After two days of solid rain in the San Francisco bay area, I’m waiting. For the power to come back up. For the wireless to reappear. And for a better understanding of natural wines. Specifically, the Italian ones.
Before anyone thinks I’m about to take on the sacred cow, invoking the “N” word with unabashed acceptance and reverence, turn away. While I am a devotee of many natural things in life, I know things aren’t always what they seem. In essence, the words I heard uttered by one of the Renaissance men of the 20th century, Bucky Fuller, who told me to my face, “Anything that nature lets you do is natural.”
So, given a wide berth, I’ll dig in.
It started on the drive over the Bay Bridge from Berkeley to the City, on my way to Biondiviono to see a friend who brought in some winemakers for the Gambero Rosso tasting earlier in the week. A small reception for the winemakers and their wines in a convivial neighborhood setting in only the way one finds in San Francisco and other cities who have devoted their urban spaces to a accommodate the human scale. With dogs. My kind of place. The pump is primed.
We taste through a flight of Vitovskas, Malvasias and Sauvignons and were talking to each other about how the wine tastes.
After tasting two of the wines from one producer, a Vitovska and a Malvasia, he looked at me and asked, “Are these wines supposed to taste alike?” Out of the mouths of babes, incredible. Something that I had never thought of but in the back of my head, this had been bouncing around.
Flash back to 1965. I was a high school student and decided to make wine for a science project. And my first foray in natural wine and natural winemaking. My mom crushed the grapes with her feet. We used open top fermentation and used no sulfur, natural yeast, no oak, no stainless steel, no concrete eggs.
Flash forward to 2008. I’m in New York City at Terroir wine bar, waiting for a future friend, and ordered an Asprinio. Upon tasting this wine, I time tripped back to those heady days of youthful winemaking. The wines tasted identical! I put that info in the vault.
Gravner winery in the cellar. What, I’m talking about Graver, after so mindlessly forgetting to work it into our recent Friuli trip? Ah, yes, to those who wondered, I have been to that mountaintop. And tasted those rusty, wines. And sold them. Or tried to sell them. I remember hauling a bottle of Breg to NY and opening it with Alice, who at the time offered a little puzzlement about the aura of this wine. But with a selection of cheeses and an evening under the spell of the wine and a unusual setting in Battery Park, she and I both explored, albeit briefly, the mysteries of Breg. Ain’t too proud.
Look, growing up in California in the 60’s and 70’s, I got my natural on. Ate tofu before anyone knew what it was. Skulked the aisles of the natural food stores of Santa Cruz in search of granola and straight haired lasses with flowing dresses and long white shiny legs. I’ve got natural in my veins. Or so my proto-natural champion Bucky would assert.
Sure, Gravner doesn’t taste exactly like my homemade tub. But it resembles that effort more than it does the Friulano or Sauvignon flights we went through last week.
Is that bad? This identity card of naturalness? Let me put it this way. For my way of living, sometimes it is cold and I put on a sweater and a jacket and warm socks and a hat and gloves and a muffler. But in July, floating down an inner tube on the Guadalupe River, nah-ah, not gonna do it.
And that’s really my bottom line with wine, natural or otherwise. It has to fit the occasion.
But my colleague didn’t get it. For one reason. Because it didn’t, in the end, result in a pleasurable experience. And that I really get. Something we talked about at the recent COF2011 roundtable. Samantha brought it up. “Aren’t we drinking wine because it makes us feel good?” Well, she actually said it a little more unfiltered (It’s all about the buzz). And yes, whether it’s the buzz, the alcohol, the lightness one feels, the effect of wine upon ones senses and inhibitions, doesn’t it always , for those of us in human cloak, come down to the “P” word?
That’s my early rainy morning West Coast grumble. While I wait for the fog to lift and the smog to settle in for what looks like a sunny day by the bay.
I’ve had enough pain. I’ll have more in this life. I know that. Whether the wines are made naturally or not, whether they use ambient yeast or pharmaceutical strains, whether the oak in American or French or un oaked, whether the wine is micro oxygenated and spoofed to the moon or let alone to grow underarm hair long enough to braid, all these swirling dervishes of the wine world, all of them, for me, come down to this: What inside this glass, in front of me right now, will make me happy?
“You mean you don’t have the problem solved yet?” a bearded elder calls out to me in the lobby. “I thought I did forty years ago” I tell him. Boy was I wrong. Now I am older and no wiser.
But one thing I do know, and this is the nature of it for me.
I want it to taste good.
I want it to give me pleasure.
Pure and simple.