As a young sommelier in the early 2000s, under the tutelage of my mentor, Ken Collura in Portland, Oregon, I had developed an understanding of wine that I had honestly not seen happening for myself. I started noticing variables in the wines that I hadn’t previously. Wines with too much sulfur tasted stripped of life. Wines that were made with commercial yeasts tasted boring. Almost all of the wines I intuitively enjoyed were farmed organically or biodynamically. These new revelations found their way into all of my subsequent wine programs, and I began selling natural wines at my little wine shop in Portland.
Eventually, I found a common thread in all of the wines that I liked. Wines made from grapes grown sustainably and made without a lot of winemaker intervention had more potential for greatness than wines that were chemically “adjusted” for the mass market. Soon, I would learn that pretty much all truly great wines are made in a relatively natural way, and this realization changed my entire career path and eventually tied me to the world of natural wine inescapably.
What began as a constant effort to help people understand an esoteric and wonderful genre of wine, eventually became a trending topic. What was once a curiosity in the pages of wine industry magazines became the subject of countless “think pieces” in magazines like Vogue.
What is natural wine?
Before we go into the “hows” and “whys” of natural wine, let’s, for a moment, be clear about what natural wine actually is. For some unknown reason, just about every story on this topic tends to begin with the author or an interview subject stating how confusing it is to define “natural wine,” as there is no legal definition for “natural.”
This is rubbish.
There are two requirements of natural wine: First, the grapes must be sustainably farmed, which, generally speaking, means they are organic and/or biodynamic. Second, there should be nothing added nor taken away from the juice.
Some wines can be given a low dose of sulfur dioxide (more on that below) and still be considered natural enough to be sold in natural wine establishments. While professionals often kick around what they deem to be “acceptable” sulfur levels, measured in parts per million, most simply trust their palates. High and low sulfur wines are very easily discerned from one another in the glass.
To the truly righteous, temperature control is considered to be too extreme a manipulation for a wine to be considered natural, but to the rest of the community, it is viewed as being an essential element in making balanced wines without the advantage of pricey subterranean caves.
Why make natural wine? Why drink it?
Health: Perhaps the most significant rationale to make wine naturally is that sulfur dioxide, a centuries-old preservative added to the overwhelming majority of wines, undeniably takes something away from the flavor of a wine.
It’s also technically poisonous to humans, albeit in significantly higher doses than one finds in wine.
On the palate, wines made with conventional levels of sulfur dioxide can taste sterile next to unsulfured wines. Moreover, some natural wine drinkers report a physical sensitivity to the stuff after making low-sulfur wines their norm. Nausea, piercing headaches, difficulty swallowing and pain behind the eyes are all commonly reported issues that natural wine drinkers report when attempting to drink conventional wines.
It’s easy to understand why one would shy away from a type of wine once those symptoms become a common side effect.
Easy to understand: Since they eschew the hearty addition of preservatives, natural wines tend to have less of a shelf life, which is something that most producers and imbibers of these wines embrace. While there are plenty of immensely serious and age-worthy wines made naturally, a majority of zero-sulfur or low-sulfur wines are made to be drunk while young.
Young wines of any sort will have brighter fruit flavors, since the wine has only very recently made the trip from being grape juice. When you remove sulfur dioxide, filtration and other related processes out of the winemaking, a young wine can drink something like adult Kool-Aid. Wines like these earn the nickname “glou-glou,” among the reverent, which is literally French for “chug chug.” This style represents a majority of what lines the shelves of your typical natural wine merchant.
This tendency toward toward simple, chuggable wine is not just funny to think about, but is also responsible for the meteoric rise of natural wine. As the stereotypes suggest, in the world of classic wines meant for aging and severe contemplation, the mountain does not come to Mohammed — if you taste a truly great wine and don’t like it, then the commonly held wisdom is that you, the taster, are wrong in your assessment. Professionals spend lifetimes unlocking the secrets of such serious wines and specifically about the terroirs, or the environment, that produced them.
On the other hand, natural wines made in that chuggable style are built simply for pleasure, rather than highlighting the sites in which the grapes are grown. In the world of natural wines, the drinker determines whether or not the wine is good.
This customer empowerment is good for business.
And when the decision to buy a wine is based mostly on how it is made, and whether or not the buyer finds it tasty, the process of purchasing wine professionally is much simpler. As a buyer new to wine, one can have a very compelling natural wine list without having to spend half of one’s life traveling, reading everything and sucking on rocks in vineyards. Natural wine has leveled the wine playing field, so a lot more people are showing up to play.
Sustainability: Perhaps the most obvious necessity of natural winemaking is sustainable farming. Sustainable farming can mean a lot of things, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s refer to sustainable practices as those that are consistent with organic and/or biodynamic principles.
The appeal is obvious. Quite often, growers tear out biologically diverse forest in favor of monoculture (grapevines), and farm the plots conventionally. Encouraging biological diversity in one’s imposed monoculture is tough to argue with.
Plus, more practically, the yeasts that ferment grape juice into wine are more present on sustainably-farmed grapes, so the wines made from these grapes have more vigorous, trouble-free natural fermentations, which can lead to more interesting wines.
