What is natural wine? To quote Alice Feiring: “Nothing added, nothing taken away.”

In my five year wine drinking journey I would have naturally assumed in the beginning that all wines were clearly natural, I mean they come from fermented grapes don’t they? It doesn’t get more natural than that….right?

Five years ago, blissfully unaware, the true origins of my go to $7 Rosé didn’t really matter to me. I felt like I found a special deal, because this wine tasted just as good as a $20 bottle. But of course, the next morning I felt as if I was knocking on deaths door. My head would throb, my mouth was parched, and my stomach would have a mind of it’s own for the next 36 hours.

It never actually occurred to me back then, that this isn’t a normal occurrence after drinking wine. I thought to myself, perhaps I deserved this for drinking more than one glass of wine on an empty stomach. One person suggested: “Maybe it’s sulfates!” and maybe it was? So I bought a marketed “low sulfite” wine from some California wine brand and to be frank, it didn’t make a tremendous difference nor was the wine actually any good. I still felt like garbage.

Perhaps an unknown allergy? Maybe I was allergic to wine? This thought terrified me because, let’s face it…I love wine! I then began the arduous journey of self discovery and research. Maybe I was reacting to something used in the processing of wine? I learned with time, that making wine isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. It’s not simply picking grapes, putting them in a tank and poof! Wine.

Through reading many articles and books, I learned that sulfites are present in a lot of different foods; dried fruits, chocolates, and cheese, none of which I have ever had a problem with. So I knew at this point, it wasn’t the sulfates. So what was the problem?

I’ll never forget my first experience with a truly biodynamic, natural wine producer. It was spring of 2018 and after a trip to Verve Vine in TriBeCa I decided to splurge a little and buy a particular wine I had had my eye on. The producer was called Gravner. Yes, that Gravner, the famed Slovenian/Fruiliano wine maker Josko Gravner. I tried his Anfora Breg and never have I tasted something like this. It was alive, primal, and pleasant all at the same time. It changed and evolved in the glass like a caterpillar undergoing metamorphosis into a butterfly. I drank this wine slowly over the course of an evening at home. The wine I had sipped an hour before was a completely different wine an hour later. What was this witchcraft? The next morning I woke up bright and chipper, I felt like a million bucks. I had no headache, palpitations, or any other unpleasant feelings. This was it, my “ah-ha moment.” This was a stark contrast to the mornings after enjoying my $7 Rosé.

It’s hard to say for certain what I was actually reacting to due to poor labeling laws in the US for alcohol. I know that I’m allergic/sensitive to Penicillin, nickel, and latex. But I don’t think wine contains that, who knows right? What I can say is that Ive noticed I most heavily react to wines who have sourced grapes from areas like the Central Vineyards in California, this is the land of Trinchero, Constellation, and Treasury to name a few. This is the land of Industrial winemaking and some of the most polluted soil in the state.

I have come to the inevitable realization that the more committed to responsible argricultire and viticulture a producer was, the overall better I felt after drinking their wine. There was clearly something to be said for producers who refused to work with Glyphosate, Polyvinylpolypyrolidone (PVPP), or Defoaming agents like polyoxyethylene40 monostearate, silicon dioxide,dimethylpoly-siloxane, sorbitanmonostearate, or glyceryl mono-oleateand glyceryl dioleate. The names of these chemicals are kind of disturbing, right?

Please understand, I’m being really candid with you right now, taking you through my thought process and five year journey. It’s not an easy thing to do considering the pull that many large wine corporations have. It’s not easy to go against the grain, especially when you have friends who are happy to drink a two buck chuck. But I can’t expect everyone to enjoy wine the way I do. This wine journey has been a heck of a ride to say the least.

Due to the fact that I am a public account, my wine journey has been obviously very public through the years. I can see my own evolution played out on little tiny squares on my phone screen. If I scroll back (WAY back), and look at some of the wines posted when I first started I kind of chuckle to myself. Oh the innocent times, my views were so simple, uncomplicated. I don’t think I can ever go back to featuring canned mulled wine or rosé jelly on toast. In a way, I’ve awoken from a slumber with no intentions of going back to sleep.

So what’s next?

