Practicing medicine requires just the right balance of art and science – the same can be said for the best wine and dining.
Doctor’s Orders shares this passion, including meticulous research into smaller production, relatively undiscovered winemakers, to enrich the experience for our fellow wine lovers!
[ BLOG POST 03 ]
You may have recently noticed an increasing focus on one of the wine industry’s newest trends – natural wines. Speaking with friends in the industry, while this is becoming a pet peeve among many somms, I think it is helpful to understand the substance behind this trend.
Some of the frustration around the term “natural wine” stems from the fact that no true definition currently exists. And in reality, there is a broad spectrum of what qualifies as “natural wine” in the industry. However, few would disagree with a few generalizations that apply to this trend. These wines tend to be grown by smaller-scale producers, with grapes often sourced from vineyards practicing organic or biodynamic principles, fermented with native yeasts, and minimal intervention and additives in the winemaking process (including sulfites).
Does this make a difference in the final product? I think so. This portfolio of wines tends to have a unique tasting profile. Many describe a ‘funk’ on the palette similar to kombucha, which isn’t necessarily the most attractive feature for those getting into wine. That being said, there are many I’ve tasted that are very approachable. These wines also tend to be lower in alcohol content and intended to be drank young and slightly chilled (thought this too is not a hard and fast rule).
Many are also curious if natural wine is healthier for you. This is also debatable, though a few facts about natural wine seem pretty clear-cut. The lower alcohol content alone (natural wines generally run in the 9.5-11% range versus 14-17% among conventional wines) confers a health advantage (and better chance of avoiding that dreaded wine hangover). More controversial is the impact of decreased additives, including sulfites. While certainly beneficial to those with a sulfite ‘sensitivity’ or true ‘sulfite allergy,’ there is no good evidence that sulfites contribute to ‘wine headaches.’ And on the flip side, native yeasts used to ferment natural wines tend to lead to higher amounts of fermentation byproduct tyramine, a chemical which has been well-studied and strongly linked to headaches and migraines.
In any case, this trend doesn’t appear to be fading any time soon, and I think this subset of wines has a lot to offer to those looking to expand their wine palette’s horizon. With that in mind, here are my top five natural wine producers in California (presented in alphabetical order):
Founded by Phillip and Mary Hart, AmByth is a 100% dry-farmed, certified biodynamic natural wine producer, located just south of Paso Robles, in Templeton, California. Visiting AmByth, I had the opportunity to chat with vineyard manager and winemaker, Gelert Hart, who introduced us to the completely natural approach of the winery. AmByth’s wine portfolio is Rhône-predominant, and tasting in the ‘barrel room,’ one couldn’t help but notice the impressive presence of clay amphorae in use for fermentation of a number of varietals, leading to a phenomenal final product. Favorites included the amphora-aged sauvignon blanc (orange wine), cabernet sauvignon rosé, and mourvédre. As a pleasant unexpected ending to the tasting, Gelert allowed us to taste a few of his ciders, which were nearly as impressive as his natural wines!
In 1994, Tom and Judy Beckmen, joined by their son Steve, established Beckmen Vineyards in the heart of Santa Ynez Valley. On the western side of Santa Ynez’s Ballard Canyon, Beckmen’s Purisima Mountain Vineyard was certified biodynamic in 2009, the first winery to achieve this in Santa Barbara County. With a limestone subsoil similar in nature to famed Rhône regions Côte Rôtie and Châteauneuf du Pape, this vineyard is home to Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Counoise vines, as well as Beckmen’s white wine production. An early adopter of native yeast and whole cluster fermentation, Steve is a firm believe that Beckmen’s native yeasts contribute to the terroir of the wine, adding a unique style and impression. Indeed, Beckmen’s whole cluster Grenache was certainly the favorite of my tasting there!
One of Napa’s iconic wineries, Grgich Hills Estate has also demonstrated a commitment to natural winegrowing. Managing the largest biodynamic vineyard in the country, co-founder and winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich believes the practice of biodynamic farming creates healthier, more authentic wines, leading a truer expression of the terroir. With this in mind, Grgich uses no artificial pesticides or herbicides, hand-harvests, and relies on naturally-occurring yeast fermentation. Tasting at Grgich, my favorites were among “Miljenko’s Selection” line-up, produced from single vineyard blocks, including the Napa Valley Essence sauvignon blanc and Yountville Petit Verdot!
A collaboration between partners Mike Roth and Craig Winchester, Lo-Fi Wines embraces a minimal interventionalist approach to winemaking, utilizing whole cluster fermentation, neutral barrels, native yeasts, little to no sulfur addition, and no pH adjustment. As Mike shared while opening a bottle of semi-carbonic Cab Franc in their Los Alamos tasting room, Lo-Fi’s wines are raw and vibrant, low-alcohol and meant to be drunk young. It was incredibly refreshing to meet with a winemaker more interested in rediscovering wine as what he termed a “proletariat drink” than chasing points! In addition to their Cab Franc, I really enjoyed Lo-Fi’s Malbec.
Receiving its official Demeter certification in 2017 (and certified organic since 2003), Tablas Creek is one of the largest biodynamic vineyards in the Central Coast. Utilizing a mobile flock of over 150 sheep and alpacas to weed and fertilize the vineyard, fruit tree interplantings, on-site produced compost, and natural pest control supported by nearly 40 owl boxes, Tablas Creek has not only exemplified a commitment to sustainability, but also to preserving its wines’ expression of both their individual grape varieties and its terroir. This extends to the winemaking process, as most of its vineyard blocks are picked by hand, whole-cluster pressed, and fermented exclusively with native yeasts. Tasting on site, my favorites were definitely the Rhône blends produced in the traditional Châteauneuf du Pape style, including the Esprit Blanc De Tablas and Esprit de Tablas. If you have the opportunity to visit their tasting room in the Adelaida district of Paso Robles, I also highly recommend booking a spot for the Collector’s Vertical Tasting, which offers the opportunity to taste six vintages of Tablas’ flagship Esprit de Tablas!