Natural Wine: The Panel Transcript

I find it quite fascinating that in many ways, the cutting edge of winemaking today involves a return to quite ancient methods, and a principled rejection of many of the innovations that have produced such an increase in the volume and quality of wine around the world.

It’s not unlike the progression of communications technology in the business world. First no one had cell phones, then the richest early adopting business people had cell phones, then everyone had cell phones, and now some of the world’s visionary CEO’s and business leaders pride themselves on not having cell phones (or even offices with computers). In some ways the explosion and adoption of technology in any field (and the corresponding knowledge that goes along with it) can provide a platform for the deliberate abstention from the march of progress.

In the case of winemaking, there are a number of “movements” away from technology and modern winemaking techniques, in particular the use of petro-chemicals in the vineyard and commercial treatments or additives in the winemaking process. Perhaps the most extreme, and least defined ideology in this realm are those that call themselves (or more often are described by others) as members of the Natural Wine movement, or Vin Nature, as they would say in France.

Many people, including those who can be described as authorities on the subject of Natural Wine, credit winemaker Jules Chauvet and several winemaking friends for reclaiming the set of principles that tie any so-called natural winemakers together. These principles, which were never truly codified by any chartered organization or association, mean that natural wines are made from vineyards which receive nothing added by man (fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, copper sulfate, or, in most cases, water) and that in the winemaking process, nothing additional is added, but especially not commercial yeasts, enzymes, acid, sugar, new oak, and filtering/fining agents. The most extreme proponents of this philosophy also eschew the use of sulfur dioxide, though in practice, most use some at the time of bottling to prevent re-fermentation in the bottle.

An organization or association of such winemakers does, in fact, exist in the form of l’Association des Vins Naturels, which declares itself more of an organization of friends than anything else, but dedicated to clarifying the meaning of Natural Wine and the advancement of the philosophies behind it. The “members” of this association at the moment are mostly French, but there are plenty of adherents to its philosophies in many countries that most likely just haven’t bothered to become members of any association.

Surrounding the winemakers who seek to make wines in this way are groups of importers, wine bars, restaurants, and consumers that are increasingly evangelizing the philosophies of this movement, as well as its products. A group of such evangelists recently put on the first ever San Francisco Natural Wine Week, a hodgepodge of events and promotions which culminated in a panel discussion at Terroir Natural Wine Merchant last Sunday.

The panel, chartered to discuss, explain, and explore Natural Wine, consisted of the following personalities:

Joe Dougherty, the moderator, is an articulate and passionate wine consumer with a background in Chemistry.

Ted Lemon is the founder and winemaker at Littorai, a Biodynamic producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Sonoma County.

Kevin McKenna is a partner in Louis/Dressner Selections, a high quality importer with a long standing focus on sustainable, small producers in Europe.

Guilhaume Gerard is one of the three owners of Terroir Natural Wine Merchant, a wine store and wine bar specializing in Natural, Biodynamic, and Organic wines.

Lou Amdur runs the eponymous “Lou” wine bar in Los Angeles, which also has a focus on small, sustainable wines.

Wolfgang Weber is a senior editor and critic at Wine & Spirits Magazine.

What follows is my attempt to capture the conversation as it occurred. There are gaps in this transcript for sure, but I got a lot of it.

* * *

Joe — Natural Wines bring something special to our lives, not matched by wines made in other ways. What is Natural Wine first, and why should we care? What does the winemaker intend to do, and does the end justify the means? Or does the means lead to the end? What makes a wine natural?

Kevin — Natural Wines came about as a way for winemakers especially in France and Italy as a way of differentiating themselves from wine made from organically grown grapes but then not made “cleanly” in the cellar. Natural Wines is an imperfect term, but it was important for these winemakers to differentiate themselves from people who were already becoming more aware of treating the Earth in a better fashion.

When you talk about practices in the vineyard or cellar, you’re talking about organic at the very least, with the least amount of treatments as possible. Jules Chauvet, a negociant and enologist from Beaujolais said that in order to make a wine of terroir, you need to include the biomass of the vineyard. The yeast, bacteria, fungi, etc. are required to express the soil. If you work in any other fashion you are compromising the terroir.

Ted — If people were objecting to the masses of organic vintners, what were they disagreeing with in the cellar?

