For far too long “natural,” in the context of wine, has been nearly synonymous with funky, earthy, so-called “terroir”-driven wines. The implication being that the presence of fruit flavor and aroma is ancillary to these other flavors and aromas; by necessity, if a wine has an abundance of fruit it must have been excessively manipulated by the wine maker’s hand.
What this premise seems to forget is that wine is made from grapes which, last time I checked, are a fruit. They’re also a very sweet fruit and it is that sweetness coupled with a grape’s own natural preservatives that make grapes the ideal vehicle for fermentation. What this premise also forgets is that here in California we have very good soil, very even warm weather, and a generally very even-keeled growing season.
We also have more modern wineries that, through no deliberate action on the part of the wine maker, facilitate clean and consistent wine. The purpose of a wine maker’s manipulation is to either overcome/mask flaws or ensure consistency and it is those very flaws and variation which create much of the appeal for natural wine drinkers: the flaws are the “tell” that indicates the naturalness of the wine.
But should a wine maker be penalized for making his or wine in California with ripe fruit and modern equipment when his wine is otherwise naturally and authentically produced? Is the burden of great weather and equipment not tainted with centuries of Brettanomyces an inherent barrier to natural wine? Does a true “natural” California wine need to be of the luddite-sort advocated by wineries like Coturri?
I have the pleasure of working with Andrew Jones, the owner and wine maker at Field Recordings Winery. I have yet to meet another person as tied in to the land as Andrew, as his “day job” is that of a nurseryman, selling grapevines to growers throughout California and he knows California’s vineyards, growers, and vineyard managers intimately. Making his wine out of a newly-acquired industrial warehouse space just off US-101 in southern Paso Robles, all of his Field Recordings wines are single vineyard and naturally fermented with native yeast. Those wines that are not monovarietal are all co-fermented field blends and he bottles all of his wine without fining or filtration. His wine making is sulfur-free and he only adds a small amount of SO2 just prior to bottling to ensure stability. His wines typically end up at about 40ppm SO2, well below the EU organic threshold of 100ppm.
All sounds pretty good so far, right? Pretty much in line with all but the most aggressively anti-sulfur natural winos, no?
The problem is, Andrew makes his wine with Central Coast fruit and his red wines routinely top 15% ABV, despite picking his grapes at around 25 brix. As a Central Coast wine maker, he also prefers to use those varietals ideally suited to the climate, including Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blends. Although he’s won plenty of natural wine converts, there is still a segment resistant to the idea of a natural wine that is so high in alcohol and/or so fruit forward.
Just as the 100-point Parker boom was fueled by California wine makers apeing the styles of classically prestigious wine regions of France and Italy (and then exaggerating it and re-exporting it back to the Old World) so too has the natural wine boomlet in California been fueled by an imitation of the traditional farm wines of Europe. But California is not Tuscany, nor is it Slavonia.
But California is its own entity and is just beginning to find a wine making-style to call its own. I’m excited by the young wine makers I’ve encountered in California who are producing quality wine straight from the vineyard that naturally expresses a sense of place that is truly Californian.