Hello friends, family, lovers & others:
Welcome to yet another installment of the Fish & Game Quarterly.
For those of you who were paying attention, yes, we did miss an installment as we were working tirelessly at promoting our new book and running restaurants and enjoying the summer and it all seemed to get away from us. And, when I refer to “us,” I’m referring to a pretty small team… fortunately, we’re not too hung up on schedules or deadlines or consistency when it comes to our literary outpourings.
We are, however, committed to fun and flavor and in that department all is well and we truly did miss you so.
Now, on to business…
Peripheral Natural Wine Fest is returning to the Hudson Valley this fall!
Check out this year’s groovy poster…it has all the details, most important of which is where to get tickets!
The day the doors opened at Fish & Game, folks began asking me, Zak, what is natural wine? Why is that all you sell? How did you get such great hair? And why don’t you have splenda?
Almost all of these are damn good questions. The first one was answered concisely in our book, Project 258… something, something Making Dinner at Fish & Game. A fine read and worth purchasing if you love food, wine, the Hudson Valley or yourself.
The answer came from our friend and preeminent natural wine importer, Zev Rovine and was distilled by our illustrious editor Peter Barrett:
1) The grapes must be grown organically. All subsets of organic farming are acceptable, e.g. biodynamic, Fukuoka.
2) No added yeast. Commercial yeast can, and often does, contribute flavors not indicative of the terroir.
3) No sulfur can be added prior to or during fermentation. A minimal amount of sulfur added at bottling can be tolerated, but let’s not get caught up in the minutiae.
4) No fining or filtration of any kind. Sterile filtration makes for great shelf stability, but it strips the life out of wine.
Why is it that we chose to sell natural wine at Fish & Game? Well, I’ve found, after years of investigation and the gut to prove it, that natural wine simply tastes better. Wine made in this manner is expressive of place, which is also incredibly important to me as the question, “what does this place taste like?” has been a defining drive behind the food at Fish & Game.
If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on natural wine, I’ve included an email I wrote today to a reporter who just so happened to ask me the question:
“How would you describe natural wine?”
The name is misleading. All wine is natural. It is a fermented juice made from grapes (or other fermentable fruits, veggies, etc.) that grow on earth. Some wine encounters more intervention, i.e. additives, pesticides, alcohol, sugar, etc. before going into a bottle or box and then being sold as wine.
I think we'd all be clearer with a more precise title: Wine Made with Minimal Intervention, or, Basic Wine.
How I understand natural wine, when I discuss it with my friends and colleagues, is as a farmed product, something where the most work done is in the vineyard. Grape vines planted, grown, pruned and cared for without the use (or gratuitous overuse) of pesticides or chemicals that are designed to eliminate some of the natural phenomena that inhibit maximum yields. What we find is many of the growers who opt out of chemically enhanced pest prevention seem to share a similar philosophy regarding the ecosystems that exist among the vines. They work to build a complimentary garden filled with plants that encourage healthy soil and attract insects beneficial to plants' development. Most of these folks would prefer to be called farmers before winemakers.
Another common thread is that growing the grapes in the manner described allows for the cultivation of natural yeasts. These yeasts grow on the grape, on the stems, the leaves, on the plants around them and develop in the cellars, live on the walls and spread throughout the property. These yeasts are, arguably, as essential to the idea of terroir as is the soil in which the vines grow. This minimally invasive growing technique married with the natural yeasts that catalyze spontaneous fermentation is what has, historically, made wine and is what the Natural Wine world is evangelizing today.
This is now a big thing. So big that many young aspirants who may not have the wherewithal to buy and farm a plot of land have turned to buying grapes and trying to work their alchemy in the shop. This has yielded some excellent results, although it is decidedly more experimental than the farmer-made wine mentioned above. Point is, this product too is labeled Natural Wine. So, how do we, or should we, differentiate? Is there minimally invasive Farmstead wine and then Natural Negociant Wine made from purchased grapes grown by farmers using minimally invasive techniques but separate from the winemaking process? Do we need definitions to draw the distinction between these methodologies? I've heard both sides of the argument.
