WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Under the frescoes of a centuries-old villa in Sarego, Italy, Tracey and Jared Brandt of Berkeley's Donkey & Goat Winery were overcome with giddiness.
The Brandts, who have been making natural, Rhone-style wines for a decade, were the first and only Americans invited to pour at VinNatur, an annual European gathering of natural winemakers that took place April 12 and 13. Most of those who attend have followed the principles of minimal intervention winemaking for generations.
“To be in the club among such amazing winemakers,” Tracey says. “We were on cloud nine.”
There’s no exact definition for natural winemaking. It’s not a practice that can be certified, like organic cultivation. It’s a philosophy, rooted in French viticulture, that limits the use of chemicals and synthetics, in the hopes of better expressing a wine’s terroir, or sense of place.
The Brandts represent a growing segment of the California wine industry dedicated to making these honest wines. As one natural winemaker put it, they’re not the best wines in the world, but they are unique.
Typically, natural winemakers start with grapes that were farmed organically or biodynamically. They pick by hand, usually based on flavor and acid rather than brix, a measurement of sugar. They use natural yeasts to ferment their wines, instead of lab-cultivated yeasts that deliver specific flavors and aromas. They use little if any sulfur and they don’t add sugar or water to manipulate alcohol. In general, they avoid high tech tricks, such as synthetic color concentrators and reverse osmosis, that are common in commercial wineries and tend to produce homogeneous wines.
“There’s no question that the closer you get to that original recipe – grapes, water, sunshine, man or woman – there’s a more interesting expression in the wine,” says Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch, who specializes in these wines. Lynch has been importing natural wines from France for more than three decades and makes his own natural syrahs in Gigondas. “It’s about quality.”
Not all natural winemakers agree on what’s natural. Some don’t always use organic fruit. Most, but not all, eliminate plastic from their operations because of the potential of chemical leaching. Obviously, the practice is not for everyone. It is pricey, laborious, and requires a squeaky clean cellar, especially if you’re going to limit sulfites, which protect wine from bacteria. Also, to mitigate risk, natural winemakers don’t stray far from their barrels. They must taste their wines daily.
Still, for those who fall for the individuality of natural wines, there’s no turning back.
“We love these wines and, for our own greedy palates, wanted a place to drink them,” says Dagan Ministero, whose 2-year-old Terroir, a natural wine bar and shop in San Francisco, features around 700 natural wines.