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Is It All in the Funk?

How "natural wines" can polarize wine drinkers
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 9, 2015 1:02pm ET

I love the idea of natural wines. I'm all in favor of encouraging biological diversity in soils and avoiding pesticides, something the best conventional winegrowers do, too. It's immensely appealing to think of wine fermented, aged and bottled without any intervention. Just let the grapes ferment and stopper up the result. I admire the sense of completeness and harmony that wines from these "natural" winemakers can achieve, when all goes well.

But I keep remembering the words of the late California winemaker André Tchelistcheff. Left to her own devices, Mother Nature is trying to make vinegar, he liked to say. A winemaker's job is to catch it when it's wine. If things don't go exactly right, more than the vinegary pungency of volatile acidity can affect a finished wine. Mother Nature can infuse it with the barnyard smells of brettanomyces, a yeast that can proliferate post-fermentation, or the fizzy texture and sauerkraut notes of a wayward malolactic fermentation.

It takes heroic efforts on the part of the winegrower to keep such things from happening without help from technology. The best natural winemakers do, but others? Well, let's just say the array of potential flavors is much broader than many of us want to drink. The striking thing, to me, is how those who champion natural wines are willing to accept this funkiness. Not only accept it, but consider part of what makes the wine attractive to them. Ordinary wine drinkers, who don't know that these characteristics are considered faults by the majority of winemakers around the world, often assume the funk is just part of the rhythm of the wine.

It's amazing how many people are essentially blind to brettanomyces, for example. I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to moo under my breath at the barnyard aromas wafting out of my glass while the pedigree of a famous label dazzles others around the table. Maybe I am sensitive to this characteristic because the wines I review from Oregon, Washington and Australia seldom have it. Those accustomed to drinking Bordeaux, Rhône or some highly acclaimed Tuscan wines, which often reflect relatively high levels of brett, may not notice.

Something similar happens in music, specifically in live performance vs. recordings. In opera, an area for which I have a special fondness, the immediacy of live performance often comes with the occasional missed note. Few want to hear a bobbled high C or a phrase that drifts sharp every time they play the recording.

When a computer application doesn't do exactly what's expected, software industry insiders deadpan, "It's not a glitch, it's a feature." I am hearing something similar from people in the natural wine movement, not as a joke but as a defense of flavors that many might define as faults.

Some fans disdain studio recordings, which can clean these bits up. They'll take the sour notes for that extra frisson you get from live performance, even if they have to put up with it every time they listen. Few, however, argue that the mistakes were a feature.

David W Voss
Wisconsin —  March 9, 2015 6:51pm ET
Great article Harvey. This will probably bring many negative thoughts from in the wine industry. I am also afflicted with a nose and taste buds that abhor the barnyard notes overlooked by others. I've never been afraid to seek out the shop owner and/or the distributor rep to point out a defective bottle (and hope that it is only a defective bottle) at a large or small tasting. If they are determined to believe that I'm wrong, its OK I just won't ever buy that producers wine again until I taste a bottle that passes my smell/taste test.
Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  March 10, 2015 11:49am ET

A couple things to note here:

1) You say that wines from Australia don't have brett, but I would beg to differ, as would the industry as a whole over there. It's getting better, but their cleaning regimes have not necessarily led to 'clean' wines all of the time :-)

2) I find more VA in natural wines than brett. The VA levels can get astronomical, especially if the wine is not stored and transported at cool temperatures. To me, this scars these wines worse than anything else.

3) One of the biggest challenges of brett is its variability. I've been involved in a thread on another wine board about a producer from the Rhone who makes beautiful wines - but bottles them unfiltered with a touch of brett and some RS. IF you can get the wine direct from the producer, your chances of having a 'cleaner' bottle are good. BUT if you source from an importer that transports the wines in a less 'careful' way, the wine you'll receive will most likely not resemble the wines others get. Therefore, two people can talk about two different bottles of the same wine and totally disagree about the levels of brett, but may truly be talking apples to oranges . . .

Fun discussion - can't wait to see what others have to say.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 10, 2015 12:13pm ET
Larry, good points about VA and the variability of brett. But to be clear, I never said Australian wines don't have brett. The word I used was "seldom," because I rarely encounter high levels of it in wines from Oz. Most Aussie winemakers are fanatical about preventing it, except for the natural wine crowd and some old-guard, hands-off winemakers.

