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Threading the Needle: Clean(ish) Farming and Natural Wine

There is a deep struggle baked into the fabric of the natural wine conversation, a friction between the dogma of natural wine and how many of its most fervent champions are obliged by circumstance touch on practices that don’t really fit the mold. In the actual winemaking part of the process, an exact manifesto is easier to enforce and observe: pitched yeast is always a no no (except for Champagne method wines), basically anything except for sulfite is proscribed. Start to talk about the farming however, and things become exponentially more tangled. The oft repeated adage ‘wine is made in the vineyard’ is a reflection not only of where the most time is spent but of the complexity of the work. Inevitably, most of us have glommed onto a simple binary: organic or bust.

First, let’s deconstruct a huge myth: without clean farming grapes will not ferment on their own because the yeast is all dead. As it turns out, one can indeed process conventionally grown grapes naturally into wonderfully delicious wines without additives or other oenological sorcery. Whether or not such wines are natural in a philosophical sense is another question but there is a story out there that if you have too much fungicide in the vineyard, you cannot ferment without additions. For years I’d hung onto this as an indelible truism. Not so, while nefarious chemical sprays toxify the land and sicken the plants over the long term, they do not wholly negate spontaneous ferments or delicious wine. Not in the short term, anyhow.

In a recent conversation with Lo-Fi’s Mike Roth, he walked me through the circumstances surrounding his current release of Chenin Blanc sourced from Jurassic Park vineyard. The farming is simply not clean: “I’m not gonna talk it up like it’s organic,” he says “it’s just really good Chenin Blanc.” There must be a cost, I thought, and so I asked about whether he experienced any challenges making the wine he wouldn’t encounter with more responsibly grown fruit and he laughed telling me that his organic Chardonnay is more persnickety than the chemical Chenin.


The Parable of Fox Hill

Evan in organoleptic analysis mode (snacking)

Evan Lewandowski mirrors the same sentiment in an email exchange we had a couple years back about the infamous Fox Hill vineyard. He wrote: I pull from a few different vineyard sources...some certified organic, some practicing but not certified organic and one somewhat conventionally farmed. I make zero additive wines out of all of them and for the most part, the more conventionally farmed vineyard (Fox Hill) performs just as well, sometimes better.”

The Fox Hill example is a useful one in understanding the issue more concretely. When Martha Stoumen first encountered Fox Hill’s owner Lowell Stone in 2013, she spent a year cultivating the relationship “I'd bring a bottle of wine, sit and talk, mostly about other things first to try and gain his trust and friendship, but eventually about farming.” She knew she wasn’t happy with how the farming was being conducted but she didn’t want to walk away from such a special site. If there was to be any hope of progress it would have to start with support and understanding. Wine is ultimately a human business.

So how does one draw the line? Martha says “I have gone into other vineyards though, asked what they are spraying, and walked away from purchasing from the get go--even though the vineyard has great soil and vines--thinking that it would be too much of a philosophical leap for that grower to transition, only to find out later that another natural winemaker friend has purchased the fruit and the grower has changed practices.

Evan scoffs at the false binary: so many people write off everything that isn't farmed organically as garbage when they don't know the whole story. The assumption is that if it’s not organic it gets the book thrown at it.” He presents the following question: what if all the natural folks just walked away from everything that wasn’t quite there yet. What incentive would these farmers have to battle uphill for lower yields? Again, wine is a human business and those farmers need to feed their families! Without a reward for incremental progress we have no hope of making real the promise of a cleaner future.

“There has been talk over the years of (Fox Hill) being sold and replaced with Cab Sauv (conventionally farmed Cab),” Martha writes “so if all of us winemakers stop purchasing we've sealed Fox Hill's fate.” Consider the loss: one of the most significant vineyard sites in all of California’s wild viticultural history, the mother block for a dazzling array of different Italian and Portuguese varieties essentially erased because the most authentic, artisan winemakers would not deign to work with an imperfect situation despite enormous potential.

Let’s keep on harping on Fox Hill, shall we? In 2014 Sam Bilbro (Idlewild) stepped in to start helping out with the farming at Fox Hill with a promise to drive the agriculture along a cleaner trajectory. By 2018 there were no more synthetic fertilizers, no RoundUp, just sulfur dust for powdery mildew control. The only barrier in the way of achieving organic farming has been the occasional need to spray to combat mite outbreaks that wouldn’t even happen every year and not in every part of the vineyard. As of 2019 all blocks are farmed organically.

