by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
With all the hoopla about the natural wine movement, a nasty little fact is that wine simply is not all that natural a product.
We have a vegetable stand in Suisun Valley, Larry’s Produce. If you go there, you can buy all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Corn, avocado, lettuce. The list goes on and on. These products are pretty much pulled from the earth or the trees that they grow on, brought to Larry’s, and sold. I think it would be fair to characterize them as natural.
Wine is a not like that. It is a processed product. The “natural wine” movement would more accurately characterize itself as the “less unnatural wine” movement. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but certainly more truthful. Of course, “less unnatural” doesn’t generate sales in quite the same way as “natural” does, so don’t expect it to show up on a supermarket shelf near you anytime soon.
But if we are going to be honest about it, then wine violates any realistic concept of being “natural” from the beginning of the process forward.
First of all, there’s this nasty little fungus called powdery mildew that attacks the vines and the grapes. If you want to control it (and believe me you do), you pretty much need to use sulfur in some form, or else some chemical brewed up in a laboratory. Now you can say sulfur is “natural” and, in a certain sense, I guess it is. I’m not sure how you define “natural” because if you define it as everything that is a product of nature, then you eliminate nothing. At any rate, for anyone that has had the pleasure of spraying sulfur on some vines, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience. And I doubt very much of the process by which the sulfur is mined, processed, manufactured, packaged, and applied, would meet most consumers concepts of “natural”.
But be that as it may, even the most “organic” of farmers use a group of chemicals in their farming that, like sulfur, may occur in “nature”, but are chemicals nonetheless.
Once grapes are harvested, normally the first thing you do with them is hit them with a dose of sulfur dioxide. Whatever your thoughts are about chemicals, if you are going to make wine, you have very little choice but to use sulfur dioxide from start to finish throughout the winemaking process.
And the reason for that is simple: they are just all kinds of microbes out there that could care less about the stability of the wine that is being made. If you want to control those microbes, you’d better be using sulfur dioxide pretty much from the point of the grapes come in from the fields to the point that they go, in liquid form, into the bottle.
Probably the second thing that you add to your grapes once they come in from the field, at least after you’ve crushed them, is some tartaric acid. Again, tartaric acid is in a certain sense, like sulfur, a natural product. But it didn’t come from the grapes that came in from the field. True, it is the same acid that is in those grapes, but, in California, most of the time our grapes simply don’t have enough of it. So we add some more. It comes out of a bag. It looks like a pile of crystals until you dissolve it.
We also often add diammonium phosphate, which is, for all intents and purposes, nitrogen. If you want a nice, smooth, and uneventful fermentation, your yeast had better have enough nitrogen. The grapes, as they come in from the field, do have nitrogen, but often not enough. So you add some diammonium phosphate, generally referred to as DAP. Often you will add a nitrogen soup of sorts as well containing amino acids to facilitate a smooth fermentation as well. There are various brands out there with names like Superfood and Fermaid-K.
Without making things too complicated, once your primary and secondary fermentations are done, there is a third process that the wine wants to go through, the one that converts it from wine to vinegar. Unless you’re in the vinegar business, it’s pretty important that this third process not occur. So a genocide of the microbes that cause that conversion is in order. So we introduce another massive dose of sulfur dioxide.
Hopefully, this whole process occurs without incident. But sometimes “shit happens”. When it does, usually the solution is more chemicals.
I think pretty much every winemaker would subscribe to the “less unnatural” philosophy of winemaking. But no winemaker worth his salt would subscribe to a philosophy that, at least in my view, would be a really “natural” winemaking method. Because if he did, he would end up with some pretty crappy wine.
As processed foods go, wine is certainly less processed than many others. And trying to keep interventions to a minimum is, in my view as well is that of probably the vast majority of winemakers, the way to go. But it is only fair to acknowledge that “keeping interventions to a minimum” is a far cry from keeping interventions to zero. You can do that with table grapes pretty much. You can’t do that with wine.