My first encounter with natural wine was not a happy one. It was about ten years ago, when one of my colleagues finally saved enough money to buy a house in New Jersey. Having grown up in cramped apartments all over Manhattan, he was now giddy with extra real estate. He had a decent sized bucolic backyard, and a cool and damp basement, so decided to pursue a hobby befitting a country gentleman—the art of wine making.
We heard about his progress throughout that year: “I found a book on making natural wine… I ordered a personal-sized oak barrel from California… I started the fermentation process… I’m aging the bottles on an Ikea rack….” One day, a bottle mysteriously appeared on my desk. It had edgy kidnapper-style black and bold lettering on rustic brown craft paper. The cork was dutifully sealed with a wad of drippy red wax. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to try it with dinner.
Need I say it? It didn’t go so well. The wine was kind of cloudy, and it smelled like burnt matches and tasted like copper and aluminum-flavored vinegar. It was wrong on so many levels that I skipped my standard operating procedure for dealing with bad wine, which was to cover the top with cheese cloth and leave it on the counter and let it turn into vinegar. I just dumped the whole thing down the drain and rinsed my mouth out with Listerine.
The next day, my colleague wanted to know what I thought of his wine. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth. I knew he had spent a lot of time and money making it, dripping blood red wax and all that trauma-drama. So I said, I sort of liked it… It was impressive for a first try… It had a sense of place… I could definitely taste New Jersey.
“Really? You liked it?” he said, sounding rather surprised.
“Yeah, I thought it went very well with spicy meatballs,” I said, nodding my head the whole time. In for a penny, in for a pound, right?
“Boy, you’re the only one I know who liked this wine. I’ve lost all respect for you as our resident food expert,” he sniffed and walked off.
That day, I learned two important life lessons: no good deed goes unpunished, and not everybody can make good wine, especially an insensitive clod who can’t read between the lines. I’m happy to report I have since discovered that natural wine, made by people who know what they’re doing, can taste as pure as a mountain stream. Back then, nobody knew what natural wine was. (Is it like blueberry wine?) Today, people tend to confuse natural wine with organic wine. In fact, they are two very different species.
Organic wines are made with organic grapes. After that the winemaker is free to add any kind of additive. At last count, there are at least 59 additives that wine makers are legally allowed to put into their wines: lab-bred commercial yeast, sulphur dioxide derived from chemicals, gum arabic to improve mouth feel, calcium alginate for inducing clarity, sugar to balance acidity and to bump up the alcohol content…you get the idea.
Natural wine uses organic grapes and no additives. The grapes and wild yeast are left alone to do their own thing. Where the art comes in is in the fruit selection, fruit ripeness, temperature, and timing. It’s actually a more difficult process, since the result can be unpredictable and unstable. It’s a live wine, so the yeast can continue to alter the taste after it is bottled. This is the way it was done for thousands of years before the advent of wine-making science.
According to Michael Andrews, owner of The Natural Wine Company, which opened last November, using additives is a relatively recent phenomenon. Fifty years ago most wines were made naturally. “People started using pesticides and chemicals when they became available in the 1950s,” he explains.
But in the 1970s, a small group of French winemakers in the Loire region decided to buck the modern trend and go back to nature, believing that “terroir” (a sense of place) is important to the character of wine. In the early days, few winemakers followed in their footsteps, as it’s difficult to make good tasting wine without human manipulation. And it’s definitely not conducive to producing wine for mass consumption, where the ease of storage, stability, and taste consistency are important.
After years of proselytizing by devotees, natural wine is finally having its day in the sun. This past May, England had its first annual natural wine fair with over 500 wines from all over the world available for tasting. In France, there are towns that serve mostly natural wines. In America, New York is leading the way in the natural wine love fest. Some speculate that it is because giant wine companies in California hold a lot of sway with the media, so small natural wine producers there can’t make a big splash.
Wine critics are divided on the value of natural wine. Some are troubled that, unlike organic and biodynamic wines, there is no official certification program for “natural wine.” In terms of taste, some feel it lacks the richness and sophistication of great “traditional” wines, while others celebrate the lack of chemical taste and its fresh and bright character. Andrews says he has been collecting fine wines for a long time, and the clean taste of natural wines has won him over. Today, the Natural Wine Company stocks around 200 different natural and organic wines from all over the world. Priced from $10 to $99, most sell in the $10 to $25 range. Local wines include a pear cider from the Shinn Estate in Long Island. “Imagine growing organic fruits in Long Island with all that mold-loving humidity. It has to be a labor of love,” says Andrews.
One way to discover if you’re a fan is to go to natural wine tasting events around the city. The Natural Wine Company hosts tastings Fridays (6–8pm) and Saturdays (2–6pm). Check their website for hours and upcoming special events.
The Natural Wine Company
209 North 11th Street, Williamsburg