"Natural wine" is the trendiest term to be punted about by people seeking something nongeneric. It's also the vaguest, and that's a mixed blessing.
In San Francisco, a loose coalition of wine bars and shop owners is trying to define natural wine based not on grapes but on yeast. This leads to a wide range of natural wines from around the world, often with unusual, nonfruit flavors. The trend isn't yet as strong in Southern California, but the ground is fertile -- the move toward more, well, natural winemaking is popular here too.
"Lots of people come in and ask for organically farmed wines, or wines with no sulfites," says Thomas Rekasis, food and beverage manager for Viceroy Santa Monica hotel. Rekasis says nobody has yet asked about yeast, but it may be a matter of time.
So why natural wine, and why yeast? Because the other well-meaning terms in use -- "biodynamic," "sustainable" and "organic" -- come with flaws of their own and say more about farming than winemaking.
Here's a quick primer.
Biodynamic agriculture follows the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who believed in looking at a farm as a holistic organism. It involves many Earth-friendly techniques, but at its core it's an unproven spiritual practice with planting, harvesting and bottling timed by the phases of the moon.
Sustainable viticulture looks at the big picture, including a winery's social and environmental impacts. Advocates argue that by definition it's the best long-term program, but because it takes economic sustainability into account, it says the least about what methods can be used to produce any one particular bottle of wine.
Organic is the most loaded term of all. The U.S. government has official definitions for both "organically grown grapes" and "organic wine." To use either, a winery must pay an annual certification fee, a significant expense for small wineries.
I'm a big fan of organically grown grapes but not organic wine, which in the U.S. must have no added sulfites, meaning it probably won't last long in your cellar before its fresh fruit flavors disappear. But sulfites are a naturally occurring and necessary component of wine production, so the European Union, generally more strict on wine regulations, allows added sulfites for wines labeled as organic. (If you think sulfites give you red-wine headaches, be advised that white wines, as well as dried fruit, generally have much higher levels of sulfites than red wines.)
Now here's "natural": For purists, it requires organic, biodynamic or sustainable grape growing, and wild yeast fermentation. In theory, it's a step above the others. But there's no official definition, so in practice, it could mean anything at all.
"We're coming to an agreement on what natural wine means, and the one thing we all agree on is native fermentation -- the yeast comes from the grapes," says Ian Becker, lead wine buyer for Absinthe restaurant and Arlequin Wine Merchant in San Francisco. "We all agree that using nonnative yeast, that's unnatural."
I think all the terms (save organic wine) have merit, and I give extra credit to a wine that qualifies for any of them. But Becker is a zealot: He tries to carry only natural wines at Arlequin and says he would reject a wine that was biodynamically or organically farmed but did not use native yeast.
"People use commercial yeasts to stay on schedule, to keep a business plan," he says. "If you're making wine to make money, you'll use commercial yeast. If you're making wine because you love it, you'll use native yeast."
Yeasts vary wildly
In a nutshell, here's how wine is made: Grapes are harvested and crushed to release their juice. Yeasts, which are in the air all around us, convert sugar in the grapes into alcohol. Then they die and slowly fall to the bottom of the tank or barrel, to be removed before bottling.
Different yeasts have different characteristics. Some can tolerate high alcohol levels; this is an important reason why wines are ever more potent. Some commercial yeasts, added in a simple, descriptive process called inoculation, are even chosen for flavors they impart.
In contrast, wild yeasts are a gamble. They might die before all the sugar has converted, leaving a sweet wine. Or, in the worst circumstance, they might impart off flavors. This is why most large wineries shun using them -- because they're risky.
But one man's off flavor is another man's exotic. Fans of natural wines say that if wild yeasts are part of the vineyard, then their flavors are part of the wine.
"We're conditioned to find funkiness a flaw," says Lou Amdur, owner of the Hollywood wine bar Lou. "But at a low level, I kind of enjoy it. I prefer wild yeasts, and I think I can tell them in a blind tasting. Just because you're farming organically or biodynamically doesn't mean you're making a natural wine or an interesting wine. There are any number of wines that are farmed in a beautiful way, but they get in the winery and they're made in a very cookie-cutter way."