“We don’t want a square strawberry.”
So opines Ridge’s Paul Draper in the first half of Wine From Here, a documentary about (and at points a bit of a commercial for) the budding natural winemaking movement in California (I got a sneak peak by invitation from one of the filmmakers, Martin Carel of Wino Brothers Inc.). The trailer is embedded below for your viewing pleasure.
The film will be screened in L.A. in a couple of days, followed by a tasting of natural wines with winemakers featured in the film at BUZZ Wine / Beer Shop – and if you buy tix to the event online you’ll get 1/3 off the full price by using discount code “1WD” at checkout!
Draper’s comment above is in reference to (what I think is) the strongest selling point behind natural winemaking: consumers ought to know what they are getting when they buy a product, and in the case of wine sometimes they are getting a lot more than just fermented grape juice, primarily in the form of various additives (for more on that topic, and for a rough definition of natural winemaking itself, see my review of Alice Feiring’s new book – she makes several appearances in the film, by the way). And as we know well, consumer sentiment is king, and will play a large part in whether or not the natural winemaking movement gains any serious traction in the wine biz and becomes the vinous equivalent of the organic / slow food phenomena.
Based on the film (which is well-made, and is highly recommended watching for wine geeks), the natural winemaking movement sorely needs to emphasize its strong points, because it’s still touting a few tenets that hold less water than well-drained gravelly vineyard soils…
The leakiest of those tenets? The notion that natural winemaking is the most accurate lightening rod for transmitting a sense of place. Wine From Here begins its dénouement with a blind tasting of natural CA wines with experts and CA natural winemakers. It’s one of the dramatic low points of the film, which is a shame because the results of the tasting are themselves fairly dramatic; as summarized by the film’s narrator:
“…Only sometimes could they correctly identify the grapes or some detail of the winemaking methods; and not one could identify the specific terroir in California.”
Oh, blind tasting, you universally cool, cruel arbiter and equalizer!
While the above result will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever taken part in a blind tasting of wines, it undercuts the message delivered by several of the interviewees in the film that natural winemaking is a more reliable delivery service than UPS when it comes to bringing you a sense of place in a wine.
Wine From Here does a pretty good job of balancing the various sides of natural winemaking story in CA, including not shying away from the thorny topic of how environmental friendliness (another claim widely espoused by organic grape growers and natural winemakers) should be measured. Jared Brandt, winemaker at A Donkey and Goat, puts it best in his interview when he recalls a conversation with a former French employer, who noted that after converting to Biodynamics “his diesel usage went up ten times… is using ten times as much diesel worse on the environment than using RoundUp? I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as people think it is.”
Far more interesting to me, and I think a tactic ultimately more likely for success, are the comparisons made in the film between natural winemaking and natural foods. Long-standing godfather of CA natural wine Tony Coturri talks up this food angle, as does Alice Feiring, and it’s a strong one. If you demand that your food be processed as little as possible, then as a consumer don’t you have the right to demand the same thing from your wines?
My bud Hardy Wallace, in talking about the winemaking at his former employer the Natural Process Alliance in Santa Rosa (whose cloudy Sauvignon Blanc is a tasty, joyous, visceral experience, by the way), I thought summed up the thinking behind this comparison best during one of his interviews in Wine From Here:
“Our goal is to do nothing [to the wine]; so if we have to do anything, we want to do as little as possible.”
The corollary of course being that much of the wine you’re drinking is having something done to it, and in many cases it’s having a sh*tload of stuff done to it, none of which you probably know anything about and certainly some of which you’d rather go without putting in your mouth if you did know it was in there.
Wine From Here isn’t perfect, but if you’re a fine wine geek then it sure as hell ought to get you thinking about how and why wine production, in its pursuit of “perfection,” often turns more into craft and recipe-following than it does into genuine artistic expression.