One of the chief complaints often expressed by advocates, champions, and militants of Natural wine (with a capital N) is that overly ambitious marketers of organic and biodynamic wines often mislead consumers when plying their wares, touting them erroneously as "Natural."
And their Jeremiads are not unwarranted: Now more than ever before, as our nation's appetite for chemical- and additive-free food products continues to grow, aggressive wine marketing increasingly abuses the term. (Although the Natural wine movement in the U.S. lacks an authoritative English-language definition of the category, the recently launched website of North American importer Louis-Dressner features a sort of manifesto, probably authored by Joe Dressner, who died in September, a pioneer in raising awareness of Natural wines in the U.S.)
That was just one of the reasons I was skeptical when a bottle of "Organic Natural Non-Vintage Red Wine" by the Frey Vineyards in Mendocino, California landed on my desk, sent to me unsolicited by its Texas distributor. My doubts were amplified when I read that the wine contains "no detectable sulfites."
Incredulous, I powered up the laptop and connected to the internets as Ruth Madoff asked rhetorically and improbably, "why would I ever think there was something sinister going on?"
It didn't take long before I landed on the Frey Vineyard's website and discovered that the winemaker embraces a policy of nearly complete transparency in its marketing. The authors of the site are so transparent that they patently reveal that cultured yeasts are used in the production of their wines labeled "organic," a declaration (or admission, depending on your point of view) with which the Natural wine militia would certainly take issue. (One of the tenets of Natural wine advocates like Louis/Dressner and Alice Feiring is that "native," "ambient," "indigenous," i.e., natural occurring yeasts are used exclusively.)
But as Bill Clinton might observe, it depends what your definition of Natural wine is...
And although the winery does not reveal how it makes wine without the addition of sulfites (a claim that many in the wine industry would find hard to believe), it boldly stands by its affirmation that "In over 30 years of organic wine making, we have never added sulfites or other synthetic additives to our wines."
I applaud the winery's transparency, and I believe wholeheartedly that they are telling the truth: I've tasted commercial wines to which no sulfites have been added and I am certain that it is possible to produce and market such wines, although the resulting bottle variation and delicate nature of the wine can be an issue for some consumers. And I admire how the site pays homage to trail-blazing viticulturist Phil Coturri and the techniques he taught to the early winemakers at Frey. (Here are the search results for "Coturri" in the Frey site.)
For the record, I will, however, make one clarification regarding the label "contains no detectable sulfites" (and it is by no means intended to question the good faith or nobility of the Frey family's cause).
For wines made without the addition of sulfites, the U.S. government does not allow the producer to report "does not contain sulfites" (a qualification that winemakers in Europe can print on their labels). According to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, "'Sulfite Free' and 'Contains No Sulfites' are misleading and therefore prohibited, but 'Contains No Detectable Sulfites' is acceptable with a lab analysis supporting that claim." In other words, because all wine contains sulfites -- even wine to which no sulfites are added -- the winemaker is allowed to report that the wine contains no sulfites detectable through laboratory analysis. That is to say, it's not that you, the consumer, cannot detect the sulfites; it's that the government's lab can't detect them.
As much I commend the mission of the Frey family and its winery, I regret that they make their wines in "a 'New World,' fruit-forward style."
The wine I tasted last night, although fresh and approachable, was not without oakiness (a big turnoff for me) and the fruit was jammy, however judiciously so. In my view, the style doesn't really jive with the schtick. But that's a reflection of my palate and my personal preferences.
Ultimately, sulfites in wine are not the biggest issue when it comes to commercial winemaking. In fact, the infamous "sulfite headache" is a myth. (I'll devote a post to sulfites and why wine can make us feel crappy next week.) So, the volume with which the winery shouts about "no detectable sulfites" seems a little excessive to me.
You'll find Frey's wines in Houston at Spec's, mostly priced under $20.
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