Another similarity among the minimally invasive winemakers is that many (if not all) of them are small producers, small when compared to the giant houses and/or labels one may recognize from state liquor stores to mini-marts to grocery store shelves. Is it possible for Natural Wine to be made on a large scale? Is that the same as Bird's Eye growing "organic" peas?
At what point did the natural wine wave break and what brought it to that point? I don't know but it certainly seems to have dovetailed with a search for something original or, if not original, something true among the educated, middle to upper class folks in Europe, the States (coastal...at least that's where it began...where most of it begins...except for the blues) and Japan… always quick to buy heavily into the coolest trends Europe has to offer.
Why do we like it? Because, when made well, it's delicious! More delicious than almost anything else!
...and, well, because we all need something new to break with previous generations, otherwise we can just let the florescent lights of the factory floor hum.
There are, of course, other reasons. Take a wine made in the same region, the same terroir, from the same grapes, harvested and vinified the same year, one made with conventional quantities of additional SO2 along the way, and taste them side-by-side. In my experience, one can taste a buoyancy, a lightness in the wine where SO2 has been omitted. Even more obvious and, as you progress along the tasting program, even more disturbing, is tasting a wine from the same region, one where fermentation has been controlled using a purchased (or otherwise externally cultivated) yeast and one that has been made using native yeasts that occur naturally in a vineyard that has not been stripped of bacteria and cultures by big bombs of pesticides and/or in the cellars of healthy, simply made farmed wines. That's when I stopped in my tracks and said, Holy Vitis Vinifera, Batman! This shit is wild! And, I guess, yes it is...wild in that it occurred without interference or control, albeit perhaps a little coaxing.
I think the SO2 argument can get pretty darn pedantic, so I stay away from it. What I look for is farmer wine made with native yeast from grapes grown in a healthy manner. We all compromise so we don't starve. In good years when simpatico climates prevail, very little may need to be done to ensure one may have something to put in bottle, other years can be difficult and a little more may have to happen to pay the bills. Farming, at its very essence, is about taming the earth in order to facilitate or ensure our survival. So Socrates asked, is the effort to tame the earth natural?
Anyhow, while on the subject of the Greeks, let's paraphrase Aristotle: Farming ensures survival. We require wine to survive. Therefore, we need grape farmers to survive. This is at least a piece of logic I'm pretty tied to.
As for my hair, I rinse with Lady Jayne’s Alchemy vinegars, which is what we also happen to use in the restaurants and, get this, it’s made from natural wine. No, I’m not pulling your leg or yanking on any chains. Lady Jayne, with a little help from our F&G crew, opens hundreds of bottles of natural wine every year and pours them into vats and jugs and containers of all size, whispers a few incantations, adds the proper dose of her well-developed mothers and lets the magic take place, naturally. The most common use is indeed seasoning… or drinking with a little honey… but hair rinse, douche, salve, and even as an ear wash for Waylon when his ears get funky after a day of swimming. I feel I should write, “step right up and get your vinegar here” next, so I did… but you know, you can’t you can, however, get it at Fish & Game or from Lady Jayne herself at ladyjaynesalchemy.com.
The final question, why don’t you have Splenda, was the query of a diabetic customer who dined with us not long ago. I did not learn the gentleman was a diabetic until after the splendid Splenda exchange. When informed that we had no splenda in the house to stir into his coffee he became quite irate and, irate to the point that he instructed my manager to let me know “Zak is prejudiced against diabetics.” This is, of course, not true. Since that incident I’ve had some time to consider this line of reasoning, but I haven’t used the time considering it, in fact, I have been doing other things I feel are more worth my time, like watching the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. That show is fucking hilarious. Anyhow, back to the Splenda question: the answer is, no one ever asked. It’s funny to group this in with thoughts about natural wine and natural wine vinegar, but perhaps you get my logic…. I guess, if you don’t, well, it’s like that old Duke Ellington saying, “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.”