On Natural Wine (with Donkey & Goat)

If you follow my Instagram (shameless plug), you know that I’m obsessed with Donkey & Goat. I’m evangelical about their wines but god knows if anyone takes my advice…quite frankly I’m pleased they haven’t, because it means more for me. Way back when I was a wine novice who just knew the varietals that grew in my hometown, I ordered a glass of D&G’s Pinot Noir (the 2012 Helluva Pinot) at Park Tavern restaurant in San Francisco. My notions of pinot at the time were that it was light, fruit forward, easy drinking – a wine that should I be questioned on by my hosts (a very nice family treating me to a meal I did not deserve) I could discuss with basic adjectives. While it’s easy for Millennials to put down pinot noir for being everywhere (which it is), two of the three wine experiences that truly shook my wine world and made me genuinely give a shit were with pinot noir (the third was grenache, natch). This D&G pinot was one of them. I came home desperate to find the wine, in the process introducing me to Astor Wine – which is my mecca – and to the world of natural wine.

I’m talking about Donkey & Goat this week not just because it is my favorite California winery and deserves all the accolades it can get, but because this weekend (November 6 & 7) is the debut of the NYC RAW Wine Fair, the largest gathering of artisan winemakers from around the world. Started by Isabelle Legeron, badass bitch of the natural wine movement, the fair promotes a winemaking ethos that is more than just a trend you might have read about in the NYT. Natural and low-intervention wine (I’ll explain the difference in the moment) are based in a belief that ‘good’ wine should be treated like ‘good’ food: transparency in production, from start to finish, is imperative. Talking about natural wine can sound incredibly douchy at times (I’m reminded of how my rhetoric sounds like the now classic “it’s about ethics in videogame journalism“) but bear with me. I’m going to break it down ‘rull quick, first with a few questions:

  1. Do you shop at Whole Foods?
  2. Do you go to a farmer’s market?
  3. Do you belong (or want to belong) to a CSA?
  4. Are you vegan or vegetarian/bring wine to such people’s parties?
  5. Do you feel bad when you can’t afford to spend the extra dollar on the organic option at Trader Joes?
  6. Have you ever side eyed the ingredient list on a packet or can?

If you said yes to any of the above questions, you should give a shit about natural wine. For some reason, people my age love to talk about where they got their food or about how important it is to buy organic, but don’t give two fucks about their wine. They’ll go to the Union Square Farmer’s Market and spend $17 on carrots and kale and then, I shit you not, go to TJ’s wine store and buy three buck chuck. Why is that? We’ve all done it. We’ll turn up at someone’s party with whatever we can afford and maybe sounds good, but we don’t ever stop to think…what’s in this wine? Is it just fermented grape juice? Were these grapes made organically? Does this wine go against my friend’s vegan diet? Is the land this wine came from actually alive?

The truth is, we’ve been tricked by the wine industry, our parents, movies, or whatever into thinking that all wine is a luxury product. The sheer act of buying wine over say, buying Smirnoff Ice, is as classy as buying local organic milk in glass bottles. When you offer wine to a twentysomething at dinner, you will get compliments, no matter what. Wine evokes the idea of maturity and expensive wine evokes the idea of wealth, but perhaps because we are doing nothing to the wine (regardless of price) except putting it into a glass, we assume that the only difference is taste.

Wine is grapes mofos. IT IS GRAPES. Them grapes are grown in the ground. Not in a factory, or beautiful gem caves, or in Tom Ford’s brain. In the sweet sweet earth. You know what happens when you strip the earth of everything but the grape vines? Nothing. Literally, nothing. The vines don’t pull anything from the ground. As a result, those grapes say nothing about where they are from.

Imagine spending $30 on a pasta at a restaurant and being told, “Yeah, those tomatoes grow in cold, barren dirt with nothing in the soil, were treated with pesticides, and then when processed into your pasta sauce, we threw chemical sugars in to make sure the sauce tastes exactly the way we want it to and oh hey! we even added red food dye just to make sure you got the perfect blood colored sauce on that bland, basic pasta that we dumped a metric fuckton of sulfites in to ensure that it stayed exactly the same for the five years it sat on our restaurant shelves!?”

Wine. Is. Going. Into. Your. Body. I’m not saying you need to be a wine nazi by any means – we all have our limits and sometimes we only have limited options – but please, please do not pretend that buying a random Burgundy to have with dinner is the same as drinking a Whole Foods green juice in the morning or carefully sourcing your eggs.

Wine currently doesn’t need to label what goes into it (even to a certain extent, which grapes are in there). It is up to the consumer to ask their sommeliers or their wine shops about the viticultural techniques used in a recommended bottle. Not every wine needs to be 100% natural – not all wines can be made without adding some additional SO2 or using irrigation for instance (hence classified as ‘low-intervention wines’) – but the more you demand from your wine suppliers, the more pressure it puts on them to demand better wine making practices from their producers and incentivizes winemakers to go back to their agricultural roots and think about their product as a god damn food.

Sorry. I’m lecturing and I promised I wouldn’t do that! People like Donkey & Goat, who make such effing delicious wine without adding additional sulphur, without filtering through fish bladders, who use organic farming…these guys are making wines that taste like nothing you have ever had before. People deride natural wines as ‘funky’ or write them off as too weird or ‘not classic’ but I say to my self, are corrupted soils classic to you? The wines that use countless additives and weird chemical yeasts and drown their vines in sprays – these wines are not fucking classic. These wines are overpriced middle school pasta that make Jamie Oliver cry.

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