MOUTHFUL: conversations with three winemakers we love
MOUTHFUL is a series of in-depth conversations with leading creative practitioners who reflect the values of crossroads thinking.
While working on a research memo on natural wines and their origins in Eastern Europe, we decided to touch base with some of our friends across the globe.
We spoke to the good folks behind:
Dirty and Rowdy In Napa Valley, CA you can find Hardy Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery, a winemaker whose operation is actively “Redefining California Wine.” Refusing to be outlined by a single term, Dirty & Rowdy wines challenge what it means to be a conscious winemaker.
Old World Winery A driving force behind the movement for conscious consumption is Darek Trowbridge of Old World Winery in Sonoma County, CA. Using processes that eliminate the presence of manufactured chemicals, Old World Winery crafts wines that are simply natural.
Gut Oggau Stephanie and Eduard Tscheppe are the future minded growers of Gut Oggau in Burgenland, Austria. Their respect for their land and vines breathes such life into their wines — different faces are used represent the personalities of each bottle.
What does natural winemaking mean to you, and what is the philosophy behind your wines?
Dirty and Rowdy (D&R): The term doesn’t really mean anything to me. I can make assumptions that the wine was farmed organically or without synthetics and that the wine had no additions with the exception of some SO2, but even those are just assumptions these days.
The philosophy behind our wines is to take our customers to unique and beautiful places they’ve never been and make them feel at home.
In order to do that we can’t put a lot of stuff in between the consumer and the terroir. This stuff can also be winemaking techniques (hands off and hands on).
Old World Winery (OWW): Natural Wine is a personal journey. One where each person gets to decide what they put into their body.
It was when I was studying for my master’s degree in winemaking, back in the early ’90s, that I realized what natural wine actually is. Having been born into a winemaking family (my grandfather was a natural wine producer in Italy), I didn’t know anything other than “natural wines,” and it never occurred to me that I would have to learn to manufacture. Understanding that wine has become a manufactured good allowed me to grasp differences in natural wine’s definition.
This is where the need for transparency factors in. You have to ask, “what do I want to put in my body?”. If you want a pure and sacred reflection of the vineyard then you start with Native Yeast Fermented.
Instead of using freeze-dried yeast, I use the terroir- the yeast on the berries. Although not everybody agrees on that part, that is what it is for me.
After that, nothing is added. Maybe you can add some sulfur, 30ppm is preferable, and 0 sulfur is great. But beyond 50ppm, then it’s becoming something that’s no longer natural, something I don’t want to ingest.
Natural Wine is super simple- its wild fermentation, native yeast, and no additives. One of the biggest adjuncts is tartaric acid. You know, the industry thinks that’s okay because it’s a naturally occurring subsistence, but if you look at how tartaric acid interacts with its solvents, you would know that it’s not a benign process- it’s completely manufactured. I certainly don’t use acid.
Gut Oggau (GO): First of all, it’s not so important to have this term. The important thing is that if you talk of natural wine, everything, of course, needs to be sourced from organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards- that’s crucial.
You cannot talk of natural wines unless there is a sustainable approach in the production. Organics being the most basic form and biodynamics is taking it a step further into nature.
From our understanding, there is no major intervention in the vinification. The wine develops the way it wants, the way it should be according to nature.
Naturally, this brings up the question: sulfites, yes or no? We don’t add any sulfites, but not for dogmatic reasons. We don’t because the vines are strong enough to protect themselves, so the wines are strong enough to protect themselves from oxidation.
We don’t feel that we need to add sulfites to our wines, and we don’t condemn the wise use of sulfites for those who use them. We think that for some wine producers, before bottling and for transportation, it makes sense to add a little bit, just to give the wine some stability. These are natural wines; the sulfides are just for stability. But from our understanding, of course, you cannot talk of natural wines if you add sulfites during the evolution stage.
We produced our first vintage in 2007, when the term “natural wine” wasn’t even born yet. We stepped into this non-interventional idea because we took over an abandoned vineyard that had not been properly treated. We wanted to see the vineyard’s potential and find out what it would tell us in terms of storytelling.
We realized that there’s so much beauty to this approach. We’ve never been trying to follow any “style” of wine; again, the term wasn’t even born yet. What we have been doing is trying to discover the pure stories of the vineyards.
What processes do you use to make them with as little intervention as possible?
D&R: Start with great terroir, farm well, nail your picking decisions, take care of your wines during fermentation, elevage, and bottling. If a wine needs SO2, give it as little as it takes yet as much as it needs. I can’t worry if someone thinks 10ppm is ok but 25ppm is wrong.