Lastly, the obvious advantage to sustainable farming is to avoid toxicity in the wines. Industrial farming involves spraying some nasty stuff, like Roundup, on the vines. Many of us would rather avoid the risk of exposure to such products in our food and drink.
Social Responsibility: While this is not the case across the board, natural winegrowers tend to be small, often multi-generational family operations. The lion’s share of the world’s wine is made by huge corporations like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE and Constellation Brands. For many wine drinkers, it feels more socially responsible to buy from individuals, rather than corporations. Small winegrowers have an ability to focus on quality in a way that corporations generally cannot. Moreover, the shops that focus on natural wines are almost always small, locally-owned, entrepreneurial endeavors, and so purchasing natural wines is often a chance to support the local economy.
Downsides to natural winemaking
Wines are made with sulfur dioxide and other additives for a reason. There are all sorts of problems that can arise in low or no-sulfur wines, that, for many, can render the wines undrinkable.
Common flaws in natural wines: VA: The wines can have what is called “volatile acidity,” which is when bacteria creates acetic acid in the wine. Wines with VA smell like a magic marker and can lead to the presence of another flaw, called diacetyl, which makes the finish of a wine taste like butter popcorn Jelly Bellies, but in an unpleasant way.
Mouse: Some natural wines also develop a specific flaw that is described as “mousiness,” caused by certain strains of lactobacillus. Some tasters cannot taste it at all, and for others, it makes the wines taste dusty and unpleasant.
Premox: Premature oxidation sometimes occurs, because the sulfur dioxide isn’t there to protect the wine from oxidation. These wines are brown and murky-tasting.
Brett: Natural wines, like all wines, can be contaminated with brettanomyces (or brett) bacteria. It’s not usually pleasant — brett makes wines smell a bit like a horse stable — and is a frequent criticism of this style of winemaking. However, brett flaws are way less common in natural wines than is reported. The flaw actually has mostly to do with people working in an unclean manner — not strictly because they are making natural wine.
In addition to the possibility of flaws, natural wines are, in general, expensive — the average bottle price is around $28. This makes sense, though. Farming small plots of land biodynamically and doing everything by hand can be costly, as can getting the wines onto the shelves of a wine shop thousands of miles away from the vineyard. There are inexpensive natural wines, but in general, they cannot compete with conventional wines on a value basis. Still, the faithful consider the extra cost to be worthwhile in the same way that they consider eating organic food worthwhile.
How to learn to love natural wine
Do not use conventional wines as your litmus for natural wines Think of the wines more like you would think of craft beer. You are just going to have to embrace things that are traditionally considered flaws if you are going to dive into natural wine. Instead of making a comparison, ask yourself: “Do I like this?”
Learn to love acidity Most wines made naturally are lower in alcohol, and low alcohol wines tend to have lots of acid. Acid is sour, tickles the tongue and turns off a lot of novice wine drinkers.
How does one learn to love it? A good start is to enjoy the wines with food. Acid cleanses the palate between bites and adds a lift to dishes that are otherwise one-dimensional, much like squeezing a lemon wedge over a salad or piece of fish. Once you learn to love acid, it becomes a necessity with meals.
Enjoy the buzz Don’t worry if you don’t like it. Not every wine is perfect for everyone, and often it’s best just to finish your glass, if only for the buzz. If you do enough tasting, you will eventually learn to love wines that you initially did not “get.” We aren’t born digging John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, and similarly, we can often learn to appreciate wines we once found strange. Just relax and drink.
Learn your back labels While there are countless wine producers and cuvées to choose from, most natural wines come from a relatively small number of importers. You can find this information, usually in small print, on the back of the wine label.
Once you taste through the importers’ respective lineups, you can get a sense for the kinds of wines they like to bring in, and that will help you make smarter, quicker decisions. Good importers of natural wines include Louis/Dressner, Selection Massale, Percy Selections, Zev Rovine Selections, Terrell Wines, Jenny & François Selections, and Goatboy Selections.
Where can I find natural wines?
As with getting into any wine, you will need to find a competent merchant whom you trust. As it happens, the East Bay has a number of excellent natural wine merchants.
Chez Panisse has a number of natural wines, due to wine director Jonathan Waters. The list is not strictly, nor even predominantly natural, but there are always phenomenal options.
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave. (between Vine and Cedar), Berkeley
Ordinaire is the unofficial clubhouse of the Bay Area natural wine scene. Yes, it has a young and hipster-y vibe, but there’s zero snobbery. It is one of our country’s greatest wine bars.
Ordinaire, 3354 Grand Ave. (at Elwood), Oakland
The Punchdown is a gorgeous space with thoughtfully and expertly selected natural wines. D.C. Looney and Lisa Costa’s passion for and knowledge of natural wine is vast, and they are always happy to share it with their guests.
The Punchdown, 1737 Broadway (between 17th and 19th), Oakland
Starline Social Club has a thoroughly legit natural wine list. The bar staff won’t send you away with an education in natural wine, but it’s one of the most fun places to drink in the Bay Area.
Starline Social Club, 2236 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (at West Grand), Oakland
Vintage Berkeley is not a business built with a focus on natural wine, but its College Avenue location boasts an impressive collection of natural wines. Its wine buyer, Dan Polsby, can also be seen behind the bar at The Punchdown.
Vintage Berkeley, 2949 College Ave. (near Ashby), Berkeley.