Last Saturday was relatively predictable as we set for service; moving around the dining room, setting, polishing and adjusting. There is always this buzz before a busy night as you crush the last of some Starbucks, stock your pockets with the evenings required accessories and squeeze in one last bathroom break.
One of the most important restaurant rituals is the pre-shift meeting where both the front and back of house take time to brief each other on the day’s going-ons; what’s to be expected, who is joining us, how many whole speckled trout are available and what are the weights on this evenings striploins.
Once the chefs wrap up, the conch gets passed my way as we discuss the new craft brew on tap, the three wines we have now 86’d (restaurant slang for gonzo), and the new additions to the list. I imagine my voice goes up a notch or two as I excitedly talk about the new Etna Rosso, their biodynamic practices, organic work in the vineyard and their natural philosophies in the winery.
“What are the differences between the three?”
“Between what three?”
“Well — biodynamic, organic and natural. Everyone talks about it but no one seems to explain it.”
Valid point, new guy.
Needless to say, the definitions or the lack thereof, became a bit of an obsession for me these last few days. But speaking simply from experience, I’ve seen that the most creative and honest wines have been a result of a winery’s efforts to keep it old school and hold on to these preindustrial traditions and practices. Rooted in the world around them — be it seasons, soils or stars — these wines, despite labels, can be recognized as true to their place. This can sometimes be a far cry from what the market dictates or what taste demands but you’ll find an inherent humility in them.
But hey, despite the strong reactions they elicit and the controversy they create, let’s try to break them down.
Natural wine is definitely a modern buzzword, but it’s important to remember that what defines natural is history itself. Viticulture dates back 8,000 years, so we’re forced to look at original techniques; long before the likes of rotofermentors, cryomaceration, reverse osmosis and cultured yeasts. Farmers had no other option but to create a product free of chemicals and additives.
There is still no formal certification body for natural wines, and to be quite honest, the term ‘natural wine’ really means nothing at all. Defined by those who practice, however, it is wine made without pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, added sugars, artificial acids or commercial yeasts. They are also bottled without life prolonging sulfur additions and limited oak. This nearly-no human intervention allows the wines to speak to a place, while not being masked by the makeup. While organic wines stop at the cellar door, natural wines are just beginning.
Does this mean the wines will always be sound? Oh hell no. Does it mean they will always taste the same? Absolutely not. But the blood and sweat and balance required to make a wine with no nets is something to be admired – not pushed against. In my humble opinion.
So what separates organic wine from natural wine? This pertains mainly to the grape-growing practices. This means a partial or full elimination of the use of pesticides or chemicals in the vineyard. You can be organic but not natural, but never natural but not organic.
Unfortunately due to the cost associated with becoming certified organic, there are many small-time producers that farm this way but are not recognized for it, especially in the old world where the dogmatic old guard wouldn’t have it any other way.
Although biodynamics is its own funky beast, it usually meets or exceeds any organic standards or regulations.
Pioneered by Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics is a holistic, ground-up approach to agriculture. The belief is that the success of a vineyard depends on the relationship between the soil, plants, animals and all other organisms present. Steiner pulled his conclusions from the humblest of sources, having spent eons gathering the traditions of simple farmers, dating back thousands of years.
The point is that the grapes are not necessarily the show piece and do not take away from the other life on the farm. By creating this interdependency between the elements the farm becomes self-nourishing and self-contained — making these foreign chemicals we talk about … well … unnecessary.
So with all taken into account, I’m still reminded of having read William James’ words: “Belief creates the actual fact.” To many people, these practices and ideologies have a lot more to do with individual belief than incontrovertible fact. There are brilliant wine minds that have shunned many of the above practices, and equally as many who have embraced them.
Jump over to onthego.to to see some of my favorite natural and organic wines and to find out where you can get your hands on them. Then hey – let me know what you think.
With over a decade in the restaurant industry under her belt, Sheila Flaherty’s entertaining and accessible approach to wine has always seemed to set her apart from the pack. A prominent ambassador of Ontario wine, and an old world addict – the mercurial Flaherty directed the nine time award-winning wine program at Mercatto, as well as headed up sales and marketing for Pearl Morissette Estate Winery. She now works with the wine program at Momofuku Toronto, and if you can’t find her there… just look between the vines.