Part of the impetus for this blog, in fact, was that several wines from a natural wine producer that I have praised in the past showed up in my blind tastings recently. The reds had such high levels of brett it was comically easy to flag them.
Pacific Rim Winemakers
Portland OR —  March 10, 2015 12:52pm ET
Those natural wines are not my cup of tea though like you I find the idea behind natural wines extremely appealing. At least those natural movements have helped our industry meditate about how we make wine – it certainly make me think more about what I do and why I do it. We need those natural wine scouts to show us a different path that might lead to less manipulation in our practices. I do not drink natural wine for pleasure but I do drink them to understand what happened when a natural wine producer pushes the limit on sulfite management, skin contact or oxidation (to name a few). I applaud those out of the box producers for their convictions and for seeking a different path.

Onx Wines
Templeton, CA —  March 10, 2015 12:59pm ET
Harvey –

Thank you for addressing publicly what many have been saying privately for some time and I think that you bring up some great points. I felt compelled to comment because this is a debate that I have had numerous times over more than one microbial spoiled or otherwise flawed bottles of wine and have yet to come to a consensus; this truly is a polarizing subject.

The moniker “natural wine” is open to wide interpretation much like the term “non-intervention” and is applied liberally and with zero regulation. I believe the two terms are related but those that apply them market their wines in different ways. I’ll focus on the natural wine debate below.

I would argue that all wines are “natural” by definition because they are produced by alcoholic fermentation – a natural process. Some small producers point fingers at large wineries claiming that the big boys are Industrial where the little guys are Artisanal, which, by convention makes their product better. Many of these same artisanal producers craft wines which are disproportionately subject to brettanomyces, pediococcus, acetobacter, oxidation, reduction issues, chemical instabilities, etc. They can do this because they have the luxury of only having to sell a few hundred cases not hundreds of thousand like the big industrial producers.

A vocal minority market funk as fashionable and have been able to convince some taste makers into buying this snake oil and perpetuating the myth that spoiled wines are true expressions of terrior. The opposite is true. Spoilage homogenizes wine; it masks the nuances that the vineyard and vintage impart on the fruit.

This is an expansive subject that can tangent into a multitude of different discussions. One of the better foils I’ve heard to my argument, “is a buttery and oaky Chardonnay spoiled or flawed because the diacetyl and lactones mask the fruit?”

-Brian Brown
Raymond Archacki Jr
Wethersfield, CT USA —  March 18, 2015 9:38pm ET
I may be in the minority on the comments so far but I enjoy a bit of funk in my wines and sure enough Rhone, Tuscany and Bordeaux are my favorite regions and compose a large part of my collection.
I find the barnyard notes provide a rustic earthy feel to the wine and when added to the fruit and spices bring a sense of place to the wine for me.
Morris Lemire
Edmonton Alberta Canada —  March 20, 2015 2:29pm ET
Harvey and friends, About those natural wines.

In 2013 at the RAW Natural Wine Fair in London, organized by Isabelle Legeron, champion for transparency, I got to taste a wide cross section of these wines. New varietals, new flavours, new regions, it was all very exciting and challenging. Many wines ranged along a broad varietal spectrum. They were not making Pinot Noir to fit the Burgundian straight jacket, that's for sure. To be honest, I didn’t encounter a lot of faults, especially among the Austrians. But yes, there were some wines that seemed off the charts, particularly in the category of Orange wines. At a tasting of orange wines, (basically whites made like reds) one London agent said, “I can’t sell this bloody stuff”. The cold reality of the market bites.

But in that same flight was the Radikon Ribolla Gialla, sans sulfites, sans funk, redolent with harvest aromatics, dried herbs and fruit both fresh and preserved. To describe it, I had to search for new descriptive adjectives. There is no template for these wines, no legacy of agreed descriptors. You know, the ones we mine when we know it’s a Napa cab, pencil shavings, cassis etc. At RAW, you are on your own, just you and your palate. Isn’t that the way it should be? After-all, one can’t be lazy and grope for the template all the time. I first tasted Radikon at Vin Italy in 2010 and it woke me up to a movement that is to wine what the micros are to beer.

Let’s be honest for a moment. Too many conventional wines taste like what beer became, a carbon (no pun intended) copy of each other. And price doesn’t seem to matter. Terroir is too often little more than a marketing strategy to flog a place where a consortium has successfully lobbied the government for special status. And what is this industry standard. Basically it’s a mono-crop, kept on life support with herbicides, fungicides, gasoline and fertilizers dissolved in and applied with, drip irrigation. These carbon copy efforts, birthed in dead soils, of machine mangled fruit and glycol strapped tanks, are just boring.

Not all natural wines have faults, (that wasn’t what Harvey was saying) but it is also true that they all don’t travel well. Then again they are not made for a global market. Natural winegrowers are seeking a sustainable alternative that they can ethically live with. Most of these wines will sell locally and 99% will never leave the EU. They represent - big guess here - less than 1% of the market. But they are organizing. For example, RAW, has expanded to Vienne. What concerns the conventional corporate model is the growth of local American upstarts, as in the beer sector, resulting in loss of market share at home.