Kevin — The first thing they’re focused on is the commercial yeasts. Then it became about sulfur. Enzymes, acidification, commercial yeasts, this was the big dichotomy with the people who claimed to be organic. They farmed organically, but then were adding all these things in the winemaking process. Of course, there is a long history of avoiding those things in France that predates this movement.

Guilhaume — these [additions, treatments, chemicals] didn’t exist 50 years ago. People were using sulfur already, but it’s a natural byproduct of the earth.

Joe — There are certain things that are used by natural winemakers — sulfur, copper, etc. I have a thing about copper, personally. Just because it was a good idea in the 19th century doesn’t mean we should still be using it now.

Guilhaume — It’s funny to see Nicholas Joly heading up the biodynamic producers, where his wine is supposed to be natural. There is so much sulfur in the wine so much copper in the vineyard , that’s why Biodynamic by the book vs. natural winemaking is a difference. There’s a dead wine: Coulee de Serrant tastes like sulfur for 5 years, and has so much botrytis. It’s important to differentiate Biodynamic from natural. Natural winemakers are people trying to think more carefully about the use of sulfur, etc.

Joe — Is natural winemaking a codified set of 19th century vineyard practices? Is there room for new stuff? How do we decided what to admit?

Kevin — Among natural winemakers there’s a move to minimize even the “traditional” treatments of Copper and Sulfur. For instance, treatments are acceptable only up until a certain point well before the harvest. Certainly it is a concern to most natural winemakers that we work with to minimize the use of these treatments. However, given that the last three years were heavy mildew years in Europe, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. They had mildew in Tuscany for the first time, for Pete’s sake.

Ted — Kevin, in terms the vineyard side of stuff, describe the philosophy from the Natural winemaking school if it exists. How would most of your growers define what would consist of natural winegrowing. Does it have to be organic to start?

Kevin — Good question. We’re still working on that.

Ted — So it’s possible for there to be a vineyard that isn’t organically farmed, but that could still produce Natural Wine?

Kevin — Yes.

Ted — So what would be acceptable to use that is “non-organic” ?

Kevin — It’s about the levels of chemical treatments that are used (or more correctly, not used).

Wolfgang — It sounds like what you’re saying is that it comes down to a sum total of what you’re doing.

Kevin — in Piedmont [Italy] they’re required by law to use a certain chemical in the vineyard to deal with pests. Most producers buy this product, present their sales slip to the authorities and then never use it. But there are appellation laws that determine certain vineyard practices in different areas that thwart a specific rigid code for what is and is not “Natural Winegrowing.”

Ted — As an American producer I can tell you that you watch products go on or off the Certified Organic acceptable list every year like ping pong. It’s crazy. Nothing’s changing with the formulation of these products, the people who make them just didn’t’ get on the ball enough to get recertified. We want to use organic products in our vineyards, and we find a product we like and then people go off the list because of one reason or another and it doesn’t seem like the formulation has changed, so we just keep on going.

Wolfgang — Ted, how do you go about testing a new product to see if it works?

Ted — [laughs] You put it in the tractor [and spray]. I suppose you could do half on one field half on another, but as a “mom and pop” producer, testing is a pretty fancy word. We’re awfully busy with trying to just make good wine.

Joe — Let’s move on to another topic. People in wet places look down their noses at irrigation. People in dry places think it’s necessary. Can a Natural Wine be irrigated?

Guilhaume — Personally I don’t believe in irrigation. In terms of making terroir driven wines. If you decide to play with the climate, then we’re not talking about terroir anymore. But I know people hate me for saying that.

Joe — I’ve always been amused at the PR line of “dry farmed” vineyards in Europe. In reality a prohibition against irrigation in Europe has less to do with any fixation on a specific quality of wine, and historically was more about reducing the amount of wine produced to avoid surplus.

Joe — So is plowing always benign?

Ted — There is an important background to this discussion of what goes on in the vineyard — plowing, irrigation, various modern practices — that must be acknowledged. The very essence of European viticulture was completely redefined by Phylloxera. Once you place vitis vinifera on a rootstock you’re creating a different entity than an own-rooted vine. This whole struggle about what should and shouldn’t be done in winegrowing has to be seen in the context

There’s nothing natural about winemaking. You can’t go find a glass of Chablis in the wild. It’s also important to understand that when we’re talking about “traditional practices” you’re talking about the practices of a specific region. There is no tradition outside of a specific place.

This is one of the reasons that I don’t think you can say definitively, there is something called Natural Winemaking.

