Wine Like Grandpa Used to Make

When I told Editor Bill Leebens that I write about wine for a living, he wanted exciting, off-the-wall stories about my day job. Such anecdotes might have been more common during my time in wine auctions when millionaires swooped in to buy up all the cases of 1982 Latour, Lafite, and Mouton, but I’m no longer involved with trends, scores, and prices of commodity wines. Nowadays, my work revolves around searching out more affordable and accessible products, making me the envy of my wife’s friends, family, and colleagues. “He gets paid to taste wine? Where do I sign up?”  Next comes the inevitable recommendation request. “Ask him what I should drink,” thinking that I know the exact $20 bottle they too would love. After twenty years of retailing, consulting, and marketing, my personal tastes have long departed the mainstream and gone back to wine’s genesis, like switching from EDM to pure Delta Blues. I only want soulful, complex, natural stuff – straight out of the dirt, and that’s what I hope other wine drinkers will try.

Every week salespeople and producers bring me new and interesting products to evaluate for my restaurant and store accounts. I also attend the equivalent of audio shows for wine professionals where I meet winemakers and grape growers. I ask them about their portfolio, winemaking practices and farming philosophy as I weave from table to table, sipping and spitting up to one hundred wines. It’s certainly not the worst way to spend a workday. But then there’s the junk I have to wade through: market-driven, mass-produced wines that pose as genuine articles.

Some wine, especially the ones with cute labels and creative backstories, are nothing more than an exercise in branding. There are all kinds of media personalities, conglomerates, and ad-men that dream up wine labels with no tradition, skill, or provenance behind them. Just tap into reservoirs of surplus wine, hire a consultant, invent the marketing and anyone can set up a label. I’ve even received offers to start my own brand. If I had to find wine that met my standards, it would never make it to the bottling line.

Most consumers believe that their wine is a healthy all-natural drink made from grapes. Were it not for those pesky sulfites it would be a miracle beverage full of anti-oxidants and cholesterol-lowering properties. During one of my retail stints in Brooklyn, NY, I lived through many epidemics of sulfite hysteria instigated by an article on a slow news day. Suddenly, everyone would be asking, “Where are your organic wines? Which ones are sulfite-free? Did you know sulfites cause headaches and hives?” Then, depending on my mood, I would go into a shorter or longer explanation of sulfur.

My stock answer would be, “Well, organic doesn’t mean sulfite-free, and ‘sulfite-free’ wines actually contain naturally occurring sulfites as a by-product of fermentation… organic wines can also have the same amount of sulfur as regular wine, and white wine has more than red…” and then the customer zones out. “But does it taste good? And, why does it cost $30!?” They ask as if I’m trying beef up my nonexistent commission. Upon consideration of price against my description of the wine, many revert to their usual brand. Sulfites be damned!

After the transaction, my co-workers and I exchange a knowing glance, “If they only knew what else was in that wine.” Organic granola even has dried fruit treated with sulfites. And if one eats from fast food restaurants or packages, then avoiding sulfites in wine is pure folly.

Sulfur is a chemical element that has been used since antiquity. Also called brimstone, naturally occurring crystallized sulfur (often found near volcanoes) is one of the oldest farming and medicinal remedies. While you don’t want too much of any chemical in your wine, sulfur should be the least of your worries. Besides sulfites, winemakers are under no obligation to list ingredients in wine – not to mention all the traces of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides sprayed in the vineyards.  Producers are free to use scores of animal, vegetable, and chemical additives to fix color, smell, flavor, and stability, transforming swill into a palatable liquid.

That $15 gallon-box of wine is not to be trusted, and the same goes for some of the extremely high-end cult wines that risk losing piles of money due to a bad review. So what in the world is safe to drink? First of all, drink what you enjoy. As the French say, “À chacun son goût” – to each his own taste. Don’t let me or a salesman talk you into anything. But, if you’re willing to stimulate your palate and brain, I have a recommendation: Biodynamic, the original organic wine.

Developed in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, Biodynamic agriculture is a complicated name for pre-industrial farming. It’s what my grandfather did back in Yugoslavia. It’s what everyone did before agrochemicals and machinery. A sustainable family farm is an integrated system that relies on animals, plants, and people to nourish each other in a regenerative cycle. Hence, larger farm animals eat vegetation and spread manure to provide further nutrition for bugs and new plants. Ducks, chickens, and predatory birds feed on vegetation, rodents, and insects. People eat the birds, farm animals, and plants. Then, leftovers and inedibles are put back into the system as compost and animal feed.

Although this type of farming has been around for thousands of years, Biodynamics is viewed with skepticism because it circumvents chemical intervention and is dictated by nature’s schedule. For example, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting are done according to lunar cycles. Does this conjure up visions of witches dancing around a fire during moonrise? Even so, there’s no denying that the moon’s gravitational force affects ocean tides as well as sap activity in vines and water content in soil. In fact, NASA charts moons phases to the minute, so it’s even easier for Biodynamic farmers to map out their year from sowing to final harvest.

Biodynamic farming is simply about planting the right crops in the right place at the right time and letting nature conduct her symphony: bats and birds and ladybugs control pests; grasses are planted between vine rows to crowd out weeds; hoofed animals work as tractors and tillers. When needed, infusions of herbs, barks, plants, bacteria, and fungi are used as natural remedies in the field, as well as a limited amount of sulfur. Unlike that gallon box of cheap Chablis, this type of low-intervention wine is made in the vineyard and not in the lab. Does it make a difference in flavor? You bet. Does it taste better? Let’s just say it’s different. I find Biodynamic wine to be vivacious, expressive of its environment, and brimming with natural grape flavor. Compare a seasonal local tomato from an organic farm and that greenhouse imposter at the supermarket. I know which one’s going into my Caprese salad.

I could list my favorite winemakers here, but the brands might not be available at your local shop. Instead, let me suggest my go-to regions. From France, I like Loire, Beaujolais, Languedoc, and Rhône. Spain has many excellent wines from Penedes, Jumilla, and Rioja. Italy and Greece have quirky old-school winemakers all over the place, and don’t forget California! One of my favorite Rosés this past season was from Mike Roth & Craig Winchester at Lo-Fi Wines. Check out the back label: they listed the ingredients; this should be the norm.

If you live outside of a major urban center and have a limited selection of shops, here are a few more tips for seeking out healthier wines:

-Contact natural wine importers like Jenny & Francois and Kermit Lynch for retailer referrals, or ask your shop to special order Biodynamic wines from them.

– Browse the European sections for default organic options at reasonable prices. Many winemakers forgo the costly certifications.

– Look on the back label for descriptors such as: low intervention, spontaneous fermentation, wild yeasts, no added sulfites, sustainable, small-production, and organic practices.

If you’re like me and prefer not to drink polyvinyl-polypyr-rolidone, glyceryl mono-oleate, or potassium ferrocyanide, then try Biodynamic — or at least organic—wine. Natural winemakers are a serious, sometimes eccentric, bunch entirely devoted to sustainable farming. It’s an all-encompassing lifestyle for them but we can still reap the benefits of wholesome wine. It won’t make you look twenty years younger, re-grow hair, or restore hearing, but Biodynamic wines are much better for you and the environment. À votre santé!