Lodi)
You can see listings about the wines these producers are bringing to RAW Wine on the RAW Wine web site.
If you're in New York, by all means, check out the 119 producers attending in November. Organizers expect about 1,000 people to attend the two day event.
And kudos to the producers above - those who grow or buy certified grapes. They set a great example.
We all need to educate consumers about just what's in their bottle. The natural wine movement arose in response to industrially made wines of all kinds - whether sourced from chemically farmed grapes or organically farmed ones. It set out to highlight the producers who don't interfere with the magical process of expressing the essence of fermented grapes inside a bottle. Those are worthy goals.
As my coffee drinking encounter shows, though, it's worth mentioning that not everyone following these guidelines is in RAW Wine or defines themselves as part of the natural wine movement. And not every American brand at RAW is making wines solely from grapes that are either practicing or certified organic.
The natural wine movement needs to ask itself what it can do to protect itself against the cynicism that Scott Pactor alludes to - that not everyone who calls themselves natural winemakers is adhering to using organic grapes - certified or not - in all or even half of the wines made under their brands. Would it be a good idea to set some limits?
I look forward to trying wines (using certified grapes) from some of the producers who were new to me (Barber, Day, Montebruno, Ruth Levandowski, Swick and Via Vecchio) that I just discovered, courtesy of RAW Wine.
Thanks, RAW Wine.
* An estate winery is a winery that grows its own grapes.
** By law, a single vineyard designate wine contains 95-100% grapes from the named vineyard.
*** Steve Matthiason was formerly certified organic and says he will be reapplying for certification.
Note #1: In answer to those who say that it's too expensive to get organic certification, please see the article I wrote for Wines & Vines, which appeared in their Dec. 2015 issue, on the costs. For the regions where the featured U.S. natural wine makers are purchasing most of their non-organic grapes, the prices are on the low end of the spectrum for California (Lodi, Mendocino). In these areas, the typical per acre cost of certification is about $11 an acre which translates into a few pennies per bottle for certification fees.
Note #2: There are also plenty of certified organic grapes for sale every year - hundreds of tons of them are sold to conventional wineries and tossed into the mix, never marketed as organic. The largest concentration of these grapes is in Mendocino County. If you're interested in buying grapes, I recommend getting in touch with Mendowine.com which has a grape marketplace.
The state pesticide use report shows aggregated pesticide use by crop. It doesn't show producer level data, which is collected. Some local county agriculture commissioners publish this public data on their web sites. Here is the link to Mendocino County's PUR records which list each producer's use of both organic and non-organic materials.
Note #3: In the U.S. there is a federal law that says it's illegal to market wines as being from organic vines unless the vines have been certified. Advertising that you are "practicing organic" is a federal offense.