To be Au Naturel?

By Nick Peay — November 13, 2012

Hello, my name is Nick and I’ve got mildew. There, I’ve said it. It wasn’t easy to admit and you won’t often hear other growers come clean about it.

In the pursuit of delicacy, complexity and balanced acidity, we push the envelope for where we can get our varieties ripe. We also ramp up the mold and mildew pressure. This is even more the case if you take away the arsenal of nifty chemicals that conventional growers use. And I say nifty because as a former student of organic chemistry, I truly appreciate the genius of these new wave “soft” chemicals: chemical compounds isolated from nature (usually fungi) and given a tweak to their structure – a methyl group added here, or an amine added there. These synthesized chemicals are very narrow in their target specificity and supposedly quite low impact on the environment as a result, but they are one or two steps removed from the “found” chemistry that would allow them to be termed organic.

At Peay, we use the “found” stuff, either organic chemicals like sulfur, or fungi themselves like Bacillus subtilis or Bacillus pumilus (how about that? Fighting fungi with fungi!) But Mother Nature has been especially challenging in 2010 and again in 2011 and I was sorely tempted to use one of the synthesized chemicals, which by the way, work better, hands down, no question about it. The only thing about mildew is once you have it, no synthesized chemicals can get rid of it. Only two fully organic chemicals work as eradicants: potassium carbonate and stylet oil. We have been applying them throughout the vineyard and think we have it under control. The additional work (coverage is critical) has made this summer busier than normal, however. And it feels good, doesn’t it, to be able to say that we’re not only organic but “natural” winegrowers, right? Hmmm…

We were asked to participate in a documentary about natural wine/winemaking but our schedules failed to align with the out-of-state filmmaker on his brief passes through our neck of the woods. While the nebulous definition of the term could benefit from an array of testimony from various self-designated practitioners, I was certainly hesitant to lend legitimacy to a group making a variety of wines from a wide range of regions with few exemplary wines to date. More importantly, the attempt to constrain winegrowing to a very limited, somewhat arbitrary set of tools that predate modernity under the self-righteous cloak of naturalism slightly offends me. What’s okay and what is verboten? At the risk of repeating myself from an earlier article, you gotta love the invention of the microscope, a winemaker’s most important tool, no? How do you feel about refrigeration? Electricity?

Certainly there is invasive technology like the spinning cone (a flow-through centrifuge) and reverse osmosis filtration that is widely used in our industry. We oppose these and other technological innovations that manipulate wine, heck, we don’t even like pumps! But, when we can no longer move the wine with gravity, we push the wine with inert (oxygen-free) gas. How is that inert gas made? With a giant fractionating column which distills air into its component gasses. Modernity intrudes, yet again. This practice is not on any list of forbidden practices that I could find, however (which reminds me of the PETA activist rallying in a pair of leather sneakers.)

Which brings me to another nit to pick with this whole “natural” thing: While rolling back the clock, where do you decide to stop? Before the discovery of the importance of the use of a little SO2? Before the discovery of the flavor contribution of (moderate) new oak in wine? Before the revolution in packaging (glass and cork?)

In their defense, I think natural adherents concentrate mostly on additives. So, what about the USDA list of approved legal additives to wine? The USDA affirms that the ingredients on the list are safe for human consumption. The uber-health conscious might want to know, however, what’s ultimately in the glass of wine they’re drinking. Most are fining agents and enzymes which settle out and are not in the final product, or are yeast vitamins and nutrients and are not in the final product, either. As for flavor, of course the case can be made for a desire to know most if not all ingredients on that list: Megapurple and its ilk? Yikes! Fining changes the flavor, for the better sometimes, but always removes more than its target often resulting in a lesser wine. Extractive enzymes, which create flavors similar to ones found when picking too late or with fruit that is cooked on the vine, alter the flavor in a way that is not expressive of place. Another flavor can be oak flavor from barrels which is technically not on the USDA or natural wine list but is an additive. Okay, oak’s a sticky one – I definitely think it is okay to add that flavor, the non-vineyard sourced nuances that carefully balanced quantities of new French oak contribute to most of our wines. But oak must never over-shadow the expressions of the place where the grapes were grown. It must serve as a support to enhance the already existent, inherent character of the wine. That is the crux for us. We think the most interesting wine expresses the place, the conditions where those grapes are grown. As a result you don’t need these ingredients, except for SO2, which we don’t need very much of as you’ll see below.

But as for their aversion to additives, though I sympathize with their concern, I think their rationale is incorrect. At Peay we aren’t minimally interventionist because of dogma. We don’t add stuff because we don’t need to. If your goal is to make balanced wines and you have found the right place to grow grapes that make a balanced wine, then you don’t need acid from a bag or heaps of SO2 or whiz bang technology. Your pH will be low so not very much SO2 will be needed to maintain the microbial upper hand. And, of course, the whole notion that you need to concoct this beverage by adulterating it with supplementary flavoring agents is anathema to us. The emphasis for natural winemakers should be as it is for us: Great wines are made in the vineyard (heard that one before haven’t you?)

Tastes may differ, but we are not doctrinaire and do not feel it is our job to tell you what to like. Rather, these 20th century traditions inform our palates and we choose to adhere to these traditions. Each innovation can have a dramatic effect on fundamental wine flavor. While we reject many recent technological innovations, neither do we prefer to revert to ancient history. Ad absurdum, some active hand must pick the grapes, throw them together, and encourage them not to become vinegar. Otherwise, they’re just bird food.

As someone once said, the growing and harvesting of grapes and wine making process should be a flexible, goal-oriented process. The reason we are farming and winemaking is to make world-class wine: that is our goal. We are proponents of a conscientious interconnectedness with our natural environment and understand that everything we do in farming and winemaking has an impact. You might think of us as inhabiting that philosophical intersection between the First Law of Thermodynamics and the Tao.

I think my karma just ran over your dogma.

Want Some Wine?

Our wines are made from grapes grown on our 53-acre hilltop vineyard located above a river in the far northwestern corner of the West Sonoma Coast, 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean. We grow Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. You can browse our current offerings in our online Wine Shop.


Want Some Wine?

Our wines are made from grapes grown on our 53-acre hilltop vineyard located above a river in the far northwestern corner of the West Sonoma Coast, 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean. We grow Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. You can browse our current offerings in our online Wine Shop.