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Any discussion, conversation, argument or no-holds-barred fight on the topic of “natural” wines has to start with the two winemaking practices most often used to define such wine: using natural/field-born yeast for the fermentation, and not using SO2. If SO2 is used anytime during the development or bottling of the wine, and/or if field yeasts are not, the wine is not “natural” wine.
In 36 years of professional winemaking I have worked with some of the best fruit in the world. Zinfandel, Cabernet and Sangiovese grown by my brother Philip, Pinot Noir from the Hanzel vineyards (an unparalleled opportunity that came my way in 1997 when Bob Sessions, whom I consider one of the best winemakers in California history, was at the helm), in 2001, Merlot from a Texas Hill Country vineyard that would horrify California grape growers. In all cases I used natural yeast and absolutely no SO2. Good fruit from good terroir should be allowed to speak directly, and that voice can hold a very long time. I recently had a bottle of my 1980 Cabernet (which we will be pouring in London) that is still very much alive.
Natural wine is living wine. Field yeasts are the umbilical cord from the vine to the glass, transmitting a sense of place to the wine, and commercial yeasts cut this vital connection. SO2 (not to mention the myriad of common additions and manipulations used) also kills terroir. It hinders both positive microbial development and natural yeasts and makes way for (or necessitates) the use of genetically selected yeasts that can function in a relatively high SO2 solution. I think of a sulfide wine as a single frame or photo of a vintage. It allows only a small glimpse of what that vineyard and year are about. Natural wines are movies of the vineyard and vintage; a story full blown and alive.
Iʼm not making health food wine. Iʼm trying to steward the fine, traditional and pure product that the grape has to offer to us and has offered for over 2000 years without the dubious help of modern technology.
Glen Ellen, California
29 April 2015