OWW: I harvest the grapes earlier, so I have natural acidity instead of harvesting later on when the grapes are ripe and luscious despite the drawback of lower levels of alcohol. It’s beneficial to have this natural acid to make the wine stable. I harvest early to keep my acidity up somewhere between 11%-13%. I use some sulfur as a steering mechanism, sort of like how a dog herds sheep. But, my barrels get 0 sulfur until bottling day.
We add a little sulfur because distributors prefer it when bringing wine to areas all around from California to New York to Japan. It’s a miraculous compound, but if it’s over 50ppm, my palate knows it and renders the beverage unenjoyable.
GO: We are a biodynamically farmed vineyard. We are able to show the vineyard’s personality because we don’t use any makeup, because our soil is treated in a very cautious way, and because our vines are treated with a biodynamic approach. That’s what gives the character, personality, strength, and energy shown in our juice. Of course, if it wasn’t for the farming methods, we could not even think of having a non-interventional approach because the farming is what has these beautiful grapes that we get to appreciate in the cellar.
Did you initially have doubts about this being the right way to produce wine? If so, what were those doubts, and what have been the challenges of entering a “new” market?
D&R: I have no doubts this is the path I should be on. I won’t say that it is “right” or “wrong” for anyone else.
OWW: Haha, I probably should’ve had doubts; I had very few. I’m one of these people who, when they find a path that’s ethical and pure, decides to stay on that road. I ferment outside; I don’t use high tech equipment. As a writer, you’re taught to consider your audience but not to write for your audience- you write for you- and as a winemaker, I do the same.
The struggle was in sales. When I produced my first vintage in 1998, it was so hard to get people interested. People assumed that conventional winemaking was already a natural process. People didn’t believe they needed to know or care.
To them, wine is just a simple liquid, but that’s not the case. It was interesting that these same people would go to Whole Foods to look for organic vegetables, but never consider wine.
I had nearly been out of business so many times, but six years ago, it got so much easier. In my opinion, growth and change driven by millennials have led to the success of natural wine.
GO: Eduard- We never had any doubts. Stephanie- Lots of doubts! It was a completely new thing; talking now, it’s difficult to say. Of course, there were doubts, not about it being the right path, but doubts around if we were fermenting right or if it was a beautiful juice after it’s all said and done. I think you need to have doubts to begin trusting in yourself and the process. So, after you go through all those hardships, you are reassured that you took the right way.
In the beginning, the barrels were foaming, and the wines smelled different, smells which we never had before, and didn’t know. But now, 14 years later, we trust in ourselves, we trust in our vineyard, and we trust in our work because we know that everything will work out. But in the beginning, it was very challenging.
Now, this way of vinifying differently, it is our life. We treat everything with a thoughtful biodynamic approach. We think about the small things like where the corks are coming from, where the glasses are coming from, where the labels are coming from, and why we use them.
How would you describe the flavor profile of low intervention/natural wine compared to a conventionally made, organic, or biodynamic wine?
D&R: I’m not sure I challenge anyone’s practices. Does a sushi chef challenge the practice of a chef at a chain restaurant? I make something that is different from the status quo but I don’t think it challenges any practices.
At its best, the flavor of a minimally made wine should be more like a tomato from the garden vs. a tomato from the supermarket- but that’s just an ideal- The taste of flaws should not be the defining factors of natural wine.
OWW: On the surface, it would seem like that’s a hard question, but the honest to god truth is that my neighbors use a lot of makeup on their wine. By that, I mean they put flavoring additives and alternative oak products into their wines, adding artificial qualities. These oak flavors are rarely sought after in natural wine, so those flavors and lower alcohol content are somethings that separates natural wine from its counterparts.
As you know, for the past 8 thousand years, wine was simply natural. Natural wines separation from what has become “conventional winemaking” only occurred within the last 100-120 years, so the big difference is the simplicity of characteristic. By that, I mean diminished complexity. Today’s manufactured beverages have diminished complexity.
When getting my master’s degree, I was taught to make a wine that would offend as few palates as possible, meaning a more neutral wine. But, I like the complexity of native microbiology, and I like what have typically been considered “flaws” in wine.
When there are nuances, the wine is enhanced. When these nuances have been completely eliminated, the wine is boring for me. Those microbial factors and natural grape acids enhance the wine’s complexity. Those complexities make a more interesting experience of drinking a glass of wine. For example, when you have 25 different species of yeasts from natural fermentation, instead of one lab originated yeast, you get 25 different subtleties.
That’s the defining moment for me. These conventional wines didn’t light up my palate like my grandfather’s simple wines did. The single trait was the native yeast.
GO: Eduard- Well, more natural first of all. More diverse, more complex- you wouldn’t put these wines in a box. Every step you take in conventional winemaking minimizes and diminish the natural complexities. There are certainly more dimensions if you don’t intervene.
