The Sip

An archive of notes from 2015—2019

ACT NATURAL!

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I’m pro-natural – no bra, eating from the season’s bounty, barefoot in summer – let’s do this.

But I’m worried the word is falling from grace. Like artisanal and organic, it’s veering into #nomakeup territory – eight filters? We know you’re wearing lipgloss and brow gel.

And when it comes to wine, you’re probably thinking, of course it’s natural. It’s just grapes! Well, mostly true in some, not all cases… But wine doesn’t make itself.

Ideally, sure, very little goes into wine. For centuries, the basic approach has been simple: take care of the land, harvest grapes, ferment and bottle the damn stuff.

Then industry pressures (1980s consumerism) steered wine from farming tradition to economy of scale, flooding the market with shortcuts, trickery, and mass-produced swill (see below).

It’s easy to get caught up on the idea of “natural” being paramount, but it’s also important to note lots of small wineries make adjustments in the cellar like assisting fermentation or using sulfites. Winemaking requires expertise and guidance for a quality end product. And that’s a far cry from industrial-made wine.

It gets a little confusing but it comes down to practicality vs. purity: do we support minimally influenced wine that’s delicious, or do we have to actually drink our principles? Every time I try swallowing principle I choke and not because it’s well endowed.

Natural wine is a virtuous goal, but it’s being appropriated as a trend, a buzzword, a fashion statement, even a marketing ploy.

And, since you can’t drink movements or political views, I’ll get off my high horse (not a pedestal, I was just plowing a vineyard naturally, forgive me) and present a (slightly opinionated) road map:

Natural wine laws: simply put, they don’t exist. The word “natural” isn’t defined legally or environmentally. Zero interventionist winemaking means no temperature control, no added yeasts, no tampering – at all. Some say it’s the only definition of natural wine even if it yields something tasting like vinegar and looking like apple juice.

And while the bush is making a comeback, I’m not going to stop shaving my legs and I’ll retain the right to wax, thanks. Some super cool wines are made in this unkempt manner, it’s just not the only way.

A little grooming in the cellar – like minor use of sulphur or yeast – stabilizes wine and secures consistent fermentation. It doesn’t make it fake or even unnatural. 

What I’m saying is, there’s a huge difference between mascara and getting ass implants: 

Winemakers face challenges every year because nature is unpredictable. You can’t just follow a recipe. It seems unfair to demand they throw away an entire year’s work because sulfur is the new gluten allergy.

Where to buy: If there’s one thing you can absolutely change, it’s this: stop buying wine from grocery stores, liquor stores, and chain retailers. A local shop or good e-comm store (shameless plug) employs passionate people who talk directly to winemakers, ask questions and taste constantly, in order to source great wines. Buying wine is about trust, like letting someone cut your hair.

Oh! This brings me to an important, slightly unrelated tangent about how a terrible see you next tuesday of a hairdresser cut 8 inches off my mane, then BROKE UP WITH ME VIA TEXT – the day before an important appointment – for no apparent reason! I would never be so savage as to out the hairdresser, but I would never recommend or go to Lucas Salon in Echo Park ever again. Oops. Sorry, that just felt like the natural thing to say at this juncture.

Anyway, if you forge a relationship with a solid retailer, you support the growers who make the good stuff. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Chemicals: That’s easy – they’re bad. The worst. Pesticides and Fungicides (like Round Up) get into the water supply, rob the earth of vital nutrients, are carcinogenic and destroy everything they touch. Of course they’re terrible for wine, avoid them! But it’s not always easy to navigate which wines are truly free of chemicals. 

Drink wine made by real people: Sure, Sunday Funday sounds cute at first, but that bottle isn’t from a winemaker. It’s a brand made by a company. Commodity wines use chemical colorants, sugar, wood chips, artificial thickeners, stabilizers, and flavoring in the wine itself, not to mention pollutants and chemicals in the vineyards.

Real winemakers grow or source grapes; they don’t buy them in bulk from an industrial supply chain. They also prioritize the environment because they’re invested in its long-term health.

Look for clues to a wine’s origin on the label: vineyard name, site location, a real person’s name, the words hand-picked. These are indications there was a human maker at the source.

Biodynamic and Organic: These words mean something, but not everything. Organic refers to how the grapes are grown, not the wine inside. An organic wine isn’t necessarily without additives, and U.S. wines labeled as such can’t use sulfites, European ones can.

It’s also pricey to certify. Lots of tiny producers actually implement holistic methods but can’t afford the official creds, so they can’t state it on their labels.

Biodynamics refer to even stricter standards that apply beyond just how grapes are grown. Cover crops, using living organisms as pest control, pruning according to the lunar cycle – these are just some of the radical, holistic, and even spiritual tenants of biodynamics. Demeter is the official seal, and it’s expensive to obtain. But good wine sellers will know whether the winemaker practices sustainably, even if they’re not certified.

Drop a little coin. You don’t have to start hunting triple digit baller bottles. But if you can drop $60 on a manicure and hundreds on shoes (worth it), spend an extra $20 on a bottle of wine. Local strawberries are pricier than the ones you get at Ralph’s, but you know damn well they’re better from taste alone. Added bonus: environmental and ethical points, plus better Snapchat fodder at farmer’s markets than grocery stores.

Ditch the ego. Everything has its politicians, its dogmatists, even its romantics. But when pros gets on a soapbox to champion natural as some sort of crusade, advocate weird-tasting flaws as intentional, and condemn any human touch on wine whatsoever, it’s ironically elitist and self-serving. Like punk rock for money. That insiders-only shit almost kills my thirst. Sometimes, those wines are good, they’re just not the entire picture.

Wine is not for survival and it doesn’t spontaneously exist. Wine gets made, hopefully injecting pleasure into a meal, a gathering, all things it touches. And while I’m a socially responsible adult making mostly healthy choices, I’m a pleasure-ist first. Which is why I also order Frosted Flakes at 1am from Postmates in dire times. True story.

Life is about balance and so is good wine.