Text by Kyle Beechey
The holidays are now in full swing and with that comes the pleasant, yet somewhat daunting list of social obligations. The Cookie Exchanges, Tree Trimmings, Sophisticated Dinner Soirées or Festive Brunches. What to wear, how to get there and most importantly, what to bring? A bottle of wine perhaps? But which one? Red or white? Sparkling? Something local or far-flung? And now to add another dimension, should it be natural? We’re here to help and inform you that organic & natural are words that should no longer be reserved for just discussing your produce.
To get some further insight into this new, yet centuries old phenomenon, we turned to some experts in the community and quickly learned that there are some brilliant females shaking up the wine world. But before we get to what to pour this season, what is natural wine?
To start, the bottle of wine off the grocery store shelf is as processed as a box of Fruit Loops. Large commercial conglomerates produce wine and for standardization purposes add stabilizing additives. They include fungicides and herbicides in the growing process as well as Acetaldehyde and Isinglass (dried fish bladder) in the bottling. On the vine, the chemicals ensure that the crops will have a certain yield and in the bottling, they are to preserve color, prevent sedimentation and ensure a certain expected flavor.
Wine has a story that imparts a quality to it, like the hand that weaves the textile. Your glass of Chardonnay tells a story, just as the Hmong tribe textile that hangs on your wall does.
To contrast, natural wine is free from chemicals. This brings a welcome vibrancy and unpredictability to each bottle. That bottle of Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc might not be the exact same every single time, which adds a level of excitement and vibrancy. The wine is alive. Drinking natural wine, from a consumer standpoint, helps support smaller, family-run establishments. The producers use more of an artisanal approach or centuries old back-to-basics methodology in the crafting of their products. There is a face or family of faces who are behind these bottles, rather than a corporation. The natural wine harvesting methods are more environmentally sustainable and our bodies can process the wine far better than their commercially produced counterparts.
In speaking with winemakers and other experts in the community it became clear that their attitude towards wine is one that The Arc shares in our sourcing of goods. We love to see the handmade philosophy disseminating across industries. Wine has a story that imparts a quality to it, like the hand that weaves the textile. Your glass of Chardonnay tells a story, just as the Hmong tribe textile that hangs on your wall does.
Wine editor of Bon Appetit & Author of Wine. All the Time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Drinking
How did you get into the traditionally male world of wine writing? What was it that peaked your interest?
It was kind of by accident. I never set out to be a "wine writer," I was a comedy writer that just really loved wine and I really wrote about it for myself. It was my hobby. No one read it. I just loved that I could sit down with a wine and it could take me somewhere else, it's like a daydream serum for me. And still is.
You’re an expert on making wine approachable, what are your best tips for not sounding pretentious? Especially around family this holiday season.
People usually come off like a jerk when they decide they have to tell someone what something is. Instead of talking at people, talk with them. That's one of the things that makes wine so wonderful, its ability to inspire conversation. Be engaged, ask questions, remember that we all started somewhere, don't judge.
What are some gateway bottles to introduce those around our holiday table to? Particularly those that have more traditional tastes.
Gamay. Always Gamay. It's extremely food friendly and it's an easy jump from Pinot Noir. If your guests or host skew real traditional, go for a 2015 Gamay from Beaujolais. The 2015 vintage was very warm, making the wines a bit heavier and less tart than other years.
What are some regions and varietals that you’re excited about right now?
Right now, I'm very interested in what's going on in Italian natural wines, particularly in Umbria and Abruzzo. I'm also keeping a close eye on the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Austria. There has been a lot of really unique and fun wines coming out of those regions this past year.
Winemaker, j.brix wines
Why natural wine? Why is it different from commercially produced or organic wine?
Conventional wine is mass-produced, using plenty of additives (more than 70 are permitted for use in winemaking, though only sulfites have to be listed on a label), and the goal is for it to taste exactly the same, year in and year out. Organic wine must be made with organically farmed grapes, but there are no additional regulations on what can be added in the cellar. Natural wine approaches the whole idea from a different perspective; small, hands-on, additive-free production from fruit farmed in a sustainable way, with each vintage tasting differently because each growing season is different. It's like an artisan sourdough loaf from the farmer's market and a bag of white bread from the grocery store; they're both bread, but they're not the same.
What drew you to wine? Was it a difficult space to enter as a woman?
About 10 years ago, I tasted a wine that spoke to me in a different way than I had experienced before. It had a sense of place to it; an energy that made me instantly understand that it came from somewhere special, and since then, I've been on a pursuit to drink and make wines that translate their sites in that way. My husband and I embarked on this as a team, and we were welcomed into wineries and cellar crews as we sought to learn the ropes. In talking with solo women winemakers who are just starting out, though, I have heard that it can be a challenge to get some growers to take you seriously.