“Working with Sam and I, he saw an incredible resurgence of interest” Evan says of Lowell Stone, “he started experiencing this golden hour.” Lowell invested in new infrastructure, deer fencing and redwood stakes while Sam pulled out the underperforming Primitivo and nursed some young-vine Aglianico to a happy place. Unfortunately, after a protracted illness Lowell passed away in March of 2020 to be followed shortly after by his wife. The future of Fox Hill is still uncertain but Evan says if we can somehow be a part of it and carry on Lowell's legacy, that's what we're goin' for... Keeping things within the trajectory that Lowell loved to see and worked so hard for from the beginning is also such a huge part of our desire."


The Copper Conundrum

Hungry for more ambiguity? Let’s talk copper.

Copper’s principle application in viticulture is as a protective (rather than curative) shield against vineyard pathogens. In particular, downy mildew, one of the most pernicious of all vineyard pathogens. Despite the similarity in name to powdery mildew, downy mildew is caused by a completely separate kingdom of organisms more closely related to algae than the truly fungal agents behind powdery mildew.

Because copper has no curative function, early detection is necessary in order to keep a bloom from choking an entire vineyard. Conventional farming recommends both preventive sprays meant to discourage Downy Mildew from taking hold as well as exterminator sprays. In organic farming, however, copper is the main recourse but it has come under scrutiny in recent years because of the precipitous harm done by many years of copper accumulation in soils.

In an IFOAM paper on minimizing copper sulfate application, the authors write: “Although copper formulations have been used for more than 100 years, there are no reported resistances which makes it a very important tool.” Hard to argue with that but here's a few salient details to keep in mind. Copper in soil can negatively change root growth, toxify groundwater, inhibit photosynthesis, damage soil biota and generally muck around with the balance of things. Soluble copper is straight up poison to plants. In order to minimize phytoxicity, Copper is mostly applied in the form of Bordeaux mixture, a blue tinted suspension of copper that was discovered quite by accident in the late 19th century. The suspended or 'fixed' copper solution is less toxic to plants, has low mammalian toxicity and protects the plants from pathogens however, many different factors can result in the return of copper to its dangerous, ionic state. Wet canopies, low pH soils, sandy or clayey soils, high concentration of spraying in wet years and other factors can lead to an accumulation of ionic copper in soil. Not awesome.

Although organic fruit growing is always going to use more copper, vineyards in particular have been discovered to use as much as 50 times more copper than any other crop. Obviously, not all organic growers are this careless and in conversations with the most thoughtful winegrowers you'll often hear them thinking through novel ways to spray less and less as time goes on. The point here isn't that copper is the bogey man or that its use invalidates organic farming but it is a hugely important element to this conversation that is infrequently discussed.

Ulli Stein is a wonderful character in this saga. The man is a veritable legend of Mosel winegrowing, infamous for an open letter he penned in 2010 damning the state of viticulture in his region. His importer, whom we do not represent ourselves but very much support, Stephen Bitterolf (Vom Boden) writes: “while he is religious in the vineyards and talks to most of his vines (for real), he doesn't believe in organic viticulture as the apriori, obvious and always best option.” Ulli doesn’t use any herbicides or insecticides or chemical fertilizers or any of that nonsense but fungus is a real challenge in his area so instead of blitzing his land with a heavy metal and burning a ton of fossil fuels to get the job of spraying done he believes it is a great deal more ecologically responsible to employ modern fungicides. "The Mosel, specifically, is a curious case because of the HUGE amounts of spraying needed" Stephen continues "and, therefore, the HUGE amount of diesel many growers burn through trying to be better for the earth..." There are certain, recently engineered fungicides that decompose more rapidly than their antecedents and can be used in miniscule quantities to great effect. With a PhD in soil science Ulli is uniquely qualified to make this determination.

