Natural Wines Come to Life on Central Coast

California winemakers consider the implications of aligning with so-called 'raw wine' movement

by Jaime Lewis
wine vineyard natural wine rajat parr
Winery owner Rajat Parr smells fermenting must at Sandhi Wines in Lompoc, Calif.

San Luis Obispo, Calif.—The national and global debate surrounding the “natural wine” or “raw wine” movement is alive and well on California’s Central Coast, as more local producers perform minimal- to zero-intervention winemaking, and local retailers and wine bars carry more imported and domestic examples of the style.

Generally speaking, natural wines are made with the least possible interference. Hallmarks of the genre include, but are not limited to: organic and/or Biodynamic practices in the vineyard, spontaneous fermentation/native yeast, lack of fining and filtration, minimal pumpovers or agitation, neutral vessels and restrained use of sulfur dioxide as a preservative at bottling.

“It’s just wine in its purest form?grape juice and nothing else?a naked expression of the grape and the place,” said Rajat Parr. As wine director of the Michael Mina Group, Parr famously excluded Pinot Noir and Chardonnay above 14% alcohol on the RN74 restaurant wine list; later, he’d go on to become co-founder of the now-defunct In Pursuit Of Balance (IPOB) collective. Today, he produces Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote Wines, two labels in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA that champion the Central Coast and the natural wine movement with early harvests, restrained extraction and judicious use of sulfur.

“The natural wine movement arose as generally smaller producers, looking to combat industrialization in wine, decided to go back to the basics,” Paso Robles winemaker Brian Terrizzi wrote in a recent newsletter for his brand, Giornata Wines. “We like to know where our food comes from and like buying our produce in season and from local farms, when possible. We see the natural wine movement akin to knowing your farmer.”

“Defining ‘natural wine’ is treacherous territory,” said Drew Cuddy, proprietor of natural-focused wine bar Satellite Santa Barbara. “Some strictly define it as wine made without any addition of any kind, including sulfites. Others are more lenient and are OK including sulfited wines so long as they come from Biodynamic or strictly organic vineyards.

“Mostly, natural wines are in the just enough methodology. Overly sulfiting can really kill a wine and almost trap the flavors. I’m looking for sulfur levels under 75 ppm (parts per million) to indicate a proper natural wine of reasonable quality, or really any wine in general for that matter.” The wines that emerge, he said, can vary widely, “from kombucha-like or cider-like, to completely classically beautiful and refined.”

Parr told Wines & Vines, “Natural wine has many different levels. There’s extreme natural wine, also called ‘00’-level wine, and then there are those with added sulfur dioxide. That gets tricky sometimes,” he admitted, adding that wines can vary significantly from vintage to vintage as a result and can lack the stability to withstand temperature and humidity changes during shipping and travel. (At Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote, Parr said, he produces both 00 and sulfur-dioxide-added wines.)

With the freedom of natural wine production comes one of the prevailing arguments put forth by its detractors: that without any regulatory oversight, many natural winemakers go so far as to prize aromas and flavors that would, by any traditional measure, qualify as flaws. They argue that when unchecked Brettanomyces, volatile acidity and oxidation are reimagined as pioneering and healthful rather than harmful and “off,” the issue becomes a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

“Without any standards or any disclosure, winemakers can position themselves as part of the
natural wine movement as a trendy marketing gimmick,” said Brian Terrizzi. “This is an aspect of the movement that can be quite frustrating. It’s possible, too, that producers could hitch their horse to the natural bandwagon as an excuse for sloppy, lazy or incompetent winemaking. ‘What? You don’t like my wine? You must not like natural stuff.’ Thousands of consumer products contain the term ‘natural’ without any real definition of what (it) means. The wine industry could be guilty of this as well.”

During a recent visit to the United States, Orianne Nouailhac, a French wine journalist and editor of Vigneron magazine, spoke out against the movement: “In a number of trendy restaurants right now where (natural) wines are increasingly popular, when the sommelier pours a natural wine, it is very often full of flaws!...I am tired of being served (prematurely oxidized) wines or bacterially spoiled wines that are supposed to be ‘natural,’ a word that allows them to imply ‘good for your health,’ when instead they make you unwell and should be poured into the sink.”

But, as Parr pointed out, the term “flaw” is relative. “The flavors you get from natural wines are not conventional flavors. The wine could be what people might call flawed, but they are flaws that are normal to people who drink natural wine.”

And, as San Luis Obispo-based certified sommelier Jenna Congdon noted, the Central Coast clientele is often educated in the Cal Poly and Fresno State University wine and viticulture departments, which, understandably, teach students how to identify flaws with precision. “They can be lab-focused, fault-focused,” she said. “To gain their trust, I can’t have a brett-y bottle on the shelf. I have to be able to pour something and say, ‘This is natural, can you believe it?’”

Cuddy shared that the extreme funk of 00 natural wines has come more into balance in recent years. “There's been a huge movement for cleanliness and quality in the natural wine world,” he said. “We are looking for balance always, with cleanliness, clarity to the vineyard, intensity of fruit and of other great secondary and tertiary flavors. We want honestly made wines that stand alone in individuality, that are reliable and that can last at least a vintage in bottle without turning.” Among those he carries at Satellite Santa Barbara are Central Coast labels Lo-Fi, Roark Wine Co., Amplify Wines, Solminer, Stirm, Las Jaras Wines and Vinca Minor.

“There are lots of beautiful wines by respected winemakers from top producers in the world who’ve always made their wines naturally but have never flown a flag by it,” said Congdon, who cited Paso Robles’ AmByth Estate and Terrizzi’s Giornata label as pioneers.

Terrizzi agreed: “Plenty of ‘old school winemakers’ have been making wine ‘natural’ without knowing or caring for their entire careers. It’s just the way they’ve always done it. Natural wine of course existed since the dawn of wine.”

For Giornata, Terrizzi identifies with the spirit of the natural wine movement without adopting the label. “We do not and have never claimed to be a ‘natural winery.’ We’ve never really liked labels or clubs. We strive to make wines that taste pure to the variety, place it’s grown and the vintage. We believe the best way to do this is to intervene as little as possible.”

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