I like a place that specializes. It’s one thing to be a record store. (You like music in general? So what? Everybody likes music.) It’s a-whole-nother thing to be a record store specializing in post-modern composers or whatever. Sure, you’re going to annoy a lot of people, but the people who also appreciate your atonal tastes will treat your store as if it is part of their family or even some very sacred part of their own head.
In San Francisco there is a wine store and bar called Terroir that advertises itself as a “Natural Wine Merchant.” I visited there recently while in the Bay Area for my job. While you would be excused for not knowing how “natural” wine differs from other wine-in-general, it is clear when you walk in: you are in the realm of a specialist.
Upon entering, you find not quite a wine store and not quite a bar. It’s hard to pin down, but the best description I can find for how Terroir feels is that it feels like a library.
Terroir doesn’t sell that many different bottles of wine. It really only devotes one wall to its selection, and what is on that wall is predominantly French. Unlike your good old California USA labels, the ones at Terroir look like someone’s personal correspondence from the 18th century. I browsed the labels for a bit—dense with chicken scratch script and percentage symbols—unable to decipher much, but pretending that I was giving each of them some real serious consideration.
The place itself is two stories; and the second story resembles a living room from 1975. People sat up there on couches, talking softly, feet literally on a coffee table. They held non-dishwasher safe wine glasses in hand.
In addition to the furniture choices of this lounge, the unfinished wooden beams visible everywhere further enhanced the 1975-feeling. There was a large climate controlled “cellar” beside the bar; and next to that, tucked into an alcove, a record player provided the shop’s tunes. While I didn’t look to closely at the stack of LPs next to the record player, I did see a lot of backlit feathered hair on their covers.
While I am accustomed to seeing organic wines around, I hadn’t come across “natural wine” before. After a little web research, I found a site called morethanorganic.com—an advocate for natural wine (who clearly feels that “organic” is simply not enough). According to them, natural wine is wine made:
- in small quantities
- by an independent producer
- on low-yielding vineyards
- from handpicked, organically grown grapes
- without added sugars or foreign yeasts
- without adjustments for acidity
- without micro-oxygenation or reverse-osmosis
As I said: realm of a specialist. Usually, we define a wine by where it’s made, or by the grape varieties of which it’s composed. The folks behind natural wine want to add to these also how the wine is made. For them, a wine’s naturalness seems to depend on minimizing human control (or perhaps maximizing what the grape itself brings to the mix) and privileging more ecologically sound farming and business practices.
he definition is not standardized, however. Just like “natural ingredients” can be used to describe anything from fresh vegetables to a flavor additive derived from a strawberry, what makes a wine ‘natural’ depends on who you are talking to.
The owner of Terroir described it to me this way: “For our purposes natural wine means organic and dry farming, indigenous yeast fermentation and no use of chemicals.” He didn’t look like the owner of a wine store or bar (or library). With his Carhartts, trucker cap, and slightly menacing beard, he looked more like a farmer from Vermont.
Based on his recommendation, I ordered a wine called Houillon/Overnoy (the winemakers) Poulsard (the grape). Interestingly, his recommendation included little to nothing about the wine’s flavor or what it might go well with. Instead, he gave me an intricate five-minute explanation of their farming practices.
“Overnoy took over his father’s vineyards in 1968 and just basically worked them organically,” he said. “Which back then was just like the traditional way to farm—no herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, cultured yeasts, etc.”
“No sulfur—that’s important. Overnoy was the pioneer of that, avoiding sulfur. I mean, you need sulfur to make wine, but you don’t need so much of it. The big houses love sulfur—it acts like a preservative. They just dump in sulfur.”
Arched eyebrows, pursed lips as if to say, “Ah, right… sulfur.”
“Biodynamic farming, which is like… it’s like… well, do you know Rudolf Steiner?”
His enthusiasm was infectious. It was like listening to a genuine jazz-lover describe some monumental session that took place during so-and-so with Miles Davis and some other guy, and you get to thinking “Yes, yes, this is important; Miles was a genius!” even though in your normal life you are more like “Ugh, jazz” (disgusted look).
I took my wine back to an orange arm chair on the second floor. I was waiting for a friend from work. We had arranged to go to something he called an “Ethical Fashion Show” which was being held in “the old San Francisco Chronicle building”. The parallels between “Natural Wine” and “Ethical Fashion” turned out to be as obvious as you’d think.First though: I drank my glass of natural wine upstairs in the lounge by myself. The wine tasted slightly sour, sort of like what real yogurt tastes like when compared to your standard issue Yoplait or Dannon. While I am not quite sure why this is, I associate that sour, active culture sensation with something being more alive; and this wine tasted more alive to me.
It had been a while since I’d sat in a wine bar by myself. I was enjoying it. I work for a company in San Francisco and so have been spending a lot of time out here away from my family back in Western MA (family in this case = Wine Allergic Girlfriend and Stepson). Here in SF, I often spend my evenings alone, something I rarely do at home. Before W.A.G. and Stepson came along, I was alone quite a lot. I started drinking wine in this phase—drinking while cooking for myself, drinking while reading, drinking while looking out my window. This habit of aloneness is perhaps why I despise talking about wine with wine people.
