Ah Natural’ Part 1: Organic

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I continue to get asked if my wine is “natural”?

This is a bit of a conundrum to answer.  The first reason is that everyone seems to have a different definition for “natural wine”.   The second is that some of these definitions and practices are B.S.

Some define natural wine as organic, some biodynamic, some without artificial additives, some without preservatives, some without any fining additives, and some as natural only if it has no outside manipulation at all other than physical.

So what is “natural”?   Is it just a marketing gimmick?   I think its more than that.  I think people want to know what goes into their wine (or food) and whether some of those practices are healthy for them.

Taking a look at most of those “unnatural” methods should give us a good insight into what they are, why they exist, and whether or not you’d ever want to drink that wine.
The first is organic/biodynamic wine.  Both of these refer to the viticulture rather than the winemaking.  I don’t think anyone would argue against organics.  One might argue about the theology/philosophy behind biodynamics, but both have the same primary goal in viticulture, reducing or eliminating pesticides.    And, that is a very good thing.

It’s an especially good thing for grapes for the same reason that it is incredibly difficult to sustain.  Because, almost all the wine you drink comes from one grape species.   Cabernet Savignon to Savignon Blanc to Grenache to Petite Sirah are all only one single species.  Beyond that most vineyards are planted in clones.  So that entire vineyard of over 3000 vines and maybe the one next to it, has the exact same genes.  It doesn’t take a 8th grader to know that lack of genetic diversity leads to problems.  Some grape varietals are already experiencing clonal death syndromes.    To ensure the continuation of those clones, avoiding excess chemicals that only lead to more resistant and gene specific pests is crucial.

But what qualifies as organic?  Currently the law is that a vineyard has to avoid chemical pesticides, herbacides, and fertilizers for three years before being qualified as organic.  That list does not include sulfur, which is naturally occuring as a mineral.  Some will argue that sulfur should also be banned.

Last year I sourced grapes from both organic and non-organic vineyards.  In a wet, tough season, they both had some issues, but interestingly enough, they were different types of issues.  Could it be the organics or just the location?  I’ll never know.

The problem with operating an organic vineyard, with or without sulfur, is that it requires a lot more work/cost and is hard to maintain indefinetly.  Many vineyards operate only as organic as long as they can.  Then once a serious infestation hits like leafhoppers, use insectide, lose their organic status, then wait three years to renew it.   These solution sprayings use just as much if not more chemicals than preventative non-organic treatment.   So the vineyard may be organic, but it is likely only temporarily so.   To do so long term requires a wee bit of luck and good neighbors who don’t share infestations/diseases.

The problem with the U.S. system is that their is no middle ground.  It’s either organic or not, regardless of the amount of chemicals used.  A vineyard that uses mostly organic methods can’t call itself organic and is lumped into the same category as mass production chemical dumps.  Many vineyards like other farmers are trying to combat this with their new nomenclature: sustainable.    Sustainable methods would allow a cross section of chemicals as well as organic methods to ensure both profitability, quality and long-term health.    Unfortunately, there are no rules as to who can use “sustainable.”   So they consumer would have to do some serious research to find out if the vineyard’s practice are more than just marketing jargon.

So forget the label.  Get to know your producer.  Visit a winery; visit the vineyards; talk to them about their philosophy.  Or find some great writers or publications who have.   It’s really the only way to know if a wine production has been as organically or sustainably as possible.



Bottom’s Up, NO

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Here’s a myth I’ve wanted to debunk for a while now:
“Wine should be stored upside down or on its side.”

Why it’s wrong:
There’s actually enough humidity in the bottle to keep the cork from drying and cracking.
People’ve actually done scientific studies on this.

How the myth gets promoted:
It comes down to packaging.   Wineries using automated bottling lines find it faster to grab the bottles by the neck and put them in the box.  Thereby having to tape the neck side.  As it is easier to open the boxes from the other side, the taped side goes down.  Box manufacturers expect this and print boxes accordingly.    Wineries buy into the myth, because the system is designed for it.   The other main reason is that wine is often stored on it’s side in wine racks.  This isn’t because it has to be; it’s because its the cheapest way to store wine and have access.

Why you should care:
Bottles stored upside down leave all of their sediment in the neck.  While this may make for pretty dark ended corks, it also means some of that sediment comes out every time you pour.  The point of the punt in the bottom of the bottle is to help settle the solids out so you don’t drink them.  The irony is that you’ll often see an expensive bottle with a very large punt stored upside down, making it solely a marketing tactic.

If you store your wine on its side in a rack, make sure to keep it upright for a while before drinking it.

Good wine is often unfiltered and settles out.  That doesn’t mean you have to drink grit.   Just enjoy the wine.

The sweet smell of laundry

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This summer I’m going to try to get the blog back up and running.  Or, I should say initially up and running.   I’m hoping to make the blog about all things wine: things I’ve learned, myths I can debunk, and just cool places to go or wines to try.

I thought I’d start the summer with a new lesson I learned last weekend: the detriment of overly cleaned dishcloths.

I’ve known how terrible wine can be if even the slightest residue of soap remains in the glass ever since I was a harvest intern.  The winemaker and cellar master had invited me to participate in a tasting to come up with descriptors for the club tasting notes.  As they raved about one of the wine and filled the small kitchen with superlatives, I clammed up, wondering whether I should even be in this business as I sipped what I thought was a horrible wine.  Turned out, my glass simply hadn’t been rinsed well enough.   Ever since then I’ve been a stickler, some might say a bit of an ass, about making sure my glasses were rinsed heavily and no trace of soap would ever taint my wine.

I’ve had occasion to call out my father-in-law about this, to the point that he never uses soap on his glasses and always washes them by hand.   And I still give him a hard time.  Then, this weekend, I found out why I was wrong.   While hand cleaning glasses at a wine pouring, several people turned up their noses at my wine.  I was embarrassed.   I kept checking the bottle to see if it was corked, but no, they must just have bad taste.   When it continued to happen, I grabbed another glass and sipped.  I recognized the taste immediately; soap.  I rinsed again.  All clear.  I don’t know how many times it took before I realized the problem.   The dish towels that I was drying the glasses with were so  heavily perfumed by the laundry soap, that it was rubbing off on the inside of the glass, ruining the wine.   It’s a simply thing, but a new one for me.    Now before I dry, I check the towel.  If it smells like perfumed laundry, don’t use it to dry a wine glass.   I think I’ll be buying perfume free detergent from now on.


Starting Up

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So I’m starting up a blog. This should be amusing. I suppose the initial purpose of this is to respond to the chatterati out there in the wineblogging world. But, really I think of this more as educational. Here I can discuss issues from breaking news and trends to informative bits such as why is “red” wine actually purple. I’m hoping that this is a fun read and a chance for me to find my writing voice again.