Stephanie- This is a question we would never ask ourselves, to be honest. This is the reason why we work how we work, why there are faces on our labels. Nowadays, with all of these problems surrounding diversity, we don’t wanna put conventional wine and biodynamic wine, or biological wines in a box. You know life, the earth, the wines are so beautiful, so why should we want to define them?
Can you talk about what you look for in a low intervention/natural wine?
D&R: What I look for in all wine (natural, minimal, conventional, industrial) – an honest voice, a deep connection to place, transparency, and love.
OWW: I enjoy low alcohol, bright fruit qualities. I love the fruit-forward flavor (Glou-Glou as the French call it), which presents so much more- all of the subtleties enjoyed for 8 thousand years. I also love skin contact whites, which is the only way I make my whites.
GO: Eduard- It’s about balance and harmony. It’s not about the taste or the smell; it’s about how it makes you feel.
If it makes you feel good, if it lifts you up, if there’s a positive energy that the wine carries that reflects on the vineyard. If the grower is sensitive to time of picking, then the wine will carry positive energy, one that you are able to feel, recognize, and appreciate.
There are so many different flavors because there are so many different regions and climate zones. We were open-minded.
We love to drink balanced wines. Wines that are not overripe or under-ripe, but balanced. The most beautiful things in nature have that harmonious balance.
Stephanie- Also, it depends on your mood. Maybe a wine doesn’t taste that great for you one night, but it will the next. Sometimes you change. Sometimes you want a fizzy and funky wine, and other times you want a straightforward, more layered wine. It all depends on your mood.
In what respect do you see the low-intervention approach to wine as a look backward in time? In other words, is it solely a look to the past, or is it a forward-looking movement that combines ancient practices with future technologies, or is it something completely different?
D&R: I make wine with a combination of ancient and modern hands off /minimalist methods. Carbonic / partial carbonic, short macerations, gentle pressing, modern organic farming, concrete eggs, stainless steel tanks, bladder presses, pump overs, laptops, ipads, forklifts, night harvesting under lights, tractors, weather stations, flashlights etc- all are modern tools we use.
OWW: I think people are arriving at the idea that wine should be natural- people want transparency. This transparency reveals the extent to which winemakers use technology. The increase of use of technology does typically lead to an increase in intervention, and natural wines do tend to use less technology, but this doesn’t mean we’re staring backward. That’s the wrong vision, in my opinion. What we’re doing is inviting something that has worked in the past to our vision for the future.
When I bring people here, there’s a community component. When you pick and stomp, there’s an opportunity for people to get together. I find that moment is lost in conventional manufacturing. This community comes together and does the same work it always has for the past 8000 years.
What natural methods offer a gentle way, a gentle process, a different way of looking at it. It’s not just the old way, that’s not my vision, just doing something out of an old tradition. It has to be what offers the best product, what will create the most purity- It’s a vision change.
GO: In the end, we don’t use modern cellar techniques, so that’s certainty resembles more of what they would do in the past. On the other hand, the quality and the effort this style of wine takes is more future driven.
Of course, the wines taste more like wines would have in the past because they don’t use modern cellar techniques. The wine always tastes according to the work we do in the vineyard, and our work is future-minded farming. It does not exploit the soil or exhaust the plants; we place more carbon dioxide and nutrients back into the soil through biodynamic farming. In this way, we fight global warming because we want to have healthy and vital soil and plants, and in the end, you get a beautiful result.
We think that the flavors in our bottles are a side effect of our vineyards, so we consider ourselves farmers and not winemakers. We don’t waste a thought during the time of vegetation about how the wine will taste in the end. If we do proper care for the vineyard, the taste of the wine will reflect that care. For us, farming cannot work if you exploit the soil, so all those modern industrial farming practices will end. You can’t kill the soil and expect healthy food. Even if it means a lower quantity, respect for the land means more energy in the food.
Where do you see the low-intervention/natural wine movement going?
D&R: I’m not sure where the natural wine movement is heading. I’m not on that bus. The best thing I can do is focus on making wines that are powerful, transformational, and take people places they’ve never been- Being part of a movement, challenging other winemaking practices, educating markets, or following dogma distracts me from doing what I do best.
OWW: The answer is threefold: food, restaurants, and social houses.
I’ve always said that the natural wine movement is about 20 years behind the organic food movement. 1991 was the organic food act in the United States, which had the government get an organic program in place. There wasn’t that same concurrent action for natural wine in the United States until another 20 years later.
