The idea for natural wines started in France. Jules Chauvet, a négociant from Beaujolais who died in 1989, is considered the father of the concept, and more wines considered natural today are from France than anywhere else.
Tracey Brandt, co-owner of Donkey & Goat winery in Berkeley, is proud of being the only American winery chosen to appear at a natural wine event in November in Stockholm.
"We consider natural wines to have only natural yeasts and only be fermented in natural materials -- no stainless steel," Brandt says. "We're not religious. We just think this makes the best wine."
Her 2007 Donkey & Goat Syrah from Perli Vineyards in Mendocino Ridge ($35) is an example of how complex a natural wine can be. It's like a meal in itself, with flavors of black pepper, raspberry, grilled lamb and pink peppercorns. It has interesting floral notes in the aroma and just the right firmness of mouth feel.
Another fine natural California winery is Lioco, founded by wine importer Matt Licklider and Kevin O'Connor, former wine director at Spago Beverly Hills. Lioco uses only wild yeast but defines natural wine differently from Donkey & Goat -- for example, all its Chardonnays are fermented in stainless steel tanks. The results are downright funky; I smelled durian and turkey meat, along with lime and chalk, in the 2006 Lioco Chardonnay from Michaud Vineyard in the Chalone region ($40), and I don't know if I liked it or not.
On the other hand, I adored the 2007 Lioco "Indica" Mendocino County Red Wine ($20), which is 78% old-vine, organically grown, dry-farmed Carignane from the Redwood Valley vineyard of Alvin Tollini, whose grandfather left him the vineyard only after he promised not to rip out the Carignane (a temptation because other grapes sell for more). That's a great story and it's a fine wine, Pinot Noir-like with its bright raspberry fruit, spicy nose and light body. But it includes 9% Mourvedre and 3% Grenache from Russian River Valley, so it can't be said to have a sense of place.
That's the problem with natural wine as a term: Its vagueness makes it as flawed as all the others, and if it gets popular enough, it might be the easiest to co-opt. Unless, of course, it really is all about the yeast.
"Drinking wine is a symbolically loaded act," says Amdur, arguing for natural yeasts. "I've been doing a lot of thinking in the last year about how do we make more interesting wines happen. People get bored hearing me talk about yeast so much, but we need to support nascent natural wines in California."
Ironically, though, when it came to making a decision about which yeast to use in his own homemade wine this summer, Amdur ultimately opted for commercial yeast because, he says, "I didn't want to screw it up."