Joe — What about clonal selection or GMO [Genetically Modified Organism]. And before anyone jumps in about GMO, let me just say that Pinot Noir has been under selection by humans for hundreds even thousands of years, carefully crossbred and selected. In my opinion Pinot now IS a GMO — heavily modified from their natural state, and so much the better for it. Can we really differentiate between that and something that is done in a lab?

Lou — is it chemistry bad, tradition good?

Joe — Tradition is not something you discard lightly, and change isn’t good for its own sake, but viticulture is REALLY different than it was in 1840 in Europe, as Ted suggests.

Ted — The other side of the GMO issue is the rootstock question. What is a permissable selection? As a natural winegrower are you going to be selecting your own rootstock?

Guilhaume — We like own rooted vines, and we like to work with old vines as much as possible. The oldest clone that we can find.

Kevin — With these kinds of vineyard practices — clonal selection, rootstock engineering — while they may be “allowed,” you’d be suspect. It’s frowned upon, for instance, to replant with clonal selection.

Ted — But hold on a minute. If you look at the history of “clonal selection” in Burgundy, you’d find that people did it all the time. There was this guy who called around to all the top folks in Burgundy asking for cuttings of their best vines, and then went and planted all them in a block and see what the results were. He kept coming up with the same things, over and over again. People had naturally selected the best clones for their area. Think about it from a cultural perspective. You want to grow vines in a place, you call around to neighbors, figure out what their best stuff is and everyone shares wood. And of course, everyone finds the blocks within their own vineyard that perform well and graft those elsewhere. It is specious to claim that if you are selecting stuff within your vineyard, you’re not really doing something different than the dreaded commercial nursery clonal selections.

Kevin — Burgundy is a different area than the rest of France — there’s an insularness that doesn’t exist in the rest of France. There is certainly a sense among people who work well, and those people who know the difference between this plant and that plant. But when it comes to whatever might be seen as the acceptable practices of Natural Winegrowing, it’s pretty clear that you do not want to plant with clonal selection.

Joe — We see a question of intent and the means used to achieve it.

Lou — It’s important to know about Chauvet and the way he thought. He felt that if you farmed responsibly, and in a clean way; if you eschew synthetics, you naturally create the conditions for yeast to exist, for the soil to be better. And therefore the wines will be better. If you have healthier soil, you know the vine will be better. It’s not that this farming is better for the earth. The main goal is to make the wine better.

Maybe when we’re talking about organic farming we’re talking about necessary but not sufficient.

But I want to refocus the discussion. We’re talking a lot about the things to do, not to do, and we’re missing the grace that we need to discuss. There’s this third dimension of Natural wines. It’s about wines being unforced. The wines made by the people that are closest to Chauvet — they are graceful. It’s the same thing with Biodynamics. You may think Steiner was absurd or not. It doesn’t matter. Are the wines more graceful? There’s that hedonistic dimension that is too easy to forget amidst all the proscriptions.

Ted — Kevin, have you ever walked into a wine cellar, tasted the wine and said “Oh, that’s a little too ‘Natural’ for me?”

Kevin — Oh yes. This can happen with Chauvet vinification [essentially, carbonic maceration]. Absolutely you can see in some wines that the terroir is masked by the method of vinification. This is the flip side of the industrial international side of wine. It’s not just with chemical additions and manipulations that you can get this wine that could be from anywhere that smacks only of the vinification method.

Lou — And if you’re not lucky it tastes like brett, and VA and other nasty stuff.

Guilhaume — It’s a style but it’s not a recipe for greatness.

Wolfgang — Is Natural winemaking just another name for crappy winemaking?

Ted — Like Brett. At what point does it exceed your threshold. And why?

Wolfgang — Individual tasters have thresholds of what is acceptable. I don’t mind a little Brett in my wine. The wines I look for and get excited about (most are made under Natural Wine banner) they have a sense of honesty. Something that seems clear and expressive is to me — really stands out. That’s what I look for. Is it an honest expression of something?

Ted — That’s fascinating. What we’ve just heard is that the people who are buying these wines, who the grower has to sell to, they’re voting every day with their pocketbooks. The line is pushed here in Terroir a bit farther than anywhere else. Isn’t the consumer defining what is and is not Natural Wine?