More people are questioning what food and beverages they put in their bodies. The more they question, the more they’re going to find out the truth, and the greater the natural wine market will grow. We only see that happening in leaps and bounds with people sharing what they find precious with others and those people finding it the same.
Right now, it’s about natural wine. We see that the hottest restaurants in NY and LA are almost required to have a natural wine list. I see this trend continuing because the incoming chefs are natural wine drinkers, and just as they offer their own recipes to their customers, they want to have their own pairings offered to their customers as well.
I also think that in wine bars, people are choosing natural wines. In these types of meeting houses, people are gathering and drinking natural wines, at least the way it was up until March (Covid-19). The attendance at these wine bars was just growing, and people were buying these wines and bringing them home. It wasn’t just about enjoying these wines with friends; it was a consciousness about what people wanted to put into their bodies. And even now, we’re doing better than we were last year.
GO: We don’t think about the movement; we only consider where we are heading.
Of course, this movement is growing, and many people can speak to that, but when we started, it didn’t even exist. You could say we were at the start of the movement and that we inspired a lot of growers. But times are rough; some growers might not continue to stick to this.
If you want to continue on this path, you have to be willing to wake up earlier and go to bed later because it takes a lot of care. The work is intense because we want to do as much as possible by hand and treat the vineyard with respect. Natural wine doesn’t mean you’ll wait until grapes are ripe, we have to pull a lot of strings to support the plants. And with climate change, which is taking great effect in our area, we can only support the plants by taking that extra effort. For us, personally, we can only move ahead and move forward in terms of experience by going more in-depth.
We can never go back to treating the grapes with chemicals or treating the wines in the cellar with intervention- we can only move forward. For some, growers, consumers, and restaurants, this might be a trend, but we’re not leaving this path.
Do you see a return to naturally fermented, low intervention products occurring for other drinks (e.g., Sake, Makgeolli, Pulque, Kvass)?
D&R: As far as a return to low intervention in other beverages- I’m not sure. You are seeing it pop up with beer (folks like Jester King in TX use only native fermentations).
OWW: Natural wine is a drink of the common people- like beer- it appeals to the everyday person. That’s usually what I bring up when asked a question like this. For example, kombucha tells us a lot about where people’s palates are. What is kombucha other than vinegar in a bottle? People love that as a flavor quality. But, natural wine won’t affect kombucha or any of those drinks because it’s not that. At some point, there’s going to be hard kombuchas and hard Kvass.
GO: For sure! It’s about craftsmanship, and people are learning how to appreciate that again. That’s certainly why craft beer is getting so popular. But we wouldn’t say that craft beer is the same as natural wine. Brewing is more recipe-based; the same goes for sake. In the wine industry, the most respected natural wine producers farm themselves, which makes their product so much more special.
What’s some advice you want to give to young people, like me, beginning their exploration of the wine world?
D&R: My first bit of advice comes as legalese- outside of academic research, start exploring consumption at 21.
Once of age- taste and try everything -Conventional, industrial, natural, etc. Find a great wine shop, develop a relationship, and allow them to guide you.
When it comes to details, question everything (even from experts)- Wine is a big game of telephone that often goes from producer, to importer, to journalists, to distributor, to retailer, to consumer— plenty of things get lost and often made up along the way.
More important than all of that- have fun, be kind, and share the good stuff with everyone.
PS- One thing I take great pride in is that probably 50% of my customers have no idea I make “natural wine”- all they know is that the wines are different and make them say “wow”. From there, they share the wines with friends and loved ones. That’s the bus I want to be on.
OWW: Okay, so you’re in LA! You’re in the Mecca of natural wine!
Check out Lou Wine shop! Tell them you’re on a budget and that you want to explore! He’s been doing wine for quite a long time; he has a cult following. People come from NY to go to his shop.
There are shops you can go all over the place. There’s also another store called Psychic Wines that is another true cult wine store.
Don’t buy your wine at supermarkets unless you’re not concerned about what you put into your body. Those wines are mostly interventional; they use 750 thousand gallon tanks.
So, my advice would be to find a store and get on a membership deal to bring down the cost. Grab some friends, sit down, and share a bottle. Oh, and if you have the space, make wine!
GO: Be open-minded, ask questions, and rely on the wines that are properly farmed, that’s all very crucial. You don’t need to shape your taste through industrialized, standardized wines. That’s all bullshit. Go for the real stuff from the start. Encourage growers to tell you about what they’re doing- question and re-question.
In the end, natural wine is a part of the wine world. We wouldn’t say we’re the good ones, and the others are the bullshitter, but as a grower, you need to make a decision. You can either avoid potential consequences, effort, and work or enjoy the pleasures and experiences of growing.
It’s not just a drink- it has energy preserved from the planet and the cosmos- it’s very special.