Stergios Papras and importer Aris Soultanos (Eklektikon) hatching plans over lunch in the winery

What then are we meant to do with a situation like Papras Bio in Tyrnavos, Greece? Stergios Papras was one of Greece’s earliest champions of organic growing back in the 90’s when public concern about chemical farming was barely embryonic. Tyrnavos is pretty backwater and signs of Greek economic ruin are everywhere with block after block of abandoned houses and piles of trash absolutely everywhere. The Papras family are warm, generous folk but they’re just that: folk. They follow the letter of organic law but they spray copper 10 times a year because they are so concerned about the maladies of moisture. Perhaps a more judicious, ecologically sound and forward thinking approach could be employed but on the other hand, moisture and intense heat can create unendurable disease pressure. Tyrnavos is basically a pressure cooker, a heat sink with unusually high rainfall for Greece but without the protection of coastal winds. The air is hot, humid and unmoving, an ideal recipe for a downy mildew epidemic. What are they supposed to do? Rip out the plants and start somewhere else?

Should we ban their delightfully fermenty wines from the cool-kids treehouse? Cast them off the island? Deny them their much deserved rose of acceptance?


Living in the Grey

So how do we draw the line?

The take away must be a more measured and nuanced understanding tempered with a healthy dose of empathy. The weight of environmental responsibility on the already strained shoulders of farmers is only going to increase as aberrant weather patterns become the norm in the era of climate disruption. Consider the situation in Austria in April of 2017: back to back frosts at bud break, an unprecedented calamity that viciously slashed the yield for damn near everyone. Well, imagine yourself a winegrower in Wagram who now has only 20% of their potential crop left to them assuming they suffer no other losses across the season. Imagine an uncharacteristically rainy growing season in this context and ask yourself what you would do. It isn’t a simple choice with an absolute moral maxim.

Vermont winegrower Ethan Joseph of Iapetus has a history in water resources and ecology, a background that forms the foundation of his approach to viticulture. Ethan's farming rests in the uselessly broad 'sustainable' bracket. So often a cover for unscrupulousness, it is, in this case, a result of rigorous understanding. "We haven't used herbicides in years," he writes "and we no longer till because both are detrimental to soil life. We've been experimenting with different undervine cover crops, use mulch, and make and apply our own compost tea. We've established wild flower areas/insectaries, unmowed buffer areas, and significantly reduced mowing of the aisles. Soil health is paramount."

Ethan's super serious harvest face

They make and employ biodynamic preparations and have introduced sheep to the farming to "diversify the farm, give the land another purpose while hopefully improving it." That said, Ethan will spray non-organic products to target particular vineyard maladies. "I find I have to spray the organic stuff 2x as often to maintain the same level of crop quality (in terms of both yield and health). Some of the organic materials are more dangerous than some of the conventional ones. Organic materials are also more often generalist, which means they can kill non-target organisms." There are conventional materials that are very specific (and low toxicity). If I'm going to spray something, I want it to be low toxicity to environment, people, and be effective."

A born skeptic, Ethan eschews categorization in the natural wine world. "I don't like the term," he writes "it's too ambiguous, too incomplete." Ethan's cellar work is super low intervention and many of his wines fit into the so-called 'zero-zero' bracket (not even added sulfite). Still, one of his wines, though fermented spontaneously, is inoculated for malolactic conversion, a step he feels necessary to protect against post-bottling malolactic conversion, a circumstance that accounts for a great many of the heinously mousey wines in the market. Ethan is an important figure in this conversation as his ideas often fly in the face of the black and white categories we cling to: " There are no hard lines, no absolutes, no sides to be chosen. Truth exists in the gray areas; there's a delicate balance, nothing is weighted on the extremes."

Martha Stoumen envisions a hopeful future in which the Gallo’s and Franzia’s of the world do the work to just barely squeak into organic territory: “I think as the big boys move in this direction (i.e Charles Shaw "made from Organic Grapes") the rising tide will float all boats. The big boys see what consumers want, often from trends starting on the fringe, but the fringe doesn't have the purchasing power to change farmers minds a lot of the time.”

Ultimately it's up to each of us to employ our finely honed bullshit radars to make judgement calls. Wine is a product necessarily tangled up in ambiguity from the farming to the corks that seal the bottles. We have to be curious, we have to be direct, we have to be transparent. Catalan winemaker and biodynamic grower Assis Suriol puts it best “It’s very easy for people to say nothing or a lot or whatever. It’s really difficult to be in the grey and explain to people.”

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