Sunday, December 02, 2018

The State of Natural Wine in Flyover Country

New series: "Au Naturel "       

While researching an upcoming article for the Dallas Morning News, I’ve had the opportunity to experience, first-hand, the state of natural wine here in flyover country. In a surprising turnabout from the often-contentious atmosphere found over the internet, what I’ve experienced has been a refreshingly open-minded and clear-eyed take on wine made in the various manners of what we have come to regard as natural. Without going into some of the information I will cover in the article (and really not the intention of this post), I want to explore how we got here, those of us in the middle of the country, who are often cast aside from the more seemingly progressive and undeniably trendy west and east coasts. And just for good measure, this is not an us vs. them piece. It is simply a snapshot of what I see and have observed over the past few months while working on the newspaper piece.

First a little personal background information, for new or first-time readers. Growing up in California, and often somewhere near a vineyard, I came to think of grapevines as part of Greater Nature of which California is imbued. As a young child, living in the desert, I spent many hours outside, often staring at the great Mt. San Jacinto, before me. I hiked the canyons and the mountains as a juvenile and later when I moved to Altadena, above Pasadena, I continued to hike regularly in the canyons and trails of the San Gabriel mountains there. I spent a lot of time outside. And when domestic duties called, such as shopping for groceries or cooking for and with my young family, we sought after produce and other food stuffs that were as unadulterated as possible. In the 1970’s this was much easier to do in California than it was in Texas or even New York. But it took a search at times. Organic produce, fertile eggs, raw milk and cheeses were the staples of our diet. And occasionally wine, when I budgeted for it.

Likewise, the lifestyle called for a commitment to not use or consume more than we needed. To recycle whatever we could and to compost when possible. Much easier now in America then in 1975. But not impossible in California.

So, when I moved to Texas in 1978, it was kind of like moving to Mars in that regard. Raw milk or cheese were as illegal as marijuana. Farmers markets in the truest sense were nonexistent. And recycling was limited to one or two places that took glass (usually only clear, not green), and no place for plastic recycling then. My garage filled up with wine bottles (also from my job, samples, returns, etc.) and once a month I’d load up my station wagon and haul them across town to drop them off. So, that was where I was at.

Over the past 40 years, a lot has changed. Now we have access to organic produce and raw cheeses (raw milk if you go to nearby farms, both cow and goat) and even the meat offerings range from organic to free range to grass fed and on. Living in Texas has vastly improved for the person in search of a simpler, closer-to-nature lifestyle.

Which leads us to wine. In my meandering across the wine shops and wine bars in my (now) hometown of Dallas, Texas, there are plenty of choices to find. Sometimes I find myself drinking a wine and not even knowing it has a more natural aspect to it. Like the 2016 Chateau de Caraguilhes Corbieres Blanc, which has the certified organic mark on it. Is it a natural wine in the “natty” sense, with some funkifiedness? No, it is not. But it was a simple, clean quaff, and it dovetailed quite nicely with our simple repasts.

There is a full bandwidth of choices under the natural wine banner available these days. And Italy, like France, has many choices within that spectrum. One needn’t cast shade on folks who like those kinds of wine, when most of them are made in a simple and delicious manner. Sure, there are those wines (and winemakers) that go out to the edge, pushing our idea of what natural wine can or even should be. You find that in art, in religion, in music, so why not in wine? And so, if you don’t like some of the hairy armpit versions of natural wine, don’t go there! But also, don’t paint the whole sky one color of blue. It’s a big world, and wine can be expressed in many ways. And they aren’t always successful, or even if they are, they might be in a stage of their life where they are cumbersome, awkward, pimply and stringbeanish. But they are someone’s child, if even children from a vat of fermented must. Love them or not. But don’t shun them. Just move on.

I've gone into local shops here and had the most wonderful experiences talking to the people in the shop about which wines to take home. I spent many years in the trade, presenting what was in my portfolio. And often wines chosen from a boss or superior who might not have had the same esthetic sensitivities as I did and still do. I don’t have those restrictions now, I am free from the workforce and supply chains that once bound me. And once again my world has opened up. And with that, the world of natural wines has been this amazing garden of roses and herbs and all manner of plants (metaphorically) that I can now wander, again, free as a bird, to savor with unrelenting joy.

For the part of the path I trod these days is closer to the way it was when I was a kid. It is slower, I spend more time with other species, hanging out, thinking, napping, and yes, playing. The business of wine was (and still is) so goddamm serious. And now they’re trying to make natural even more serious, which is just plain silly. Let ‘er be. Don’t like it? Open up another bottle, it won’t kill ya. Move on if you’re not happy. Life is short. And yes, winter is coming, drink up.

To be continued…

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