“It is one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture, creating healthier food for healthier people and a healthier planet.” – Demeter USA, biodynamic wine certification board.
Biodynamic and Natural Wines in American Restaurants
Orange & Organic – and Hip
Following the growing international biodynamic trend, with over 600 biodynamic producers in the world, American restaurants and sommeliers are championing the burgeoning alternative wine movement that was founded in Europe 90 years ago by Austrian philosopher, Rudolph Steiner.
From moonlight composting with cowhorns in the vineyard to drinking wine only on fruit days in the lunar calendar, BinWise explores the new domestic trends in biodynamic and natural wines proliferating on restaurant menus nationwide.
Biodynamic winemaking–as both a concept and as a practice–has reached an almost religious fervor in France and Europe, where “Bio” wines are commanding premium prices. In fact, a number of the most prominent (and expensive) Burgundy producers are embracing the practice, with Domaine de la Romanee-Conti experimenting with biodynamic practices in several vineyards. Domaine Leroy, by comparison, has fully embraced the practice from early on in 1988, and all of their vineyards are currently farmed biodynamically.
Without question, the wines from both of these Domaines and other practicing biodynamic farming produce wonderful wines. What is less clear is whether biodynmicism, which include controversial practices that skeptics label as quasi-religious and broadly non-sensical, lead to great wine in the bottle, or if myriad other factors–increased vigilance in the field, heightened selection processes and possession of great property in the first place–have far greater impact in the product that makes it into your glass.
For example, some of these biodynamic practices include burying animal horns, skulls and viscera stuffed with other organic elements in various parts of the vineyard, preparation of special teas (made partly from the previously buried organic material) to be stirred just so, and planning vineyard activities based on moon-cycles to maximize the life-force of the vineyard.
Natural wines, on the other hand, eschew manmade processes and leaves matters up to nature to take its course. Unlike Biodynamicism which has a clear set of principles and regulations, there aren’t clear criteria for what makes a natural wine. Nonetheless a few generally accepted factors are
- that the grapes are grown organically
- the wines are minimally manipulated during the fermentation process.
The latter, which relies on naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria to start and complete fermentation can lead to unusual, and sometimes less-endearing results. Regardless, proponents of the technique laud it for being a true reflection of the terroir, seeing modern winemaking techniques as masking the expression of place.
Natural wines- though clearly enjoying a tremendous rise in popularity – don’t seem to have made that qualitative and price leap except for a few notables and the hip orange varieties we’ll be exploring today.
No matter which way you come down on the issues with non-traditional wines, the marketplace demand for them is skyrocketing. They’ve been fully embraced by a number of restaurants and their customers that wholeheartedly champion the rapidly growing movement.
To make an analysis, short of drinking our way across the country, we decided to follow this hot trend in alternative wines by choosing four popular American wine bars for comparison from coast to coast – June Wine Bar in hipster Brooklyn, Max’s Wine Dive in Austin, Texas, FRASCA in Boulder, Colorado and Terroir Wine Bar and Merchant in San Francisco’s burgeoning SOMA District.
So orange, pink, unfiltered and unsulfured wines, here we come:
Max’s Wine Dive: We checked in with our customer wine list and sure enough we found a Capriano Organic Pinot Grigio. When an incongruous organic wine – complex wines made only with organic grapes and without sulfides – shows up on the menu paired with simple classics like fried chicken, it must be popular. With a motto like “Chicks dig guys with purple teeth” it’s also hard not to see that new age wines would be popular here for the above reason. This entertaining hot spot’s house motto is “suck the marrow out of life” Executive Chef Mason Rodgers. Six Texas locations and one in Denver, Colorado.
Terrior Natural Wine Bar and Merchant: Terroir Natural Wine Bar could also be called the capital of the natural wine movement. Their mission to sell natural wines that reflected a pure expression of the places the wine was grown, and has been a champion of the movement since the day they started business. In 2007, founders Luc Ertoran, Guilhaume Gerard and Dagan Ministero opened in San Francisco’s SOMA district and created a mecca frequented often by winemakers, sommeliers and wine buyers in search of alternative wines. Their quest to sell wines created with methods that were used before the advent of modern wine technology has paid off and created many biodynamic believers. This natural wine bar might sway even the most jaded skeptic.
June: Natural wine bar and restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. There are a number of orange wines on the menu, which gives you your first clue that this is not your average wine bar. This New York hotspot features a plethora of unique alternative wines, like Antle Vineyard’s 2014 skin fermented Melon vintage. It’s 100% organic and is sold out at the winery, so get it here while you can.
June appears to be a perfect merging of natural food and wines, with dinner standouts like 24 hour farm fresh pork shoulder followed by chocolate ganache to pair with natural red, rose, white and orange vintages. Added au natural bonus – the aforementioned varieties also come in sparkling form.
Frasca and Friuli Wine: “This trend may be new, but the winemaking that produces orange wine is the oldest in the world. The throwback technique is catching on as a natural alternative to mass-produced wine, a business that’s come under increasing scrutiny lately for chemically altering its product. If you were a sommelier in 1997, and you opened that year’s vintage from the popular Gravner vineyard in the Friuli region of Italy, you were in for a shock. Gravner was known for producing crisp and palatable whites, but this wine was dramatically different,” – Elizabeth Dickenson, “The Rise of Orange Wine.”
Dramatically different, decidedly orange and definitely in demand, even restaurant professionals were surprised by Gravner wines’ startling orange color.
As Bobby Stuckey, the James Beard award-winning master sommelier and co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, recalls “You went to get your 1997 release of Gravner and you opened a bottle and poured a glass and it was orange,” Stuckey said. “None of us knew what was going on. Are the wines screwed up? Have they turned?” From our experience, orange wines are fascinating and delicious in their own way when made by master wine-makers like Gravner–but are they for everyone? Well, you’ll have to try a few and decide for yourself.
While skeptics would claim that “Bio” is just a fad, a reactionary movement against the Michel Roland inspired days of heavily manipulated, “Parkerized” wines, or another marketing ploy to differentiate oneself in a sea of wine, that some of the biggest names in the wine industry like Louis Jadot have gone “bio” indicate this is a trend that’s going to stay around for awhile. Many high- profile California wineries like Joseph Phelps and Grgich Hills have followed suit, and the trend is proliferating on both the West and East Coasts of the United State’s major growing regions.
Whether Natural wines will find equal proponents has yet to be seen. Based on the popularity and demand in the the domestic restaurant world, however, the emergence of natural wines appears to be around for awhile.
Part myth, part magic but undeniably a megatrend, we conclude that orange apparently is the new black for the restaurant industry.
Next Week we go into the vineyard – exploring Biodynamic, Natural and Organic grape growing Viticulture