The Tasting Panel magazine

March 2016

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28  /  the tasting panel  /  march 2016 H as there been a backlash to a growing trend more vicious than the one against "natu- ral" wines? It is true that there is no universal defini- tion of the n-word. But is the pursuit of wine grown and produced as n-wordly as possible as bad as it is made out to be by, say, Tom Wark of the Napa-based Wark Communications? Wark has written, "'Natural' is nothing more than a meaningless market- ing term." He seems to be most offended by the fact that the word "natural" implies "that wines not falling under the heading are simply not good . . . plastic, constructed, inauthentic . . . industrial 'frankenwines.'" Even Ron Washam, the ex-sommelier now better known as the Hosemaster of Wine, is sour on the concept, calling "natural wine" a "fringe movement . . . a wine cubbyhole, and therefore, broad and meaningless and stupid." By logic, the skeptical malice of the Warks and Washams of the wine world holds some water. But there are buts. Like in one of Leonard Cohen's lines: took my diamond to a pawn shop, but that don't make it junk. Diamonds or junk, natu- rally conceived and executed wines can be compelling. I recently met two indepen- dent winemaker/propri- etors—Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine Farm in the Sierra Foothills AVA, and Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines in Mendocino County—in the Sonoma home of Lance Cutler, a former winemaker (Gundlach-Bundschu) and author of four books chronicling the exploits of an imaginary wine country "private eye" named Jake Lorenzo. Beckmeyer makes an amazing range of Foothills- grown blends and varietals. One that he poured for me, his La Clarine Farm 2014 Priscilla (84% Grenache/16% Cinsaut), was a red wine so lavishly perfumed with naked, unoaked, leafy fruit qualities etched with an acid sharpness, that if I had tasted it with my eyes closed, I probably would have mis- taken it for a tropical-scented white wine . . . only, with a modicum of tannin. "I make wine as naturally as possible," Beckmeyer shamelessly confessed. "I don't like wood, so all my wines see only permeable flex-cubes, no barrels. Grapes are brought in and foot-trodden, whole-cluster. Nothing added, not even SO 2 , except minimally at bottling. I don't rack. Fermentations take as long as they take. It's a process—I rarely know exactly how it's going to end. But since 2007, I've been determined to make wines as honestly as impossible, and it's exciting." Among the wines Mr. Bilbro tasted me on was his Idlewild 2014 Fox Hill Vineyard Dolcetto: a medium-bodied red with a refreshing sense of levity— not one iota of aggrandiza- tion or wannabe-ness— with that zingy, stiff tannin/ acid/black cherry thing found in every self-respect- ing Dolcetto. A wine you can drink all day, and into the night. Bilbro explained: "It has always made sense to me to make wines that taste more 'pure.' When I first fell in love with wine, mostly drinking Barolos and Barbarescos, what most drew me towards them was the very traditional way they were made. Every time I tried a wine where produc- tion was more involved and pushed the wine toward something, I tended not to like the wine." Bilbro says he looks for "windows" defined by pH rather than Brix when pick- ing grapes he knows will work within his parameters. "When I bring the grapes into the cellar, nothing is added . . . no yeast, no acid, no nutrients, no water. The grapes are either foot trodden or pressed." This kind of winemaking, adds Bilbro, is "thrilling," like a "wave you are riding and you don't know quite where it is going." Beckmeyer and Bilbro, of course, are far from the only ones blithely riding this "natu- ral" wave. Maybe we can't define what they're doing; yet the wines are unique, often original, sometimes amazing. Not in the terroir-focused sense of traditional European wines, but more personal, artistic—very American. It makes sense to embrace it. And maybe we can get finally rid of those awkward punctuation marks around the word "natural." What's Wrong with "Natural" Wines? Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines in Mendocino County; Lance Cutler, a former winemaker and author; and Hank Beckmeyer of La Clarine Farm in the Sierra Foothills AVA, at Cutler's home in Sonoma. story and photos by Randy Caparoso Idlewild 2014 Fox Hill Vineyard Dolcetto.

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