Apr 6, 2016
Inside the World of Natural Wine and the People Who Love It
On the last weekend in February, Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel got “glou”ed; it was filled with people eager to taste natural wine and meet the professionals who make it. Over 600 wine-lovers came to each day of New York City’s first natural wine fair, The Big Glou; attendees ranged from those who were new to natural wine, to others who worked in the industry, and everything in between. Swirling glasses printed with the cheery logo of the fair, the hundreds of fair-goers chatted with winemakers, dropped in on discussion-panels, tasted cheese aged in Brooklyn, and imbibed a lot of fermented grape juice made with very low levels of sulfur, mostly organic grapes, and not much else except a lot of love.
Natural wine is a growing movement, but it’s still small and niche; most of these wines are only to be found in certain restaurants and retail shops around the country, where people have relationships with the importers who bring them in. Brooklyn offers some of the best opportunities to enjoy natural wine, including some recently-opened restaurants such as the Four Horsemen, June Wine Bar, and Semilla, as well as pioneers like Roberta’s and Diner. When you ask about a bottle at one of these places, most likely you’ll hear not only about the grape variety and the region it’s from, but also a story about the producer. Chances are, he was doing something completely different before deciding to get his hands dirty in a vineyard, for no other reason than for love of wine.
Natural wine is distinct from the great majority of wine, which is made with chemicals in the vineyard and the cellar and sometimes altered almost as much as industrial soda. And yet there is no exact definition, or official category, defining natural wine. So what winemakers at The Big Glou wanted to emphasize was that part of natural wine’s attractiveness relies on its lack of a definition. “I make wine the way I want to, because I want to be free,” said Laurent Saillard, who was pouring his low-sulphur wines from the Loire Valley. Scott Frank, whose Bow & Arrow label features wines from Oregon’s best biodynamic vineyards, admitted that natural wine’s lack of definition makes it a complicated subject: “The arms are wide open, everybody’s invited into it. But it’s not easy. Like a lot of things in life, you might have to work to get to a place where you’re conversant in that language.”
One way to approach natural wine is to focus less on the product in the bottle and more on the people making it. Natural wine exists because the people who make it want to drink it regularly. Nobody is in it for the money, although natural wine has become enough of a movement that producers and importers can enjoy a profit. These are people who enjoy wine and food—the classic French bon vivant is one aspect of the natural winemaker’s lifestyle—but they also like to work. One thing you noticed if you looked closely at the hands pouring the wine for you, at The Big Glou: dirt beneath the fingernails, and even encrusted in the wrinkles on the leathery skin. A natural winemaker is not the “CEO” of his “winery;” he or she is also a grape grower, working very closely with the land.
One of the reasons that The Big Glou was such a success is that it brought together winemakers from several different countries into one space. The Big Glou was organized partly by one importer, Guilhaume Gerard, whose company Selection Massale works with small-production, natural wines from Europe; but he chose not to focus only on producers with whom he works. Instead, he partnered with Lee Campbell, wine director at all the restaurants owned by Andrew Tarlow (Reynard, Roman’s, Marlow and Sons, etc.), and the two invited natural winemakers from around Europe and the US.
Most of the winemakers in attendance at The Big Glou came from a background other than viticulture, and many also have no formal oenological training. Laurent Saillard, for example, became a winemaker almost by accident. He owned the popular farm-to-table Brooklyn restaurant ICI, which he opened in 2004. When he went through a divorce a few years later, he decided to move back to his native France, where he visited Thierry Puzelat, a winemaker regarded as a pioneer of the natural movement. There, he met and fell in love with winemaker Noella Moratin and she began teaching him the ropes.
“I’d never worked in a vineyard before, never worked with my hands before,” recalled Saillard. Winemaking immediately clicked for him; he stayed and began his own label, “La Pause,” now found in some U.S. cities, as well as Denmark, Japan, and Canada. Laurent’s wines have no organic certification, although there are no chemicals used in the vineyards. He uses small amounts of a preservative called sulphur, which stabilizes grapes during the fermentation process. Some natural winemakers make completely sulphur-free wine, while others choose to add it judiciously. “One of the reasons I’m doing wine now is to be free, and do whatever I want to do,” he explained, defending his choice to use sulphur when necessary. Saillard just makes the wine that he likes to drink, and fortunately for him, there are enough other people who want to drink it, so he can sell it. Many natural winemakers, like René Mosse and Olivier Lemasson—both based in the Loire Valley, like Saillard—once worked as retailers; others were sommeliers. One day they said, enough, I love drinking it and it’s time to just go make it.
The Jura, a tiny region in eastern France, is a hotbed of natural winemaking, partly because it never developed a large, well-financed wine industry. Alice Bouvot, one of the winemakers in attendance at The Big Glou, began making wine in the Jura in 2006 after previously working as a large-animal veterinarian and an agricultural engineer. When she became interested in winemaking, she attempted to study oenology at prestigious schools in Bordeaux and Dijon, but she hated both institutions. She gave up on school, and worked for wineries in Napa Valley for three years—but not small, natural ones. But one day, Alice was walking in an organic vineyard and tasted a grape, and it was so pure, so clean, that she determined to make wine her own way, with as little additives as possible. When she and her husband finally got ahold of vineyards in the Jura, she knew they would farm organically and use zero sulphur in the wines for their label, Domaine de l’Octavin. “The heart is what guides winemaking,” she told me, clutching her chest.
Some natural winemakers do come from wine backgrounds, but they are taking a stance against what the previous generation did. Ramon Saavedra, who was pouring his fresh, light Tempranillo wines from Southern Spain at The Big Glou, explained why making natural wine is so important to him. His grandparents’ generation made small amounts of wine for their own consumption, and they never added any chemicals. But just one generation later, a division developed between winemaking and vineyard work, and that’s when chemicals began to be included. Winemaking, said Ramón, should be a “philosophy, not just something for the market.” It’s a way of life that includes laboring in the vines to make them as healthy as possible. “We are resurrecting the culture of our abeulos,” he explained.
Natural wine is by no means just a European phenomenon. Take, for example, Hardy Wallace, who grew interested in wine while entertaining clients as a software salesman. “We were drinking really expensive, Parker-y wines,” he recalled when I spoke to him at another tasting, organized by the retailer Chambers Street Wines, called Vivent les Vins Libres. Hardy was referring to the polar opposite of natural wines—the bold, high-priced style of wines that famous critic Robert Parker favors. When the economy crashed, those wines were no longer affordable, and Hardy grew interested in lighter, more delicate styles like Beaujolais from France. He started blogging about wine and entered a contest to move to California to do social media for a big Napa winery—and he won. Gradually, Hardy learned winemaking by working for various California producers, and now, with his wife and another couple, their label Dirty and Rowdy makes small amounts of old-vines Mourvèdre from organically farmed vineyards.
The Big Glou broke the ice as New York City’s first public natural wine fair, marking just how big the trend has become. In November, an international natural wine festival called RAW is coming to New York for the first time, also. Keep an eye out for ticket sales, as it will surely be another opportunity to not only sniff, swirl, and sip, but also meet the winemakers and hear their unique stories.
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