I feel as if my eyes have been opened. I don’t look at that $7 Rosé the same way I did five years ago. Knowing what I know now, it seems cheap, lacking personality and soul. It’s a dead wine. Dare I say even destructive; to myself, to small wine producers, to the men and women working the vineyards, and to the environment. I can almost taste the industrialization, the chemical fining agents used to clarify and speed up production. I don’t have an interest is this kind of cheap wine anymore. I can’t go back now, I won’t.

Nowadays, I’m happy to spend the extra money to support small, responsible, and committed producers. Natural wine still remains a poorly defined term, but I do agree with the common consensus that it’s low intervention, adding nothing that doesn’t belong. Ironically, I’m now happy to pay more, if it means I’m getting a whole lot less.

I hope that you’ll do the same.

1 Comment

  1. Hello Claire,

    I’m the owner of Deerfield Ranch Winery in Kenwood, Sonoma Valley. I’ve been making wine for almost 50 years and have a chemistry background. A couple of years ago I sat on a panel of winemakers who had been given honors for the great number of their wines that we judged at very high levels. The winemaker who spoke preceding me said he was a non-interventionist winemaker, doing as little as possible to the grapes to turn them into wine, which is the mantra of the “Natural Wine” movement.

    It gave me pause on how to open my dissertation. I opened with, “I’m and interventionist winemaker, I’ll do what ever is necessary to make a wine better, more delicious and better for you.” I do this with carful monitoring of viticultural (grape growing) practices and good scientific method in winemaking. We make Clean Wine®, and yes, that is a registered trademark after those two words, a trademark held by Deerfield. We take it very seriously. Clean Wine®, made by our protocols do not produce allergic reactions (caused by Sulfites) or headaches (caused by histamines). In fact our wines produce no hangovers or dull felling. Our motto is, “Clean wine, clear head”.

    I’m married to a woman, PJ Rex, who is allergic to sulfites at very low levels (anything over 12 parts per million) and gets hangovers and headaches form histamines (and other biogenic Amines). From our independent analysis and studies we have determined that histamines, which the scientific wine literature said was produced by the yeast during fermentation, was actually being produced by bacteria during the fermentation. While it is impossible to get rid of or avoid all bacteria, it is not small populations of bacteria that are the problem. It is colonies of bacteria. By starting out with well grown, hand picked and well sorted, i.e. clean fruit, we avoid colonies of bacteria coming in with the grapes. Then by using good fermentation science to keep the yeast really happy, the yeast then dominate the fermentation so that the bacteria can’t grow, they can’t compete. If the yeast get stressed from lack of food or oxygen as they double in population every couple of hours, they get stresses and the bacteria begins to grow. These controls, which are all natural, using organic, natural yeast, organic food for the yeast and perhaps some enzymes like you would buy at the health food store to aid your digestion, is not done in the usual be “Natural winemaking” Not doing something is not always better.

    As an extra bonus of these techniques the wine becomes more focused and more flavorful. The natural fruit flavors shine. It also allows us to age the wine longer in the barrels because the wine is clean and stable. Extra barrel aging makes wine more complex and engaging. It also tames tannins so the wines are softer and still full bodied.

    We’re asked, why use sulfite at all. It’s a good question. Sulfite is thought of as a preservative. Many winemakers believe this. In large quantities it can be but it is not a good preservative. It takes a toxic level. Sulfite is a great anti-oxidant. It absorbs free oxygen so the wine does not prematurely oxidize while being aged in the barrel. As the extra oxygen is absorbed the Sulfite, which is SO2 becomes SO4, which is inert and non-reactive. Someday in the future we will learn to use the anti-oxidants that are native to the grapes, like resveratrol, to do the same thing but we are not there yet. I’m experimenting with this protocol. As for now we control the sulfite so that when our wine is released the canary in the cave, my wife PJ, does not have her ears turn red or her head start to hurt.

    It is near dinner time here as I write this and we are enjoying a couple glasses each of our Blonde Ambition (named for PJ) Chardonnay. In truth, we’ll drink the whole bottle. Tonight we will enjoy the wine and each other’s company and tomorrow morning we’ll feel just fine as we rise at 4AM to start another day, clean wine, clear head.



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