Wine is great for conversation; but it’s also good for contemplation (at least up to a point). At Terroir, my mind was on this idea of natural wine. Why do we need a term like that—natural wine? Clearly, we need it because on it’s own “wine” doesn’t imply any of the practices the folks at Terroir and morethanorganic.com care about. “Wine” is a product, a thing—alcoholic grape juice—but those behind natural wine seem to care more about a process. They want to produce a product (wine), but only insofar as that product is the result of very particular farming practices.
We often separate product from process—a result of living in the wake of industrial mass production probably. I not only couldn’t make my own shirt, I couldn’t really tell you how a shirt is made, or who made it. As we know (but all too easily forget), this detachment can lead to some serious abuses by those who produce T-shirts. If I am buying something based purely on price and whether I like it, I am mostly only concerned with it as a product, not a process. Ergo sweatshops; and ergo wineries that farm the land to within an inch of it’s life.
To address these abuses, certain folks try to highlight the process by which a product is made; and attempt to bring them back together in the mind of the consumer. It matters how your T-shirt is made, they say, not just how it looks. The Ethical Fashion Show we attended, for instance, brought together people who either produced or were interested in consuming clothes made according to what they termed ‘socially responsible’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ practices.
Like “natural wine,” ethical fashion was a somewhat elusive concept. There was a person who took old suit jackets and sewed things on to them (anything on the good old reduce/reuse/recycle triangle is pretty ethical I suppose). A few vendors displayed what looked like completely typical dresses, but which were made locally with non-sweatshop labor. There was a company that made underwear from organic cotton. They played a commercial about the underwear at their table. The commercial was extraordinarily well produced: a good-looking man and similarly striking woman are in a humdrum office. All of a sudden a big wind kicks up and the couple’s outer clothes are literally blown off in very cool slow motion. Now down to their (presumably organic cotton) skivvies, they join hands and exit the office while the rest of their (fatter, older, still be-clothed) officemates look on in understandable shock. Over and over I watched this—the slow motion was very cool. Also you could sign up to get a year of free underwear.
The thing was though that if you didn’t read the flyer on the way in, you could have very easily mistaken the event for a non-ethical fashion show. People mingled. They held drinks and wore makeup. A woman in high heels tottered behind a man with his shirt open and a fedora atop his head. You heard exclamations of “ohmigod” and “no, seriously?” A few people held SLR cameras to their face. All in all, it seemed that most people there were interested in looking good. And case in point vis-à-vis the process/product divide: the ethicalness of those dresses I mentioned above was hard to determine simply by looking at them. I took their ethicalness on faith from the vendor’s literature. Invisible, or in the case of natural wine, it’s not necessarily something you can taste. Even though I claimed to taste a sourness in the wine I had at Terroir, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote recently about natural wine: “Simply being natural is no different than being red or white. It’s no guarantee of quality or style. And even among wines that are considered natural, some seem in the glass to be entirely conventional, while others, you can tell right away, are different in style and flavor.”
This seems to be the trouble with organic and now natural wine. Some people care about how something is made and will buy on that alone; but most wine drinkers care about tasting notes and food pairings first. In this case, the two sides of the equation—consumption and production—are using different variables (production process on one side; tasting notes on the other). If the wine market wants tasting notes, the wine maker must produce tasting notes, process be damned. In that sense, an organic wine can only win when it tastes better and pairs more nicely with your dinner. Its process (which is generally more difficult and expensive) is in that case beside the point; or, at least: secondary. The folks at Terroir would probably argue that yes, the process behind natural wine does create a superior product. But that’s a matter of taste, and if we believe Asimov: maybe it will, maybe it won’t.
Sitting in the simulated living room at Terroir I had another thought. By this point, still alone, my glass was empty and I had my notebook open. What if we thought of wine drinking/tasting itself more as a process? Right now, the bulk of wine criticism treats wine mostly like a product, highlighting its features; discussing which grape types went into it. Doing this foreshortens wine into an object without a past and with no future—it’s a thing that has discernible and stable qualities that you can perceive in the moment of tasting them. Put another way, you cannot taste how (or where) it was made; and, more to the point, if we are simply concerned with how it tastes (or, in this case of fashion, how it looks), it’s easy not to care about how it’s made.
I happen to care and so I’ll buy natural wine. But (as I had started writing in my notebook) what if I didn’t care? Why then would I buy a “natural wine” over a (probably) cheaper other wine?
Well, what if we changed the equation so that the consumption of the wine also focused on process just as much as the production did? What would it look like if instead of focusing on the wine’s properties—it’s tasting notes—I focused on consuming it with as much care and philosophy as the process of its production. If a natural wine maker was going to go to all the trouble to handpick their grapes, maybe I should put as much care into drinking what those grapes produced. Then the whole process of the wine—from farming, to vinification, to consumption—is one long integrated sequence, each part of which matters.
Now, anytime you bring wine out with dinner, you turn it’s consumption into a process. But when we talk about wine, that’s all product usually. So I wondered (as I have always wondered in this column)—how can you talk about the wine without talking about the wine? In some ways, it’s a fools errand—just don’t talk about the wine if you don’t want to talk about it—but, I wrote some other ideas in my notebook and came up with a process that I want to share with you. I will do so in part two of this column.