Guilhaume — We’re talking about good wine and bad wine here. Just like spoofy wine, natural wine can be just as bad. We’re about honest wines. We look for wines that are transparent. I met a vigneron who was using no sulfur, no nothing, The wines tasted amazing. I asked how do you do that. He said “when it tastes bad, I throw it away.” In 2002 Paolo Bea made only one wine [where normally he makes five or six]. He still uses no sulfur, no temperature control in the cellar. Everyone makes choices, but we want to work with honest people.

Joe — Let’s talk about yeast. Is there a place in Natural Wine for innoculation?

Guilhaume — NO!!

Kevin — In certain sectors of Natural Wine, yes. It’s about intent. The use of something that is a neutrally identified yeast that is not intended to add flavor to wine is acceptable to deal with a stuck fermentation.

Lou — Chauvet wrote pretty interestingly about innoculation. His one major objection to commercial yeasts was the erasure of terroir. He had this vision of an ecosystem. The biggest problem was not per se the innoculation. It was about how were the yeasts grown? What were they eating when they multiplied in the lab? What was the substrate? He said can you imagine the utopia where we’re growing our own yeasts, ever vigneron with their own little culture? He thought a lot about this stuff already. It’s not that he excoriated innoculated fermentation, just the notion that if you’re growing a yeast strain in a vat in New Jersy on some other sugar, it doesn’t belong in a wine.

Joe — So this relates, of course, to what goes on in the vineyard. If you’re spraying an awful lot of things that are killing fungi in the vineyard, you’re killing yeast in the vineyard.

Ted — I’m not very good at innoculation. We avoid it like the plague. BUT. The first law of sustainability for any enterprise is to stay in business. The degree of risk tolerance you may have as a 5th generation winemaker in the Loire, may be a little different than ours at Littorai. How many times have we innoculated in 10 years? Just a handful. The logic that the more heterogeneous the vineyard the more heterogeneous the yeast population seems to hold for me.

Joe— Does anyone want to speak up for reverse osmosis. etc?


Wolfgang — Is natural wine possible in California? In terms of picking times and such. It seems like if you’re using native yeasts, you need to pick earlier, right? But in California, picking earlier often leads to unripe grapes.

Ted — Let me ask this instead: is Natural Winemaking possible in Europe? As a biodynamic farmer I’ve visited Europe. The most classic, highly densely planted areas of Europe simply can’t do what we’re doing… in the US we have the possibility to create integrated vineyard farms in a way that is not possible in Europe. You CAN’T do what we can do in Echezeaux. You can’t plant a field of hay next to your vineyard in Burgundy. The notion that this future of sustainable winegrowing is coming from Europe seems shortsighted to me. Especially in Northern California, the notion of integrated farms is really happening in a major way.

Guilhaume — Agreed. You just can’t do things when you own a couple rows. You don’t decide on your farming if you own certain rows.

Audience member — How large a a production scale can Natural Winemaking be? Is there a limit to the scale?

Guilhaume — human scale. Just something small — you’ll never see Terroir Natural Wine Merchant in 20 different cities in the states. To us it’s very basic. You need to be able to work your vineyards and handle your wines. As soon as you are running a business like a big corporation, it’s bad. I’m not saying you can’t hire employees, I’m just saying it should be something small, to sustain your family, to bring enough money to make a living? Why should you try to make millions. I like wines from farmers.

Kevin — It’s also a function of place. Depends where you are, what kind of scale you can achieve. Difficulty of harvest. Loire is certainly much more difficult to be a larger scale than to be in Languedoc with its schist soils. It’s about scale to place.

Wolfgang — What about co-ops making natural wines? In northern Italy there are co-ops that make excellent Traditional wines, but I think they don’t have the kind of control over the vineyard that we’re talking about.

Audience member (me) — What does traditional mean? What are we talking about when we’re talking about traditional winemaking methods?

Joe — can you flesh out the difference between traditional and natural?

Wolfgang — [laughs] Ugh. Really? That’s tough. Traditional might mean they can use Roundup in the fields, but not any barrique or commercial yeasts in the cellar.

Ted — I have a great deal of sympathy for Guilhaume’s basic touchy feely aspect of it. The family unit makes sense to me. It doesn’t have to be mom, pop and the three little kids. But that scale. A small enterprise allows you to take greater risk and at the same time have more control. Everything that happens you’re closer to. That scale favors the ability to make something more.

Joe — Is there a reason that larger practice has to be bad?

