First off, naturalist ideologues need not read this article. The problem with militant natural wine advocates is ideology is inherently untrue. Truth lies in nuance and dialectic. Ideology covers over contradiction with the (false) promise of reconciliation. Can we move past this now please?
With that out of the way, let’s look at why the natural wine movement matters. So much of the world’s agricultural products are made in a way that ultimately depletes soil and ecosystem health. This is not sustainable. Moreover, as Michael Pollan has excoriated in depth, industrial food production is also profoundly unhealthy. For every inoculated ferment, we lose myriad beneficial effects of friendly yeasts and bacteria. Industrial food tastes worse, is less healthy, and degrades the environment. This includes wine.
Yes, top wines have for years been focusing on soil health and less use of chemical processing. But, they have been operating at the upper echelon of price and knowledge. Most wine was made quite unsustainably from all three perspectives – flavour/pleasure, healthfulness, environmental sustainability – until fairly recently. And why the shift? I will credit natural wine with having a huge influence on the top to bottom change we are now seeing.
My personal experience with natural wine has taught me much. I first drank natural wine in 2009 when living in Berkeley, California, attending law school there. Vanguard wine bar Terroir in San Francisco was one of the first in North America to push the naturalist mantra. Yes they could sometimes be dogmatic, but the message got through and the somms kept dropping by. Today, California is making many of its own ‘naturalist’ wines, not just importing them from Europe.
Vancouver connect. Jake Skakun (formerly L’Abattoir, now Black Hoof in Toronto) worked at Terroir for a period. He brought natural wines to Vancouver back with him. Matt Sherlock and Aron Louis at Kits wine had been reading about these wines for some time and pushed Brian at Racine to start importing some Loire Valley naturalist stalwarts like Breton. (I also recall a particular evening with Jake, Matt and Aron involving some Lapierre Morgon, COS Frappato, back vintages of Sean Thackrey Orion, Sherry, and hazy memories).
I personally became involved in some of the earliest naturalist tastings in the city, pouring the likes of Movia Puro (I think I brought the first bottle into the city – I still have a video of the disgorgement in Mr. Sherlock’s stainless steel sink in 2010), Gravner (thanks to the likes of Raoul Salehi, the inimitable wine collector who heads Le Vieux Pin and La Stella), Lapierre, Breton, and more. The wines were revelatory at the time – so transparently awkward. So textural. So aromatic and funky. These wines were unlike anything else – and not entirely due to flaws, but often due to the sheer rawness of the wines. Natural wine shows things about wine that non-natural wines do not.
Matt Sherlock eventually started Sedimentary. Trialto starting importing more of these wines from France and California in order to compete. That’s Life Gourmet rounded out the high end Burgundy and Champagne world. And, most recently, AmoVino has started importing some really compelling naturalist wines. In fact, the most recent wine I consumed that inspired this article came from them – the Donkey and Goat skin ferment white from Rhone grapes grown in El Dorado called Sluice Box.
Thus, for all the love and hate, for all the stupid articles trying to ‘define’ what natural wine is, the phenomenon is real and important. I love many of the wines. I question many others. I eschew ideology. But, in the end, the wine scene in Vancouver is vastly enhanced by their presence.
Now, go drink some!
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