Climate change is altering terroirs, skewering varietal profiles and keeping winemakers awake at night. The geography of wine is shifting and as consumers we need to shift with it.

Last week, here in Edmonton, at a trade tasting, (I am not the agent) I tasted a Dobbes Family Estate 2010 Quailhurst Pinot from the Chelhalem Mountains AVA in the Willamette Valley. It was a lovely wine, obviously made with great care. Surely this is the kind of conventional wine Harvey had in mind. They didn’t shout sustainably, or organic on the label, but I bet they are close. When and if the market turns they’ll quietly move with the market. They are keeping to mono-crop efficiency but they know, like most of us, that viticulture has been the proverbial canary in a warming world. I look forward to visiting Dobbes Family Estate. But once there, I’ll allow my heart to pull me over to Kelly Fox Wines.

I liked what Nicolas from Portland said, “We need those natural wine scouts to show us a different path that might lead to less manipulation in our practices”. Now there’s an open mind.
Morris Lemire, Edmonton
Morris Lemire
Edmonton Alberta Canada —  April 13, 2015 5:50pm ET
Wine Spectator Blog.

Hello Harvey,

I’ve been musing on California’s water woes, winery size, funk and contention. Is there a bigger question here that we may be missing?

In mid February, on a flight north out of San Diego, where we spent a snow free week, I was sitting on the port side, looking out the window on a near cloudless day. I couldn’t help but notice a lack of snow cover even on the flanks and ridges of the
Sierras. From southern California up through Nevada the landscape looked burnt. To see it was sobering.

I’ve been following (albeit from afar) the advent of the UC Davis Experimental
Winery. I first read about it in an essay written by Lance Cutler in the Wine
Business Monthly, March, 2014 edition. As you know, it is a state of the art winery of the future, the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) platinum certified winery in the world. Cutler reports that, “Six rainwater collection tanks capture rain from the entire Robert Mondavi Institute complex to provide the annual water supply for the winery”. This facility was hard won; now that it is a reality, will it serve as a model for water conservation and environmental leadership?

I was first in Australia fifteen years ago and many places were capturing rainwater from dunny rooftops to parking lots. Many in California, Washington and Oregon, are doing likewise. UC Davis LEEDS winery is not alone. The Lange Estate is well out in front on many aspects of environmental stewardship. These and other examples seem to suggest that it isn’t necessarily the size of a winery that is the problem but rather the methods used to manage water regardless of the scale.

In his July 15, 2014 blog, drinking out loud, Matt Kramer asked, “When Did Wine Become So Partisan?” Some of the finger pointing and general partisanship between conventional producers (shall we say tanks of 5 tons and up) and the smaller, more natural wineries (tanks below 5 tons) whom Matt playfully labeled, “the Natural Posse” versus “the Mainstream Mob”, grows out of a concern for a business as usual approach at a time when the environment is changing faster and more erratically than any model can predict.

Most of my wine training focused on what was in the glass, it’s identifiable organoleptic properties. The geography – place names, maps, soil types, climate etc.- which late at night, swatting up for yet another test seemed like a never ending game of trivial pursuit, was fitted in as we went along. What little of this I retained never made a lot of sense until I began to visit wine country.

Young people coming into the trade today want to know more about wine production and wine country. What are you doing, how, and why? They want to know about a label’s carbon footprint - not a concept ever referenced when I was studying. They also want honesty and transparency. That old model, part bluster, part confidence trick, isn’t going to cut it. They don’t want to be told in advance, what to smell, taste, feel, or think. Just the facts please Sir. Hold the BS.

The wine industry has been so busy growing these past 50 years - busy planting, building, harvesting, caught up in the day-to-day grab for shelf space – that some of them seem to have neglected to plan for a sustainable future.

Governor Jerry Brown was interviewed on TV, Wednesday, April 1st. He looked very serious as he outlined California’s water woes. (I think he has been watching those NASA videos.) He gets it! And I know the wine industry gets it, because ever time I have visited west coast wine country over the last 20 years, water was discussed. But is it time to wrestle politically with the exceptions?

I am well aware of the irony of someone from the oil sands of Alberta addressing this question. The double irony is that this morning, in our local paper, scientists warned us to conserve water because the glaciers that supply our local river systems, the Bow in Calgary and the North Saskatchewan in Edmonton, are melting faster than they thought.

Next week the California Wine Fair is coming up to Alberta. It’s a big deal for us. We’re parking our pick-up trucks and let me tell you, there won’t be a lot of spitting. We like you guys and we love your wines. I hope your trade visits continue for years to come.

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