I have to confess—the expression ‘natural wine’ has always seemed to me to have a bit of a strange ring to it. Most of us I think have the impression that wine comes more or less directly from the earth, with not terribly much processing, which maybe is the reason that calling wine ‘natural’ has always seemed something like saying that dirt or vegetables are natural. You might scratch your head if someone referred to some natural vegetables, perhaps wondering what other sort of vegetables anyone could have in mind.
Such naivete came crashing to the ground last week with the news that a lawsuit was brought against some large-scale wine producers, and the allegation that eighty-three different wines were shown to contain elevated levels of arsenic. (I wonder if very many people outside the wine industry saw this story.) Whether or not the lawsuit has any legs (at least one very knowledgeable wine professional told me that he’s fairly sure it doesn’t), it is at least a reminder that we should of course take nothing for granted when it comes to what’s in our bottles of syrah and pinot noir.
The natural wine ‘movement’ is sometimes said to have picked up steam a decade or two ago in Beaujolais, when a group of winemakers there wanted, themselves, to be able to drink vast quantities of wine and began to bottle wine for their own consumption with little or no sulfites. For many years there has been an audible suspicion, heard outside the corner wine bar, that sulfites and the human body sometimes do not get along—though Lettie Teague in the Wall Street Journal recently wrote the latest smart debunking of the idea. Sulfites, also, according to a great many winemakers and wine industry professionals, have been known to be essential to the chemical stability and longevity of wines. Perhaps because most of the wines of Beaujolais are not candidates for very long aging anyway, the guys there who started to make wine ‘sans soufre’ (no sulfites) figured: well, nothing to lose by eliminating the extra treatment.
My own suspicion is that headaches caused by drinking wine have much more to do with some other factors, like dehydration, the one-two punch of alcohol and a lot of sugar, and tannins—especially the preponderance of them in red wines, which though I can’t prove it I feel certain take their toll on my body at least. There is an old wives’ tale about sulfites dissipating after seven years in a bottle, but I think it’s much more likely that something chemical happens to the tannins over time. I tell people when they ask that I drink virtually zero very young red wine—outside of an occasional glass of very young Beaujolais. And some of the very young Beaujolais I might drink in the summer, it’s true, has little to no sulfites added, but I think it’s the soft tannic structure of the Beaujolais’ grape, gamay noir, that makes me feel like I could have a glass and throw a frisbee at the same time. For what it’s worth, I can also happily imagine throwing a frisbee while holding a glass of previously-very-tannic 1979 cabernet sauvignon.
So I’m not sure what I think about the march to eliminate sulfur dioxide from the scene, or, for that matter, the push to use only native yeasts in the process of fermenting wine, which together with the sulfite question is either the first or the second most important priority to the proponents of ‘natural’ wine. It sounds like a nice idea to me to rely only on what is ambient in the cellar to get the vinification process going. Though a very reliable source once told me that Bob Sessions’ recipe at Hanzell Vineyards, for all of those years in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s when he was making brilliant wines, sometimes involved ‘commercial’ yeasts, which is to say yeasts that were brought in from the outside. I don’t know—I’m not sure that anyone does, exactly what difference it makes, but of course it’s also hard to denounce a practice which was employed in the production of wines which seem in some way to be a gold standard.
From all of these considerations arises a question, perhaps unanswerable, which might be at the crux of a number of health-related concerns: how much can we trust our palates and digestive systems to tell us what’s good for us? In the case of wine, it might not surprise you to hear, I think we can trust a good deal. No matter the technological advances, the viticultural laboratories which have been erected to work towards synthesizing deliciousness, the veritas is still in the vino, and doesn’t show any sign of moving out.
It doesn’t hurt of course to get to know a winemaker a little, to see his grapevines and also his ducks and chickens and sheep, to take a walk in the forest with him and listen to him talk about foraging for wild mushrooms. I did these things recently with Gideon Beinstock, who has for many years been the proprietor of a winery called Clos Saron, which is situated in the Sierra Foothills near Nevada City, about an hour north of Sacramento.
It could be his Israeli childhood or time spent working on kibbutzim, or the years he spent living as a painter in Paris, or his fascination with the science of winemaking, or his sweetly gentle demeanor, or the fact that he slaughters his own lambs—he is probably not the guy behind you in line for a cappuccino. He is a guy who can spot a cluster of mushrooms under a dark pile of pine needles and dirt, and who can tell you rather definitively whether they’ll be delicious in your pasta or they might kill you. In my experience with him, he seems like someone very unlikely to make pronouncements, or to hitch a ride on something faddish.
He is also the first person to have piqued an interest in me regarding ‘natural’ wine. The reason wasn’t that he uses only tiny amounts of sulfites, or that he eschews the use of commercial yeast, or that he doesn’t fine or filter his wine, or that he stomps his grapes with his feet. Apart from the foot-stomping, he has plenty of company locally and abroad with regard to those other practices. Gideon had my attention when he put a short glass of his 2010 Clos Saron ‘Home Vineyard’ Pinot Noir in front of me. I’m sure that at the time he told me a lot of things about the 100 cases or so of the wine he made, or certain things about how it was made, but I was captivated by the wine and have been, upon revisiting it, ever since.
Gideon’s wines, mostly pinot noir and syrah based, seem to me to have the qualities of the greatest California wines. They’re balanced, certainly—quite moderately alcoholic, with lovely acidities and tannic structures, and they also have what is for me the x factor that separates competent domestic wines from great ones. These wines seem to know how to convert the ripe California sun into something feral and wild and delicious, rather than just hot and sugary. It’s almost as though certain winemakers, working with fruit from certain sites, are able to say, “It looks like we’re going to have a little stretch of ninety-five degree weather. Let’s pack it away in the top drawer, maybe pick a few days earlier, and see what happens.” Many of the great California winemakers of the last thirty years—Cathy Corison, Michael Havens, Randy Dunn, Philip Togni, Bob Lindquist and Jim Clendenen, lately John Raytek, have made red wines that obviously grew up under the California sun, but which seemed to channel that brightness into an extra dimension of complexity.
Last week I tasted two wines from Gideon’s slate of releases that were extraordinary, and which in some quantity I would like to offer you: the 2012 ‘Home Vineyard’ Pinot noir and his 2009 ‘Heart of Stone,’ which is 90% syrah and 10% viognier, much like a typical wine from Cote-Rotie in the Rhone valley. Both of these wines offer what seems to me to be a staggering price to quality ratio. The Pinot Noir is a house built of savory materials rather than sweet, and yet still, even at 13.2% alcohol, could hardly be said to be wanting in the pleasure-giving department. The 2009 Heart of Stone is rather more like a coliseum—a wine of massive structure which could, if you let it, command your attention for decades if not centuries.
2012 Clos Saron Pinot Noir ‘Home Vineyard’ $55/btl.
2009 Clos Saron ‘Heart of Stone’ $42/btl.