Ted — No, the implication that big is bad is not true. The larger you get the harder it is to keep quality, however.

Kevin — [winemaker] Radikon says “I’d like to make a wine like my grandfather used to make.” It’s cloudy. When we’re talking about traditional — we’re likely talking about pre-temperature control, before new barriques, maybe old cement vats. It varies from place to place. But generally we’re generally talking about the pre-wine boom in the 1970s.

Joe — the long term traditions of winegrowing that Ted spoke about pre-phylloxera, was a world where people were scrambling for anything. The Champagne region was rioting for food. A lot of what got adapted then was about increasing yields so that people could eat, not some fancy techniques for making great wine.

Kevin – The two world wars were a big factor. A lot of people talk about tradition in terms of what people were doing when they came back to the wineries after the war.

Audience member — I don’t think anyone would hope to return to the pre-war state of Barolo. Before the 80’s the wines were overcropped and awful. People coming off starvation in immediate post war era they had to try to make some money. This is the unfortunate legacy in the co-op world that people have been trying to break for decades.

Audience member — I wanted to get back to the yeast question. How much does the yeast come from the vineyard, winery, etc. What grows and what doesn’t? How detailed does the thinking go on what is acceptable yeast and what isn’t?

Ted — The question is both microbiological and philosophical. I’m the last person to answer the microbiological question — I’ve read articles that come to opposing conclusions. If you stick with the word spontaneous, it’s not a romantic word, but if you stick with it, whether they’re coming from the vineyard, or portion from the vineyard, whether due to the weather, or the winery itself, wherever, the yeasts that cause your grapes to start bubbling on their own — they are more complex, and they make better wines. We have 100% favored the the spontaneous fermentation whenever we’ve compared lots with those that were innoculated.

Joe — Let’s talk about sulfur. As a chemist and a pragmatist, I’m suspicious of this. If you don’t sulfur, your wine re-ferments in the bottle on the way to Paris, and then you don’t have wine, you’ve got vinegar. How is that a better wine?

Ted — It’s about minimizing the sulfur, and it’s regionally driven and varietally driven too — certain grapes are more likely to have brett, lower PH minimizes the buggers, so it all depends how much you have to use.

Kevin — Most people who have started doing no sulfur Natural Winemaking have gone back to adding a little sulfur at bottling. People in Paris were sending bottles back, as you say Joe, and that wasn’t working.

Audience member — Is tree bark the only acceptable Natural Wine closure? Does the decision matter in Natural Winemaking?

Guilhaume — It depends on the purpose of the wine for aging. Some are using only plastic cork, crown cap, screwcap.

Kevin — Some natural winemakers are even using crown caps.

Audience member — How about labeling? Is there some thought to labeling natural wines. I know “organic” on a label for some time was the kiss of death. For consumers who value this kind of winemaking, how are we to know when a wine is made according to this philosophy?

Guilhaume — Buy your wine here.

Wolfgang — There is no real movement to put a sticker on a label. As Guilhaume said buy your wine here (or at any of the other shops that have such wines). But it’s important to note that outside this little bubble of the SF wine market and others like it where we’re spoiled and lucky, it’s all but impossible to find these wines. Shop by importers like Dressner. That’s really what you can do. There is no real way to find these wines, other than to listen to wine writers.

* * *

So there you have it. I think the discussion carried on for a few more minutes of Q&A, but I ran out at that point.

I was quite interested to see a confirmation that there does not seem to be a clear-cut definition of what Natural Winemaking is, as well as an acknowledgement that the term Natural Wine is somewhat imperfect, something that I’ve long been bothered with.

I personally object to the term Natural Wine for two reasons. All wine is unnatural (as Ted pointed out early on in the discussion — it requires intervention by us to prevent grapes from turning into vinegar). And the unfortunate side effect of saying some wine is “Natural” is the implication that all other wine is unnatural, and while there certainly are wines out there in the world that are manipulated past the point of recognition, I think it’s quite incorrect to suggest that if it’s not done according to the guidelines of this particular philosophy, it’s unnatural. One of the other unfortunate things about the Natural Wine movement is that its proponents and adherents often take quite dogmatic stances about just how unnatural everything else is, which I find quite counterproductive and petty.

Quibbling about labels and dogma aside, there are some truly exciting wines being made under the banner of Natural Winemaking, and so they are definitely worth seeking out.