Since you worked as a part of a husband and wife team, do people often assume what your role is in the business?
When we're together at events, there is often an automatic assumption that my husband is the winemaker, and I'm just there to help pour! It's interesting, because there are more women winemakers now than ever before, from some of the largest wineries on down. I think it just takes time for perception to catch up with reality.
“About 10 years ago, I tasted a wine that spoke to me in a different way than I had experienced before. It had a sense of place to it; an energy that made me instantly understand that it came from somewhere special, and since then, I've been on a pursuit to drink and make wines that translate their sites in that way.”
Natalia McAdams & Kae Whelan
Sommeliers at Kismet restaurant in Los Angeles
How did you come into wine? I think it is fascinating that both Kismet’s sommeliers are young women. We’ve been meeting a lot of fantastic women in this community lately, do you think a shake-up of the male establishment is coming?
NM: I concentrated in Food Studies at NYU and took a beverage class. Wine was a whole new frontier that I had very little knowledge of. For me, it presented a more academic/knowledge-based career path but still kept me in restaurants. From there I fell in love. When I moved back to LA, I had the opportunity to work for Kathryn Coker of the Rustic Canyon family. She was really my first role model in the wine world. She nurtured an environment at Ester’s that allowed for learning and growth. By the time I got to Kismet, I was hooked on natural wine and really wanted to pursue this particular arena. Again, I was surrounded by a mostly female support system, but also just a general group of people that believe in pursuing excellence while still nurturing curiosity.
Kae and I have an ongoing conversation about shaking up the wine world not just in terms of gender, but also race. It’s important to us that women of color find their way into this industry as well as white women. Any sort of hegemony, be it gender or color, needs to be diversified across all industries.
KW: I started waiting tables in college and had a fairly basic, functional knowledge of wine until I started working at Diner in New York. Lee Campbell was the Beverage Director at the time and introduced me to the idea of terroir — the sense of place in a wine — and I was hooked. With this context, learning about wine became more than the sum of its parts — less about tasting each wine in a vacuum and more about connecting wines to their history, soil, climate, and the people who make them.
As with any industry, there is a ways to go in terms of representation. The wine world is overwhelmingly white, and I would love to see not just women, but more women of color. We need to look around as an industry and ask why that’s not already the case.
Why is the world so late to arrive to the natural wine? We’ve been obsessed with organic, non-GMO produce & meat for over a decade.
NM: Most non-oenophiles don’t realize that there is anything else to wine other than grapes. There are tons of additives that go into wine starting with chemicals in the vineyards, and finishing with chemicals/additives in bottling. Because wine consumption isn’t built into our culture the way it is in most European societies (and many others), it is not considered part of a meal, so significantly less consideration is directed toward it.
Increasingly, people are becoming aware of the importance of knowing what is in your food, but wine is still a luxury item for most. Even those wanting to eat sustainably might choose to pinch pennies when it comes to purchasing wine, not realizing that it’s a potentially highly manipulated food product. As with anything, it comes down to educating the public and that’s what we’re trying to do here!
KW: I don’t know that the world is late so much as people are starting to market natural wines differently and the U.S. is starting to catch on. There are winemakers in France who have been farming bio-dynamically for decades and estates in Georgia who have been making skin-fermented “orange” wines forever. What’s interesting to me about this moment in wine is how much it seems to be changing people’s tastes. There are still plenty of folks who are closed off to anything that’s not an oaked Chardonnay, but so many more guests are open to challenging their palates and perceptions, which is great not just for the wine world, but from an environmental standpoint too. These wines are interesting AND made responsibly, so people can really have it all in that respect if they’re open to it.
The holiday season is here! What are you pairing with dinner? What are you bringing to the holiday party?
NM:For every holiday party, I try to bring something sparkling. Many people shy away from off-dry wines--wines with a little bit of residual sugar, i.e. sort of sweet--but I think a sparkling rose with some extra body and a bit of RS is perfectly dynamic when it comes to pairing with a lot of different kinds of foods. If you’re not a fan of anything even remotely sweet, I’d get a Lambrusco-style (sparkling red wine).
KW:Sparkling all the way. Especially to start, I don’t want to dive in with something big, so a nice easy, low-alcohol pet-nat is always great. I love this sparkling Gamay d’Auvergne by Domaine La Bohème, “Festejar” (which literally translates to “celebrate”) for its brambly, cranberry notes and a hint of alpine, holiday spice.
What are some of the easiest wines to pair with holiday food?
NM: I default to skin-contact/orange wine. I prefer drinking chilled wines, but often I need some extra complexity and depth when it comes to pairing a single wine across an entire meal. I tend towards a more savory flavor profile, I love it if there are some notes of oxidation and nuttiness. A little smoke never hurt anyone either. If I’m feeling fancy, I’d choose something like the “T” from Vodopivec that we carry here at Kismet.